Monday, June 30, 2008

Analyze This (Your Call May Be Monitored)

Like 99.9999% of everyone else in the world, when I call a company I am not interested in ending up in voice response hell.

A couple of levels, okay. I do want to get to the right person (or right menu).

But when it gets down to more than a couple, it's like moving closer and closer to the inner circles of hell. This is especially true when you're in a No Exit situation. Talk about existential dread!

Yes, I will admit that I often make a bad customer. I don't have my customer number handy. I don't recall my pin code. I can not enter or speak my id: I don't know what it is.

Of course, most of the time when I'm in one of these voice recognition mazes, I'm there because I want and need help. Something isn't working right! I want to use it! I need something to get my job done!


In any event, by the time I'm running down my third or fourth dead end path, I am screaming into the phone, while simultaneously punching the zero or pound keys.

If I'm in a good mood, what I'm screaming is, "Human. I want to talk to a human being." When I am not in such a good mood, there are colorful adjectives applied to 'human being.'

I am never placated by the "voice" that says, a bit chagrined and oh-goshy, "Sorry, but I don't understand what you just said."

"Oh, yes you do, sweetheart, I sometimes shout back at the voice, "You just don't want to let me talk to anyone that's real."

At this point, if zero and pound don't get me anywhere, I'll lie to get a human, hitting two to reach technical support for something I don't have, or four to talk to a salesperson I don't want to talk to.

Once I get a human, I am generally mollified, although half the time what they do to get rid of me is send me into another voice response hell.

As I learned from an article by John Seabrook in the June 23rd New Yorker, they ain't kidding when they tell you that 'your call may be monitored'. And they're not just talking about the part of your call where you're actually talking to that human being I'm always screaming for.

At BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, they're actually listening to live sessions  so they can improve their "caller experience analytics" software.

This product logs the events that occur during a call and translate them into text so that they can be searched. They can also analyze the caller's voice for signs of anger - not just the words, but the intonation - and make distinctions between different types of anger.

At first the folks at BBN were listening in on a live call - but they kept listening in when the caller was put on hold. That's, of course, when the fun began.

The caller had been angry when he was speaking to the support rep, but once he was on hold, all hell broke lose, and the BBN-ers got to listen to yet another type of anger - one that featured words like m-f - and included something that sure sounded like a threat ("I'll frickin' find out who you are.")

At least I've never threatened anyone in my rants.

Hilariously, the call that Seabrook listened in on included background sounds: a bubbling bong, they guessed, followed by coughing.  (The coughing sort of re-inforces the bong interpretation, doesn't it?)

Well, no one has ever heard me on a bong, although perhaps once marijuana is okayed for medicinal purposes, it will also be legalized for use during customer support calls. ("Sign up now for premium support, and we'll send you this swell bong with our logo on it!")

Learning that the folks at BBN might be listening in has definitely given me pause about what I will or won't say when ratcheting around a voice response system.

I never worked for BBN, but I did work for a company that was a spin-out, and we had lots of ex-BBN-ers on our staff. I also know a few people who've worked there over the years.

The last thing I want is someone listening in to recognize my voice and say, "Gee, she always seemed so pleasant," or, worse, "I always knew she was a raving lunatic."

No more on-hold ranting for me.

No, I'll just make a meek little bleat: I'd really like to talk to a, sniff-sniff, human if you don't mind.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Pay-Day, Pay-Day

I was certainly heartened to read that, despite all the  recent economic sturm und drang, CEO pay continues to rise. AP broke the good news on June 15th, and just in case you missed the story, the median pay for S&P 500 CEO's was $8.4 million in 2007, a walking-around-money increase of $280K over 2006.

There was not that much info on those poor schnooks who came in below the median, although for two were mentioned.

The Chief Exec of XL Capital made $7.5 million, a 23 % increase over the prior year, and not bad considering that the company's profits tumbled by 80% and its stock priced dipped by 30%

The other underachiever cited was the head of Dillard's Department Stores. Their guy, William Dillard found his pay cut by 2/3rd's, and took home a meager little pay packet with only $1.1 million in it. The pay cut was an apparent result of Dillard's overall poor performance, which makes them something of an anomaly among large companies. Of course, for someone named Dillard who's running Dillard's, there may be other compensations. (Personalized shopping bags!) And as for the piddly pay: everyone knows retail pays lousy.

Mostly, the story in 2007 was more of what we've come to expect from the world of executive pay: the definition of performance is spongy and elastic.

"Compensation has become a shell game," said Richard Ferlauto, director of pension and benefits policy for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a Washington labor group representing government workers.

"So they take away the bonus," he said, "but then they still come up with ways to make sure the executive gets a big payout."

But, hey, Ferlauto works for a union. What do we expect him to say?

Maybe he just doesn't understand how GM can lose $39 billion, shut down a bunch of plants that employ a lot of working stiffs, and watch its stock price keep falling, and still give their head guy a 64% pay raise.

Of course, Rick Wagoner's compensation of $15.7 million, while well above the median, isn't all that rich a pot. The top four leaders of the pack have packages over $50 million.

Overall, AP's analysis of CEO compensation found that it "rose and fell regardless of the direction of a company's stock price or profits." They've also found that, in general, executive pay is somewhat kinked. If exogenous events - say, the rise in fuel prices - result in strong results for a company, the CEO benefits even if he/she (it's still mostly he!) had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, when company performance is bad, CEO's often manage to deflect accountability. And, overall, the compensation committee finds ways to help their buddies along.

In one company, the CEO's bonus is based on a cut of the profits. Since there were no profits, the exec was given a hefty bonus for hitting softball objectives like an increase in customer satisfaction and "developing senior leadership."

"The cracks in the idea of pay for performance really start to show when performance falters but pay still rises," said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at The Corporate Library, an independent corporate governance research firm. "It's always a win-win scenario for executives."

When I worked at Genuity, I was a director - the level at which bonus pay could get more interesting. Given the year we were having my first year there, I was sure that the bonus would not materialize.

Rest assured, I was told, we'll get it.

As it turned out, the senior execs decided on the level at which the bonuses would get paid out to directors and VPs - which used the same formula that determined what their bonus would be (obviously, theirs were of a higher magnitude). Sure enough, despite a lousy year, I got my 40% bonus.

In no way would I ever make the argument that pay structures should be completely flattened out. The CEO should make more than the receptionist and a customer support rep. But it has to be completely demoralizing for those who are getting no raises; who are nickeled and dimed when it comes to how their bonuses are granted; or are getting pink slips, when they see that those in leadership positions manage to cash in big time even when they're presiding over a sinking ship.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

John deGraaf's "Vacation Act of 2008"

There was a recent article by Alina Tugend in The New York Times on the importance of taking vacations - timely, given that this is the first full week of summer.

The article held few surprises: vacations are good for you; Americans get skimpier vacations than anywhere else in the industrialized world; a vacation that involves hiding your Blackberry behind a James Patterson paperback so people will think you're really vacationing won't give you the benefits of a true, distractions-off holiday.

What were really interesting were some of the statistics Tugend offered:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about a quarter of all workers in the private sector do not receive paid vacation. And the Conference Board, a private research group, said the number of Americans who said in April that they were going to take a vacation in the next six months is at a 30-year low, according to their regular consumer survey. Only 39 percent of those responding said they would go away on holiday over the next half year.

That is the lowest figure since 1978 and reflects a general decline since 2000, when, in April of that year, 49 percent said they were planning a getaway in the next six months.

The article cites the work of John deGraaf, who runs a non-profit, Take Back Your Time, which is pushing Congress to enact pro-vacation legislation. Apparently, we're the only industrialized country that doesn't have such a law.

Mr. de Graaf sees a solution to the vacation deprivation problem, even if it’s a long shot. His organization is working with Congress to consider national legislation requiring paid vacation time. He is hoping that such legislation, currently called the Minimum Leave Protection, Family Bonding and Personal Well-Being Act, will be introduced next year. It calls for a mandated three weeks of vacation every year.

“It’s tough, there’s no question about it, but there’s a lot of interest in it,” Mr. de Graaf said. “There’s less business opposition for this leave than sick leave or parenting leave because it’s more predictable.”

He estimated that it could add an extra 2 percent to 4 percent to the labor costs of a business, but “that would be balanced by less turnover and maybe less sick days.”

deGraaf is neither casual nor facetious in his efforts here. He is editor of a 2003 book, Take Back Your Time:Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America; co-author of Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic; and a documentary filmmaker on these topics.

He's also part of a project, What's the Economy for Anyway?, and is a newsletter contributor to New American Dream, an organization with this mission:

New American Dream helps Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice

In an article of deGraaf's I read on New Dream he asks the "What's the Economy For" question, and discusses how we as a nation have chosen a path that's all about consumption - which leads us to into the trap of suburban sprawl, endless commutes in low mileage SUV's, fall-apart crap we don't need - and neither the time nor the desire to take vacations. Meanwhile, across the pond, our European brethren drive Smart Cars, live in flats in cities, and have time to hang out in cafes and to take vacations. (When I went back to check on this article, the link was broken, so I'm not sure exactly what he says in there, but the gist is we can have a healthy economy that's not just focused on the accumulation of stuff.)

Regular readers will recognize this as a common rant of mine, the most recent of which is probably my screed on the Clean Coal ads.

