Friday, May 30, 2008

Funny how older keeps getting younger

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an article by Meredith Goldstein in The Boston Globe on what constitutes a "young person" from a professional networking point of view.

As it happens, young professional associations nationwide are experiencing an increase in folks over the age of 40 who consider themselves young professionals.

In the case of the Boston Young Professionals Association, and some other like organizations, the magic number is 45.

Others are sticking to their guns, and defining their cut off age as 40.

One group in Hartford is throwing a sop to the plus-40 brigade, and will be running "young at heart" functions. Which I can't imagine any self-respecting person under the age of 80 attending. Maybe if it were called twenty- or thirty-something at heart.

But "young at heart"?

Shades of someone's 70 year old son karaoke-ing Frank Sinatra on the occasion of his mother's 100 birthday. ("Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you. If you're young at heart....And if you should survive to 105. Think of all you'll derive, just by being alive." The words are fresh in my mind because I'm just off a long driving haul to Syracuse, and I have some Frankie boy on my iPod.)

Back to the young professionals, it seems that the definition of young is becoming more and more elastic, and, in many people's eyes, includes anyone in their 40's who's not married. Which can and does, of course, lead to some unseemly networking events in which the newly divorced 40-something wants to see if he really can trade a forty for two twenties.

There are, of course, no reason why people across a wide age range shouldn't be doing professional networking. Most of my work comes through my network. And most of my network is younger than I am.

And there's no reason why people across a wide age range can't be socializing.

At the wedding I went to last week, I had a great time talking with the bride and groom and their friends, all in their mid-late twenties. All interesting and intelligent. None of whom appeared eye-rollingly bored out of their skulls to be in the presence of someone in her 50's. Of course, this was a social occasion, but not a social networking occasion. I really think that, when it comes to social-socializing - in which people are looking to make romantic connections, or even just get picked up - people in their twenties and thirties should be able to operate without having to worry about 40- and 50- and 60-somethings hounding around them. 

(And most 40-, 50- and 60-somethings I know have no interest whatsoever in social socializing with people who look great, dress hip, like that kind of music (at that decibel level), are really deft texters, can hold their liquor really well, have more adventures (and misadventures)  ahead of them, and don't yet have a clue about their own immortality. A little of that goes a long way, baby.)

What pushing the upward limits of what constitutes a "young professional" tells me is that a lot of us just can't accept the fact that we're getting older.

Older keeps getting younger. (Or is it that younger keeps getting older? I'm addled and confused!)

All those nips, tucks, and dye jobs; all that Botox and Viagra - ain't nothing going to keep us forever young, let alone forever alive.

I consider myself relatively youthful in appearance and attitude. For my youthful appearance, I credit my mother's skin and my hair colorist, Rita. For my youthful attitude, I'll credit my interest - for all my grumping and grousing - in new things, new ideas, new writers, new music (within reason), new places, and new people.

But it's all relative, isn't it?

Compared to someone in her 20's or 30's, I'm an old professional, not a young professional.

And I don't think it makes any sense to say that "age doesn't matter."

It does and it doesn't.

Age - in either direction - shouldn't be used as an excuse to discount someone's worth or opinion.

But when it comes to defining "young", I just don't see 45 fitting the definition.

Maybe that's because I'm just a jealous old crone in my fifties who ain't no one going to let into the young professionals club.

Oh, boo-hoo.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why Buy the Cow?

Okay, okay. It's a terrible expression  - and likely one that nobody under the age of 40 has ever heard uttered. For those who aren't familiar with it, the expression is, 'why buy the cow when the milk's free;' and the gist, of course, is 'why would a man marry a woman who's willing to put out without the ring.'

It was one of the few pieces of life advice my mother ever gave me, and, naturally, it went unheeded.

It was, however, the first thing that popped into my mind when I went online looking for a tax form and stumbled across a company that sells them.

Here's what happened:

A new client asked me to send them a copy of my W9 form, which is a simple little form that provides your Social or your Tax ID to a company you're doing work for. Simple enough.

For whatever reason, rather than go directly to the IRS site, I googled and found a company that would provide me with a W9 form for the low, low price of $6.95.

The site selling W9's and other IRS forms is something called ExpressEForms, which is part of a company that sells printed checks - including laser checks for Quick/Books/Quicken, toner cartridges, business cards, and other handy-dandy stuff for small businesses.

I get why you'd be willing to pay for checks: your bank charges you for them, and these guys will get them to you quickly.

I get why you'd be willing to pay for toner cartridges: Staples charges you for them, and these guys could save you a trip.

But if someone could explain why anyone would pay to download the self-same W9 form they could get for FREE on the IRS, I'm all ears.

ExpressEForms comes up as a sponsored link, so they're clearly going after business. (They even let us know that they're IRS approved! Whatever that means. And why would the IRS want to approve an expense that will cut into their tax revenue? I am agog at this one.)

Who are the people who pay for IRS forms?

I don't run a business. Does the IRS charge for bulk copies of W2 and other forms? If so, it makes as much sense to buy it from another vendor.

But who'd pay $6.95 for a pdf that I can download from the IRS site and make multiple pdf and/or multiple paper copies of?

Huh? Why wouldn't they just give me it for free, telling me that I can also buy W2's in bulk there (presuming that it makes sense to pay for W2's)? Or why wouldn't they just have a message "for individual forms, go to the IRS"?

I am not the world's shrewdest consumer. It's not that I get taken a lot - other than by sob-story panhandlers on the street. Even in that case, the second time the same guy comes up to me with a story about how he ran out of gas and has a sick baby, well, I JUST SAY NO!

But I'm not all that supremely price sensitive - other than yesterday morning when even I refused to pay $9.99 for a miserly bag of cherries at Whole Foods, much as I wanted them. (And, just now, having admitted that I even shop at Whole Foods screams 'price insensitivity', doesn't it?)

$6.95 for a W9 form.

ExpressEForm had a link to click if I wanted to chat with someone, but it wasn't working when I clicked on it.

Too bad.

I was really looking forward to asking who in her right mind pays them good money for a form that's free just a click away!

Which, naturally, put me in mind of that charming question about the cow and the free milk.

Which, since one time-waster on the 'net invariably leads to another, I thought I'd googled, just to see where it came from.

And, naturally, I got sidetracked onto a site called CattleMax that sells herd management software. Now there's an interesting niche. Wonder if you can use it for other hoof stock, too, or whether hogs have an entirely different way of being managed. Which, I suppose they do, since they don't get herded on trail drives, or participate in rodeos (pig roping?).

Once again, the Internet does not fail to entertain.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Incoming: The asteroids'll get us if we don't watch out

I've been reading The Atlantic Monthly for years - decades, actually - and it can generally be counted on to provide at least one good, solid, gloom and doom article per issue.

For June, the g-d article, "The Sky is Falling" by Gregg Easterbook, tells us that the way scientists historical measured how many asteroids have been striking earth is just plain wrong. Thanks to Columbia University's Dallas Abbott, they're now accounting for the ones that didn't land on land, but landed at sea.

As "recently" as 536 A.D. - remember, this is geologic time we're talking here - Abbott believes that:

...a space object about 300 meters in diameter hit the Gulf of Carpentaria, north of Australia...An object that size, striking at up to 50,000 miles per hour, could release as much energy as 1,000 nuclear bombs...If the Gulf of Carpentaria object were to strike Miami today, most of the city would be leveled, and the atmospheric effects could trigger crop failures around the world.

Among the side effects: "rain as corrosive as battery acid." (No more "singing in the rain" for us, I guess.)

Abbott also believes that about 2,800, an even larger space object - perhaps a kilometer across - hit the Indian Ocean, producing what may have been Noah's flood - and a tsunami as high as 600 feet. Today, this would wipe out many coastal cities.

If it were to hit land, much of a continent would be leveled; years of winter and mass starvation would ensue.

(Let me be the first to quite selfishly declare that, if it comes, I really hope it hits me on the top of my head. Winter each year is one thing - I actually like it. "Years of winter"? No, thanks.)

One of the scientific bottom lines of all this new information is that some scientists now estimate that there's a 2-10% chance that there'll be a big, ugly space object hitting earth in any given century.

There are a lot of them out there, and we're due.

Enter former astronaut Russell Schweickart and the B612 Foundation. Forget for a moment that the foundation is named after the asteroid where Antoine Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince lived. Anyone who lived through repeated bouts of Sister Mary Presumpta acting Le Petit Prince out for us in French class in a whiney, precious little voice, not going to want to be reminded of Saint-Ex's classic. I much preferred the book where he's flying the mail plain over the Pyrenees.

Anyway, the B612 Foundation is trying to get NASA to pay some attention to what's lurking out there in space, and take some of the money that's going to put a man on Mars and put it towards technology that can "significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid, in a controlled manner, by 2015."

Here's what B612 has to say:

  • Asteroid and comet impacts have both destroyed and shaped life on Earth since it formed.
  • The Earth orbits the Sun in a vast swarm of near Earth asteroids (NEAs).
  • The probability of an unacceptable collision in this century is ~2%.
  • We now have the capability to anticipate an impact and to prevent it.

There is a program in place, Spaceguard, that is chartered with discovering and tracking all the NEA's that are over 1 km. in diameter. Of the estimated 1000-1100, NASA's found 670 and:

...happily, none of them is any threat to the planet within the next 100 years.

This cannot be said, of course, for the 35% still to be discovered, nor for the 100,000 or so smaller, but still dangerous NEAs larger than 100 meters. Only a very small percentage of these have been discovered to date, and those only incidental to the current survey for the large ones.

The reality of concern to us, among others, is that the discovery of a NEA headed toward an impact with Earth could be announced at any time by the Spaceguard program. If this were to happen the public would be extremely concerned and demand to know what is being done about it.

I'll say.

But, until then, it all sounds so  Henny Penny-ish that any politician who brought it up would probably be laughed out of office. (Remember, we can't even get a lot of these folks to take global warming seriously.)

