Thursday, November 1, 2012

West Virginia Wants Us to "Return Again Soon"

I have driven through West Virginia several times a year for twenty years now.  Each time I do I have to deal with this sign:

Now, most normal people would never take any notice of a highway sign put up and maintained by the West Virginia Department of Highways, but I am not a normal person and we all know that.  I have a fascination with how words sound and fit together.  I take as much pride in a well-constructed and grammatically tight sentence as others might in a bowling trophy or a ribbon from the pie-eating contest won by that lard ass Davie Hogan.  Aside from the fact that this totally insincere sign is inviting back to West Virginia any person who drives by it—hey, Jeffrey Dahmer, come on back any time, we'd love to have you—its awkwardness gives me the same skin-crawling sensation that I would get from chewing on a Popsicle stick or running my fingernails over  a chalkboard.  

"RETURN AGAIN SOON." While not technically incorrect, it is awkward and redundant.  "Return Again" is the same as saying "Come Again Again."  The first rule of writing is to omit needless words.  In this case, the sign creator could have left it at "RETURN SOON" and conveyed more correctly a message of West Virginia hospitality.  It is my opinion that the sign should say "COME BACK SOON" but perhaps another state has trademarked that message and West Virginia had to find a workaround. 

I'm trying to give West Virginia a gracious excuse here because when I first noticed this sign it was 1993 and the governor of West Virginia was a fellow by the name of Gaston Caperton.  Caperton is a graduate of the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, an institution from which I also graduated. Gov. Caperton, according to his Wikipedia entry, made education his priority and to his credit did much to raise the profile of public education in West Virginia.  Sadly, his efforts did not extend to the Department of Highways, its employees, or apparently to any Adult Education programs that may have been in existence during his tenure.  Caperton spent eight years in the Governor's mansion in Charleston and certainly drove past these signs hundreds of times on his forays out of state.  He never noticed?  Neither apparently have any of his four successors because the signs still are there, taunting me with their sloppiness every time I drive past.  

I also must point out that Caperton went on to become the president of the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and ACT tests given to all aspiring college students in order to measure —among other things—proficiency in Math and English

"And you want to be my Latex salesman?"
West Virginia annually spends taxpayer money on advertising and public relations campaigns designed to elevate the perception that other Americans have of it.  Does it work? In January of this year the American Legislative Exchange Council released its 17th Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform.  In what can only be described as cruel irony, West Virginia was ranked 51st, finishing last and beaten in the state rankings by even the District of Columbia which, as we all know, is not a state.  

Why does West Virginia rank 51st out of 50 states? Because its highways signs are awkward and redundant, that's why. They scare away any would-be settlers and national score raisers who may be thinking that a move to the Mountaineer State is just the ticket until they see those signs.  

Those signs do for West Virginia what the backwoods fellers in "Deliverance" did for the whitewater rafting business in Georgia a few decades back. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Panera, Pandora, Pantera?

Pantera was a 1980s-era heavy metal band led by some guy named Dimebag Darrell.  Dimebag met his unfortunate demise at the hands of a deranged fan at a concert in Ohio in 2004.

Pandora is either the first woman (according to Greek mythology), an Internet radio station, or a box that shouldn't be opened. 

Panera Bread Co., aka Panera, is a "national bakery-cafe concept with 1,541 Company-owned and franchise-operated bakery-cafe locations in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Ontario, Canada."

Panera is a publicly traded company.  As an investment it has done remarkably well, as the chart above  will attest.  The stock price is up more than 55% in the past year.    I find this hard to believe.  

It's not that I think the concept is bad or that the food is sub par or that its freshly brewed iced tea doesn't taste like it is freshly brewed.  As a matter of fact, I eat there quite a bit.  Panera is a fine example of the "good food fast" phenomenon that is remaking the American restaurant landscape. Who has time for the luxury of table service anymore?

No, the members of my household are frequent Panera patrons.  We even have a loyalty card.  We almost have enough points for a free napkin or sugar packet. Maybe it's a free child's baguette.  I forget.   The stores are clean and offer free wi-fi. Its employees seem to me to be a well-educated, friendly bunch.  In a time of almost nonexistent customer service, Panera achieves a remarkably good score here. 

So, given our unwavering loyalty, what exactly is my beef?  

We have never–not once–gotten an order that is even close to correct.  I am not kidding.  I have lived it.  It has become the running joke of the Totty household.  

My oldest son has an aversion to condiments.  When we go to Panera this is his order:
"May I please have a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette, except I just want it plain.  No lettuce, no tomato, no mustard or mayonnaise.  Just ham, cheese, and bread. Thank you."  
The Panera order taker nods in understanding, repeats the order for clarification, and then immediately orders him a bowl of French onion soup.  Or a club sandwich with extra avocado and basil chutney.