Good luck to John deGraaf and the Vacation Act. Frankly, I don't think it stands much of a chance. It's really terrible that so many people don't get a paid vacation. (As a consultant, I guess I'm one of them.) It's really terrible that so few people indicated that they'll be taking a vacation anytime soon. (I'm not one of them.) But I don't imagine we'll be getting any vacation laws anytime soon.

But I really wish him luck with his efforts to get the conversation going about what the hell the economy is for.

Somewhere along the line, we started equating it with consuming. We'd be a lot better off if we started defining it as the mechanism to provide us with a meaningful, sensible, more healthful way of life.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

She's a Lady.....Sega's EMA

A couple of weeks ago, Sega  Toys announced a "girl" robot that sings, dances, and, when in "love mode", kisses.

It (she?) is called EMA, which stands for Eternal Maiden Actualization, a leaden name if ever there were one, and she'll be available this fall for about $175.EMA

EMA is a busty hip-swinger, and is a real little lady: just 15.5" tall. So she's a lot bigger than Barbie, plus she can do more. Of course, unlike Barbie she doesn't wear spike heels, have blonds hair and tons of eye shadow, and wear sexy clothing. EMA, in fact, does not appear to have any facial features (maybe her eyes are hidden by her bangs). But EMA does have better moves than Barbie, and, truly she seems a bit more human.

 According to their president:

SEGA TOYS will place marketing at the center of its management strategy and provide customers with value based on new types of play.

Kissy-kissy with a 15.5" love bot? New types of play, all right.

Sega hasn't forgotten that women like to play with weird objects, too. For us there's:

O-CHA KEN (Tea Dog)
This character was developed to help working women relax. In the three years since its launch, O-CHA KEN has been licensed tO-CHA-KENo 40 companies in Japan and 60 companies overseas. Together with these partners, we have developed a wide range of licensed merchandise, including dollhouses and clothes, stationery and confectionery, as well as  promotional campaigns for a beverage manufacturer.

If O-CHA Ken isn't available in the States, Sega's missing a market, because American working women like to relax, too.

EMA is not, of course, the first robotic living-breathing-creature substitute on the market. Last winter, there was Sharper Image's PLEO, the dinosaur "life form" they characterized as a "fellow creature," (and which I blog-ized as kind of interesting but creepy).

This is far creepier than PLEO, that's for sure.

Over on The Post Chronicle, they've got a quote from Sega about EMA:

"Strong, tough and battle-ready are some of the words often associated with robots, but we wanted to break that stereotype and provide a robot that's sweet and interactive," said Minako Sakanoue, a spokeswoman for the maker Sega Toys, told Reuters Japan. "She's very lovable and though she's not a human, she can act like a real girlfriend."

"...though she's not human, she can act like a real girlfriend."

Oh, no she can't.  She can't make you a sandwich, laugh at your stupid jokes, tell you look cute in that cap, borrow your jacket when she's cold, or tell you that you're older brother may make more money - but you're nicer-sweeter-funnier. And a lot of other things that a real live girlfriend can do for you.

Come September, I wonder how many EMA's they'll actually sell - and just who will be buying them.

From Sega Toy's site, I read that:

SEGA TOYS aims to be a toy company with a new marketing-based model. Under this completely new business model, we see our role as being an entertainment innovator, unconstrained by the conventional wisdom of the toy industry....Utilizing a state-of-the-art management model and the latest technology, we strive to satisfy the eternal thirst for fun and contribute to the creation of a society that nourishes the human spirit and imagination.

Is it just me, or are others struggling to see how EMA "contributes to the creation of a society that nourishes the human spirit and imagination?"

Imagination, maybe.

But human spirit? Not as far as I can see.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This Bud's pour vous....

I'm not a beer drinker. If and when I do have a beer, it's usually a Black and Tan (Guinness and Harp combo) in an Irish pub. But somewhere in the way back, I may have chugged a Bud or two.

Even if you don't down brewskis, Bud is one of those brands that must have nearly 100% recognition in the US. And, despite their Old World, Germanic name, there is something absolutely All-American about Budweiser.

It's the Great American Beer, isn't it?

It's the summer picnic. The baseball game. The cooler at the beach.

And the can? Well: it's red-white-and-blue.

All those Clydesdales? Sure, the breed may have started in Scotland, but those are American parades they're clomping through, aren't they.

So the idea that Anheuser-Busch might be acquired by "foreigners" - in this case, InBev, a Belgian beer company - is a little disturbing to the American psyche, especially as we head in to prime beer-drinking season. (The U.S. still owns summertime, right?)

This is all part of an overall trend, of course. There's our pronounced desire to consume more than our share of "stuff". Consuming stuff - a combination of cheap goods made somewhere else, and over the top luxuries - seems to have become our definition of "the economy". Not to mention our definition of ourselves. And to keep ourselves in the running as the world's premier consumers, we've passively, blithely, and weirdly accepted our status as a debtor nation.

Does it really matter that UniLever (a "multi-national" - but I don't think that, strictly speaking, the US is one of those nationals) owns Ben and Jerry's ice cream? That a Dutch firm, Aholt owns the Stop & Shop grocery chain? That you can "Put your John Hancock, on a John Hancock" insurance policy, but the profits from those premiums goes to Manulife in Canada?

In the short run, it lets us all keep on keepin' on all that spending. (Which keeps us from having to do any thinking at all about anything as tedious and boring as savings.)

But in the long run, it really can't be good.

So I'll leave you with an excerpt from a piece by Geoff Colvin in Fortune (published in February):

But here's why the trend is troublesome, and more so now than ever. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the rest of the world currently owns way more of America (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) than America owns of the rest of the world, by a margin of $2.6 trillion (as of year-end 2006; a 2007 figure is due in July and will be larger). Net foreign ownership is increasing very rapidly; it has multiplied by a factor of five in just the past decade. As it grows, we must send more dividends and interest to foreign owners, giving them more money with which to buy more U.S. assets, earning more dividends, and so on.

This compounding effect is small when net foreign ownership is low, but at today's levels the effect is becoming significant and ever harder to reverse. Where it leads is grim: As a nation we eventually cease to be capitalists and become simply wage earners. As Warren Buffett put it in a prophetic Fortune article more than four years ago, a country that goes too far down this road can be "colonized by purchase rather than conquest."

Okay, okay, I really can't let some of the semi-final words be about ceasing to be capitalists. Not that I'm not happy to live in a capitalistic system, which - at least in our neck of the woods - seems to come hand and hand with a lot of swell freedoms. I'd just like to see one that's a tad less consumerist and a tad less "winner take all". As for the word capitalist, doesn't it make you think of the mustached guy in Monopoly with the top hat and the cutaway?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Survey Says: Scandalous Behavior in the Workplace

When I was growing up, Spam was one of my favorite foods. I can still remember the somewhat chemical taste, burning the tip of my tongue. We didn't have Spam all that often. My mother could only make it when my father was away. He'd had enough of it, courtesy of the U.S. Navy between 1942-1945, thanks.

Of course, I haven't had Spam in years, but I thought of it the other day when I received an e-mail from someone at a PR firm that's working with Hormel to promote something called Hormel Compleats, non-frozen, micro-wavable meals. (Spam is another Hormel product.)

What they offered was a survey on office culture that they'd had conducted earlier this year, so I thought I'd take a look.

The survey is pretty funny, and covers things like office gossip; business clichés; stealing from the office fridge; rewards; and length of lunch break (nearly twenty percent reported that they take between 1-14 minutes; talk about gulp and go!).

One of my favorite questions on the survey, asked respondents to check all the bad behaviors they'd seen in action. (People were asked to select as many as applied.) Here are the results:

  • An Employee Back Stabbing A Fellow Worker 51%
  • Higher Up Playing Favorites 44%
  • An Employee Taking Credit For A Co-Worker’s Hard Work 32%
  • An Employee Sabotaging A Co-Worker 27%
  • Co-Workers Having A Secret Affair 26%
  • An Employee Stealing Office Supplies 25%
  • A Higher Up Hiring A Family Member 21%
  • A Co-Worker Having Sex At The Office 11%
  • None Of These 24%

Am I the only person who finds some of these percentages really, really, low?

Can it really be true that 49% of folks haven't seen backstabbing in action? They haven't seen anyone throw a colleague (or, as often as not, a subordinate) under the bus when the flames started licking a little too close for comfort?

Or maybe this is behavior is really front-stabbing, as it's just so out there.

I'm surprised that only 44% have seen higher ups playing favorites.

Sure, this one depends on whether you're the one being played or not, and the definition of "playing favorites" is almost completely subjective (and subject to irrationality). I've generally had good relationships with my managers, and I know that I've been viewed as someone who's been favored. But I've also felt those junior high twinges of envy when it's looked like the boss has a coterie that doesn't include me. That someone else has gotten the fun projects, while I've gotten stuck with the dreck.

Irrational, subjective - sure. But haven't most of us felt this way at least once or twice in our lives?

Only 32% have seen credit grabbers?

They haven't worked some of the places I've been, that's for sure. Mostly what I've seen is not out and out credit grab, it's the implicit acceptance of credit when you let someone think that you're the person who did the work, when in fact it was someone else.

When I worked at Genuity, one of the guys on my team had the opportunity to work with a peer of mine on a project. J did all the work on a report and, as a "reward", he was invited to the meeting where "S' was going to walk through the report for senior management. "J" was introduced as someone who was working with "S" on the issue. When "S" finished up, the senior execs complimented him on the thoroughness and quality of his work. This was the perfect opportunity for him to at least share credit for authorship with "J", but he just kept quiet.

