Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pink Slip temporarily pink slipped

The best thing about working for yourself is you can hire and fire yourself at will. (The worst thing about working for yourself is you have to pay yourself.)

In any case, like so like many other businesses, Pink Slip is going on temporary furlough for the holidays. I'll be back on January 5th.

I'd like to wish all my readers, especially the regulars, the Merriest of Christmases, the Happiest of Hanukkahs,  the Wintriest of Solstices, the Coolest of Kwanzaas, and the best of whatever holiday you do or don't observe.

The coming year looks like a grim one for the economy - there'll be a lot more pink slips, I'm sure - but let's hope for a happy, healthy, and reasonably prosperous year for all of those who are near and dear to us.

The picture here is a lovely shot of Faneuil Hall in the snow, taken by local photographer James LeMass, and available afaneuilhallchristmas13s a poster on  It wasn't my Christmas card this year. (No, this year it was Charles Addams snowmen cartoons.) But I always like Boston-themed Christmas cards, and have sent them in the past. In terms of image and branding, when it comes to Christmas, nothing beats an old, historic city with lots of brick and snow.

See you on January 5th.

'Til then, as we've had quite enough snow already, let it melt, let it melt, let it melt.

And the real good news, especially those of us in the northern climes: THE DAYS ARE ALREADY GETTING LONGER. Yippee! There's more light at the end of that tunnel of a day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Santa Claus is coming to town...

The economy's in the doldrums, and the weather outside is frightful - as I write this, it's bitter cold and last weekend's double-whammy storm means that what's really frightful is the footing outside.

As they do every year, a spokesperson for the city has been on TV warning that residents who don't shovel their sidewalks down to the pavement will be fined $50, and businesses who don't the same will be fined $200. This message doesn't seem to have trickled down to all the residents and businesses quite yet.

So, you can walk a ways on clear sidewalk, then hit a width-of-a-building patch that's hip-breaking ice. So, all I want for Christmas this year is a personal sander to lead my way whenever I step toe outside of the house. That or another 300 square foot worth of condo so there's room for both me and my husband to spend 24/7 together, thus making it bearable to stay put when the walking is slip slidin' away.

The condo building I live is in flanked by people who do a half-assed shoveling version on one side, and a no-assed version on the other.

While I was cleaning our sidewalk the other day - while we do have a "professional" shoveler this year, i.e., someone other the me, we had a bit more unexpected precip after he left on Sunday, so I did the final cleanup - the no-assed shoveler on the one side stopped by to give me his philosophy on not-shoveling his sidewalk.

He told me that he is from Buffalo, and, thus, is an expert on how to act under winter conditions. He pointed out - quite correctly, I'll admit - that it's easier to walk in snow than it is to walk on just-shoveled bricks.  Although I don't have Buffalo Peter's authority, I do hale from Worcester - the Buffalo of Massachusetts - plus I've been living in a brick sidewalk neighborhood for a good long time. So I was able to point back out to Buffalo Peter that this is true as long as the snow stays deep and crisp and even. Once it gets tromped on by pedestrians, and does its normal settling in, that nice, crisp, good-grip snow turns to ice. Buffalo Peter acknowledged that I am, in fact, correct, but I noticed that - as of Christmas Eve Eve - his frontage remained uncleared and had become, in fact, an ice pack that one can easily imaging Little Eva trying to make her way across.

The half-assed shoveler on the other side does at least have someone shovel, but whoever it is must work mid-storm. There is always a bit left over to turn into ice cap. Plus they cut such a narrow swath that when I walk in front of their house I feel like aerialist dare-devil Phillipe Petit* as I make my way down the sidewalk, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other.

But my real gripe with the half-assed shoveler house is that whoever they get to shovel doesn't shovel a curb cut at the corner, nor does that shoveler clear out the storm drain.

Thus, when you get to the corner, you have to negotiate a hard, steep, crusty snow mound plowed up by the City of Boston. Once you crest the mound, the general course of events is slipping down the other side and landing knee deep in a frozen water puddle.

This is not unique to this particular curb cut. Curb and storm drain shoveling are no one in particular's responsibility. Instead, we rely on, if not on exactly the kindness of strangers, then on the decency of some citizen to come forth and clear. On my block, I have emerged as a co-captain of corner clearing, a title I share with Dick, who I would guess is well in his 70's, perhaps even 80's.

I haven't seen Dick out shoveling and clearing yet this year. Perhaps he has retired to Florida.

Before I had a chance to clear out the curb and storm drain mess from the latest storm, the lady of the half-assed house emerged, and, as I watched, slowly made her way down her partially icy stairs, and minced along her sidewalk a la Phillipe Petit as far as the corner. There she stood for a moment - apparently deciding whether or not to turn back -  before electing to hazard the snow mound. She nearly missed falling on her mink coat covered keister.

I do wonder whether she asked herself whether she might not want to have her shoveler lend a hand next time there's a storm.

You never know how someone else is fixed, but I'm guessing they can afford it, since the house she lives in is a single-family, occupied by an empty nester couple, and far larger and more swank than the six-unit condo building I live in.

As for the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style, in the downtown, shopping area, the situation is much the same as it is in the 'hood. Mostly shoveled areas, broken up by ice patches, and some exceedingly treacherous corners to negotiate.

Silver bells, silver bells? No way. What looks like silver is really just ice.

And with warmer weather and rain predicted for today, I'm sure people are thinking, why bother at this point, it'll all wash away.

But they may not have heard that Santa Claus is coming to town.

Yes, he mostly gets around on the rooftops, but if he has to set boot on the sidewalks of Boston, he may well be in for a fall. (And what if one of the reindeer has to set hoof on a sidewalk and breaks a skinny leg? They shoot horses, don't they, and I'm guessing they shoot reindeer.)

As for Santa, I'm sure that, while he may not be a particularly litigious old soul, this has probably been a slow year in terms of revenue, and, in case of a fall, he may well decide to sue the bastards.

By the way, here's what Santa looks like at my imagehouse:





This snappy fellow was one of my parents' first Christmas decorations, and has, thus, been around since sometime in the late 1940's, serving our family well, Christmas after Christmas.  He's riding a reindeer with one broken leg - I think the piece of leg is around somewhere. The broken leg is not, however, the result of a fall sustained on an icy sidewalk but was, instead, just snapped off. (No one has owned up to the breakage.)



*In case you've forgotten Phillipe Petit, he's the guy who, way back in the 1970's, walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center Twin Towers.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Little Adolph

Technically, the folks at the Greenwich, New Jersey ShopRite probably should have just gone along. There is nothing illegal, after all, about any of the words that Deborah Campbell asked to be iced onto her son's third birthday cake. But I want to give a shout out to the ShopRite, do right bakery clerk, and that person's manager, who turned down the request to decorate a birthday cake with the cheery words "Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler".

This was a repeat request that had already been denied by the store in past years:

Karen Meleta, a spokeswoman for ShopRite, said the Campbells had similar requests denied at the same store the last two years and said Heath Campbell previously had asked for a swastika to be included in the decoration.

"We reserve the right not to print anything on the cake that we deem to be inappropriate," Meleta said. "We considered this inappropriate."

From the picture in the article, little Adolph is a pretty cute little guy, but my oh, my oh, you have to ask yourself just what chance is he going to have in life - unless, when he reaches the age of reason, he drops his middle name and maybe even rethinks his first name.

But perhaps, by then, he will be so indoctrinated into thinking that the name is cool, or tough. Or thinking that he's the namesake of someone worthy of anything other than loathing and scorn.

My advice to young Adolph - if he doesn't change his name - to dump the use of middle name (or even middle initial) on college applications, job applications, résumés, Facebook, MySpace.

As a hiring manager, it may be illegal to discriminate against someone based on their name, but I'm sure I would have been able to find something on that résumé that would render the candidate "not quite what we were looking for." No way would I have risked hiring someone who might be a racist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-Semite, or so mentally (or morally) challenged that he thought nothing was untoward about his name.

I'd offer the same advice to his sisters, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.

When the time comes, JoyceLynn and Jeannie should serve just fine.

And what's with that Honszlynn Hinler? Is it a misspelled version of Heinzlynn Himmler? Or a wink-wink, nudge-nudge play on Himmler's name?

Well JoyceLynn and Honszlynn are just 2 and 1, so there's plenty of time for them to get their names straight.

Of course, there's also plenty of time for the Campbells to have a few more little ones - an Eva Braun and a Josef Mengele, perhaps. There are actually dozens of options - even more, if they want to branch out beyond the Third Reich. Pol Pot Campbell? Idi Amin Campbell? (Hmmmmm. Probably not.)

The kids father, Heath Campbell, is asking for tolerance, invoking our new president and his mantra of change:

"They need to accept a name. A name's a name. The kid isn't going to grow up and do what (Hitler) did."

...[He] said he named his son after Adolf Hitler because he liked the name and because "no one else in the world would have that name." He sounded surprised by all the controversy the dispute had generated.

Well, people being people, I wouldn't bet on the name being unique. Perhaps in combination with Campbell it might be. But even then, it's a mighty big world.

The Campbells claim not to be racist. Campbell pere - or should that be vater - was raised "not to avoid people of other races," albeit not to "mix with them socially romantically." It's okay with him if little Adolf wants to hang out with black folks when he grows up. ("That's his choice.") Plus there were some mixed-race kids at the birthday party - further proof that there's not a racist bone in his body.

