Wednesday, February 21, 2018

“Strategic brilliance…”

Although I’m not – to say the least – looking for a job, I always enjoy glancing through the help wanted ads in The Economist. Sometimes the jobs on offer are quite excellent. A few years back, there was one (if I remember correctly) for the secretary to HRM The Queen. I didn’t qualify, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t interested.

This week’s edition had a few jobs that stood out. The CIA is recruiting “the intellectually curious adventurer looking for an unparalleled, high-impact international opportunity.” No specific work experience required, but the spooks would welcome sales, marketing, and real estate professionals. Maybe folks familiar with, say, money laundering with oligarchs?

But the position on offer that really caught my eye was for the President and CEO of Canada’s Post Office, which provides “innovative physical and electronic delivery solutions and services…more than 9 billion messages and parcels annually.” Forget “neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night” – and, yes, I know that’s the US mantra not Canada’s. But you don’t think Canada has snow and gloom or night??? And forget Deliver De Letter De Sooner De Better. This is the 21st century. We’ve talking innovative solutions,

Most of the “wide array of competencies sought” are pretty standard senior management fare, albeit with a few current corporate-speak bingo words thrown in just to see if folks are awake. Or awoke. Experience with complex business transformation.  Decision-making ability. Multi-faceted organization. Executive experience. Working collaboratively with a wide array of stakeholders. (Am I mis-remembering, or was there really a time when we didn’t worry about collaborating with stakeholders?)

Canada Post would like to see someone with experience in a large, unionized organization, which would leave plenty of resumes on the floor.

But my favorite competency on the list was this one:

Strategic brilliance with the ability to assess what the future holds.

Lord-y lord. Wouldn’t someone who truly had the ability to assess what the future holds take that competency to some arena where they could make a boat load of money? Or make the world a better place? Just sayin’

As for strategic brilliance, lord-y, lord-y, lord-y lord.

Throughout my long career I can’t count the times I’ve seen strategic brilliance. That’s because the number is zero.

Admittedly, I didn’t exactly spend that long career in companies known for baseline strategic competence, let alone strategic brilliance. Even looking in – nose pressed to the window, little match girl style – at other companies (generally competitors) that seemed to have their strategic shit together, what looked like a genius strategy generally turned out to be stumbled upon luck combined with market luck multiplied by excellent timing, factored up by pi.

Oh, yeah, and it never seemed to last.

Those guys who were eating our lunch, who seemed to have the world by the balls, who seemed to be making all their employees (our former colleagues) millionaires? Give it time, and those shining stars turned out to be shooting stars. And all those employee millionaires? Paper only, of course, By the time they could cash those options in, share price had peaked and plummeted. Sorry we expended all that energy being jealous of your wealth.

I’ll give you that there are some companies known for their lasting strategic brilliance. Apple comes to mind. It’s just that they’re companies that I have neither first nor second-order experience with.

I’d love to be a fly on the Canada Post wall when the interviewer asks the interviewee to talk about their strategic brilliance. Tell me about a situation in which you demonstrated your strategic brilliance. And probably even see if they can tap a bit of that strategic brilliance on behalf of Canada Post. If you were the CEO of Canada Post, what do you think the most strategically brilliant initiative you could undertake that would enable CP to provide an innovative physical delivery solution? How many times will the answer be “drones” before someone realizes that they’re seeing strategic ho-hum predictability rather than a flash of strategic brilliance.

I’m not great at assessing what the future holds, but I’ll bet that, whoever lands the job at Canada Post, strategic brilliance isn’t going to be the sharpest tool in their tool box. Strategic brilliance in the past is not that transferrable from one organization and situation to the next. Too much luck, etc. involved to duplicate it. But the good news for the new CP CEO is that it will take a while before someone figures out that, whatever the strategy in place is, it’s probably not all that brilliant. Like most organizations, I’m guessing they’ll be just as happy with strategic competence.

Curiously, one of their requirements wasn’t the ability to execute a strategy.

Whether the strategic is competent or brilliant, if you can’t execute on it, what good it is?