The B612 Foundation thinks that we should be prepared to deal with the eventuality that, sooner or later, we're going to have to deflect "The Big One" from putting Planet Earth, more or less, out of business.

It certainly sounds reasonable that we could take at least some of the money we spend on nonsense and put it towards this cause, doesn't it?

A few months ago, I watched an exceedingly cheese-ball movie - it may even have been called Asteroid - in which an asteroid was going to land in the good old USA, and good old astronaut of yesteryear Robert Duval was asked by good old president Morgan Freeman to save us, which he sort of did by landing on the asteroid and blowing it up.

This being Hollywood, they had to add a bit more drama to everything. As I recall, they managed to break the asteroid in two, then were able to blow the part that was heading towards the West Coast to smithereens. So Hollywood was saved. Unfortunately, the East Coast was not so lucky. We, alas, went under - except for the few who managed to claw there way inland and up to the highest Appalachian mountains, or the few who were put on buses and taken to higher ground to replenish the U.S. with scientists, doctors, and politicians. (I would not have been among the chosen. Nor would I want to have been.)

Anyhow, check out The Atlantic article. Check out the B612 Foundation.

Don't confuse this with Star Wars.

This actually sounds like it might be a good use of taxpayers money.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Life as a Customer Service Rep

One of the worst jobs I ever had - and, given some of the jobs I've had, that's really saying something - was as a customer service rep at Sears.

In those days, of course, we didn't have a fancy name for the job like "customer service rep", let alone a fancy acronym like CSR. I have no idea what the official title was, but we called ourselves "customer complaint takers."

This job - which I worked for a while when I was in college, well over 30 years ago - was at the Sears regional headquarters in Boston. As I recall, our service area covered New England, upstate New York, Quebec Province, and the Maritimes.

I worked there with a couple of friends, and we were given absolutely no training whatsoever - just thrown on the phones, where we took complaints down on paper forms (those multiple layer ones like you get with a Fed-Ex label). After we took the complaint, we distributed the copies to multiple areas where - presumably - someone would eventually act on them. The pink copy went into a vast, rotary "tub file". You hit some sort of button, the tub churned to the right letter of the alphabet, and you tucked the file into the appropriate place.

Some of the complaints I remember as vividly as if I had handled the call yesterday.

A man named Peter Rabbitt called one day and, with a pronounced brogue, informed me that Sears had not picked up his old fridge, which they'd promised to do when they delivered his new one.

"I've a good mind," Mr. Rabbitt told me, "To just put the old ice box out on my front lawn."

Well, that would sure show Sears now, wouldn't it? (I hope he took the door off of it, which I'm sure that he did, as he sounded like a thoroughly conscientious and decent person.)

One woman called to track her order - Christmas presents for her kids. Unfortunately, she'd sent cash - $17 - rather than a check or money order, so her order was long gone and there wasn't much we could do to trace it. When I commiserated with her, she told me I was very nice and asked me if I were the owner.

No, I explained, it was kind of a big place and I just worked there.

Another time, I was blasted by someone from Dorchester (a blue collar area of Boston), who demanded that I "get my ass down to Dorchester with the paint" she'd ordered so that her husband could paint their house during his rapidly dwindling week off.

This was in the days before vulgarity was quite so common, but I did tell her that I, personally, was just taking down the information and would not be getting my ass anywhere.

The woman backed down and was actually quite sweet and reasonable. And, of course, she had a point about the missed delivery date for the paint.

I told her I'd see what I could do, which wasn't much other than put the pink copy of the complaint in the rotary file. I can't recall where the multitude of other colored copies went. I seem to recall tossing them in the wastebasket but, despite the fact that we received no training, this doesn't strike me as quite right.

When we weren't taking incoming calls and/or when we reached the magic hour of 5 p.m., when inbound customer service was turned off, we followed up on orders that were not clear. (In those unimaginably by-gone days, when we were not in such a great rush to get work boots, Lincoln Logs, cross-cut saws, house dresses, and hand-held mixers absolutely, positively, overnight, people actually placed catalog orders via the mail. How very quaint!)

If there was something unclear on the order form, it was our job to call and ask for clarification.

I remembered an attempt to call some old Down East geezer in Maine, who had written in that he needed a "puny" for his "furcane." I was canny enough to realize that he was probably looking for some thingamajig for his "furnace," not his "furcane", but I wasn't able to interpret "puny". Nor was I ever able to reach him. I wonder if he ever got his "puny".

One of my favorite calls was to a French speaking family up in Quebec.

Since my French was limited to the "ou est la bibliotheque?" variety I'd learned in high school, I was not able to get across to Mme. Gary Doyon that we needed to know what name to put on the personalized ballerina pillowcase she'd ordered.

When I explained to my boss that I wasn't able to get an answer, he grabbed the form and wrote "Gary" where the name went.

I told him I was pretty certain that the recipient of the ballerina pillowcase did not have the first name of "Gary", but I was overruled.

Somewhere up in Canada, a disappointed little girl found a pillowcase with "Gary" on it under the Christmas tree. What a Joyeux Noel that must have been, eh, ma petite?

Customer complaint taker! What a miserable job!

When I wasn't laughing myself silly, I hated every moment there - mostly because I didn't feel that I ever helped one single Sears customer derive any customer satisfaction whatsoever from any encounter with Sears that involved me.

Every time I feel like raging at a CSR, or slamming the phone down on them, I think back to my time, gamely manning the phones for Sears, calling Quebec on a cold, December night, trying to ask Madame Gary Doyon what name she wanted on the ballerina pillowcase.


And a very happy birthday to my old roommate Joyce - a co-worker at Sears and any number of other crappy jobs when we were oh, so young. Unlike me, she had retail in her blood and went on to a successful career at places a lot more upscale than Sears.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation from the Military

As I was growing up as a "first wave" Baby Boomer, pretty much every man I knew had been in some branch of the military service, mostly during World War Two. The exceptions were men who'd been too old for the draft, or had been exempt because they already had kids and/or did some sort of defense-related work.

We wore our fathers' old Navy caps, used the scratchy wool blankets from our fathers' cots when we hung out in the back yard playing Monopoly or Sorry, and drank from Army canteens when we went on hikes or out blue-berrying for the day. Some kids had "Nazi" helmets or "Jap" flags. I remember Peggy Gagnon bringing in ration cans that her father - who, I believe, had hit the beaches on D-Day - had saved.

If your mother were frugal and clever with her hands - as my mother was - you wore clothing that was made out of your father's old uniforms, cut down. Thank God my father was in the Navy, not the Army, so we got to wear blue jackets and white shorts, rather than khaki and brown.

There was a man in the parish who'd had his jaw blown off during the Korean War, another guy who used to wander around who was said to be "shell-shocked."

Older cousins and younger uncles all spent time in the peace-time service.

My father teased my Uncle Jack when he joined "Hooligan's Navy"" (the Coast Guard). When my Uncle Bob was in the Army, he sent all the girl nieces Fort Leonard Wood Missouri head scarves one Christmas. (The boys got the far cooler flat-top caps like the one Fidel Castro wore. I think they had shiny metal sergeants' badges on them.)

Jackie Fitz, an older kid around the corner, joined the Army and, like Elvis, was sent to Germany, where he married Hildy, a German girl.

Then there was Viet Nam, and soon it was the guys I knew who were getting drafted or, as became far more likely, doing whatever they could do to avoid the draft.

Some guys from the neighborhood went over. A second cousin was there, and died of a drug overdose shortly after his return to The States. My cousin's cousin Joe  - and, thus, a virtual cousin - served at ground zero for Agent Orange, and died at the age of 49, likely of Agent Orange associated causes. I went to the funeral for the brother of a classmate who was killed in action.

A high school friend became a Navy nurse to pay for college, but she didn't go to Viet Nam.

Then there was the night when they picked the numbers, assigning every date in the year a number that indicated when the birthday boy would be called up - low numbers were unlucky, high numbers were golden.

And then there was no draft.

I'm pretty sure that my brother Tom (May 1952) has a draft card. But Rich ( November 1955)?  I don't really know.

Over the years, I've certainly worked with plenty of men who'd been in the service, and some who were in the reserves. But, by and large, I have no close friends or relations (other than those older cousins) who've been in the military.

This came home in spades when I was up in Syracuse last week, and had dinner with some former (and current) colleagues.

"Annie" is a young, bright, ambitious go getter - two kids under the age of three, a full time job, an on-line MBA, and a husband who's - knock on wood, please - finishing up a 14 month-long deployment in Iraq. Fittingly, "Rob" is due home on the Fourth of July.

Rob will be coming home to quite a bit of uncertainty. His one-man carpentry business has pretty much disappeared while he's been overseas, and he'll have to rebuild from scratch. But he is, Annie told us, planning on staying in the National Guard and will thus be vulnerable to another round in Iraq.

Annie is pretty much the only person I know who is directly impacted by the Iraq War. Other than for Annie, the "closest" I can get is through my cousin Barbara, who has a friend whose daughter was over there - not as a soldier, but as a member of the State Department and PhD expert on the Middle East, living in the Green Zone, helping write the Iraqi constitution.

On Saturday, I attended a wedding where I must have chatted with a dozen people in their twenties: three law students; two information experts (which is what librarians are these days); an architect; a film editor; a couple of "policy wonks"; the business manager for a large medical practice; the community relations guy for a professional sports team; a medical student...

By anyone's reckoning, a bright and ambitious group, not one of whom is ever likely to end up in the military.

World War Two was everyone's war.

Viet Nam was, too, although it was the war that caused the great divide between those who went and those who managed somehow not to. But there's no one who came of age during that war who doesn't know people who were intimately involved with the struggle: to fight it, to end it.

And now we have different sorts of wars.