Frankly, I think I'd have a little more respect for this guy if he said, 'Yea, I'm a neo-Nazi. I think Hitler was one of the greatest men of all time. Why shouldn't I name my kid after him?" (Well, maybe "respect" isn't quite the right word, but you know what I mean.")

So what's with these people?

Are they some type of agent provocateur performance artists? Are they moral imbeciles who think it's okay to honor one of the most evil madmen in history by naming their son after him? Are they so oblivious that they think that most normal people won't raise both eyebrows over these names? Have they not thought through how teachers, friends, other kids parents, employees, prospective partners, et al are going to react to them?

Or are they just trying to get into People Magazine or US, where they can whine and bitch about how people aren't being tolerant, how their kid is being mistreated, how they're just regular folks trying to celebrate their little guy's birthday. (Actually, I wouldn't mind if they did get into People. Then we could see what Heath Campbell does for a living. He's 35 and has a decent sized family to support. What does he do? I'm guessing he's not a doctor, lawyer, or high-tech marketer, but where would it be okay for someone to say 'we named the baby Aryan Nation' and not have people recoil in horror?)

Maybe they're even thinking they'll get a little Joe the Plumber action - book contract, recording deal.

And not to worry about little Adolf not having his cake.

The folks at Walmart were happy to fill the request, no questions asked. (You just can't make this stuff up.)

But, while we're on the subject of what goes on a birthday cake, who puts a last name on a birthday cake, anyway?

Material used in this post was taken from a recent Boston Globe article.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Woolworths UK closing (no more place to meet that million dollar baby)

I can't remember when the last Woolworth's closed in the U.S. - a decade ago, at least -  but I do remember the last Woolie's I used to frequent. It was a big, "modern" store on Washington Street in downtown Boston. I didn't do a lot of shopping there, but it was a supremely convenient source for things like needles and thread, houseplants, tinsel, Rubbermaid dish drainers, and Contac paper.

It sold all sorts of things, including goldfish, parakeets, toys, inexpensive clothing and household items. As I could tell from my many forays there, it was a place where people without a lot of money shopped - something of a pre-cursor to Walmart.

I'm currently reading The Skyscraper and the City, Gail Fenske's  wonderful history of New York's iconic Woolworth Building. More on this book at a later date, but one thing that has struck me in reading it are the parallels between F.W. Woolworth's empire and Sam Walton's. Both were built on selling low priced goods to the masses; high-pressuring producers (many, in both cases, overseas) to keep costs down; eradicating the local, stand-alone shops on Main Street; and paying low wages.

The people who worked at Woolworth's also seemed poorer than those who worked at Filene's or Jordan Marsh: less well-turned out, less well-spoken.

The store was always a bit depressing to me, but still I felt bad when it went out of business.

Most of my fond Woolworth's memories are of the store in Worcester's Webster Square Plaza, a miserable little strip mall, anchored by a Zayre's, that opened in our neighborhood when I was in third or fourth grade.

It may have been in a miserable little strip mall, but it soon became the Saturday and school vacation destination for me and my friends. As long as we had a little walking around money, to Woolworth's we did go.

This was, of course, in the late 1950's-early 1960's, when the five and ten cent store was still, truly, a five and ten cent store.

Yes, it did sell more expensive items - Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew books cost 49 cents - but you could absolutely find things to buy if all you had was one thin dime.

And what could you get for that one thin dime?

A globe pencil sharpener. An 8-pack of Crayolas. An amber glass piggy bank. A 5¢ pad (a jumbo pad made out of coarse, newsprint paper). A package of jacks. Rolls of caps - not just useful for cap guns, but excellent for sitting around and smashing with a rock. So what if half of them didn't go off? The ones that did gave off a gratifying ing mini-explosion. And, oh, the wonderful smell of cap gun powder.

At Woolie's, you could also buy any number of cheap-o rubber and plastic toys - mostly boy-toys, like little rubber race cars (the axles were metal) and rubber daggers. (The rubber daggers were essentially for our regular family (kids only) enactments of "Oh, Martina," which we used to play at night in the basement when our parents kicked us down there to run off some steam.

Either my sister Kath or I would play Martina, putting on the gaudy, luridly-painted skirt that my grandmother had brought back for my mother from her great adventure to Mexico. Well, a brightly painted skirt decorated with a bullfighter waving his red flag at a charging toro was never going to adorn my mother, but it made a great costume.

There were only two other roles - Juan and Pedro - so one of the four of us would have had to be odd-actor out. (The baby was too little to factor in these dramas.)

It didn't really matter if you had a role, since the whole point of the play was to chant the brief, but action-packed script in its entirety:

"Oh, Martina, will you marry me?"

"No, Pedro, I must marry Juan."

"If you marry Juan, I must stab you to death."

Stab, stab.

Thus, the need for the rubber dagger from Woolworth's.

In truth, we probably only played "Oh, Martina" a few times, but it certainly sticks out in my mind. Not exactly Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney - "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!".

The only other recurring play I remember predates "Oh, Martina." In "I Wonder What's Become of Sally," my sister Kathleen and I would sit in an armchair and sing the only line of "I Wonder..." that we knew. I.e., "I wonder what's become of Sally." When we finished that line, one of us would toss my doll Sally out of the chair.

It was a simpler time....

Ah, Woolworth's.

There was a peanut roasting machine there, and for a dime you could buy a little bag of fresh-roasted peanuts. If you had another dime, you could buy a vanilla coke at the soda fountain. My friend Bernadette and I split plenty of bags of peanuts and cokes at Woolworth's.

You could also buy excellent - and not so excellent - Christmas presents there. I remember buying my father a beanbag ashtray, and my mother these hideous salt and pepper shakers - parsnips or turnips with cutesie little faces on them.

One Christmas, my brother Tom had no presents under the tree for me and Kath. We knew he'd gotten us something, but he was reluctant to bring the gifts out. So, of course, we started to badger him for them.

"You'll laugh," he said.

"We won't," we insisted.

Tom had gotten us each a work of art: a plastic-framed picture, one of the Matterhorn, the other of the Last Supper.

Yes, we did laugh, but I had that Matterhorn in my room for a good long time.

Ah, Woolworth's.

I've been thinking Woolworth's a lot since I started reading The Skyscraper and the City.

But it's also on my mind because I saw last week in the Boston Globe that Woolworth's in the UK is closing its doors next month.

I don't know if Woolworth's UK was the same sort of emporium as it was in the US, and whether it offered generations of little Brits the same tawdry, magical pleasures of shopping there, but it still makes me a little nostalgic to see it go.

30,000 employees will lose their jobs - and a big, bah humbug to you, too - and 800 neighborhoods will be without a place where they can stroll in, browse, and pick up a necessity, a treasure, or an out and out piece of crap.

Ah, Woolworth's.

I never did meet a million dollar baby there, but it sure was fun growing up with a five and ten cent store nearby.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Terrible, just terrible

The Christmas card came back with a note from the Post Office that forwarding had expired for the change of address. So I went online to find the current address, and, on impulse, decided to Google the name of my old friend and colleague.

We had only been semi in touch over the last several years - pretty much just a Christmas card exchange with update, and the odd e-mail. She'd send a picture of her kids with her card, and it would live on my fridge for a while.

I wish I hadn't Googled her name - which I did, hoping to find out where she was working.

What I found, instead, was that last summer, "L" tried to kill her children, and herself.

The stories about this fell off quickly, after only a few days - just another 'Mom goes berserk' story, the kids lived, etc. It was only ever local news in her city.

The story was picked up again later in the fall, as part of a roundup of incidents in which the economic mess we're in can be pointed to as a causal factor in a series of murders and suicides.

Oh, "L." My heart is breaking for you and the daughters you wanted so badly and loved so much.

I met "L" my first year of business school at MIT.

At that time, she was a university teacher (Stanford PhD) who was considering a career jump to business. She was auditing one of my courses.

"L" ended up applying to Sloan, and my second year was her first year.

We struck up a friendship - we were both a bit older than a lot of the other students: there were only a few of us 30-ish women around. Throughout the school year, we'd grab lunch, see each other at the Thursday "Consumption Function" get togethers, chat over the copying machine in the library.

My first job out of Sloan was through one of "L's" networking connections. A year later she joined the same firm, a small econometric modeling consulting company. We were colleagues for a five or six years, and stayed friends even after we were no longer working together.

"L" was very smart and had a marvelously sardonic sense of humor - especially when we got started talking about some of our road trips with a couple of real knuckleheads from our sales team. Our joint favorite was "F", a very good looking but none too bright fellow who, when he made a call in a new city, always wanted to find a souvenir shop so that he could buy a commemorative plate. Between sales calls, he also liked to haunt expensive men's stores, where he would occasionally buy a suit that cost more than weekly salaries.

If, temperament-wise, "L" wasn't exactly cut out for a corner office career in business, well, neither was I.

Years passed. "L" and I saw each other for dinner and catch-up every once in a while, mostly as part of a larger group of women who'd worked together at the same company.

