Wednesday, April 30, 2008

National Treasures: The US Mint's Artists

A month or so ago, I read an article in The New Yorker on that ever-greenest of topics - whither the penny - which I have already posted on. Somewhat incidental to the article, writer David Owen mentioned that, on a trip to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, he met a "young staff artist."

Well, I know that in the last few years they've redesigned our bills, such that Ben Franklin now looks like a cartoon version of himself, and Andrew Jackson now looks just like a guy I used to work with. And the Jefferson nickel got a recent facelift. Plus there are all those wonderful state coins that have been coming out the past few years.

But it got me thinking about just how many artists are in the employ of the Mint.

And it turns out that there are more than anyone other than a coin collector might think.

From the US Mint's site, I learned (among other things) that they employ: elite team of sculptor-engravers who are entrusted with creating designs and sculptural models for the production of the Nation’s coins and medals.

At present, the Mint is "entrusting" seven permanent sculptor-engravers, and also uses the work of others through something called the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), which:

...provides the Nation’s artists the opportunity to contribute beautiful designs to coins that will be enjoyed by all Americans.

AIP's current "refined pool of talented American artists" are the folks that brought us the designs for the state quarters, as well as for the Presidential $1 Coin Program - a program I was not aware of, let alone being aware of the "corresponding First Spouse Gold Coin Program."

I'm all for employment opportunities for artists, not to mention writers and musicians. Come the twenty-first century's version of The Great Depression - when the American economic tiers will consist of a narrow elite (celebrities, hedge fund managers, and reality show producers); a slightly more populated class of professionals and artisans who support the top tier and run the systems that keep the whole shebang afloat; Wal-Mart greeters, happy to have any job; and survivalists, who get by on a combination of the dole, barter, casual employment, and selling on eBay whatever remains of the crap they accumulated before The Great Depression - I hope that the government will re-institute the WPA. We can then have all kinds of cool public art of the kind you see in cool public buildings that were decorated during The Original - and still the Greatest - Depression. I hope there are still libraries and post offices to decorate, but I maybe by then no one will read and no one will send mail.

But if there's another WPA, we will get to read all kinds of cool state guidebooks, like the ones that got written by struggling writers in the 1930's. I hope that those books won't all read the same - that every state will fall into one of two categories: those where every square inch is covered with suburban sprawl and big-box stores ; and those where every square inch is covered with with robot-run agribusinesses, and where a small "real population" - say, 1000 voters - is kept intact for the sole purpose of electing two (Republican) senators to counterbalance the wild voting of those crazed coastal states.

No, it would be nice to see what the current crop of writers would have to say about the states. And now that we have 50 states, we'll have two more writers to employ than we did way back when there were only 48 states.

(Let's hope that by then we will not have developed a canon consisting entirely of txt msg. OMG Texas ROFL.)

Back to the Mint, and their list of circulating coins, which is larger than you might think.

I knew about the state quarters. In fact, I just looked in my overcrammed wallet and found, in addition to a bunch of old style quarters, I found nine state quarters, which are mostly kind of cool, thanks to the work of our AIP artists and all those sculptor-engravers. Of the ones I had, I especially liked Montana's (cattle skull) and Wyoming's (cowboy on a bucking bronco). Sentimentally, I also like New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain/Old Stone Face, which collapsed a few years back. I'm not that enamored of Idaho's - an eagle (?) with the words "In Perpetua", which I assume means that, even if their population goes to 1,000 they will continue to send two (Republican) senators to Washington forever. Although maybe not this year.

I also have a few oldies like the Roosevelt dime and the Lincoln penny. And, while I knew that there was a new nickel, I was surprised to find that there are three different nickels in circulation, and that I was holding all three.

All three have Jefferson on the front. Two have Monticello on the reverse. And one has a buffalo on the back - kind of like the olden buffalo nickel. (This must be from the "Westward Journey Nickel Series". I'll have to start looking more carefully at my coins.)

But let's face it, circulating coins alone can't keep all those sculptor- engraver and AIP artists busy. What keeps 'em going is the raft of commemorative coins.

Who knew there was a Little Rock Central High Desegregation Silver Dollar. Or a 400th anniversary of Jamestown coin?

We've got coins for Chief Justice Marshall. The 230th anniversary of the Marine Corps. (Semper fi, and all that, but isn't 230 kind of an odd-ball anniversary to celebrate? Couldn't they have waited another twenty years? For the most part the Mint favors 50, 100, 200, and 400 - Columbus - anniversaries.)

Apparently, the Mint and coin collectors really like buffalos, as they seem to be a recurring theme.

Dolley Madison got her own commemorative coin, which sems to be separate from the First Spouse collection. Why is that? Wouldn't Eleanor Roosevelt or Abigail Adams make more worthy choices? Or Edith Wilson who may have been running the country after Woodrow took ill.

I'm guessing that all these commemorative coins are money makers, and that the Mint makes, well, a mint on them.

Even if they don't, it seems to me that whatever we pay our sculptors-engravers may be more worthwhile than some of the other things the government spends money on.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Problems in Shangri-La-La Land: The Broken Promise of Over-55 Housing

Now that I'm over 55, I've gotten a bit curious about those over 55 housing complexes.

I mean, just what is there about being over 55 that would make someone move into one - other than the likelihood that someone that age is either an empty nester, or is never really going to get around to having kids.

Or is it that they're really aiming for the over 65 set, but want to make people feel not-so-old by seemingly wooing 55-ers and up. (Sort of like those plus-size stores that start at size 12....)

Not that I have any interest in moving into age-segregated housing.

I like the fact that the building I live in supports an age range from 6 weeks to nearly 90 years. It's nice to hear the occasional baby squawk from Gregory-the-newbie, and if I'm as spry as Jack downstairs when I'm 90, well...

And I like living in a community that has a similar age diversity. The neighbors have three kids under 10. There are a couple of private schools in the neighborhood, and I see the kids coming and going from outings. We have a lot of hip young singles floating around. College kids. Middle-agers. And plenty of oldsters, including my neighbor Dick - who's got to be pushing 80 - who (even though he lives half-way down the block) clears the ice-clogged drains on the corner of Beacon and River after every storm. (Unless I beat him to it, in which case he sometimes comes out to supervise.)

At some point, however, I might do one of those congregant living arrangements for the elderly.

My mother spent the last year of her life in one, and enjoyed it immensely. They provided two meals a day, light housekeeping, fix-it repairs, field trips and entertainment. Liz had a bright little one-bedroom apartment - her first "single gal" pad, by the way. The people who lived there and the folks who ran the place all seemed very nice. I'm sure that some day, I'll be ready for just such a living situation. Actually, some days it sounds pretty darned good for right now. Even though it's not that big a deal to throw a couple of blueberries on my bowl of Kashi Go-Lean, some days I wouldn't mind if all I had to do was walk down to breakfast...

In any event, I was interested in a recent article on over-55 housing that appeared in The Boston Globe that talked about how some of the local complexes, unable to sell out to the gray-beards, are trying to wiggle out of the age restrictions they've set.

It's the age-old story: everyone thinks it's a good idea to build over-55 housing, so everybody goes ahead and builds it, but:

...[W]ith more than 20,000 new over-55 units built statewide since 2000, builders ... are saying that age restrictions, formerly a hot marketing tool, are now hampering sales.

So the developers are going to the towns where they've built, and looking to be released from the burden of over-55 - much to the annoyance of those who bought in to the marketing promise that they were moving into a "sort of retirement Shangri-La."

It's not clear that they'll all be successful.

Joanne Foley, a lawyer for MP Development, a partnership between Hudson developer Tony Frias and Jonathan Kraft [whose development was featured in the article], said the developers have a right under state law to achieve an economic return.

Under Massachusetts law, local cities and towns cannot mandate zoning conditions that prevent sales, even though the over-55 limits were first proposed and enthusiastically pushed by the developers themselves, she said.

While these places are unlikely to have amenities designed to appeal to families with kids, I'm not sure most standard apartment buildings do, either. (Other than laundry in the basement, and the fact that our building is just across from a beautiful park, the units in our building are clearly not built for families. Which is why, although we've had any number of babies in the building, we don't tend to have many kids beyond toddler age. The families move into bigger digs, with more growing space for the kids. I think the oldest child we ever had here was 4 years old.)

So, the developers are nervous they won't make their investment back. The towns are doubly nervous: unfilled units mean unpaid taxes; while units with families means more burden on the schools. And the over-55ers who thought they would only have to deal with colicky babies, toddlers careening around on Big Wheels, and sullen teenagers on skateboards, when they're grandkids come to visit. And now they're living in fear that Shangri-la has become just another place to live.

Frankly, worse things could happen to them.

And just think about the upside: given that the baby-boom is followed by a baby-bust, when it comes time to sell, these over-55-ers won't have that many people to sell to if the complexes remain age-restricted. Of course, at that point it's not likely to be their problem, now, is it.

Monday, April 28, 2008


A few weeks ago, I saw a bit in the news about someone who claimed that his hamburger was served with a lougie. The reason for the special sauce was that the hamburger was ordered by a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and cooked up by a Seattle Seahawks fan. (The Steelers beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl a few years back.)

The thought of finding a big wad o' spit in your burger is certainly a bit unsettling.

I've found foreign objects in restaurant food a couple of times: a bandaid in my cole slaw, a rock in my soup. My sister was once served a fingernail paring in her drink.

But these additions were, I'm guessing, unintentional.

When I was a waitress, the UFO's were sometimes put there accidentally on purpose.

I won't disclose the restaurant's name, as they may well have cleaned up their act, but I worked one summer in a venerable old Boston tourist trap. Tourist trap? Did I say tourist trap? I meant rat trap.