Anyway, good thing I’m not interviewing for the job. All I could come with is drones…

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Welcome, Immigrants of 1871. There’s an opening for a bunger in New Jersey…

The Internet is a wondrous place which, if you’re ready,willing, and able to waste a ton o’ time, will wondrously accommodate you. And there’s the equally wondrous Google, ready, willing, and able to serve as your tour guide, or random walk guide, or whatever.

I can’t quite remember what I was googling for when I came across the U.S. Government’s “Special Report on Immigration”, which was published by the Government Printing Office in 1871. Did I want to know what the cost of a velocipede was in 1869? Was I watching a re-run of The Rifleman and felt the need to know what a sod-buster made? Did I wakeup with a hankering to learn how many folks from Norway immigrated in 1820? Or was I just trying to get the earworm “My Sharona” out of my brain. (Thanks, Kath. Hope I paid you back with “Sharif Don’t Like It/Rock the Casbah”.)

Whatever the purpose and urgency driving my googling, there I was with this wondrous book, information at my fingertips that I hadn’t realized I needed to have anywhere, let alone at my fingertips. And what wondrous information it was:

Information for Immigrants relative to the prices and rentals of land, the staple products, the facility of access to market, the cost of livestock, kind of labor in demand in the western and southern states, etc. etc. [sic]

To which are appended tables showing the average weekly wages paid in several states for factory, mechanical, and farm labor; the cost of provisions, groceries, dry goods and house rent in the various manufacturing districts of the country in the year 1869-1870.

All compiled by one Edward Young, PhD, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics.

The first thing that came to my mind was the question: just how many PhDs were there in 1871? But rather than get distracted into seeing if I could find out, I just forged on.

This was 1871. With the opening up of the west, the abolition of slavery, the growing number of factories – it was pretty much welcome immigrants to our shores.

During the first seven decades of the 19th century, the United Kingdom (which included Ireland at the point) made up half of all immigrants. They “speak our language..and are soon assimilated into and absorbed into our body-politic.” All well and good. No mention of the scourge the shanty Irish were.

The next major immigrant group was Germans, who “are intelligent and industrious”, followed by Scandinavians, who are “industrious, economical, and temperate.”

As for real foreigners, “Asiatic” immigration “has not yet reached such proportions that it would excite alarm in the most apprehensive.” And

“The Latin nations contribute little to our population, and the Sclavics (sic) still less, while today, as from time immemorial, the different branches of the great Teutonic trunk are swarming forth from the most populous regions, to aid in the progress of civilization.”

I’m pretty sure that the great Teutonic trunk is not the grey, home-made wooden trunk my German family came through Ellis Island with in the early 1920’s. I’m guessing it’s the Northern European ethnics (Germans, Scandinavians, British Isles) who were the kind of immigrants we welcomed when we were in a welcoming mood.

The narrative sections of the book are a tremendously entertaining read. In them, we find that Edward Young has found that it’s better for unskilled laborers to go west and chop down trees and “engage in subduing the forests” than to fester in the cities. And that the demand for Velocipedes is down.

Then there’s Edward Young’s variation on the camel entering the eye of the needle:

“The son of a rich man, whose raring and education cost $20,000, if not trained to usefulness, is worth far less to the community than the son of a mechanic whose whole cost has not exceeded $2,000, if the latter is a well-instructed and skilled artisan.”

Young was working on it, but couldn’t yet put a price on an immigrant – i.e., the net value to the United States of having them here -  but he was definitely in favor of keeping ‘em coming.

And come they did, even in those decades before the really crazy immigration happened (1880-1920, when 20 million immigrants rolled in. How much is much? In 1880, the U.S. population stood at 40 million. Immigrants and their offspring pushed that number up to 106 million by 1920.)

From 1820-1870, the period covered in Edward Young’s wondrous book, 2.7m immigrants came from Ireland. From Germany, the number over that period was 2.268 m.

I think that 1870 was right around the time my Irish great-grandparents were heading over. The Germans were laggards. They waited until after a hellacious world war and found their way to the US in the 1920s.

