Friday, August 29, 2008

What's in a name

I saw an interesting article in The Boston Globe the other day on the pressures on Chinese workers in international companies in China to adopt a Western name. In some companies, the name change is, in fact, a requirement.

Some are apparently picking Western names based on the suggestion of a feng-shui master. (The one feng-shui name-changer cited in the article is called Wayne. Remind me not to ask that feng-shui maven where to place my furniture.)

One women opted for a Western name because it's easier for Westerners to pronounce, and she wants to be "'polite to foreigners.'"

And some are just saying 'no' and sticking to the name that brung 'em.

Nobody wants to risk losing important Western clients because the name Jianlian stumps them and James is much easier to say - and remember.

Someone might refuse to do business because the name "Jianlian" stumps them?

Tough them.

We all manage to figure out how to say Mao Tse-Tung and Yao Ming, don't we?

Yet we want the Chinese to all turn themselves into Jackie Chan?

It's one thing when someone emigrates to a new world - as in America - for them to Anglicize their name. If they want.

Quite another for a company to be in China and expect Chinese nationals to spend part of their inboarding process thumbing through What to Name the Baby and deciding whether they're an Anthony or a Darren, a Mary or a Melissa.

Interestingly - but no surprise -  the higher up the ladder you are, the more likely you are to have hung on to your birth name. Which translates into "a sign of self-confidence, a status symbol more revealing than owning a BMW or a Rolex."

Maybe it's all part of the inevitability of English-everywhere.

It's the language of technology, commerce, medicine, entertainment, the arts - why not the language of naming?

One more blandification....

But, of course, don't we see counterpoints every day, in which Americans "go ethnic"  - Siobhan, Kwame, Luca. And Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin? Didn't people figure out pretty darned fast how to pronounce her name?

So how come we trip, stumble, and fall on Jianlian?


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Peace Corps

They're not exactly going to be sending out pink slips to volunteers - I mean, it's kind of hard to lay someone off who's living in a yurt a million miles from nowhere,  and who's only making $2,500 a year to begin with - but the Peace Corps is cutting back. (Boston Globe, August 23.)

Like every other global operation, they're impacted by the weak dollar, which:

...inflates expenses for overseas leases, volunteer living costs, and salaries for staff abroad, most of whom are paid in local currencies.

As a result, there may be 400 fewer volunteers brought along next year. (The total number in field at present is 8,000, who serve for 27 months.)

Frankly, I haven't given much thought to the Peace Corps since Jimmie Carter's mother, Miz Lillian, volunteered when she was in her 80's.

That is, until I went last week for the first time to the Kennedy Library in Boston, which has a display dedicated to the Corps.

Which brought back how exciting it was when the Peace Corps was launched in the early 1960's.

Although I was just a kid at the time - about a decade short of eligibility - it was thrilling to see those stories about all those idealistic college students digging irrigation ditches, doling out quinine, and teaching the alphabet - in far away places, mostly hot, often dangerous.

I had a fleeting fantasy about going in, but, like Dick Cheney with respect to Viet Nam, I had other things to do. Although unlike the Veep, I don't know if what I had to do was all that much better than going into the Peace Corps or VISTA.

VISTA - Volunteers in Service to America - not to be confused with the MSFT operating system - was the US equivalent of the Peace Corps. (It's now doing business as AmeriCorps.) I was more drawn to VISTA partially because I felt that charity begins at home, and more partially because if I stayed in the US there would have been more of a chance that I would have served in a climate that wasn't as hot as sub-Saharan Africa.

Well, it's never too late to join either organization - both welcome mid-career and oldsters. (I'm somewhere in between, I suppose.)

All that's holding me back is my love affair with that Tempur-Pedic mattress, a stocked fridge, A/C, the pile of books next to my bed, and the fact that I'm not quite ready - financially or, more important, psychologically - to stop working at marketing.

And I don't imagine that here are a lot of B2B technology marketing-related positions available in the Peace Corps or in VISTA.

