Friday, November 21, 2014

Can STEM girls be pretty in pink? Mattel thinks not.

In the old days, Barbie was just a glamour puss, standing tall in her spikes and striped bathing suit, just waiting for you to pull a ball gown over her head and send her out the door on tux-wearing Ken’s arm.

But then Barbie became something of a career gal, Barbie Computer Engineerwith her ambitions growing over time. Stewardess Barbie, meet Astronaut Barbie. Nurse Barbie, meet Doctor Barbie. Secretary Barbie, meet Executive Barbie.

And Barbie can even be a Computer Engineer, pink laptop and all!

Me, I love whenever I hear that more women are finding their way into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers – even if they are made out of plastic.

When I heard about Computer Engineer Barbie, I figured that she wasn’t the talking Barbie who famously uttered “I hate math” or “Math is so hard.” (Leaving us wondering why so many math-headed girls turn away from the subject when the hit middle school. If they’re exposed to Barbie’s pap, it must feel to them that it’s so un-girly to like boy stuff like numbers.)

As it turns out that while Computer Engineer Barbie is really only pretending to be a computer engineer.

Her real skill is to dream up an idea for a computer game, and then get the guys to write it for her.

Nothing wrong with being a designer. Nothing wrong with getting the right folks to implement your ideas. And, yes, there are folks who focus on the idea, or the UI, while others take care of the underlying code.

But being the idea person does not necessarily translate into Barbie = Computer Engineer – especially when she pulls the pale-frail ninny act.. (And in front of her sister Skipper, no less.)

This was what writer Pamela Ribon found out when a friend showed her a book entitled “Barbie: I can be a Computer Engineer.” (She wrote about it here. Her post was then published in full on Gizmodo, which is where I saw it.)

In the book, Barbie is fast at work, designing a game “that shows how computers work”, not with any pointed headed binary or hex nonsense, but with a cute puppy doing cute tricks.

But, as she tells Skipper, Barbie’s not going to code the app, Steven and Brian are.

Steven and Brianna?

Couldn’t it have been Stephanie and Brianna? Or Steve and Brianna? Or Stephanie and Brian?

Couldn’t Barbie have said something a tad more empowering, like “I’ll be coding the core underpinnings, Steven will be doing the UI, and Brian will QA it.” This would give Barbie a bit more techie cred, and show that she knows how to get things done. (Even better, Barbie might explain to Skipper that, while she used to do the coding, these days she’s a manger, but she still gets to keep her hand in coming up with specs once in a while. Good thing she has underlings like Steven and Brian who can implement for her…) 

As if admitting that she can’t code worth a damn isn’t bad enough, Barbie Computer Engineer, when trying to email her ideas to Steven, gets a blinking screen. She and Skipper try to reboot: no dice.

Fortunately, Barbie – who apparently hasn’t heard of Carbonite – has backed things up on a flash drive, which she can use on Skipper’s computer.

Or she could use it on Skipper’s computer if that darned flash drive wasn’t so virus ridden that it takes Skipper’s laptop down as well. (Thanks, Big Sis.)

Barbie may be a Computer Engineer, but she’s apparently a rank beginner because she’s still in a computer class – where we see her next – where it’s still okay to ask a question like “if your computer gets a virus and crashes, how can you retrieve all the files you lost?”

The teacher – STEM queen Ms. Smith – explains how to do it, an exchange in which it is revealed that Computer Engineer Barbie isn’t aware of security software.

Naturally, after class, Barbie seeks out Steven and Brian.

And, what do you know? Those savvy boys aren’t only coders, they know how to make the fix.

Pamela cites her friend Helen Jane here. (Both, by the way, are the mothers of young girls.)

Steven and Brian are nice guys, I'm sure. But Steven and Brian are also everything frustrating about the tech industry. Steven and Brian represent the tech industry assumption that only men make meaningful contributions. Men fix this, men drive this and men take control to finish this. Steven and Brian don't value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted — every time I didn't post a code solution in a forum because I didn't want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing. And at the same time, Steven and Brian are nice guys.

And Barbie, as it turns out, isn’t.

When the fix is in and she’s able to return Skipper’s laptop to her:

…she completely takes all the credit that it's no longer broken! What an asshole!

Barbie: I can be a Computer Engineer is a flip book that reverses to Barbie: I can be an Actress, where:

…Barbie saves the day by filling in for the princess in Skipper's school production of "Princess and the Pea." She ad-libs and smiles her way through her lines, and charms the entire audience. Standing ovation, plenty of praise. At no point did she need anybody's help. She didn't even need lines! Just standing there being Barbie was enough for everyone in attendance. See, actors? It's not that hard. Even Barbie can do it.