At night, once the customers had cleared out, the waitresses all spent a few minutes hurling soup spoons at the rat holes, since the noise tended to keep the rats from coming out until we'd had a chance to clean our tables off. (If the rats came out, we were allowed to go home and clean up the next day. Occasionally, the rats came out when customers were still being served. If you screamed when you saw a rat, you could be fired on the spot.)

While rats were much in evidence at this place, I don't think anyone ever served rat (which, I bet, does not taste like chicken).

But, just for a laugh, the fry cooks did fry up cockroaches in the Fisherman's Platter, along with scallops, clams, and oysters. Yummy! And the salad guy used to deliberately drop cigar ashes into the salads he prepped - a little bit of extra added flavor.

One time, one of the waitresses - I believe she was stoned at the time - dropped an order of steamed cherrystone clams on the kitchen floor. A number of the cherrystones leapt out of their shells, so we all got down on the sawdust and who-knows-what-else covered floor to help our colleague pick those suckers up and shove them back in their shells.

Hey, they were steamers. The customer would very likely swish them around in clam broth before eating them. Plus they were steamed cherrystones, which were tough and rubbery so no one ever ate more than a couple of them anyway.

At the same restaurant, there was a dishboy known as "The Animal." He had unstopped a sink one day by reaching in and pulling out the drowned rat that was clogging it. With the same, unwashed hand, he dipped into a five-gallon container of ice cream and scooped himself up a big mitt-full. (One of our personal eating rules was that we would only take ice cream from a newly opened container. For customers, we were not so particular.)

I worked in this rat trap more than thirty years ago. I walk by it frequently.

I'm sure things are different there today, but, not surprisingly, I haven't been back there since the summer job ended and I went back to school.

Who wants to chance a fried cockroach? An ash-strewn salad? A steamer that's rolled around a filthy floor?

Spittleburger? It happens. (Next time I'm in NYC and forget to take off my Red Sox cap, I'll have to check my burger just to make sure they don't slip me something I didn't exactly order.)


For those who know that I worked at venerable old tourist trap Durgin Park: I'm not talking about Durgin here. Durgin had its peculiarities, but it was pretty darned clean. I have been back there a couple of times over the years - mostly for its most excellent Indian Pudding, a wonderful glop of corn meal and molasses served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Well, I have seen the future....

The other day in The Boston Globe, Alex Beam had a column on predictions of what would become extinct, and when. His source was Australian futurists Richard Watson and Ross Dawson's time line, which is definitely worth a look-see (although it is something of an eye chart).

To get you up to date, privacy is already extinct. (I thought so! All my efforts to avoid using the CVS card so that they can't find out my toothpaste preference are for naught. Actually, I wish they did know my toothpaste preference. Then I could go into a CVS, wave my magic card, and have it tell me that I like Crest Gel with Extra Whitener, Breath Freshener, and Tartar Control - or whatever it is that I use - so that I wouldn't have to spend 35 minutes in the toothpaste aisle reading all those boxes.)

No surprise that manual typewriters are gone, and I, for one, am just as happy. All those flying letters if you didn't strike the keys just right. The jam ups. The Wite-Out and correct-tape. What a pain in the butt....

Also extinct: punch cards, careers (?), milkmen, and Swiss Army Knives. I believe they're wrong about the Swiss Army Knives. And they also have wooden toys as already extinct, but that was before last year's lead-painted, poisoned-plastic, Chinese toy crisis, which gave wooden toys a nice little bounce back.

According to these folks, normal weather is a goner. (I thought so.) As are public intellectuals. (I guess all we get now are talking heads and pundits, who prefer "witty" sparring to thinking.)

What's coming up in terms of extinction?

Ashtrays - no big loss. Land phones - I'll have to warn my husband, the last person in the world to not have a cell phone. Secretaries, which have been pretty much extinct in high tech for a while. And state pensions - which I've long been saying is just a matter of time. Once there are no longer any private sector employees with pensions, there will be zero taxpayer support on their part for pensions for government workers.

Post offices. Libraries.

Ah, how I will miss them, although I hardly ever do go to the library any more....

Telephone directories will become extinct sometime in the next 10 years. Bring it on!

In 2009, they predict that mending things will pass out of existence. Frankly, I think it's pretty much gone already. Other than re-heeling shoes and sewing on buttons, I pretty much just throw out something when it stops working. Seriously, who am I going to find who can repair my 12 year old boom-box that takes forever to pick up the thread of the CD?

Getting lost will be extinct by 2014. For a sense-of-direction-challenged person like myself, this is good news. I have been late to getting a GPS, but it's really just a matter of time.

Retirement will be extinct in 2016. That figures! Just about the time I'll be a candidate for Social Security, there it goes.

I may or may not see the end of glaciers (2037) or the end of peace and quiet (2038), which will make me just as happy to be dead and gone.

Death, by the way, will be extinct at some point in the future.

I will, quite thankfully, miss that. (The older I get, the more I realize that, if we live long enough, we all probably hit a point where we've seen quite enough, thank you. The end of glaciers and peace and quiet will likely do it for me.)

Blogging will be extinct by 2022, which still gives me a few good years worth of posting.


Interesting, these guys are big proponents of robotic pets, which I posted on here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy (Real) Birthday, Miggy Tejada

Baseball fans, a legion in which I hold lifetime membership, are by now aware the Houston Astros' star Miguel Tejada (formerly of the Baltimore Orioles, and, thus, someone I saw play frequently against the Red Sox) lied about his age when he signed his first professional contract. He shaved off a couple of years, making himself 17 when he was really 19.

Supposedly, this is not exactly a rarity for players coming form poor places like the Dominican Republic. (Baseball fans, of course, know just how important the DR has become as a virtual farm team for Major League Baseball.) There have been off-and-on rumors that the Red Sox slugger - and Dominican - David "Big Papi" Ortiz is not as young as he says he is. I haven't heard this rumor yet this season, but I suspect that I will, especially if Papi remains in the sluggish, rather than sluggerish, mode he has started the season with - which, thankfully, appears not to be the case.

Tejada "revealed" the discrepancy after he was confronted with his birth certificate during an interview with ESPN. The reporter sprang the surprise paper on him, and Miggy walked out. (Who can blame him?)

Knowing he would be outed once the interview ran, Tejada fessed up to Astros' management, and they, apparently, could not care less. Their GM was, in fact, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News as saying "... the fact of the matter is he's playing like he was 25." (There are also rumors swirling around about Tejada and steroids. Hmmmmmm.)

33 years old. 31 years old.

From where I sit, peering at the computer screen over the tops of my bifocals, it doesn't seem to matter much one way or the other, but baseball, of course, is a different sort of business than I'm in.

On one level, the thought of age discrimination among athletes is more than a little laughable. But there is the case of those lllooonnnggg contracts that athletes whose careers are cresting look for. So before they sign someone up for a long term, big bucks contract most teams have run all sorts of models having to do with aging athletes. Maybe you'd sign a 33 year old for a five year contract. Maybe you wouldn't.

Of course, few professions are so demonstrably results based. Everybody in the world - starting with those who make the contract decisions for the teams - can find out pretty easily how a player throws, catches, hits, runs, strikes out, homers, knocks in a run, steals third, gets thrown out trying for home, etc.

How does this guy perform in a late-inning, bases-loaded situation against left-handed pitcher?

What's this pitcher capable of in a late season, afternoon game in this ball park?

Do teams this guy plays for do better with him or without him?

Click. Click. Click. Here you go.

Talk about information at your finger tips.

And talk about a way to evaluate performance that has nothing to do with sucking up to the boss, stepping all over his colleagues, stealing other folks' ideas (rather than bases), fluffing up your résumé with real fake accomplishments. Hard to do much of that when your stats are on the back of a baseball card.

Naturally, it's not all statistics in sports. There is certainly the matter of chemistry, and there are certainly cases where players - no matter how talented - are let go because they tick off management, don't get along with their teammates, etc. (Today's example is the Toronto Blue Jays giving Frank Thomas a too-da-loo.) But professional athletics is, by and large, numbers driven.

The Tejada age- adjustment brouhaha does get me thinking about the age discrimination - real or perceived - that Boomers face in the workplace.

On the one hand, we're hearing that the demographic dip means that us Boomers will remain in demand for as long as we want to work.

On the other, we're advised to drop degree dates from our résumés so that no one does that little bit of arithmetic and figure out you're over 50. I have friends with very strong résumés who don't get called in for an interview even when, on paper, they're a perfect fit for the job. Age discrimination? Who knows. But I did tell a friend that he may want to change the statement "over thirty years experience" to "over twenty years experience." Sure, when he shows up they'll be able to figure out he's on the plus side of 50, but at least he'll be there in person to make his case.

Personally, I don't think I've run into any age discrimination - yet - but that may be because I'm not looking for a full-time job, and most of my project work comes through my network. Sure, that network has a pretty good idea how old I am, but they also have a pretty good idea what I can do which, professionally, hasn't yet atrophied. As long as there's demand for folks who can think clearly and write a coherent paragraph, I'm guessing I'll have work.

But, in truth, I don't know.

If the economy gets bad enough, there may be more pressure to give the work to those who have young families and long mortgages, rather than to Baby Boomers who want and/or need to work.

Meanwhile, to Miguel Tejada: Happy Real Birthday. You really don't look a day over thirty.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How did I miss World Rat Day?

Although I'm pretty much an animal lover, if there's one creature that I just have to place in the "least lovable" category, it would be the rat.

City dweller that I am, a rat is a big, ugly sewer-dwelling, basement- invading, toilet-swimming, garbage-bag-gnawing bit of nastiness. (I've never actually had one come up out of the toilet, but I do know that the possibility is NOT an urban legend. We have special traps in our toilet pipes that help prevent that possibility.)

