Monday, August 31, 2015

The B is back (sort of)

Even if they didn’t shop there, pretty much everyone who grew up in the Boston area knew about Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement.

Well before there you could get the max for the minimum at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Well before there were outlet malls full of Off Fifth and Hanes. Well before there was a Nordstrom Rack around the corner, there was Filene’s Basement.

When I was in high school, I probably got half of my non-mom-made clothing at the scaled-down Worcester version. Since I wore a uniform to school, and had no money, that didn’t amount to all that much clothing, but I can still remember the thrill of finding a Villager sweater (with IRREGULAR stamped through the label) for a few bucks. Some basement items are extremely vivid in my mind: the navy blue raincoat that was the very same version everyone else wore (and that I lost at a mixer at St. John’s High); the white Lady Bug Bermuda shorts with the lady bug pattern; the blue and purple madras shirt.

When I was in college, I still wore a uniform – jeans and baggy sweaters – and I still had no money, but what little shopping I did I could now do at the REAL Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston. Those fabulous tweed culottes, that cool unbaggy cream colored sweater I wore with them. (That hideous Dentyne pink dress…)

When I started working downtown, I cruised the B a couple of times a week, just to see what was up, just to see how marked down it was. (Each item – which was already marked down - was date-stamped. After twelve days on the floor, you got another 25% off. After six days, the cut was 50%. Six days later, it was down to 75% off. But you couldn’t game it forever. Anything on the floor for 30 days was given to charity.)

The big events were publicized in advance: the Bonwit’s Sale – I got a very cute white cotton jersey dress with blue flowers on it, the Barney’s Sale – that black, grey, white and red sweater that I still have; the cute purple and black checked suit from Brooks Brothers. (I swear: it really was cute.) On these special sales day, you would just zoom in, grab as much as you could off the racks – or off the splintery wooden tables that held merchandise – toss your finds in a pile, then paw through them looking for the keepers. Women would call back and forth, “You interested in that?” “Nope. It’s yours.” These were mini-versions of what Filene’s Basement later became famous for: The Running of the Brides, when the off-price bridal gowns came to town.

In addition to that Barney’s sweater, I still have a half dozen or so scarves I got in the old B. (Once it moved from its actual basement location and opened in a non-basement location in the Back Bay it was never the same.)

The Basement closed four years ago. A sad day for Bostonians!

And now the B:

“…is making a comeback under new ownership as a low-price e-tailer...The site will go live in late September with discounts of up to 70 percent on brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, according to Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion industry publication that was first to report the reopening.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Digital just won’t be the same as cruising the B, fighting for bargains on special sales days, trying things on in the wide open spaces (no dressing rooms for women: only for men).

Meanwhile, retail life goes on. The site of the original Filene’s Basement is now a Roche Brothers, where I do my grocery shopping. The walls next to the escalators show old timey pictures of folks lining up for sales outside of the basement.

I’ll give the online version of Filene’s a look-see when it goes live late next month. But it just won’t be the same.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bird-in-Hand

I bank at a couple of boring banks. The same boring banks that pretty much everyone banks at. Household word banks.

I don’t care about them one way or the other. They – and their ATM machines – are there when I need them.

But my heart doesn’t go pitter-pat when I think about them. In fact, my brain doesn’t go pitter-pat, either. Because unless there’s a problem or I need Euros, I don’t think about them one way or the other.

But maybe if I had a bank with a fun name, both heart and brain would, at least on occasion, go, if not pitter-pat, at least pitter.

As in, if I lived in southern Pennsylvania, I’d be really inclined to bank with Bank of Bird-in-Hand.

Seriously, if there’s a better name for a bank than that, please let me know.

Bird-in-Hand.

To me, it says be prudent, be a saver, don’t get greedy – all things that, over time, seem to work for the better, finance-wise.

The bank is actually named for the town of Bird-in-Hand, but I’m sure they could have picked another name from the ‘hood. There would have been good reason to avoid naming it for neighboring Intercourse. But they could have situated it a stone’s throw away and called their bank the Bank of East Lampeter. Or the Bank of Upper Leacock.

What’s most interesting about the Bank of Bird-in-Hand – other than its name, and the fact that it’s the first bank to open in the wake of the financial crisis – is its clientele:

…the local Amish community, a religious group sceptical of modern technology and, it turns out, a rather good credit. Since opening in 2013, Bank of Bird-in-Hand has never had to write off a loan. (Source: The Economist)

How serious are they about their clientele?

Well, here’s the image on their web site:Bank of Bird-in-Hand

And, oh yeah, “the bank’s drive-through window [is] large enough for a horse and carriage.”

