Thursday, January 24, 2013

Team of Destiny? No. Magic Cat is the answer

On April 30th of last year, I had to put my cat Bonnie to sleep. She was old and in pain and was originally Dawn's cat, but when we moved in together I adpoted her and she me along with her brother Clyde. We had to put him to sleep 4-5 years ago. Dawn and I were going to wait a while before we considered getting another cat. But fate played a hand and Jinx came into our lives. 3 years old and she looks like our old cat Clyde except fuzzier. It took Jinx some time but she now appears to be very happy in our house and with us. Thank heavens we got her because she is magic also.

The legend that is Magic Cat started this past fall. The Baltimore Orioles were doing the impossible. Standing tough in the American League East against such teams as the Yankees, and Rays, both of which were playing close with them also for first place in the AL East. The Orioles had not been to the playoffs in 14 years and this team of no names and surprises was right there in the mix of things. Dawn and I would watch some of the games and cheer our teams on. Jinx would come and sit on Dawn's lap and the Orioles would all of sudden do something. A miraculous stop, a home run, a key base hit. We didn't think much of it til the Orioles made the playoffs. To get into the first round against the Yankees, the Orioles had to win a 1 game Play-off (Play-in whatever you want to call it) against the Texas Rangers. It was a tough game and we wanted the Orioles to win it badly. It was looking a little bad when Jinx walked in and sat in Dawn's lap and the Orioles got some key hits and won the game. They went to the playoffs. That was when we started calling her Magic cat. (actually Dawn came up with the name).

The Orioles were in a 5 game playoff with the Yankees and sure enough when Jinx would be in Dawn's lap the Orioles did good. But being a cat she got fickle and got down soon and then they started getting beat. Eventually the Yankees were too much for magic cat and the Orioles were knocked out of the playoffs. Then football season. Magic Cat was around for some of the games, mostly the night games when the crazy kids were asleep in bed. She helped when the Ravens pulled out the victory early in the season against the Patriots. But pretty much during the regular season she was not around so much since the Ravens only had 4 night games and during the day she stayed hidden.

Then the playoffs started and the legend grew with the Broncos game. The Broncos Ravens Playoff game was a back and forth all night. Magic Cat had stayed away most of the night. But sure enough when I was watching and the Ravens needed a big play she came strolling in and sat on my lap. When we picked off Peyton Manning, when Jacoby Jones caught the 70 yard pass to tie the game with 30 some seconds left Magic Cat was in my lap. When they went to double overtime and Justin Tucker kicked the game winning field goal. She was in my lap. She gets up sometimes in the middle of the game and I swear it seems like something bad happens when she is gone. Finally this past Sunday the Ravens played the Patriots again. The first half the Ravens offense looked horrible and the defense while giving up lots of yards was actually holding their own. The Patriots went in at halftime with a lead 13-7. Magic cat was nowhere to be seen at this time. The game was late so I missed a little of the third quarter when I had to help put my kids to bed.  So after that was done. I sat down and the Ravens had the ball. Lo and behold here comes magic cat. She sits in my lap and the Ravens have a killer drive which leads to a touchdown and the lead 14-13. And she stays on my lap as the Ravens stop Brady and the Patriots. Then score again 21-13. And still hold Brady and the Patriots to nothing. Eventually we got another touchdown and a pick of Brady and the game was over and the Ravens were going to the Playoffs. The whole time Magic cat is in my lap. So there is the legend of Magic Cat. The Super Bowl is coming but we will probably be more than likely at a Super Bowl party elsewhere. However I may find a way to smuggle Magic Cat to where ever we end up going. Go Ravens! Go Magic Cat! The real reason the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl. Not that they have been playing good. No MAGIC CAT is the key!! 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Ray Lewis' Last Ride

As many of you know I am a huge Baltimore Ravens fan. have been since they came to Baltimore in 1996. One guy who has been with them since the beginning is Ray Lewis. Probably the most famous Raven of them all, the team leader both physically and spiritually. He took no excuses made no excuses. pumped you up and made you play better while keeping your mind in the game. Keeping you aware that this was a team sport and you were part of a team. One person fails you all fail, even if that one person was not named Ray Lewis. If they lost a game because of one person, never called them out publically pushed that we failed as a team. He knew one play does not change everything. You should have converted on that third down in the first quarter, you should not have been called off-sides. You had to play perfect, one mistake did not take the game from them, all the missed opportunities and mistakes did that. Ray knew that and he preached that. He was your motivator, your enemy, your best friend, your teacher, your student. He learned and he processed the information to make him one of the most feared and one of the very best Linebackers of all time.