My youngest son, who limits himself to foods that either are white, sugar-laden, or deep fried, has similar luck.  
"May I please have a grilled cheese on a baguette and potato chips?" 
No one can screw up a grilled cheese, right? Wanna bet? To the Panera employee Alex' asking for a grilled cheese really means that he wants a pressed cuban sandwich with double anchovy paste and broccolini.    My daughter likes one of the panini sandwiches.   Bam! Salmon caesar salad with bleu cheese and tangerine slices coming right up!  It goes on and on. If we order one soup, we get two.  If we ask for chips, we get baguettes.  

For the first few times or so we failed to check the order before leaving and driving home. After about the fifth time we started getting suspicious but figured that there was no way they could get it wrong again.  After the tenth time we stopped taking chances. Our experience reminded me of this Joe Pesci scene from "Lethal Weapon 2."  Apologies for the expletives.   Are you going to tell Joe Pesci to stop cussing? Not me. No sir. I saw "Goodfellas." 

 We know the store manager by name.  He knows us by sight and/or voice.  We live just far enough away that we don't want the hassle of driving back there to get what we ordered, so my wife calls to remind them of their shortcomings. Regularly. In exchange for our trouble, we get vouchers for free food.  Lots of lots of vouchers.  We are like million-milers in frequent-flier programs.  We get everything free. Who needs a loyalty card when you can cash in on incompetence? Given the amount of free food that has been given to us I find Panera's stock price performance puzzling.  Panera must be the Enron of the restaurant business.  There is no way that Panera is actually achieving the financial results that it reports, given our experience.  

We keep trying to eat all the free food for fear that the chain will go under and we will be left with worthless vouchers but every time we visit we end up with more vouchers.  It's a total comedy.  Is the joke on us?  I dunno, we get free food, even if it is not what we ordered.  I might not laugh anymore but at least I'm full. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Speaking in Tongues

Chris Frantz and his musical partner/wife Tina Weymouth. Via
Through a mutual friend I have been invited into the Facebook inner circle of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club drummer Chris Frantz.  Chris' Facebook page is not the typical musician's fan page.  It is much more intimate than that.  Chris, like most Facebookers, uses the site to keep his circle abreast of his life's happenings.  He does not use his page to hawk CDs or merchandise or his current musical projects but what he is doing is keeping himself and his wife, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club bassist Tina Weymouth, in the public consciousness.  He is promoting his brand without being overt.  Granted, the people with whom he interacts on Facebook are his friends (or like me-cyber friends) and certainly would not be averse to having Chris be more commercial, but he has taken a different, far more subtle route.  Others have noticed.

Like millions of others, the demise of the Talking Heads has been an ongoing source of disappointment to me. The music of the Heads provided the score to my formative high school and college years.  The stripped-down sounds of their earliest efforts stood in stark contrast to the musical excess that characterized the disco era. Their music was quirky and fun.  They gave me the impression that they weren't taking themselves too seriously. Certainly all bands hope for commercial success, but playing off in an obscure corner of the musical room far away from popular radio, the band most likely had no idea where their music would take them but seemed excited to go wherever it led.


They wrote songs about buildings and food and other non-typical subjects.  If the music industry needed a fresh breeze, the Talking Heads and the other New Wave bands of the era were a gale that swept the detritus of the early 70s right out to sea.  Great bands are born from a mixture of alchemy and luck and it was apparent early on that the Talking Heads had the right ingredients. In an industry where acts struggle to differentiate themselves, they were a head taller than anyone else. They had a  shy, almost socially awkward and angular front man prone to maniacal gyrations, they had a fantastic and very credible lead guitarist who had spent time in the the company of another very unique musical personality in Johnathan Richman, but most importantly the band had Chris and Tina laying down a back beat that was musical heroin.  Their music was weird and irresistible all at once.  For parts of three decades they did their thing, garnering critical acclaim and commercial success.
And then it was over. Like most bands that break up, the press reported that personality clashes were the cause.    It is not for me to assign blame.  Things happen.  As a fan however, I can express my hope for a reconciliation.  Chris at least seems amenable to it.  David has been quoted as saying that the members of the band are "miles apart musically", but when your signature sound is a globe-spanning melange of musical styles, how far apart can you really be?

Here's the deal, though. Music is a powerful force.  I have written before that music is life's soundtrack.  There is nothing else I know of that can transport a person so instantly to a specific moment in time as can a song.   How else to explain the enduring popularity of rock and roll songs that in some cases are fifty years old?  The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" remains in my all-time top 10 despite my having heard it perhaps 5000 times.  Don McLean's "American Pie" places me instantly in the back seat of my sister's bomb-on-wheels Chevrolet Vega traveling Route 460 between Petersburg, VA and Virginia Beach in 1973.  Such is the power of music.

