Friday, November 13, 2009

too true


Exactly how I feel. I've been working in a management position at a bank now for a little over a month, which I guess is a bittersweet reunion. I'm in a "transition stage" of life, halfway through my education goals but unable to press on any further until next year. As I have professional experience in finance, I have always fallen back on it when I am unable to find/land the jobs I want. So, yeah, this is bittersweet. I have a job, I'm busy, and I can pay my bills, but I can't help feeling disappointed with myself every day I arrive at work because this isn't the life I envisioned for myself.

Anyways, this is also the first time I've been in banking/finance since the economic crash and, to be honest, I am shocked at how much things have changed. I think the video sums up at least one change, too many qualified people for too few jobs! Makes for some serious competition at work. I think one other major change is how people perceive the financial sector today. Generally, customers truly believe their is a conspiracy and that all banks are in cahoots. I mean I don't blame these folks. Have you seen what CD rates are like today? If you bring in half a million dollars, banks will pay you around 0.7 - 0.9%. Ridiculous.

Monday, November 9, 2009

how to be a contestant on the price is right: part two

Thanks for tuning in to the exciting conclusion of Brant's adventures at the Price is Right!

When we left off last week, my name had just been called and I was commanded to "come on down! You're the next contestant on the Price is Right!" I ran down the aisle giving high fives to like the nearest five people. The contestant boxes were a mess and the other contestants were just standing about in the aisle. I had no idea which box was mine. A little embarrassing when watching it on tv, but I finally found my place, and with a huge grin, tried to act like I had done this before.
They wheeled out the items we'd be bidding for:  a family pair of snowshoes and, my favorite, joint supplements for all those arthritic joints. 

Bob turned to me and ask me to bid. I bid $790. Bob thought I said $700 and I was like, "ok, whatever, I'm not going to correct you on tv." I immediate wished I bid higher. The next dude bid something ridiculously high like $1200. I knew he was off. The next girl then bid even higher, $1400! Stupid. Way too high! Have you ever gone shopping before? Nothing on the opening bid is ever that expensive. So now it was between me and the girl to my immediate left. She was a young, sweet thing, and I hope she never reads this blog, but she was obviously rattled by the pressure of the moment. She turned to the audience for help but the audience was split. Half were telling the girl to bid $701 and the other half (primarily led by my friends) were yelling for her to bid $1401. She couldn’t make up her mind. I knew if she bid $701 she would win and I then would lose. So I leaned towards her and whispered $1401 while pointing upwards with my thumb in the “bid higher” sign. When you watch the actual episode, the mic actually picks up my whisper. You can totally hear me conning this girl. Then she did it. I couldn’t believe it. She bid $1401. I immediately began jumping up and down. I knew I had won. And Bob then told me I won.

I still don’t know how I feel about this. Did I cheat but manipulating this girl in a moment of weakness or was just competing in a girl where rules are recreated every episode? Was I competing in a game or did I sacrifice my integrity? Is this an unstated but nevertheless social understood code of conduct to public game shows? Or are public game shows no-holds barred, Survivor-esque, survivor of the fittest, slug fests where the winner wins by any means necessary? I definitely played by the second definition but I'm afraid my competition and likewise all of America played by the first definition. But if that was the case, where was the huge public backlash and why wasn't I interviewed on Good Morning America?

 Back to the show. As I was walking up on stage, I was waiting for a producer to disqualify me and for someone else to get called down as a contestant. But nothing ever happened. I was the winner. I had won. Well, at least the first prize.
Bob shook my hand and I got to see Bob Barker up close. I remember thinking that they really caked his make up on. He told me, “Brant, you strike me as a person with a lot of energy. I bet you could use a new car!” The curtains parted and their was a brand new Dodge Neon. I know I know. Big whoopedoo. But hey, it was a new car and I was a poor student and I could win it on the Price is Right. So suck on that any nay-saying party-poopers!
I don’t know the name of the game I played. There was a board with pairs of numbers on it. I was given the middle number in the price of the car and I was asked to select the first two and last two numbers of the car. I guessed “16” and got it wrong. I guessed “17” and got it right! I then picked two more numbers and got them both wrong. I was down to my last guess. And then I looked out into the audience and there she was. My guardian angel appeared in the crowd. A woman dressed all in red, including a huge red jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. We made eye-contact and she whispered to me in a voice that I could hear in my soul despite the raucous shouting of the crowd, “Pick ‘45.’” I did. She was right and I won a new car.