When I first knew her, "L" was in a live-together relationship with a man with two children, then (I believe) of junior high school age. "N" had custody, and "L" was, for all intents and purposes, the step mother to these boys, whom she'd been with since they'd been toddlers.

At some point along the line, "L" and "N" split. I can't remember the cause. It may have been empty nest syndrome - "N's" boys were in college by then.

"L" was also in a not that satisfying job. I knew other folks who worked at the same place, and most of them had the same complaints about ownership/management. I had interviewed for a position there at one point, and was just as happy not to have gotten it, even though I would have enjoyed working with "L" again.

"L" was unhappy, "L" was drinking, "L" called me one day - a cry for help. I went over to her place and it was a chaotic mess. We talked. We took a walk. She felt better.

Should have I spotted any incipient psychiatric problems?

Maybe, but I didn't.

I saw drinking. I saw depressed.

She was in her mid-40's, newly single, in a crappy job.

There was quite a bit to be down about.

"L" pulled herself together enough to get herself sober. She went to some resort-y kind of place in New Hampshire, and I remember she was there over Christmas. I sent her some home-made cookies, and a paperweight that held a dandelion puff, wishing after I'd sent it that I'd gotten myself one, too.

"L" came home, stayed sober, went to AA, got a dog - and decided that it was time to move.

She wasn't from around here, and she wanted to be closer to her only sibling and her mother.

She found a job, moved out "there", and we stayed in touch.

"L" came back to Boston a couple of times, and we had lunch or dinner, very much enjoying each other's company, and talking about our jobs, our lives, and books. (That PhD of "L's" was in literature.)

Things seemed to be going well, but "L" was longing to be a "mom" again.

She decided to adopt a child from overseas.

I wrote a reference letter for her.

I can't find a copy - that was many PC's ago - but I'm pretty sure that I mentioned "L's" overcoming her problem with alcohol as a sign of her strength.

"L" was ecstatic when she brought "R" home.

She came back to Boston once with her, when "R" was five or six. "R" was a smart, quiet girl - a little shy, very sweet.

"L" wanted "R" to have a sister, so she adopted another little girl, "K".

"R" and "K" were only a few months apart - beautiful girls, the two of them, although "K" was the more classically pretty child.

I'd hear from "L" every year at Christmas, or around our birthdays, which were only a couple of days apart.

I knew that her mother had died, that her sister was sick, that her job situation wasn't all that great.

But she'd gotten a nice house, and she had her girls.

Why, you might ask, am I using "L" instead of my old friend's name?

Only because I want to respect what shred of privacy that she and her girls still have - and because I don't want any of the people who so brutally commented on her, in one of the online news accounts of her brutal acts, to find my blog.

I don't want to hear from anyone who called "L" a freak; a pig; an evil monster; a crazy old bitch; a witch; a self-centered, lazy, piece of shit who doesn't deserve to live, but who should instead rot in hell (dining next to Saddam Hussein).

Although maybe if I didn't know "L", I'd be thinking the same thing. (I do know that, even if I'd thought it, I never would have written it in a comment.)

And as for 'rot in hell': if "L" recovers her sanity, I'm sure that she will rot in the hell of her own mind for the rest of her life.

Here is what "L" did:

Completely overwhelmed, suffering from major depression, compounded by job loss and home foreclosure, and -yes - drinking again, "L" sought psychiatric help, telling the people who treated her that she was a danger to herself and her children.

Somehow - did "L" convince them that she was only kidding? did they just screw up? - they sent "L" home.

A few weeks later, "L" slit the throat of one her daughters, then went after the other one with an axe. She then tried to kill herself.

Fortunately, both children survived the attack.

I'm not sure whether it's fortunate that "L" survived her suicide attempt, as well.

Since seeing this news, I have been feeling the same sensations I last felt after 9/11 - that stunned, shake-my-head-in-disbelief, no this can't have happened feeling of upset, of confusion. And the same type of obsession: reading the same stories over and over again, searching for meaning, searching for clues, trying to make some sense and shape out of it. The same way I did for weeks of looking at those terrible planes, those Towers' collapsing, those ghost figures running through the smoke and ash.

This is, of course, a smaller story.

But it's so personal.

Oh, "L", I hope that "R" and "K" survive intact, that good people take care of them, that they grow to understand that while what you did was terrible, you are not a terrible person. I hope that they don't blame your attacking them on themselves, on the stress that having children - of fearing that you'd failed them - placed on you. I hope that, if they were guilty of any of that typical pre-adolescent, back-talking, eye-rolling, disrespectful behavior that even the sweetest of children are capable of, that they don't blame themselves for precipitating the attack that nearly took their lives.

I hope that they are strong enough to get beyond the terror they must have felt at your hands, that they grow up capable of loving and trusting.

"I'm a bad mom," "R" told the police you said as you tried to kill her. "I have to do this."

Yes, "L", at that moment you were a very bad mom - that whatever madness had overcome you was making you be one.

I hope that "R" and "K" find strength in each other. In the fact that they survived. In "R's" fighting you off, and running, somehow, grievously hurt as she was, to a neighbor's for help.

I hope they understand that you loved them.

I hope that they,the only people who can really forgive you (other than yourself) find the grace and generosity to do so.

Oh, "L", I hope that you get well, and that when you do get well you will forgive yourself.

Every time I read about a murder-suicide, I always ask myself why the person didn't just kill themselves first and be done with it.

I'm asking that here, too.

It can only be evil or insanity.

Here, oh, "L", it is insanity - for what else can explain a loving mother, a good, kind generous person, trying to kill her children.

The violence, the brutality - what insanity fueled the rage (or is it rage that fueled the insanity?) that had you choose such a violent, brutal means to kill your daughters? Why not, I ask myself, an overdoes of pills, crushed into ice cream. Every one dies peacefully, in their sleep.

Of course, if you'd chosen that path, your girls might not have survived.

(I'm thinking about how many times I've used the expression 'It's not as if he's an axe murderer.' Now I know someone who is an axe murderer - or at least tried to be one. So what, exactly, does axe murderer mean, when it's applied to someone like "L".)

Oh, "L", I hope you get the care that you need.

I hope that you get better, and that when you do you have the strength to accept what you've done, to live with yourself, to not just give up and sit staring out into space for the rest of your life - a life that is, of course, now in ruins - but ruins from which I am so hoping that something can be salvaged.

I think about the things that "L" may never experience again: walking barefoot on the grass, ordering her favorite flavor of ice cream, hugging her child (and having the child hug back). No decorating the Christmas tree. No complaining about the knuckleheads at work. No rollerblading - which "L" loved to do.

I hope that "R" and "K" grow up and are able to experience great joy and happiness in their lives. That they grow into the kind, generous, smart women you want them to be. That they both find love. That they are not crushed and overwhelmed by what they have just gone through (and are, of course, going through still).

Oh, "L", I'm not the praying type, but if I were I would be praying for you. And for "R" and "K".

My heart is breaking for all three of you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In a feral pig's ear

As if there isn't enough to worry about, The Economist on December 6th had an article on the five million feral hogs that roam the US, where they:

...destroy the habitats of plants and animals, spread diseases, damage crops, kill and eat the eggs and young of wildlife and sometimes menace people with their aggressive behaviour.

The "u" in behavior is The Economist's; the italics are mine.

These critters have been around since the time of the conquistadors, who brought herds of cerdos with them, and sometimes lost track of a few strays. Other pigs were released into commercial hunting preserves for sport. Still others are being let go by pig farmers who find it cheaper to release some of their free-loading stock into the wild that it is to feed them.

One rabbit-y thing leads to another, and, Houston, we have a pig problem.

And Houston it is - or at least Texas it is: the greatest number of menacing, feral pigs are in Texas. But they're now present in 38 states.

To put my feral-fearing mind at ease, I checked out the Federal Government's recently updated (November 24, 2008) map o' swine to see if there are any in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortunately, as far as feral swine go, Massachusetts is not a blue state, and the nearest sightings have been on the Pennsylvania-New York State border.

But this is small comfort. If you look at the 1982 feral swine map, it's clear to see that these little piggies are on the move - and heading this way.

Did I say little piggies?

These suckers can grow plenty large - The Economist article noted a rumored catch of one Hogzilla - 12 feet long and weighing in at 1,000 pounds.

Hot dog!

Living in the city as I do, most of the wildlife I encounter is likely to be a pigeon, rat, make-way-for-ducklings duck, or Canada goose. Sometimes I see a hawk or a comorant. Once in a blue moon, I've seen a racoon or smelled a skunk. There are wild turkeys stalking the area where my sister Kath lives in Brookline, and I saw a few of those pinheads strutting around near her house just a few weeks ago.

Most of my close encounters with nature occur out of town. At Kath's at the Cape, we sometimes hear coyotes at night, and I've seen a ton of seals on the beach not far from Wellfleet. Plus crabs, of course. There's one walk-to-the-beach that takes us through a veritable horse-shoe crab graveyard. (Who knew horse-shoe crabs could be the size of a Mini-Cooper?)

In my camping days, I saw plenty of bear - including finding two cubs playing in the well of our tent one time. That night, fellow campers, was spent sitting up in the car.

Anyway, we're coping with a feral economy, feral terrorists, asteroids that - if not exactly feral - may well be wild, and heading our way for the ultimate splashdown. And now I have to worry about the encroachment of 1,000 pound feral pigs, with their gouging tusks and bristling coats. (See how that damned evolution works? Those cute little piglets evolve into vile hairy beasts. And I bet they don't even make very good bacon.)

