Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Halloween Biz

It is not, as has been rumored, the second biggest holiday spendathon - no, Valentine's Day,Mother's Day, Father's Day, and Easter are still the runners up to Christmas - but as anyone who's been in a store or driven past a house in the last month knows: Halloween is BIG BUSINESS.

Here are a few of the stats compiled by Melody Vargas over at about.com, Melody's info, in turn, came from the National Retail Federation's 2007 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions.

For the first WOW number: consumers are predicted to spend $5.07B - up from a paltry $3.29B in 2005. I will admit, the numbers girl in me thinks that one of these numbers is wrong - I'm guessing this is an apples-oranges deal. Make that a Junior Mints-Butterfinger comparison.

Here are a few of the stats that Melody gleaned:

  • The average consumer celebrating Halloween will spend $64.82 on Halloween, compared to $59.06 last year.

I'm a sub-spender here. So far, I've bought a bag of candy and three Halloween cards.

  • 28.3 percent of those responding are planning to throw or attend a Halloween party.

I'm on track. My sister Trish lives in Salem, Massachusetts, Halloween capital of the world and I'm heading to her house.It's not a party-party. (I won't be in costume, unless you count middle aged woman with a broken arm as a costume.)  But we will be celebrating - especially when Trick or Treating officially ends at 8 p.m. and Trish can blow out the pumpkin and turn out the porch light. (They live near The Common and the  Witch Museum, and get hundreds of Trick or Treaters.)

  • $1.57 billion will be spent on candy, with 94.7 percent of consumers buying. The average consumer will spend $19.84, and 72.9 percent plan on handing out candy to trick-or-treaters and others.

Well, other than that $.99 I spent at CVS for a bag of candy corn, I won't be doing any spending on candy. Alas, while we live in an excellent neighborhood for trick or treating - lots of jack-o-lanterns, lots of spooky decorations, our building's off the beaten track and we don't get callers; the only kid in the building is 6 months old; plus, we won't be home, anyway. (I would probably give out M&M's.)

  • Consumers will spend $23.33 on average and 33.8 percent plan to dress in costume. Total spending on costumes, including those for children and pets, is expected to reach $1.82 billion.
  •  7.4 million households plan to dress up their pets in costume. The top pet costume choices for Halloween are devils, pumpkins, witches, princesses and angels. 
  • One-third of adults will wear a costume this year. Adult's favorite costume picks for Halloween this year are fairly traditional including witch, pirate, vampire, cat and princess. 

The adult dressing up kind of floors me. I guess it's all those parties. I've worked at a couple places where people dressed up. Other than a black sweater and theme-y scarf, I never did. Who needs to see yet another person wearing a Dilbert tie? At one company, some folks dressed up as defunct products, which was pretty funny.

The last time I went to a costume party, I went as a hip nun. The party was at my sister Kath's, and a lot of people thought  I was actually a nun - Sister Maureen. Apologies were made anytime I walked into a room where anything good was going on.

Kids' costumes? No question - kids gotta have costumes. Yet I can't help but think the homemade jobs aren't the best.

And dog costumes? Completely ridiculous, but who could resist?

I'm sure Cute Overload will be bursting at the seams today. (I 've been trying to upload a shot of 4 dogs in food service workerand/or fast food outfits, but have been unsuccessful so far. If you want to see something funny google "dog krispy kreme costume" and you will surely find it.)

Happy Halloween!

 

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I also posted on Trick or Treat over on Opinionated, if you want to take a look.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What would you take?

After 9/11, and again after Katrina, I asked myself just what I would take if I had 5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 hours to gather things up and evacuate my home. With the fires in California, I've been thinking about this again, especially since my niece Molly asked my sister Trish what she would take if she could only take one thing. (My one thing - assuming my husband is safe and sound:  my laptop.)

5 Seconds: My laptop, pocket book, cell phone and, of course, my husband, who would, presumably, be grabbing a couple of things of his own. (Could I grab all this in 5 seconds? I'll have to time myself.)

5 Minutes: All of the above, and  a week's worth of clothing - all practical, LL Bean-ish, built-to-last stuff. My Palm Pilot. Plus Sniffy (my childhood stuffed animal), my grandmother Rogers' cookie jar, my grandmother Wolf's sampler, my father's high-school baseball letter, and my mother's amethyst broach (a gift from my father). A handful of books. And my iPod, and the charger for for both the iPod and the cell phone. Kleenex and lip goop.

5 Hours:  More clothing, including some contra-seasonal wear. Depending on the nature of the evacuation - known temporary, or possibly permanent -  and the nature of my next accommodation - high school gym or my sister Kath's house in Brookline - I'd take batteries, flashlights, radios, water, screw driver, hammer, pliers, utility knife, pillows, blankets, string, tape, paper, pens, can opener, toilet paper, a couple of plates-cups-forks-knives-spoons, a pot (not to piss in). A few canned goods. Hopefully, whatever accommodation I found would be indoors: I don't have outdoorsy things like a tarpaulin. I might try to find the plastic Santa on a reindeer with a lightbulb in his belly. (Five hours is a pretty long time.)

What I would put all of this stuff in is another question, of course.

I have a small car (Beetle), but I'm intending to get rid of it in the next month or so. So, what I take would have to be what I could fit in my backpack, two roller-bags, and my shopping cart. We might have to carry the blankets and pillows on our heads.

If I had the room. If, say, someone was coming by with a big old car to pick us up and evacuate us, I'd take some of the art work on my walls. No high monetary value, but aesthetic and sentimental value - and it would make whatever house I ended up in next a home.

What would you take?

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For the record, Molly's "one thing" was a collective one: her WebKinz. (Kind of like those people in the express checkout line who count four yogurts as one thing because they're sold four for 3 dollars.) If she had to take just one WebKinz it would be the pig, Paul, who is might cute - and looks even cuter in his little plastic Red Sox cap. Trish would do the mom thing and take Oatie Bear, Molly's favorite stuffed animal from baby days.

Monday, October 29, 2007

What Price Hannah Montana?

Most people who have a tweener girl in their life know who and what Hannah Montana is.

Hannah Montana is a Disney Network creation, a show about a teenager (Miley Stewart - played by Miley Cyrus) who has a secret life as a pop singer, the eponymous Hannah.

Anyway, Hannah Montana is coming soon to a concert hall near you, and good luck getting a ticket.

My sister Trish tried to go online at the precise moment the tickets went on sale. Alas, they were all gone, snatched up in large part by ticket agencies. (The Attorney General in Massachusetts is doing some investigating here.)

And now the race is on, and people who just a week or so ago were probably telling themselves that you have to be out of your mind to spend $100 on a concert ticket for a 10 year old, are now being asked to pay a lot more than that.

I went on one of the ticket sites, and there were "ask" prices of over $7K per ticket at a couple of venues in California. That's some convenience charge, no?

I was pleased to see that my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, is on the more rational side of pricing here. The highest ask for the Heart of the Commonwealth concert was $2499.99. Well, that's a bargain (or as we say in Worcester, a bah-gin). I mean, I'd hate to pay over $2.5K for a Hannah Montana concert.

No doubt these stratospheric prices will settle down, but I'm guessing that - having gotten complete sticker shock - some parents will decide that it's really not that far out of whack to pay $500 for a ticket. I mean, isn't $500 a lot more sensible than two or seven grand. And after all, the kids are only young once, and they really love Miley Cyrus, and she's a really good role model, and, after all, just a few years ago we were willing to wait 9 hours in a sleet storm to buy the last Tickle Me Elmo, so....

One of the Boston TV stations interviewed one mother who had to break the news to her little girl (who appeared to be about 5 or 6) that they wouldn't be going to the concert because it cost too much. "Can't we get Daddy to make more money for us," the child suggested. The mother's response to this tearful little plea was not recorded. Presumably Mommy and Daddy said 'no.' 

I'm pretty much a free-enterpriser when it comes to scalping. If you bought tickets for an event that you can't go to, why can't you resell them for what the market can bear (as long as you pay the taxes, etc.)? But that's on an individual basis.

There's something completely distasteful about ticket agencies subverting all controls and scooping up all the tickets, then jacking up the prices.  While concert promoters (and sports teams) just want to sell all the tickets out, they have to know that letting the ticket selling intermediaries grab all the goodies is eventually going to backfire on them. The audience will eventually get fed up and maybe even stay home.

And, of course, the concert promoters [and sports teams] will not want to be leaving any money on the table. If they see big bucks flying out there, they'll want to grab some/all of it back. I don't know quite how the cahoots between the talent providers and the ticket sellers works, but I'm guessing the talent providers walk something of a fine line. They like the ticket sellers to assume the risk that a concert or game won't sell out. They just may not like it quite so much when the ticket sellers score the big reward.

And now we have all those disappointed little girls who won't get to see Hannah Montana. Well, I say here's a nice little opportunity to explain family values to the kids.

And wouldn't it be nice if all those thousands of Hannah Montana moms and dads just held their ground until the ticket prices came down to face value + a "reasonable" handling fee - which these days seems to be pretty unreasonable even for non-must-see events?

Wouldn't you love to see the look on the face of the folks who paid $5K for two tickets to the Worcester concert when they figure out that the folks seated next to them paid $100? I sure would.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Hafize Sahim: Walking Tall

With all the sundry low wage jobs I held in my youth, I never worked in any sort of on-your-own retail establishment. My retail jobs were in department stores - Filene's and Jordan Marsh - we're there was plenty of risk of running into a scam artist ("I gave you a twenty...") or a shoplifter. (I turned my back once at Jordan's and someone swiped a pretty expensive fountain pen. My supervisor lauded me for being so upset, attributing it to my being so protective of Jordan's interests. In truth, I was really ticked off that I had been duped by such an obvious trick: "I'd like to see that pen on the top shelf.") This was, I supposed, as much a function of there being far fewer 24/7 convenience stores in the good old days and, thus, far fewer opportunities to be clerking on your own.