I've even had rats hanging out in my car engine.

So rats to me are just plain hideous.

Well, apparently everyone doesn't share my feelings about this particular rodent, as I learned from a recent Boston Globe article on the observance of World Rat Day.

I'll have to let my sister Trish know that the local observance was held in her town of Salem, Mass. (I just hope it wasn't in her neighborhood. They've had skunks - including a rabid one - in the 'hood. They've had raccoons - including the family that lived in my friend Shelly's rooftop patio. In their house, they've had goody-nibbling mice. But rats. Rats aren't EEEEKKK. They're OMG! DO SOMETHING!

I'll be on the lookout for the house where Rat Day was celebrated. It's the one with the Rat X-ing sign on the door.

Rat fans, of course, take a far more benevolent view of rats than I do. And there are apparently a lot of rat fans - at least according to the National Alternative Pet Association, which claims that there are rat clubs throughout the US, as well as in England, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia.

Rat fanciers - do they have their own Rat Fancy mag, like Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy? - find rats "good natured", "sweet," and "affectionate." They let them perch on their shoulders, and nuzzle their ears, "scurry in frenetic spirals around hips, curl up in laps, burrow into sweat shirts, or sniff their way up and down arms."

And we're not just talking pink-eyed, kindly little white lab rats here - we're talking brown rats. But apparently they're not culled from the sewers, "domestic" rats are:

...systematically bred for size, color, shape, and temperament, according to Dale Taylor, vice president of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association. From such genetic tinkering, many types have evolved: hairless, tail-less, "Dumbo"-style with large, round ears, and others possessing crimped hair or spots, Taylor said.

I'm not sure about that "hairless", but "'Dumbo'-style" sounds kind of cute.

Still I must consider the source....and I do have to ask myself whether these burrow-enabling folks have heard of the bubonic plague.

They're also litter-box trainable, thus enabling one proud possessor of 17 rats the run of her home. (This pet owner got into rats when she adopted a couple of what are called "feeder rats". You know, the ones that get eaten alive by pet snakes. Anyway, she felt bad for them, and the rest is history. Of course, if I had to pick between adopting a rat-devouring snake and the rat itself, I believe I would be forced to go for the rat. Better a snuggler than something that I might find slithering across my forehead in the middle of the night.)

Rat Day, of course, has it's own www, where I learned that World Rat Day has been celebrated (?) since 2002, and that I am apparently something of a rat bigot, one of those benighted souls who are responsible for the fact that the rat's "image suffers from ignorance and unthinking prejudice."

(Well, no, my prejudice is actually quite well thought through, thank you.)

According to the WRD site, rats are "imminently lovable", so the rat folks must be anticipating some breakthrough soon. Maybe they thought Rat Day was going to do the trick. Maybe it did. Maybe I'm the lone holdout.

The site includes some mottos contributed (presumably) by members.

Rats are like potato chips;
you can't have just one!

Rats the dog of tomorrow

Got Rat?

Want a really gRATifying pet?
Get rats!

Rat Here RAT NOW

Charlie thinks that rats are the "pets of the future."

And Jane, for whatever reason, says:

Rats make good pests!

I'm not so sure they make good pests, but I'm definitely down with the pests part.

As with most groups, rat lovers have their own lingo.

There's rat raisins. Unlike potato chips, you would probably stop even before you had just one. (Good thing that the critters are litter-boxed.)

Then there's ratballs, a topic that even commands its own site of folks kvelling about the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of, well, ratballs.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of rat!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For a Few Dollars More: update on Flagler vs. Wal-Mart

Last week, I ran two posts on Wal-Mart that discussed the attempts of a small video production firm (Flagler) that had in its possession some more than interesting corporate films they'd made for Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart had dumped Flagler, which had worked with them for years on a handshake deal, with no notice, pretty much sinking the small Lenaxa, Kansas, business.

Hell, apparently, hath no fury like a small Lenaxa, Kansas business scorned, and they decided that the videos they'd made on behalf of Wal-Mart were actually Flagler's, and they tried to get Wal-Mart to buy them back.

One of my posts dealt with the situation itself, the other with business lessons to be derived from it.

Well, it didn't end there.

A day or so after I posted on the Flagler-Wal-Mart contretemps, I received a very nice e-mail from a reader in Kansas City, letting me know that I'd gotten my facts wrong.

Basing my post primarily on info I'd read in a WSJ Online article, I missed the bit that came out later - the one that claims that Flagler was looking for $145-150M from Wally for the videos, not the "several million" the WSJ reported. (Here's the link, kindly provided by my very helpful reader, to the later article in which the big bucks are discussed.)

$150 million. I guess Flagler was so focused on their squeeze play, they forgot the Wal-Mart fanatical devotion to everyday, rockbottom pricing.

Reading the letter that Flagler's attorney sent Wal-Mart - posted on the Wal-Mart corporate website - almost makes me begin to feel a little bad for big bad Wal-Mart.

Fortunately, I don't have to read a lot of legal documents, but this one sure reads like a blackmail letter.

No, it isn't written using letters cut out of magazines - it's word processed. And it doesn't ask Wal-Mart to put $145M in small, unmarked bills in a suitcase and leave it in the hollow tree on Locust Avenue at midnight.

But it does let Wal-Mart know that "the prospective buyers range from a political bent, to legal, to national media."

For $150M (or even $145M), it's understandable that Wal-Mart didn't want to embark on this particular shake-down cruise. (And I'm naturally disappointed to learn of the larger figure, since the story was a lot funnier in the earlier rendition, when it looked like Wal-Mart was being pound foolish over the pittance that I orginally thought Flagler was looking for.)

My business lessons still hold up reasonably well, although Wal-Mart obviously wasn't being asked for the chump change I had thought they were. And I'm not so sure that either side gets much by way of kudos for their negotiation strategy.

Still, one or two of the lawsuits that routinely come Wal-Marty's way will inevitably get settled for bigger bucks than they may have "deserved" because of how foolish and culpable Wal-Mart is going to look on these internal videos. (In one of them, some execs are apparently joshing around about a flammable gasoline container - the same type of container that, a while later, was in some kid's hands when he was severely burned. What do we think this one will be worth in court?)

While it's understandable that Wal-Mart didn't want to fork over the $145M-$150M Flagler wanted, it may turn out to be a mistake not to have settled for a few dollars more than the $500K they offered for what may turn out to be Corporate America's Funniest - or Most Damning - Home Videos.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Patriots' Day 2008

Today in Massachusetts, we celebrate Patriots' Day which is officially on April 19th. Of course, since we do love a three-day weekend, it is now on the third Monday of April.

Patriots' Day commemorates the Battle of Lexington, which occurred on April 19, 1775, the day after Paul Revere's Ride.

I'm going from memory here, but in ye olde days, Massachusetts school kids had to memorize the Longfellow poem about said ride:

Listen, my children, and you shall here
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
Twas the 18th of April in seventy-five
And barely a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year

He said to his friends,
If the British march
By land or sea
From the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft
In the belfry tower
Of the old North Church
As a signal light

One if by land, two if by sea,
And I on the opposite shore shall be
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm
For the country folk to be up and at arm.

I have always rather enjoyed Patriots' Day.

When I was a kid, it meant the week we got off for spring vacation. Yippee!

The Red Sox play in the morning - and you actually used to be able to get tickets to go and see the game. But that was before everything became such a big deal.

Getting Red Sox tickets is a big deal. This didn't used to be the case. But it's still fun to have a ball-game reason to turn on the TV in the morning.

The Boston Marathon, which is run on Patriots' Day, has also become a very big deal. This didn't used to be the case. It used to be this interesting race that everyone would drift out to watch some part of - mostly to root on Johnny Kelly, a runner who "did" Boston pretty much every year, well up into his eighties.

Now Johnny Kelly is dead, and The Marathon is an awful lot of hoopla. I still, however, do enjoy seeing the late-finishing runners, staggering around the neighborhood wrapped in the disposable mylar (?) blankets they're handed at the finish line to ward off hypothermia. The runners look like baked potatoes, but you gotta give someone who runs all that way some credit.

Patriots' Day...

Those countrymen that Paul Revere (and the mostly forgotten William Dawes) called to arms?

They made their stands at Lexington and Concord, and if you make your way out there you can see where those first battles of the Revolutionary War were fought.

At Concord Bridge, Emerson's Concord Hymn - another poem I had to memorize in the way-back - is inscribed on the monument.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flags to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Alas, I suspect that more tourists in Boston make a "must see" of the Cheers Bar than make their way to Lexington and Concord.

Happy Patriots' Day to one and all.

Friday, April 18, 2008


A while back, I wrote about the poor soul who'd found a mouse in a can of green beans, both here and over on Opinionated Marketers.

That would surely have put me off canned green beans, but I'm pretty much off them anyway, since they actually don't bear any resemblance in consistency or taste to real green beans - or even the frozen variety.

We have not, apparently, heard the end of the rat-in-the-green-bean story, as I learned when I received an e-mail from someone who had purchased green beans gbrat3and found there was some rodentish thing of another in their midst. The e-mailer was kind enough to send me a few pictures, one of which I'll share with you here.

As it turns out, my correspondent purchased the green beans from Wal-Mart. He/she - I'm not sure whether this was a man or a woman - was planning on freezing the remains of this particular day's meal, and seeing what Wally had to say about it.

I'm quite certain that there's a long association of food stuff with vermin (mice, rats, insects...). When you think about it, all those harvesting machines are no doubt picking up a few critters along the way. And grain silos? Do we think they'd attract rats? Nah!