We are told that the instruments of war are too sophisticated and technical to be able to rely on draftees to handle them, that we need to have a professional military to fight our wars - augmented, of course, by the citizen soldiers like Rob who truly believe that serving in the military serves a noble purpose (or who truly believe they have no other economic options).

Whenever we saw Tom Dillon, our neighbor who'd had his jaw blown off in Korea, my father would remark about what a "good looking kid" he'd been. What a shame to be one of the unlucky ones, unlike my father who's time in the Navy (1942-1946) played out in Norfolk, Trinidad, and Chicago. My father proposed to my mother right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, figuring (correctly) that Uncle Sam wouldn't be needing him in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

Annie's husband is the closest I come to anybody who's serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

How much easier it is to "live" with a war that doesn't have any direct impact on you or anyone you know, or even know of, except remotely.

Just something to think about on Memorial Day.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Learning to Walk In Heels

It has been many long years since I had to worry about walking on high heels.

I'd say I threw my last pair out nearly 20 years ago - probably about the same time I jumped the "what-the-hell" shark and tied a scarf under my chin, Old World babushka style,  during a really windy storm.

I have plenty of shoes that aren't flat-flats, but nothing that resembles the "spikes" I occasionally wore at various time in my life.

My shoes are - there's no other way to describe them - sensible. They vary on the comfy-continuum from walking-on-air to wouldn't-want-to-hike-10 miles-but-otherwise-okay. They also vary on the style-continuum, but very few are out-and-out clunky.

I was amused the other day to see a small bit on the news (while I was in NYC) on a woman who teaches women to walk in stiletto heels.

Yes, I know they look sexy - especially when worn by a sexy, young thing - but if you need to have a lesson on how to walk in a shoe, it's probably a shoe that - from a podiatric health point of view - you shouldn't be walking in.

Walking in shoes.

Aren't shoe-walking lessons kind of like those old Cool Whip ads in which those wide-eyed folks asked Sarah how she made "pudding in a cloud."

What kind of a moron couldn't figure out that it was instant pudding with a plop of Cool Whip thrown on top?

And those instructions on shampoo - lather, rinse, repeat - with the repeat obviously thrown in to sell more shampoo. (Honestly, does anyone actually repeat?)

Lessons in shoe walking.

I suppose if you spend a hundred bucks per inch for a pair of 6-inch Manolo Blahnik's, you'd be willing to pay for lessons to walk in them. (On second thought, shouldn't the lessons be thrown in for free?)

But, again, if you need lessons the shoes are probably terrible for your feet, your calf muscles, your back, etc.

Those heels!

Girlfriends, you're risking a broken ankle. You're risking getting caught in the bricks. Or in a grate. You're risking breaking a heel off, and then having to limp along like Granpappy Amos in the old Real McCoys.

I see plenty of young women in downtown Boston with these terrible shoes on. They look like they're in agony. That's because they are.

A lesson might be able to teach you how to walk without teetering over and falling on your prettily made-up face. But ain't no lesson going to make those puppies feel like anything but the torture-chambers-for-your-feet that they are.

Sometimes I see women my age in these spikey heels.

By now, you'd think they'd have grown out of them, given up the fight, and settled into a pair of clunky old, comfy Hush Puppies.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Dumbest Generation?

Well, yesterday I wrote about a pair of 20 somethings who are facing serious time for the identity thieving life they've been living. And here I am today with a post on 20 somethings who are members of what Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein is terming The Dumbest Generation in his new book and his eponymous website.

I haven't read the book - and don't know if I really want to - but The Boston Globe online had a riff on it the other day, in which they pulled out a few reasons why the tag fits.

The reasons cited - mostly quotes from the book, I believe - are predictable.

"The ignorance is hard to believe ... It isn't enough to say that these young people are uninterested in world realities. They are actively cut off from them. ... They are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond -- friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook.''

They brazenly "disregard books and reading." (Alas.)

They can't spell. (Better check this post extra carefully.)

Those who think and write originally are ridiculed. (Alas.)

They play Grand Theft Auto. (Alack. And since I don't brazenly disregard books and reading, I will look the word "alack" up in the dictionary. On second thought, I'll just google it. And now I know that all alack is is an alas-like interjection of regret. Just as I thought.)

They don't store information. Instead, like me when I decide to look up "alack", they rely on the Internet. (Well, take it from someone who can dredge up the name of everyone in her kindergarten class; can still recite "Oh Captain, My Captain;" and remembers who hit home runs at her first baseball game in 1960. Not storing all that information isn't necessarily a bad thing. By the way, it was Ted Williams and Vic Wertz.)


Here's what the DG website says about its own book:

Anyone who thinks this is mere intergenerational grousing, the time-worn tradition of an older generation wagging its finger at a younger one, should think again.

Drawing upon exhaustive research, detailed portraits, and historical and social analysis, The Dumbest Generation presents an uncompromisingly realistic study of the young American mind at this critical juncture. The book also lays out a compelling vision of how we might address its deficiencies.

To fail to do so may well mean sacrificing our future to the least curious and intellectual generation in national history.

So, this is all very weighty and ponderous, but if Bauerlein used a boring title like, The Critical Juncture: The Young American Mind, his readers and reviewers might take him seriously, but there wouldn't be that many of them. Now that he's slapped the gauntlet down, there'll be a lot more.

It's so wonderfully easy-breezy to slap a label on a generation, isn't it?

We've had the Perfect Generation.

Sorry, I mean the Greatest Generation.

And, now that they're all dying off, I have this sense that every other generation from here to eternity (at least my personal eternity) is going to be crapped on with some lousy designation or another - like The Worst Generation, which I've seen used to describe The Boomers.

The Dumbest Generation.

I have to say that most of the 20-ish early 30-ish people I know are not ignorant, slack-jawed slackers. They know who Dick Cheney is. They read books. They can find Iraq on the map, and can do a nifty compare and contrast of Iran and Iraq, too. They're just out of school. Or in grad school. They're starting their official careers. Or they're taking keep-it-together jobs while they see what it's like to be a writer-actor-filmmaker-dancer-musician. They're looking for a life partner, or they're getting married. They're having babies, or thinking about having babies.

Of course, most of the folks this age who I know and love are middle class/upper middle class, well-educated, smart.

Maybe it's all the rest of them of there...

Sure, there's plenty to be worried about. And that's the prospect of having all kinds of "grown-ups" among us who really don't care about anything other than who's trashing whom on MySpace.

But I'm kind of thinking that most of them will grow out of it.

Sure, it may take them a bit longer than it used to take a generation to grow out of their solipsistic obsessions, but most of them will do so in time. At least that's what I'm thinking and hoping.

There is, however, the lurking worry that there are a goodly number of people in this particular generation who, because of globalization, are not going to get the easy ride that, with obvious and painful exceptions, earlier generations got. Not that it's one big glide for any one generation, but, let's face it, those of us who grew up before the world became so shrunken were all lucky to be born into a big, rich, job-producing economy - with a lot of those jobs around even for those who may not have known who the vice president of the country is.

Most of the "young folks" I know will be okay.

But I think of the sons of our buddy Larry-the-mailman.

Larry is a great guy - smart, decent, funny, good. And we like him a lot.

He's a high school grad - and Viet Nam vet - who took the Civil Service exam in the way-back and has been working for the PO since.

Larry has two sons in their late twenties.

They're both high school graduates, but neither one of them has managed to find anything that resembles a steady job, let alone a career, for themselves.

Easy for me to say they should have gotten themselves a trade, or joined the service, or stayed in school. But they're also the sorts of guys who, a generation ago, would have been able to find some sort of semi-skilled factory work which may well have led to skilled factory work.

Those jobs don't exist anymore.

So Larry's sons take pick up jobs - non-union laborer, extra guy on the moving crew, seasonal retail - and cycle in and out of his house. When they're home, he tells us, they sit there glued to the TV watching sports, smoking and drinking his beer. They play Grand Theft Auto.

Just a wild guess, but I'm betting that neither of them could spot Iran or Iraq on the map.

When does it get better for them? Unless something motivates them to get off their butts, get themselves into a class or two at the local community college, think further ahead than the next version of GTA being released... Or forces them to take a drudge job, however drab, boring, and ill-paid, and see if they can make something out of it. Where do these guys go?

The Dumbest Generation is a harsh term and, like most/all sweeping generational generalization can't possibly be all-encompassing.

But guys like Larry's sons? How many of them are there out there? And where do they all end up?

That's something worth worrying about.

Maybe I will buy Bauerlein's book, after all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Starter jobs: how's stamping license plates sound to you?

Possibly because I'm intrigued why what would motivate someone - especially someone who seems to have had the advantages of a solidly middle-class upbringing would turn to a life of crime. Possibly because my brother-in-law Rick is a Penn grad. (And, if I'm not mistaken, his sister is a Drexel alum.) And possibly because I just like reading about bone-heads, I really enjoyed a recent story I saw about a young Philadelphia couple who are going to cop a plea, admitting that "fraud fueled [their] luxury lifestyle."

Drexel's own Jocelyn Kirsch, 22, and her Penn-grad beau, Edward Anderton, 25, were arrested late last year, because they were apparently unwilling to take the starter job, Boomerang back home to bunk in with Mom and Dad, and apply to business school. No, they wanted to so take a short cut, so:

They stole credit-card and bank-account information from friends, co-workers and neighbors to finance lavish purchases and travel, prosecutors said. They were arrested when they claimed a package at a local UPS store under a neighbor's ID. The package contained lingerie from a British retailer.

Anderton, who majored in economics, was a fairly entrepreneurial type. He had a couple of fake eBay accounts , using stolen identities, through which he sold non-existent goods to real people, which netted him $33K in walking-around money, which he presumably spent some of on his trip with Jocelyn to Paris, and on other luxury vacations that they apparently needed to rest up from their studies and the exertions of identity theft.