One summer, my sister Trish did have one lulu of a retail job. She was often the one and only clerk in an entirely low-rent surplus store: fall-apart shoes for two bucks, fall-apart plastic kitchen gizmos for 99 cents. The store was owned by a low-rent Worcester wise guy who ended up doing time for his higher-end surplus business: selling hot goods (IBM Selectrics, fox-collar coats) that fell off the truck. The store Trish worked in may have been the front for that business, as there were seldom any shoppers and we were always scratching our heads trying to figure out how Route 9 Surplus stayed in business.

(Ah, those were the days when high school and college kids took any job that paid, without one scintilla of thought given to how it was going to play out on a résumé. These jobs were, in truth, excellent training ground for learning how to get along with all sorts of people, not the least of which was irrational, irascible managers; learning how to withstand boredom and drudgery with humor; and learning what you didn't want to do with your life.

A long way of introducing the story of one Hafize Sahim, the plucky Long Island store clerk who was on the news earlier this week after she warded off an armed convenience store thief by going after him with an ax.

In the AP article on her bravery (or foolhardiness), which appeared in the The New York Post (which I'm amazed didn't make far more of this story, which strikes me as right up their editorial alley), Ms. Sahim's height is given as 5'4". When I heard about her on the news, however, her vitals were given as 5' 90 pounds. From the picture, that looks closer to right.

The suspect entered the South Convenience store shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, wearing a mask and demanding money.

The clerk - 5-foot-4 Hafize Sahim (Ha-feeze Sa-HEEM) - retrieved the ax from under the counter and began swinging it, chasing the man out of the store empty-handed.

The 27-year-old Sahim told reporters Tuesday that she thought the gun was a fake, which is why she fought back.

As she put it: "I said to myself, 'I'm not giving him money.'"

Now, we may all argue that Ms. Sahim was imprudent in going after a gunman with an ax, and that if he had fired, she would be a statistic not a heroine.

Pondering the mortality rates of retail workers, I found some heartening information from the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS):

The total number of convenience store fatalities in 2006 dropped 17 percent compared to the year prior, a far greater decline than the 0.5 percent drop registered overall in the workplace, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) annual report, The National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2006.

Athena Research Corp. Research Associate Sandra Erickson and President Dr. Rosemary Erickson provided NACS with key findings of most relevance to convenience and petroleum retailers:

  • Convenience store homicides decreased by 17 percent from 42 in 2005 to 35 in 2006.
  • Gas station homicides decreased by 5 percent, from 41 homicides in 2005 to 39 in 2006.

While these declines may have nothing to do with "trends" and everything to do with "random", it's nice to know that, at least for last year, it was not quite so dangerous to work in a convenicence store or gas station. And it's nice to know that Ms. Sahim will not be among their number - even though she absolutely put herself at risk. According to the Athena analysis cited on the NACS website, violent crime goes down when convenience stores make steps that include "training employees in safety and anti-violence measures."

Perhaps Ms. Sahim was absent that day.

As I recall the TV spot on this incident, which included an interview, our heroine is an immigrant.

There is something quite wonderful about the redoubtable Hafize Sahim saying to herself "I'm not giving him money." Something frontier, hell-no, walking tall. Wielding her ax, wearing her headscarf, Ms. Sahim may look like the woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser can, but she more closely resembles a mini-version of Buford Pusser, whose heroics (and madness) were made famous by the execrable Walking Tall films of the 1970's.

But Hafize Sahim is no vigilante. She is not taking justice into her own hands. She has not deputized herself to lead the posse against the bad guys.

She is, instead, standing up. She's not taking it. She's not letting someone push her around, even at gunpoint.

In these dark days when we seem to forget that we're a nation of immigrants, when we forget to remember that all Muslims aren't terrorists, how American is that?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Won't be water, it's fire next time

Along with everyone else in the country, I have been watching the California fire storms with depressing fascination. Unbelievable, we sigh, when they post another figure about the number of evacuees, the number of houses destroyed, the businesses lost. Incredible, we cry, when they pan a neighborhood in which all the houses on this side are smoldering, ashes, while the houses across the street stand unharmed. Looks like Dresden, we say as we watch the flames against the night sky. Looks like Hiroshima, we say as we see the lone, barren tree trunk stark against the brown/gray rubble.

What a boat load of misery.

All those memories, all those mementos, all those pictures, all those things-that-have-meaning. All those things. 

Amazing that so few have died.

The situation will, of course, be chattering class (MSN and blog) fodder for a while. Was the response better than the response to Katrina better because we learned something, or better because California is better run than Louisiana? Did the evacuations work because the evacuees were middle class, or because the state had better warning systems in place? Should the National Guard have been in Iraq or back home where they belonged?

Were the fires due to arson or bad luck? Should new homes have been built in locations where -  twenty years ago - no one lived and the fires just burnt themselves out, or does it matter?

And, of course, there's the smell of burnt elephant on the table: what, if anything, does climate change have to do with this?

Funny, I was going to post this week on the presumed impact that global warming is having on New England fall foliage. It peaks later, it's not as vibrant, there goes our fall tourist economy. (Good thing people will be streaming in to see our Olde Towne Team play in the World Series.) 

I've been out to central New England a couple of times in the last few weeks, and the foliage was, in spots, very pretty. But there's still an awful lot of green, and in Boston it looks (and feels) like mid-September. (There have been some days this month when it felt like mid-August.)

But who's going to gripe about sub-par leaf-peeping when anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people are out of there homes, taking shelter where they can find it?

I think we need to have that conversation about global warming. Whether it's caused by our consumption of fossil fuels, aggravated by our consumption of fossil fuels, or just happening "naturally", it's happening. And, I've been reading, it's happening faster than we thought. (This is largely, it is supposed - except by the 'it's all natural' school of warming analysis - by the increased consumption of those darned fossil fuels by emerging manufacturing and consuming economies in India and China. And who might we be to complain about anyone's per capita consumption of the world's resources?)

Of course, the populations worst hit by global warming won't be us right away - other than for minor hiccups like Katrina and California, which we can always rationalize away as being something other than.... And I'm sure that this latest disaster isn't all global warming. But it's part of a pattern of more and more, worse and worse.

Time to, as the man says, take a look at a few of those inconvenient truths. 

We consume too much and, in doing so, we foul our own nest. Even birds and monkeys know better than that.

We don't want to think about limits to growth. We want to think about having a "great room", central air, a third car.

We sure don't want to think about folks whose subsistence level lives could get a whole heck of a lot worse as it gets hotter and drier. And just how long is it going to take for "evil doers" to whisper in the ears of people holding their starving babies in refugee camps that this is all the fault of America. Just think. We'll see largely illiterate populations who start making some connections about global warming, while our so well educated politicos, PhDs, right wing cranks, and corporate shills stall and crawl about doing anything because nothing is proven. Won't that be something?

We are smart. We are lucky. We are inventive. But how long can we just go about, placidly assuming that this trifecta will bail us out. That some MIT or CalTech genius will come up with the magic bullet that will make the problem go away. (And, yes, I do have some faith that we will develop solutions to at least some of the climate-related problems we face. We are, after all, smart, lucky, inventive - and hard working.)

My sister Trish and her family have close friends in San Diego. Their daughters are nearly the same age, and the families visit back and forth once or twice a year. They got a call from their friends, letting them know that they'd been evacuated and where they were staying. But they were staying in an area that was later declared in danger. Then they heard nothing for a very long day. Then they heard that Randi, Rob, and Emily's house was spared. Their street made it through; much of the neighborhood - not so lucky.

All those people. All that misery.

I haven't yet googled it, but I believe that the title of James Baldwin's searing book, Fire Next Time - written well before the words "global" and "warming" were ever strung together in a sentence - was based on an old gospel song or spiritual.

"Won't be water, it's fire next time."

Katrina. California. Seems like we've had both already.

What next?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Love that Dirty Water: ten good reasons to root for the Red Sox in the World Series


In 2004, the Boston Red Sox were destiny's darlings - and everybody else's darlings, for that matter. The dramatic comeback against the New York Yankees (a.k.a., The Evil Empire)...The anti-climactic, yet nonetheless gratifying, World Series win for the first time since 1918...All those charming sentimental tales about folks visiting their grandfathers' graves to tell them the news.

Wasn't just about everybody on the face of the baseball earth just delighted for us?

What a difference three years makes.

Now, if you believe the blogosphere, we are second only to the Yankees in terms of loathing (and fear). The Red Sox are moneyball. They just buy up players - money is no object - then use 'em up and spit 'em out.

If you listen to the noise, the Red Sox are arrogant. They're mercenaries. Obnoxious. Classless. They are tools, fools, d-bags. (Not to be confused with D-back for Diamond Backs, by the way.) Our fans are pink-hat-wearing bandwagoners, front runners who have jumped on a winner. We deserve to go down big time to the plucky, hotstreak, young Colorado Rockies.

Sure, there's part of me decrying the payroll disparity - which is whopping. I'd like to hold the high ground as $$$ underdog, that's for sure. On the other hand, having been a Red Sox fan since the dismal days before the 1967 Impossible Dream (a.k.a., the dawn of the new Red Sox era), I like the fact that they field a competitive team. And, yes, I know that the moneybags ownership picks up a pretty big tag, but so do the fans. I think that Red Sox fans pay the highest ticket prices. We pay a lot for peanuts and crackerjacks, not to mention Fenway Franks, Poland Springs water, and the incredible shrinking ice cream Sportsbar. We have to pay for NESN to get the games - no freebies for Red Sox Nation. We buy a lot of caps and t-shirts. If you're interested, you can get them in Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Hebrew, and Gaelic (Stocai Dearga).

We pay a lot, and we get what we pay for.

(And a note to those who are flaming about the Sox being all mercenary: please note that a number of Red Sox players - Pedroia, Youk, Lester, Pap, Ellsbury, Bucholz - came up through the system. And please note further that there ain't no one in the majors playing for free.)

Of course, the glorious thing about sports is you really can't buy results: 3 of baseball's Final Four this year are low-payroll.

So it seems like everyone except members of Red Sox Nation and Japanese baseball fans - Dice-K, one of the players the Sox ponied up big time for, is a Japanese phe-nom - everyone wants "our boys" to lose.

For your consideration, however, there are some reasons why you should root, root, root for the Red Sox to win the World Series.