 Let me just say, taxes are brutal any time you win something. After the show finished, all the winning contestants were directed into a small room where an accountant explained how prizes could be claimed. You can elect right then and there to forfeit your winnings. Again, taxes are brutal and I know many people do just that. I elected to receive most of the stuff. I figured I would sell it everything and pocket whatever was left over.
Overall, the experience was fabulous although, I’ll admit, a bit stressful at times. Again, taxes are brutal. But, hey, I was on the Price is Right and how many people can say that? Well, according to my calculations, about forty-two thousand people. Oh and that's me holding the Bob Barker glossy!


Friday, November 6, 2009

how to be a contestant on the price is right: part one

Have your cat or dog spayed or neutered.

Every weekday, six new Americans affix their names to a prestigious register reserved solely for the luckiest of all Americans. Legendary personalities of the past like Grannie Marie,

Cotton Candy,

and this girl,

stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their little-known proletariat counterparts and are enshrined for eternity in the cloaks of stardom, at least amid close friends and the elderly. Their backgrounds are diverse, their stories unique, but these citizens share the distinction reserved for the Chosen Elect. These champions are unique. They stood while others sat. They pushed forward while others returned to their seats. They risked picking $1 when others bid too high. And in the end, they are the ultimate winners.

Over the past thirty years, forty-two thousand people have heard their name called out followed by the unforgettable line, “You’re the next contestant on the Price is Right!” I am one of the select, a former contestant and winner of the Price is Right. This is my story and the information you need to know if you too want to be a contestant.

I went on a whim. My only experience watching the Price is Right was always in a waiting room, either while getting my oil changed or while waiting for a doctor or dentist. I would never sit down and watch. I didn’t have anything against Bob Barker or his Beauties, but I was in school and your future is going to be pretty bleak if you skip school to watch the Price is Right. Well, a bunch of my friends from college ordered group tickets and I agreed at the last minute to go with them. Road trip!

Despite having tickets to the show, we were college students and everything we did had to have some sort of over-night aspect to it. In this case, we decided we would show up at the studios at like 4:00 a.m. to ensure a place in the studio audience. It was a good thing we showed up when we did because the lines had already begun to form. We shivered until about 9:00 a.m. when the lines finally started moving.

Now, for any of you planning on appearing on the Price is Right, let me give you some advice. The show’s producers will briefly interview every audience member in order to determine who will become a contestant. Contrary to popular belief, they do not have a lottery system. It is not the luck of the draw. There is no wheel. You are selected, chosen. Just like any other show, the producers want contestants who will be memorable and someone viewers at home can cheer for. Think about it: how sad would the Price is Right be if the contestants were introverted and Bob or Drew had to ask people to speak up. The Price is Wrong Bob!

Now the producers ask every contestant the exact same three questions prior to filming the Price is Right. First, they ask your name. Second, they ask where you are from. Third, they ask what you do. As you can tell from the questions, there isn’t much room for creativity in your answers to the first two questions. Your fate rests solely on your answer to the third question. So be unique! These three producers interview like three hundred people every day for nine contestant positions. Say something they haven’t heard before. Try to get them to laugh. Make something up and be totally confident in yourself. I told them I was the reigning Mr. Mormon pageant winner and that I tour the country giving motivational speeches and playing the piano for charities. My girlfriend at the time who happens to be my wife, told them she was training to be an amateur gymnast. Have fun with it!