Being part of these two great-in-number immigrant strains makes me feel, well, so very American.

By 1870, the Italians, Russians, and Poles hadn’t shown up in any great numbers yet. And over that period, only 198 Greeks came to America. 98 from Hayti and 57 from Porto Rico.

In FY 1870, there were a ton of farmers (36k) and laborers (85k) in the immigrant bunches, but there were also 4 actors, 3 dentists, and 10 priests. Not to mention 727 butchers (ach, those Germans), and 990 bakers. No word on candlestick makers, but there was 1 lone hoe-maker.

Hard to imagine that, in a still largely agricultural nation, we only managed to import one hoe-maker that year. Especially given that FY 1870 brought us 23 jugglers. (What was the demand for jugglers?)

That year, our population also increased by 36 nuns, 362 brewers (no doubt those Germans again), and 14k servants. (Was my great grandmother Margaret Joyce among them?)

There was a lot of information provided to immigrants, including where they could buy land – and for how much – and where the jobs were and what they paid.

Some of the jobs are really hard to imagine. Working in the scraping room or a starch factory? And what, pray tell, do mule spinners and mule backside piecers do? I didn’t realize that the backside of a mule had to be pieced.

Easier to think about how god-awful it must have been to work on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, where men made $5.50/week, women made $3.60, and boys $2.50.

Lots of excellent info on M vs. F jobs and wages, and B vs. G.

A type founding company in NY was one of the few places where the girls (rubbing type: $6.50 a week) could make more than the boys (breaking type: $5.50/week).

Oh, the places those immigrants could go and the jobs they could find there. Rhode Island needed spoon and fork makers. Massachusetts could use calendar men ($9.14/week) and calendar boys (4.60/week) at an India rubber goods factory.

Head west to Missouri, young man, to work as a forger, twister, or screw cutter in a lightning rod factory.

Go work as a felt-hat stiffeners, a steel worker in an artificial limb factory, a hair-cloth weaver, a hoop-skirt maker. Soapstone cutting paid exceptionally well: $23.50 a week.

So did work in a wall-paper factory in New Jersey. Flockers made $25, water color painters made $20, and bungers – whatever they did – could haul in a cool $24 per week.

Did immigrants use information like this? I don’t think my immigrant antecedents necessarily did. The Irish branch came to Massachusetts because there were already a ton of Irish here, including friends and family from their home towns. And my more recent German immigrant relatives (my grandparents and toddler mother) went to Chicago for precisely the same reason. Landsmen galore!

But my friend Joyce’s grandparents came over from Lithuania in the early part of the 20th century. They rolled into Ellis Island with little money and less English. There,her grandfather was told that they could use a cobbler in Burrillville, RI, a town of then about 6,000 or 7,000 in population, in the middle of nowhere. Off they went to find work cobbling shoes, and raising a good-sized family that I believe made up the entire Jewish population of Burrillville.

Anyway, I’m guessing that cobbling in Burrillville was better than being a hair-cloth weaver or felt-hat stiffener. Maybe even better than being a bunger in a wallpaper factory.

Ah, history. Ah, data.

Who knows where my next useless Internet stroll will take me…

Monday, February 19, 2018

Let’s Make Presidents’ Day Great Again

I used to actually like Presidents’ Day, one of those nothing little days you may or many not have off, when you may or may not buy a couch or a car on sale, and when – back in the day, when it was George Washington’s Birthday, rather than generic any-and-all presidents day, you ate something with a cherry on it. (GW, according to myth, having chopped down a cherry tree and then owned up to his father, telling him “I cannot tell a lie.” Ah, those were the days when it was possible to imagine having a president who could not tell a lie. Or could only tell an occasional, fingers-crossed-behind-the-back lie. As opposed to the incumbent, who averages over 5 lies per day.)

These days, it’s kind of hard to be in a celebratory mood.