  1. The Red Sox have better uniforms: What's with the Rockies and those jerkins or vests or whatever they are? They just don't look like real baseball uniforms. The Red Sox have had some uniform slip ups over the years, but they're back with traditional. Traditional works. (There are no jerkins in baseball.)
  2. The Red Sox have a better color scheme: Jerkins aside, red, white and blue trump purple, silver, black, and white. Silver? Silver????? There's no silver in baseball. (In the Rockies' defense, they got in late and all the good colors were taken.)
  3. The Red Sox have a better ballpark: Admittedly, the view from Coors Field (the Rocky Mountains) is better than the view from Fenway (the Citgo sign). But deficient as Fenway Park is and always will be in terms of such creature comforts as leg room, there are few other places (Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field) that can give a true baseball fan the same little thrill you get at Fenway. (For the record: I think the Yankees are insane if they can't find a way to preserve Yankee Stadium.)
  4. The Red Sox have more experience: Come on, aging 'boomers,don't we all still believe that experience, like, matters.
  5. The Red Sox have a better punkish theme song: According to Wikipedia, the Rockies' song is Get Free by The Vines, with sample lyrics like "When it's breeding time/Look into your mind away." (I'm not making this up.) The Red Sox have the Dropkick Murphys' Tessie. While the lyrics don't make 100% sense, surely a song that starts "Tessie, Nuf Ced McGreevey shouted, we're not here to mess around..." is more compelling and interesting.
  6. The Red Sox have better lore: One of the advantages of having been around for 100+ years is that you have much better history: The Royal Rooters....Cy Young...First World Series....Babe Ruth sale...Teddy Ballgame...Curt Gowdy...Carlton Fisk homer...Bill Buckner...Teddy Ballgame's head...Greatest comeback in MLB history...The bloody, bloody sock. Teenage angst aside, not all that much has typically happened to a 14 year old. Who's got better lore? Nuf Ced!
  7. The Red Sox know what to put in a humidor. That would be cigars, not baseballs.
  8. The Red Sox don't throw fans out who "throw it back." Hey, it's a lot of fun when an opponent hits a homer and the fans all chant "throw it back" until the person who caught the ball tosses it back on the field. Apparently, the Rockies kick out the fans who "throw it back." Talk about no fun spoilsports. They should give their fans the satisfaction of tossing those bad-balls back into the old humidor.
  9. The Red Sox have generations of players and fans. Again, the Rockies can't help that they've only been around a few years - and props to them for making it to the World Series, by the way. But the Red Sox don't just have dead history, the've got living history: Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio are all still kicking. Not to mention more recent greats - Jim Lonborg, Yaz, et al. Not to mention all those generations of fans. (Yes, however many parvenue pink-hat wearing fans there are, being a Red Sox fan for most New Englanders is about talking baseball with your grandmother who saw Ted Williams' first game; and remembering your dad bringing you to Fenway for the first time; and putting that Red Sox penant on said father's grave after they won The Big One in 2004. [I didn't do it, but I've seen it done.]) And Johnny Pesky won't be around forever. Johnny, who's been associated with the Red Sox pretty near all the time since he played in the 1940's and 1950's, is 88 now. Not getting any younger. It would be nice (for reasons of lore, generations, and out and out sentimentality) to win the World Series for Johnny. And, yes, you can argue that the Red Sox did just that in 2004, but us long-timers would love to see Johnny, who connects up to Red Sox Nation past, present, and future, be around for another win.
  10. The Red Sox have Manny Ramirez. Much as I enjoy Manny, he is not my favorite player. But what's not to love when one of the team's superstars is quoted - on the brink of an elimination game - saying "If it doesn't happen, so who cares? There's always next year. It's not like it's the end of the world."

Precisely, Manny, and thank you for reminding us to put the entire thing in perspective. It would be nice to win. Like most everyone else around here, I would really, really enjoy a World Series victory - especially if the Sox do my blood pressure and heart a favor by sweeping in a 4 game rout.

But, in truth, while baseball and the Red Sox are wildly entertaining, it is not - as Manny tells us - the end of the world if they lose.

Still, the World Series starts tonight.

Let's Go Red Sox.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Curling up with a good Kindersay

My favorite baby gift is books. And I have my list of favorites that I go back to again and again. There are no surprises I'm sure: Make Way for Ducklings. Good Night, Moon. Runaway Bunny. Goodnight, Gorilla. The Going to Bed Book. Miss Spider's Tea Party. The I Spy books. Sometimes I throw in poetry. Sometimes - didactic noodge that I am - I throw in those picture books that help kids learn numbers, alphabet, colors, animals, feelings, whatever.

I love the idea of new parents reading to their new babies, and the babies growing into little readers with favorites of their own.

So I was a little wigged out when my friend John sent me a link to a post on Tech Crunch on an outfit called Kindersay.

Kindersay's is a place where "kids can watch, listen and learn with Kindersay word shows." It provides different groupings (numbers, body parts, animals, tools), and shows pictures of different objects within the groupings. When you click on a picture, a screen pops up and - after what seems like an endless wait to me, so I can only imagine what it will see like for the ADD computer-generated generation - a woman pronounces the word.

First, let me get through my little nit-lette. Kindersay is Canadian, and there's at least one Canadian-ism that won't fly in the US: baby cot for crib. (Yes, and baby's got a wet nappy, too.) There are also some categorical weirdisms. What's ping pong doing in "outdoors"? And then there's my favorite oddity: the illustration for the word "lantern" is a "jack-o-lantern."

Quibbling nits aside, I find the idea of swapping out book learnin' for pre-schoolers with plunking a kid in front of the computer a bit alarming.

Sure, the illustration shows a nice mom playing Kindersay with her kids. But why wouldn't she just read to them? Surely reading to your child is more intimate, more tactile, more connected, more snuggly, than sitting with said child in front of the twentieth century boob-tube. And surely, most parents are capable of providing their children with this sort of information on their own, without having to rely on the Kindersay narrator.

Along with pre-schoolers, Kindersay is positioned for English as a Second Language learners - and that makes sense. (Sort of. Where the poor ESL kids are going to have access to a computer and the Internet might be a question.) This wordplay service is in itself free.

Kindersay's founders are educators, and no doubt earnest when they write:

We believe among the most effective ways of learning is for the child to participate with the parent in enjoyable activities while receiving positive reinforcement. Kindersay is designed around this key principal.

Yes, indeed.

Isn't that what would happen if said child was sitting in the lap of a parent, grandparent, sib, aunt, uncle, nice lady next door? And, if something's on the computer, isn't it just a tad more likely that a parent, grandparent, et al., will park the kid in front of it - electronic babysitter and all that.

Just what is the point of putting "A is for Apple" online, when it should be in a board book that a baby can slap, teethe on, and drool over.

Having a rich vocabulary is important, but kids should be getting it from conversation, from books, or - even - from watching the TeleTubbies.

No, other than for ESL (maybe), I really don't like the idea of this one.

In another part of Kindersay, you can upload family pictures so that your child can see friends, family, and their little old self on line. There's a charge for this service, but why would someone pay however trivial a fee when they put the pictures onto their computers themselves. For free! (Low tech option: If Grandma's in Omaha and you're in Boca Raton, you can just point to an actual in-a-frame picture of Grandma and say "That's Grandma." And, say, you can even freelance and say things like "Grandma is smiling. That's because she's happy. We're going to see Grandma soon. That will make Grandma even happier." Look, Ma, vocabulary!)

As for me, I'll take Runaway Bunny any old day.

I'd rather think of those kiddies pulling out a book and pulling up a lap ("Read me?"), than to think of them pointing to the glowing screen, seeing a picture of a jack-o-lantern, and having the video narrator slowly say the word "lantern."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Enemy-up: Facebook backlash is up and running

Not surprisingly, there are some anti-Facebook initiatives  materializing here and there. The Boston Globe had a recent article by Jenn Abelson that talked about a couple of them.

As pure parody, what's not to like about a send-up on Facebook's let's all be friends mentality. I even read somewhere recently that one school - I think it was NYU - has an orientation course for freshman coaching them on how to make real friends (or not) with all the people they so giddily fell into instant-BFFO friendships with on Facebook over the summer.

Enemybook is the brainchild of MIT PhD student Kevin Matulef, who:

...got the idea from undergraduates at the dorm where he tutors, after hearing one student talk about how someone was a "Facebook friend," but not a "real friend"...

"People are yearning to express the ridiculousness of some of the features of Facebook -- having all these friends that aren't genuine," Matulef said. "For some people, Enemybook is about expressing their distaste for political figures or celebrities. And for other people, it actually is about spreading hatred for their despised co-workers and exes."

Snubster is a variation on a theme:

With Snubster, you can put people "On Notice," give them an opportunity to redeem themselves, set a deadline, and if they fail to clean up their act, list them as "Dead to Me."

Well, one thing to vent about "political figures or celebrities." Quite another to go about "spreading hatred for their despised co-workers and exes." And "Dead to Me" sounds okay if it's done tongue in cheek. But seriously?

Don't people get that it's a lot easier to forgive and forget what someone said about or did to you if it's out there in public for all the world to see? Altruistically: why would anyone want to cause someone else hurt, embarrassment, and pain? Practically: doesn't anyone who's out there enemybooking and snubbing get that this could backfire on them?

Someone could sue, which some Snubster snubbee is reportedly doing to someone who trash talked him.

And even if it stays out of the courts, who wants to be known as someone who is in perpetual 'don't get mad, get even' mode. And where do you draw the line in this all very subjective sand.

Sure, you can get on and rant about your ex, but are you just feeling put out, put down, and snubbed? Or is the person formerly known as Mr. Right really a treacherous, duplicitous, rotten, no good a-hole? Or is he just an ordinary, human being who done you a bit of wrong (which you'll - almost guaranteed - get over). Hey, sometimes things just don't work out.

And that boss you've just gotten such satisfaction about of excoriating online? Is she really a malevolent bitch-queen who sucks up all the glory, deflects all the blame (onto you), and is (no doubt) lying on her expense reports? Or is she just someone you a) resent because she has the job you want; b) just plain don't get along with.