Although it may not have involved all that much exertion. The police say that most of the identities/credit card numbers they stole were of people who lived in the same building where the couple nestled in a $3,000 a month apartment. (My first college apartment was $150 a month, but that was a long time ago. What was once a pretty dumpy neighborhood has been gentrified in the intervening years, and I just googled up a one-bedroom there for $1450, a two BR for $1950. Parking spaces available for - what do you know - $150 a month.)

When they were arrested, police found quite a few goodies in their digs:

A weekend search of the couple's $3,000-a-month apartment turned up a cache of tech toys: four computers, two printers, a scanner and an industrial machine that makes ID cards. Police also found $17,500 in cash, dozens of credit cards and fake drivers' licenses, and keys to unlock many of the apartments and mailboxes in their upscale Rittenhouse Square apartment building. Police are not yet sure how they got the keys. (Source: AP article on MSNBC)

The search also turned up a book titled, "The Art of Cheating: A Nasty Little Book for Tricky Little Schemers and Their Hapless Victims," as well as a newspaper article on "How to Spot Fake IDs."

A weekend search of my $150 a month apartment on Queensberry Street would have yielded books like C. Wright Mills White Collar, and  W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, which my dog had chewed the bright red cover off of.

The search would also have yielded an old record player,a bunch of albums, a couple of old radios, two dog bowls (food and water), jeans, sweaters, a decent assortment of (used) dishes, glasses, and pots and pans, some posters, a few decorative touches, and little else. Oh, and maybe some Zig-Zag papers.

If any cash were to be found, it would have been whatever coins had fallen in behind the pillows of the ancient, 1940's studio couch or the two ancient, 1940's armchairs (those solid, too-heavy-to-move numbers covered with that never-wear-out fabric that felt like you were sitting on the bristle end of a scrub brush).

It wouldn't have been worth steeling the identities of anyone in our building, a combination of students, the elderly, and recent immigrants, most of whom probably didn't have credit cards to begin with.

Man, who would have given a college student a credit card? What a crazy idea?

We just cashed the meager checks from our crappy jobs and when we ran out of walking around money, we stopped walking around and just hung out.

The downfall for this latter day, unarmed Bonnie and Clyde came when one of their neighbors got a call to come to the UPS store around the corner to come pick up a package that was waiting for her. Problem was, she hadn't ordered anything.

But Kirsch and Anderton had - that fancy lingerie - and when they strolled into the store, no doubt hand-in-hand and with a twinkle in their starry eyes, the police arrested them. (As an aside: am I the only one who remembers the day and age when lingerie from London would have conjured up images of knee-length flannel undies lined with mohair?)

"They were just so arrogant," Philadelphia Detective Terry Sweeney, the lead investigator, said Monday. "When you start committing ID theft around the corner from where you live, it's going to come back to haunt you."

And this will be coming back to haunt these two in a couple of ways.

First, there'll be their felony prison sentences, which could get them up to 5 years in the stir for Kirsch, based on some assumptions about her plea deal. Alas, in prison, she won't be able to pop into a salon for $1700 worth of hair extensions. But she will have time to grow her own.

And my guess is she gave her boyfriend up, in more ways than one, so he's probably got a few more years to face. (These are federal charges they're both facing, by the way.)

Then there'll be the lifelong conviction hanging over them when they go to look for their somewhat delayed starter jobs.

Meanwhile, Anderton has lost the $60K a year starter job in real estate finance he did have and is back home living with his family, and Kirsch - a few credits short of her Drexel degrees - is back home with her mom, as well.

These Boomerang-ers do have a persistent habit of making their way back home, don't they?

We'll no doubt see one and/or both of these two on Dr. Phil and Oprah once they've done their time, talking about how easy it was for them to just drift into a life of crime, what with all those identities just laying around.

I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Here's Peat in Your Eye

I saw a piece in the news the other day - a Washington Post article picked up by The Boston Globe - on how the rural pubs in Ireland are dying off at a rapid rate.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland, which represents rural pubs, said the number of pubs outside Dublin has dropped from 6,000 to 5,000 in the past three years. Some estimates suggest the number may soon dwindle to 3,500.

This is no surprise, given the amazing growth of the country's economy - and the attendant social and cultural changes - that has occurred over the last couple of decades.

As with most change, this one is a mixed blessing.

The closing of the "local" - often the only place in a small town, other than the church, where people can get together - truly represents a loss of an important cornerstone of Irish culture. For older people - lacking the inclination or (often) the money to adapt to something new - it's a rent in the social fabric that is not likely to get repaired.

On the other hand, some of those rural pubs were pretty damned dreary and god-awful.

I remember dropping in to one pub in Port Arlington - where we had a few hours stopover between trains - that was grimy, smelly (smoke, porter, piss), and where the window sills were strewn with the carcasses of dead flies.

Still, for the locals, it was easy to see that this was the place to go when they wanted a pint, some conversation, a bit of a sing-song, a step out on the dance floor.

Rural Ireland can still be pretty grim and lonely, and the pubs are often all that stands between someone and profound social isolation.

It was, of course, easy to see the decline in pub culture coming.

When I first went to Ireland, the music sessions invariably ended with the playing of the Irish national anthem - a sweet touch that is almost unimaginable in The States, even in the most flag-swinging precincts.

I haven't heard "Soldiers Are We" played to close out a session in a long while.

Then there was the sign I saw in a Dublin pub: "Ladies, please mind your pocketbooks."

Just another big city reminder that someone might be out to lift your wallet. (Come to think of it, that Dublin pub was really something more of a fern bar - living, breathing ferns enabled by the ban on public smoking. Yet another forerunner of the decline of the pub.)

Another time a favorite pub of mine in Galway had brought in a TV so folks could watch an important rugby match. I observed that everyone under 30 had pulled their short stools over to the TV set, while everyone over 30 stayed sitting at the bar, at tables, or in the snugs chatting. This is not a change for the better, I thought at the time. Go back, go back.

This was the exact same thought I'd had when a cab driver proudly boasted that the first shopping mall was going up outside of his city.

Go back, go back.

But why should they go back?

Ireland has become more affluent, more cosmopolitan, and more sophisticated over the years.

The Irish no longer go abroad for work, they go abroad on vacation, taking cheap flights on RyanAir to Montpelier, Morocco, and Malaga.

The Irish no longer export their young, they import someone else's. Last time I was there - September 2006 - most of the waitstaff in hotels, restaurants, and - yes - pubs was from Eastern Europe.

The Irish no longer have to poor mouth. Sure, there are still poor people, but the country itself has become unimaginably rich - not just in comparison to the Ireland that our grandparents and great-grandparents left in droves, but to the Ireland of the 1970's with it's no central heat and waxen toilet paper.

And the Irish are under no obligation to provide us tourists with a way to reconnect, however superficially and temporarily, with the Ireland our ancestors last saw when the townspeople held an American Wake for them before they came over here to start a better life.

Still, especially for the "old ones" left behind by the high-tech working, cell-phone sprouting, RyanAir flying, sushi-eating brave, new Ireland, the death of the local pub has got to seem like a death in the family.

Only now there's no place to gather after the funeral.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sweet Caroline! How come I can't get tickets to a Neil Diamond concert?

Not that we're the biggest Neil Diamond fans on the face of the earth, but my sisters, our friend Shelly, and I decided that it would be a hoot to go to Neil's concert in Fenway Park. After all, he is the guy who sang so many of the great windows-open, full-throated sing-along oldies of our youth.

Fenway Park, on a "hot August night, when you almost bet you could hear yourself sweat, he comes in." Where the "he" that comes in is not Love Brother Love, but is Love Brother Love's composer. Singing along with that? Not to mention "she got a way to move me, Ch-er-ie". And, of course, the especially meaningful and rousing Sweet Caroline, which since the dawn of the Golden Era in Red Sox baseball, has been the anthem sung between the top and bottom of the eighth innings.

Sitting in the stands at Fenway for all that? It sure has a way to move me, alright.

So, I got on the American Express pre-sale, on TicketMaster - the ticket source for this concert - to see if I could get four of the $44.50 tickets.

No dice.

So I tried to worm into the Friends of Neil Diamond pre-sale ticket purchase. Although I'm no FOND, my sister was cannily able to predict that the password would be "caroline" (a secret that was also "revealed" on Craig's List before those tickets went on sale).

Again, no dice.

But how remarkable it was that, those $44.50 tickets - which, of course, were already up to over $60/per once the convenience and handling and other nonsense fees had been larded on - that were instantly unavailable, were instantly available at more than twice that price - not via Craig's List scalpers who'd managed to grab a few pairs. But on TicketMaster's "sister" ticket site, "TicketExchange."


I don't know the exact relationship between Master and Exchange, but I'm guessing it's a fairly cozy one.

When it comes to ticket scalping, I'm actually a big free market proponent.

If I have tickets that someone else wants, let 'em pay.

But I reserve my approval of scalping for individuals - not for ticket services.

I understand that whoever's promoting an entertainment or sporting event just wants to sell-out, and are thus somewhat indifferent to whether they sell-out to a bunch of individuals, or to a bunch of ticket agencies. But I do wonder what miniscule proportion of tickets is even made available to non-brokers. It sure doesn't seem like there are very many.

For the event promoters, of course, the beauty of the ticket brokers is that they reduce their risk. The ticket agencies assume that risk - they're stuck with the tickets if no one wants them. And they also get the upside - and what an upside it is, sky-high is the limit. A nano-second after failing to get Red Sox tickets online - yet again - tickets were available from agencies for 10x the face value, and more. At least the Neil Diamond ticket inflation was more modest.

With so many tickets allocated to the ticket agencies to begin with, it's really exasperating to be a fan trying to get a hold of a few tickets.

It's especially irksome when you have to keep re-entering those difficult-to-read codes that are supposedly there to prevent rapacious ticket grabbers from using robots to buy all the tickets.

So I tediously type in those number/letter combos in the grid - is that a "c" or an "e"? a "7" or a "1" - only to find that, alas, I am not worthy of buying a ticket.