Anyone spotting a feral pig heading Northeast, please drop a line to (I'll be on the lookout.)

Meanwhile, I'm staying put.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's in your wallet?

Well, there's no getting around the fact that for most of us, in our extended, metaphorical, 401-K-ish wallet, there's less than there was last year.

But if you're reading this blog, there's an exceedingly high probability that there's more in your wallet than there is in that of the average person who uses the services of St. Francis House.

For 25 years, St. Francis House has been serving the poor and homeless of Boston.  St. Francis House - which is, by the way non-denominational (although founded by Franciscans) image- provides basic and rehabilitative services.  The painting shown here was done by Ivory, who is a frequent visitor to the SFH Art Room, the "headquarters" for the Expressive Therapy program. Almost all of Ivory's pictures are of trees, and this is one of my favorite of his works.

The St. Francis House motto is "rebuilding lives", and SFH does so with remarkable success. But before you can rebuild, you need to feed and clothe, and a lot of what St. Francis House provides is simply that. And while demand for "consumer goods" may be falling this holiday season, I can assure you that demand for food and clothing at St. Francis House isn't.

We have, in fact seen the average number of meals (breakfast and lunch) served each day skyrocket over the last year. Clothing demands are always great, especially in the winter.

The need at St. Francis House is great, and growing greater, as the marginal in our society are always the first, worst, and longest victims of an economic downturn.

St. Francis House works with poor and homeless adults. Christmas in the City helps poor and homeless children have a  real Christmas. Unless you're in downtown Boston, we're running a bit late to get anyone to sponsor a "wish list" for one of the thousands of kids that Christmas  in the City helps out each year.  But you can still make an online donation, or send in a check.  As the vice-president-in-charge-of-recording-checks-and-depositing-them this year, I can promise you that 100% of your donation goes to the kids (and to helping their parents get back on their feet). Christmas in the City is an all-volunteer endeavor, and the lowest overhead outfit I've ever seen. (It's run out of Kennedy Brother Physical Therapy and fitness center, and you can barely get to the equipment these days, what with the piled up gifts all over the place.)

Like everyone else, you have your favorite charities.

These are mine.

If you haven't finished your shopping yet, a donation to either of these organizations makes an excellent gift for that special someone who's hard to shop for and doesn't need another darn thing (e.g., another wallet).

Tongue Tied: Languages on the Brink of Extinction

There was an article in The Economist a while back on languages that are dying out.

For those of us whose mama loshen is English, we really don't have much to fear at present. English is- at least for now - proving itself to be the Esperanto that actually works.

But, if you were Marie Smith (an English name, if ever), you were the last person on earth who knew the Alaskan Eyut language. She took that knowledge with her when she died, age 89, earlier this year.

Presumably, given her name, she also had English with which to communicate with her friends and family.

Still, it must be a bit sad to have no one else on earth that you can make a muttered aside to, in the language of our childhood - a language that most people don't know - and have them get it.

I've sat in plenty of Irish pubs where the natives will on occasion make a few comments - generally to much laughter - in Irish, before reverting back to English, leaving us Yanks perplexed and wondering whether they were making fun of us. Which they no doubt were. This was fun for the Irish, of course. The kind of fun that poor, old Marie Smith wasn't able to enjoy in her waning years.

Eyut is not the first language to die out, and it won't be the last: The Economist notes that, there are at present nearly 7,000 spoken languages worldwide - and, by the turn of the next century, 50% to 90% may be gone.

The world is getting smaller, and with English as the current language of - you pick - commerce, science, technology, and popular culture, it makes more sense for someone to learn English than it does for some to learn, well, Eyut. Or Hungarian. Or Finnish. Or Gaelic.

Eyut would obviously be a big waste of study, now that Ms. Smith has passed on. But unless you needed to do so for scholarly reasons or you were planning on emigrating to Hungary, Finland, or some Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area of Ireland, it might not make a lot of sense to devote time to learning those languages, either.

Languages, like species, evolve.

Except for the Plymouth Plantation re-enactors, no one today speaks the same English that the Pilgrims used for gabbing on the Mayflower.

My mother's native tongue was German. Her family immigrated to the States when she was about four, and the language of the house became, in short order, something that was more or less English. (I say more or less because my grandmother's English was not just heavily accented, it was somewhat fractured - as in "Go by/bei your Mommy.")

Because there was a steady influx of immigrant friends and family, my mother retained some German as a girl/young woman.  She also studied German in high school, as did my Aunt Mary, who loves to tell the story of the nun who didn't quite get German pronunciation. Sister Whatever pronounced the word "schiess" as "scheiss," much to the amusement of the girls in the class who were from German families, and had no doubt heard their fathers mutter an occasional "scheiss."

A number of years after my grandfather died, my grandmother married a not-that-long-off-the-boat landsmann, and I think my mother used her German when she spoke with Pete. When she made a late-in-life trip to Germany, she found that while she could generally understand and generally make herself understood. She also found that she had largely stopped acquiring new vocabulary in the 1920's/1930's, and was thus not up on current terminology, slang, and manners of expression. Instead, she had the German equivalent of 23 skidoo and oh, you kid.

The article doesn't say, but I'm guessing that most of the languages that will die out over the next century are those that are primarily oral, not written. Latin survives because the Catholic Church still kinda-sorta speaks it, but more so because it has a written body of work for scholars to delve into.

Recordings will help preserve knowledge of the lost languages. But the lost languages themselves will be the preserve of scholars with recordings - not used by real people, who will have acquired more practical, statistically speaking, ways to communicate.

And those ways will be changing, too, in the way that languages always do - perhaps none more dramatically than English, with its multiple roots and jumble of words grabbed from all over, and its miraculous ability to create and embrace new words whenever and wherever they're needed. Most of us don't give a nano-seconds thought about where new words come from. If we do give them a nano-second of thought, heck, we just google for the answer.

A year or so ago, I saw a part of some sci-fi movie, set in the near-ish future, in which everyone spoke a hybrid form of English that included words that were, to current ears, still "foreign language." (I don't recall any of them, but I think they were mostly Spanish or Chinese sounding.)

And so it will go.

The world becomes Eyut-less. English will grow and morph.And a hundred years from now, if anyone's watching early 21st century movies, they'll seem like costume dramas in which people are speaking the equivalent of thee-thou Quaker.

Some things are lost. Some things are gained.

We can think about it and say OMG, or relax and say LOL.

At least IMHO.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Finding your inner North Dakotan

Aside from the extremely large troop of twenty-somethings in Santa hats and Santa suits I saw jamming into the pub across from the Writers' Room last Saturday, this seems like a pretty low-key, subdued Christmas season.

Boston's hum-bug isn't helped any by the hole in the ground  - formerly occupied by local department store Filene's - that's just sitting there in the middle of what used to be the downtown shopping district. Funding for the BIG IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT PROJECT that was going to fill the hole has fallen through, and they're trying to decide whether to lop off the 7 floors of luxury condos or reduce the office space. The City or the developers have tried to perk things up by hanging Christmas wreathes all along the Washington Street side of the cyclone fence that surrounds the hole in the ground. But the effect is more dispiriting than cheery.

All the news is about cutting back. No more lavish company parties. No more "every child's wish is your command" letters to Santa. No more bulging Christmas stockings. (What's that in the toe? Why, it's a lump of coal. We could burn it, but it's a pollutant. Wait a minute. Maybe it's licorice.)

While this may not be what our "oh, so reliant on the leveraged consumer" economy could use at present, it's probably not a bad thing that we're all finding our inner North Dakotan.

Why North Dakota?

A few days ago, there was an article in the NY Times on how North Dakota is, so far, largely withstanding the recession.

While their 401K's aren't immune to the same glance-and-gulp losses that the rest of us are suffering through, North Dakotans are enjoying 3.4% unemployment and one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the country. Housing prices are also gaining in value - modestly, but gaining nonetheless.

Some of this is the good fortune of being an agricultural state in a world where folks may not have to buy everyone in the family a different colored iPod Nano as a stocking stuffer, but do still have to eat. North Dakota is also an oil-producing state - who knew?

But North Dakota's relative prosperity is also due to:

...a conservative, steady, never-fancy culture that has nurtured fewer sudden booms of wealth like those seen elsewhere (“Our banks don’t do those goofy loans,” Mr. [Justin] Theel said) and also fewer tumultuous slumps.

(Theel is part owner of a Bismarck, ND car dealership.)

North Dakota is not only enjoying a state revenue surplus, but they also have 13,000 jobs that need filling.

Of course, getting someone to move to North Dakota may not be all that easy.

When I checked the Bismarck Tribune for the weather the other day, here's what I found:

Blizzard conditions still threaten Bismarck-Mandan residents in the next three days, with up to 8 inches of snow, low visibility and subzero temperatures possible.

I remember my mother telling me about some friends of my grandparents who farmed in North Dakota. Someone had frozen to death, or their hands had frozen off, or something equally dreadful, while trying to make it from house to barn to feed the cows one fine winter's day. Brrrrrr.