Anyway, the Amish are good bets because they generally borrow money only when they want to buy land, and land makes for better collateral than, say, a used car. They’re also savers, so they can make big down payments. And they have a strong community behind them.

I don’t want to wax too sentimentally about the wonders of Amish life. Maybe it’s okay if you grow up in it, but it’s no place I’d want to get plunked down in. Little value placed on education and intellectual exploration. No literature. Shunning members who fall away. (Imagine if Catholics tried to shun ex-Catholics…) A pretty strict patriarchy. Living a 19th century rural life. No TV, no tacos, no tampons.  I’m feeling oppressed just thinking about it.

But it’s interesting to see that some non-Amish bankers figured out that they can build a solid and profitable, albeit modest, business catering to the plain people.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Power to the dog turd! (Or from the dog turd.)

For the next couple of nights, I’ll be babysitting my dog nephew Jack while his folks tote my niece off to college.

Jack is the apotheosis of doggy goodness, a credit to his species, and the reason why there’s no arguing with this statement:

In a perfect world, every dog would have a home, and every home would have a dog.

As far as I can tell, the only doggy downsides are having to get out of bed at the crack of dawn on a sleety morning to get or let him out, and having to pick up after he relieves himself.

Dogs are tremendous producers of affection and joy, but they also excrete “more than twice the waste of the average person, or around 275 pounds a year.” (I know what you’re thinking, and that’s ‘thanks for sharing.’)

Around 60% of the stuff gets scooped and trucked to landfills, where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas. The rest delivers surprises to pedestrians and can contaminate waterways, as carnivorous diets create pathogen-rich waste. (Source: The Economist)

As a city dweller, I can attest to the fact that, at least in this neighborhood, the surprise attacks on the shoes of non-observant pedestrians are mostly a thing of the past. Where once you had to walk these mean streets as if your feet had eyes, today it is rare to spot an unclaimed turd on the sidewalk. Usually, the worst thing you’ll see is some jackass who has bagged his dog’s deposit up, twirled the bag closed, and left it at the curb (or, unbelievably) on someone’s doorstep (including, on one occasion, mine).

I don’t know whether folks are contaminating the Atlantic Ocean or the Charles River (love that dirty water!) with dog waste, but when Jack visits I dispose of his waste in trash cans, where it wends its way into greenhouse gas.

I knew that flatulent cows produce methane, and that pig slurry encroaching on river catchments wasn’t a good thing, but I’m sorry to hear that pups aren’t carbon neutral. We can all become vegetarians, but the thought of giving up dogs...

Well, I don’t want to live in that world.

Anyway, in NYC, Ron Gonen, a business school professor/environmental guru is hoping to do something about the dog mess.
The idea is to fit parks with small anaerobic digesters in order to:

…transform dog waste into clean energy in the city’s dog parks.

Dog owners would place their mongrels’ mounds into the machine, which then converts poo to gas for powering lamps and other park equipment. A year-long pilot would introduce digesters in three parks at a cost of around $100,000. The parks department is pondering the proposal.

That earlier attempts – including one in Arizona based on a device dubbed the Transformation Using Reactive Digestion (E-TURD) – haven’t succeeded isn’t enough to deter Gonen, who’s the co-founder and CEO of the Closed Loop Fund. The Fund is dedicated to recycling projects, and its aim is to:

Ensure that all consumer products and packaging is recycled and returned for use in manufacturing new products and packaging and that all food waste is used for beneficial purposes such as donation to food banks or converted to compost or clean energy from anaerobic digestion.

Until they head north, I guess I’ll just have to pick up after Jack and let the remains of his day convert to greenhouse gas. On the positive side, we’re walking to the park where Jack relieves himself, not burning up fossil fuel to get there.

I’d like to see Gonen’s project succeed and expand. Don’t want any do-gooders attacking our furry doo-doers because of their impact on the environment. Life without dogs would be such a no-fun zone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In case you’re wondering why more folks are being fatally gored during bull-running

Hey, I could be whiling away the hours checking my IRA to see how much it’s down (or – hah! – up) in the latest rollercoaster ride. Or I could do an immense public service and report why so many more folks are dying in the interest of checking off one more item on their bucket list.

I have a few things on my bucket list – see Venice, see Pittsburgh (seriously) – but running the bulls in Pamplona, or in any of the other 16,000 or so Spanish festivals that will include bull-running, is not among them.

I have no desire to appear anywhere in white pants. I haven’t worn a red bandana since the days when I mostly wore a blue bandana. Espadrilles are bad for the feet. And I don’t want to have something on my bullet list be the death of me before I have a chance to check it off.