Don't people get that yesterday's sworn enemy can, in fact, be tomorrow's true friend? Don't people get that the person you're locked in a political battle with at work could end up tomorrow's ally? Sometimes it's just not personal.

And even if that's not going to happen, what, precisely, do you gain by online going public with your feelings?

Obviously, in this blog - and in my book - I write about real people in real situations. Not all of the things I write are exactly flattering to the people I'm talking about (including, of course, myself). I write all the time about imbecilic, asinine, demeaning, and downright mean things that I've experienced (including, of course, things I've done myself).  But that'll be the day that I use anyone's real name when I'm writing about someone I worked with (as opposed to occasionally calling out public figures who are in the news for things they've said and done that are imbecilic, asinine, etc.) With the possible exception of Dr. Wang, for whom I worked in the 30,000 person company sense, I haven't exactly worked with public figures. When I'm writing about an "incident" I try to make sure that enough is disguised that someone has plausible deniability. (That ain't me...) And I know that my interpretation on something that happened is just that: my interpretation.

It seems to me that even snubbing and enemy-booking a public figure could backfire on you in terms of employability.

But it's probably safe to say that if you've put Anne Coulter on your "most hated" list, you probably don't want to work for someone who's president of her fanclub.

The Globe article quotes Patrice Oppliger, who teaches at Boston University:

"The entertainment of being mean is almost elevated to a new level."

I can be caustic and snide with the best of them, but do I really want to spend a lot of time in a world where people think it's cute and entertaining to come up with lists of people who are "Dead to Me"? In which the message is "Tell Friends to "Enemy" Someone, and Spread the Hate! " 

Sorry, there are some things that should just stay in your off-line circle of friends.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Listen up:The Power [and Business] of Listening

In a WSJ column a few weeks ago (which I believe you need to subscribe to in order to access), Jared Sandberg wrote about a course he'd just taken on "The Power of Listening." At this two-day course, sponsored by Cornell's school of Industrial Labor Relations, Sandberg learned that:

Bad listeners tend to tune out dry subjects, get into arguments, fake attention, react to emotional words and daydream. (Wow, do humans actually drink from that encrusted water tower on the building across the street?) While allegedly listening, bad listeners often are rehearsing what they're about to say, grab every conversational opening and scout for flaws in an argument.

Well, who among us - even the best of all possible listeners - isn't guilty of some of that at one time or another.

And who can blame us. After all:

Humans speak at an average pace of between 110 to 200 words per minute, but they can understand in a range of 400 to 3,000 words per minute. "Human beings can't produce at the rate our brains find interesting," says Ms. Grau. [Jennifer Grau, the instructor in Sandberg's course.]

With my brain going at somewhere between 400 to 3,000 wpm, it's no wonder that I prefer fast talkers. Good thing, because I'm surrounded by them (and am, in fact, one myself - I think I'd go nuts living in the South where the speakers are often too languid for words).

Whatever the reason, on any number of occasions, I tune people out, and the person I tune out the most often if, quite naturally, my husband. He spends much of the day alone, in his own head. On any given day, I have more professional, personal, and casual conversations than Jim does. When I get home, he wants to talk, but I'm generally not prepared to listen. Some days, I just tune him right out. I want to read the paper, go through my mail, watch the news. The last thing I want to do is hear him yammering about what some repair man did, what the mail man told him, or what new frequent flyer miles opportunity he's uncovered. (He's obsessed.)

But I do try, even though I sometimes feel as if I am almost physically forcing myself to listen.

Sometimes I tune out when I'm on the phone with somebody. This is usually because I'm sitting in front of the computer, and the temptation to parallel process - check e-mail, google something or someone - is just too great.

Mostly, however, I'm a pretty good listener. People seem to like to tell me things. I'm good at getting them to open up. I'm good at keeping the conversation - sometimes "their" monologue - going.

I do, however, see the need for listening training - especially in business, where we've all had to suffer through those meetings where everyone's looking to score points - and keep score of the points they've made. No one's really paying attention to what anyone else is saying, except to use it as a springboard to jump in and start talking. 

The worst offenders in business are often sales people who are so intent on getting their message out that they never give the prospect the opportunity to speak. Which is, of course, too bad, because the sales guy would have a far better chance of getting the deal if they actually listened to what the prospect was saying. There may actually be hints, clues, buying signals in there! And, frankly, I have yet to meet anyone who wouldn't rather talk about their problems or situation or business than listen to you give your premature spiel about "the solution."

After reading Sandberg's column, I thought I'd troll around and read up a bit on listening. As it turns out, it's quite a business, with all sorts of practitioners out there training people on listening skills.

For starters, the cost of taking the Cornell course is $1295.00 for a two day session, during which you can learn to "harness and apply the power of listening."

As practitioners do, professional listener-ists have their own organization - International Listening Association, an organization which (quite sweetly) claims to have "a warm and caring nature". The ILA has members in 15 countries and 49 states. Hmmmm. I wonder which state has no members? Maybe it's one of those fast-talking states - like New York, New Jersey, or Massachusetts. But my guess it's one of those taciturn states like Montana or North Dakota. If nobody talks to begin with, it really doesn't matter if nobody listens, is there?

The ILA's charter is the "study, development, and teaching of effective listening in all settings... to share information, to support research efforts, and to promote the practice and teaching of effective listening.

I actually like the idea of people learning to become better listeners. Above all, people like to be heard.

But that street goes both ways. Some of the times when I know I've been at my most effective as a listener, I've come away from the "conversation" somewhat shocked by just how little interest the other party has shown in me.

Once again, my most horrifically fascinating experiences have tended to be - ta-da - sales guys. Years ago, I spent two days in Montreal with a salesman and learned pretty much everything there was to know about him including how much he paid for his suits (a lot), not to mention a full rundown on all the souvenir plates he'd purchased over the years for his mother. (I got to hear about this when we went shopping for one.) Throughout our time together, I kept asking move-things-along questions ("Does your mother display her souvenir plates?") and making confirming statements ("Yes, your suit is very nice.").

Maybe I should have slipped in a question or two that would have given him the hint that I might want to talk, or, indeed, have something to say. ("You know, for a while there, my mother collected souvenir spoons." Or "I bought an expensive suit once.") But, no, I just kept him cranking, as I did in any number of other similar situations.

It would have been one thing if I'd been with someone who actually might have had a fascinating life, major accomplishments, truly interesting experiences, scintillating things to say: Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton. Bob Dylan. Meryl Streep. John Updike. Prince Charles. Prince.

But, no, I was stuck with being a good listener to people who were almost awe-inspiringly ordinary.

That said, I will try to become an even better listener. I can't promise that I'll fully listen up to Jim's next go-round on frequent flyer miles, but I promise that I will not google when I'm on the phone. Unless I'm on call waiting, trying to sign up for yet another miles-yielding credit card.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

L.S.M.F.T.

Walking in downtown Boston the other day with my niece Molly, I saw, flattened on the sidewalk, an empty package of Lucky Strikes cigarettes. I immediately stomped on it, whacked Molly (lightly, of course) on the arm and said "Lucky Strike, no strike back."

Molly, being 11, naturally looked at me as if I had just sprouted a second head.

I explained to her that this was the 50's and 60's equivalent of "Punch Buggy, no punch back" which kids do when they see VW Beetles. (Or the equivalent of Molly's own invention: giving someone a mini-poke in the arm when she sees a Mini-Cooper.)

I do have to say that seeing that dead packet of Luckies gave me a colossal jolt.

For one thing, I didn't realize that they even made Luckies anymore. And not that I'm going to get nostalgic over a tobacco product that was likely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but it did throw me into the wayback machine for the Lucky era. 

I remember their not very good ads: The tobacco auctioneer who ended each sale with a ringing "Sold America". The announcer intoning L.S.M.F.T.: Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco/Taste. (Or the "joke" version: Loose  Suspenders Mean Falling Trousers.) Lucky Strike signage on the sides of the Railway Express trucks that delivered the Christmas gifts from Chicago.

Cigarettes and Christmas - how they went together....

I remember buying my father Woolworth's plaid bean-bag ashtrays and, as I got older, chipping in with my sister Kathleen to buy him a carton of Luckies, his macho, unfiltered smoke of choice before converting to the relatively mild Marlboros. (And while my father did die young - he was only 58 - he didn't die of lung cancer or anything even vaguely tobacco related. He had, in fact, given up smoking well before he died.)

But people smoked "then" - and then lasted for a good long time. It's hard now to remember just how gaspingly ghastly it was to sit near the smoking section on an airplane. Or at the movies. Or next to a smoker in a restaurant before they instituted smoking sections. Or at a business meeting where it was OK to smoke. All this was not so very long ago.

People smoked in hospitals, too. On his deathbed, my father had to ask my Uncle Charlie to step out of his room if we wanted to have a cigarette. Imagine: it was OK as recently as the 1970's to smoke in a hospital room! (Years ago, I watched a re-run of Dr. Kildare, a TV show that was popular in the 1960's. There were the young interns, buying their packs of smokes from the vending machine on the ward. There was the venerable Dr. Gillespie, Chief of Staff at Blair General Hospital, walking off the elevator puffing away. Inhale deeply and tell the patient, "I'm afraid, madam, that you have lung cancer.")

Seeing the Lucky packet also reminded me that, as trash-littered our sidewalks and gutters can be - and Boston is not the cleanest city on the face of the earth - there does, in fact, seem to be less littering than when I was a kid. This can't be true - there are just so many more litter possibilities now, what with all the fast food meals eaten on the run. But when I was a kid, people routinely tossed litter - bottles, cigarette packs, banana peels, trash - out their car windows. The sides of roadways were just strewn with trash. Today, I'm shocked when I see someone casually littering or hurling trash out the car window. 

(There was, by the way, no littering out the Rogers' family car window. The only thing we could toss was an apple core, which were OK because the birds would eat them.)

But litter there was when I was a kid, thus we had many opportunities on the way to and fro school to stamp our foot on those empty packs of Luckies and whack the nearest kid.

All I can say is, lucky us that we no longer have to put up with smoking, or litter, the way we used to.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Food, Inglorious Food

It's certainly been quite a month for tainted food products, hasn't it?