Thanks to Pamela Ribon, Mattel has apologized and promises to do better:

"We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits," Barbie's Facebook post says. 'We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.” (Source: Huffington Post.)

The book has been around since 2010, and has apparently had a number of ding reviews on Amazon. But it took Ribon/Gizmodo to get Mattel moving.

I’m sure that Ribon and her friend will be looking at future titles, trying to keep Mattel honest here.

Look, there are differences between boys and girls.

Years ago, I saw a video of playgroups – made up of 4 year olds - that were given trucks and dolls to play with. The boys used the trucks to crash into each other; the girls used the trucks to transport the dolls to each others houses.

But that doesn’t mean that girls shouldn’t be encouraged to become interested in STEM, and to have it acknowledged that they can do it. (And why not let more boys know that they can be nurses and teachers, while we’re at it.)

I’ve been in the technology biz for more than 30 years and, yep, most of those Stevens and Brians are nice guys.

But why can’t Barbie be techie, too?

Sometimes life can be so disheartening.

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And a doff of a Barbie-pink cap to my brother-in-law John for sending this story my way.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

A few words on words

There was a fun little piece over on the WSJ small business blog the other day. In the post that caught my eye, three folks sounded off on the buzzwords that give them, as entrepreneurs, brain cramps.

David Kalt, founder of reverb.com, a musical instrument exchange, is on his third startup. For him the bad word is startup, which he thinks you need to outgrow fast.

Startup might work for the first several months, or perhaps even the first year, of a company’s life, but at some point it’s time to move on and to become a business. To me, the words “amateur” and “startup” are analogous, as are the words “professional” and “business.”

Having spent nearly a decade in what must have been one of the world’s oldest startups, I’m with David here. He nails it completely when he writes:

When companies go for years calling themselves startups, it implies they’re not a real business, that they’re still clinging to the potential of tomorrow because they don’t have a very promising reality today.

Please go read Mr. Kalt’s full take on startup abuse.

Even though we eventually segued from designating our company as a “startup” to the slightly more realty-based word “restart”,I blushed as I read his words. And to think that I spent 9 years, 3 months, and 4 days there before leaving to restart my own career. (They gave me no choice. I was fired after getting into an argument on how we were going to position our latest round of lay-offs to the remaining employees. Advice to those who really want to hold on to your jobs:  Avoid heatedly saying to the startup restart company president anything along the lines of ‘You say what you’re going to say. I’ll say what I’m going to say. And we’ll see who they believe.’)

Exit strategy is the buzzword that drives Wayne Rivers, an expert on family businesses,  batty.

Since most of my experience was with outfits of the No Exit variety, this word doesn’t especially bother me. Yet I can see Wayne’s gripe, which is that many folks (mostly those in family-owned businesses) over-focus on their exit strategy, while ignoring the fact:

…that planning an exit strategy requires the simultaneous acts of planning entry strategies and leadership-development plans for those who must replace the departing executives.

Excessive focus on exit-strategy planning indicates to other stakeholders in a family business or entrepreneurial venture that achieving financial security and a high return on investment for the benefit of departing executives is more important than the other aspects of running a successful business, including continuing to deliver high-quality products and services and creating a great workplace environment.The typical exit strategy, then, is built around the financial needs of the departing generation with insufficient attention given to the practical and financial needs of the business itself and successor managers left behind.

My limited experience here was second hand, and not in a family business. The last family businesses anyone in my family was involved in were my German grandfather’s butcher shop, and my Irish grandfather’s bar. (And how’s that for a couple of ethnic stereotypes?) But I did join one small tech company shortly after it had been sold to a larger entity. Right before the sale, the founders – who were known as “the principals” – did what some might interpret as the unprincipled thing and rejiggered the options so that the lesser employees who’d been there almost at the creation would get precious little, while “the principals” would rake in nearly the full pot.

My favorite bad buzzword was suggested by Mary Liz Curtin, who owns and operates Leon & Lulu, a store in Detroit that sells interesting and cool furniture and other house stuff. (The antithesis of Bob’s Discount Furniture, I’m guessing.) Mary Liz, quite naturally, seems to think her job is about picking out interesting and cool stuff that people like, and selling it to people who like interesting ad cool stuff.

Seems fairly straightforward, but I seem to have it wrong.

Lately I have learned that I am a curator, with a carefully edited collection. We proudly exhibit a selection of artisanal products, from small-batch vendors, global resources or crowdsourced makers. We have a special synergy with our customers and are proud to be good corporate citizens.

Curator. Artisanal (which, hilariously, I often see as “artesian”). Small-batch. Global. Crowdsourced. Synergy. Good corporate citizens.

Well, she wins today’s buzzword bingo, which she definitely aces when she adds:

Lately some of our suppliers have been referring to themselves as our partners in business.