I suppose that I could fall out of gondola and drown in Venice. After all, see Venice and die!

Although I will likely see Venice, and I will definitely die at some point, I don’t imagine that the two will be closely connected. They could be, but that’s not the plan.

I suppose I could get conked on the head by a home run ball while strolling outside PNC Park, where the Pirates play. But I can also do my Pittsburgh run in the off season.

The running of the bulls – or doing anything else in emulation of Hemingway -  however, is pretty much asking for it. So far this “season” alone, 10 young men have died by being trampled and/or gored.

Some are speculating that the increase in deaths is due to drinking. But I’m guessing that, even back in the day of Ernesto Hemingway, a lot of the human participants had had a wee – or not so wee – drop of the creature before hitting the cobblestones.

Maybe it’s that there are a lot more festivals that include bull-running than ever before. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the Spanish economy still in desperado mode, the number of towns deciding to host a bull run increased by 2,000 in just the past year.

It could be that, with bull fighting on the wane, the toros on the runs are more fierce than they might have been in the past, when the really macho bulls went into the ring to go up against a matador. Now they’re coursing through the narrow streets of small towns wondering where all these idiots in white pants and red bandanas came from all of a sudden.

But, no.

As it turns out, the most likely culprit is the bull-runners taking selfies – still or video – while trying to stay an inch or two ahead of a sharply pointed horn and set of thundering hooves.

I know, I know. Nothing really happens unless you’ve taken a picture of yourself doing it. But have people lost all sense of the difference between virtual reality and the actual reality of a heavy, angry and rip-snorting bull bearing down on you? There’s dumb, I guess. And then there’s dumber.

Here’s an idea: If you really do need to have your run with the bulls recorded, why not get yourself a couple of GoPros. Attach one to the back of your head to film all those rampaging bulls (and rampaging a-holes). Tape a stick to your head and attach another backward-facing GoPro to the stick, so that it can record the look on your face as you do your run.

Do I have to think of everything?

Sorry, not on my bucket list.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sources: The Economist,
Forbes

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Certify me, I’m Irish

Somewhere along the way, my parents acquired a bit of gimcrackery that, for years, hung on the wall of the TV room, which was converted to the boys’ bedroom when the TV-housing addition was slapped on to the side of the family manse.

That bit of gimcrackery was the coat of armsrogers-coat-of-arms-family-crest of the illustrious Rogers Family. There we are, stags rampant, the knight’s visor suggesting that “we” were crusaders or jousters or whatever. It’s hard to believe that a family with firm roots in the Roscommon peasantry would have any need for a family crest.

And yet you can find all sorts of gifts – mugs, key chains, etc. – bearing this crest in souvenir stores throughout Ireland. I’m always a bit disappointed when I twirl the rack and find nothing between Roche and Ronan.

My other Irish family names have similarly preposterous coats of arms. Here’s the Trainor crest, with not one, but two, knights in shining armor. (If you look quickly, those knight-headsTrainor crest sort of resemble a hybrid of the top hat and button top shoe icons from Monopoly.) I suspect that the only authentic anything on this bit o’ hoo-hah is the X, which is likely how most of my way-back antecedents signed their names.

And if I’d changed my name with marriage, here’sdiggins-coat-of-arms-diggins-family-crest-1 the coat of arms I would have been entitled to. Is that a devil’s head in the middle there? Kind of makes sense. Other than the fact that the true Diggins’ family crest should probably have included a shovel. I don’t imagine they called them the Diggins for nothing…

What is it with the Irish, English, and Scots that they’d come up with all this bogus heraldry? Why, my mother’s German side doesn’t doesn’t seem to go in for this sort of folderol.
wolf crest
Or so I thought, until I googled Wolf coat of arms and came up with plenty to choose from.

I’ll go with this one, since it seems to combine the Wolf wolf and the Rogers stag.

So the question becomes what is it about us diasporans that has us hungering not just to reclaim our heritage – which, hey, some of us have never actually lost – but to gussy it up with all sorts of misty mystic myth?

Anyway, while there are still plenty of opportunities to order up some heraldry, the Irish government has just yesterday shut down it’s Heritage Certificate Center, where, for five lovely years, you could purchase – suitable for framing or pre-framed -a certificate attesting to yer Irish antecedents:

The Certificate is [ – make that was – ] an official Irish Government initiative which represents the enduring emotional ties and sense of identity bestowed by Irish ancestry, recognising the continuing emotional attachment of the descendants who left our shores long ago...