Before he became an economist, my husband-the-chemistry-major worked for the Food and Drug Administration. This was eons ago, but he has stories about the allowable amount of "fecal matter" and insect parts in food stuffs. (Less than you'd notice but more than you'd think.)

And who hasn't found a worm in their apple? A corn borer in an ear of corn they're shucking? Some creepy crawly in their lettuce?

One time at the grocery store, when I was filling a bag with green beans (or all things), I found the desiccated carcass of some sort of lizard. (At first I thought it was a moldy green bean. But, no.)

Still, insects are one thing, things with fur and paws are quite another.

It's interesting that Wal-Mart was where both last fall's and this spring's green beans avec rat came from.

Makes me wonder how much of the race-to-the-bottom pricing they demand from their vendors cuts into quality.

Nowadays, it seems a lot more important to have our larders bursting with "affordable" cans of green beans than it does to think about whether there's a reason that everything's so darned affordable. (Maybe the place that produced them decided it was too costly to get an exterminator. Maybe they let their quality inspectors go in a cost-cutting effort. Maybe their only option was going out of business.)

And so we continue to stuff the closets of our shoddily built (but LARGE) homes with shoddily manufactured clothing and shoes. We make sure our garages are bulging with fall-apart appliances that it makes no sense to repair because we'd want the more innovative version, anyway - the electronic toothbrush with the gum massager, the boom-box that works with our iPods. We try to do our part in keeping the economy in forward motion - hey, we all can't run hedge funds! - by buying cheap crap or expensive crap - specialty knives good only for slicing strawberries, heat wraps that work on wrists-only, platters that say "The Glorious Fourth" on them.

Buying crap seems to be the patriotic thing to do, so we feel unpatriotic when the recession hits and we start feeling we have to think twice before we buy that special sauce pan designed for cooking green beans - the one with the add-on strainer for filtering rodents out.

Fifty years ago, I'm sure there were plenty of rodent body parts in green beans. Fifty years ago, our mothers would have tossed the beans out, scalded the sauce pan, and let us eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. She would have complained to the grocer, and gotten her 15 cents back for the bad beans. Maybe written a letter to the manufacturer and gotten a free case of green beans. (Great!)

Which is really not all that different than how folks respond now - although these days, we're all apt to see if we can throw a little law suit in there. Not to mention take pictures and post them on the Internet.

But long before the Internet made it possible for me to learn all about this latest instance of rodent-laden green bean, bad stuff has happened to food stuff. The fact of the matter is that there have been plenty of yucky things in prepared foods for as long as there have been prepared foods.

But I can't help but think that as Wal-Mart pushes more and more small companies into supplying more for less, we'll see an increasing decline in quality. And more furry things with paws a serving spoon away from the dinner table.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Pink Slip by Any Other Name...

The other day, Paul Krugman's NY Times blog had a short post on euphemisms that corporations use when they want to avoid the word lay-offs.

It lead off with a Citigroup coinage that designates the person in charge of layoffs as "the head of productivity." Apparently whoever came up with that gem was never actually around a company when people were expecting layoffs, or in the immediate aftermath of an "action."

Krugman offered his father's experience of being "outplaced."

Actually, I've gotten to use "outplacement" services twice, and, while they never actually outplaced me anywhere, I have to say I really enjoyed hanging out at their offices while I rewrote my resume and figured out what I wanted to do next.

He then mentioned a company that was "amortizing its work force," a term that I would put up there with the ridiculous palaver you occasionally hear about "human capital" and "our employees are our most important assets." (Sometimes, when you want to increase productivity, you just gotta amortize some of those important assets.)

Blog commenters contributed "best shoring" - truly terrible - and "optimized". On commenter noted that when he was laid off, he was “placed into a career transition.” Then there are downsizing, rightsizing, streamlining, and "resource action." Another contributed "stimulated to resign" - a term that makes "best shoring" seem peppy and cheerful.

I worked at one company that, when it announced that one of the senior managers was leaving by request (i.e., was "stimulated to resign"), always said that "X is leaving to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors." (Pencils and apples on street corners, anyone?)

Then there was the famous day, 24 hours after hundreds of people had been frog-marched out of the building with their cartons of personal possessions, when our company president let it slip that he wasn't aware that the lay-offs had occurred yet.

Within hours, a memo went out saying that, of course Joe had known that people were laid off, it was only that 'since they are all still on severance they are still with us in spirit.' (I don't have the exact words - I'm sure someone who worked at Genuity has the e-mail somewhere - but this was the, ahem, spirit of Joe's note.)

One commenter was taking notes or saving memos, quoting an exec who in the wake of a lay-off said,

“We felt it would be better for these individuals if they were free to pursue their wholeness unimpeded by their continued employment here.”

This reminded me of the first time I was "downsized".

I wasn't actually on "the list" - I had, in fact, been one of the execs working up "the list" - and I got into an argument with the company president about how we were going to position the lay-offs to the survivors.

"I'm going to say that, the people we let go were wonderful people, but they weren't the right people to help us moving forward."

"That," I told him, "Is complete BS. We should admit that we screwed up executing our strategy, and that's why we're laying people off."

We went back and forth for a while, and I ended with:

"You can say what you're going to say, then I'll say what I'm going to say, and we'll see who they believe."

Foolish me!

Next thing I knew, I was part of the "resource action," part of the workforce that was amortized.

I was devastated for about 24 hours.

Then I realized that I had personally been best shored and right-sized.

Career-wise - and, as it turned out, friendship-wise - this was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Business Lessons from the Case of Flagler vs. Wal-Mart

Yesterday, I blogged about Flagler Productions, the tiny little almost out of business company that got dumped as a vendor by Wal-Mart - and is getting their revenge by selling embarrassing (and possibly incriminating) videos of Wal-Mart company meetings.

It seems to me that there are a number of business lessons to be learned from this story, and here are a few that I came up with.

For Flagler:

  • Don't rely on one company to provide 90%+ of your business. Sure, it probably felt pretty darned good to have a big old company like Wal-Mart as your prime source of revenue, but somewhere along the line, Flagler should have done a better job of leveraging their being "the little company that can work for the big guys" and gotten a few more customers for themselves. A little "what if" analysis - i.e., 'what if Wally dumped us' might have saved Flagler from having to get rid of their employees, move their digs, lose their line of credit - and have to resort to the not particularly savory practice of selling what might seem like kinda-sorta proprietary material.
  • Get it in writing. Given that Flagler was relying so heavily on W-M, they should have gotten some consideration from Wal-Mart for devoting all that business to them, being ever-ready, or whatever. If they'd had a contract in place, they would have had more than 9 days notice (or whatever measly little notice they got) that the business would be drying up. An annual guarantee, a 3 - 6 month notice period - Flagler should have gotten some protection for themselves.
  • Before you do something pissy, think it through. This selling of the Wal-Mart videos may well turn out to be a lucrative business for Flagler. They may, in fact, befriend clientele who count themselves among the legions of Wal-Mart haters. Maybe. But this just might backfire on them, giving companies pause before doing business with them. They may well be thinking, if this is how they treat a former customer - one that's big and powerful - how might they treat me? I'd sure be thinking that before I signed them up to video my company function. And it does sort of look like Flagler was trying to blackmail Wal-Mart. (Kinda/sorta.) So think it through. Then think it through again, and ask yourself whether, in the long run, what you're doing is worth it.

For Wal-Mart:

  • If you're the big guy, it doesn't hurt you to be nice to the little guy. Surely someone at Wal-Mart must have known that withdrawing their business from Flagler was going to devastate them. Maybe they had good reasons - maybe this will all come out - but wouldn't you think that a company that's supposedly concerned with its reputation would be just a tad kinder and gentler. Of course, W-M didn't exactly get where they are by being nice to the little guy. Still, in this sort of situation, it doesn't seem that it would have hurt all that much.
  • Get it in writing. It's truly hard to believe that, in this day and age, Wal-Mart was naive enough to trust things like joking skits about flaming gas cans - which can and will be used against them in a law suit involving one of their flaming gas cans - to outsiders, without getting it in writing that they owned the rights to any videos made about them. (Note that the skit about the flaming gas can pre-dated the incident in which a young boy was injured by one of them.)
  • Before you do something stupid, think twice. In a somewhat blackmailish gesture, Flagler offered to sell the videos to Wal-Mart for several million dollars*. Wal-Mart decided they were only worth $500K. This may turn out to be a very costly, quite stupid decision on their part. I can understand if they didn't want to give in to something blackmailish, but that obviously wasn't the case: they offered something. Given that they were willing to "negotiate"', you'd think they might have just written off "several million" as chump change. (Maybe they weren't aware about the flaming gas can video. Surely that one "unfunniest home video" alone could end up costing them more than Flagler's asking price.)

I'm sure there are other lessons embedded in this story.

*I based this number on articles prior to the story that noted that the sum that Flagler was originally looking for was $145M-$150M - not "several million" as the WSJ had it. Here's the link to the post where I updated the story:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Flagler Productions vs. Wal-Mart: when a handshake deal turns into giving the finger

Poor Wal-Mart, if they weren't so big and ugly I'd almost - but not quite - feel bad for them, but there's ample finger-pointing and finger-giving in this story to go around, that's for sure.

If you haven't seen this particular bit of news, Flagler Productions, a tiny little Kansas-based company that for thirty years had a handshake deal with Wal-Mart to produce their events - store manager meetings, sales meetings, annual meetings, Board of Directors' meetings (!) - was dumped without notice in 2006.