I have only one partner in business, my husband. We became partners by investing our money, working endless hours and sharing the many responsibilities of running an independent business, employing more than 40 people.

We buy from our suppliers as long as their product performs well for us. They sell to us as long as we pay our bills. How in the world does this make us partners?

Partners.

Ah, yes.

In the good old days, everyone wanted to sell solutions, not products. And these days, everyone wants to be and have partners throughout their business ecosystem. (See: us techies have buzzwords, too!)

Now there’s no doubt that, if I lived in Detroit, I would be drawn to Leon and Lulu. What’s not to like about an outfit that sells cool and interesting stuff, and – frosting on the cake – is named after the owners’ pets.

Hell, if I lived in Detroit – and I’m making a wild guess about someone named Mary Liz Curtin here – there would probably be a good possibility that I, or one of my sibs, went to grammar school or high school with her. So, right off the buzzword bat, I’m probably going to know Mary Liz and like Leon & Lulu.

But, from a pure buzzword perspective, what are we to make of the store’s description:

Leon & Lulu is a destination lifestyle store featuring an eclectic mix of upscale furniture, unforgettable gifts, and accessories in an environment unlike any other.

I get that destination shopping means that you’re willing to go out of your way to get there. (At least I think that’s what it means.) And I do like eclectic, upscale, and unforgettable.

But lifestyle store?

Tell me, what isn’t a lifestyle store?

7-11 is a lifestyle store for those who crave slurpees.

My neighborhood hardware store is a lifestyle store for people who like to think they’re actually DIY handy-folk, but who basically hire someone to take care of anything other than the most rudimentary of repairs. It’s a lifestyle store for those who like to go into the hardware store on Saturday and chat with the guys who work there, then pay for their recycle bags or have a key made, and head home to wait for the guy to come caulk the windows.

Bob’s Discount Furniture is a lifestyle for those who want to watch football in his and hers faux suede recliners with embedded cup-holders.

And that’s Pink Slip’s final word on the subject…

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How’s this for a hostile work environment?

As a veteran of at least a couple of hostile work environments, I will, of course, be drawn to any headline reading My Boss is Creating a Hostile Work Environment.

My first thought, while clicking through, was ‘now there’s a sob sister headline if ever.’ And, in fact, it was a Job Sister header for an advice column, the Job Doc Blog, on boston.com.

In the question posed, an HR person (apparently the head of HR) wrote about his/her enfant terrible of a leader:

He yells, swears and uses threatening language as “motivation." He behaves like this with senior leaders, or when meeting with junior level employees. I can’t stand it anymore. He would never be violent, but this is crazy and no one will challenge him.

In response, the Job Doc said:

As the top HR person, it is your responsibility to bring this behavior and the risks it brings to the organization to his attention. I recognize that you may feel you are putting your job on the line by having this conversation, and you probably are. If you have a board of directors, approach the chairman to see if this behavior is visible to the board. Discuss the positive leadership qualities your boss has and the need for a conversation with him; his behavior needs to change to protect the organization. Offer a solution, perhaps this behavior can be changed with the intervention of an executive coach.

Good luck with this one is all I can say.

No one, of course, should have to work in an environment run by tyrannical, psycho bosses, or for an individual psycho boss from hell.

If most of us have avoided the former, we’ve likely run into the latter at some point or another.

Many years ago, when I was a wee broth of a blogger – have I really been doing this for over eight years? Apparently so… – I was inspired by Bob Sutton to write about workplace assholes.

No need to repeat myself, but just seeing the headline reminded me of what was possibly the craziest and most toxic place I ever worked, and the grand poobah of all the psycho bosses I ever worked for.

This was in one of my many waitressing jobs and, while we’re talking about something that happened over 40 years ago, and while the man in charge is long dead (21 years long dead; when in doubt, JFGI), I am choosing not to name names here. If you’re a Bostonian, you can just think Old Boston Tourist Trap. (In fact, I worked at a couple of them.) If you’re not a Bostonian, it probably doesn’t matter.

Anyway, The Boss – as he was unfondly and fake-respectfully referred to – was a complete and utter tyrant: mean, loud, belittling, nasty, irrational, erratic. It sure didn’t help that he was drunk most of the time. It sure didn’t help that he was a massive man who used his considerable heft – he must have been 100 pounds overweight – to intimidate and threaten. And it sure didn’t help his temperament if, as was rumored, he was incapable of having a normal bowel movement and had to go the doctor each week for what was referred to as his Roto-Rooter.

Man, this guy was nuts.

One of his tricks was to change a rule on the fly, and then start screaming at you if you didn’t obey the rule. What he would do was tell the head waitress, who would inform her friends about the new rule, leaving the rest of us out to dry.