First there was the rodent-in-the-canned-beans incident, in which a Utah woman found a rat head in her sauce pan. ("Waiter, what's that fly doing in my soup?" "I believe it's the backstroke.") The best part of this was Allen Canning's response. They offered the victim $100, and assured her that - even if the rat was theirs, and they weren't admitting anything just yet - their canning process had "rendered it commercially sterile", and thus not harmful at all. (I posted on this over on Opinionated Marketers the other day.)

Nothing as dramatic as a rat head, but I have had a few somewhat odd run-ins with foodstuffs that were not quite right.

One time, I was putting green beans - what is it with green beans - in one of those flimsy plastic weighing bags when I noticed something stiff and gray in the mix. I thought at first that it was a mold-covered bean, but closer examination revealed it to be a small, dead lizard. I gave it to a store employee to discard, and went on with my bean picking. I'm assuming that my preparation rendered those beans commercially sterile, because I didn't get sick eating them. The store, by the way, offered me nothing for my troubles.

Craving a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, I bought a large jar of peanut butter at the supermarket. When I got home and unscrewed the lid, it seemed a little loose. That was because the person who'd gotten there before me - and scooped out a mitt-ful of peanut butter - hadn't bothered to screw it back on properly. I raced back to the store, grabbed a new jar off the shelf, and returned the opened jar to customer service. I then raced back home and made myself a sandwich.

At Mama Leone's - an old-fashioned, not very good Italian restaurant that, I believe, is out of business - I bit into an olive only to find that my teeth were hitting teeth marks that someone else had made. Oh, ugh.

At a neighborhood bar, I was once served a Cape Codder with a fingernail floating in it. I believe the alcohol would have rendered the fingernail commercially sterile, but I returned the drink, anyway. The drink was free.

I almost broke a tooth once on a chunk of gravel in my soup. I once found a small bandaid in some restaurant cole slaw. Like everyone else, I've had numerous close encounters with corn bores, worms in apples, worms in lettuce, etc.

None of this was anything I couldn't live with. As I said, none of it was rat head caliber, but in today's environment, I probably could have raised some small stinks and gotten free something or other.  (Obviously not with the worms in the produce, but with the other stuff.) Certainly, the rat in the green beans is worth something - and that something should be more than $100. But I've worked in restaurants, and I know that things happen. And I'm sure they happen all the time in food production. Best not to dwell too long and hard on it. I guess you eat a peck of insect wings, larva, and fecal matter before you die.

Plus I have a pretty strong stomach.

Not that strong that I haven't gotten food poisoning on a couple of occasions. Or maybe it was just "the bug", which I associated with whatever food I was eating before I came down with it.

I don't buy frozen hamburgers, so I avoided the Topps tainted ground beef. After having to recall 21.7 million pounds of it - and facing lawsuits from people who got sick eating it - Topps has closed its Elizabeth, NJ doors just days after the meat recall. And after 67 years in business.  Eighty-seven people in Elizabeth are now out of jobs that I'm guessing were none too pleasant, but which the people who held them were no doubt happy to have.

From what I've read, the shut-down was not done to avoid the suits, which will carry on. Topps just couldn't process - or de-process - the cost of the lost 21.7 million pounds of bad meat.

The final bad news on the food front was Banquet's finding salmonella in the frozen turkey pie.

There's no going back to some agrarian nirvana that never really was in which we all grow and can our own fruits and vegetables, pluck our own chickens, slaughter our own beef. We all have to trust that the food processing industry follows standards, and that the government enforces whatever standards it has set. And we should pretty much trust it. Let's face it, the whole thing works pretty well. Rat heads in the green beans, and 21.7 million pounds of bad hamburger, are anomalies. That's why they make the news.

But the back-to-back-to-back nature of this month's inglorious food incidents does raise a couple questions:

  • Is the quality of our processed food going down for any reason. (Lack of oversight, lax adherence to rules.) Or is it just that we're more likely to hear about it.
  • Are people these days getting sicker from bad food, or are they just more likely to want to track down who's responsible for every intestinal "bug" they end up with - and sue "the bastards"? 

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Me-Me-Me-Me-Me

Well, over in The Boston Globe the other day, Jake Halpern was talkin' 'bout Me Generation. Halpern's (d.o.b., 1975) take on the young folks is interesting, and definitely worth a read in full. Basically, he notes that the "entitled generation", now coming into the workforce, is viewed as - and may well be - narcissistic, entitled, and impatient with standing on protocol. He goes no to make the point that these characteristics may, in fact, be the ones that America needs to have in order to produce the one thing that appears to be left open to us in terms of work: entrepreneurship.

First up, the Me Generation

Yes, I know that the "survey says" that those born after 1970 rate pretty high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The reason, according to San Diego State psych professor Jean Twenge is that

...these young people were raised on a daily regimen of praise and flattery from their baby boomer parents and from teachers who embraced a self-esteem-boosting curriculum that included activities like the Magic Circle game. Never heard of it? In this game, one child a day is given a badge that says "I'm great." The other children then take turns praising the "great" child, and eventually these compliments are written up and given to the child for posterity. This constant reinforcement, argues Twenge, is largely responsible for those young co-workers who drive you nuts.

No doubt, the Baby Boomers have gone overboard in ensuring that the next generation does not just believe that, like the kids in Lake Woebegone, they're above average, but well above average. Maybe even well above that. But, God knows, I could have used a bit of Magic Circle in my childhood.

And where are all these fine young narcissists? When I run through the people I know who were born after 1970, I can't really come up with one who I would categorize as a super-entitled, narcissistic a-hole. (Well, maybe one.) Mostly, they're hard working, earnest, looking for and finding interesting work and something to do with their lives, and looking for and finding companions to share their lives with. They're going to grad school, getting jobs, not getting jobs, changing jobs, getting their hearts broken, getting married, buying condos, and having babies. In other words, they don't strike me as that altogether different than anyone else who's ever lived.

Is it possible that I only know the retro-duds of their generation? I don't think so.

And it's certainly no surprise if younger people would enter the workforce wanting to do it on their own terms. What the hell? They're aware enough to know that for most of their parents generation, having a job was no guarantee of security. That "The Man" would send your job to Bangalore as soon as look at you. Maybe sooner. That they're not going to "enjoy" a nice fat pension from anywhere.

I have to say I probably wouldn't be particularly enamored of the guy in Halpern's article quoted as saying:

"'I have no problem knocking on the door and walking into the CEO's office or the CTO's office on a whim – interrupting their schedule – and saying, 'I need to talk to you.''"

This sounds just colossally rude to me. (And just when did us Baby Boomers make the shift from bright young things to grumpy old farts? I wasn't even aware that the shift was happening, but it sure has.) But then we learn that this same guy has brought in some high ticket business, and that his company actually likes him just fine.

The Old Guard Weighs In

And then there are those who feel that

...it may be that this much-reviled generation will revitalize the economy and ensure the prosperity of America for years to come. Painful as it sounds, in the not-too-distant future, we may owe a debt of gratitude to these narcissists.

Halpern cites one Michael Maccoby,

...who argues that that businesses that rely on innovation, new technology, and globalization require far bolder leaders who can take risks, shrug off conventional wisdom, project confidence, formulate hyper-ambitious plans, and charm the pants off investors and underlings alike, so that they, too, will make a leap of faith and believe in the next cold-fusion-powered car or the iPod that pays your bills and runs your household.

MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edward Roberts reinforces Macoby's point, going way out there. "'From my perspective, we have nothing left to the US economy other than start-ups and entrepreneurship.'"

Thanks, Ed. Obviously, if all that we're going to have left is "start-ups and entrepreneurship", we're going to need people with vision, confidence, and chutzpah.

But my question is, is it possible to have an economy the size of ours in which everybody is an entrepreneur? Or are we really heading in the direction where the only avenue to success runs down "Brand Me" Lane? Where we will have the handful of Me Generation phenoms living in gated communities, and all the rest of "the kids" - the ones who didn't quite get the message that all they had was their personal brand, and if they didn't invent something that caught on they were doomed - clamoring outside the electronic moat yelling, "What about me?"

Monday, October 15, 2007

Noises Off: T-Radio in Boston

I am an irregular public-transpo commuter these days, but I am nonetheless decidedly unenchanted by the MBTA's (Mass Bay Transportation Authority) decision to introduce something called T-Radio.

The station, which will provide music, entertainment and sports news, and (maybe? news-news) is being rolled out in three unlucky T stations. The trial runs until Thanksgiving, and - if enough riders go as negative on it as I imagine they will - we may have something extra to be thankful. If not, T-Radio will be rolled out throughout the system. (Fortunately, there's no mention of providing it in the trains themselves.)

There are so places these days where you can hear yourself think. Remember how we used to complain about Muzak in elevators? I'm getting nostalgic for those good old days, now that so many elevators (special offender: hotels) broadcast television in them.

Didn't airport waiting areas used to be, like, quiet? Now they all have CNN or sometimes, unforgivably, FOX blaring in them. God forbid that we're away from the latest on Britney Spears and OJ for a few minutes. God forbid we just sit there for a few minutes reading a book or, like, thinking.

Of course, it's not that easy to read or think when you're surrounded by everyone yakking loud-o vocce on their cell phones. God forbid someone goes a whole hour or two without "checking in." (I wouldn't mind if all these conversations we're forced to eavesdrop on were interesting, but they're not. I never get to hear one side of someone plotting mayhem, breaking up, dishing dirt, telling off, or telling a story that's even vaguely compelling. No, it's all "I'm at Logan" and "Anything happening, Deb?")

And now the T...

When I just want to be sitting there staring off into space, making a bet with myself whether the Riverside, Cleveland Circle, or Heath Street train will come next, I'll have to listen to Umbrella, ella, ella or a review of the latest from the Blue Man group.

Who wants this?

It seems to me that people who want or need to be bombarded with their own Wall of Sound can be left pretty much to their own devices. Does the T think that those of us who aren't traveling avec iPod are poor folks who'd really rather be listening, but we just can't - poor us - afford our own tunes. Or maybe they want to bombard us with ads, which I'm guessing T-Radio will be providing for us, too.