Flagler lost over 90% of its business, but hung on to a treasure trove: the videos they'd made of all the events they produced - including all sorts of company meetings like the ha-ha one that's starring on YouTube in which a bunch of W-M execs in drag - presumably wearing dowdy dresses and clunky shoes purchased at the store - cavort around at a company meeting. Given Wal-Mart's reputation as perhaps not the best place in the world for women to work, this one is definitely not one that the execs at Wally want to get around - especially when Mr. Big pats one of the drag-execs on the fanny. Ho-ho. Well, too late for that. It's out there now.

(And while on the subject of drag, I get that it can be funny and, in the hands (wigs and makeup?) of skilled practitioners, pretty darned entertaining. But this drag show doesn't even have the wit of a Hasty-Pudding style collegiate event. It's just a bunch of men looking ungainly, swanning around in what they suppose is a womanly fashion. It would have been A LOT funnier in my book if the W-M female execs - if there were any at the time - got to strut their drag stuff by donning cheesy W-M suits and polyester ties and swaggering around. Just might have given some of those men pause to ask the question, 'is that how we appear to women'?)

In any case, Flagler - nearly driven out of business by Wal-Mart's buzzer-in-the-last-handshake, has decided that living well - which they didn't manage to do - is not the best revenge. (By the way, one interesting side note to this brouhaha, as reported by GaryMcWilliams in The Wall Street Journal Online - which I think requires a subscription - is that Mike Flagler, Flagler Production's founder, sold the company to two employees 9 days before the company was dumped by W-M. Depending on what side of the check-writing transaction you were on, that sure sounds like another whole story, doesn't it?)

If Flagler, absent over 90% of its business, couldn't live well, they did choose a pretty out there best revenge: making the tapes available to anyone who wants them for fee. But not before they offered them to Wal-Mart. But Flagler wanted several million dollars*, while W-M was only willing to offer $500K:

...arguing the footage wouldn't be of interest elsewhere.

Apparently, Wal-Mart was wrong, and Flagler is now doing a brisk business among unions, plaintiffs in actions against Wal-Mart et al. who are eager to get a Candid Camera look into the company.

Among the more incendiary material:

Plaintiffs attorney Diane M. Breneman stumbled across the videos while working on a lawsuit she filed in 2005, on behalf of a 12-year-old boy, against Wal-Mart and the manufacturer of a plastic gasoline can sold in its stores. Her client was injured when he poured gasoline from the container onto a pile of wet wood he had been trying to light, and the can exploded. The lawsuit alleges that the containers are unsafe because they don't contain a device that prevents flames from jumping up the spout and exploding.

Wal-Mart's lawyers have argued in court filings that the retailer couldn't have known that the product "presented any reasonable foreseeable the normal and expected use."


Ms. Breneman says Flagler Productions located videos of product presentations to Wal-Mart managers in which executives gave parody testimonials about the same brand of gasoline can. In an apparent coincidence, one manager joked about setting fire to wet wood: "I torched it. Boom! Fired right up." In a separate skit, an employee is seen driving a riding lawn mower into a display of empty gasoline cans. A Wal-Mart executive vice president observing the collision jokes: "A great gas can. It didn't explode." The tapes were made before the lawsuit was filed.

Ms. Breneman argues the footage provides evidence that the retailer could have foreseen the risk that customers would use the gas cans when starting fires. She says she plans to ask the Kansas City, Mo., federal court handling the case to allow the footage to be used as evidence. Wal-Mart's lawyer on the case didn't return calls seeking comment.

Well, that should make interesting viewing in a court of law. (Can you say, "Settle out of court"?)

Understandably, Wal-Mart - which had advised Flagler to just re-use the tapes by writing over them - does not believe that Flagler has any right to the tapes.

But this deal is only as good as the paper it was written on.

I'm sure that W-M viewed the Flagler outstretched hand as a blackmail shakedown - and it's really hard to see it as much else. Still, as dumb as Flagler was to hold all it's eggs in the Wal-Mart basket, you'd think that Wal-Mart wouldn't have been so callous as to put this company out of business without a second thought.

Once again, Wal-Mart manages to make a penny wise, pound foolish decision. My guess is that, if a few more gems like the exploding gasoline can "skit" are unearthed, this is going to cost the Boys from Bentonville a lot more than the measly amount that Flagler was looking for.

Flagler sure has had no problem biting the hand that used to feed them.


*I based this post on articles prior to the story that noted that the sum that Flagler was originally looking for was $145M-$150M - not "several million" as the WSJ had it. Here's the link to the post where I updated the story:

If you want to look at Flagler's site, here you go. It doesn't appear to have been updated since they were jettisoned by W-M (at least not when I last looked).

Also read for this post: Marcus Kabel in AP.

Prior Pink Slip posts on Wal-Mart:

Rules are Rules

You Gotta Start Giving Employees a Break

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hung out to dry: bringing back the clothesline

When I was growing up, we didn't have a clothes dryer. We had a clothesline. And, except for the worst of weather - rain, snow, sleet, and hail - when we used the indoor clothesline in the basement, the family's clothing, bedding, and towels was hung out to dry in the great outdoors.

Hanging up/bringing in the laundry was one of my regular chores, and it was one I really didn't mind all that much. Unlike dusting, dish-drying, and bathtub scouring, which I found completely dreadful and boring, outdoor chores, for the most part, stoked my fantasy furnace. Working outdoors - especially in the winter - let me be a war refugee in a DP camp. Noble me! Hanging out laundry for all those poor DP's. My war-torn, war-paralyzed family relying on me to earn a few pennies taking in laundry for rich people who could afford sheets while we slept on ticking mattresses stuffed with straw.

There were pro's and con's to laundry that was air dried. The biggest pro was the smell of the sheets. The biggest con was the stiff towels. And the stiff bras. My mother bought my sister and me the most uncomfortable cotton bras that in winter dried to the consistency of sandpaper. How comfy! It took about an hour's worth of wear before they softened up to something less than torture. When I got to college, I realized that there was such a thing as a bra made with nylon, which was actually soft to the touch, and which when dried did not resemble a slab of salt cod.

Of course, in light of today's concerns about energy use, the biggest pro to drying laundry outdoors is, of course, the energy savings associated with it.

Alas, in many places, there are laws forbidding clotheslines.

Some people, it seems, find unsightlies pretty, well, unsightly.

The clothesline controversy was aired recently in an article in The Boston Globe that noted that there are thousands of developments/homeowners' associations across the country that ban clotheslines in order to:

prevent flapping laundry from dragging down property values.

To end the tyranny of the anti-clothesline forces, legislators in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut are:

...seeking legislation that would guarantee the freedom to let one's garments flutter in the breeze.

(This is called "right to dry" legislation. In New Hampshire, it died in committee this session, but it will be on the agenda next year. Does this make New Hampshire the "Live Free or Dry State"?)

Maybe because I grew up in a densely populated, blue-collar area where the idea of equating hanging laundry with a decline in property values would have been as completely foreign as equating bathtub Madonna's with a decline in property values, I do not really understand why anyone would object to someone hanging their laundry out in their own back yard. But, apparently, there are some groups who put laundry in the same category as wheel-less junk cars propped up on cement blocks and left in the drive way with the license plates off. (Which any one would draw the line at. I mean, we have to protect our property values, don't we?)

"If you imagine driving into a community where the yards have clothes hanging all over the place, I think the aesthetics, the curb appeal, and probably the home values would be affected by that, because you can't let one homeowner do it and say no to the next," said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, a national group based in Virginia that represents thousands of homeowner and condominium associations, many of which restrict clotheslines.

Well, Frank, maybe the folks in your neck of the woods do things differently than they did in Main South Worcester, but having a clothesline in your back yard is not exactly the same as having "clothes hanging all over the place." We are not talking third world, drying on bushes here. We're talking about clotheslines in the back yard - where they probably can't be seen by those worried about curb appeal.

Yet, subdivisions and condo complexes all over the place ban clotheslines. There are apparently a few town that do so, as well. (Can you imagine someone apprehended at the border with a couple of baskets full of wet laundry in their trunk? "Officer, honestly, I was just passing through. I have no intention of drying this laundry within the borders of Niceville.")

Alexander Lee, who is the director of Project Laundry List, which advocates for outdoor clothes drying, thinks he has a solution: an image makeover for it.

"We want Martha [Stewart] and Oprah [Winfrey] to make the clothesline into a pennant of eco-chic," he said, "instead of a flag of poverty."

I live in a small condo building, where there's very little place where we could actually have a clothesline. But I wouldn't mind seeing on go up in our little back "yard", which is little more than a cement walkway with a wrought iron table, a few chairs, and a couple of planters where I plunk down geraniums and petunias each summer.

In fact, I already use the great outdoors on occasion. If not for drying, exactly, I do tend to throw a drying rack out there in the fall and air out my sweaters after they've spent the summer in moth balls.

The smell of the great outdoors on your clothes.

Even in the middle of a big city, there's nothing quite like it.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I had lunch recently with my good friend - let's call her Hepzibah, for she is, forsooth, an old fashioned sort - who told me that she had been reproved at work for using the word "paltry" in a client communication.

No, Hepzibah had not used the word incorrectly, or in any way that could be construed as insulting or demeaning to the client, client company, or client products. She was merely using the paltry word in a paltry way, letting her client know that something about something was, in fact, paltry.

"They won't know what you're talking about," Hepzibah was told. "Nobody uses that word."

As it turns out, somebody actually does use that word, and that somebody was Hepzibah's client, as Hepzibah learned when she received a missive from said client - let's call her Hortense, for she is, forsooth, an old fashioned sort - which contained the very word "paltry."

This was not, in fact, a set-up on Hepzibah's part. She had not conspired with Hortense to put the word in play.

(Ya know how sometimes it happens? Well, it happened.)