One time the rule was that we had to start wearing aprons. (Before this rule was put into place, we all wore napkins tucked into our belted uniforms.) But overnight, aprons were in.

The head gal and all her cronies showed up wearing theirs. The rest of us – mostly college girls – didn’t.

This gave The Boss the opportunity to chase us all around the floor, screaming at us – purple face engorged and flying spittle and all - about our deliberately disobeying one of his commands. He fired a few of us on the spot – a common occurrence, by the way – setting up the usual psycho drama in which the head waitress would jump in and beg him to give us our jobs back. Which he always did.

There was a similar instance when the rule about storing extra napkins on our stations was put into force.

Prior to this rule, we were allowed stow extra napkins on an extra chair at the head of our table. (In this restaurant, most of the stations were one long table where parties all sat next to each other.) I can’t remember why it was such a big convenience to have our extra napkins so close at hand, but it was.

Then, bang-zoom, it was no longer allowed.

More ranting and raving on the part of The Boss.

More firings on the spot.

You just never knew what could happen on any given day.

If you were really unlucky, it was your turn to wait on The Boss when he had his dinner, an hour or so before the dinner rush.

Dinner was typically a giant platter of tomatoes with an inch of salt sprinkled on them; a gigantic fisherman’s fry plate; prime rib; and – to wash it all down – a large tumbler of Crown Royal with an eyedropper of water in it.

God help you if you put in a splash rather than an eyedropper.

One of my favorite encounters with The Boss – which I know I’ve written about before - was this:

Two young women had come in and ordered the poor man’s roast beef special. The poor man’s was a thin slice of rump roast served au jus.

When I went to pick it up in the kitchen, one plate held a nice, medium rare, tasty looking piece; the other had four pieces of blackened, dried up end cuts on it.

I told the chef that I couldn’t bring those plates out together, as it was for the same party.

He told me to try, but that if one of them complained, he’d swap it out for something that looked decent.

Inevitably, the woman who got the yucky serving refused to take it.

While I was bringing the plate back to the kitchen – which (how modern we were) was “open concept - I was stopped by The Boss, who asked where the hell I thought  I was going. I explained the situation to him.

Game on!

He grabbed the plate out of my hand, stormed over to my table, and started screaming at the women.

Actually, it was kind of refreshing to have him go rip roaring after a customer rather than after one of us, but still…

Needless to say, the women left immediately.

As they gathered their things up, The Boss turned to me and yelled, “And make sure you get the ten cents for the corn bread they ate.”

Ah, I could go on…

Fortunately, in professional life, you don’t tend to encounter bosses of quite this overtly tyrannical ilk.

But as the Job Doc question suggests, they can and do happen.

Good luck, Mr./Ms. HR.

I think  you’re going to need it.

But look on the bright side.

You probably won’t ever have to serve your boss his dinner, and have him going into a boil-over rage if there’s a speck more water in his Crown Royal than he might have liked.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Spies are everywhere. (And I do mean everywhere.)

Boston’s Dolt of the Month Award for November has to go to the creep who “found” an iPhone on a T-platform and walked away with it it.

Well, finders keepers and all that, but this particular iPhone had just flown out of the hand of a young woman who had either fallen or jumped in front of an incoming train and lost her life.

On the surveillance video taken in the T-station – which I hadn’t rally been aware existed, but oh, why not – the dolt-winner is shown covering the iPhone with his foot; putting his hand over his mouth and feigning wide-eyed shock that someone had just fallen/jumped in front of a train; looking around to see if anyone is watching him; and blithely picking the phone up and walking out of the station.

There may not have been any human watching him. Most sentient beings in this situation would have, quite understandably, been focused elsewhere. But there was a camera trained his way, so by the next day, everyone in Boston who watches TV or reads any news, off or online, saw this guy in action.

He turned himself in, and has been charged with larceny.

What Dolt (and Nasty Creep in General) of the Month was apparently not aware of is that spies, in the form of video surveillance, are nearly ubiquitous in public places.

I’m not feeling 100% great about this. Sure it does help catch criminals and, I’m sure, on occasion even deter them. And once you’re out of the house, I guess you don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy – and never did have. Still, the idea of über surveillance is chilling. Among other things, I don’t want some marketing facial recognition software analyzing what aisles I linger in, what products I hover over, in CVS, and bombarding me with toothpaste and blister-bandage ads.

Just as well I’m in a not-so-desirable demographic, marketing-wise.

I also don’t like the idea that someone could be listening in on my phone calls.

Not that there’s anyone who wants to hear me yack away with one of my sisters – Homeland Security doesn’t care that I finally got elbow patches put on that fabulous sweater I bought 25 years ago – so I don’t think I have much to worry about. 

And I also don’t care if big data is analyzing traffic.