"J" came to me both angry and hurt.

I called "S" on his behavior, and his response was that it wouldn't have been "appropriate" to acknowledge the work that "J" had done.

You know what, "S"? Ten years after the fact, I still say BS.

Secret affairs tend not to be all that secret, and I've certainly seen plenty over time.

Let's face it, when people are thrown together all day long, when they work late on projects, travel to conferences, etc., etc.: things happen.

At one company I worked for, the president - who spent half of his time in NYC, the other half in Boston -  had a corporate apartment in downtown Boston. One of my friends was part of a team attending an off-site meeting to be held at the apartment, and when they got there they found a "love note" from another colleague taped to the fridge door. (Isn't it romantic?)

I haven't seen all that much office supply thievery, although I have always ended up with all sorts of pens in every pocketbook, tote bag, briefcase, and backpack I've owned. This is still the case, even though I'm now buying all those pens. I must buy 100 pens a year, yet I never seem to be able to find one I like when I need one.

Only later, when I reach into my backpack and find 17 pens, do I know where they've gotten to.

When I worked at Wang, I went to the supply cabinet in late August and found it locked. When I wen to the admin to see what was up with that, I was told that the cabinets were locked every August to prevent "back to school supply" theft.

I haven't seen all that man hire-ups hiring a family member, but I'm sure it happens plenty. And, as long as the family member is competent, why not?

Sex in the office?

Fortunately, most of the secret affairs that weren't so secret seemed to have been thankfully conducted off-premise, so I don't doubt this 11% figure. (One time, my sister Trish went into an interior, windowless conference room and found a pair of underpants on the floor. Yuck.)

The real wonder of this survey: how can it be possible that 24% of those surveyed answered "none of the above"?

Are they just not paying any attention? Are they in denial? Or are they so busy being scandalous themselves that they don't have time to notice what their co-workers are up to?




Since I'm using their survey, here's a link to the Hormel Compleat page. The survey was conducted by Kelton Research, under the aegis of the PR firm, Burson-Marsteller.

And if you want a bit of a LOL, check out the Spam site.

Friday, June 20, 2008

How to Learn that You're Getting a Pink Slip

You can have someone tap you on your shoulder and ask you to come along with them. ("We have to talk.")

You can be told unofficially, ahead of time, so that when the Angel of Death taps you on the shoulder, you're somewhat prepared.

You can be warned well in advance that something's up because your company makes an announcement that they will be cutting x percent of their employees in the coming quarter.

You can be completely blindsided.

You can get learn by a phone call.

You can learn via voice mail. ("Sorry I missed your call....")

You can learn via e-mail.

You can learn via snail-mail. Or express mail.

You can learn through the rumor mill.

You can learn through an IM from a friend (or, I guess, an enemy).

You can guess - and be right.

You can guess - and be wrong.

You can lose a political battle, and your dismissal is engineered to look like a lay-off, but you're really fired.

You can get caught in the cross-fire of someone else's political battle and become collateral damage.

You can volunteer for separation. (Pick, me, pick me, pick me.)

You can figure it out by watching who's going into what meeting, and who's no longer invited.

Speaking of meetings, you can be called into a company meeting and, at the door, get handed a piece of colored paper. Everyone with a green piece of paper, please take a seat in the meeting room: you're job has been deleted.

You can read about it in the newspaper - or online.

You can see a new org chart without your name on it.

You can see you name on a list of lay-off-ees that your boss asks you to fax somewhere or another.

Or, as happened to my cousin just the other day, you can be called into a meeting for everyone who works in your office, and have the head guy announce that you are one of the two people in that location who are losing their jobs.

My cousin had to fortitude and ego to tell the head guy that it was a really lousy thing to let him know - after 8 years - that he was being cut in front of his colleagues.

The head guy just brushed my cousin off.

People react to losing their job in different ways. And you'll have different reactions as time goes on. (Fortunately, in most cases I know of, humor replaces bitterness and anger over time.)

But no one should be told in front of their colleagues.

Who wants to have everyone looking at you to see if you're surprised, in shock, bittern, angry, overjoyed? Who wants to have their office mates see them cry? Who wants to have their in-the-moment words out there for everyone to hear?

If you're working someplace where the head guy is such an a-hole that he'd behave in this way, you are without a question or doubt better off somewhere else.

The question remains: why would anyone think this was a good idea? That it is fair, reasonable, just, and kind?

It is only one thing: humiliating. And completely unnecessary.

Fortunately, in the wonderful world of the workplace, what goes around does generally come around.

And I'm betting this head guy is going to biting his own dust any day now.

Do you think he wants the head-er guy to come in and let him go in front of everyone in the office? Or in front of his peers at a group meeting?

I thought not.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

In The Midst of Plenty

I'll admit, when it comes to the high price of gasoline, I have not been at my sympathetic best.

I don't own a car, and I rarely drive.

Oh, woe is me if and when I have to pay a higher plane fare.

Yes, I have friends and family who are impacted, not in a lifestyle-altering way, but in a "this bites" kind of way. Who wants to shell out for Shell?

Plus my green side has been saying, this is what we get for our gas-guzzling, suburban-sprawling, public-transportation-neglecting way of life. Changes must be made.

So I was pulled up a bit short by an article  by James Patterson in last week's NY Times on how gasoline prices are impacting the poor in rural areas across the South, Southwest, and Great Plains.

The story focused in part on Josephine Cage, of Tchula, Mississippi, whose long commute to the processing plant where she works filleting fish is now costing her about $200 a month, which represents nearly 20 percent of her pay.

It's hard to pick which aspect of this is the most grim: the $1K a month pay; the 20% that goes to gas; the job filleting fish.

Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?

There are places in this country where:

People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.

While Ms. Cage's expenditures on gas are on the high side, proportionately, in her area spending on gas has gone above 13 percent, and is now "rivaling what families spend on food and housing." The national average is about 4% - which sounds whopping enough to me.  In the one Northeast county - Nassau on Long Island - cited in the article, only 2% of income gets spent at the pump.

Other than in rural Maine, the Northeast is hurt the least by higher gasoline prices. People in these parts make more money to begin with; commutes are shorter; and there's widespread access to public transportation. And complain as we do about public transportation - the Red Line delay when you're trying to get to a meeting in Cambridge; the inconvenient train back to Boston from Salem (why can't there be a 10:13 on weekends?) - at least many of us have recourse to it. In fact, ridership on our local Boston public transportation - a combo of bus, subway, train, and boat - is well up because of rising gas prices.

Of course, in rural Mississippi, there's little by way of public transportation between Tchula and Isola, where the fish plant is. And, of course, it's probably not all that economically feasible to have much public transit where people live so widely dispersed.

Naturally, jobs across Mississippi are hard to come by. People take what they can get - which often comes with a long commute in a car that's a lot older and less fuel efficient that a brand new Prius.

Which all translates into no little luxuries, like meat or video rentals. It means old beater cars that aren't getting fixed, or are getting repossessed. (Last summer, knowing absolutely nothing about the used car industry, I did a market analysis report for a company that provides software to that industry. So I learned about BHPH car lots - that's Buy Here/Pay Here - where the lot does the financing for folks who can't get credit, and those folks have show up every week and hand the used car dealer part of their paycheck.  There's a big business is supplying secretly hidden LoJack-style systems to the used car lots so they can trace the cars of deadbeats. Who knew?)

It also translates into local and county governments that are cutting back on what meager services they do deliver.

Forty years ago, I read The Other America by Michael Harrington, and In the Midst of Plenty by Ben Bagdikian, two classic works on the poor among us.

Yes, I know that poor folk are, for the most part, materially better off than they were 40 years ago. People who didn't have electricity are now doing without video rentals.

Yet there remain - for whatever complex reasons - people who live in fairly straitened circumstances. Living as we do in the midst of plenty, it's sometimes hard to keep in mind that The Other America still exists.


A tip of the cap to my brother-in-law Rick for pointing out this story to me. Make that a tip of the gasoline attendant's cap, from one Baby Boomer to another who remembers when gasoline cost $.25/gallon and when the guys who worked in gas stations wore uniforms. My family's Texaco man wore a uniform that resembled what Ike wore: khaki brown, with the eponymous Eisenhower jacket, and a visored hat.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Field Trip

When I was in grammar school, there was no such thing as a field trip.

Oh, maybe public schools (a.k.a., "pubs") - with their lower standards - like letting kids where jeans to school - went on field trips. But Our Lady of the Angels in Worcester, Massachusetts sure didn't.

How could we?

Classes had anywhere from 45-50 kids in them. There was one nun per 45-5o kids. And our nuns were semi-cloistered, so they couldn't have taken us on a field trip, even if they'd wanted to. Plus buses were expensive. If we had that kind of money floating around, we'd use it to buy us some more pagan babies.*

Anyway, I never went on a field trip until I was in high school, when we made occasional runs into Boston to the Science Museum or some cultural event. One time we came in to see an opera. Unfortunately, it was kiddie day, and most of those in attendance were grammar school. The kids were wild, out of control, running through the aisles, blowing into their Good 'n' Plenty boxes. (Must have been pubs.) The performance was one of those ones with the dying heroine - Traviata? La Bohème?  The crowd was so raucous, Mimi/Violetta - whoever was hacking and dying up there - cracked up on stage. So much for deathless drama.