In a light-hearted way, Hepzibah showed the client missive to her supervisor - let's call him Brandon, cuz he's, you know, a regular guy, even if he is, like, a brainiac dude with a degree from a college that most folks would be happy to get a fat envelope from come April 15th.

Alas, the missive was dismissed.

"Big deal," Hepzibah was told, "All that shows is that it's okay to use that word with someone your own age."

And we know what a dying breed they are in the workplace. (Hepzibah is, in fact, several years younger than I am.)

Now the word "paltry" is hardly in the league with those pesky big words that make me head for the dictionary every time I want to use them and can't quite remember if I've got the meaning right. Words like inchoate, labile, and protean. (These are words I always want to use somewhere, somehow, but never do. When I see them in writing, I usually get what they mean from the context.)

No, paltry, I would hazard, is a word that would be understood by all but the paltry few.

Hepzibah went on to tell me that, when she'd used the expression, "The best laid plans of mice and men," one of her colleagues looked at her quizzically and asked, "What's that supposed to mean?"


I confess: I'm a snob and a curmudgeon, and things are getting worse the older and fogier I get.
But are we at the point now in the workplace where the only words we can use are from the basal reader, the only allusions drawn from pop ephemera? (Forget 'does Macy's tell Gimble?' It's 'does Brangelina tel Tom kat?")

I was going to end with, well, "Call me Ishmael."

But OMG, that would be so wrong.

So I'll close with something that's more universally understood and appreciated:


Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Prisoner's Dilemma: which Three Squares Greetings card to send...

My sister Trish saw a small piece in the Boston Globe a short while back, and - since she had no actual use for the product described - thought she'd send the cite on to me.

It seems that in the world of micro, niche markets, someone has started a business specializing in greeting cards for inmates. Los Angeles attorney Terrye L. Cheathem (of the law firm of Dewey, Cheathem and Howe?) was looking for just the right greeting card for her incarcerated brother-in-law and, when she couldn't find the right one on the Hallmark rack, she made her own.

In truth, it's not all that niche of a market. Given that 1% or so of the U.S. population is behind bars, that's a reasonable decent sized niche market, given that most of them have family and friends that probably brings this figure up to, what? 10-20% of the populace with some connection to the prison system?

But is there really a separate market for Three Squares Greetings?

Three Squares header

It's a tiny bit chilling reading their mission, however heartfelt and true it is:

We know there are few words to express thoughts and feelings when a family member, close friend or the child of a close friend is arrested. Our mission at Three Squares Greetings is to make it easier for you to communicate with those loved ones.

It will surprise some to find out that Ms. Cheathem isn't into prison coddling. There's not a whiff of prisoner-as-victim in her greeting card messages, thank you.

Consider the Christmas card:

You had the choice to be “naughty or nice.” And you chose . . . . . .

Oh well, now you have to do your time. But, Christmas won’t be the same without you here. Stay safe. Merry Christmas.

Well, that's pretty straightforward a lump of coal in the stocking of life.

And the Birthday card:

It’s your birthday and I know that you’d rather be almost anywhere else right now. Hopefully, one year older will really mean one year wiser for you. Take care.

Not to mention the New Year's Resolutions greeting:

It’s that time of year again. While doing your time, resolve to make better choices.

Talk about a just-the-facts, ma'am, Joe Friday blandness.

Frankly, I don't see any sentiment that couldn't be scrawled across the bottom of a standard, off-the-shelf greeting card, but in a day and age when there are greeting cards for specific birthdays, political affiliations, occasions that you didn't even know exist, let alone that merit celebrating ("On the first anniversary of our divorce....), I suppose that there could be demand for prisoner-focused greeting cards.

It's just that these are so darned grim....

Not that I imagine that prison is a lot of laughs - and not to make light of what are some pretty heinous offenses that got a lot (not all, but a lot) of those in prison where they are - but if I were in the stir, I think I'd rather get a card that was funny.

How about one with Santa Claus coming down the chimney?

Remember, the only guy who gets to do a legit B&E has a white beard and a red suit. I don't recall your having either. Keep it in mind next time you come to town.

Or, how about:

He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake.

No, silly, I'm talking about Santa, not the warden.

What about famous prisoner cards?

I love what you've done to your cell. Maybe you're the next Martha Stewart.

Or, if a card couldn't be funny, I'd rather have one that ignored the ham-handed preachments unless said preachments were actually written by someone who knew me - a personal slap across the back of the head, as it were.

Admittedly, I'm not in prison, never have been, and in all likelihood never will be. Although I've met more than a few ex-cons as a volunteer in a homeless shelter, I'm certainly no expert on the druthers of the prison population - other than to hazard a guess that the vast majority on those on the inside want out, and those on the outside most decidedly don't want back in.

But all in all, the tone of Three Squares cards doesn't sound like anything that would be much appreciated. Other than the one called "Money on the Books." While I am not immediately familiar with the phrase, it's pretty clear that this is candy bar, soda, and cigarette money - a gift that I'm quite sure is always appreciated:

I just wanted to tell you that I put some money on your books. Take care.

Of course, it seems to me that most people would be capable of writing this sentence on their own in a blank greeting card, or on a blank piece of paper. But maybe it seems more "gifty" if it's not homemade. What do I know?

I'm sure that it's terrible being and/or having a loved one in prison. Maybe Three Squares will help the time pass on both sides of the wall. But I think that Ms. Cheathem had better keep her day job. At $3.99 a pop - which most prisons would probably prefer to have as money on their books - I don't think this is going to be a breakout, gangbusters business.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thar's Gold in Them Thar Parties

When I was growing up, my mother had a friend who was an Avon Lady. I can't remember if they had Avon parties, but I do remember going over to the three-decker on Henshaw Street where Mrs. Favreault lived, and walking up the back stairs to pick up my mother's order.

My mother had a few other friends who sold stuff. I vaguely remember something called the "Popular Club Plan," which may or may not have been the place where she got the souvenirs-of-foreign-places-you're-never-going-to-go-to from. My friend Peter has a larger version of a Attic plate that we had in our family room. Only Peter's actually been to Greece. (And who's got that plate now? Do I have it?)

As for myself, I've been to a couple of Tupperware parties over the years, but never regularly. The last one I attended wasn't a party at all. A woman I worked with sold Tupperward and just brought the catalog and order sheet into work. Quite convenient - although no chance at winning a doorprize, I'm afraid.

While Tupperware - and a lot of other house parties: even in New England I see one of those MaryKay Cosmetic pink cars every once in a while - are still going strong, they're now getting some competition from gold parties.

I saw something about this on the TV news recently, and googling brought me to a Detroit Free Press article on the trend.

With the price of gold soaring, people - mostly women - are apparently -

...flocking to private house parties to sell their broken gold chains, mismatched earrings, class rings and other gold jewelry they no longer wear.

Gail Kenny, one of a number of folks running gold parties in the Detroit area, has long experience in the jewelry business, and came up with the idea when trying to sell a gold Tag Heuer watch on eBay.

In a somewhat reversal on the Tupperware theme, where the "guests" bring the money and buy the goods, with the gold parties, the person running them brings the jeweler's loupe, the scale, and the cash to pay out on the spot. Ms. Kenny also brings security, since we're talking about a lot more cash than would change hands at, say, your average Avon party. Let alone the gold.

(Not that I have direct experience, but this all sort of sounds like drug sales, doesn't it. The scale, the cash...What I'm assuming is kind of a wink-wink when it comes to taxes...)

The intermediary - Golden Girl? - takes your unwanted gold off of you hands, wrists, fingers, and necks, and sells it to a jeweler, precious metals dealer, or refiner. And takes here cut. Kenny averages $2K per party profit, and the hostess typically clears $500. (I'm definitely in the wrong business.)

Unfortunately, even if I knew someone who was running a gold party in these hills, I wouldn't have much to bring. No Tag Heuer watches: I've got a Skagen that cost about $90, and a Swatch. No chains. No bling. No fancy earrings. No high school ring either. I thought it was a waste of money, so I never bought one. Instead, I wore my sister Kathleen's to the ring ceremony, and she let me keep it on for my senior year.

There is my wedding ring, but that's staying put.

I suppose if I get desperate, it beats trying to figure out whether there's any gold in my fillings or crowns... Or I can see if I have that little plate with the Greek soldier on it. It might be worth something on eBay.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Arrivaderci, Alitalia: one more national airline's crashing down.

I haven't flown a ton on "national airlines", but I've flown some: British Airways (as BA and, dating myself, as BOAC). Lufthansa. Aer Lingus. Air France. Alitalia. KLM.

For the most part, I kind of like seeing those national characteristics on display: I've flown Lufthansa a half dozen times, and for the most part, they're pretty darned efficient. I was shocked last spring when there was something that bordered on boarding mayhem in Frankfurt - one boarding call, not by rows for a packed international flight? Huh? It seemed a lot more Alitalianate or AerLingusian than it did Lufthansatic, that's for sure.

(One time at Shannon Airport, Aer Lingus was simultaneously checking in three overbooked flights to NY, Boston, and Chicago, without having feeder lines set up so that you could tell whether you were in the line for NY, Boston, or Chicago until you'd been mooshed around for an hour.)

And on Lufthansa, I would never expect the types of gab you sometimes get on AerLingus. Once on a long-delayed flight from Ireland to Boston, the pilot told us all about the delay. It seems that the plane had been struck by lightning on the flight over from The States the night before.... And, sure, we wouldn't wanted to have taken to the airwaves until that got checked out, would we. Hard to imagine that from Lufthansa.