As long as they get a warrant or judge approval or whatever it is they need if there’s a bad actor they want to listen in on. Or read the e-mails of.

There’s no stopping technology, but we really Spydo have to be thoughtful and careful about where all the possibilities could take us. A “benevolent” government might only spy on the bad guys. A not-so-benevolent government might decide to cast a cold eye on atheists. (Or Christians. Or Jews. Or Muslims. Or vegans.)

But the spy game could be getting closer to home than the T-platform, the aisles of CVS, or your wireless operator.

As I was reminded by a recent piece pointed out to me by my brother-in-law Rick. On Acting Man -  which has as its main blogger someone who goes by the name Pater Tenebrarum; those of us who had the privilege and pleasure of taking 4 years of Latin will get that this translates into Father of Darkness – there is a post devoted to an article “that discusses the transformation of household gadgets into spying devices.”

Sorry about all the nesting blog begats, but both the blog post and the core article are worth reading. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the article, which is by Michael Price:

I just bought a new TV. The old one had a good run, but after the volume got stuck on 63, I decided it was time to replace it. I am now the owner of a new “smart” TV, which promises to deliver streaming multimedia content, games, apps, social media, and Internet browsing. Oh, and TV too. The only problem is that I’m now afraid to use it. You would be too — if you read through the 46-page privacy policy.

The amount of data this thing collects is staggering. It logs where, when, how, and for how long you use the TV. It sets tracking cookies and beacons designed to detect “when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message.” It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.” It ignores “do-not-track” requests as a considered matter of policy.

It also has a built-in camera — with facial recognition. The purpose is to provide “gesture control” for the TV and enable you to log in to a personalized account using your face. On the upside, the images are saved on the TV instead of uploaded to a corporate server. On the downside, the Internet connection makes the whole TV vulnerable to hackers who have demonstrated the ability to take complete control of the machine.

More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a “voice recognition” feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” Got that? Don’t say personal or sensitive stuff in front of the TV. You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening. (Source: Brennan Center for Justice.)

I don’t even like the fact that there’s a camera built into my laptop. I participate in a lot of online meetings, many of them for a client that sells collaboration software. Some participants like being on camera. Not me. I don’t mind if they look at my static picture, but I generally have a Post-it note over the seeing eye, just in case I accidentally activate it.

Not that anything bad’s going to happen at these online meetings, or if I’m Skyping with someone, but I just don’t plain like the idea that someone could have gained remote control of my laptop and start spying on me in my PJ’s, and/or capturing all my keystrokes. After all, last year I had to get remote support on some app or other, and the support rep went to my PC to see what was happening. Supposedly all traces of the visit were eradicated when the session ended, but do I 100% trust that this was the case?

And, no, I don’t live in complete paranoia about this. But there is a general creepiness factor – not to mention a particular invasiveness factor – associated with having all these too smart, smarty-pants devices in our houses.

Sure, it would be convenient if I could jack my smart thermostat up remotely, so it would be comfy-toasting or cucumber cool on my arrival when I’ve been away for a few days. But I refused to activate that part of the device. If I need remote diagnostics done, I’ll activate. Until then, if I have to wait a few minutes for the heat or AC to kick in, so be it.

I’m about to purchase a suite of new appliances. Do I really want or need a smart refrigerator? A smart oven? A smart dishwasher? All collecting data on what’s in the fridge or what’s on the stove and relaying it back to “headquarters”?

Do I want some marketer gauging my reaction to an ad running on House Hunters International or a Red Sox game?  Or like the fact that “they” will be listening in when I shout at the TV over some election result or another?

Like there’s not enough to worry about. Now I have to make sure that there’s duct tape over every spy-cam, and figure out how to disable all the voice-recognition gear that might be hidden in a processor in my microwave.

Swell. Just well.

As us atheists say, God, if there is a God, help us.

And you know who I really feel badly for? The kids who are coming of age thinking (or not thinking) that all this lack of privacy stuff is normal, and worth the benefit (hah!) of getting personalized marketing.

As us atheists say, God, if there is a God, help them.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

My landline: kept only so that I can continue to hear the dulcet voice of Rachel from cardholder services

Last week, I actually got two real calls on my landline.

One was from the hairdresser, confirming my appointment. (I confirmed but, alas, on day of, there was a mainline back up in my downstairs bathtub, and I had to wait for the plumber.)

The other was a real-real call, from my cousin Barbara. I let it go to voicemail, then picked up when I realized it actually was a real-real call.

Mostly the calls that I get on that number are robocalls.

Number One is “Rachel from cardholder services”, who calls every couple of days. On occasion, I’ve stayed on the line to tell someone to take me off the call list, but the minute you start talking to them and they realize that you’re not a potential scammee, they hang right up.