I didn’t have high hopes for Trump, but I did think there was a glimmer of a possibility that he’d demonstrate some modicum of competence and decency. Hah, I say hah, hah. The only thing I’m looking forward to with respect to DJT is that he exits the teleprompter. And that when he departs, he takes Mike “Pious Toady” Pence and Paul “See How Close the Name R-Y-A-N Is To A-Y-N R-A-N-D?” Ryan with him. I’m also fast forwarding to the next time historians play “rank the presidents”, and we’ll see if Trump ends up ranked even lower than Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan.

There was a ranking last year, which I wrote about in my last year’s Prez Day post. As I noted at the time, the top of the list was predictable:

The Big Three (as historian Douglas Brinkley calls them) are no surprise. Lincoln and FDR are my two personal favorites, which is kind of like saying that my favorite movies are Casablanca and The Godfather.

When the next rankings come out, and Trump lands it the thud he so majorly deserves, and if the Tweet-Meister is still tweeting, I’m sure he’ll be going nuts about historians as Fake News, Deep States, East Coast Elites who hate America. Either that, or he’ll find some historian with a degree from Trump U who will decree Trump the Greatest President Evah. After all, Trump did claim that Orrin Hatch blew some presidential ranking smoke up his butt:

“He actually once said I’m the greatest president in the history of our country.”

As it turns out, this wasn’t exactly what Hatch said. (Was this one of the 2,000 lies Trump told during his first year in office? It hurts my head too much to go through the full list.)

Ah, Presidents…

I’m a sucker for those quizzes, even when they’re dead wrong. (No, I don’t live in Hawaii.) The one I took most recently asked all sorts of dopey multiple choice questions and then spits out which US president you are. I got a good answer: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But I suspect that there are only a handful of presidents that come out as answers, and that no one is told that they’re Millard Fillmore or Zachary Taylor. Maybe there’s a clinker or two in there – Richard Nixon – but I’m guessing most people are told they’re Ronald Reagan, JFK, Abe Lincoln, Ike, et a few als. Still, I’m just as happy that I didn’t end up as Reagan.

I do wonder what does with all the data they amass from these quizzes. They know I like to read. That my favorite season is fall (at least I think that’s the answer I always give; maybe it’s swing – I go back and forth). But when I’m asked a question on my favorite dance and my real answer is none of the above (waltz? cha-cha?). Or who my favorite superhero is. (I put in Superman because a) I watched it as a kid; b) in the movie, Christopher Reeves was pretty cute.) I really don’t have a superhero.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thoughts and prayers? Hooey!

I’ve watched a fair amount of horrific, gut-wrenching news over the last few days, and have taken in about as much of the “thoughts and prayers” and “now is not the time to talk about policy” as I can tolerate. Talk about Groundhog Day.

What has struck me from the coverage, though, is the response from the students at that Florida high school. The kids who hid in classroom closets while they heard gunfire. The kids who pushed desks and chairs up against their classroom doors and texted updates (and farewells) to their parents. The kids who, when they left their classrooms, filed out past the bloody bodies of their classmates and teachers.

The kids I saw interviewed – 14 year olds, 15 year old, 16 year olds, 17 year olds – were, while obviously upset by what happened, uniformly poised, articulate, and sensible. And – at least the ones I saw (and, yes, they were for the most part being interviewed on MSNBC) – were not looking for thoughts and prayers, the mindless platitudes. They weren’t putting up with any mealy-mouthed “not the right time” BS. They want things to change. They don’t get why the so-called grownups don’t get off their asses and do something.

As The Onion observes every time there’s a mass shooting here:

No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens

‘Regularly’? They ain’t kidding.

Since the Sandy Hook Massacre in December 2012, there have been more than 430 people shot in schools. Since January of this year, there’ve been 18 school shootings.

Remember when we used to have fire drills in schools? Today’s kids have active shooter drills.

Yet we can’t seem to get any traction on background checks. On not allowing those with mental health problems to buy assault rifles. Or banning bump stocks that turn semi-automatic guns into fully-automatic guns. Even though the majority of people support these minimal efforts at doing something about what has turned into what seemingly is the one proof-positive of American exceptionalism.