It's also easy to imagine North Dakota as something of a boring place, with nothing much to do other than counting frozen-off hands in the snow, and laying bets on how many kids will fall under the combine next harvest.

But, as the world has gotten smaller, isolated places like North Dakota have gotten more open and progressive. While I might not want to pull up stakes here to go after one of those 13,000 jobs, I don't get the sense that North Dakota is as aggressively and repressively conservative as some other parts of the country are. (When I was over doing my weather check, there was an ad for the Dakota Divas Holiday Drag Show flashing on the screen. North Dakota: it's not just for Lawrence Welk fans anymore.)

You are, no doubt, thinking Fargo.

North Dakota: it's not just cold, it's weird. (You betcha.)

But that was just a movie. (Wasn't it?)

In any case, that steady, never fancy, no goofy loans culture is looking pretty darned good right now, isn't it?

Yes, a lot of us will be seeking out our inner North Dakotan in the months to come.

We'll decide that last year's winter coat still has some warmth in it. That it doesn't matter if that turtleneck jersey has a stubborn stain on it, since it's always worn underneath a sweater where the stain doesn't show. That it's really foolish to pay $4.99 for what sure looks like a short-weight half-pint of blueberries, even though they really do make the cereal taste better. That a brown-bag lunch actually tastes better than a take-out sandwich. That those dated, 1980's kitchen cabinets aren't that bad, after all. And that $85 is just too much to pay for a ticket to a baseball game when you can just stay home and watch it for free. (Well, the jury's still out on this last one.)

Life in Bismarck, ND, meanwhile, is doing just fine, thank you.

Downtown, in the line of gift shops along Broadway, where shop owners reported sales that were healthy (though always sensible), residents said they were pleased — if a tad guilty — about the state’s relative good fortune.

No one was gloating. No wild spending sprees were apparent. No matter how well things seemed to be going, many said they were girding, in well-practiced Midwestern style, for the worst.

North Dakotans are smart to gird for the worst, as they aren't likely to fully escape the recession. It's just that the recession is not as likely to be as long, as deep, and as bad as it is in other places.

As for the rest of us - those who do live in those "other places" - we will just have to keep on finding that inner North Dakotan that has been dormant for so long.

Haven't found yours yet? Keep trying! (Take a deep breath and think Lawrence Welk: Ah, one an' a two...)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bernie Madoff: "People make mistakes"?

Of all the things I've read about Bernard Madoff's $50B Ponzi scheme, the quote in the Wall Street Journal from one Frank Christensen, a retired NYSE broker, is my favorite:

"I really think very highly of him," said Mr. Christensen. "People make mistakes."

That people make mistakes is certainly a truism.

I myself have made mistakes - personally, professionally, sartorially, financially, aesthetically, grammatically.

But a $50B Ponzi scheme does seem to fall into a category of its own, now, doesn't it? The category that in a kinder, gentler time we might have called "lulus", and which we would now be more apt to characterize as a major, over the top, out of control, f-up.

Actually, I take that last word back.

An f-up implies a kind of bumbling well-intentioned goofiness, or cocky, cock-eyed arrogance.

I don't see how this one is going to end up being anything other than one of two things: a colossal act of insanity, or a do-time crime.

There's a lot of news on Bernie Madoff's victims in these parts, because Boston was part of his "territory."

One small local non-profit has - poof - been wiped out, taking with it a half dozen jobs and a history of good works. Several local capital-P Philanthropists are among the bamboozled, as well.

And, of course, those who 'always knew there was something fishy going on' are now emerging to point out how sage they were to have known that there was more bull than bull market in Madoff's ability to provide unspectacular but unruffled - solid and steady-state  - returns over so many years.

In these circumstances, it's always worth a traipse to the company's web site to see what they have to say.

Sure, there's a little statement from the judge stating that he's got someone in there scrutinizing affairs, but most of the content's still intact.

So we learn that Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities is a "leading international market maker," who's been around for years.

During this time, Madoff has compiled an uninterrupted record of growth, which has enabled us to continually build our financial resources.

Yes, I realize that this is talking about the Madoff trade execution business, and not the side action as a wealth advisor/manager, but it's certainly easy to see how simple it is to compile "an uninterrupted record of growth" when it's a Ponzi scheme.

Too bad that Ponzi schemes always have to come to an end, isn't it?

Our sophisticated proprietary automation and unparalleled client service delivers an enhanced execution that is virtually unmatched in our industry.

I'm sure that those whose portfolios have been gutted will agree that the client service is unmatched, unparalleled, and decidedly proprietary. (At least let's hope it is.)

Madoff's market maker business has relied on sophisticated technology,

...underpinned by the personal commitment of founder Bernard L. Madoff...

I guess that's the same personal commitment that pinned under the advisory clients.

Madoff's website also touts their "sophisticated disaster recovery facilities," but I can't think of any disaster recovery facility that's going to let anyone recover from this particular disaster.

Last week's SEC press release outlines the complaint against Madoff, using terms like "stunning" and "epic proportions." It also gives us a bit of a look into the company meeting during which Madoff 'fessed up about what was going on on the advisory side of the house:

The SEC's complaint, filed in federal court in Manhattan, alleges that Madoff yesterday informed two senior employees that his investment advisory business was a fraud. Madoff told these employees that he was "finished," that he had "absolutely nothing," that "it's all just one big lie," and that it was "basically, a giant Ponzi scheme." The senior employees understood him to be saying that he had for years been paying returns to certain investors out of the principal received from other, different investors. Madoff admitted in this conversation that the firm was insolvent and had been for years, and that he estimated the losses from this fraud were at least $50 billion.

Now, this will have to go down as one of the all time great company meetings. (C.f., lulu, f-up.). Just another day at the office, honey!

According to regulatory filings, the Madoff firm had more than $17 billion in assets under management as of the beginning of 2008. It appears that virtually all assets of the advisory business are missing.

Maybe it's off hiding somewhere with the $700 billion Wall Street bailout money. Maybe it's on its way to Detroit to help out the incredible shrinking Big Three.

Back on Madoff's web site, we're told - in suddenly cringe-inducing copy -

In an era of faceless organizations owned by other equally faceless organizations, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: The owner's name is on the door. Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm's hallmark.

Well now....

Allowing this copy to appear on your web-site may come under the "people make mistake" category. Maybe.

But bilking people out of $50B, over the course of many years, surely demands a category of its own.

And where's the SEC been during all of this? Their own press release talks about the long duration of Madoff fraud.

Could we possibly be in need of just a teensy weensy bit more regulation?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Toyland, toyland: The National Toy Hall of Fame

With all the doomy-gloomy topics to choose from, I almost forgot about the Toy Hall of Fame, which last month added the baby doll, the skateboard, and - how wonderful in this era of 3 year old's asking for expensive video games -  the stick, to the list of toys that can say that they have been officially proclaimed as classics.

The Toy Hall of Fame lives at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, which is:

home to more than 500,000 play-related objects including the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of toys and dolls (more than 70,000 items).

The Toy Hall of Fame is a who's who (what's what?) of fabulous toys, some branded, some not. Generics like alphabet blocks sit side by side with Legos and Lincoln Logs.  Monopoly, Candy Land, and Scrabble are there, but so's checkers.

It's hard to quibble with the list, although I can't see how it took all this time for the baby doll to make the cut, given that Barbie's on the list, as are Raggedy Ann and Andy, who certainly deserve to be.

Just reading through the Hall of Famers is a grownup child's nostalgic delight.

I never had an Atari, but I did have a bicycle, one of those heavy, balloon tire old clunkers that my father picked out for me - a light blue and white Western Flyer. (This isn't the exactWestern_Flyer bicycle, but it's close enough. Source: Little Congress Bicycle Museum, in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.) Or maybe I chose it myself. It had a head light on it, which was just the sort of thing that would appeal to me. Unfortunately, the battery in the headlight corroded within a couple of weeks, and the headlight quickly became covered with this hideous orange-yellow gunk. It even got in the screws, so my father had to pull the thing off, leaving two big holes in the front fender. Sure, I rode it, but that bike was never the same to me again.

Fortunately, my sister Kathleen could generally be counted on to let me us her bike which, while not an English racer - the three speed wonders owned only by uppity, only-child rich kids - was a lot lighter weight and sleeker than my bike, which wouldn't have looked out of place if Andy Hardy had been delivering newspapers with it. (That is, if the "boy bar" had been added to it. I always thought those bars were ridiculous. Certainly, no girls of my era were wearing skirts to play, yet our bikes were "girl bikes", without that stabilizing piece of hardware across the middle. As a kid, I always wondered why the boys had the boy bar, given that it they fell forward suddenly, they had more that could get hurt than us girls did. Ouch!)

We collected marbles as kids, and traded them, but we really didn't play marbles very much. Occasionally, we'd shoot them, but it always seemed pointless - especially since no one seemed to know the rules. We did carry felt bags (mine was a green mouse face) full of cat's eyes, glass-ies, clay-ies, and pooners. Clay-ies were the poor-man's marble. They looked like they'd been hand crafted in Pompeii. I don't remember them being for sale at Woolworth's, where we bought our marbles. But they were always around: dull, terra-cotta brown, and boring. (Were they also called midgies? I think they were smaller than "real" marbles.)

Among my other personal faves in the Hall of Fame are jacks, the jump rope, and the Hula Hoop.