Seriously, after several thousand calls from Rach, I don’t know how I’ve not fallen off of her list.

Does she think that I’m going to all of a sudden have an epiphany and decide to give out my credit card info to a pack of strangers, and pay them a boatload to consolidate my debt. Oh, wait. I don’t have any.

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.

I have so come to detest your voice that, if I recognized it on an ad or voice-recognition-system for a legitimate business, I would not do business with that business.

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.

Are you one of the scammers, or are you an actress who, recognizing that all the legit voice overs go to Martin Sheen, just wanted the work?

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.

What will you do once I give up my landline?

Oh, it’s not just you, either.

There are the senior alert scammers, informing me daily that I’m likely to fall in my bathtub, break a hip, and die naked, soaking wet, and alone. Body found only when the water runneth over and someone in the building figures out there’s a flood going on, and someone finds that I’m not just circling the drain, I’m plugging it.

Living alone, I am quite sure that, at some point, I will get some sort of alert system that I’ll wear around my neck like a scapular so that if and when I do slip in the tub, I’ll be able to call for help. (Note to self: make sure there’s always a towel within reach to throw over the old body. I’m sure that the EMT’s and firemen have seen everything, but I will want to spare them that particular sight.)

But when I do sign up for my alert system, it won’t be because Senior Alert has called to update me on the latest senior horror stats. It will be because I’ve done some research, consulted with folks I know – some of them have gotten these systems for their old folks; no one I know has signed up for one of their own quite yet – and make my purchase accordingly.

Senior Alert. Senior Alert. Senior Alert.

You tell me Press 5 to be taken off the call list, which I’ve done a couple of dozen times. Apparently this does nothing more than give you a head’s up that this is a real number. And Pressing 1… Just like with Rachel of cardholder services’ pals, they shake you off pretty quickly, no matter how sweetly you try to explain that you just want your number off their #@$($!!!*#&& call list.

Then there’s the “you won a vacation” calls.

Hey, call me back when it’s business class to Paris on Air France, and 10 days at a five star hotel – with a side trip to Normandy -  why don’t you? As long as I don’t have to listen for a time-share pitch. Then we’ll talk.

I also get a fair number of calls from a fellow who sounds Indian, but who is, quite peculiarly, named Brian.

Brian wants to help with my Windows security.

Right-0.

My final favorite landline call buddy is the sharp-voiced woman calling on behalf of Newt Gingrich. I can’t recall her name, but in my mind’s eye she looks a lot like Calista Gingrich, only older, meaner looking, and with even stiffer and blonder hair.

She doesn’t offer me an opt-out number. I have to jot down and call an 800 number if I want out.

But I just put the phone down and let Newt rage on about how Obama is a despot hell-bent on destroying the country by opening the borders to a bunch of Ebola-infested ISIS fighters who want to hop on to our medical system for free abortions, after which they will shoot-to-kill anyone who supports gun control. Or some such. I’m only listening with half an air.

Someday they’ll figure out I’m the wrong demographic.

Meanwhile, if there’s one thing I can say about those calls to my landline: they’re on someone else’s dime!

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Friday, November 14, 2014

And you think you had a rotten day on the job

Last summer, no longer able to stand looking out through a scrim of dirt, I washed the outside windows in my greenhouse/solarium kitchen. Which is to say I washed them as high up as I could reach with my super-duper, 12 foot extension, aluminum pole window washing device, while standing on the second step of my stepstool.

The answer to how high I could reach was up until the glass curved.

But since the curved glass is well above my lookout point, it was all for the good. Even with a few streaks, the windows look a lot better. Relative to before, they’re positively gleaming.

I could, of course, have done a better job if I’d been more courageous.I could have gotten out our gorilla ladder and really had at it.

But I’m not.

There are plenty of things that I could do if I were willing to extend our Gorilla Ladder out to its fullest.

Actually, I am willing to extend our Gorilla Ladder out to its fullest. I’m just not willing to climb it once I’ve done so.

No, I’m one of those folks with a real fear of heights.

This doesn’t cripple me on a day to day basis. Who wants to wash windows, anyway?

But I have had a couple of moderate panic attacks – one in the cocktail lounge on top of the highest building in Chicago that has a cocktail lounge on top, another when I did a canyon hike in Arizona. I never did make it down to tour the pueblos.

I also didn’t go look over the edge of Dun Aengus on Inishmore in Ireland either time I was there.

Thanks but no thanks. I’ll just hang out here a couple of dozen yards away feeling my skin crawl.

The panic attacks don’t put me in a fainting swoon. But I do feel quite a bit of physical, get-me-away-from-here apprehension when they happen.