I also like the corny little national touches - the Tri-couleur everything on AirFrance; the 40 shades of green everything on AerLingus. And then there's the odd AerLingus upholstery. I haven't flown them in a few years, but for a while the seats were covered with facsimile of the words and handwriting of James Joyce. (Was it Finnegan's Wake? I've forgotten now.) I think that Joyce is buried in Switzerland, but I can imagine if he were buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, he would be spinning mightily in his grave every time an AerLingus flight full of American tourists on their dream visit to the Old Sod touched down on the tarmac at Dublin Airport.)

Surprisingly, given their love of food, the absolute worst meal I ever had on a flight was on Alitalia. They were all out of the edible choice by the time they got to my row, and I was served something the color and consistency of a hockey puck. I can't vouch for whether it tasted like puck, since I broke the plastic knife trying to cut it.

This flight part of the only package deal trip I've ever been on, which was surprisingly good value and fun. We stayed at an excellent small hotel near the Italian Parliament, within very close walking distance of the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, etc. The only fly in this trip's ointment was the (included) transportation in from the airport. At 8 a.m. after an all nighter (that included hockey puck on the menu), you don't want to be the last hotel stop on the mini-van's delivery schedule. Still, we thought we'd give the "transportation included" feature a shot on the way back to the airport. What could possibly happen?

Well, what could happen was a strike by the Sicilian orange growers, who were taking their orange-flavored beef to the Parliament, and were thronging the streets surrounding our hotel. The mini-van just didn't seem to be able to make it through. Fortunately, I was able to go out and forage for a cab a few blocks away. We narrowly made our flight.

In any case, despite the terrible meal and the ground transportation chaos, I feel a bit sorry to see Alitalia in danger(?) of getting swept into the AirFrance-KLM mix. (The outcome is still uncertain as of my writing of this posts. Last I heard, the Alitalia unions were balking at the proposed lay offs.)

Sure, if the deal goes through, Alitalia will probably be able to retain some sort of distinct identity for a while - staying paisan-ish rather than citoyen-ish - but we all know it will be on it's way to some type of bland, pan-Euro (or pan-world) sameness.

State-run airlines, of course, don't make particular economic sense. If your politicians want your country to fly planes, well, isn't that what an Air Force is for? Spending your paisans' Euros to subsidize an inefficient, poorly run airline seems foolish. (Don't even think about me launching a diatribe against government bailouts of non-national airlines. Maybe another time.)

Still, there's something sad about watching yet another state-run airline fly off into the sunset.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Résumé Inflation

The other day, my friend Sean sent me an e-mail letting me know that he'd come across the whereabouts of a former colleague of hours. I had to laugh when I saw what the fellow was taking credit for having accomplished at our old company - come on, now, do you really want me to believe that you were responsible for a 200% increase in sales during your tenure there?

I looked around a bit to see what some of the other folks in sales management at that place were saying, and damned if all of them weren't responsible for triple-digit sales growth.

Too bad none of that translated into either triple-digit revenue growth, let alone single-digit profitability.

No matter.

I'm sure that these guys were telling their version of fingers-crossed truth: that one quarter when, starting from a base of near zero, they were able to goose things up.

It's not just sales, folks, of course, who aggrandize their accomplishments.

I notice that most times when I read the management bios on a company's website, the managers managed to hold "executive" positions in every last company they've worked for. Doesn't anybody actually start out in a lowly, entry level job?

In any case, after getting on a roll looking up the sales managers from my old company, I thought I'd check out what one of the marketing alumni had to say for himself. There wasn't all that much inflation on that part of his résumé, but I did notice that he was happy to brag about his next company's having been named to the Leaders' box on the Gartner Magic Quadrant. His doing, of course. (Let's hope his new company doesn't expect an automatic repeat. What if this time he's stuck with a sorry-ass product and lame-o financials, and gets stuck in the Niche box on the MQ. Since I've landed in all four boxes at one point or another during my career, I'd be happy to help him spin up the marvels of the Niche box. But I'm guessing if he ever gets boxed in there, he'll be leaving off how instrumental a role he played in getting there from his résumé.)

Of course, what's behind all this is that infernal pressure to showcase "results" on your résumé.

So what if that company's 6 feet under: you got results.

Thus the temptation to claim some responsibility for anything that happened on your watch just because you were present at the creation. Or to play the numbers game and demonstrate the miracles you were responsible for. Of course, most people know enough when they see those percentages to figure out that the absolute numbers are probably pretty miniscule. (Hey, I was VP of Marketing at a software company during the period when revenues more than tripled! Of course, we started off with revenues of a little over $2M, and when I left, we were a little over $7M. Of course, the struggle to achieve even this paltry level of sales took us years. No matter. If I were the real résumé inflation type, I could say "as VP of Marketing, grew revenues by over 200%". Damn, I must be good!)

At one point, I came across the management bio of the CMO of one of the larger outfits I worked for. In it, he claimed to have invented the product category we were in, which was pretty funny, given we were in that category before he blew in to town. He also talked about his responsibility for an award-winning and iconic marketing campaign. Well, award-winning and iconic may both be true, but here's where I'd have wanted to see a bit about the results. The marketing campaign cost tens of millions of dollars, and yielded something along the lines of 0 in new revenue. Talk about iconic!

Most of us are guilty at one point or the other of a bit of résumé BS-ing. And, in truth, I think it's relatively harmless - unlike the out-and-out lies that make there way onto some résumés, which are invariably and inevitably caught at some point.

Stick to the truth is generally a pretty good policy to follow, especially since that damned truth has an annoying habit of sticking to you, doesn't it?

As for a little résumé inflation, a tiny bit of spinning up and polishing, for those in the real know, it's always good for a laugh.

Friday, April 04, 2008

And I thought the suspenders, cigars, and jello-shots were a turnoff...

This is yesterday's news, of course, but, after a three year investigation, the SEC fined Fidelity $8 million for accepting $1.6 million worth of swag from brokers. (Let's hope the brokers got a better return on their giving than Fidelity did on its receiving.)

The details of the bounty ranged from the relatively wholesome and innocent favors received by the relatively wholesome and innocent Peter Lynch who was fined for receiving tickets to relatively wholesome and innocent events like The Nutcracker and The Ryder Cup. Lynch, by all accounts one of the good guys, had called the guys on the trading desk for help getting tickets - and the boys on the desk came through for him.

But the boys on the desk were, I'm afraid, up to things that were far less wholesome and innocent - not to mention far more costly - than a couple of comps for The Lion King.

One of the bigger sweeteners was:

a $160,000 junket to Miami, where bachelor party attendees were entertained by female escorts and supplied with ecstasy pills. [Info taken from a Bloomberg article.]

A little more sleuthing on this bachelor party - which lasted three days - and I read that one of the party features was dwarf-throwing. I guess, even with the grass, the ecstasy, and the female escorts there's still a lot of time to kill during a three day bachelor party. No wonder a young man's fancy would turn to a savory sport like dwarf-throwing. But, then, traders will be traders...

In another incident, a broker flew one of the Fido traders, via private jet, to the Super Bowl and was rewarded just days later with a big, fat Tyco - how's that for rich - trade that cost Fidelity $18M. There's no guarantee that Fidelity could have gotten a better deal elsewhere, or that the loss can't be attributed to "market conditions."

But you don't need to be a logician here. Private jet to Super Bowl, ergo I'll trade with you. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone?

(I wonder if the Miami bachelor party was as much fun as the birthday party for Dennis Kozlowski. Or was it for his wife? The one on Sardinia with the ice sculpture of pissing Stoli....)

Marijuana. Flights on the Concorde. Dwarf throwing.

Home girl that I am, I've got my retirement money in Fidelity, and I just don't want to consider that the trader mooshing my money around just spent three days in Miami throwing dwarves - even if he's paid for the privilege himself. Let alone let some broker he's throwing business to pick up the tab.

Whoever Burton Greenwald is, I'm with him:

``It was a highly embarrassing episode for Fidelity,'' Burton Greenwald, a mutual-fund consultant in Philadelphia, said in an interview. ``It created a real blemish on a reputation that it took them years to build.''

Fortunately, "most of the employees cited by the SEC have left the company, and none remain on the trading desk, the firm said. "

Good. Let them go pop ecstasy, cavort with escorts, and throw dwarves on someone else's dime.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Butler Did It

I say, old boy. I've heard that the the job of butler is back in demand.

And this is no longer Jeeves making sure that Bertie Wooster's spats are buttoned.

No, the job, for at least one new age butler, according to a recent article in The Boston Globe, involves tasks like:

...tinkering with their [his employers'] house's wireless network, taking their silver Porsche Boxster out for its once-a-week spin....loading DVDs in the entertainment center. ..or running over to Charles Street to pick up a pizza at Upper Crust

Since these are all skills I have more or less mastered - especially running over to the Upper Crust on Charles and picking up a pizza (half State House/half sausage, ricotta, and roasted red peppers), butlering is perhaps a career option that I could look into.

But Michael Locke, one of the Boston butlers highlighted in The Globe article, also carries on the traditional butler duties:

"I get great satisfaction out of setting a great table," he says. "Proper linen, crystal, china, silverware, and candles; I use centerpieces, all types of things, all up to me. And when it looks good, it looks good."

Well, this would not be me. My "crystal" is the low-end, no crying if they break wineglasses from Crate and Barrel. My "silver" is the Oneida Paul Revere that my mother ordered for me with coupons off of Betty Crocker boxes 30 years ago. And my candles - which were all stored in a cabinet in our sunbaked kitchen - have all melted into yucky wax blobs.

Not that I can't appreciate it when I see it at someone else's house - I have friends and family who set some pretty fine tables - but it's not something that I'm naturally all that interested in. (There's no doubt a high correlation between hating to cook and having no interest in setting a nice table. I'll bet even Mr. Locke doesn't bring out the best china for Upper Crust pizza.)