Jacks and jump ropes were the only "sports" I ever excelled at.

I was particularly good at jacks, and could very often get all the way through ten-sies without a falter. I also knew all the variants - like tap jack, in which you had to tap the jacks after you picked them up - that you played after you'd got through the vanilla rounds.

And jump rope. Ah, jump rope.

Jump rope is what girls played in the school yard. Single rope, Double Dutch. I was pretty darned good, and still remember the chants - why not, I must have used them hundreds of times.

All in together girls, mighty fine weather girls...

Apples, peaches, pears, and plums, jump out when your birthday comes...

High, low, medium, wavy, walky, talky, slowly, peppers...

I well remember the hula hoop craze.

My father brought home one orange and one blue one for the girls, and a couple of smaller ones for the boys.

I claimed the blue one, and Kathleen seemed eager to have the orange one. Once she'd indicated that the orange one - since it was unusual: most hula hoops were blue, red, or green - I started to think that there might be something to it. So I started making a little whiney noise about wanted the orange one. She let me have it.

Kathleen is two years older, and she had either psyched me out - she really wanted the blue one - or she genuinely didn't give a damn.

In any case, one of the long-standing, highly frustrating patterns of my childhood was bracing for a squabble over something, only to have Kath let me have it. (We had real fights about plenty of things, but it was never over stuff. The hula hoop. Or the last fudge pop in the freezer. She never fought for stuff. This was completely irritating, removing all the satisfaction associated with winning the fight or being the martyr who didn't get what she wanted. Completely irritating.)

There's lots of other good stuff on the list, including the cardboard box which was, of course, a play object non pareil, since it could be anything - especially if the cardboard box were a big one. I remember one refrigerator box coming into the neighborhood when we still lived in my grandmother's house, on a street with ultra-steep front yards. Put a bunch of kids in an old fridge box, have the other kids push it off the top of that steep front yard, and it would end with a satisfying and somewhat cushioned thud on the cement sidewalk. Let's do it again!

Mr. Potato Head. Play-Doh. The Slinky. Roller Skates - boy, did they weigh a ton, and how miserable it was to have to keep trying to tighten them with that skate key. I only knew one kid with shoe skates. Mary B - naturally, an only child. Only children got everything.

The baby doll is, I believe, long overdue for the Hall of Fame, and I'm glad it's on the list. (Sure, I had a Tiny Tears, and a Ginnette, but I want to give a shout out to Amputatee, a baby doll with a deformed arm - the plastic seemed to have melted, leaving a big gap between baby shoulder and baby arm.)

Skateboard, fine. I remember the first wave of skateboards, somewhere in the mid-sixties. My brother Tom had a red (wooden) skateboard, and I used it once in a while. But it wasn't of supreme interest to me.

And the stick. Since it's primary toy use is that of a weapon, it's more of a boy toy, of course,but it can also be put to many other uses: drawing lines (and circles) in the dirt; tying a dish towel on it to make a flag; and throwing it for a dog to fetch. Smaller sticks can be used for fake food; short, stubby sticks (wrapped in a dish towel) can be turned into a baby doll. Multiple long sticks, placed on a lawn, can be used to outline a pretend house. Etc.

So what got nominated this year for the Hall of Fame and didn't get chosen?

Well, the dollhouse, Flexible Flyer, and Wiffle Ball got dinged, as did Clue, The Game of Life, Hot Wheels, the Magic 8 Ball, Rubik's Cube, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Yahtzee.

From this list, I'd have had to go with Flexible Flyer, dollhouse, Wiffle Ball, and Yahtzee. I certainly spent enough time playing Clue over the years, but I never did like those creepy little people in the Game of Life.

Are the Magic 8 Ball and Rubik's Cube - on which I never managed to get more than one side "done" at a time - really toys?

Hot Wheels, yes and no.

But Thomas the Tank Engine? Way too commercial, and not enough longevity, to make the Hall of Fame.

But that's just one former child's opinion.

Got a toy you want to nominate?

Let the Toy Hall of Fame know.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Are the Eighties Finally Over?

Yes, I know, one look at Rod Blagojevich's hairdo and you'd think that the 1980's were still going strong, but there's at least one small, sweet indicator that the Me Era, the Gordon Gecko 'greed is good' era, may be ending.

The small, sweet indicator is from the response to one of the questions asked in a poll WSJ-NBC conducted last week. The question was whether or not you'd be willing to take a 5% pay cut in order to save jobs. I've heard this variously reported as "save jobs" and "save your own job" - which makes a really big difference -  so I went and looked at the source . The question was:

Would you be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant saving jobs at your place of work?

And 64% said that, yes, they would be willing to do so.

Okay, okay: talk - even 5% pay cut talk - is cheap.

And, with so many people fearing for their jobs, this is also a case of hoping that everyone would be willing to save yours.

And for all I know, people answered the same way in the 1980's.

Still, it's heartening to see this little bit of altruism emerging from the current crisis, and I'd like to see some of the places slashing jobs - with cuts of whatever magnitude - give a little thought to putting something like this into operation.

Taking a 5% pay cut wouldn't translate into saving 5% of jobs, of course. "Fully loaded" employees cost a lot more than just their direct salary. And in companies where there's a lot less production work, it might not make sense to have a lot of people hanging around with nothing to do.

Yet there are plenty of creative ways that companies could use the willingness of employees to take a hit, to benefit the employees who are getting hit. Maybe in the "less work" places, everyone works a few fewer hours. Or maybe the 5% gets thrown into a kitty used to supplement unemployment insurance benefits for workers who do get pink slipped.

In Massachusetts, unemployment benefits are pretty good. They may not make up for a lost paycheck, but they're reasonable. The highest rate, based on your salary, used to be $500+, with other +++'s for dependents. But in some states, the benefits are really trivial. Having another source of income to draw on would no doubt be welcomed. And what a nice "It's a Wonderful Life" little overlay if the money's coming from your former colleagues.

Of course, you'd want to make sure that the voluntary pay cut was actually going for an uncommon common good, and also that, when good times returned, the 5% pay cut would be restored.

It's a nice thought....

The one and only time I was in one of these pay cut situations, the pay cut was restored after the crisis passed.

I don't think the 10% cuts we took were to save anyone's job, and it wasn't voluntary. The company I was working for was quite flaky and volatile, and I think this was a matter of us not being able to make payroll.

As he always did, our Mighty Mouse of a CEO flew off somewhere and found some investor to sucker in for a few bucks to keep us going for a few more months.

I was with this company for many years, and we eventually became more self-reliant, managing to live within our paltry means, and even eking out a modest quarterly profit for a few years.

But we only got clean and sober after our investors put in a stop loss order when they hit $40M in with no hope of anything coming out  - other than BS and promises - in sight. They brought in a turnaround guy who actually managed to turn the place around. (So long, Mighty Mouse!)

So I know that money doesn't magically solve a company's problems.

Still, it's nice to think that people would be willing to pull together a bit to get use through hard times.

Sure, many people are living so close to the edge that 5% less might put them over. But everyone  doesn't really need a new smartphone, or a Wii, or another cashmere sweater, and plenty of people have a lot more than 5% fat in their budgets.

And if expressing a willingness to give a little means that there's a possibility that we're going to shake off the consume-at-all-costs culture that's helped get us into the mess we're in, what's not to like?

(Would someone please hand me a hanky so I can dab my eyes a bit?)


And speaking of Rod Blagojevich, I'm "half-Chicago" and dropped a w.t.f. e-mail to my cousin Ellen, who grew up on the South Side and lives just outside the city.  She told me that Blago lives right around the corner from Grandma's house on North Mozart. Grandma's long gone, but just the thought of old Rod being in the 'hood our mothers hailed from....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner Driver

There's certainly not much good news on the job front, these days, but Oscar Mayer's hiring.

They're looking for a dozen - the number of hot dogs in a package? - "ambassadors" to drive their Weinermobiles around, and competition for the positions is generally dog eat dog.

According to the article I saw in last week's Boston Globe, the company usually receives 1,000 applications for those  12 Hotdogger jobs, and one can only imagine that this year the odds against landing one them will be even greater.

I can't exactly say that I've ever thought about driving a a Weinermobile, but I have always enjoyed seeing one tootling down the road. I've had that always unexpected, always delightful pleasure several times over the years, and well remember that first exciting sighting when I was nothing more than a little Oscar Mayer hot dog eating kid. And, yes, Oscar Mayer was the house brand at our house.

(Haven't spotted the old Weinermobile yourself? Well you clearly haven't spent enough time on Americweiner mobilea's highways and byways. Here's shot, from the Globe article, showing a meeting between a fake hotdog and a fake steer. Despite all of our troubles, is this not a great country or what? Although I must say I'm just as happy that I don't live in the way-too-flat and entirely too godforsaken part of this great country shown in the picture.)

Just to see whether I could metaphorically cut the mustard for this job, I moseyed on over to the spot for Hotdoggers: their combo blog/website.

Well, my first impression when I saw the current class of Weinermobilers is that I am way too old.


And, once I read what they were looking for, I knew, alas, that I was right.

If you're an outgoing, creative, friendly, enthusiastic, graduating college senior with a big appetite for adventure send your resume...

And it's not just that I'm not a graduating college senior.