Unless I'm willing to pay 3 times the face value.

And this for a concert - Neil Diamond at Fenway - which, rumor has it, is not selling out.

Let's face it, how many people are there willing to fork over more than $100 to see Neil Diamond?

It's not like he's Bruce Springsteen, or Paul Simon, or someone else of that caliber. To me, he's halfway between these guys and the oldies reviews that come around for free concerts in City Hall Plaza and down at the Hatch Shell on the Charles every summer.

My sister Trish advises patience.

Her belief is that, come August, more of the $44.50 tickets will miraculously appear.

Meanwhile, in a city where poor schnooks with an extra ticket to sell are routinely busted for some freelance gouging at the door, ticket brokers can jack up their prices to whatever they want.

What a business!

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Meditation on 99¢ Paradise

Along with my friends and colleagues John and Sean, I was in New York City last week. Frugal business travelers that we are, we stayed at a Holiday Inn in Long Island City.

While we were walking back from a very nice dinner in a yupscale restaurant on Greenpoint Ave, one of us - Sean I believe - spotted a store named "99 ¢ Paradise", with the curious tagline that read "everything 99¢ of more". (Photo credit goes to John for the shot below.)


Didn't dollar stores (and, presumably 99¢ stores) used to sell stuff for, well, a dollar?

Maybe there's just so little these days that actually costs that little, forcing stores to change their tune.

Let's face it, what can you get for that little? Two postage stamps? A roll of Life Savers? A couple of pencils? Some postcards? Poison-laced toothpaste? Plastic bottles that leech chemicals into our sports drinks? Canned green beans with mouse-heads floating in them?

Not much, that's for sure.

But what can it possibly mean to have a store where everything is 99¢ or more?

Doesn't that pretty much cover every store in this country?

I mean, Tiffany's can make this claim. So can Neiman Marcus. Barney's. Saks.

John chalks the sign up to marketing genius, and I guess he's right. The sign attracts shoppers who know that, whatever they get there, it's probably not going to cost that much. ("Look, honey, this toothpaste only costs $1.01.")

But it's also a good and sobering reminder that, for a lot of folks, being able to buy miscellaneous and sundry stuff - some necessary and useful, some Adam Smith's "trinkets of frivolous utility" - for a buck or thereabouts is a good deal.

They're the folks that are working at thankless jobs that pay not much north of the minimum wage. Old folks eking out an existence they never dreamed would last this long - or cost this much - on a meager pension or miniscule SSI check. I was going to add 'kids with their first paycheck from Mickey D's", but I doubt that any self-respecting teenager would be caught dead in 99¢  Paradise - I can't imagine that there's much in there that would appeal to anyone much over the age of 5 or 6.

99¢ Paradise....

The price, I guess, is probably right.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is JetBlue going down the toilet? (I'd give the buddy pass a pass, if I were you.)

Having flown them a couple of times in the last few months, I've become something of a fan of JetBlue: clean, comfy, convenient, cheap flights.

I obviously wasn't one of those inconvenienced during the flight delay - flight cancellation horror-shows of last year - but when it comes to JetBlue, what's not to like?

Well, if you're Gokhan Mutlu, there's plenty to be, well, pissed off about.

It seems that Gokhan was traveling from California home to NYC on a freebie travel voucher - a buddy pass - that had been given to him by a buddy who works for JetBlue. Buddy seats are a pretty much seat-of-the-pants way to travel - the ultimate in stand-by. And you get what you pay for. And what Gokhan got was an order from the captain to give up his seat to a stewardess who wanted a break from sitting on one of those nasty little jump seats near the rear exit (and toilets) that you see the stews perched on during packed flights.

Apparently, only JetBlue employees can sit in those jump seats, so Gokhan was asked, errrrrr, to go sit in the toilet.

After a long, bumpy while, he was permitted to come back out and reclaim his seat.

This being America, Gokhan is suing JetBlue for $2M.

My first reaction to this was, 'Oh, come on. This certainly is an insult and an affront, not to mention a humiliation. But $2M?'

My second thought was imagining myself in such a situation.

You know what, I would want a pretty big fat payout, too. Beggars can't be choosers, and all that but, if an airlines needs a "real" seat for their stews to take turns sitting in on long flights so they're not stuck in those rotten little jump seats, then the airlines should dedicate a seat for that purpose - not ask a passenger, even one who they think of as a freeloading hitchhiker to give up his seat.

Of course, the captain might not have had the nerve to ask a woman to give up her seat, sexism being what it is (and, occasionally, working in your favor under the retro guise of chivalry). I'm also guessing El Capitan wouldn't have asked anyone to give their seat up for a steward.

So, how could the captain have handled this better:

  • He could have asked nicely (in his best Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager drawl): "Hey, buddy, seein' that you're in a buddy seat, and seein' how Susie Stewardess ain't feelin' all that well, d'ya mind parkin' in the head for a while and givin' her a break. 'Preciate it."
  • He could have asked for volunteers: I'll bet a few people would have taken turns standing for 10 minutes at a shot in order to give the stew a break.
  • He could have let Gokhan sit in the darned jump seat: So what if this is a violation of JetBlue policy, or FAA policy? Who was going to rat him out? Unless he had enemies in the flight crew....And even then, he could have warded off that by telling on himself. ("We had a situation in which the stewardess was unable to sit on the jump seat, so I made a decision to....")
  • He could have not pulled rank: Even if he didn't ask nice, once he got some resistance, he should have backed off gracefully and gone to Plan B (find a volunteer).
  • He could have pulled rank: Before approaching Gokhan, the pilot could have contacted someone in management, told them that he needed the seat, and gotten a few bargaining chips. Maybe Gokhan would have gone nicely for a couple of free round trips that weren't buddy seats. (And while the pilot was asking for the comp tickets, he could have informed HQ that he was letting Gokhan sit in the jump seat.)

On a flight, the captain's the manager. As such, wouldn't you think that he could have come up with a better solution to his need (or was it desire) to find a better seat for the stewardess than ordering a passenger into the toilet. Management!

And it's just amazing to me that in this day of word-of-mouth - make that word-of-keypad and word-of-'net - in which a story like this makes the rounds (and the blogs) in warp speed, someone might not ask himself, 'is this not the sort of dumb thing that could get me in trouble?'

Apparently not.

And speaking of getting in trouble, the person I feel worst for in all this is the poor schnook of a JetBlue employee who gave Gokhan the buddy seat to begin with. If Gokhan cashes in on this, I hope he throws a few bucks his buddy's way. (And I hope the poor buddy never has to run across the captain, who will no doubt not be feeling all too thrilled with whatever happens.)


Here's where I saw the first report on this: on Comcast.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Are You Somebody? Nuala O'Faolain (1940-2008)

Combing through the "Irish sports pages" (a.k.a., the obituaries) the other day, I saw that the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain is dead of lung cancer at the age of 68.

If you're carrying baggage around, it might as well be packed, and Nuala O'Faolain's sure was. In her brilliant memoir, Are You Somebody, published when she was in her mid-fifties (yes!), O'Faolain unpacked some of her baggage and shared it around.

She was one of a large Dublin brood, and her early life contained a full measure of the sorts of incidents and characters that make for delicious reading, but a not quite so savory dish when it's your childhood. Her father was something of a local celebrity, a journalist (and philanderer). Her mother, sadly, an alcoholic.

But her real story was the truth about growing up in her time and place, with no expectations that you'd ever actually be someone, other than - at best - someone's mother. Faceless, self-effacing, the cloudy gray presence so needed in the background so that the colorful cast of wits, boyos, and charmers could stand out and be someone.

Sure, we all know the myth of the strong Irish matriarch - and behind every myth there is generally a home truth - but Ireland was no feminist paradise when Nuala was growing up there. (Nor is it now, at least according to one young friend who became a U.S. citizen in part because she felt she could have a better career as an architect here.)

Before she "became" a writer - i.e., got her first book published - Nuala worked for Irish television, and had a column in one of the Irish newspapers.

Are You Somebody, her first book, was a best-seller and made her, after all those years, into somebody. The province of the title was a question someone asked her once on the street. Finding her vaguely familiar, the person popped the question that got Nuala thinking a bit more about just who she was.

I read the book a dozen years ago - and loved it. It was gutsy, bold, honest, searing, funny....And you didn't have to grow up in Dublin in the 1940's and 1950's, with philandering and/or alcoholic parents to identify with her struggle to find out who she was and what she was good at.

We live in an age when every kid who picks up a crayon and scribbles on the wallpaper is Jackson Pollock. Every kid who hits a tee-ball is Manny Ramirez. Every kid who can warble a bit of "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" is the next American Idol. So it's hard to recall that there was a time and place when, for many of us, this wasn't the case.

At first, I thought that to grow up unpraised, unchallenged, unencouraged, uncredited, happened exclusively to the American Irish, or, perhaps, parochial school grads. But I quickly learned that it was wider than that - men, women, Protestants, Jews. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, too, I suppose - I just don't know all that many. I don't want to leave out atheists or agnostics here, either, but most of my friends in that category started out somethine else. (There does seem to be a real whammy point at the intersection of woman and Irish-Catholic-American, even for those of us a half a generation, and thousand of miles away, from Nuala O'Faolain's cramped and cramping Ireland.)

Long ago, my friend Peter and I decided that the dominant theme of our Catholic grade school education was "Who do you think you are?", the all purpose response you got when you made any motion, no matter how tentative and feeble, towards something other than the parochial, stick to your own kind, stay in the neighborhood life we were being groomed for.

You can't do it. "They" won't like you. "They" won't let you. The idea of you're doing something like that. Absurd! Just who do you think you are?

Who do you think you are?