This is a field trip time of year, and the sidewalks of downtown Boston are jammed with kids on field trips.

The other day, I encountered a group of what appeared to be junior high school kids on a field trip, down from some town in New Hampshire.

Now, Boston is a great place for a field trip, because there's an awful lot here that's of historic or cultural interest.

You can see Paul Revere's House. Old North Church. Bunker Hill. The U.S.S. Constitution. The site of the Boston Massacre. The Boston Tea Party.

There's the wonderful St. Gaudens memorial to the African American Civil War troops (whose saga was portrayed in the movie  Glory.)

We have museums aplenty.

We have Swan Boats (Public Garden), Duck Boats (Charles River), and tour boats (Boston Harbor).

We have a couple of tall buildings you can go up into and quite possibly see New Hampshire.

We have lots of stuff, but, apparently it's of the you-must-be-kidding, shoot-me-now, bored-out-of-my-skull variety which holds no interest to the modern day kid. (In olden days, we would have been so thrilled to have been sprung from class, we would have been happy to tour a slaughter house or dump.)

I figured this out when I saw that the junior high kids from New Hampshire were pretty much all holding shopping bags from Abercrombie & Fitch. One kid had four.

Is the only reason to come into Boston on a field trip to go shopping at A&F which, I'm quite certain, is available to shoppers at any number of malls between here and there?

Yes, I know everyone likes to buy a souvenir when they're on a field trip. But it appeared that the main feature of this excursion was shopping for A&F gear.

I guess it's "shop free, or die," these days.

And me, I'm just a crank, getting crankier by the day.

*In that era, Catholic school kids contributed mission money that we were told went to baptizing pagan babies in Africa or Asia. We, of course, translated this into "buying pagan babies". We were also told that when we bought our babies, we got to name them. One year, we reached the $5 - cost of a pagan baby purchase - on my birthday, so the p.b. was named after me. For years I was haunted by the thought of some poor kid in Africa called "Maureen Elizabeth" and wondering how that happened.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Career Moves

While I didn't watch Meet The Press with any regularity, I was a something of a fan and admirer of its late host, Tim Russert. He always struck me as prepared, tenacious, and tough - not to mention that he didn't seem to be as "gotcha" driven as a lot of the other political newsfolks. I also am an unabashed admirer of those who manage to scramble up from humble origins to the top of their particular heap - extra points if those humble origins were Irish Catholic. Tim Russert's father was a garbage man in Buffalo, NY, and Tim was a 16 year product of Catholic schools.

Fair play to you, Tim, that you made it as far as you did. Good on you.

I did watch the Irish-wakish tribute to Russert on Meet The Press this past Sunday, and found it heart felt and interesting (even though I'm not a big fan of James Carville or Mike Barnicle - two of the wakers - and exactly what was Mary Matalin wearing that looked like an outfit for a cocktail party? Oh, well, people wear just about anything to wakes these days.).

But there is a touch of over-the-topness to the reaction to Russert's death. It's not quite Princess Diana caliber, yet it seems just a bit disproportionate. Sure, he was an impressive figure, but to devote most/all of Friday night's NBC news half-hour? Did nothing of greater importance happen that day? Sure, this is an election year. And Russert died suddenly and at a relatively young age (i.e., mine). And with the Jon Stewart's and Steven Colbert's of the world making sure that earnestness is replaced by irony, we're not likely to see the likes of Tim Russert again anytime soon. But all that air time and attention? It seems as if the private emotions of the understandably upset NBC newsroom got the best of them.

Tim Russet left his wife and a relatively young son who, at 22 has just graduated from college.

Russert's son, Luke, has quite impressive credentials for someone of his young age - a sports show on ESPN. I read an interview a couple of years ago when the show first started - the local interest was that Luke R was a student at Boston College - and recall that the kid made no bones about the fact that he got the opportunity because of who his father was. The impression that I took away from the interview I read was that Luke was decent and likable enough, although obviously wildly and widely privileged.

I noticed yesterday that young Luke had appeared on The Today Show to talk about his father. I watched a bit of the clip and was struck by how poised and articulate he is. But, of course, he is a young man who, as the son of two prominent journalists (his mother, Maureen Orth, is also a writer), has been somewhat groomed for this. He is, as well, a newsperson on his own right, by dint of his however nepotically (is that a word) he got the job.

But I was also struck by just how peculiar it was to have this young man on TV, talking about his father and his death, just a couple of days after it occurred.

Surely, this is private grief time for Luke, his mother, and their family and friends.

It was one thing for those journalist friends - public figures, talking heads, all, with the exception of Tim Russert's assistant who appeared to be the most shaken of the lot - to sit around on Sunday on Meet The Press. Quite another for his son to go on with Matt Lauer.

There is also a photo circulating of Luke Russert on the stage of Meet The Press, touching his father's chair a day or two after his death. Not quite John-John saluting Daddy's caisson, but poignant and sweet.

Yet I noticed that the shot had been provided to AP by the staff of Meet The Press.

All of a sudden, this personal moment looks staged, contrived, posed - even if it's not.

Why do we need to see this picture? Why do we - who are neither friends nor family of Tim Russert - need to hear what this bereaved young man has to say?

I do not for one moment believe that the photo op and Matt Lauer interviewed were stage managed by Luke Russert and his mother. But I have no problem believing that Tim Russert's friends in high places had no problem pushing for the on-air interview, and circulation of the photo. I have no problem believing they were doing something that they believe will help move Luke Russert's career along.

Certainly, millions of people who never heard of him - or only knew of him in the context of being Tim Russert's kid - have now had the opportunity to see Luke Russert on his own.

God knows, I don't expect to see him on Meet The Press grilling Obama and McCain anytime soon. But a career that was already on the lottery-in-life fast track has just been accelerated, and if Luke is as smart, tenacious, and as hard working as his father he will no doubt go far.

Tim Russert's friends and colleagues have every reason in the world to help Luke Russert along in his career.

This is the way the world works, and there's nothing wrong with pull - to a point, and issues with the incumbent president aside.

Those pulling Luke along are, no doubt, well meaning.

And who among us hasn't used our network to find work - or to help out friends and relations?

We're just doing it at a far lower, less visible level - for jobs that the country's elite class wouldn't give two hoots about.

And there's something unsettling about seeing Luke Russert paraded out less than 72 hours after his father's death. Good, no doubt, for ratings. Good, no doubt, for Luke's career. But somehow a tiny bit distasteful to me.

My father had nothing in common with Tim Russert - other than the fact that they were both witty, smart, sports fan, kid-loving Irish-Catholic guys from working class backgrounds who died at the age of 58.

Unlike Tim Russert, my father didn't die suddenly: he suffered from a progressive illness that took nearly 7 years to kill him.

So I had nearly 7 years to get used to the idea that he would be gone before we were any near where ready for him to be.

I have nothing in common with Luke Russet - other than the fact that we were about the same age when our fathers died. (I had just turned 21; Luke Russert is 22.)

Unlike Luke Russert, at 22 I didn't know a damned soul who could have helped me out with my career - even if I had a clue what that career was going to be. The summer after my father died, I did get a "pull" job through my uncle. Charlie was head of the Worcester city workers/laborers union, and he got me a job as an intake clerk in the Worcester City Hospital walk-in clinic - a truly interesting (not to mention eye-opening) job. One of the patients I remember most clearly was a woman who had fallen down drunk and bashed the side of head in. By the time she sobered up enough to come into the Hospital, her wound was infested with maggots.

There's plenty of time for a 22 year old kid to talk about his father - including at the wake and party-after the funeral, where those who knew and loved Tim Russert will be happy to trade stories with him.

You'd have thought that those pushing Luke Russert to "go public" might have given him a few days to himself. He is not, after all, someone in his 30's, 40's, 50's who's just lost his father. Nor is he - quite yet, despite his sports show - a public figure. He's a just out of college, 22 year old kid.

But if the folks pushing the story had waited,the moment might have passed.

We'd have already forgotten about Tim Russert.

Who will be replacing him? On to the next!

So, career-wise, those engineering the go-public moves for Luke Russert were probably right to encourage him to jump on the story fast.

And maybe the idea was all his to begin with - maybe in the "all is public, nothing is private" world we live in, this is Luke's way to come to grips with his father's death.

Still, that picture of him touching his father's chair...

We the people - who will miss Tim Russert for his contributions to the American polity, but for whom any glimpse of the true grieving is vicarious at best - didn't need to see that.

Not now. Not ever.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Celebrating Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday, the day on which the action in James Joyce's a) brilliant; b) difficult; c) both a and b; master word, Ulysses,  takes place. The date also marks the anniversary of Joyce's first "date" with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his soul mate and lover, and, far later, his wife.

Although I wasn't particularly fond of Ulysses, I love Joyce's earlier works, especially his brilliant short stories. The Dead remains, for me, the greatest short story I've ever read. But when it came to pure readability, Ulysses was fairly hard going for this reader. In addition to my preference for the earlier works, I'd rather read the Ellman biography of Joyce, and the Maddox biography of Barnacle.

Frankly, I'd rather read Finnegan's Wake, which is far less comprehensible and plotted than Ulysses, but which you can pick up at any time, at any point, and just dive in and have fun. I will add that I don't see how it can be much fun for people who don't quite have my cultural baggage. Finnegan's been translated into many different languages, and I always wonder what the Japanese, say make of it.