Back to those kids back in Parkland, Florida. They’re calling BS. They’re just saying no to there’s nothing can be done, to now is not the time.

No, we’re never going to get rid of gun violence entirely. And we’re never going to be able to point to the massacres that never happened because of background checks, etc.

But jeez Louise.

I watched as many cowboy shows as any other all-American kid, all those idiotic shoot ‘em ups, in which our heroes ended up being “winged”, or with casually brushed aside “just a flesh wound”. Bad guys lying in the parched and dusty streets of Laredo, tumbleweed tumbling over their corpses. Bad guys? So what! They got what they had coming to them. So is it our Western mythology that’s at the heart of our gun obsession? Is the gun the last refuge of the “man’s man”, the one possession – other than a Dodge Ram – that the feminazis haven’t stripped from the hands of the now-emasculated male population? What the f is it???

The kids from Florida sound mad as hell, and they sound like they’re not going to take it anymore.

(From what I hear, they were especially savage on their home-away-from-home, social media, after Trump gave his variant on the “thoughts and prayers speech”, during which he pinned the problem on mental health issues and implicitly blamed Nikolas Cruz’ fellow students for not reporting him for his hostility and weirdness.)

Bravo to these kids. Out of the mouths of intelligent, heartfelt, savvy young people who see bullshit for just what it is.

Because the folks in Parkland Florida are going to need more than thoughts, prayers, and a blow-in from the Blowhard-in-Chief - which is apparently being scheduled because he’s going to be nearby golfing at Mar-a-Lago and really can’t afford the optics of not delivering thoughts and prayers in person – I threw in a few bucks on the GoFundMe page to benefit the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And then I went over to and threw in an equivalent amount to support their efforts. Everytown is an organization dedicated to working to end gun violence, the anti-NRA, as it were. 

We’re past the time for thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Milkman’s Cousin

When I was a kid, we had a milkman.

Mostly, it was a fellow named Harry, but at other times, it was my father’s cousin-in-law, Phil, whose family owned the dairy. And still other times it was my father’s cousins Matt and Ned, the sons of my Great-Aunt Alice, my grandmother’s sister. (Matt’s and Ned’s sister Ellen was married to Phil. Got all this?)

Anyway, while most milkmen, I take it, left their glass bottles outside the door in your milk crate, our milkmen delivered right into the kitchen. And sometimes the milkmen – especially if it was on a weekend, and Phil, Matt, or Ned was on and my father was around – sat down at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee or tea. Harry came in the house, too. I remember him coming down into our cellar once to look at something or other, and doing some minor fix or another. We had a rocking horse that was named Harry in his honor. (Don’t get any ideas here about the milkman’s children. If there’d been a vote, my mother would have been unanimously elected The Mother Least Likely to Get It On with the Milkman or the Breadman or the Fuller Brush Man…)

Most folks on our street got their milk from the Hillcrest Dairy, which had one really nice feature I was envious of: their trucks came in a variety of fun colors, including turquoise and purple.

We went with Blanchard Dairy because they were family. Their trucks were all the same: boring green and yellow.

But the real advantage of Blanchard’s was that, because we were family, during the summer, the milkmen let us jump up in the back of the truck and gave us chunks of glittering ice, covered with a tasty scrim of diesel exhaust. Today, I ask myself how it is that any of us are still alive, but back then, on a sweltering summer day, licking one of those chunks of ice was a complete and utter treat. Those chunks were like diamonds to me. (I also liked the smell of gas stations, and envied the family out on Route 9 who lived over their station, with half their home built up on stilts over the gas pumps. Now that was living! Meanwhile, I grew up around some pretty darned lovely Catholic churches. Our parish church was a beautiful Irish-Gothic pile that’s stood the test of time. I was there last summer for a funeral, and it really is quite a place. Despite this exposure to beauty, I thought the most beautiful building in our neighborhood was the Esso gas station in Webster Square with the big red dome. I was a child with extraordinarily sophisticated taste.)