17 years is a long time and for the last 5 years or so he has not been the same Ray Lewis as he was earlier in his career, but that was on the field. His mind was still sharp, he was still your motivator and he was your General. The game is probably never going to see anything like it again. Early in his career he had his run-ins with the law and the situation in I believe Miami where he witnessed the murder of two guys committed by his so called friends put a big black mark on his record that do this day is still brought up in jokes and stories about Ray. But to me and probably most everyone else in Baltimore, that was a wake up call for Ray and from that point on he knew he had to change his ways, and he did. Even going so far to help counsel kids and give them a positive role model. He helped everybody and he was a better man for that.

He has the uncanny ability to motivate anyone. Going so far as to have colleges from all over the country, not just in Maryland ask him to come speak. And he brings his A game every time. If he wanted to he has a huge career ahead of him as a motivational speaker. Some of his speeches are really good and they are to kids who need a positive role model. I know I am repeating a lot but that is just who Ray is.

His will to play has ebbed, his body has failed him a number of times, and this last 9 weeks or so he has gotten a view of where his priorities should be, with his family who is growing up quickly and he is missing it, and he doesnt want that. Sure he's going to do some broadcasting, but it is nowhere near what it is like being a player. It's a hard life being a player, that's why the players are younger, they have the time to do their thing before they realize what is really important and that is family. Ray gets it. He may have left school early to go pro, but he is smart enough to realize someday he will not be able to play and he needs skills. Retiring at 37 is crazy since most people still have to work 30 years before they retire. Ray knows theres more out there. So he went back to school and got a degree. HE gets it. He's one of the smart ones and he is trying to spread his message to others.

Sunday's playoff game may very well be the last game he plays in Baltimore, though there is an outside chance we may host the Championship game if we win all our games and the Bengals win all of theirs. Realistically this is his last home game. Retiring while his team is on top is not a bad way to go. Godspeed Ray, you deserve your retiremement. Cant wait to see what you will do with the second part of your life.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My History With Comics Part 3: Diamond in the Rough

By now I had seemingly just gotten the job I was born to do. Working for a Comic Book Distribution Center as a Customer Service Rep. Surrounded by comics, talking comics with other fans, helping spread the word about comics. Well here I am in 2013 not even a part of the Diamond Family anymore. How Come? What could go wrong? Heh, read and find out...


It was 2002. March actually. My time at Rainforest Cafe was coming to close mainly due to the fact that my hours were getting cut since we were not making alot of money in the retail village. I had been in my apartment with my girlfriend (now wife) for about 7 months and it was getting hard to pay the rent due to my cut hours. I needed a more full time and dare I say grown up job. I had remembered that Diamond was in the area locally. I was living in Cockeysville at the time and about 5-10 minutes from my apartment was a giant Glass building facing 83, this was in Timonium and it was the home of Diamond. I had gone to their website and discovered a window for jobs. I clicked on it and read the description of the jobs they had available. Customer Service Rep seemed right up my alley since I had been spending most of my working life in retail environments, how different could it be? In fact it could be better since I was not seeing the customer face to face, we were talking over the phone. I sent a resume, especially high-lighting my work experience at Alternate Worlds and the Diamond Warehouse, because hey I had been a part of the family before. I got hired and gave my two weeks notice. My last day was exactly 3 years to the date that I was hired at Rainforest.

During my interview they let me know that the job I was applying for was on the West Coast team. That meant my hours had to reflect the best time for the customers out west since they were three hours different from us. So my shift was 11am-8pm.(8am-5pm West Coast time). This wasn't too bad since I did not have any kids at the time and Dawn was in the middle of getting her Masters so she would be doing lots of homework during the regular prime time hours we would be together. The pay was much better and I finally had regular hours, Monday-Friday with weekends off. (I still worked at the Radio station, but I gave that up about a year later). My customer base was going to be stores in LA, Sacramento, other smaller cities in California, some in Seattle, and the whole state of Alaska, which to me was just cool. I would be on the phone with people in Alaska!! Some perks were we got free comics that were comped to us from the Independent Publishers, we got a Marvel First Look pack which were Marvel books coming the next week, we had some DC comps, not a lot. We also had free swag giveaways of statues, magazines, action figures, books, cards, gaming pieces. It was heaven for a geek like me. We also could set up an account and order whatever we wanted from our catalog at a reduced employee pricing, so that was great as well. There was also the potential to go work Comic Conventions across the country which was great as well. And we got to chat with fellow comic geeks. It was bliss.