I can have the odd bit of fun with it, because I at least get some of the references, having:

  • Been raised Catholic (in a largely Irish Catholic environment)
  • Visited Ireland over a dozen times
  • Taken four years of Latin
  • Knowing a few words in Irish


Ah, well, not for me to question what someone else might get out of Joyce.

What the Irish - who, quite naturally, reviled Joyce in his day, with the favor gladly returned by yer man - get out of joy is a minor industry.

The Martello Tower outside of Dublin where Joyce roomed with Oliver St. John Gogarty (a.k.a., "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" of Ulysses fame)  is a museum. Davey Byrne's Pub (featured in Ulysses) does a fair amount of custom from tourists. (I've been one of them. It had become something of a pick up joint by the time I got there; and I believe I got food poisoning from the oysters.) And half the pubs in Ireland have a picture of Joyce on the wall (along with Yeats, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, et al. - time to put up Roddy Doyle, John Banville, John McGahern, and Edna O'Brien et al., I'd say).

And Bloomsday has become a big deal, with period-garbed actors (and tourists) following the Ulysses route through Dublin. In the States, too, there are celebrations -there may even be celebrations in Japan and China, for all I know.

Well, why shouldn't the Irish exploit Joyce? It can certainly be argued that he did plenty of exploiting - certainly of the Olde Sod, but also of the friends and relations (including his brother, who was also a writer) he exploited so that he could keep on being a genius. (Joyce is by no means alone in this regard. Read any genius bio, and there's someone behind the scenes making sure there's toilet paper and tea bags on the shelves.)

In any case, it's interesting to think what Joyce would have made of all the Bloomsday hoopla. I'm sure that the genius would have found it shite, while the egoist would be somewhat gratified.

More interesting to imagine what Joyce - now dead almost 70 years - would make of the Ireland transformed into a prosperous country that's taken its place among the nations of the world. Or whether - like so many of the Irish - he wouldn't quite trust it. (I understand that, now that the economy there has taken a bit of a downturneen, that many of the Irish are all doom and gloom. Why does that not surprise me?)

In any case, I will not be celebrating Bloomsday in any particular fashion, other than that I'll probably finish the Edna O'Brien novel I'm reading. (Like Joyce, O'Brien fled Ireland so that she could have a life as an artist.)

Since one of my greatgrandmother's was a Joyce, I used to pretend that I was somehow related to the great man. But, alas, James Joyce was from a family with Cork roots, while "my" Joyces are from County Mayo.

Pre-school, I did have an imaginary friend, Dooley, who looked uncannily like James Joyce, now that I think of it. Surely, as a four year old, living on the second floor of a three decker in Worcester, Massachusetts, I had no idea what James Joyce looked like when I conjured up Dooley.

For those who celebrate Bloomsday, knock yourself out! (I think I'll just go and commune with Dooley...Yes.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Funding Your Retirement on eBay

I had lunch a few weeks ago with my friend Pat, and she told me that she'd read somewhere that a lot of retirees are funding their retirement by selling stuff on eBay.

How interesting that you spend so many years of your life accumulating a lot of stuff you don't need, or even want, really. Then you either come to the realization that none of those possessions really matter, and start to lighten your load. Or you realize that you can't afford to live without selling off some of your junk. Or, worse, you realize that you can't afford to buy more junk unless you sell off some of the junk you have.

In the decade before she died, my mother - then in her seventies - definitely went through a de-acquisition period. In addition to the food she'd try to thrust on us after we went for a visit - including bags of bread that'd been in the freezer for a year; now, her wonderful home-made soups were one thing, but a bag of freezer-burned bread: no, thanks, Ma - she'd often give us some item of family importance and great sentimental value.

Thus, I ended up with the little water colors her friend Ann Curtin had given her for an engagement present, and the yellow plate with the fruit painted on it.

No, you never left my mother's empty-handed unless you really wanted to.

Simultaneously, Liz went through an acquisition phase, in which she brought home all these knick-knacks from the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, where she volunteered a couple of days a week. (After her death, as I unloaded carton after carton at the Thrift Store, someone working there asked me, "Are you sure these are all things we can use?" I assured her that 90% of it had come from St. Vinny D's to begin with.)

My mother, of course, never got on eBay, which was really just taking off about the time she died. (Boy, we could have made some money on all those LP's she had.)

But the thought of selling off all your junk has some appeal.

Of course, I don't know what I have that anyone else would actually want to pay money for.

Costume jewelry, some of it very nice. (Those turquoise beads are probably worth plenty.) Lots of books, half of which I'd probably find were moldering if I actually opened them up for a re-read. Lots of CDs. Some costumer jewelry-equivalent art work, including those Anne Curtin watercolors that I paid a small fortune to have framed. Lots of nice, arty bowls and vases. Tons of Christmas ornaments.

What I don't have is much left over from childhood.

Let's face it, anyone with pristine versions of their toys, dolls, and games is unlikely to have grown up in a large family with boys in it.

The only toy that survived my childhood is my stuffed dog, Sniffy. And he's not going anywhere.

No Tiny Tears (who probably wouldn't have survived, anyway, given that the plastic/rubber she was made out of would likely have decayed). No Ginny and Ginnette - who go for beaucoup d'argent on eBay, by the way.

No Easy Money - the sleazy version of Monopoly we had. (I'm sure having his kids buy and sell the Kit-Kat Nightclub held some humorous appeal to my father. My mother must not have read the fine print: she would never have approved.)

And I suppose I can't blame my brothers for all of the destruction of childhood things.

I was the one who used the Magic Marker to try to make my Ginnette doll's eyes bluer-than-blue. Too bad I managed to mark out the whites of her eyes, too.

Kath and I were the ones who used the heavy black kitchen sheers to cut the legs and arms off Little Lulu because we were pissed off that we had to go to bed when it was still light out. (So there!)

We were all just hard on things in general. Everything got handed down, used up. We didn't have all that much to begin with, and none of us particularly cared about hanging on to it as we grew up and out of it. (Who cared about an old Flexible Flyer, anyway?)

Anyway, I find it interesting to think of all these retirees, forced or electing to make some money on eBay.

I do know one thing: their kids may be annoyed if a few "treasures" fall out of the family. But mostly they'll be delighted that they don't have to get rid of all this crap for themselves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A former client sent me a link to Idealist.Org, which is dedicated to volunteerism and nonprofit careers.

Now, I have no illusion whatsoever that working in a nonprofit organization means that you won't have to put up with politics, petty squabbling, annoying colleagues, bad bosses, miserable working conditions, overwork, crappy pay, miserly vacations, lack of appreciation, idiotic decisions, no-win strategies, and all the other ills that attend any workplace. (Hey, let's face it, even in a one-person shop you can end up with most of these ills - and more.)

But what you will do have greater likelihood of finding in a nonprofit is more meaning than you might automatically derive from working in, say, a conglomerate that cells cigarettes, or a tech company that makes software that spies on employees.

I've been on over to Idealist a few times, and have recommended it to a couple of people. is part of Actions Without Borders, a non-government, non-political, non-religious organization,which for over a decade, has been dedicated to connecting "people, organizations, and resources to help build a world where all people can live free and dignified lives."

Their work: guided by the common desire of our members and supporters to find practical solutions to social and environmental problems, in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect.

Ah, unless you are the world's foremost cynic, that's a breath of fresh air you just felt.

A while back, I looked at local job postings.

There was a job at Actors Shakespeare Project (ASP) - a really tremendous theater company that brings Shakespeare to life in a way I've never seen before - and I don't mean by dumbing it down and making it "relevant". I've been to a half-dozen of their productions, and for the most part I've experienced Shakespeare in a new way when I see their performances.

Shakespeare is something I've been fooled by.

Like a lot of Americans, if something is performed in a pompous British accent, I have a hard time figuring out if the acting is any good.

But, for me, ASP always manages to find the emotional truth in the play. I get Ophelia. I get Cordelia. I get Prospero in ways that I haven't before.

Idealist also had a job at the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has its Vatican right up the street from where I live.

Although what I really like about the UUA is that they don't have a Vatican.

If  for some reason, I had to join a religion other than ex-Catholic/cultural-Catholic, I'd be a Unitarian.

Secular humanist all the way!

Oh, I know a lot of religious people despise them for their lack of ironclad conviction, their question authority, their question mark in general, their tolerance for non-theism. And I know a lot of atheists/agnostics who despise them for being non-believers at heart but lacking the courage to just let "it" (i.e., organized religion) just go.

But, hell - not that I believe there is one - that's what I like and admire about UUA.

The Vilna Shul was also on the list of those with jobs. (This link takes you to a site with 360 degree views of synagogues. You have to go find the Vilna Shul once you get there.)

The location of the Vilna Shul is almost as close as that of the UUA, just up and over The Hill from my home.

Oh, the job is just a fairly low-end admin function, and I'm sure they'd probably prefer someone who's actually Jewish, but I am someone who knows an awful lot about Jewish history and culture for a schiksa. I think I'd be feel right at home there.

The list goes on....lots of places that sound like they'd be interesting to work at.

Now, just I have no illusion that working in a nonprofit is all gooey grand and glorious, I also understand that idealists can work in organizations that are for profit. And for organizations that I, personally, might find less than ideal.  (You can be an idealist about promoting creationism, or opposing gay marriage, or about working in a hedge fund, I suppose.)