After everyone is interviewed, the audience is corralled into the auditorium of a deceivingly small studio. The show’s announcer, Rich Fields, is brought onto the stage to the wild cheers of eighty-year old women. I had no idea who the guy was but these ladies thought he was heaven-sent! He spends a couple of minutes explaining how the show was going to work and that the audience was supposed to act like rabid squirrels whenever the “cheer” lights turned on. Trust me; the audience knew exactly what he meant. The place was louder than any college basketball/football game I’ve ever attended. If Rich then had asked each audience member to turn to the person on their left and take a bite out of their arm, I’m about eighty-percent sure that at least seven people would in fact do it. 

The show starts. People are called up and the crowds cheer. Time flew and by the end I was cheering and screaming wild with the rest of them. During one of the breaks, Bob Barker asked the crowd for questions. For looking like that the “You have chosen poorly,” dude from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades (you know that guy who drinks from the wrong cup and becomes Methuselah in like 5 seconds), Barker was hornier than a rhino. I swear every answer he gave involved some girl he slept with or some girl he wanted to sleep with. Very unprofessional and honestly, quite disgusting. Bob called on me as his last question, which caught me off guard although I had my hand raised. “Bob,” I asked. “You can’t do this forever. Can I have your job when you retire?” His answer was the only one that wasn’t gross. “No.” But you are going to pick Drew Carey? Puh-leeze.

This video is not intended for the weak or woozy. But check out the similarities at second marker 13.

We came back from commercial to the sound of my name being called to come on down, “You’re the next contestant on the Price is Right!”

The exciting conclusion of my adventures will continue Monday! Until then, have a great weekend! And if you or someone you know have been on the Price is Right, send me their story. I'd love to add your experience to the page!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

tragedy and john bell hood

I awoke one morning nearly three years ago to the sound of voices. These voices seemed much to near for comfort. I rolled out of bed to see a bunch of people walking in and out of the neighbors back door. Since at the time we didn't have neighbors, I grudgingly announced to my wife that we had neighbors moving in. Instead of throwing some grubby clothes on and helping these people move in, I hid behind the window and spied on the happenings, reporting the sightings to Coralee who was, if I remember this correctly, still lying in bed. I was alarmed at what I saw! I counted three people, they were all together, but it didn't appear any of them were, you know, "together." There was this middle-aged mother-type, this bearded tough-looking guy who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, and this little girl who I took to be in the 12 - 16 age range. The most logical explanation I could give Coralee describing the family dynamics was a divorcee cougar, who married this young guy, who are together raising the divorcee's youngest daughter. Weird.

Well I was no where close. The tough-looking guy had actually just married the 12 - 16 year old girl (she was actually 24). The cougar was actually the girl's mom. We became close friends with John and Jessica Riley, and we miss them dearly.

My thoughts are with them today. They are both actually from Fort Hood, Texas the site of a terrible act of violence. Both of John's parents work at Fort Hood, and as of 6:30 p.m. were still locked down on the base. They are both fine, but like many in the immediate community, will need time to come to terms with today's events.

The military installation at Fort Hood was originally built during WWII and carried the name of famed Texan and Civil War Confederate General John Bell Hood, who was a tragic figure in his own day. Hood was the losing general in a number of battles. He had his arm nearly blown off at Gettysburg, recovered, then had his leg blown off months later. Having dabbled in Civil War history during my master's thesis, I've come across a few statements that strike me as being somber reminders of  the frailties of life and the honor that comes from magnifying one's military duty. But perhaps none of the quotes are as direct as the one attributed to General Hood, which I feel is a proper tribute to those who died today.

The quote comes during the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles from the Civil War, the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.  During the battle, Hood commanded the left section of the Confederate army and, in a moment of desperation, sent his troops into battle against an unsuspecting but vastly larger Union army commanded by McClellan and Hooker. Hood and his men engaged the Union soldiers in bloody combat for hours in the "Cornfield," but in the end with no victory in immediate sight, Hood and what was left of his army retreated back to the safety of the trees. Later that night, while inspecting the remnants of the battered Confederate Army, General Lee turned to Hood and asked him, "Great God, General Hood, where is your splendid division?" Hood replied, "They are lying upon the field where you sent them, sir."