Okay, all of us wonder at some point what we could have been if, if only....But it is hard for those of us who grew up in a particular way not to ask more deeply and more frequently whether we might have had a more productive, satisfying, realized, and joyful professional life if someone, somewhere along the line had uttered a brief word or two to encourage our dreams and help us develop a better sense of self, rather than asking us who we thought we were. (A question that has only one answer allowed, of course, and that's "nobody.")

Nuala O'Faolain wrote so eleoquently about her struggle to figure out just who she was.

Are you somebody, Nuala O'Faolain was asked.

News of her death was reported in papers throughout Ireland and the UK. Hundreds of people turned out for her wake and funeral. Google her name - she's in WikiPedia.

Are you somebody?

Nuala, mavourneen, you are indeed.


Here's a link to Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, a post from last year that fits nicely with this topic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Two separate threads are floating through Boston sports fandom recently.

The first is the back-and-forth over whether the newly rabid-ized Celtic fan base, encouraged by the first competitive and fun-to-watch team "we've" had in years, are a bunch of bandwagon jumpers.

This is, of course, the same story we've heard about the pink-hat-wearing Red Sox fans who don't know a bunt from a balk, and who didn't know the Red Sox existed during their misery years.

And the same story we've heard about the Patriots-come-lately football fans who only showed up for the glory days. (I count myself among this group, by the way. I'm quite certain that, if they are working a 2-14 record, I will be paying absolutely no attention to them.)

But here's the thing: why should a fan of professional sports, especially in this day of humongous ticket prices, head out to the old ball game that's going to watch a hapless team play dreadfully?

The fans who were willing to come out for the cellar-dwellers get all snottily resentful about the bandwagon-eers, bellyaching about their very presence. I'll admit that, when it comes to the Red Sox, I am somewhat among the bellyachers. Yes, I do watch more games now than I used to, but this is as much a factor of more games being televised as it is of watching a better team, but I'm pretty much a lifer when it comes to the Red Sox. And although I've never attended a ton of games in any one season, I do miss the ability to decide at the last moment on game-day to decide to head out to Fenway, confident that I could find a seat in the bleachers.

Would I prefer the Red Sox to be as god-awful as they were when I was a kid?

Hell, no.

Still, I wouldn't mind if the bandwagon fan interest softened up a bit.

But, again, why should any fan support a really terrible professional team? Why should we be all that enthused and starry eyed rooting for a losing team full of players who, even on the most low-budget teams, still make a great deal more, on average, than the average fan does in a year?

This is not like rooting for the local high school, or Little Leaguers, where you actually may know the players.

This is paying big money for sporting entertainment. And really losing teams don't tend to be all that entertaining - except, perhaps, to their opposition.

Let's face it, how many businesses stay in business when they build really shoddy products that everyone hates and that cost too much? I'm sure there are some - and, no, I don't want to hear anything about Microsoft - but, fundamentally, we don't patronize really bad businesses.

We don't eat at greasy spoons that give us agita and food poisoning. We don't keep using the mechanic who never fixes the car quite right. The tailor who sews the uneven hem. The quack doctor just because his office is within walking distance. (Note to any of my siblings who are reading this post: this latter example is one which I recognize was violated by our mother.)

The point is that there's no reason why the average fan to spend all kinds of time, effort, and money following a team that's no good. I really like baseball, so I'd continue to follow the Red Sox even if they went metaphorically south. But I wouldn't expect others to do so. And, even though I like them a lot, I usually won't sit through 9 full innings of a blowout, unless "our guys" are the ones doing the blowing out.

But fandom, when it comes to professional sports, ends up getting all kinds of weirdly intertwined with sense of self, and sense of place.

Which sometimes ends up with things a lot dumber and more harmful than complaining about fans jumping on the winning team's bandwagon.

Witness a terrible case that just occurred here in Red Sox Nation, where a drunken Yankees fan drove her car - bearing a big Yankees logo on its windshield - into a group of Red Sox fans that had been taunting her.

"I thought they'd be smart enough to get out of the way," she was quoted as saying.

Apparently they weren't, and one of them is now dead.

All this because the alcohol-fueled back and forth between a bunch of "Yankees suck" chanting Red Sox fan, and a Yankees fan who somehow wound up living in Nashua, New Hampshire, spun out of control.

I'm sure that we'll hear in court that the Red Sox fans were especially obnoxious. That the young man who died actually wasn't. That the Yankees fan, clearly outnumbered, felt threatened. (And, by the way, given the somewhat contrived and often insane level of enmity that exists between Yankees and Red Sox fans, this could have just as easily been a Boston fan plowing into a group of New Yorkers.)

But the bottom line is that a 29 year old guy is dead - his family and friends in shreds. A 43 woman - mother of 4, I believe - is facing life in prison - her family life destroyed.

All because a bunch of follks took fandom way too seriously.

I enjoy the give and take among sports fans, the good humored back and forth that's part of what makes fandom so enjoyable.

Some things are worth dying for. Some things are even worth killing for.

But the home time team isn't one of them.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Air fair

I started this post while sitting in JFK, waiting for my Jet Blue flight to Boston to take off. My ticket was for a standard leg-room seat, having passed up the opportunity to pay an extra $10 for the longer version. Maybe if I were 6'2" I could justify it, but....

On the flight down, they warned us that, come June 1, we 'd have to pay for the headphones. I don't usually listen/watch on short flights - I tend to doze - but I grabbed a pair and threw them in my briefcase. They might come in handy on future JB flights, and I'll be saving the buck they'll be charging in the future.

Jet Blue is part of an overall airline trend to charge for what used to be standard, and which we will now come to regard as extras - things like blankets and pillows will be bygones. Want a window seat? Ka-ching.

The costs have also gone up for checked baggage.

As I waited in line at Jet Blue to see if I could switch to an earlier flight - which I did by opting for stand-by, rather than paying the hundred bucks they were looking for to guarantee me a seat  on the 3:55 - there four young women, clearly fashionistas, lugging wheeled suitcases that were the size of Mrs. Astor's steamer trunks. They were all complaining about how much they were going to have to pay for their overloads.

It seems only fair to charge extra for that sort of excess, but where will the break-out charges end?

Should we be gearing ourselves up for the prospect of a coin slot on the toilets?

This post was actually prompted by an article in The Boston Globe last week that described some of the unbundling practices airlines are instituting at an accelerating rate - practices that will make us hunger for the days when the only thing we had to pay for was the semi-edible inflight meal. Let alone for the days when we got those semi-edible meals for free. Let alone for those way-back days when even the steerage passengers were served with real china, silver, and linen.

The unbundling approach apparently didn't work out for SkyBus, which recently went out of business. But they were offering some really rock-bottom prices, and flying between second- and third tier locations. No wonder they couldn't make a buck.

The SkyBus experience, of course, will not stop airlines from trying to institute "fee based" flying. Especially with industry analysts offering support through priceless comments like this one:

"Ultimately, they [the traveler] will be more satisfied because they will be in control of their travel experience," said Henry Harteveldt, principal airline analyst for Forrester Research Inc.

OK, I'll now be empowered to decide whether it's worth paying for a blanket, or whether I should just always remember to bring a sweater and scarf with me. But tell me again how having "control" over whether I have a pillow - or paying for an aisle seat and letting the cheap-o traveler suffer the middle seat - is giving me control. Let's face it, us flyers are essentially at the mercy of weather; delays caused by FAA rules that dictate that the pilots need a longer rest;  and whatever else the airline throws our way. And what control do I have over the fact that, once I'm strapped in, I'm miles high in an aluminum tube sitting on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. And, oh, yes, unlike on a train, I can't pull the emergency break and jump off. Or make myself such an annoyance that the bus driver is willing to let me off in the middle of nowhere.

Control when you're flying?

Not unless you're in the captain's seat. (Even then, so much is automated....)

All this talk of unbundling gets me thinking about why it is that so much of the airline industry can't manage to run itself like a real business.

I worked for several companies that couldn't quite figure out how to make sure that our revenues over time averaged out to be at least a dollar over our costs. All those companies ran out of runway. We got acquired. We went bankrupt. We disappeared off the face of the earth.

Of course, this has happened to plenty of airlines. Just ticking off the airlines that have disappeared in my lifetime would take a while, even if I limited myself to ones I actually ever flew on: Eastern, PanAm, TWA, People's Air, Apple (or was that the same as People's Air?), Republic...

But the fact that so many airlines manage to rack up colossal losses year in, year out and still somehow manage to stay in business, makes me ask this question:

Why don't they charge enough to cover their costs?

Isn't this what airlines used to do?

Sure, only rich folks and business travelers flew in those days.

But show me where the Founding Fathers wrote that we have the right to cheap airfares to Cozumel and Orlando.

If I look at some of my most recent flights, I went to Florida and Texas for a couple hundred dollars by ordering my tickets well in advance and/or flying on a lower-priced carrier.

If I'd had to pay $1000 for either of those tickets, I'd have more than likely stayed home, missing nice visits with my cousins in Florida, and my in-laws and college roommate in Texas.


If the actual cost of those seats was $1000, shouldn't I have paid that much?

I know, I know. The marginal cost of an additional flyer, once fixed costs are met, is low.

But we can't all be that marginal flyer, can we? (For those of you paying full fare and subsidizing me, thank you!) Eventually, if all the airlines have is flyers paying at the margin, they will go bust.

Two recent flights to NYC also illustrate the peculiarities of flying.

A couple of months ago, I used frequent flyer miles to go to LaGuardia on US Air, which seemed to make a lot more sense than paying $700. But last week, it made more sense pay a bit over $200 to fly the via Jet Blue to the generally less convenient JFK. I could have taken the train for a little less, or the bus (ugh!) for a lot less. But $200-ish seemed reasonable.

But if there are well-heeled travelers, or those on what-the-hell corporate expense plans (i.e., the company's paying), who want to pay $700 to fly from Boston to NY. And USAir can make money on this route, at these rates, have at it.