Still, there's something kind of sweet about, and I think I'll keep grazing over their occasionally.

Who knows? I might even find the ideal job.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How People Are Spending Their Stimulus

I'm no economist, but I really don't see that sending most taxpayers $600 - an amount at once wildly generous and far too measly -  is going to pull us out of the slough of despond the economy is slip-sliding into.

Not with gasoline prices above $4/gallon, given our willed and willful dependence on the "infernal machine". Think what you will about the European way of life - and, truly, we've got it better in a lot of ways - middle class people manage to lead a pretty darned good existence without a lot of sprawling, remote suburbs; grotesque, urban-life killing expressways; and big-box stores you can only get to in a ve-hi-cle.

In any case, I was interested in seeing what folks are spending their checks, which are being distributed based on Social Security Numbers, and began going out in May. So I headed on over to How I Spent My Stimulus, which invites people to share a few words and a picture that lets others know where the money's going.

The entries are gloriously, spectacularly American.

People are spending on: Laptop computers. Gas grills. Gas. Dining room sets. Diapers. Bills. Trips to Mexico. Trips to Disney. Trips to Las Vegas, baby.

Their saving for their wedding. For a house. For their kids' college education.

They're buying Euros.

They're paying bills. Making charitable donations. They're making political donations. They're fixing leaky roofs.

They're paying bills - sometimes the bills of others, but mostly their owns.

They're buying tires -made in America, dammit. They're paying off car loans. They're paying their car insurance.

They're buying groceries.

Did I mention diapers?

There's one woman on their self-righteously bragging about how she is doing the right thing by buying diapers for her baby, while most of the undeserving, free-loading whiners are looking for handouts to fritter away on stuff.

One guy paid his bail money.

Someone bought property - on Second Life.

Entrepreneurs are setting up businesses: one guy is going to sell "pepper spray, stun guns, survaillance [sic], and nanny cams" online.

One guy is buying campaign signs for his re-election.

One couple's buying savings bonds for their grandkids, "who will need it to pay for this stimulus."

A few are paying off their tax bills, a nice fitting circularity.

They're buying 41 copies of Ron Paul's The Revolution: A Manifesto. They're donating to Obama's campaign.

They're putting it in the bank. Or under their mattress (actually, in their home safe) because they don't trust banks.

One woman in Georgia saving it because she's "Too scared to spend my stimulus because I feel no good can come from it. Into savings it goes."

This being an open forum, some people are critiquing the choices of others.

This being the U.S., those choices are all over the map, gloriously messy, gloriously American.

But you can't help but thinking about whether this is the beginning of the end for our completely consumption-driven way of life. And what do with our time and ourselves when we don't have the money or the inclination to go shopping? When we don't build our lives around acquiring new stuff?

God help us, but could it be that we're actually going to have to find out?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Recession Proof Jobs

A week or so ago, I saw an article in The Boston Globe on recession-proof jobs.

High on the list are math and science teaching jobs, as well as school counselors and administrators, English Language Learners teachers, and special needs teachers.

This may not do the complete trick in states with declining school age populations, i.e., places like Massachusetts. But if you're willing to live in the sun and fun in Nevada, you'll probably find yourself a relatively stable teaching job.

Cyber security experts will stay in demand. As will national security "personnel," i.e., the military which, not surprisingly, is having a hard time meeting its recruiting goals these days. Of course, a good recession might help that along.

Other in-demand security workers include FBI or CIA agent, TSA security officer, private security guard, corrections officer, and border patrol agent.

FBI and CIA are pretty high end, but TSA security officer and private security guard aren't exactly well paid or respected professions. Corrections officer sounds pretty grim, but as long as we keep such a high percentage of our population behind bars they'll always have work, I suppose. And as long as we continue to fear the invasion of the job-snatching aliens, we'll need those border patrol agents. (Why wouldn't I like them better if I thought that they were on the lookout for potential terrorists, as opposed to poor folks who want to do crappy, menial jobs - like working in a chicken factory - that nobody else wants?)

Environmental work is a growth industry, thankfully.

But beware of that use of the word "environmental". Just like the word "green" is getting thrown into pretty much every marketing campaign out there, the word environmental is being a little abused, as I saw when I looked at some recent data on hospital employment.

When I saw how many folks were working as environmental aides - pretty much second only to nurses in terms of employment numbers - it took me a moment to realize they were talking about cleaning people.

Bartenders, waitresses, and waiters are apparently recession-proof, largely because they're such tough, thankless jobs that there's lots of turnover. (Personally, even though marketing is hardly a recession-proof profession, I'm pretty sure I'll never have to go back to waitressing - even though every once in a while, I realize that I have aged into the point where I would now make a bona fide Durgin-Park cranky old bitch of a waitress, which I surely was not when I worked there 30+ years ago as a sweet young thing. For those not familiar with D-P, it's one of Boston's oldest restaurants, and is famous for its surly old waitresses. Or at least it used to be.)

Health services jobs - nurses, physicians' assistants, et al. - make up about half of the recession-proof jobs, and my favorite job on that list is sleep technologist.

The employment figures for this job - admittedly lumped into a "health technicians and technologists, all other" category - is a staggering 79,00, projected to grow to 91,000 by 2016.

This, I'm quite certain, overstates the case for sleep technologists. Their own organization - the American Association of Sleep Technologists (AAST) -  claims 3,300 members, which sounds more like it. (They even have a publication called A2Zzz, but you have to be a member to get your hands on it.)

There may not be 79,000 of them, but I have no doubt that the profession is a growth one.

What with the overstimulating environment we live in, the wireless waves, the caffeine, the sugared and chemicaled up food. What with worrying about the recession, the rising ocean level, and the general tension of living in the post-modern world (and the post-American century), is it any wonder that we aren't sleeping all that well?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bench Clearing Brawl

I was at the Red Sox game the other night - my first of the year. Sox beat Tampa Bay, wresting possession of first place from the Rays. A fun game.

There was a small contretemps, in which a Rays' shortstop, Jason Bartlett, tried to (illegally) block Coco Crisp's slide into second - a couple of innings after which Coco retaliated with a football-style take out of second baseman Akinori Iwamura. (He said later that he thought he was taking out Bartlett.)

There was a bit more jawing during the game between Coco and the Rays' manager, Joe Madden.

But that was about it.

Walking home from Fenway after the Red Sox win, I told my sister Trish that I'd almost been hoping or a bench clearing brawl.

"Tick for tack," Coco was quoted as saying in the next day's paper.

Tick for tack.

Well, the next night, there was more tick for tack, when Rays' pitcher James Shields deliberately threw at Crisp, hitting him in the leg.

Coco made a feint as if heading for first base, then charged the mound.

Shields threw a punch and missed. Crisp threw a punch and (I think) connected.

The bullpens emptied. The benches cleared.

It was good, old fashioned bench clearing brawl.

In the aftermath, 8 players (3 Red Sox, 5 Rays) received suspensions and fines.

The word on both side was that there was a "lot of testosterone" out there.

We can expect more tick for tack - which I actually am starting to prefer to the "correct" version of tit for tat, which the principals have reverted to - when the Red Sox play the Rays next month in Tampa.

While the site of 50 grown men pushing, shoving, grabbing, punching, holding back, holding down, separating combatants, flailing around, milling around, etc. - while 37,000+ people cheer and boo from the stands - can hardly be described as the best that sport has to offer, I found the entire scene somewhat bracing, exhilarating, even.

The guys actually looked like they were having, well, fun.

And it made me think of all the political subterfuge, backstabbing, sneaky-pete-ing, power plays, attempted coups, etc., I'd been witness to (and occasionally part of) during all those years working full time in largely dysfunctional technology companies. If only we'd had a few knock-down, drag-out fights we may have been better off.

I say this, although on the rare occasions when I saw a show of any sort of violence at work I was completely taken aback and shocked.

In one case, a colleague was more-than-annoyed that we'd hired someone that he'd recommended against.

To show just how furious he was, he put his fist through a wall in the corridor.

We didn't have time to get the wall fixed before our new hire showed up, so we just hung a picture over it.

The new hire - who turned out to be GREAT hire -  became one of my closest work friends. The man with the iron fist went on to become president of a small tech company, and today holds a very senior position in his firm.

In another situation, I was at a meeting with a new client who was the going to be the lead on a major IT project. Unfortunately, he had recommended another vendor, and had been overruled. And, boy, was he ever pissed.

Our kick-off meeting was extremely tense.

At the end the day, a wonderful, talented young woman in my group - the project manager on our side - took out her yellow pad and said, let's take down the next steps.

The client - a rather large man - leaned across the table, grabbed the top sheet off of Susan's pad, crumpled it up, and hurled it at her.

We all sat there in dazed shock for a moment.

The client apologized at once.

The air was cleared.

We went about our business - and "he" was never gave us any trouble again.

Thankfully, that's been about it for violence in my workplace.

But the bench clearing brawl did make me think of the final showdown at my last place of full time work.

I was not a direct combatant, but I wasn't exactly a civilian, either.

Let's just say I was behind the front-lines, supporting my manager.

It was an interesting power struggle, that went on for a couple of months in the wake of an acquisition in which the acquired company managed to gain enough allies to stage a coup.