With global misery growing exponentially these days, music may not be the answer but it surely is part of the prescription.  Music, like all art, shows us what we can be.  Art is the product of our better selves.  If the music we love gives us such pleasure, it seems a shame that the artists we love are unable to give us what we want. The Beatles resisted for years the entire planet's clarion call to reunite and give us all what we wanted.  And then on one very sad day in 1980 any hope of more Beatles music was lost forever. I have often wondered if after that day the surviving Beatles realized that their music was a gift to the world and that the differences that broke them up should not have been so insurmountable.  I do not mean to imply that the Beatles had a societal obligation to continue to make music for us (well, maybe I do mean that) but there were issues between them that appeared to make further collaboration impossible. With the benefit of perspective I always hoped that they would realize that the music they made together was much more important than whatever it was that drove them apart. 

Do you see anyone not having fun here?  I sure don't.

It is no different with the Talking Heads. There is widespread clamoring for them to get past whatever differences they have had.  Perhaps the band collectively believes it has nothing left to offer us musically and would rather not become a nostalgia act.  I don't believe that, though.  The Talking Heads is a collection of supremely talented right-brainers who I believe could be just as musically relevant today as they were when success jumped them from behind.  Perhaps one day the Talking Heads will come to believe that they have more chapters to write.  We can only hope.

Chris and Tina continue to make music with the Tom Tom Club. Through his mastery of social media Chris has made me feel like a real friend rather than an online one. They will be coming through Lexington this fall and I am looking forward to the visit.  I am told by our mutual friends that there may be a dinner to which I will be invited. Maybe we will talk about this article. Wouldn't that be great? 

Friday, June 29, 2012


Johnny Cash famously began each of his live performances by introducing himself.  "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he would say, just in case people had forgotten what they had bought tickets to and were expecting Lawrence Welk instead. I could never have done that.  I have lived in fear of my name for all of my life.

According to Facebook, I am the only "Seward Totty" among its hundreds of millions of registered users.  Even better, lists me as the only Seward Totty in the United States.  I'd venture that I am most likely the only Seward Totty in the whole world. 

This is not to be confused with the pep talk your parents gave you when you were little.  "Johnny, you're special.  You are the only you there is. There is no one in the world quite like you," they would say, hoping to instill a sense of self-worth.  In my case however, it literally is true.  Not only am I–as both my friends and detractors will attest–one of a kind, I also have a one-off name.

Now, most people would think that this is a pretty great thing, but I have spent my whole life correcting, spelling, and enunciating my name for people. Not just my first name, either.  To try to make light of my plight, I once came up with a catchy little phrase to try to help people out.  "Sewer with a D and Potty with a T," I'd say. Eventually, I realized that this catchphrase wasn't really helping me get where I was trying to go so I dropped it.  Self-deprecation will only get you so far.

I get called "Stewart" more than anything.  When I was younger I was too timid too correct anyone (and that's EVERYONE, folks) who got my name wrong.  I didn't want to embarass them.  I had a teacher who called me "Stewart" for half a year.  When I turned in papers and assignments, I would write my name like this:

Seward Totty

in the hope that he would discover his error without me having to actually point it out to him. No dice.  I guess one of my classmates eventually helped me out because one day he got it right.

Deward.  Thanks a heap.

My last name is a challenge, too.  Everyone thinks it is spelled with Ds instead of Ts.  I go to great lengths to enunciate the Ts when introducing myself.  I sound like a nitwit when I say it because I pronounce it as if I were the Duke of Edinburgh.  Not too many years ago, my wife Googled herself.  The hits she got included a bunch of British porn sites.  She called me in a panic.  "Seward," she cried, "someone has stolen my name and it is being used on a bunch of English porn sites!"  After spending hours and hours and hours on these sites investigating her claim, I called a ruddy blighter who lives in my neighborhood and asked him if "Totty" had any special meaning in the British lexicon.
"Why, yes it does old chap.  Your last name has been a neverending source of amusement for me from the day I met you.  I assumed you knew. You don't?"
(If you want to Google it, go ahead.  I am not going to help you make fun of me.)

People can't even get my nickname right.  First of all, I got this lame nickname in college.  "Sewdog."  When your name doesn't easily lend itself to something more original, they just slap you with a "-dog" at the end of your name and are done with it. Well, one year, we all decided that we were going to put our nicknames on the fraternity composite.  The morons at the photography studio couldn't read my handwriting (and if you have ever seen my handwriting you would think me an architect–my penmanship is top notch) and when the composite came back to be hung on the wall, I had a new nickname: SENDOG. Sigh.

There is upside to having a unique name, though.  I don't have to worry too much about my credit score being impacted by the financial missteps of anyone else named Seward Totty. Anyone using the internet can find me in about three seconds. As much of a challenge as my name is, at least I don't have one of those names that lends itself too easily to juvenile humor. You know that somewhere in America, someone whose last name is Peeper got named Richard by his parents.