I will give myself reasonably high marks for creativity. And for an introvert, I'm exceedingly well compensated - so well compensated that many people mistake me for an extrovert.

I am as friendly as a native New Englander introvert can be, which I suspect is not quite enough for the folks at Oscar Mayer. I have been known to show enthusiasm, but tend to hold back and reserve enthusiasm for something that it truly enthusiasm worthy. Would handing out weiner whistles qualify? Probably not.

As for appetite for adventure, I do like to travel, but mostly to places where I know there will be clean, indoor plumbing and a clean, comfy bed. So I must ask whether there's a toilet in the Weinermobile, and at what sorts of motels/hotels the drivers get put up in. (Or are there bunks in the WM?)

Elsewhere, under job information, Oscar Mayer also uses the dreaded term "people person."

All I can say to that one is, some of my best friends are people.

And just the fact that I use the word "dreaded" in conjunction with the term "people person" likely disqualifies me, even if age and other factors didn't.

While I might not qualify, it does sound like a great career starter for someone looking for a job in consumer product marketing or advertising.

If you're chosen, you'll represent Oscar Mayer as a goodwill ambassador through appearances on radio and television stations; newspaper interviews; and visits to grocery stores and charity functions. You'll work with professionals in the fields of consumer promotion, marketing and sales; help organize promotions and even pitch TV, radio and print media.

You'll also learn how to drive the 27 foot long WM. In itself, this may not have great career extensibility, but it's never a bad idea to have a few "conversation starters" on your résumé. I was quite disappointed when my job as a combat boot polisher in a shoe factory fell off of mine.

If you are chosen a Hotdogger,'ll attend Hot Dog High at Oscar Mayer headquarters in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin. At Hot Dog High, the work is fun, the meals are delicious and the subjects are always "meaty." You'll learn all about Oscar Mayer history and our wide variety of products, how to run your very own traveling public relations firm, and even how to maneuver your buns in the worst kinds of traffic!

Maybe you actually do get to find out just what goes into a hot dog.

Of course, the deal breaker for me is that you have to take an oath once you graduate.

As official Hotdogger of the celebrated Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, I salami swear to uphold the dogma set forth here, and I promise to:

Encourage wiener lovers nationwide to relish the delicacy, ketchup on the great taste of hot dogs, and give in to the craving once it's mustard. Be frank and furthermore, to be upstanding in a line for hot dogs at ball parks, barbecues, buffets, and other bashes. Journey into the streets, dachs, und ports of my community, wish well to all comers, plump and lean — and leave them with a wiener to roast about. As once I wished I were, now I am — an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile Hotdogger.

I'm not that bid on solemn oaths. And it took me a while to figure out just what "dachs" was. Here I was thinking "dachas", and trying to make sense out of that, when I realized that it was short for dachshund - ho, ho - which really only works if you pronounce the word "dock" as in "dachshund", rather the way you pronounce the work "dock" if you're a native New Englander (introvert or otherwise).

Ah, well. Another brilliant career tree it's too late in life for me to go barking up!

I only feel a little badly for myself, however.

Frankly, I'm mostly thinking about all the aging Baby Boomers who'd be perfect for this sort of job.

They've lost their real jobs, and all that's left is Walmart greeter. Their kids are all out of the house, and they're facing foreclosure because of all those home equity loans they took to finance their kids' educations. They're friendly, extroverted, people person kind of people, who are old enough to be past caring how dorky they'll look wearing outfits provided by Oscar Mayer. (The alternative is the vest or whatever else that Walmart issues to its greeters these days.)

More to the point, they're the last generation who grew up eating hot dogs without wondering about whether they were terrible for their health. We grew up without natural food snobbery, with nothing organically grown (including the humongous zucchinis mom grew in the backyard, thanks to that 50 pound bag of earth-destroyer chemical fertilizer cum pesticide), and without ever having set eyes on a vegetarian - let alone ever having heard of a vegan.

Hot dog!

I definitely think Oscar Mayer should open up its search for Hotdoggers.

I may not be one of them, but I'm pretty sure there are plenty of Baby Boomer hot dog lovers out there, just waiting to be grilled about why they should be chosen to roam the land as ambassadors for Oscar Mayer.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Rock on! Boston's Battle of the Tech Bands coming up

Xconomy - an online publisher, content provider and networking site at the intersection of business and technology - what they call the "exponential economy" (ah, those were the days), is sponsoring their second Boston Battle of the Tech Bands this January.

Bands that want to enter have to sign up by midnight this coming Friday (December 12th).

At least one member of your band must work for a New England-area technology or life sciences company or a venture-capital or private-equity firm that invests in technology. All levels of bands are welcome—from club veterans to garage hackers. All musical styles are welcome.

For groupies and tech networkers, the battle will be joined on Thursday, January 22, 2009, at  - WHERE ELSE? -  the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, 472 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA.

Doors open at 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, I will get notes out to Drew, my former boss, who was in a locally well-known tech band, Look and Feel, back in the day; and to Kris, a former colleague, who played in a band - the name escapes me, although I do have a CD somewhere - that actually had some national legs (and which also played, I believe, at the Middle East).

For the Battle of the Bands, all the info's here.

And while we're on the subject, if you want to read an earlier post of mine on Rock 'n Roll Fantasy Camp, here you go.

Rock on!

Robert Reich, I beg of you, don't start calling it a depression quite yet.

Seriously folks, I used to really like Robert Reich.

He's a really smart guy - a smart guy with a generally high likability quotient (from what I see of him on TV). I may even have voted for him in the Democratic primary when he ran for governor of Massachusetts a few years ago. I seem to recall passing him on the street one time. We smiled and nodded, in that way you do when you make eye contact with someone kind of famous who's willing to make eye contact. He looked likable.

He can really write. I even bought one of his books - the one with the blue and white cover - in hardback. Yes, it's still somewhere in my reading pile, but I will get to it one day.

He's someone I usually agree with politically. (Well, duh, I did say I probably voted for him.) I was especially happy when he called out the Clintons for some of their more egregious behavior during this last political cycle.

But I'm not agreeing with him this week.

On Friday, Robert Reich wrote a blog post entitled Shall We Call it a Depression Now? I believe he was on one of the talking head shows last week talking the same talk. (Truly, I watch so many of those shows that I'm forgetting which pundits I've seen where - or even if. Maybe I only saw him punditing in my dreams, the same way that TaiPei and Tetris show up in the wee small hours of the morning when I've been spending too much time playing games.)

Shall we call it a depression now?

As we used to say in Worcester:  Let's not and say we did.

The last thing we want to do right now is make things worse by pushing folks who are distressed enough already into a near-complete paralysis - partial paralysis, of course: we'll still all have the ability to work ourselves into a froth.

By posing this as a rhetorical question, of course, Reich is coyly not giving us the answer. He's just leaving us to infer that, of course we should be calling it a depression. (OMG, Robert Reich says we're in a depression! Run for the hills!)

I agree with Reich when he writes that the unemployment numbers - by not taking into account "discouraged workers," part timers wishing they were full timers, "consultants" wishing they were employees, et al.  -  very likely understate true unemployment.  And that unemployment - no matter how stated or understated it is - is likely to rise even further.

He is also likely correct when he characterizes consumer spending as "falling off a cliff." Black Friday and Cyber Monday quasi-optimism aside, I don't imagine that a lot of people are dealing with the current dreadful uncertainty by buying up a storm, unless they're hoarding.

But when he writes:

When FDR took office in 1933, one out of four American workers was jobless. We're not there yet, but we're trending in that direction.

Okay, okay. As with the rhetorical question, Reich is not saying that we're looking at 25% unemployment, just that "we're trending in that direction" - a position that's in clear accord with the unemployment rate rising. But as with the rhetorical question, it is ours to infer that he may well foresee catastrophic unemployment. (OMG, Robert Reich says we're gonna have 25% unemployment. Head for the hills! But not before turning in everyone you suspect of being an illegal alien holding one of the those glam jobs like house cleaner.)

Reich also provides some policy suggestions, so he clearly believes that the Federal government, in all its power and glory, has access to the "instruments" that will help turn the economy around.

But I think that he does us all a disservice by framing his comments with a question about terming the current meltdown a depression.

Yes, it's scary.

Yes, it's big.

Yes, it's bad.

Yes, it very well could by nasty, brutish, and long.

But do we really believe that we haven't learned enough about fiscal and monetary policy over the years to make 25% unemployment and double digit declines in GDP over a couple of years unthinkable? (Over the most severe years of the Great Depression, GDP fell by nearly one-half.)

Of course, you don't get to be a pundit - on Hardball, on Countdown, or in Maureen Rogers' dreams - by not being more than a bit out there. (What's more sound-bitey: 'we're-in-a-recession,' or 'hey, hey, let's talk the D-word'?)

Puritanically speaking (if an ex-Catholic can, in fact, speak puritanically), whatever's happening now may be a necessary corrective, the wake up call we need to remind us that we've overeaten and under-exercised.