Their side won; our side lost. Along with several close colleagues (who are also friends), I was collateral damage. As, of course, was my manager.

Everything had become so disgustingly political, I was just delighted to be gone.

Over the next month or so, pretty much all of the senior managers on "our side" were kayo'd.

Interestingly, the sides broke down according to height.

In "their" corner: pretty much all the short men in senior management.

In "our" corner: pretty much all the tall men in senior management.

(The one woman in senior management had already been displaced.)

If there'd been a bench clearing brawl, which side would have won?

Would the tall guys have thumped the short guys?

Would the short guys have prevailed despite their lack of stature - if only because they were willing to throw more sucker punches.

Speaking of sucker punches, it was a punchless sucker punch that had decided the winners in this battle.

The head of sales (on "their" side) - leader of the short-guy coup -  won because he convinced the also short-guy CEO that he was going to put some mighty big numbers on the board.

"Our" side had been more cautious.

But he who promised the glittery object won.

Needless to say, that glittery object turned into fool's gold.

Six month later, the short guy VP of sales was fired.

But that was well after I'd left.

The couple of months leading up to the coup were really lousy.

At every meeting you went to, you were aware of the undercurrent, the veiled glances. Rumors flew widely and wildly. It got so it was impossible to get anything done - especially if you needed anyone on the other side to help you with it. A lot of good ideas that could have helped the company got trashed in the process. I'm only thinking of the ideas on "our" side, but I suppose that some of the ideas on "their" side got a little beaten up as well.

Maybe if they'd just had a bench clearing brawl to begin with, we could have just gotten done with it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Thoughts prompted by Jack Mitchell's "Hug Your People"

Well, my first thought on seeing the title of this book was, 'what is this guy, nuts?'

While I am an admitted workplace hugger, I know that - in this day and age - you need to choose your spots.

As it turns out, the "hug" proposed by Jack Mitchell - the proprietor of a successful Connecticut high-end clothier - can be largely metaphorical, and it essentially comes down to some simple rules of thumb:

  • Be nice to your people (and hire nice people to begin with)
  • Trust the people who work for you
  • Instill workplace pride in them
  • Include them in the decision process
  • Recognize them

One by one, starting from the top, here's my take on Mitchell's rule set:

Be nice/hire nice people:

I'm a really nice person. But my definition of nice is broad enough to include people with acerbic wit, a wild sense of humor, an appreciation of the absurd, a full measure of irreverence.

I also like to be around people who are also really nice people. But I really don't like the word nice - it is so nice and icky - and I especially don't like the idea of nicey-nice. You know the type: Kathy Bates in the movie Misery, all chirpy sweetness and light until she took the sledgehammer to poor James Caan's feet.

In my book, if not in Mitchell's, being nice as a manager means not acting like an unreasonable jerk in terms of the demands you make. It means not expecting someone to be a mind reader, and not scowling-swearing-or-eye-rolling when they show up at your door. It means taking their concerns and gripes seriously, while also taking these concerns and grips with a grain of salt when they merit such (which a lot of times they do).

As for hiring nice people, I don't ever want to hire nicey-nicers who make everyone else uncomfortable to be around. But I don't want unreasonable jerks, either. But, as long as they can do their job, and get along reasonably well with their colleagues...if that's nice, by all means hire nice people.

In retail, I'm sure the standards are different. A large part of getting the job done means interacting with the public. And in Mitchell's case, this is a public that's spending big bucks on Ermingeldo Zegna suits. So when a customer walks in the door, they darned well better get treated, well, nicely.

Personally, I am not cut out for managing or working in high end retail. I'm sure I'd be thinking, 'you need another $2K suit like you need a hole in your head.' I'm sure I'd be thinking, 'what entitles you to swan in here and order me around.' I'm sure I'd be thinking, 'great, I get to help you pick out a $100 tie that I couldn't afford in a million years on what they pay me.'

But that's just me. And I'm definitely not cut out for selling expensive clothing to the well-to-do.

It sounds like Jack Mitchell has done a good job in figuring out who the right people are to work for him, and he's kept many of them around for years - and generations. Good for him.

I'm just as happy to have had my career where niceness didn't count all that much. Sure, I'm nice and I mostly tried to hire other nice people, but I have to say the occasional out-and-out jerk - of the sort who wouldn't last a day in retail - does kind of make things interesting.

Trust the people who work for you:

When people would tell me I was a good manager, I would always say that the key to being a good manager is having good people work for you. And I was generally fortunate.

I mostly had people who I could trust to do their job well, work without my checking every little thing they did, and not do anything that might result in an embarrassing surprise when it came to the light of more senior management.

But occasionally I had people in my group that I couldn't trust, and it was hell.

  • The guy who played slippery but not out and out dishonest games with his expense account.
  • The fellow who didn't really want the job we had to offer, so he just did what he wanted to do all day. Which wasn't work.
  • The young woman caught faxing a contact list of everyone in our business unit to a friend who was a headhunter.

If you can't trust people, especially after you've given them a chance or two, there's only one place for them to go. And that's gone, baby, gone.

Instill workplace pride in them

No one wants to work for a place that they can't take any pride in. I've worked for some pretty dysfunctional and unsuccessful organizations, but there was always something I could hang my hat on: smart people, interesting technology, good customers, noble under-dog-ism, we try harder...

Which never prevented me from poking vast fun at the companies I've kept, their senior management, etc.

What's the point of working someplace if you can't laugh about it?

As for instilling pride in the people who work someplace?

The only way to do that is to make sure that there's something to be proud of: quality, integrity, ambitious goals. And it will instill itself.

And what makes people proud will be different from person to person. Someone may be proud of working for a tobacco company who's the biggest employee in town. Personally, I'd find it hard to take workplace pride in a company that manufactured something that's addictive and death-dealing.

All in all, I really don't believe you can instill workplace pride, other than by being a good place to work for the people who work there. (How's that for a tortured tautology.) For Jack Mitchell and his stores, pride cometh from being just that - and I'm sure it helps to be able to say that you work for a high-end haberdasher. Although for other folks, it might be a point of pride to work for Wal-Mart, where everyday people get more bang for their buck.

Include them in the decision process

Work isn't a democracy, and it's not always possible to include everyone in every decision process. But no one likes to be handed an edict that directly effects what they do, how they work, what they work on, etc., when it's about something that they could have contributed valuable insight to.

The only downside of including people in the decision process is that they may get their noses out of joint when their suggestions aren't taken.

But if the process is transparent, and you're upfront about who'll be making the final decision and how it will get made, it doesn't hurt to ask.

Just make sure it's not a faux process, in which people are asked for their input even though it will not be taken into consideration in the least.

I've been in on a couple of these situations, in which we were all solicited for our input, and it went into a black hole somewhere. Or when the final decision was a completely un-mutated version of what "they" had started out with - and "they" don't ever have the guts to say 'we did look at your input but, frankly, it wasn't worth a damn, which is why we're going with our original idea.'

Recognize them

Quite naturally, everyone likes to get recognized for their contributions and achievements in the workplace. And the workplace is such a home-away-from-home that it's also smart to acknowledge personal accomplishments (the new baby, the marathon run).

A couple of points on recognition:

I've yet to work with anyone who didn't like it when they got mentioned to the big/bigger/biggest boss, even if the big/bigger/biggest boss has no flippin' idea who they are.

I've also yet to work with anyone who, when it's their project or work product, doesn't want to be in on the meeting with or presentation to the senior managers. Some bosses are afraid that they'll look weak, or be outshone, if they let the folks who are under them get the chance to bask in the glow of senior management brilliance. I'm a big believer in giving your team the opportunity to go to "the show" if they want to.

Another thing about recognition - and this is a point that Mitchell stresses in his book - people like to be personally known and recognized (as in the new baby, the marathon run). They also like it when someone notices something about them, when something about them registers - even if it's something as trivial as what font they use, where they park, or that they're never seen without a can of Dr. Pepper. Most people like it when they're kidded about something like this, as it makes them feel included and part of the team.

When it comes to formal recognition programs, nothing backfires more than one that becomes too self-conscious or contrived. As in, "gee, we haven't recognized anyone from marketing, yet, better make one of them employee of the month," or "we've picked a woman the last three times for that award, we better choose a man this time."

And if you are going to signal out any employees for recognition, you need to be 100% sure in your own mind that it's justified - and be able to publicly state that justification. Everyone may not agree with you, but if you can say why you believe the recognition's deserved, then you've got a credibility problem.

Jack Mitchell's Hug Your People is a quick read, with enough home truths about management in it to make it a worthwhile read for someone who wants a take on things that doesn't come from the corporate world.

It obviously got me thinking, and long-windedly writing.


Weirdly, when I was reading this book, I was also reading a quite depressing but excellent novel, Everything Must Go, by Elizabeth Flock. The novel deals with a man who spends over twenty-years working in a Connecticut store that sounds eerily like one of Mitchell's. (Although I don't know if Mitchell's sells Nantucket reds.)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

"Far Away Places, with Strange Sounding Names"

Although I've never been anywhere exotic, I've always enjoyed travel. Over the years, I've spent time in most of the states - the exceptions being Alaska, North Dakota, Kentucky, and Tennessee (although I did have a plane change in Memphis Airport once; and a business trip to Cincinnati landed me in their airport, which is in Kentucky). I've "done" Europe plenty of times, starting with my first foray over thirty years ago, when my college roommate and I spent nearly 5 months hitch hiking, camping, hosteling our way around: England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany,  Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain. Somehow we failed to include Portugal in our mix, and I haven't yet rectified that oversight. But I have added Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to my checklist of places I've been (some multiple times, of course).