If there is a God who is greater than us, and yes I do believe there is, at times it may be difficult to come to terms with tragedy especially when the victims are innocent. The struggle becomes believing that there is a purpose in death, perhaps not immediately recognizable, but nevertheless there, which will eventually be understood.  There is a sense of faith for greater things yet to come in Hood's statement that we too can embrace, "They are lying upon the field where you sent them, sir."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

night musing and addictive tunes

(for those of you who do not know me, this is not what I look like)

I vividly recall how enamored I was as a child to lie awake at night with my thoughts. Some, I'll admit, at second glance are quite ridiculous. For example, there was a period of my life, just how long I'll keep secret to protect myself from ever greater ridicule, when I was certain I could make myself faster than I already was. Mind you, in elementary school and up until high school I was the fastest kid in my grade. However, I thought I could get even faster by training in my bed each night. Lying on my back with my feet high in the air, I would run-in-space, pumping my legs faster and faster. Then, while catching my breath, I would imagine how shocked my friends would be the next time they challenged me to a race.

I remember another episode in my childhood when I stayed up late one night thinking about the definition of eternity and just what that meant. In my religious upbringing, I was taught that once I died, I would be resurrected like Jesus and live eternally. I must have been having a really hard time at school because I thought living forever was the worst thing one could ever wish for! I sobbed that night because I wished there was a way to opt out of eternal life. The thought of being alive forever exhausted me.

The final thought I remember having, and the one I will use to transition into my next thought, is about music. I tried to imagine a world when every musical possibility had been exhausted. A world when every rhythm featuring every note and every instrument had been copyrighted. A world when whistling a random tune would get you in trouble because, without fail, that tune had been copyrighted.

I stumbled across this same idea one day in graduate school however it was being applied to literature. Argentine author Jorge Luis Borge's wrote La Biblioteca de Babel (The Library of Babel) in 1941. The story features an infinite library that contains every possible string of letters or run of words in a 410-page book. While perhaps the majority of the books are unintelligible or gibberish, hidden within that labyrinth of a library is one book that explains why the library exists and also one foretelling of all future events. The possibilities are endless when you play with the word "infinite."

Fortunately, we live in a day when we have yet to use up our intellectual or musical reserves. There is still room for budding authors, intellectuals, and musicians to make their imprint in their respective worlds.  

Today, I wanted to follow up on my previous post. I spoke briefly about clips from songs that "wow" you.You know what I mean, maybe a 10-second segment of a song that makes that particular song amazing to you. I mentioned one chorus rendition from Nickel Creek's live version of the "The Fox."

What are some of those segments that you love, that you listen to over and over again?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

vusi mahlasela's borrowed fire

If you found a song that you just loved, are you the type of person to listen to it two or three times in a row before moving on or the type of person who will listen to the same song or perhaps the same twenty-seconds of a song until you have memorized not only the lyrics but also the phrases, the subtle background intricacies, the breaths, the riffs, and any or all instrumentation that when combined makes the song special? I clearly fall in the second category.

There are just some songs that I love or maybe just a section of a song that I find to be so peculiar and engaging that I truly can't get enough of it. For example, I am a huge fan of the folksy-band Nickel Creek, particularly their rendition of the classic children's song "The Fox." But not any rendition. They performed live on "A Prairie Home Companion" a few years back and NPR's website has a recording of the show.  Mandolinist and lead singer Chris Thile hits this note during the chorus that sent shivers down by spine. Any time I listen to this version of the song, I stop and rewind ten seconds perhaps as many as thirty or forty times. I just can't get enough.

If you want to see what I mean, check out this link.
The song is performed at minute marker 149:15.