And what, pray tell, will this development mean for all the buskers currently performing in T-stations?

MBTA Manager Dan Grabauskas is quoted in an October 11th article by Greg St. Martin in The Metro on this worry:

"I hope not," Grabauskas said of T-Radio potentially forcing out live musicians. "I think the performers in our stations add life, color and richness to the MBTA system."

Precisely, Dan, so why would you want to drown them out with anything else - even something as critical and important as the score of the Red Sox game?

I've been a T rider for a long time. Long enough to remember "Dime Time," straw seats on the Blue Line, stations that looked like stops on a tour of the Paris sewers, and cars that broke down so frequently that living on the Green Line gave you an automatic excuse for being late for work. In all that time, I have never once longed for any noise other than the screeching sound of "my" train rounding the bend and heading in the station.

I can't be the only one.

I will admit that many things have improved over the course of my T-taking lifetime. T-Radio, I fear, will not be one of them.

If the T wants to improve things in the stations, maybe they should put a few dollars into the PA systems. In most of the stations, the announcements are so garbled that you have no clue whatsoever what's being said. ("Did they really just announce that the train is running non-stop to Alewife, where all passengers will be detained?")

The T is going to have a section on their web site where you can comment on T-Radio. I'm planning on cheating a little here. Even though I may not have been exposed to T-Radio yet, I'm going to go on and tell them that I'd prefer noises off the T-station platforms.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Lydia, oh Lydia, the tattooed lady

When I was a kid, the only people I knew who had tattoos were vets -mostly Marines and Navy. A couple of my uncles had them - anchors, aweigh!

In eighth grade, one of the boys in the class tried to tattoo his nickname "GUNGA" on his arm with Shaeffer's ink. (It was a large class. He was bored and sitting in the back row. Those of us sitting around him watched him carve.) I wonder if Gunga did it deeply enough to still show the scars.

When I was a freshman, the Notre Dame Academy Glee Club performed its Christmas Concert at the Worcester County Jail. One of the trusties who helped set up the risers for us had L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E crudely tattooed on his knuckles. (Gunga Nolan school of tattooing, I guess.) The concert was brought to a premature halt, by the way, when the prisoners started getting restless and catcalling. They were ushered out of the hall; we got back on our bus.

As I got older, and my world expanded, I had a few occasions at which I met Holocaust survivors, with the blurry blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. Chilling.

Somewhere along the line, everyday people in everyday circumstances- including women - started getting tatts, but mostly they were of the discreet star on the ankle or butterfly on the butt variety (at least for the women).

The idea never really appealed to me, and when I see people in their twenties whose arms are just covered with tattoos, I always think, 'you're going to regret that someday.' I also always ask myself, 'where in God's name can you find work - other than in a punk rock club - looking like that?'

I might be wrong on both counts.

I seldom read The Boston Herald, Boston's tabloid newspaper, but my-brother-the-union-guy had an op-ed piece in it the other day, so I picked up a copy. There, Darren Garnick's Working Stiff column devoted its day's ration of ink to the phenomenon of folks in white-collar corporate positions who are heavily tattooed.

Featured in Garnick's column is a new photography book, "INKED, Inc." by Dave Kimelberg, who works, in full corporate regalia - for a Boston-based VC. But when Kimelberg roles his sleeves up to get something done, well, it's all Japanese fish and dragons. So he doesn't do any sleeve-rolling up at work, other than metaphorical.

I haven't seen a copy, but the book sounds cool. It shows pictures of folks in their business drag, and on the opposite side, a shot of them with their tattoo colors flying. (Kimelberg also has a new web site "at the intersection of bodyart and professional culture",InkedInc.com)

Doctors. Lawyers. Venture Capitalists. According to a Pew Research Center Garnick sites, 1 out of 3 people between the ages 18 and 25 have at least one tatt. As Garnick points out, "logic dictates that some of those kiddies are filling white-collar jobs."

One of the folks in Kimelberg's book is Marisa DiMattia's. In her before shot, she looks like Marion, Madam Librarian. In her tatt shot, oh my, one rockin' girlfriend. DiMattia also is involved a web site, where you can see all sorts of tattoo art, find all sorts of tattoo links, etc.

I think that all of these professionals are well advised to keep their tattooed selves under wraps at work. One thing to be a professional entertainer, or athlete (I'm seeing quite a few tatts on jocks these days). It's another thing if you're, say, a marketing professional. I know I would have been weirded out if I'd had people working around me covered with tattoos. I will also confess that I probably would have been reluctant to hire someone who came in for an interview and I could see that they were heavily tattooed.

Yet, when I look online, the tattoos are oddly beautiful, not menacing at all. And they are very artistic - no hearts with mother in script, no Jesus with a teardrop, no prison White Power whatever.

Whatever the motivation - expression of rebellion, art statement - to each his or her own.

Still, I can't help but think that at least a few people are going to regret those tattoos someday - and not just those who tattooed the name of their eventually ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, or ex-spouse on their biceps.

As for myself, other than a fleeting teensie-weensie little thought of a teensie-weensie little Celtic symbol on my ankle, I will likely remain tattoo-less.

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And as for Rich's op-ed piece, he's all behind our Governor's plan to have a few casinos in Massachusetts. Sure, the employment would be nice, but gambling? I'm not so certain it's a great idea, although I "get" that if we don't do it, the jobs and the tax revenue will just go to the states that have it. But doesn't the gambling-based economy eventually hit a point of diminishing returns? Just how many casinos-per-capita do we need?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Family Business: Oral Roberts University School for Scandal

I'll admit it right up front: I am one of those big city, East Coast, capital-L-Liberal, secular humanist, sneer-down-their-bony-noses-at-the-rest-of-the-world, ay-leets  who like nothing better than to see some you're-going-to-hell-and-I'm-not, gay-bashing, flag-waving, Jesus was a Founding Father, fundamentalist brought low by scandal. (Of course, I'm such a bleeding heart capital-L-Liberal that by Day Two, I'm already feeling bad for them, but that's another story.)

But I really don't think that sort of do-as-I-say, demoralizing moralizing leading to "the fall," is entirely what's going on with the current brouhaha taking place in Tulsa at Oral Roberts University (ORU).

No, I think what's going on at ORU is a good, old-fashioned tale about what can happen when there's a family business, especially one where there's a powerful paterfamilias in the angel wings, a less powerful son who inherits the business without any particular qualification other than pedigree, and more than a bit of loose change in the collection plates.

For those who aren't up on this latest, three former faculty members are suing ORU, claiming they were shown the door after blowing the whistle on some financial improprieties, as well as illegal involvement in a local campaign.

ORU, which was founded by televangelist Oral Roberts some forty years ago, is now run by his son, Richard Roberts, who also presides over Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (OREA).

Years ago, when watching televangelists was something of a hobby, I used to watch Oral Roberts' show regularly. Oral wasn't as flamboyant as some of the others, but the show was plenty entertaining, and I was in awe of the Roberts' ability to get folks out there to open their hearts and their pocketbooks to keep the show going. (My favorite televangelist was Leroy Jenkins. Jenkins, who was something of an Elvis look-alike, was a faith healer. My husband and I actually went to see him perform one time at Madison Square Garden. In person, we were able to witness how cannily the people with unlikely-to-be-cured-on-the-spot medical problems were seated off to the side in sections where Jenkins never got anywhere near during the times he was out in the audience "healing." Instead, he focused on getting old ladies with canes to toss their canes aside and jump up and down. I will never forget the distraught woman seated a section over from us trying to draw Jenkins' attention to her blind husband. As if.)

Oral Roberts' show regularly featured his son Richard, a boyishly handsome if oleaginous young man with an admittedly failed career as an entertainer. Richard had come home to daddy with his entertainer's tail somewhat between his legs. The trade-off at the time was that he got to entertain, but he had to sing religious songs. Apparently, Richard was - no doubt through hard work and native abilities - able to trade that career up into that of university president. (Gosh, I wonder who got to sit on that search committee. Along the way Richard also manage to get a PhD, from ORU, of course. Gosh, I wonder who got to sit on that disserationa committee. "Now, young man, can you explain how you decided to use Times Roman as your font.") 

In any case, while the claims of financial malfeasance do not involve anything like large scale embezzlement, they are nonetheless pretty wild. Among them is an allegation that Roberts-the-younger's wife spent a reimbursable $50K+ on clothing at Chico's, considered expensable if she wore it on TV. Now, Chico's is by no means Wal-Mart, but it's not exactly Nordstrom's or Nieman-Marcus, either. $50K is an awful lot of Chico's garments. Of course, since Chico's specializes in somewhat bright - some may say loud - clothing, it may be that once you wear something on TV, you can't wear it again because someone will remember it. (Lest I be accused of Chico-bashing, I do shop there occasionally. One of my favorite shirts is from Chico's. It's not that loud.)

Then there's the "evangelical" travel (a.k.a., senior trip) that one of his daughters and her friends took that involved a $29K private jet flight to Florida and the Bahamas. (Well, of course they're smart enough not to make an evangelizing trip to Bangor, Maine or Duluth, Minnesota in the dead of winter. They're college students, not morons.)

A slightly racier allegation has Richard's wife Lindsay using her ORU-paid for cell phone to text message "underage males" at 1 a.m. (The Roberts' make the easy-to-believe claim that their daughters were doing the underage texting, but whether they should have been letting the girls use the "company phone" for it is another matter. Shouldn't there have been some type of parental boom-lowering-down after they got that first monthly bill for $800. Maybe it doesn't matter so much if the expense is so easily reimbursed.)

Fancy cars. Private stables. Home redecorating.

All of this sounds like ORU had no corporate veil whatsoever to pierce. ORU/OREA = The Roberts Family.

But according to a statement from Richard Roberts on the ORU web site:

All charges incurred by the Roberts family are divided into two categories: ORU/OREA and personal. ORU/OREA related expenses are charged to the ORU/OREA, and personal charges are charged personally to me.

But it sounds like the expense categories have a tendency to spill over and blur, and that sometimes the Roberts may have a not-so-stringent definition of the personal. There are some controls in place, by the way: Roberts had to reimburse ORU for his daughter's trip to the Bahamas.