The certificate is an official Irish Government confirmation of your Irish Roots which will take pride of place in your home or office. This heirloom truly is a gift from the heart that your family will cherish forever to remember and honour your Irish ancestors.

All yez had to do was fill in a couple of blanks and, whether you actually had any “real” Irish roots or not, sure the Government of Ireland was willing to provide you with a handy-dandy certificate saying that you did indeed.

As Diarmaid Ferriter pointed out in a recent column on the demise of this somewhat embarrassing scheme:

The certificate initiative was adopted by a State that has paid nearly €1 billion to private operators to run direct provision centres for asylum seekers over the past 15 years, centres in which so many people feel humiliated and are residing in dire circumstances.

It is therefore deeply ironic that one of the “beautiful backgrounds” that is used on the “finest quality vellum” of the heritage certificates is that of Irish Famine ships, “that evoke the waves of emigration from these shores”.

These hideous vessels carried Irish Famine victims fleeing desperate circumstances to build a new life in America, a traumatic experience shamelessly exploited by those seeking to commodify and dumb down Irish heritage. (Source: Diarmaid Ferriter in The Irish Times)

Interesting the Ferriter talks about the “dire circumstances” in the Irish refugee centers. From this side of the pond, it always seems as if the Irish are the first on the ground in any humanitarian crisis, and certainly seem to punch above their weight in this category. But helping feed those starving on their own turf is difficult than welcoming newcomers to your own. And Ireland, like all European nations, has what I think of as the assimilation problem in that there’s not really a way from people from “somewhere else” to become Irish or French or German or Swedish, other than after multi-generations and (likely) intermarrying. Do those Nigerian school kids I’ve seen on the streets of Galway ever become Irish? Or does it matter? (Not to mention, I don’t believe that Europe could physically support the emigration of everyone who wants to leave the Africa or the Mideast, any more than the US could assimilate all of Central and South America if they decided to empty themselves out.)

Anyway, the genius of the US is that we are largely a nation of immigrants, and that once you step off the gangplank of the coffin ship, or off the plane, you can start becoming an American. And your kids, whether you like it or not – and of course you like it: why else would you come? – are 100% Americans.

And yet many of us – self certainly included here – identify with our Old World heritage. Thus, we are so readily conned by the cheesy coats of arms and bogus certificates “attesting” to something or other. While at the same time, too many of us, in these perilous times, are crapping all over those struggling to get here now. Witness a certain candidate shamelessly stirring up nativist fears about “them”.

Although I never knew they were in this silly business, I’m happy to the see the Irish Government out of their Irish-by-certification scheme.

Yet it’s fun to fast forward a century or so and imagine the governments of Mexico and Honduras and Guatemala issuing heritage documents on “the finest quality vellulm.” Even if they goofily depict the Rio Grande or the back of a truck.

Can I get an “olĂ©”?


Monday, August 24, 2015

Clowning? Seriously?

Now I realize that 99.999% of the people on the face of the world would rather see someone coming their way with a cheerful smiley face on, rather than deal with a perpetually frowning downer.

Still, I always roll my eyes when I think of the lyrics:

Be a clown, be a clown. All the world loves a clown.

Cause, let’s face it, this just ain’t true.

Sure, there may be plenty of folks who love a clown.I just don’t happen to know any of them.

At best, my family and friends are clown indifferent. More than likely, they’re clown fearers. Or clown loathers. Or clown fearers and loathers.

I come down on the side of clown loather, and this has been true since I outgrew my peanut-gallery appreciation of the side-splitting antics of Howdy Doody’s Clarabelle, spritzing the unsuspecting with his seltzer bottle.

By the time Bozo the Clown began airing on Boston TV when I was nine or ten, I had joined the other camp, singing along my friends in what we thought was an uproariously funny parody of Bozo’s theme song:

Bozo, Bozo, never laughs, always frowns. Bozo, Bozo, very unfunny clown.

And when I saw clown-clowns like Emmett Kelly on TV, I never laughed. They just depressed me. I felt sorry for them.

Send in the clowns? Not me! Send those suckers out.

Who’d want to be a clown?

Well, Robert Markowitz, for one.

As he wrote in The NY Times last week, he got sick and tired of being Robert Markowitz, Attorney-at-Law, and decided to become Bobo the clown.

Going from lawyer to clown wasn’t that clean a transition, and Markowitz wnet through a bit of trial and error, which included a couple of years as a beach bum in Mexico, followed by a few more lawyering years (this time as a civil attorney, rather than handling criminal cases).

It was while volunteering on weekends, working with kids at a Sunday school, that Markowitz had a partial epiphany, and admitted that he was done with the law.