Well for the past few months, perhaps approach a year, I have been obsessed with the South African singer Vusi Mahlasela. For those of you familiar with Josh Groban's song "Weeping," Vusi was featured on that song along with Ladysmith Black Mambaza. Furthermore, Vusi was featured on the youtube, "Playing for Change" hit "Stand By Me." According to Vusi's latest CD, he is known as "The Voice" in South Africa and once you listen to him sing, it is clear why that is. Vusi also has performed with Dave Matthews Band in the past and is featured on one of Dave's live CDs on the track "Everyday." You can catch that video of the live recording on youtube if you search for Vusi.

On his website, he writes, and I share with you, "I know that I have something that is like a borrowed fire from God. And I have to use it in a very positive way." Talented and humble.

Here is a song that I am particularly fond of. Vusi performed at the TED conference a few years back. You be the judge. Am I crazy for obsessing over this guys music?


Vusi Mahlasela: "Woza"

Monday, November 2, 2009

confessions of an international counterfeiter

 Here is something that you may not know about me: I am a sucker for get-rich quick money making schemes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an idiot. I know a pyramid scheme when I see one. And I'm not talking about those summer pest-control/alarm selling guys that swarm out their hives every summer to invade neighborhoods with their products and savvy/underhanded sales-pitches. No. I'm talking about good ideas that are legitimate and that could possibly, no definitely make some money as long as the right minds are behind it.

Now let me preface the narrative that follows by mentioning that I do not recommend this line of work for anyone nor would I recommend this post for anyone attempting the same get rich scheme that I will describe. Yes, it can work. Is it ethical or moral? No. Additionally, I do not recommend that anyone, no matter how young, fit, or adventurous attempt our flight itinerary. I honestly believe it could kill you. Now with that said, let me also mention that I have lived overseas in East Asia for two and a half years, that I am conversant in Korean, and that I have visited on multiple occasions our destination in Beijing.

Back to the story. While working in a bank my senior year of college, my roommate and I were daydreaming of returning to Asia, the land of homogeneity, when suddenly the idea hit me or hit him or maybe hit us both simultaneously: we could return! What a novel idea! But wait. How ever could we afford the round-trip ticket prices, a hotel room, and food, all while forfeiting our meager bank salaries?

Simple. We would bring empty suitcases to fill with knockoff products and sell them online once we came back! I immediately opened up an Excel spreadsheet and created a matrix outlining our costs vs potential earning power. If we spent $500 on Chinese knockoff products, we estimated we could not only pay for our entire trip, but also, once the items had been sold at discounted prices, make a cool $2000-$4000 each. I think that was the moment when Colonel Greed blindsided Monsieur Reason, who then wouldn't appear again in my conscious until I was facing possible criminal charges. But let me back it up a second.

Anyways, we were going to make it big. We started seeing the endless possibilities. At first we would do this same thing once a month or so. Then, once he had the procedure down pat, we would hire someone to make the trips for us. Eventually, we would have to become a legitimate import company and I'm so glad it didn't get that far or else I would seriously be in jail now.

We left early one morning and had flights into Vancouver and Hong Kong before finally arriving in Beijing. We picked up our multiple empty bags and couldn't wait until they were packed so full of counterfeit goods we could hardly lift them. We quickly hailed a taxi and asked him to take us to the Pearl Market, counterfeiters' heaven!

Once we entered the unadorned doors, we beelined to our sellers. The first item on my list was a very specific ski/snowboarding jacket that was retailing in the States for about $400. Instead of haggling with the salesman over the price of one jacket, I stopped the man from saying anything at all. With his full attention I explained I didn't want to buy one jacket, I wanted to buy 40 jackets. I knew he understood when I saw his eyes bulge in his head. He was thinking of feeding his family for a month. I was thinking about feeding my family for a year. "I'll take 40 jackets at $12 dollars a jacket, not a dollar more. If you so say, I'll take my money to the next guy." Even though the price was really low, the Costco/bulk idea is understood in China too. He took it.