Back to the main thread: With five kids and a milk-drinking father, we went through a lot of milk, and the milkman came a few times a week.

But at some point – did Blanchard’s stop home delivery? – we no longer got milk from the milkman. We got it from the store. And somewhere along the line, milk no longer came in glass quart bottles with the cream at the top (you had to shake the bottle to homogenize the milk), but came instead in plastic gallon jugs, pre-homogenized.

I pretty much always have milk in the fridge, as I take it in my tea and frequently have cereal for breakfast. Mostly it’s pint-sized, which pretty much takes me through the week and change.

But others, of course, have greater milk requirements And some of them, believe it or not, still get their milk delivered by milkmen.

The milkman, that symbol of simpler times, appears to be making a bit of a comeback in Massachusetts. About 10 New England dairies deliver in the state, servicing everyone from families with children to single young professionals. While there are no concrete data on the popularity of home delivery, many dairies say they have experienced an increase in customers in recent years. (Source: Boston Globe)

There are a few things driving the surge in home milk delivery.

One is the increasing interest in farm-to-table. The dairy’s doing the delivering are bringing milk from their very own contented cows. Not anonymous cows off in Vermont or wherever. (As it turns out, a number of the dairies mentioned in the article don’t have their own cows. They outsource from dairies elsewhere in New England. Like Vermont.)

Some of the increase is also attributed to the fact that, thanks to Amazon, everyone’s just gotten so used to home delivery…And it’s just so damned convenient.

Many dairies now deliver a wide range of products other than milk, including eggs, yogurt, meat, pre-made meals, vegetables, ice cream, and even rock salt.

The principle driver, however, seems to be nostalgia, which is a bit odd, given that the families with young kids and the single young professionals nostalgic for the milkman are unlikely to have grown up with any memories of them. Can you be nostalgic for something you never experienced? Apparently so.

Me? I’m a remember-er, but not so much – at least I don’t think – a nostalgic remember-er. Certainly not enough to want the milkman to show up with a bottle of milk for my tea and cereal. Still, it would be kind of fun to sit around the table with my father, with Phil and Matt and Ned, and listen to them chat about whatever it was they chatted about. Guess I’ll have to settle for a nod in their direction the next time I visit my parents’ grave. Phil, Matt, and Ned are all in the neighborhood. Phil (and Ellen) and Ned are within spitting distance. Matt’s in another section, but the cemetery’s small so he’s not that far. Ned, the last of my father’s first cousins, died a year or two ago. I can still see the “boys” – they were all a decade or so younger than my father – coming into the kitchen in their grey-striped milkman’s overalls, sitting down for a cup of coffee. But I think I’d take a pass on licking a chunk of diesel-grit covered ice, even if it were on offer.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Piece of Cake

Well, today being Ash Wednesday, it’s as good a day as any to talk about a Boston startup which has the mission to make it easier for baby boomers to deal with the prospect of death.” (Ashes to ashes, and all that.)

Given that one of our anthems is Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and that one of our tag lines was – back in the day – Don’t trust anyone over 30, I don’t imagine that my cohort is going to be great about dying. I foresee nasty battles over prolonging geezer lives for no particularly good reason (and, in the process, squandering resources that could go to making lives better for the young uns).

Then there are the boomers like Ray Kurzweil, tech genius, who embrace The Singularity and think there’s no reason why folks – especially themselves – can’t live forever.

Layer on top that so many baby boomers went about losing their religion somewhere along the way, and, thus, no longer have what I consider the two great benefits that believer-ship brings with it: a) built-in life purpose; b) belief in an afterlife where you’ll be reunited with your loved ones.

I understand first hand that it’s easy enough to come up with a life purpose, even absent religion. But for the “easier to die” benefit, I do think that it relieves a bit of the tension if you think there are pearly gates and dear old dad on the other end of the life spectrum. We were with my mother when she died, and she was at complete peace believing that she was going to be seeing my father, my sister, et al. (including God) when she breathed her last.