Really Mom and Dad?
And there he is. Oy!

Once someone meets me and finally gets my name right, they tend to remember who I am.  That can be a years-long process, however.  I have friends that I have had for twenty years or more occasionally call me "Stewart."  If only they understood how deflating that is.  If you want to bring someone down a few pegs, just get his/her name wrong.  "Hi Stewart" to me sounds like "Hi person-of-absolutely-no-importance."

I have lived with my name for almost fifty years now.  Honestly, I wouldn't trade it for any other name on the planet, despite the challenges that go with having it. I wear it proudly, even if I do have to visit with Stuart Smalley every once in awhile for some self-affirmation.

I did name my sons Jack and Alex, however. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Family Vacations

Unless you count the few nights we spent in a local hotel when an ice storm knocked out our electricity in 1967, I never went on a family vacation as a child. The ice storm was fun and all, but what I remember most vivdly about that "adventure" was that there was a Stuckey's next door to the hotel where we stayed.

Santa's workshop annex, located in Petersburg, VA of all places!

Since we were cooped up with nothing to do, my parents pawned me off on the Stuckey's proprietor, where I spent hours fondling the "souvenirs" and ogling the stacked boxes of candy. I think someone eventually bought me a rubber-tipped spear to get me to shut up about wanting this or wanting that, but that Stuckey's to me had to have been Santa's Virginia-based overstock outlet. There was stuff everywhere, all designed to get the luckless traveler to part with his money (as if anyone really wanted a keepsake "souvenir" from a stop at the Stuckey's in Petersburg, VA.) 

Okay, I am exaggerating just a bit. I do remember one family vacation that we took when I was in second grade. For some reason, my mother and stepfather determined that it was important that we go to Atlanta with another family to celebrate Thanksgiving. I know my mom didn't like to cook, but this seemed like an overly complicated way to avoid making stuffing and basting a turkey. 

This was my first time ever on an airplane. I had never before considered the physics of flight, but when we were standing outside on the tarmac (which is what you did in those days–loading bridges hadn't been invented yet) looking at the Piedmont Airlines plane that was to be our conveyance, I had the epiphany that planes were made of metal, were heavier than air, and went waaaay up in the sky. And at that instant was born my fear of heights. I looked up at my Mom with tears in my eyes and told her that I hoped they all had a good time and that I would miss them but that there was no way I was getting on that plane and that I would be waiting for them when they got home.

Me? On that? No way.
That, of course, is not how it played out. Despite assurances from my mother that flying was just as safe as dueling with pistols or bullfighting, I had to be dragged by the family onto the plane, where I spent two terror-filled hours wetting my pants every time we hit turbulence.

Safely on the ground in Georgia, we checked into an Atlanta-area Marriott to begin this Thanksgiving vacation.  The stated purpose of the trip was to take all of us kids to Six Flags Over Georgia, but we also found time to visit the Cyclorama, Stone Mountain, the revolving restaurant atop the Regency Hotel, and Underground Atlanta, a several-block-long promenade of stores, bars, and restaurants that stood below modern day street level.  Underground Atlanta?  Even  the name was scary, conjuring up images of the mutant humans who lived below ground in the 1970 movie "Beneath the Planet of the Apes".

"Hello and welcome to Underground Atlanta."
As we entered the underground city I fully expected to meet Dr. Zaius or be captured by the gorilla army.  My guard was up and my senses were heightened but at some point I and my seven-year-old attention span got sidetracked and I got separated from everyone else.

Dang, I had been abandoned in the Forbidden Zone!

Perhaps I was in shock from the ties that had just been bought for my stepbrother Will and me, the sight of which today confirms that people did lots of drugs back then.

We had to go all the way to Atlanta to buy these ties.
Of course, I panicked (again) and started crying (again).  I didn't like being up in the air and now I didn't like being lost in the underground city surrounded by mutants and running from the gorilla hordes of America's apocalyptic future. Through my tears I thought I saw one of our group on the famous Underground Atlanta streetcar, so I ran there hoping to be reunited with the family that apparently wasn't aware–or more likely by this time was glad–that I was missing.  There was no family on the streetcar but I did find a policeman who helped me eventually locate my missing adults.

"Sure, that's what they all say."
My stepbrother and I ran wild at Six Flags.  We broke every rule in the park.  The sign that said "Please Do Not Bump Cars" to us meant that we should try our best to ram the race cars into each other. We ate a bunch of junk before getting on the centrifugal force ride, hoping that we would throw up on everybody.We ran when we were supposed to walk and walked when people wanted us to run. We hit each other when we were standing in lines for rides.  We overdosed on sugar. We were a parental nightmare.  It was awesome.  For us, at least.  We were the movie "Stepbrothers" before the movie "Stepbrothers" was a movie, except I never touched his drum set.

No wonder we never went on another family vacation.