I’ve also had a panic attack when doing height-related reading, as when I had to put down a New Yorker article on Philippe Petit, the skywalker who crossed between the twin towers of the old World Trade Center on a wire. Without harness, parachute, or safety net – not that a safety net would do much good from that height.

Anyway, just reading about the exploits of Philippe Petit gave me the willies.141112145005-07-wtc-scaffold-horizontal-gallery

Height as fear factor came rushing back to me the other day when my sister Trish sent me an email with the subject “nightmare” and a link to an article on a couple of window washers:

…who became suspended 69 stories above the street while working at the newly completed 1 World Trade Center. (Source: NY Times)

When I first took a look, the window washers were dangling there, but within a couple of hours New York City’s Bravest were able to rescue them, after:

…cutting a hole through a window near the platform, assembling inside and pulling the workers to safety.

Neither of the window washers – Juan Lizama, 41 and Juan Lopez – were injured. But I’m sure that the wait time while they were in their machine gone bad was a nightmare, even for a couple of guys who must not have the fear of heights that I do.

I’m having a heart attack just thinking about it.

Makes even the worst day at work – and I had a few over the years – seem like big nothing, doesn’t it?

As for the fire fighters, well, good for them for carrying this rescue off.

I would think that it must be kind of tricky working a rescue at the reincarnation of the WTC, given that 343 jakes lost their lives there on 9/11.

But apparently these guys are stoics:

Asked if working a rescue at the new building stirred any particular emotions, given the history of the firefighters who died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, [NYFD] Lieutenant [Billy] Ryan said that was not on his mind.

“It’s business,” he said. “You separate yourself from that.”

Me? I can’t even separate myself from panicking over the idea of being a dangling window washer or a daring fireman.

Sure glad there are guys like Billy Ryan out there. And the two Juans, for that matter. If they’re even in Boston, they can wash my windows. Piece of cake. No dangling infernal machine. I’ll even help them launch the Gorilla Ladder.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pet friendly

Patricia Marx had an excellent piece in The New Yorker a few weeks back on the new pet-owner trend in which those who can’t stand being separated from their furry or feathered friends have them arbitrarily declared support companions. This enables them to bring their animals anywhere they damn well please: grocery shopping, out to dinner, trains and boats and planes.

Personally, I enjoy animals, and am, in particular, a dog lover.

Recently, I saw a sign that read something along the lines of: in an ideal world, all dogs would have homes, and all homes would have dogs.

True that…

While having a pup isn’t right for me just now, I look on my dogged up neighbors with envy, find myself petting at least one strange dog a day, get myself over to the off-leash area on the Boston Common on occasion to watch the canine frolic, and spend as much time possible chilling with my black lab nephew Jack – who really is the world’s cutest and sweetest dog ever.

But I don’t think that dogs – other than service dogs - let alone other non-human members of the animal kingdom  – belong everywhere.

Others think otherwise.

As Ms. Marx has it:

What a wonderful time it is for the scammer, the conniver, and the cheat: the underage drinkers who flash fake I.D.s, the able-bodied adults who drive cars with handicapped license plates, the parents who use a phony address so that their child can attend a more desirable public school, the customers with eleven items who stand in the express lane. The latest group to bend the law is pet owners.

…As you will have observed, an increasing number of your neighbors have been keeping company with their pets in human-only establishments, cohabiting with them in animal-unfriendly apartment buildings and dormitories, and taking them (free!) onto airplanes—simply by claiming that the creatures are their licensed companion animals and are necessary to their mental well-being. No government agency keeps track of such figures, but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry, a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up twenty-four hundred emotional-support animals. Last year, it registered eleven thousand. (Source: The New Yorker)

One woman that Marx wrote about went a-traveling with a large mutt – which, unlike true service animals, was untrained. Doggy Dowrong crapped in the aisle on a US Airways flight.

The plane had to make an emergency landing halfway cross country so that things could get cleaned up.

Some are flashing their “emotional-support card” and bringing their pooches into restaurants, where they allow their pets to climb on the table. (Something you never see a true service dog doing.)

Although restaurants and other businesses aren’t required to allow an emotional support animal into their premises, if someone’s waving their emotional-support card in their face, for the most part they cave in. Who wants to risk a legal wrangle? And who’s up on the laws?

Service dogs, on the hand, are the real deal:

The I.R.S. classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense, whereas an emotional-support animal is more like a blankie. An E.S.A. [emotional support animal] is defined by the government as an untrained companion of any species that provides solace to someone with a disability, such as anxiety or depression.

E.S.A.’s are covered by the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

So any old animal who’s gotten a however-bogus certificate of E.S.A.-ness can live down the hall and get on your flight.

But that’s it.

Years ago, I shared a flight from Cleveland to Boston with a woman who was traveling with a howler monkey. I have no idea whether the animal was classified as an E.S.A. I don’t think we had them back in the day. Back then, we only had “seeing eye dogs”.