ORU is bringing in outside auditors to take a look at this mess. My guess is that they'll find more than a few questionable expenses that may have gotten through the current checks and balances. Easy to imagine a junior AP clerk asking their supervisor about a Chico's bill and being told, "Oh, just put it through." Easy to imagine lots of eye-rolling, lots of gossip, and lots of shoulder-shrugging acceptance that this is the way the world works. Also easy to imagine quite a bit of resentment of the 'wish I could afford a Lexus/private jet to the Bahamas/$1000 a week clothing allowance' variety. Easy to imagine the Roberts thinking they were above it all, entitled, just getting their due.

Also easy to imagine that when it comes time to appoint a new president, which may actually come sooner rather than later, ORU might look a little further than candidates with the last name Roberts.

My husband's Uncle Bill, a colorful and earthy character if ever there was one, used to say that people are well advised to "keep their pecker out of the cash register," which can be interpreted as 'don't mix business with pleasure.' It can also be interpreted as 'don't mix things personal with things business.'

Metaphorically speaking, Richard and LindsayRoberts do not seem to have kept their pecker out of the ORU cash register. My guess is that someone is about to extract it for them.

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Background information used in this post came from an AP article (Oct 6) by Justin Juozapavicius, and from a CNN article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bleuberries pour Sal


One of my favorite kids' books is Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal , which is about a little girl's encounter with a blueberry-picking black bear. (Oh, those were the days.)

I don't believe the book specifies, but Sal was no doubt after Maine wild blueberries. For those who have never had fresh wild blueberries, they are tiny and pea-sized, and amazingly sweet. When we were kids, we'd go far up into the woods on the outskirts of Worcester and, armed with our lunches and half-gallon Tupperware containers, spend the day blueberrying. It was backbreaking work - those bushes are low, and we didn't have blueberry rakes, we picked by hand - but the blueberry pies, muffins, and pancakes were worth it. I remember one year when I knocked over my container and spilled a couple of pints worth of berries. I know that there's no use crying over spilt blueberries, but I did anyway.

Most wild blueberries aren't sold fresh (they're frozen, or turned into jams and fillings), so when I see them in the grocery store (which is rare) or on a farm stand, I lunge for them. So much better than the marble-sized blueberries that are more wildly available.

Maine is the blueberry capital of the world. If you're up there in the summer, you'll be able to tell by the number of stands selling blueberries, and the number of objets for sale that sport a blueberry motif.

But Maine's position as the blueberry capital of the world is now being challenged by their neighbor to the north, Quebec. This is according to a recent article by Beth Daley in The Boston Globe.

Pourquoi? You might ask.

Well, let's give a shout out to our friend global warming for this one.

Every four years or so, killing spring frosts hit Quebec, nearly obliterating the year's harvest around St.-Jean Lake, while Down East Maine, some 350 miles southeast, reliably produced millions of pounds a year for use in jams, pie fillings, and muffins.

But temperatures are rising in Canada, and so, too, are the annual blueberry harvests...

It's not clear just what this will mean for Maine. Since the wild blueberry wars have been heating up, demand for blueberries has been growing, thanks to all those medical reports about how good blueberries are for you. (Not to mention that the value of the Canadian dollar - for years a laughing stock currency - has been rising to greater parity with the US dollar, so Maine growers don't have to worry so much about Canadian blueberries being cheaper. And those of us who live in states where a lot of Canadian coins end up in the mix no longer have to resort to subterfuge to get rid of those pesky Canadian quarters that mysteriously show up in your wallet from time to time.)

Meanwhile, Maine wild blueberry harvesters have found that their weather has grown more erratic, less dependable - different patterns of sunshine, heat, rain - which has them questioning their future business.

As the climate shifts and the earth, there will, of course, be winners (at least temporarily) and losers, and those of us in more temperate zones are apt to be among the overall winners. (Do you really want to be living in Phoenix if the average temperature rises and no one's willing to let you suck their aquifer dry?)

Still, there are so few local food items where New England can claim anything like an industry. Maine lobsters and potatoes. Wellfleet oysters. Vermont cheddar. Maple sugar. MacIntosh apples. Cape Cod cranberries.

I just hate the thought of Robert McCloskey's plucky little Sal having to scoot across the border and venture into Canada for her blueberries.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

White Collar Holler

A week or so ago, my sister Kathleen sent me a link with a listen to Jonathan Coulton's very sweet and very funny ode to techies, "Code Monkey". (Here you go for a listen. If you've ever been a) been a techie; b) worked with techies; c) known a techie; d) worked; e) known anyone who's worked, this one is for you.)

I don't think I'm giving away any of the lyrical punch when I quote the intro lines:

Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Code Monkey have boring meeting
With boring manager Rob

"Code Monkey" is a fine example of a modern work-related song, and one that absolutely catches the essence of the workplace. It got me thinking about the old Stan Rogers' (no relation) tune, "White Collar Holler". (In truth, I did not remember it as a Stan Rogers; Kathleen did. It was performed by Stan, but written by Nigel Russell.)

Listening to "Code Monkey" got me thinking about the song "White Collar Holler," a tech tune that was popular a generation ago (yikes!), and which actually spoke pretty directly to the type of work I was doing at the time, creating computer-based forecasting models. (Oh, those were the days.)

And it's Ho, boys, can't you code it, and program it right
Nothing ever happens in the life of mine
I'm hauling up the data on the Xerox line

Then it's code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
Program, printout, regress to the mean

This song is particularly amusing if you knew that Stan (who I believed died in a plane crash caused by some idiot smoking in the toilet) sang sea chanteys (or lake chanteys: most were set on the Great Lakes). (Click here for a link to Stan's site. )

"Code Monkey". "White Collar Holler."

Why are song about the types of jobs we have these days all humorous? Is it just not possible to have a "serious" song about B2B marketing? Hedge fund management? Mortgage lending? Back-office processing? Customer support?

Why is that?

Is it because, all these years after the Industrial Revolution bled into the wonderful world of Knowledge Workers, we're all feeling kind of foolish that we can't really explain to anyone what exactly it is that we do all day? Do we, somewhat sheepishly, feel a bit foolish about this?

These days, if you're in a job that didn't exist 50 years ago, good luck getting across what you do.

Teacher. Carpenter. Doctor. Truck-driver. Bartender.

All clear!

Sort of. (Some of the those doctors are doing some pretty far out stuff...)

Even for those in professions that are generally familiar - like lawyer - how confident can you be in explaining your day-to-day if you're anyone other than Jack McCoy on Law & Order. (Is he an Assistant DA or an actor. I was going to write Sam McCoy there for a moment - the character is played by Sam Waterston.)

Actor. There's another profession we get. (Although 90% of the working actors are probably doing corporate training films and voice-overs.)

Ah, for the work songs of my youth!

Tennessee Ernie Ford hauling "Sixteen Tons" of coal. ("You load sixteen tons? What do you get? Another day older and deeper and debt." At least the "deeper in debt" line still holds for a lot of workers.)

Sam Cooke, "Workin' in a Coal Mine (Going down, down, down)". Although now that I think of it, Sam had made the transition from actually working in a coal mine to coal mine as metaphor. (I certainly remember people using the expression, "Back to the mines" when they were referring to their jobs - white, pink, or blue - but definitely not coaldust collar.)

There was also a song I half remember called "Uptown" that started, "He gets up in the morning and he goes downtown," where he labors all day as some little cog in a wheel, "and then he comes uptown."

Then there was "Witchita Lineman." ("I am a lineman for the county...") But this was actually a love song (I think). And I have know idea what a "lineman for the county" is or does. I don't think we had "linemen for the county" in Worcster.

Coal miners. Cowboys. Fishermen. Workin' on the railroad. ("In eighteen-hundred-and-forty-one, I put me corduroy britches on. I put me corduroy britches on, and went to work for the railroad." Not to mention "Dinah, blow your horn.") Truck drivin'. Barge boy on the Erie Canal.

Those were the days.

The last "good" (serious) song I remember that had to do with a job was Harry Chapin's "Taxi Driver." Which was actually more about f-ing up your life than it was about driving a cab. Although in the song, they were synonymous.)

Enough!

(One thing about workplace songs: Current or past, most of them aren't about any of the positives about work: the camaraderie, the satisfaction. Instead, they speak to the frustrations and the drudgery, the exploitation and the ragee, the bad bosses and the back-breaking (or mind-numbing) labor for short money.

I implore you. Would someone please find me a song about a "modern" job that is not satirical? Or tell me why it's really not possible to write one.

Or like the timeless Johnny Paycheck song - and can that be that boy's real name? - "Take This Job and Shove It. (I don't work here anymore.)"

Monday, October 08, 2007

McMansions: Hold the golden arches. (That house is big enough already.)

A few things caught my eye over the last week or so. One was the story that John Henry, one of the Red Sox' owners, had just purchased a $16 million mansion from - of all things - Frank McCourt, a Boston boy made good who owns the L.A. Dodgers. (And how delicious is it that this fellow has the same name as the writer Frank McCourt, who grew up in abysmal poverty in the slums of Limerick.)

In any case, the world of mega houses is a mighty small world if only those who own baseball teams - or thereabouts - can sell to each other.

The buzz is that, even though the McCourts had just sunk millions into fixing up the house - presumably going a bit beyond the slap-a-coat-of-paint, reface the cabinets, and waft in the smell of apple pie changes that everyone does when they go to sell - the house is just not right. Henry wants to tear it down and start over. There's some talk that the Town of Brookline, where this $16M tar-paper rathole is situated, is resisting because the house has some historic significance.

It sure seems like a shame that, for a measly $16 mil you can't find anything decent in Brookline, but it's his money and his house. I might think that it's wasteful and profligate to spend money like that, but it's not as if I haven't had a few profligate moments of my own. Just nothing of this order of magnitudes.

But the John Henry-Frank McCourt saga is about real mansions.

Most of the conversation these days is around McMansions, those out-sized houses that spring up on a lot after someone decides they just can't live in a 2,500 square foot house built in 1922. What they really need is a 5,000 square foot house with his and her walk-in closets, a cathedral ceiling, and a Media Room.

