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Minor Victory

Getting my inbox to have zero unread messages.

Of course, I've only done that in two of my inboxes so far. But there are more...

I'm starting to think that maybe I have too many email accounts.

Last night I spoke to a two-year-old child and his mom from Azerbaijan I came across in a department store. Most of my Russian-speaking was aimed at him though.

So I have the ability to communicate with a toddler...

Well, it's a start.

But really, it was good to hear the Russian language again and I'm proud I stirred up the nerve to say something to those folks. They seemed nice, and the kid was cute and rambunctious. He was pulling shoes into their cart just as fast as his mom could say 'we don't need more shoes' and put them back on the racks. Then he came across a broom and started sweeping the floor!

I rarely get rung up by supermarket workers nowadays thanks to the fantastic advent of the self-checkout machine, a wonderful device that allows me to scan, bag and pay for groceries all on my own. Since I usually only buy a few items each trip - a handheld basket's worth at most - I'm drawn to the ease and speed of the self-checkout. Plus, I get to bag my items exactly as I please. (ie: If I have two bags, that means perishables in one and non-perishables in the other. Just makes sense when it comes time to sort at home.)

However, all-too-often I encounter people clogging up the self-checkout system. In my opinion, there are two main types of people who should not be using these machines:

The person with a cart overflowing with goods. When you have a lot of items and only two hands, that's usually a good time to take advantage of regular checkout, where the clerk can swipe while you bag. Sometimes there's even a bagger to help too. I realize the self-checkout says nothing about being express, but I've always thought of it as being somewhat that way by nature. I've never stuck around long enough to watch, but I just don't think that one person can efficiently swipe, bag and re-cart 40 items on his own. Especially because most of the people I see with a full cart at the self-checkout look a bit confused about the process to begin with. Which brings me to category number 2...

People who do not know how to use a self-checkout machine. At all. Yes, only a few months ago I was a self-checkout newbie, and even now I sometimes encounter minor problems. But it took very little time for me to learn how to operate one of these things even though I've never worked in a supermarket.

I hate to stereotype, but most of the people I've seen trying to use the self-checkout while simultaneously being bewildered by it are older folks. In the most egregious cases (to be melodramatic, but you get the idea), I've seen people using them who flat-out do not understand the machines and, after scanning their items, expect the store's one self-checkout employee to complete the transaction. At that point, you really should just be using the regular line.

More commonly, however, I see people who want to know how to use it and think they know how to use it...and they don't. In their frustration, they prefer to blame the machine for being wonky instead of accepting that they aren't using it correctly. And thus, they hold me up in line for twice as long as their transcations should take.

The inspiration for this post came when I was at Giant supermarket in the self-checkout line earlier this week. A couple in their late 60s or 70s had about a dozen items which the wife was bagging at the end of the conveyor belt and the husband was scanning about two feet away from me. He didn't understand where on the scale the bar codes should be scanned, so I think it was pure luck that most of his items had already gone through. He also had a slow learning curve when it came to using the touch-screen menu to select items without bar codes.

I hopped on this line because the man had four items left. 'Should only take a minute,' I thought. But oh, was I wrong. I watched him stare at the touch-screen like it was written in Greek. Once he decided to not pursue that route, instead of cancelling the screen to return to regular scanning he just picked up his tub of butter and started waving it around in a confused matter over the scanner. I leaned in to lightly offer some help, which he followed. Though when I also tried to tell him about the proper way to face the bar codes, he huffed that he knew where the bar code was on the product already. (I think his frustration was at the cherry tomatoes and the scanner, not at me. But should the self-checkout really be causing high blood pressure??)

With two or three items still left, another woman got behind me on line. She was borderline in my first category - a single person with a cart half-filled with items - but I didn't have the energy to cast judgment upon her in my mind because I was too tired from standing for eight minutes watching the older man fumble with the machine. She also shot me a sympathetic glance, which helped. Even the guy's wife was starting to get an apologetic look on her face.

Finally, the self-checkout attendant came to our lane for the second time during this dozen item-transaction and rang up the butter. This entire butter process only took as long as my subsequent transaction did total.

Thankfully the self-checkout usually doesn't have long lines, which is partly a testament to all those people who must know how to use it efficiently. I try my best to be one of them.

Old Music

First entry of the new year...one of many more to come, I promise.

I thought long and hard about what stories to share here, and then, very suddenly, I was inspired to write while listening to Pandora.com a few minutes ago. For those who don't know, Pandora is a site that allows you to create free, personalized radio stations over the Internet based on genres, songs or artists you like. You pop in a band name or a song title and Pandora creates a streaming radio station based on the musical characteristics of your input. You can't choose the exact songs to play, but you can give songs that they select a thumbs up or thumbs down, further shaping the selection that your station will feature and influencing which songs will remain in rotation.

One of my stations -- "Michael Buble Radio" -- plays Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., other standards and the like. Usually the selection is very good, as was the case tonight...until it came to a selection off of Frank Sinatra's "Duets" album.

Cole Porter's "I've got you under my skin" starts playing. So far so good. Frank starts singing. Age has taken some toll on his voice but it still sounds excellent. Now I'm expecting Liza Minelli or someone like that to chime in -- but instead there's this strange smoky male voice I can't place. Okay. It gets weirder when the male duet partner is singing in falsetto an octave above Frank, then scat/wailing in this high-pitched voice.

It's Bono from U2. What the heck?? I like Bono, and I like Sinatra, but this pairing is just horrible to me. I'm even more horrified to learn that this song supposedly helped launch 1993's "Duets" to the top of the charts. Really? Because their vibes don't match at all to me. Sinatra is singing the song it originally was done and Bono is doing a genre-blending, sometimes-rock, sometimes-swing sort of thing.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the duets on the album were actually not recorded together; the collaborators, who also include Minelli, Tony Bennett, Gloria Estefan and Aretha Franklin, performed their halves to Sinatra's pre-recorded vocal tracks. I imagine that this could stifle the organic creative energy that comes from performing in the other singer's presence.

I can like new takes on old songs. Michael Buble and Harry Connick are among the younger artists who bring their own unique flavor to traditional pop songs. And Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole's 1991 "Unforgettable" duet is a wonderful recording that couldn't have been done without technology, since it was created using Nat's 1951 original recording of the song.



I think genres can mesh too -- just not here. Find it if you want, though. And if you want something enjoyable, check out Pandora.

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