Still not sure what he was going to do, he found himself – age 37 – living back home with a mother you told him:

“You know…you’re ruining your life.”

That was one way of looking at it, but not his.

Studying want ads one evening, the one that got my blood moving promised to train me as a party clown, and send me out at $25 per show.

The good news here is that Robert Markowitz did not stay a costumed clown.

After his first clown gig, when the birthday boy at a Yonkers Ground Round where he was entertaining said, “Bobo, I love you,” Markowitz had a fuller epiphany:

In the car later, I rested my head on the steering wheel. An unexpected feeling surfaced: happiness. It turned out that I thrived in a sphere of creativity and spontaneity. The clown gig was short­lived: I donated the costume to Goodwill, picked up my old Martin guitar, and played the fool with music, writing songs like “Bossanova Boo­boo.”

Two decades into it, Markowitz is happily making a living as a musician for kids shows.

No longer do I flash power-­of-­attorney to withdraw my $10,000 retainer from a jailed client’s bank account. I wear jeans, and don’t frequent Nordstrom. But most of the time, I like waking up in the morning.

Friends, I will admit that I was completely relieved to find that Robert Markowitz had not stayed a clown, that it was just one floppy-shoed step away from a job that he loathed and feared was killing him.

But, of course, whether it’s to become a clown or a whatever, it’s none of my business what someone chooses to do. It’s not sticking with a job you can’t stand is what’s key here.

Good for you, Bobo!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Your cheatin’ heart: The Ashley Madison Affair

Part of me wants to say that, if ever there’s a site that deserves to be hacked, it’s Ashley Madison, the eHarmony.com for married folks looking for some side action.

On the other hand, I suspect that not much actually happens on Ashley Madison, beyond a bunch of bored, curious, seven-year-itchy husbands signing and checking off their list of fantasies and druthers. After all, how many actual hookups are going to come about if the demographics are 86% male and 14% female? With odds like that, you’re really not likely to find someone who’s both compatible and convenient. Sounds like one big fantasy-land to me. Online entrapment for folks for whom the SI swimsuit addition and the Playboy Bunny of the Month (if there is such a thing) don’t quite do it for any more.

Well, now they’ve been stung, and big time. Apparently, there are places you can go to grab the info of the 37 million members of the club.

The information available for each user was extensive.

"It's everything from their name, age, interests, whether they smoke or drink, down to very detailed sexual fantasies, what they enjoy having done to them and what they want to do to others," said Adam McNeil, a malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes Labs, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer security firm who has inspected the database. (Source: USA Today)

Some intermediaries are already combing through and publishing lists of everyone with, e.g., a .gov email address. (Seriously, what were people thinking when they signed up with their work email? Talk about the little head doing the thinking for the big head.)

But by now there are supposed 37 million members worrying about whether they’re going to get found out by their spouse, or outed by some vigilante troublemakers. Not to mention that they’ll be the target of people who are as equally noxious – if not worse – than the original hackers:

The release of the data is going to unleash a flood of phishing attacks on unsuspecting users, security experts warn. Anyone who wants can now go and download millions of email addresses and use them to send out "phishing" messages that contain malicious software that the unwary or the worried might open, said Ken Westin, senior security analyst at Tripwire, a Portland, Ore.-based security company.(Source: USA Today)

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what the hackers wanted. Are they blackmailers? The morality police? Thrill seekers?

The hackers appeared to target AshleyMadison and EstablishedMen over the questionable morals they condoned and encouraged, but they also took issue with what they considered ALM’s fraudulent business practices. Despite promising customers to delete their user data from the site for a $19 fee, the company actually retained the data on ALM’s servers, the hackers claimed. “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the hackers wrote. “Too bad for ALM [Ashley Madison parent Avid Life Media], you promised secrecy but didn’t deliver.” (Source: Wired)

So far, the only “cheating dirtbag” that I’ve seen outed is the hypocritical Josh Duggar, the scion of the smarmy Duggar Family of reality TV renown. Last spring, it was revealed that, as a teenager, he had molested his younger sisters, which put the kibosh on the family’s reality TV show, as well as on his career as a lobbyist for the Family Research Council. And now he has admitted that, although he is the married father of four (including a newborn), he was doing some pay for play on Ashley Madison,

While there is always some satisfaction when a latter-day Elmer Gantry gets his comeuppance, I have to say that I hope that the hackers are identified and prosecuted,

As for Ashley Madison, I hope that they have good insurance. I understand why they didn’t want to pay off a blackmailer, but their security was clearly lacking.

What a world we live in!