I haven't done Canada extensively - maybe this year. And my only trip to Mexico was a walk across the border to Tijuana, which didn't manage to inspire a trip back.

There are other places I'd like to go - even though a lot of them share a couple of highly negative attributes: they require long plane rides and they're hot.  Oh, yes, and some of them are a bit dangerous.

Sometime, I'd like to see: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, Russia (blessedly, it won't be hot!), Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Israel, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco.

Tack on more of Canada (Quebec City, the Maritimes) and the states I've managed to miss along the way, and I'll die happy.

But I really should get going and start filling in some of my travel blanks if I ever want to get to these places. Darn the luck that we now have to suffer from jet-guilt every time we fly one of those big ol' polluters. Not to mention that air fares are getting sky high.

One place I have absolutely no desire to go is the Middle East. Forget for a moment the long plane trip, the heat, and the violence. I really have no desire to go anyplace where women are treated so abysmally.

But I am intrigued by the idea that Dubai is becoming a tourist destination, with several artificial islands (shaped like palms - which may be the only tree you'll see) full of skyscrapers. Skyscrapers. Hmmmm. Doesn't hot air rise? Well, I guess that energy is no object. It's just that I always thought that the local architecture was all about keeping places cool and airy, which seems to make an awful lot of sense. Hope that A/C doesn't fail on the 25th floor.

Not that I have any problem with skyscrapers: New York City remains on my Top 5 list of places I like to go.

It's just that the entire construct of Destination Dubai is so oppressively futuristic, with none of the human-scale pockets you find all over New York - the Trinity Church on Wall Street, P.J. Clarke's. Plus, in NYC you can walk, which I don't imagine you can do much in the glare and heat of Dubai.

The Dubai-ans, of course, can't help where they live.

But I don't get what the attraction is to going to a place that, once you get there, could be any-luxury-hotel-anywhere. (At one point, when I was doing some business traveling for Genuity, I had a little "where am I" moment at a Ritz Hotel outside of D.C. For a moment, I couldn't remember where I was, since the hotel looked exactly the same as the Ritz in Cleveland where I'd spent the night before.)

Even though my traveling has been of the somewhat namby-pamby variety (i.e., largely European), part of the reason I like to travel is to see things that are new and different. Prague is different from Galway. Paris doesn't look anything like Berlin. Although I usually backslide and have a McDonald at some point when I'm "away", I like to eat what the residents do. I like to walk around and look at places and things that are beautiful and/or historic and/or just plain interesting.

Even with the heat/travel/time etc. of the Middle East, if I did ever get there, I'd be interested in seeing where the battle of X was fought, or where the poet Y lived, or where the caravans caravanned through. I'd like to see an oasis. And camels. Or one of Rommel's old tanks. (Yes, I'm know I'm not talking Dubai here, but you get the point.)  But I don't get the impression that there's much of that in Dubai.

The place just looks like a slightly less gaudy Las Vegas on the water. Yes, I realize that they have the world's only seven-star hotel. If I were willing to go there this July, I could get a low end suite for about $1,500 a night - about $1K off of the rack rate, so something of a bargain. Interesting, the highest end suite is called the royal, while the one just below it is the presidential. At least in the hotel world, monarchy manages to trump democracy. ("The royal suite features a marble and gold staircase, leopard print tufted carpets, Carrarra marble flooring and mahogany furniture." Leopard print tufted carpets? Wow!)

But what, pray tell, is the difference between a five- and six-star hotel and a seven-star hotel, other than the obvious differentiator of price. Are the toilet fixtures solid gold?  Do they tuck you in at night? Do they peel your grapes for you?

Isn't enough enough? And just how high a thread count do you need in those sheets?

Personally, I don't really need a choice of 13 different pillows. Just let the butler pick one for me.

If there's nothing particularly Dubai-ish about being in Dubai, I really don't get the point - other than, if you've been everywhere else, and the only thing that you really enjoy about travel is the level of luxury. Then I get it.

But, even if I had the seven-star money, it's just not me.

Of course, I'm not a resort type of gal to begin with - which may be my problem. I like cities. And countryside that's near cities. And seeing people walk around in cities. And conduct their very real lives, oblivious to the gawking tourists walking around. (As I live in a tourist neighborhood, in a tourist city, I'm quite familiar with this mode of living. Us natives get to take for granted  the excitement of living, say, in the same block as Cheers.)

I also read that there's something called Dubailand going up there, which will have its own Six Flags (yippee), plus Dreamworks/ Shrek, and Barney - good to see that we're exporting the best our culture has to offer to the kiddies of the emirates, although I do believe the world would be a better place if everyone was as nice, hard working, and earnest as Bob the Builder.


Then there's the Dunes golf course - I'll bet that one's well named. It must only be used during the temperate winter month's when it's in the mid-70's (vs. the summer when the average is over 100 degrees).

Not surprisingly, Dubailand will include one of the world's largest shopping malls.

Yep, it's starting to sound more and more like Las Vegas, with a bit of Orlando and Mall of America thrown in.

I don't think I'll be adding Dubai to my "must see" list anytime soon.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Rachael Ray's Tempest in a Styrofoam Coffee Cup

Cooking show personality Rachael Ray has been doing moderately annoying ads for Dunkin' Donuts. Personally, I found her a little grating and a tad too perky, but - lax, standards-shunning liberal that I am, I wasn't bothered at all when she showed up in an online ad for Dunkie's wearing a scarf around her neck.

In fact, as a member of the society of every-day scarf wearers, I was delighted to see her, metaphorically speaking, waving our flag.

I can't remember when I started getting serious about scarves, but I think I was in my mid-twenties.

Like everyone else I knew, I'd worn bandana scarves on my head, tied behind my ears at the nape of my neck. And, this being New England, I'd worn wool scarves in the winter.

But all of a sudden I was wearing scarves around my neck or draped over my shoulders.

I remember my first few scarf purchases - a beautiful, silk Liberty of London scarf, light blue with flowers. It has some sort of stain in one corner, but - thirty years on - I still have it and still wear it. Ditto two wool challis scarves I bought about the same time: one is a maroon with small pink roses, the other is a bright floral central-Europa style scarf with a black border. I used to wear the maroon one with a lavender turtleneck, and the black bordered one with a black turtleneck. Come to think of it, I still do.

I have dozens of scarves: silk, wool, cotton. Even a couple of poly's that can pass for silk. I have several beautiful Liberty challis shawls. A gorgeous silk shawl I got in Bermuda. And several scarves inherited from my mother. (They account for most of the poly numbers.) I have a couple of Halloween-themed neckerchiefs, and several very nice silk Christmas scarves, the most recent of which is a cream colored scarf with holly trim, and some sort of "over the river and through the woods" sleigh scene.

I used to have my father's Navy tie - an almost-black heavy silk number with A.T. Rogers stamped on it in white block letters -  but I lost it at a pub in Ireland years ago. McDaid's, I think. I went back the next day but, alas, it was gone, swept aside or taken up by someone who could not appreciate the sentimental or historic (an authentic, WWII souvenir!) significance.

I wear scarves, or carry one with me, almost every day. When I'm traveling, I always throw in a few, which lets me vary the look of the same few tops I've packed.

Even in summer, I generally have a scarf with me - just in case the air conditioning's on high.

So I was delighted to see Rachael sporting a scarf.

But Michelle Malkin and other members of the vast, right-wing shriek-o-sphere weren't so delighted.

They went ballistic because the scarf that Rachael - poor, sweet, naive, let-my-dresser-dress-me Rachael - donned, when tied around her shoulders looked to Malkin et al. like a - gasp! - keffiyeh, the scarf worn as a headdress by Yassir Arafat. And just about every other Palestinian man and boy.

The scarf in question is said to be a black and white paisley fringed challis scarf - sounds lovely- but, paisley-shmaisley - to Malkin it cried "terrorist"! And even if it had been a keffiyeh, it happens to be an article of clothing that's worn by plenty of folks who aren't strapping explosives to their chests and setting themselves off on Israeli buses.

Now, if Ray had worn the scarf on her head, Arafat-style, one might have questioned her and Dunkin's judgement. Most would agree that would have been a dumbly provocative thing to do.

But she didn't. She just had the scarf worn around her shoulders.

And it's not as if the keffiyeh is a universal symbol of terrorism - or of anything else.

Unlike say, a black-visored cap with a death head's symbol, which would only have been worn by a member of the Nazi SS, the keffiyeh is worn by everyday people.

It's not as if she appeared in t-shirt with Bin Laden or I-Heart-Al Quaeda on it.

But Malkin makes a living - and a pretty good one - stirring the pot, all umbrage and outrage over things that are, the vast majority of the time, sheer and utter nonsense. Once in a blue moon, I'm on her side - as when she took on Beyoncé's children's clothing line, which last year had a catalog in which little girls - 5, 6, 7 years old - appeared in poses, outfits, and make-ups that screamed "hooker."

But this time Malkin, as she so often does, is brewing a tempest in a teapot - or, in this case, a styrofoam coffee cup.

Can't blame Dunkin' for caving in and yanking the ad, but the whole thing's pretty ridiculous.