It's not surprising to learn that U.S. butlers aren't fully in the frock-coated British tradition. According to Steven Ferrry, an authority on butlering and chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers,

"The American experience doesn't really extend to butlers that much, so they run the whole gamut from formal to completely informal, according to the employer's wishes."

Whether you're looking for formal or informal, the demand for butlers, a.k.a., household managers, is up along with the supply of ultra-rich - those with the inclination and money to hire someone to, say, load those DVD's in the home entertainment center. In fact,

Charles MacPherson, president of his own placement and consulting agency and former head of the International Guild of Professional Butlers, has declared a nationwide butler shortage.

The Guild is going to start a school "to help offset the lack of supply."

Let's hope the school can churn out a graduate in time to help one Beacon Hiller, a VC with two kids, who's looking for someone who can be:

...the center of our universe, coordinating things, paying the bills, and doing special projects, like organizing photos or making sure we buy gifts for the children if they have a birthday party to go to, things like that. It's been tricky finding the right person, because they not only have to be functional, but also have the right personality."

Well, center of the universe terminology aside - shouldn't the kids or your wife or your job be the center of your universe? - what this guy and his wife are looking for someone to offload these tasks onto so that they can spend more time with their kids. But aren't organizing photos and buying going to Toys 'R Us with your kids to pick up birthday presents the sort of things you can actually do with your kids? (This is, actually a question which I understand the answer "No" is truly the right one. Most parents of young kids that I know would be delighted to have someone go out and buy yet another g.d. kid's birthday gift for them. In the good old days, at least in my neighborhood, kids had one or two birthday parties in their lifetime. You invited a dozen of your friends who put on party dresses and came over and played Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs. Winners got prizes that probably cost fifteen cents at Woolworth's - Crayola 8-pack. Knock yourself out. All attendees got a tiny pink plastic basket with a few M&M's and a couple of sticks of gum in it. Cake was made by your mother who, if you were going to someone's birthday party, gave you a dollar and told you to go buy a present at Woolworth's. Today's birthday parties are both more elaborate and more frequent. And the ante is way up on gifts. No wonder there's no time to go buy all those birthday presents.)

In any case, these Beacon Hillers are willing and able to pay from $50k to $90K for someone to run their lives for them. If that isn't the beauty of supply and demand, I don't know what is. (Butlering, according to Ferry, can command up to $250K - plus fringes like a 401K, room and board, and a clothing allowance. Hey, I like shopping for presents for kids. I have a pretty good personality - maybe even the right personality. Is it too late for me to apply?

Maybe not. But maybe. Ferry says you need not only good managerial skills - mine are pretty sound - but familiarity "with high-quality houses, yachts, planes."

Alas, I don't think they're talking the U.S. Air Shuttle here.

Unlike the English version, who were groomed for the job in multi-servant households, most American butlers career-switched from a range of fields. They were chefs, retailers, worked in hotels - all of which makes sense. Another field mentioned is HR. Which I'd have to think about a bit.

Michael Locke, the Back Bay pizza-running, Boxster gunning, butler is, actually, a Brit. But he decidedly did not come up through the formal household ranks.

...Locke grew up in public housing, worked as a cloth finisher in a textile mill, drove trucks, served in the Royal Navy, and was a police officer for 10 years. A few years ago, he married an American woman and moved to the United States.

When he immigrated, he took stock of what he liked and what he was good at, and went to Ohio's Professional Domestic Institute for his credential.

Along with the other butlers/household managers interviewed, Locke really enjoys his work. Which is more than I can say for a lot of people I know who are slogging around in MBA-ish type jobs.

So the profession seems reasonably attractive.

Unfortunately, while I don't mind the idea of tootling around in a Porsche, schlepping out for birthday presents, or paying the bills, I don't actually care that much about the care and feeding of antiques, expensive carpets, fine china, or rich folks. And all the butling jobs seem to entail this.

Plus I'm not sure how much fun it would be taking orders from someone who's too self-consumed to put the DVD in the player. Doesn't it take just as much time to ask someone to do it for you as it does to do it for yourself? "Jeeves, if you could load up Remains of the Day and Atonement for me. I'll call you in later when I need you to hit the Play button."

I may just not be the servant kind. A running joke in our family was someone - I'm not sure whether it was me or my sister - asking one of our brothers whether he wanted a sandwich. When he answered, "Yes," she - or I - said, "Then make it yourself." If I had to put money down, I'd say it was Kath. The odds are somewhat against it being her in that she is an excellent, accomplished, and exceedingly accommodating hostess - while not overly formal, she is definitely among my "fine table" family and friends. But the odds are really stacked against me in that it is highly unlikely that I would have asked my brothers whether they wanted a sandwich to begin with.

If only my great-grandmother Margaret Joyce were still around! Recommendation from her parish priest in hand, she got off the boat from Ireland and took on work as a servant girl in the home of a well-to-do family. She never made it up in the household ranks - instead, she found a boy-o and got married. But I'm sure she could have told me a thing or two about the difference between upstairs and downstairs - and which end of the staircase you'd rather be on.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rules are rules, but Wal-Mart once again ignores the one about being tone deaf

Just the other day, I blogged about my health insurer's letting me know that if I received a settlement for last fall's fall (and attendant broken arm), I would have to reimburse them for all their medical costs before a) paying off my lawyer, b) recouping my co-pay costs, and - way down on the list - c) anything for my pain, suffering, temporary loss of my arm, expense for pull on comfy clothes, wireless keyboard, etc. (Link to post here.)

Well, if I'd been planning on suing, this sure would have given me pause.

Apparently the Shanks of Jackson, Missouri, went ahead and sued the bastards who'd caused the 2000 accident and put a brain-damaged Debbie Shank in a nursing home while still in her forties.

Debbie had been working at Wal-Mart at the time of her accident, and was an employee - "associate", in W-M's parlance - who happened to have medical insurance through them. W-M insurance covered the medical costs - to the tune of nearly half a million bucks - but the Shanks were looking for help with long term care, so they sued the trucking company that had caused the accident.

The were awarded $1 million, which after legal fees dwindled down to $417K. (Nearly 60% went to the lawyers! I definitely chose the wrong profession.)

In come the Boys from Bentonville, looking for their money - all of it. Fortunately - I guess - the courts told them they could only get their mitts on what remained in the family trust ($277K) after a number of years already spent in the nursing home. The Shanks family has been appealing, but The Supremes refused to take the case.

Meanwhile, the Shanks' attorney thinks that Wal-Mart should settle for $100K. (Not clear he's the same one who scored the big award in the suit against the trucking company, but if he did, all I can say it's easy for him to say W-M should take the $100K.) In any case, they apparently want it all.

It's hard to imagine an All-American hard-luck case that can top the Shanks' in the hard-luck category.

Not enough that Debbie Shank - who held the ultra-glam position as a shelf-stocker when she was working at W-M, so we're probably not talking about a supremely well-off family here - has sustained breathtakingly terrible brain damage that, among other things, has destroyed her short term memory.

As unimaginably hard-luck would have it, the Shanks' 18 year old son was killed in Iraq and every time Debbie asks about him, and re-hears the news, she weeps as if hearing it for the first time.

Naturally, the combo package of the notoriously rapacious Wal-Mart and the fallen hero son - with prostate cancer on the husband's plate, by the way, not to mention a quickie divorce so that Debbie could qualify for Medicaid - has the chattering class (which I guess I'm at least an auxiliary member) going out of their minds.

The truth is that, as Debbie Shank's husband concedes, Wal-Mart is within their rights to get back their money - rules are rules, and it's all there in the fine print.

But given how this poor family has been absolutely whipsawed by life, wouldn't you think that a company that has taken so many image blows - and seems to resent it - would have looked up the rule about tone deafness. Which is, if image and reputation matter to you, try to avoid doing things that will make you look really, really bad. Easy to see the word "Shanked" finding its way into the vocabulary used to describe the evils of Wal-Mart.

It seems to me that, from a PR standpoint alone, Wal-Mart could have taken a smaller amount. Or, given the circumstances of this one, taken a pass.

Of course, this is their rule, and they don't want to give the Shanks' a pass. Because when the next time it happens, the hard-luck case might be a little less grim (i.e., minus the son killed in Iraq) and media-perfect, but the outcome the same: someone in need of long-term care and losing their opportunity to pay for it.

It seems to me that this could have been avoided in several ways.

  • Wal-Mart could have made it clear earlier on that they would be entitled to their piece of the pie. Maybe the Shanks could have struck a better deal for themselves, expand the pie a bit. (My insurer only took a couple of months to jump on my picayune little case - less than $10K in total medical costs, counting PT (a total, by the way, which is quite a bit less)than the annual premium my husband and I pay. But they did take a few months, during which time I could have been merrily on my way to settling for, say $10K, then having to go out of pocket to pay the lawyer off. Maybe when they receive the first reimbursement request for anything associated with the word "accident" they should pick up the phone.)
  • Wal-Mart could have joined forces with the family - and all those in similar wretched, no-win circumstances - to mount a suit, ensuring that they got theirs, as did the victims and - oh, but of course - the lawyers. Why should the burden have been so fully on the victim to do all the heavy legal lifting, given that another party stood to gain the biggest benefit. (Is there something illegal about this approach? It sure seems to me to make one whole hell of a lot of sense.)
  • Wouldn't you think that lawyer in this case might have mentioned to the Shanks that this could happen to them. Surely, the lawyer had seen this before. It can't just be my health insurer and Wal-Mart who practice this payback rule.

This is truly a terrible story.

But it's really not a big, bad Wal-Mart story.

If and when we get around to "tort reform", it might be a good idea to throw in some reform around this issue.


Information used in this post came from a CNN story. And thanks to my friend Peter for telling me about it.