And the inner-Pollyanna in me - brought out by Robert Reich's post; who knew she even existed? - wouldn't mind if we as a nation took the opportunity (all that time we'll save not shopping and playing with our new gadgets) to join in a discussion on what type of country we want to be when it comes to what we work at and, more to the point, how we share our still amply abundant wealth with each other, and how we share the resources  of this small and fragile planet with everyone else who calls it home.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that asking whether we should call "it" a depression is really going to help us out of "it", let alone encourage us to have the long-overdue conversation that I'm guessing, in his heart of hearts, Robert Reich also wants us to have.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Republic Windows Closes Its Doors

Republic Windows and Doors is just the type of business that, for reasons both economic (good, blue-collar jobs in the community) and sentimental (good, blue-collar jobs an urban community -Republic is in the center of Chicago), most of us want to see succeed.

Alas, after 43 years in business, Republic shuttered its doors last Friday, citing the Bank of America's decision to cancel its line of credit.

While Republic may be closed, their web site's still standing, as is its mission statement.

Our Mission
To consistently exceed our customers' expectations with defect-free products and services, that provide performance and value delivered on-time and at a fair price.

Alas, there's no more mission statement to fulfill - at least for a while. But Republic's workers, who were let go with no severance and no payout of their vacation time, aren't going quietly. They have occupied the factory, and are vowing to stay put until they get their pay. (One of the issues in contention is the plant closing law, which the union representing the workers contends has been violated.  The law requires 60 day notice when there's going to be a mass lay-off. (Information on the plant occupation is taken from a Chicago Tribune article.))

I don't know the ins and outs of this law, but I remember that when I was at both Wang and Genuity, lay-offs were generally announced two-months in advance, although specific workers weren't notified that they were losing their jobs until lay-off day. Apparently, nothing was uttered in this case other than assurances that things were going to be alright.

I'm sure that the last minute notice at Republic is because management tried up until the last moment to keep things going. Given all that's been going on, 60 days ago is an eternity - 60 days ago, things didn't look quite as bad as they do now. Maybe they had some big orders canceled. Maybe they were counting on accounts receivable from a now bankrupt construction firm. Maybe they thought that their friendly neighborhood banker would come through.

But, wait, there is no friendly neighborhood banker.

It's Bank of America. Which can, in fact, be as community-friendly and good-corporate-citizen-y as the next mega-bank.

But they, not surprisingly, have troubles of their own.

And they are, of course, under no obligation to extend credit to an outfit if they don't see that they're ever going to get paid back. And any company, like Republic, that's involved with the construction industry, can't be looking any too credit-worthy these days.

When the micro-mess at Republic gets unraveled, there will be no real bad-guys to point to.

Just the larger, macro-mess and the culprits responsible for crazy lending, crazy borrowing, crazy financial instruments, crazy spending.  And an almost comic (if it weren't so dire) economic obtuseness when it comes to thinking (or not thinking) about whether we were ever going to have to give the devil his due for all this finagling, gambling, greed, and stupidity.

We have met the enemy, and they are us.

Meanwhile, there are "only" a couple of hundred workers at Republic, which looks like a piddling number, given the mass lay-offs of the last couple of months. But it's not, of course, piddling if you're one of them.

If you're a Republic worker, and you've worked hard to deliver on the corporate mission statement, right now you're probably feeling screwed, betrayed, broke, and beside-yourself-worried about whether you're ever going to find replacement work in a) this economy, and b) this life - for there's no guarantee that even when the economy rebounds there'll be much left of the manufacturing industry.

This raises a couple of my favorite perennial questions about the U.S. of A.: Can we survive without having at least some ability to manufacture goods? And can we thrive (and survive as a democracy) without having a broad range of skilled jobs (not all requiring advanced education) that are decently enough paid to enable the majority of citizens to continue to define themselves as middle class?

(People can bitch all they want about fat-cat, feather-bedding unions, but the industrial union movement did help create and sustain - for many years, at least - a thriving middle class.)

Back to the Republic Window plant occupation.

Let us hope that there is some way in which the workers can at least be made whole on their vacation pay, which is truly owed to them.

But when all the creditors start lining up, where do the employees come in. It's nice in the abstract to think that employees come first, but what about the small suppliers to Republic who'll have to lay folks off if their bills aren't paid. Talk about the domino effect. (Which is, of course, one of the reasons why we need to do something to bail-out our head-up-its-tailpipe auto industry...)

And let us hope that the Republic Window plant occupation stays peaceful.

Nothing, thankfully, has gotten truly ugly quite yet in this economy, but we're not too far into the big, bad "it" quite yet, either.

We've already had a few years of mounting backlash against immigrants.  We're starting to hear grumbling about why our tax money should go to fund pensions and health care benefits for government workers, when no one else has them. Those of us who have 401K's are looking at them and asking ourselves how we're going to work until we're 75 if there are no jobs out there.

So, best wishes to the workers at Republic Windows.

And am I the only person who's thinking "Republic Steel"?

For those who don't know their labor history, in May of 1937, workers trying to unionize at Republic Steel marched on the plant. Bricks were thrown (marchers), tear gas canisters were lobbed (police), and shots were fired (police).

By the time the melee ended, 10 of the marchers had been shot to death.

Strikers and police, 1937

(Source - picture and Republic Steel details: Chicago Tribune archives.)

Here's hoping that things stay calm and unbloody, in Chicago and elsewhere, in these our troubled times.

Friday, December 05, 2008

PNC's Partridge in a Pear Tree Index - 2008

For the twenty-fourth time, PNC is bringing joy to the world by letting us know just what it costs to spring for the Twelve Days of Christmas.

And for the third time - see how tradition begets tradition? - Pink Slip is spreading the cheer by blogging on it. Here's a link to last year's post.

PNC has found that their Christmas Price Index is far outpacing the regular old rate of inflation - it's up 8.1% since last year.

According to the 24th annual survey, the cost of the PNC CPI is $21,080 in 2008, $1,573 more than last year. The PNC CPI exceeds the U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index – the widely used measure of inflation calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Consumer Price Index is up 3.7 percent this year. The core CPI has increased 2.2 percent since Oct. of 2007.

The seven swans a-swimming proved to be a driver of this year’s index, carrying the greatest weight with a whopping 33.3 percent increase due to their scarcity. True Loves will spend $5,600 this year for Swans compared with $4,200 in 2007, accounting for $1,400 of the $1,573 increase. The swans typically have the largest swings in price in the PNC CPI.

But that's just the inflation in the components - not what it would cost you if you went through the whole song and dance with all those lords a-leaping, etc:

As part of its annual tradition, PNC Wealth Management also tabulates the “True Cost of Christmas,” which is the total cost of items gifted by a True Love who repeats all of the song’s verses. This holiday season, very generous True Loves will pay more than ever before—$86,609—for all 364 items, up from $78,100 in 2007, a staggering 10.9 percent increase.

I'm guessing that the recession (The Recession?) is going to usher out wanton spending on luxuries like the full True Love spendathon. And usher in a more practically oriented approach to opening up the old pocketbook. I was even reading that upscale consumers, who would just last month have turned up their noses at Walmart, are now running their carts up and down the aisle in search of bargains (if not applying for jobs as greeters).

In light of the new reality, I propose a look at the components of the 12 Days of Christmas/Christmas Price Index, and figuring out what stays and what goes.

Starting from the top:

Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing

It is widely understood that the first thing to go in hard times is The Arts, other than those that can/will be supported by the WPA, and fairy-tale Shirley-Temple-like escapist movies.

But I like The Arts.

Although not just the performing arts.

What about writing, painting, and composing?

Thus, for the duration, I propose six drummers drumming, six pipers piping, and four ladies dancing, augmented by six writers writing, five composers composing, and five painters painting.

As for the ten lords a-leaping? This sounds suspiciously like performance art, so I'd jettison this immediately and substitute ten bloggers blogging. Cost savings? Given that bloggers blog for free (especially those of us who can't figure out how to "monetize" their efforts), and lords-a-leaping apparently charge, the savings would be $4.4K. (Done!)

Eight maids a-milking

What's not to like? Working girls, in the apple-pie wholesome sense of the word, bringing goodness and an essential food stuff to the world. The eight maids get to stay.

Seven swans a-swimming

My understanding is that swans are cranky, miserable, nasty old birds. Sure, they're beautiful, but beauty is a luxury good. Let's send those seven swans a-swimming into the sunset.

Six geese a-laying

Well, I'm not a big goose fan. Swap this for turkey, and they'll help feed us.

Five golden rings

Five golden rings? Isn't this exactly the wretched excess that got us into this mess?

Let's make this one golden ring per customer, why don't we.

Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle-doves

Unless any of these critters can demonstrate edibility, it's bye, bye, birdie as far as I'm concerned. Substitute free-range - not factory - chickens.

And a partridge in a pear tree!

Who eats partridge?

I'd let this one fly the Christmas Price coop.

As for the pear tree, keeping this one makes a lot of sense. With a pear tree, you'll be growing your own: no transportation costs. (Talk about buying locally.)

It's clear that this new CPI/True Love basket is a lot cheaper than the luxury laden original. If I weren't so lazy, I'd rough out the actual costs, demonstrating my superior quantitative skills, and, perhaps, lining myself up for employment that requires not just the QWERTY keyboard, but the numeric keypad as well.

But it's late, and I need to settle down for a long winter's nap.

So, bah humbug to the calculation.

But do take a gander - one of the ganders I threw out of the basket - at the PNC site. It's a lot of fun.