I repeated this process with some designer jeans, shoes, purses, and watches. Overall, we spent about $1000 and had about $20000 worth of products all crudely stuffed into huge black bags that we half-carried/half-dragged out of the building, onto the street, and into an awaiting taxi. We were on a returning flight to the States within four hours of our first landing.

Now comes customs. I had researched to the best of my abilities customs' laws and the requirements for reentering the States. Even though I had just stuffed my bags with counterfeit goods, I still wanted to claim everything on my customs declarations. I felt I had nothing to hide. I was well within my monetary allotments and I had receipts for the goods I purchased which were all "guaranteed to be authentic." (A popular line used by many of these vendors.) Even though I knew they weren't, I was prepared to honestly tell anyone who asked that I had been told by a knowledgeable insider that the items were authentic.

We waited in line at customs. My body got through the line with no problem, but I wasn't as lucky. For some reason I looked suspicious to the customs agent. You know, the clean-cut twenty-three year old white kid, from a sheltered military home. Customs took me aside and searched my bags. Let's just say they didn't like my explanation that the items were guaranteed to be authentic. Customs made me fell like a criminal. They emptied all my bags, made me miss my connecting flight, and threatened me with criminal charges. After three hours of interviews with intimidating customs agents, they let me go. I arrived at home with my bags as empty as they were when I left. And I still had to pay for the whole friggin trip!

You may wonder about my friend who got through customs before I got caught, what about him? Were we able to at least sell some of the stuff he got through customs? Nope, customs pulled him and his luggage off the plane and brought him back into the holding room with me. And they took all of his stuff too. It was so sad that James Van Der Beek even attempted to cry for us.

Today as I celebrate the three year anniversary of that trip I just want to give a quick shout out to those customs agents in Vancouver: I hope you are enjoying my Rolex watch and my jackets!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

the ants go marching

One of my favorite comic motifs from Bill Watterson's classic Calvin and Hobbes series pits parental authoritarianism against childhood innocence. One example that initially popped into my head is in the scene where Calvin walks up to his father and asks:
Calvin: Dad, where do babies come from?
Calvin's Dad: Most people just go to Sears, buy the assembly kit, and read the instructions.
Dad: No, you were a Blue Light Special at Kmart. Almost as good, and a lot cheaper.
Calvin's Mom: Dear, what are you telling him now?!
Is it bad that after reading that comic, I decided then and there that this was the type of father I wanted to be?  Like the dad from Wonder Years

 or better yet, the dad from The Christmas Story!

Anyways, this evening I volunteered to put our little girl to bed, which requires a diaper change, pajamas, a game or two, a story, a prayer, and a song. This evenings vocal selection came from the classic "Wee Sing Silly Songs" sing-a-long cassette--the song called "The Ants go Marching." (Maybe in a few years I'll pull out the guitar and attempt Dave Matthews version)

The song started without a hitch. "The ants go marching one by one HOORAW! HOORAW! . . . The little one stops to suck his thumb and they all go marching down to the ground to get out of the rain. BOOM BOOM BOOM." ect. ect.

Verse two came and the lyrics just didn't come as smoothly as in the first verse. How embarrassing is this, I got stuck on finding the rhyming word with two. "The ants go marching two by two, the little stops to . . ." I couldn't remember the rhyming word and just blurted out the first thing that came to my juvenile mind, "poo!"

In verse three, the little stopped to take a pee!

Parenting is too much fun especially when the kid has no idea what is being said. But when she does, trust me, I have a few tricks in mind.

One other thing before I go, I got my first look at the VISA Black card yesterday. Catering to the wealthiest 1% of all America, the VISA Black card was supposedly reserved for the social elite, folks that you and I only read about in supermarket tabloids or see on Entertainment Tonight. I must admit I was flabbergasted when I opened the giant black envelope and read I had been pre-approved. Top 1% of America? If that is true, this recession must have really wiped out like 99% of America. Doesn't VISA realize that my family was on welfare like three months ago? I have been a full-time graduate student for the past year, living off of savings with my wife and newborn daughter.  Give me a break VISA. Do yourself a service and do some demographic research.