But I was also with my husband when he died and I can absolutely attest that this cradle-Catholic atheist didn’t fear death in the least. Jim felt he’d had a good run. He’d lived the life he wanted and, after battling cancer a couple of times, he was ready to lay himself down to the Big Sleep. As he told our nieces a few weeks before his death, the one thing that made him sad about dying was knowing how sad it would make me. (He was right. Four years this Saturday. Life goes on, but you really don’t ever stop missing someone.)

However different their life and death outlooks, both my mother and Jim were well prepared for death.

All of my mother’s finances and other info (title to her car, etc.) were in order, everything carefully listed out. She had one bank account, with my name and my sister Kath’s on it, that had enough money in it to pay for her funeral, her burial, and the luncheon afterwards. There was even enough left over so that we all got a gift from the L.L. Bean catalog that Christmas. (In the last few years of her life, my mother did all her shopping via L.L. Bean request.) My mother also had the list of songs she wanted sung at her funeral.

My husband was also very plan-ful when it came to end of life. In addition to having all the financial stuff set up and ready to go (including passwords), in the last couple of weeks of his life, I came upon him on the phone with one of his credit card companies, cancelling his card. “I’ll be dying shortly,” I heard him tell the customer service rep, “And I don’t want my wife to have to do this.”

Once we knew that Jim’s condition was terminal, we talked about his memorial service. He really didn’t care that much about it; he knew it was for me. But he advised me to limit his cousin Steve to five minutes and not let him go too crazy, and he was happy with the stories that our friend Michele planned on telling. We also went through the places that he wanted his ashes to go. Most in a plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, site of frequent walks for us, and the rest (in way less than teaspoon amounts) in other places (like the graves of his parents and his aunt and uncle, in Ireland, in NYC…).

Jim even asked me in advance what I wanted the last words he said to me to be.

As I said, he was a plan-ful kind of guy…

Anyway, the Boston get ready for the end startup is Cake, “the easiest way to discover, share, and store your end-of-life preferences.” The company:

…has developed a website designed to help users navigate the thicket of legal documents and  health care proxies associated with end-of-life planning. It also lets them assemble music playlists for their funerals and even choose whether to have a Facebook page deleted or converted to a memorial after they’ve stopped logging on. (Source: Boston Globe)

Unfortunately, it’s something of an uphill battle to sell Cake (“named for the notion that planning for death should be a ‘piece of cake’”) in large part because the end-of-life preference of so many boomers is not to have an end-of-life.

Not so Cake co-founders, palliative care physician Mark Zhang and engineer Suelin Chin.

Both in their thirties, they’ve already got their funeral playlists picked out. Chen has Bohemian Rhapsody on hers. So does the company’s CTO. I suppose if you want Scaramouche to dance the fandango on your grave… I haven’t given my playlist a ton of thought, but I’m pretty sure Queen won’t be on it.

Signing up to use Cake is free. The company makes its money from partners, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which typically haven’t offered such planning services. The companies license customized versions of Cake’s software for use on their own websites, making it available to patients and members.

I’m not going to sign up tomorrow. I really don’t care what someone plays at my memorial service – or whether I have one. Up to you, sisters dear. But I do have a will, healthcare proxy, etc. That said I do have to pull a few things together so that I have a straightforward list of what’s where when the time comes. Which I hope isn’t for a good long while, but you never know. I really should get cracking, not to mention I really should get rid of that closet full of old laptops.

But I may well take a look at Cake. There may be something I’ve missed along the way. If nothing else, maybe it can get me to change my will and leave everyone I’m leaving something to an old laptop or two.

Meanwhile, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

L.L. Bean’s Turnaround on Returns

I order plenty of stuff online, and occasionally I’ll return some of that stuff. This mostly happens when the shoe don’t fit, or the color isn’t quite what I thought it would be. Even then, I may hang on to an item. No, I won’t keep shoes that don’t fit – having a hard-to-fit foot taught me a long time ago that an ill-fitting shoe will mean nothing but blisters. But I did keep the L.L. Bean rain jacket that, online looked like a midnight bluish purple, but in reality is about as Crayola royal purple as you’re ever going to find. Most people were smarter than me. They either ordered another color to begin with, or, having purchased it, made a return. I say this because I noticed that the only color that’s on sale is poke-in-eye-purple.