But what a good idea - the Peace Corps (more so than VISTA): sending Americans who are carrying neither guns nor outsourcing contracts to help "on the ground" in small yet important ways. Showing an American face that's not Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or some other vacu-lebrity.

What a shame that we may have 400 fewer of them out there next year.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sometimes they just don't like you (or your work)

Hey, it's been a year now, and I'm so over it, but sometimes you take on a job and they just don't like you or your work . And that's what happened to me with this one client-not-to-be.

A good friend was working "there", and she introduced me to the "thems" who were looking for someone who could analyze data and report on it.

Analyze? Report?

Right up my alley.

Or so I thought. And so "they" initially thought, as well.

Under tight deadline, they had me work on my first report. Unfortunately, the report was not a written report, but, instead, a PowerPoint preso in which the formatting and visuals were of equal, if not greater, importance than the content.

I spent a completely agonizing weekend - spending twice as many hours as I'd been told it should take - slapping the thing into shape.

And hating every moment. Not to mention muttering under my breath, this project is going to be so not worth it. On an ongoing basis, it was going to suck up one weekend a month. While I was sure I'd get a little speedier, there was never going to be more than small amounts of time to really get into the content analysis - thinking and writing about the information. Sure, I know that looks matter, but here was a project that was never going to play to my strengths or interests.

Knowing that I wasn't likely hitting the mark with my initial attempt, I sent my trial report in a couple of days early, noting that it was a very rough, preliminary draft, and asking for a walkthrough to get some feedback. (All the while, thinking to myself: on a flat rate basis, this will end up paying not much more than I'd make as a WalMart greeter.)

No response.

I called.

I e-mailed.

I called.

I e-mailed.

Nary a word.

Meanwhile, the "real" deadline for the project was looming, and, canny and experienced pro that I am, I knew that that they weren't all that happy with what I'd shown them.

Alas, the manager I was working with was very young and very inexperienced, and apparently had no clue whatsoever how to let me know this.

There are any number of methods I could have recommended:

  • The let-me-down-gently we've decided to take another route on this project.
  • The straightforward you've completely missed the boat: this mess is unacceptable.
  • The hybrid this is not quite what we're looking for; we'll let you know if there's anything else we'd like you to do.

Whichever approach she took, in this day and age it's all made so much easier by the use of the e-mail rejection - there's not even any need for any face to face, or even phone to ear, confrontation.

I finally cornered the young manager-in-the-making, who was clearly and uncomfortably surprised that I was actually on the other end of the phone saying, "Since you didn't get back to me, the report was either fine, or you had some real problems with it. And I'm guessing the latter."

I heard her gulp, and she told me what she liked, and hemmed and hawed on the parts she didn't like.

Within hours, I had an e-mail from her manager, telling me that they'd done some reorganizing, and they weren't going to be using an outside resource on this project. It was the classic let-me-down-gently blah-di-blah.

I was not surprised, of course. And I was mostly relieved. (Remember: I had hated nearly every moment I was working on it, and had been telling myself that a regular diet of this type of work was going to be a real drag.)

But I was also, of course, a bit shocked. I'm really not used to my clients disliking what I do for them.

And I was also, of course, a bit insulted. Who did this young pip-squeak think she was rejected the great smart me?

In truth, there are plenty of times when I don't get the job. Plans change. Budgets get cut. Contacts move on. Needs shift. They've found someone who's a better fit.

But I've never gotten a nipped-in-the-bud rejection based on not having done a bang-up job.

And I hope never to get one again.

But sometimes, hey, "they" just don't like you or your work.

And I'm guessing that, in most of those circumstances, you're not all that wild about "them" and their work, either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Medical Tourism? I'm not dying to try it.

There was an article in a recent Economist (August 16, 2008) on the medical tourism phenomenon.

Their article started out noting the Robin Cook's new medi-thriller, Foreign Body, centers on this topic, and as The Economist notes, "Robin Cook knows how to spot the latest scare in medicine."