This is what I actually did as a Customer Service Rep. My customer base consisted of Comic book stores in the locations I gave above. My job was to take their calls and assist with missing items, damaged items, ordering items for them, suggesting items to them, helping locate boxes that were mis-shipped, changing orders before the Final Order Cutoff date, make sure they got their monthly orders in, stuff like that. Some of the people I talked to were very cool and very much like me. We would chat and joke about all kinds of things while on the phone. I also had customers who were straight to the point, did not want to chit chat just wanted to get their problems solved or stuff ordered. That was fine to. I had jerk accounts who complained about everything we did and about the job I would do for them. I had accounts that would absolutly freak out on me if I could not help or was not fast enough to help. I would also get new accounts all the time and had to help walk them through their first few months of business until they were set with what they were doing. I also took queue calls which basically were, if my accounts were not calling me and I did not need to call them, I was not allowed to just sit on my butt and do nothing, we had a queue of callers who either could not reach their rep, did not want to talk to their rep, or just wanted to get in and out quickly. So I took calls from other stores across the countries, sometimes even getting my accounts who either did not want to talk to me or could not get in touch with me. That was always fun and awkward. My day did not really get started until about 1pm or so since that was about the time the stores out west were just settling in.

As I started to make a name for myself, I started getting noticed by some of the higher ups. They liked my work ethic, my way with the customers, and my knowledge of the product. So after being there for about 6 months they wanted me to help train new customer service reps. Usually ones who were coming into my team. But occassionally I trained some other reps in other teams. And that made me feel good that I was noticed for that. I also helped Lou, a guy who had been their for a while hand out the comps and also assist in our product meetings we had every Tuesday. Basically we would have a two meetings where our the teams came up and looked at the product we were selling or was shipping that week so we could do a better job of trying to upsell our accounts on them, and also if the accounts did not remember a specific name but had a vague description we could help them find the right product. Eventually Lou left and I took over the product meetings and comps by myself. Which was great because it gave me a chance to get away from my cubicle and wander upstairs.

Customer Service was located in the basement of this big glass building. We had no windows and the floor was all cubicles and offices with flourescent lights. Diamond also controlled the 3rd and part of the 4th floor of this building as well. The 3rd floor was the meat of the operation, Steve Geppi the owner of Diamond had his office there. The Brand managers had there cubes and offices there. Most of the salesmen had their cubes and offices their. We also had the accountants, production crews were in there. The 4th floor was the Diamond Select Toys department, as well as some of the other Brand managers. It was also the floor that housed Steve Geppi's museum and collection. He has since moved that to a museum in DownTown Baltimore called the Gem museum. So to get the comps as well as the items for the product meeting I had to go upstairs and interact with the brand managers. I got to know most of them, some really well. So for awhile that was all I did at my job and it was fun. It was stressful, especially on Wednesday's which is when new comics come out and we have our biggest problems and our longest queues. Some customers would just unload on me for everything even though most of it was not my fault and it made for bad times. The stress seemed to start being more than the fun times. This store in most cases was the owners livelhood so I don't fault them for being overly crazy when bad things happened. But to blame me for all the problems was a problem I had to deal with, sometimes multiple times. So the stress was building.

But it wasn't all stressful. I was doing my thing. Chatting about things I truly loved and working with people who felt the same way. The freebies alone were great and I got a chance to geek out a number of times. Harlan Ellison a famous science-fiction writer had an account with us and I was his brand manager. So I chatted with him at least once a week. Kevin Smith the filmmaker owns 2 comic stores and he occassionally would get into the queue. I had the chance once to take an order direct from him for his store. I got to talk to Geoff Johns one of my favorite writers who frequented one of my better accounts. The owner whose name I forget put him on the phone with me one day that was cool. One day Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself came to our offices and we had a meeting with him. At one time the head honcho of Marvel whose name I cannnot remember (not Stan Lee) came and we had a meeting with him.  I got to go to the Long Beach California Comic-Con on the company dime and work for 4 days. I got to go to the Boston Comic Con on the company dime as well for 4 days. I started a tradition of giving birthday cards to the people in Customer service. We also has Christmas potluck meals with our team. Cliff one of my teammates who became the team leader and I use to order Chinese all the time for lunch. For me it was more of a snack, but still it was fun.  So those were fun times. But the stress started to build and get to me and before I knew it, it was overwhelming me and I needed a way out. That was when the job posting for Brand Manager came down and I decided to go for it.

Fostering my connections to members of the Brand Manager staff I was able to get an interview and was told that I was at the top of there list for the most part. So I was offered the position and I took it in an instant. But 9 months later I was in the same situation I had just escaped from. More to come...