I didn’t return my jacket and, even though I could still return it, I won’t. I’ve worn it a few times. I’ll wear it a few more. And then I’ll donate it to charity and get myself the same jacket in a better color.

But we’re talking L.L. Bean, so I theoretically could return it, because I haven’t had that jacket for a year yet.

The old L.L. Bean policy was that it didn’t matter how long you had something, you could always return it.

But that is no more:

The storied outfitter announced Friday that it has ended its generous century-old returns policy that effectively allowed customers to return virtually anything, no matter how old or beaten up, saying it had become too costly.

L.L. Bean officials said the company has lost $250 million on returned items in the last five years, with the number of returns doubling in that period. The annual losses on these items alone were “equal to the amount of revenue generated from Bean boot sales,” they said. (Source: Boston Globe)

They still have a one-year return policy, but effective immediately there’s no more sending back 25 year old duck boots and asking for new ones. Which apparently way too many people were doing.

Over the years, I’ve returned a few things to L.L. Bean because of quality issues.

A few years back, I had a couple of tee-shirts that lost their hem after a few washings. Back they went.

Then there was the bag with the lousy zipper. That was a couple of years old, but I still felt justified. The zipper was a two-way job that kept springing open from one direction or the other – and not when the bag was overloaded in the least.Carrying a bag, the contents of which (i.e., wallet and phone) could fall out at any time seemed like a pretty bad idea. And it seemed to me that it was reasonable for a bag that didn’t come for free wouldn’t last longer.

I do think that L.L.Bean has occasional quality issues, but I have clothing from there that I’ve had forever. I have three pairs of long exercise pants, and three pairs of cropped exercise pants. They’re all 10 years old. And I pretty much wear each pair once a week – longs in cold weather, cropped when it’s warmer. So I’ll estimate that each pair of workout pants has been washed 250 times. And they’re still all fine. Oh, the back pockets have frayed, but I didn’t use them anyway. Sure, I line dry rather than dryer dry these pants, but still, the quality has been pretty remarkable.

But whether something lasts forever, or just for a reasonable length of time, I can’t imagine sending back something that was just plain worn out and expecting a replacement.

Not all others think the same way, apparently:

In explaining the change, the company shared images of dubious exchanges, including a worn pair of loafers, slippers with the sole detaching and a child’s ski jacket with three years’ worth of ski tags on it that had a stain but was otherwise fine.

Not to mention folks going out of their way to buy L.L.Bean stuff in thrift shops and yard sales and sending it back. Bad enough you ask for returns on merchandise you actually bought. To me, picking something up for a dollar and having the nerve to ask L.L. Bean to give you something worth $50 for it, while it may have been legal under the old policy, sounds not like Yankee frugality or shrewd bargaing, but like stealing.

Of course, some of these folks have gone online to brag about their crappy behavior. Seriously, someone would be proud that they’d gotten their kids “a new backpack every school year…[or] exchanging the same pair of corduroy pants for the past 30 years.

Even a descendant of the company’s founder has a firsthand account of this. Shawn Gorman, great-grandson of Leon Leonwood Bean, told the Associated Press that he’d once seen his own shirt with his name printed in it returned to a store after he’d donated it to Goodwill.

How about that?

L.L. Bean shoppers – or L.L. Bean non-shoppers in the case of the yard-salers - aren’t the only bad actors, of course.

I remember a sales guy at Tweeter’s – and that dates the conversation – telling me and my husband that they sold a lot of wide screen TVs that got returned the day after the Super Bowl. And other retailers who’ve had similarly generous return policies have revised them because there are so many repeat offenders out there.

Anyway, it wasn’t a policy I particularly used, let alone abused, so I’m just as happy to see it go. Even if it means that, if I do decide to hang on to it, I can’t wait five years to have buyer’s remorse and send back that purple rain jacket…