McMansions have been sprouting up in the near-suburbs of Boston for years now. The towns were it occurs are middle and upper-middle class, have small-ish lots, and very good public schools. Oh, and they were pretty much built out 50 years ago. There's not a ton of room to slap up new subdivisions with the big old McMansions that people crave these days.

A few years ago, my cousin Barbara and her husband, empty nesters, decided to sell their house in Lexington, Massachusetts. (One of the near-suburbs I just described.) They were told that their house - a perfectly nice 1920's house on a double lot - would go for a teardown. They knew it was coming, as they'd watched a few McMansions pop up in their neighborhood. After one Christmas dinner at Barbara and Dick's, a bunch of us took a walk around the corner, and did a "walkthrough" of a partially framed up McM that was going up.

Barbara's house could have used a bit of work - and a second bathroom - but teardown seemed a bit harsh to all of us. Here was a perfectly nice, well-made, comfortable home - good enough for Barbara and Dick to raise their kids in - that was worth more as a teardown than a sell-as-is.

A McMansion now occupies the former site of Chez Kilroy. A couple of times, when I've been in the neighborhood, I've driven past. The new house is perfectly nice, in an ostentatious, out of synch with the rest of the neighborhood sort of way. And I'm sure that, as more of the other empty-nesters in the hood prepare to sell, there'll be more than a few additional jumbos going up there.

The latest noise isn't coming out of Lexington. It's coming out of Wellesley - a ritzier suburb than Lexington, but another near 'burb with great schools.

As reported by Erica Noonan in The Boston Globe, the squall brewing in Wellesley is over

...a 5,900-square-foot, three-story Colonial wedged into little more than a quarter-acre, a structure that dwarfs the New England sampler of quaint Capes and Victorians nestled in the woodsy neighborhood around it.

My, my, my. 5,900 square feet. You can do a whole lot of livin' in that house, I'll bet. Like a lot of people I know, I could use an additional 200 square feet. I just wouldn't know what to do with this additional 4,700 square feet on our current "footprint" of 1,200, other than fill it up over time with crap I don't need.

This particular McMansion has apparently set the Town of Wellesley off, and their Planning Board is considering a fatwa on out-of-scale construction projects. While they're at it, they're also talking about a resident review board which would

....to make judgments about a proposed house: Would it block a neighbor's sunlight? Would its droning air conditioning sit too close to the property lines? Would the driveway cause glaring headlights to shine in nearby windows?

For the record, the 5,900 square foot spec house has been on the market for a year-and-a-half at $2 million with no takers. (Frankly, I'm surprised that a house that large in Wellesley would go for so little. It must be that sub-standard neighborhood, with its dreary, squinchy little Capes and Victorians, that's dragging things down.)

Wellesley, by all markers - education, wealth, income - is an above average town. It's also above average when it comes to square footage of new construction. New houses in Wellesley average 4,400 square feet - vs. a U.S. average of 2,500.

I can sympathize with the neighbors who don't want these McMansions casting giant shadows on their property. It certainly is a case of their goes the neighborhood you bought into, know and love. But it seems as if, once one or two of these McMansions appear, there will be, over time, a domino effect. You tell me that people are going to settle for $100,00 less on a let-it-stand than they would for a tear-it-down. (Hah.)

The new rules are not an outright ban, the board says, and don't prevent tear-downs.

"This is not the ranch house preservation act," said board member Donald McCauley.

But the review board - volunteers appointed by the town Planning Board - would be empowered to make subjective judgments. Neighbors of the proposed mansions would be encouraged to attend hearings and chime in.

"People will need to start thinking differently about their projects," said Planning Board member Rose Mary Donahue. "The hope is that we'll be seeing better projects because people are thinking about them more."

Good luck! (And great one-liner, Don, about the 'ranch house preservation act.' Those tacky little ranch houses have, by the way, been going for $800K. Location. Location. Location.)

Giving a bit of equal time to the developers, one of them had this to say:

"We've been painted as an enemy when we care very much about the community," he said. "We are building the homes that people ask us to build."

Ah, there's the real story. "We are building the homes that people ask us to build."

Wouldn't you think that, in this day and age, people might be asking to build houses that are going to be a bit less demanding of heat and air conditioning than a 5,900 square foot McMansion? Wouldn't you think?

Friday, October 05, 2007

I Don't Care if It Rains or Freezes

Years ago, I received a couple of catalogs in the mail just around the holidays. One of them had Jewish-themed "stuff", quite a bit of it aimed at kids. I seem to remember a Mickey Mouse menorah. But what I recall most vividly was a stuffed Torah scroll, in bright red and blue plush, replete with goofy cartoon face. I'm guessing that - if someone without a religious bone in her body thought it was peculiar that anyone would want their religion's sacred object to become some two year old's drooled upon cuddly - this wasn't a big seller.

At just about the same time, I received a catalog for Christian-themed "stuff". The most memorable object in this one was the manger scene in which Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men were teddy bears. I'm guessing that - if someone without a religious bone in her body thought it was peculiar that anyone would want their religion's founder and his birth to be depicted by teddy bears - this wasn't a big seller, either.

But given these objects, I was certainly not surprised by a recent article by David Shiflett in The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be needed to link) on religious action figures.

We did not, of course, have religious action figures when I was a kid. There were plaster statues, but they weren't anything you'd actually play with. First, they were considered holy; second, how long would a plaster anything have lasted as an object of play? I will confess that I coveted a Prince of Peace statue (a.k.a., the Infant of Prague). This was a statue of the child Jesus and you could dress it up in different colors depending on the season. A couple of my friends had them and I was insanely jealous. For whatever reason - probably having something to do with fear that they'd become toys or weapons - my family did not go in for religious statuary. Pictures and crucifixes, yes. Statues, no.

We didn't go in for dashboard Jesus or Mary, either, another thing I always wanted. No, my father went for the more discreet St. Christopher medallion (the one with the funky wings). St. Christopher, of course, is long discredited, i.e., assumed not to have existed, which is a no-no if you want to be a saint: you have to have existed. (What this does for the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, I don't know, since their existence doesn't seem quite provable, either. I will have to perform a saintly google at some point.) When I was working at Genuity, a colleague's elderly father sent her a St. Christopher medallion, which she passed on to me. It wasn't the one that graced our Fords, but is clipped to a cup holder in my Beetle.

In my day, there were also nun dolls. Some were big and fancy, with authentic nun costumes that replicated the habit worn by a specific order of nuns. Most were cheesy little plastic dolls with generic nun outfits. Most of the action with the nun doll centered around flipping up the veil to see if she had hair, which is something we always wanted to do with our own nuns. (I remember the thrill when, in third grade, a big wind blew one nun's veil up and we were able to briefly spy the back of her brunette buzz cut.) Nun dolls, by the way, had no hair at all, just pink-ish plastic head.

Catholics have come a long way since then, and Mr. Shiflett notes that an outfit called Catholic Supply sells "several incarnations" (hah) of Jesus statues: " including a football player, skier, rollerblader and the best-selling 'Baseball Jesus Sports Statue.'" (I checked these statues out, and they're not actually of Jesus as athlete. They're sappy statues of Jesus helping a kid bat, swing a golf club, etc. Catholic Supply's got a little of everything, including "the golf balls Catholics have been praying for": one with St. Patrick on it (for luck), one with St. Anthony (finding a lost object), and another with St. Jude (hopeless causes). They also sell sports-related stuffed bears called "Holy Bears" for some reason. Holy Cow! Not to mention lots of St. Christopher stuff - and here I thought he'd been discontinued.

Meanwhile, the Christians - as always, more into the Bible than Catholics ever were - have religious action figures for Adam, Eve, Daniel, Job, Esther, Goliath, Samson and Jesus. (I don't know about that Adam and Eve thing. Seems to me that kids could get in a bit of trouble putting those two in action.)

A company called One2Believe sells action figures, and something called P31 dolls, which look like knock-off American Girl dolls, but which "are specifically designed to provide a Bible-based, Christian alternative to other secular toys on the market, and to encourage young girls to pursue biblical womanhood." I certainly don't think it's a bad idea for parents to encourage their kids to play with dolls that are wholesome (like the American Girl dolls - completely wholesome, other than their encouragement of wild consumption). Especially in a world where doll best sellers include Bratz teeny-hooker, 'let's go shopping for skanky clothing and get some collagen injections for our lips" dolls.

Still, "biblical womanhood"? I don't know quite what's up with that, but I'm guessing that P31 (for Proverbs 31:20) eventually turns into "wives, submit to your husbands."

And I really don't imagine that little Christian girls need a specifically Christian doll to play house with. All of my dolls were Catholics. I may have even baptized some of them.

As for the action figures the One2Believe offers, their "goal is to provide fun ways of teaching children about the greatest people who ever lived."

I'll give you that Jesus would be on most anyone's list of "the greatest people who ever lived."

But Samson vs. Thomas Jefferson? Esther vs. Helen Keller?

Still, it's their toy store and their kids, and God knows there are so many tawdry and terrible toys these days, it's understandable that parents would want to rein things in a bit.

It's not just the Judeo-Christian toy tradition, either. There's a company that Shiflett found, Kridana, that sells Shri Hanuman and Lord Rama for little Hindus.

Shiflett closes his article with a dire warning:

Purists may, with reason, fear the possibility of severe ecumenical repercussions. Fully funded toy boxes might easily include figures from different faith traditions and eras, creating an environment rife with historical and ecclesiastical error, and maybe worse. One easily imagines a play session in which Jesus is sent rollerblading past Moses or Lord Rama, perhaps screaming "Out of the way, you geezer!" In the same spirit, there may be awkward efforts to evangelize Barbie and Ken, whose spiritual affiliation has always been kept secret (some suspect a very mild Presbyterianism, augmented by Prozac).

And it may not end there. I can see that action Buddha's may not be far behind, but I can't imagine that any atheist toy house will be coming up with Madalyn Murray O'Hair action figures any time soon. (The MMO'H figure would picket, petition, shake its fist, and sue.) On the other hand, us seculars can likely find a Thomas Jefferson action figure somewhere or other out there.