But I can say that they don’t call it a howler monkey for nothing. And the monkey’s uncle – or, rather aunt – spent the entire flight in one of the two toilets trying to provide emotional support to her howler.

Anyway, Marx wanted to check out just how bogus a racket E.S.A. credentials are, so she:

…decided to go undercover as a person with an anxiety disorder (not a stretch) and run around town with five un-cuddly, non-nurturing animals for which I obtained E.S.A. credentials (one animal at a time; I’m not that crazy).

Her first E.S.A., sporting an E.S.A. badge she found on Amazon, was a turtle. She took it to the Frick Museum, where she was told that no animals need apply.

So she took out her certifying letter, which stated that:

Ms. Marx has a turtle that provides significant emotional support, and ameliorates the severity of symptoms that affect her daily ability to fulfill her responsibilities and goals. Without the companionship, support, and care-taking activities of her turtle, her mental health and daily living activities are compromised. In my opinion, it is a necessary component of treatment to foster improved psychological adjustment, support functional living activities, her well being, productivity in work and home responsibilities, and amelioration of the severity of psychological issues she experiences in some specific situations to have an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).

She has registered her pet with the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America. This letter further supports her pet as an ESA, which entitles her to the rights and benefits legitimized by the Fair Housing Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It allows exceptions to housing, and transportation services that otherwise would limit her from being able to be accompanied by her emotional support animal.

There are, apparently, all sorts of folks who have some credential or another – think certified clinical social worker – who’ll chat you up on the phone, give you a remote diagnosis, and bless your use of your animal of choice. Marx talked to a social worker and got her snake certified, then modified the letter to cover a turtle, too.

Mostly you don’t even need to talk to anyone. You just click on a couple of forms, and your animal is good to go. (All for a fee, of course.)

During her period of E.S.A. exploration, Marx took:

  • A turtle to the Frick and elsewhere – including a Christian Louboutin shop
  • A snake to an apartment open house and to a Chanel boutique;
  • A turkey on the Hampton Jitney and to a deli;
  • An alpaca on Amtrak from NYC to Niagara Falls, and to a historic site “showcasing the nineteenth-century home of the painter Frederic Edwin Church;”
  • A pig to Boston on JetBlue for tea at the Four Seasons.

Rarely was she turned down or any more than mildly challenged.

People with genuine impairments who depend on actual service animals are infuriated by the sort of imposture I perpetrated with my phony E.S.A.s.

Service dogs (and other true service animals: some folks use monkeys to take care of tasks in the home) do real work for people with real impairments.

Who can blame them for being ticked off?

A lot of those claiming that they need their pets for emotional support don’t really. And many of them are just out and out faking it.

I understand that animals can and do give plenty of comfort, and that they can understand plenty of what’s going on, emotional-wise.

When my sister’s dog Jack, who was very fond of my husband, came into our condo for the first time after Jim’s death, Jack looked around for a bit, figured out that Diggy wasn’t there, let out a little moan, sighed, and plopped on to the rug, head on paws, facing away from us.

Jack sure knew something was going on.

And just seeing comfort animals around does give comfort. After the Marathon bombings, a group came to Boston with a few golden retrievers to walk around giving comfort. They did.

But most folks, however emotionally needy they may be, don’t need to have their pets with them all the time. And if they do, maybe they should consider just staying home.

They’re exploiting the system, and, of course, denigrating and insulting those with real issues, who gain real, and genuinely needed, support by having their animals with them.

It’s a lousy things to do to the animals, too.

Every time I see him, I get plenty of emotional support from my canine pal Jack. But I’d never insult him by ordering some bogus certificate online, and slapping a fake official vest on him, so I could bring him into a restaurant.

Not that I’m completely above faking it as needed.

When we were seniors in college, and living off-campus, my roommate and I had a dog. A German shepherd.

One night, we got a call that her mother, who was recovering from breast cancer surgery. Mrs. B help that she wasn’t getting from her support team (Joyce’s eccentric aunts). We had to get to Rhode Island. Quickly.

I can’t remember why Joyce didn’t just go on her own. I do know that she wanted me for emotional support in what was going to be a tough situation.

In any case, we decided to chance taking Grimbald on the bus from Boston to Providence.

I put on a pair of sunglasses, and away we went.

So sometimes you really do have to fake it.

But that was then - 40+ years ago - and it was a one-time emergency situation.

And this is now, when the world is so me-me-me that a lot of people don’t give a damn about whether their little wants impose on the wants and needs of others.

Shame on them. And bravo to Patricia Marx for being something of a dog-whistle blower here. (Wish I’d run into her and the pig when they were walking around Boston Common.)

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