If I think about unbundling, my guess is that it can and will go only a small part of the way towards what's needed for the airlines to become profitable. It sort of reminds me of my gloomy days at Wang, made gloomier when the facilities folks removed half of the lightbulbs to save on electricity. That wasn't quite enough to save Wang from its inevitable fate.

Presumably, the same fate is in store for any airline that, in the long run, can't figure out some way - through operational efficiency and/or raising prices - to at least break even.

Paying extra for a pillow?

This may yield a marginal increase in revenues. It certainly has a bit of symbolic "show" rigor to it.

But I suspect that unless they solve their bigger problems, this approach to solvency ain't going to work.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Still the One

I had a short business trip to NYC this week, and never actually got into "The City" proper, having spent my evening in Queens and my day in Brooklyn. Most of what I saw of Manhattan was from the Long Island Expressway, near the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. (While I think of it, years ago, I had a cab driver with such a pronounced accent that I couldn't understand what he was asking me. "Big Tom Tumor", I thought he was saying. "Do you want Big Tom Tumor.?" My 'aha' moment was when I realized he was asking me whether I wanted to take the Midtown Tunnel. I can't remember what I answered - probably 'do whatever you think is fastest', but my favorite approach to Manhattan is via the 59th Street Bridge.)

In any case, my view from the LIE gave me a glimpse of the skyline, and I have to say that the thrill of New York City never goes out of it for me. I looked over at Manhattan, at the Empire State Building. At my personal favorite, the Chrysler Building. I was even excited to see Citibank.

Truly, I was even excited to see Queens from the Van Wyck Expressway when I was coming in from JFK. Not to mention the off-highway trek through Brooklyn and Queens that the car service took us on from our meeting in Dumbo (an area of Brooklyn: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) back to JFK.

I've been in love with New York City since I first laid eyes on it when I was seventeen.

My friend Kathy Shea and I took the bus from Worcester into New York to spend our spring vacation week with her aunt Mary. Mary was a single woman, a "career gal", who worked for PanAm. We stayed on the living room couch in her apartment in Long Island City, Queens, and took the subway every morning of our stay into Manhattan, where we covered all the touristic ground we could think of: Radio City to see the Rockettes - I think the movie playing was How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Statue of Liberty (we climbed to the top and looked out through the blurry windows on Lady Liberty's crown). St. Patrick's Cathedral. Empire State Building. We may have done a museum somewhere in the mix. We also saw an anti-Vietnam War demonstration during which most of the marchers carried daffodils.

I can still remember the thrill I got when the bus entered Manhattan, driving down Amsterdam Avenue on its way to the Port Authority bus station. My Worcester bumpkin nose was pressed up against the window, absorbing the color and richness of Harlem.

I'd been to Boston plenty of times, and to Chicago to visit my mother's family every other summer of my life.

But New York City. This was really something.

Something alive, something tangible, something exciting. Something so raw, buoyant, pushy, exhilarating, brash, confident, absurd.

This was a place that I really wanted to be.

Other than for a year in grad school at Columbia, while I figured out that I wasn't cut out to get a PhD, I never actually lived in New York City. In retrospect, the only appeal of the PhD program to begin with was that it was in New York.

But I have always loved visiting, whether it's for business or for pleasure.  And over the dozens of times I've been there over the years - a number that must easily exceed one hundred - I have never, ever lost the thrill I feel when I first get into The City. (Or even into Queens or Brooklyn.)

Boston is my home. It's where I made my life. And I love it. It's beautiful. It's livable. It's got the people I love. It's got the Red Sox.

Still...there's something so special about New York City that no other place I've been to comes close to equaling.

On 9/11, I was in Orlando on business. All I wanted to do was get home, and that meant getting a train.

On 9/12, late in the afternoon, just outside of Newark, we could see the black cloud, still ominously hanging over Manhattan.

And that unutterably terrible hole in the skyline where the Trade Center had stood.

My sister Trish met her husband in New York, and they lived in Brooklyn when they were first married. Trish, in fact, worked right near the Trade Center. On Rector Street, I think.

On 9/11, her then nearly 5 year old daughter asked Trish why she was crying.

"Something bad happened to New York," Trish told Molly, "And that used to be my town."

"Was it my town, too?" Molly asked her mother.

Yes, Molly, you may have been born in Boston, but it was your town, too.

And mine.

My husband would like to retire to New York City.

I keep telling him that, when you retire, you go someplace less expensive, not more expensive to live.  The truth is, while my life is here, I wouldn't mind, say, a weekend a month in New York. A long weekend, so I could catch the workweek buzz. Or a full week every season. That would be fun.

Sure, "when a man is tired of London, he's tired of life."

But for this woman, it's New York City.

After all these years, it's still the one.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

See Bellows Falls...

When I was growing up, billboards were pretty much everywhere, advertising everything from Christy's Dry Gas to Foster Furculo for Governor ("Massachusetts Needs Foster Forculo") to Salem cigarettes ("Take a puff, it's springtime." Hack, hack, cough, cough.)

Now, you don't see that many of them.

In fact, I can't remember the last time I noticed one. But there must be some around, because Massachusetts is not one of the four states that ban them. That honor goes to Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont.

And it's the Vermont law that's being challenged - at least by a teensy-weensy little bit.

It seems that some boosters of the town of Bellows Falls, Vermont - an ailing, boost-needing, not especially scenic New England town if ever there was one - painted a sign on the side of a barn outside of town, trying to woo tourists "to their up-and-coming downtown, where a smattering of cafes and galleries have established a tentative toehold in once-vacant buildings." (This was reported in a May 3 article by Jenna Russell in The Boston Globe.)

Well, I don't know if I'd exactly describe downtown Bellows Falls as 'up-and-coming', but, then again, I haven't been there in a few years. And there were a couple of funky-ish shops, a bookstore, an art gallery (that featured faux 1930's travel posters for Bellows Falls and, I believe, nearby Keene, NH. I really wish I'd gotten one of the BF posters.)

In any case, some vigilant anti-billboard person ratted the town boosters out to the state's Travel Information Council, a group charged with making sure that nothing gets between a tourist and anything scenic.

Apparently, the Travel Information CBFouncil has never been to Bellows Falls.

Sure, the bluffs outside of town are kind of neat. And the town itself is on the quite scenic Connecticut River.

But I really don't think that the sign was interfering with any leaf peeper, pristine white steeple-viewer, or mountain-top ogler.

In fact, the picture accompanying the photo pretty much says it all, with the biker driving by. Many years ago, on a rare visit to my husband's home town, Jim and I decided to go out for a drink. The first spot we came upon was a biker bar called the Meatland Cafe. I informed him that I wasn't so desperate for a drink that I was going to step one foot into a bar named Meatland. So we bought some gin and made G&T's.

No, Bellows Falls is a pretty sorry sight, a town that The Depression doesn't seem to have quite left just yet, but which is gamely trying to remake itself as an art colony of sorts. (They also have something of a folk music scene.)

Bellows Falls was never a picture postcard town. It was a working town. No town green with big white Congo Church and "George Washington slept here" houses. No Ye Olde Quaint anything. No taciturn Yankees going, "Ay-uh."

Instead, there were a lot of tilo-covered houses. Ethnic working stiffs - Irish, Italian, French-Canadian, Polish - who worked at God knows what. Some sorts of mills, I suppose. My husband is clueless on this front. His father worked as a switchman for the railroad (the town was something of a mini-rail center and used to be the home to a tourist site, a railroad "museum" called Steamtown USA. But Steamtown found Bellows Falls so bleak that they up and moved their engines and railroad cars to someplace they deemed far more feasible and touristic. Namely, Scranton PA. That's how dreary Bellows Falls is.

But, like a lot of poor old New England towns, Bellows Falls has a gritty integrity and authenticity. No airs. No snobbery. No pretensions.

Even with its attempts to remake itself as an art colony - and, why not? It's affordable and it is smack-dab in the middle of a really beautiful area.

And, drive-by biker aside, the sign also speaks to the sense of humor that Bellows Falls, and places like it, seem to have about it. The retro car. The salute to postcards of the fifties.

These folks aren't taken themselves all that seriously.

There's something about that you've got to like and admire.

Then along come to no-fun bullies at the Travel Information Council who claim the sign violates the state's no billboard ordinance, ordering the sign's removal, much to the annoyance of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance , which "commissioned the painting for $3,000 and spent another $1,000 fixing up the barn." Which is probably a goodly amount of money for the BFDDA.

Bellows Falls is looking for an exception to the no billboard rule, and I hope they get one.

Purists fear that providing BF with an exemption will be the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to roadside advertising.

But I don't think they have much to worry about.

The sign isn't an eyesore. I was going to write that the town is, but that's unfair.

Bellows Falls - "Bellows Falls, ever glorious" in the words of the high school song - is a determined, 'why not' town that's sick of being depressed and out of the way. They want to be a wayside attraction.

Tourists racing up 91 to look at foliage or get to Killington for a skiing weekend could do worse than get off the highway and take a look at what the real New England looks like. (While they're at it, they can grab a bite at the Miss Bellows Falls Diner, a watercolor print of which hangs in my bathroom, right next to one of the Miss Worcester. Now, Worcester - there's another get-off-the-highway place that people might want to wander through if they want to see what a bigger version of the real New England looks like.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stalking Britney Spears

The day I took a look at x17 Online, they had pictures of actress Marcia Cross and her twins (Desperate Housewives? Is that who Marcia Cross is? I don't really know, but I think she may be from New England. I seem to have read something about her at some point. In any case, she doesn't look like a cheesy "celeb".

There are pictures of Jessica Alba and Cash Warren. I know I'm completely out of it, but I'm not sure if those two are actors or singers or both. But the name Cash Warren, is that a great name for a gigolo or character in a Danielle Steele novel, or what.

And there was one of Britney having dinner with Mel Gibson.

I went looking at their site after reading an article by David Samuels, "Shooting Britney", that appeared in last month's Atlantic Monthly, which focused on paparazzi through the lens of the recent Britney Spears psycho-drama.

As it happens, the X17 agency is one of the biggest names in the celebrity photo business, a major business that helps feed - and create - our insatiable desire to see stars.

Britney is the current paparazzi "darling" (if that's the right word) - at the time The Atlantic article was written, at the height of Spears-mania - there were 30-45 photographers working the Britney beat on any given night. They're probably still there, given that:

History’s best-publicized celebrity meltdown has helped fuel dozens of television shows, magazines, and Internet sites, the combined value of whose Britney-related product easily exceeds $100 million a year, and helped make Britney Spears the most popular search term on Yahoo once again in 2007, as it has been for six of the past seven years.

I'm not going to get into the 'can't they leave the poor creature alone' argument, or question the decency of someone making a living off of the inappropriate behavior of a clearly troubled young woman, or to decry our celebrity-crazed culture. (I do plenty of culture decrying, but I think that, for the most part, I'll forego it in this post.)

But I am going to say: $100M for Britney-related "product" alone. Wow!

Once you add in a few bucks for shots of the apparently sane and normal Marcia Cross, and a few more for pics of wannabe-something-or-other Cash Warren, this is a pretty darned big business. Who knew?

Well, apparently X17 founder Regis Navarre  did. Last year, his agency made a cool $3M off of Britney's driving-with-the-baby-in-her-lap, shaving-her-head, going-to-court last year. Of course, that's only 3 percent Britney market share, so there's definitely room for improvement.

Navarre's business model involves hiring Latin/South American guys who were parking cars or delivering pizzas to work as paparazzi (a.k.a., "shooters" or "paps")  - one more job snatched up by those rapacious immigrants!

Most of X17’s paps, who number between 60 and 70, depending on the day and who quits or gets fired, are paid a stipend of $800 to $3,000 a week plus the occasional four- or low-five-figure bonus in exchange for global rights to their images, which Regis owns lock, stock, and barrel.

And that lock stock and barrel can add up. The Britney head-shaved photos were reputedly purchased by one of the TV entertainment rags (or whatever the TV equivalent of a rag is) for a one-night stand for $80K. Stills and videos of Britney attacking the car of one of the pap's with an umbrella have grossed $400K. Of course, it ain't all lucrative Britney work. A lot of the photos - presumably Marcia Cross with her kids - go for a lot less; selling celebrity photos is a volume business.

Interesting side note: Navarre started out as a legit photojournalist, but, once he made his way from Paris to Hollywood, figured out that the gold in the Hollywood hills was in celebrity shots, not in pictures of boring stuff like the Rodney King riots. And, by the way, he met his wife - whose name, not surprisingly, is Brandy - "in Frank Sinatra’s driveway, when they were both covering his funeral."

The work of the paps is supported by an informal cadre of tipsters - parking lot attendants, pizza delivery guys, store clerks - who dime the celebrities, alerting the paps to their whereabouts and antics. Sometimes the tipsters are a bit closer to home. Supposedly the father of Lindsay Lohan - first runner up to Britney for screwed up young celebrity of the year - has let the paps know where Lindsay will be showing up. Gee, thanks Dad, for making me what I am today.

Paparazzi have, of course, been around for a while, and date - at least in my recall to the Jackie Onassis era, when I first heard the term. Not that I read Photoplay or Teen Screen, but I believe that in the olden days, photos of the stars were staged shots, placed by studio PR agents. ("Here's a nice one of Rock Hudson on a date with Miss Kansas," "This is Bing Crosby around the tree, singing White Christmas to his four loving sons," "Don't you love this one of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello sipping their shared soda through those two shots." Everything was posed, everything was nice, clean and wholesome. No shots of Joan Crawford beating her kids with a hanger.  Just "Miss Crawford on the red carpet on Oscar night.")

But Jackie wasn't going to pose for any staged shots once she left the First Lady gives a tour of the White House business behind her. And we did so want to see Jackie, as she went from iconic grieving widow to Mrs. Gold-digger of the Year. (She almost owed us, didn't she? After all that sympathy we gave her, all those tears we shed for her and her kids?)

In any case, the Jackie-era paparazzi look down their noses at Navarre and X17:

He is roundly despised by more traditional Hollywood paparazzi, who accuse him of having destroyed their highly individualistic business by hiring gangs of immigrant kids with digital cameras purchased on credit from Best Buy to do the work of the heroic lone photographers who once lay in wait with telephoto lenses, stalking Jackie O.

Stalking Jackie O, taking zoom-lens pictures of her on Ari's yacht, or eating a baked potato at La Cote Basque in NYC, or looking at an osprey nest on Martha's Vineyard - and whatever else Jackie did to occupy herself, other than work as an editor, raise her kids, dress well, look like a million bucks - seems so quaint and old-fashioned compared to what the public is after these days.

Sure, someone out there wants to see a picture of an actress wheeling her baby around in an eight-hundred dollar jogging stroller. But what we really want to see is her slamming that stroller into the side of a pap's SUV. ("Oh, my god, that poor little baby.")

Yes, it's nice to see good old normal Tom Hanks out to dinner with his good old normal wife Rita Wilson.

But wouldn't we rather see Tom Cruise frothing at the mouth, jumping up and down like a maniac?

The price of bread may be going up, but as long as we have our circus, we're a happy bunch.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On the Job, Then and Now

Every once in a while, I think about the differences that have occurred in the workplace over the last few decades, starting in the early 1980's when I graduated from business school and started my professional career.

The most noticeable difference is clearly the technology.

When I started work - in a technology company, by the way - we did our largely computer-based work (running forecasting models, doing analysis, creating reports....) on mainframe computers, which we accessed via 300 baud paper based terminals called DEC-Writers. We worked in a communal computer room - The Terminal Room -  and, as there weren't enough computers to go around, if someone left their spot for more than 15 minutes, it was OK to put someone's session into "sleep mode" and start using their terminals.

We had a couple of Anderson-Jacobson terminals that we could use for printing reports and graphics. If Ben, the cleaning guy, came near one of them with the vacuum cleaner, it would through your graphics off - a pie chart would come out shaped like a lemon. And we had a couple of CRT screens that were faster and easier to use than the DEC-Writers, so there was a lot of competition for them.

Over a short period of time, the DEC-Writers were replaced by screen terminals (VT something-or-others; VT 131s?) which we all had in our offices. The end of The Terminal Room signaled a real shift in our culture. All of a sudden, we were on our own. In The Terminal Room, if you had a question about XSIM, the arcane forecasting and programming language we used, you could just yell out, "How do I set a global variable?" or "What's the function for calculating a Poisson Distribution?", someone could help you out.

But before long, we weren't worrying about how to do things in XSIM: the personal computer had arrived.

Obviously, the computing technology changes had a profound impact on the workplace - and having worked in mainframe timesharing, mini-computer, PC, and Web-based software companies (among other things) - I've lived through a lot of it.

And the idea of working from home...

But there are other things - some directly tech related, some not - that also changed over the years.

There was a time when there was no voice mail, so an admin or the receptionist would take a message on a pink phone slip to let you know who called. This was in a day and age when there were still admins who did things like Xerox and make your travel reservations.

Now, at least in tech companies, at most levels of the organization, you're on your own, baby.

I've always worked in places that had some however primitive form of e-mail but - get this - it used to be just for internal people. You couldn't send a message to someone on the outside world.

Before there was PowerPoint, you created 35 MM slide presentations, so costly and time consuming to make that you only did your official product presentation every 6 months or so. (So you tell me whether having PowerPoint is a productivity enhancer, or de-enhancer.) For internal or less formal presentations, you printed your points on glassine sheets, oddly called "foils", where the formatting was more or less limited to a couple of different fonts (Helvetica and Courier) and, if you were lucky, you got to play with BOLD, italic, and underline. And maybe bullets.

I never worked with really heavy smokers, and have no recall of being bothered by smoking at meetings, but at one place I worked, you could smoke if you had a closed door office, or if you were willing to go into a "smoking room." (Non-smokers would not want to be within 50 yards of a "smoking room.")

Another placed I worked had an unofficial smoking policy that pertained to grass. If you wanted to smoke a joint at our weekly Friday Party, you had to go to the Production Room.  A couple of people did smoke grass on the job. They went out to their cars at lunch and came back glassy-eyed. Those were the days....)

We didn't do this a lot, but "in the old days", when you went out for lunch for any occasion - someone's birthday, a going away party, first nice day - it was common to order pitchers of beer or glasses of wine. Maybe this is still done by the "young folk", but the thought of having a couple of glasses of beer and heading back to work just makes me sleepy.

Dress code is another big change I've seen over the year.

My first post-business school job didn't require that I wear a suit every day, and most of the guys didn't wear ties, but the women for the most part wore dresses or skirts. Maybe a nice pair of woolen pants if it was 15 degrees out.

When I worked at Wang, I did wear a formal business suit most of the time. These were menswear suits, which I referred to as "penis envy suits", worn with a silk (often bowed) shirt, or one of those insidious floppy bowties. 

Certainly, in the technology world, the dress code is more or less anything goes, but even when I worked in places where the code was about as strict as one of those beach restaurants with the sign "no shirts, no shoes, no service", I've always been more of a business casual-plus work dresser. Now, even when I'm at a client site where everyone pretty much wears jeans, I'll always have on a nice pair of pants and a sweater or jacket. (Which is not to say that I never wore jeans to work.)

Ah, the good old days....

Sometimes it's hard to remember that it wasn't all that long ago that work meant a skirt, heels, and pantyhose. That checking for messages meant going to the front desk to see if you had any of those little pink phone slips. That being on a business trip meant that you were more or less cut off from what was happening back home, or at home office.

Not to mention that, when you got home and kicked those heels off, your time was your own: no cellphones, pagers, IMs, emails, let-me-just-check-to-see-if-I-heard-from-X-I-promise-I'll-just-be-another-minute...