I don't find the notion of medical tourism particularly scary. The hospitals that medical tourists are checking in to are not the Third World horror shows familiar to us from TV and the movies. No, the ones I've "seen" are state-of-the art, modern, gleaming facilities that are not just a far remove from flies and buckets of bloody bandages - they're also a far remove from big city dumps like St. Elsewhere and Emergency's County General.

And most of us have gotten used to "foreign" doctors - until she left her practice to spend time with her kids, my gynecologist was Indian - so we don't have to have Dr. Welby patting our hands to feel comfortable.

Some of the medical tourism - and, from what I can tell by checking out some of the medical travel agencies, a good sum of it - is of the uncovered, elective nip and tuck variety. But some of the tourists are those who more or less self-insure themselves, and find it cheaper to have that cardiac procedure or hip replacement "over there" - even when you factor in the plane fare.

What surprised me in the article were the companies that are encouraging employees to get out of town.

One company cited was Hannaford, a regional grocery chain HQ'd in Maine, which offers its 27,000 employees the option of getting a number of medical procedures done in Singapore rather than America—at a saving to the employee of $2,500-3,000 in co-payments and deductibles.

Singapore is just one of the places welcoming medical tourists. One of the (several) medical travel outfits I looked at could book your tour to Costa Rica, India, Poland, or Turkey.

When you browse Med Journey's cite, you'll see that they take care of everything, aspirin and catheter  and "Deluxe Hospital Accommodations" to concierge services, transportation, side-tours and  "5 Star recuperative accommodations at some of the worlds finest hotels and resorts (3 meals per day included)."

It's the "recuperative accommodations" that underscore why I'm not dying to go abroad to have a procedure done.

One thing to hang around the "5 Star recuperative accommodations" and take a side tour if you're recuperating from something like a nose job.

But if you have something really serious done?

I'd rather recuperate in my own bed - or in a bed in the home of one of my sisters (thanks in advance, guys) - where someone who cares about me could help care for me.

And what if something really serious goes wrong with that gall bladder removal or cardiac bypass.

Not that I'd have gone alone to begin with, but things gang really and truly agly, I'm going to want to see my full posse.

If I'm ailing, I'm going to want people bringing me flowers, and People Magazine, and Chapstick.

Especially if things look end-game, I'm going to want to see more than my husband (who would likely be the one there with me). I'm going to want to see my sisters, brothers, and nieces. I'm going to want to see The Banshees (my sister-cousin girl gang). I'm going to want to see my friends.

And I really don't think it's reasonable to expect all that many of them to get on the next flight to Warsaw or Singapore.

If I die as a vacation kind of  tourist, that's one thing. I'll probably die happy, more or less.

But as a medical tourist?

A destination wedding is one thing. A destination deathbed?  I don't think so.

Not to mention, who wants to get on a crowded flight when they're not feeling 100%.

No thanks to that one, too.

Others are apparently more bullish on medical tourism. The Economist article cites a Deloitte study that:

... predicts that the number of Americans travelling abroad for treatment will soar from 750,000 last year to 6m by 2010 and reach 10m by 2012.

I won't be one of them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Dabbawala Supply Chain

I'd never heard of the dabbawalas until a month or so ago, when I read an article on them the always entertaining Economist (July 12, 2008).

For those in the dark, dabbawalas are delivery men (barefoot and mostly illiterate, by the way) who bring Mumbai office workers a nice warm lunch to their offices. In the good old days, these meals were home-made; in today's world, a good proportion are catered. (Remember, this is India: think outsourcing.)

Each day, about 5,000 dabbawalas deliver a total of roughly 200,000 meals - all through a hyper-efficient, color-coded supply chain that relies naught on technology. Their results are spectacular: a Six Sigma delivery rate! That's one slip-up in every 6 million deliveries - the vaunted and often elusive "six nines" quality. (And I'm guessing that, when there's a mistake, the mistakee ends up with a pretty good meal, anyway.)

In the dabbawala logistics system , dabba-gatherers pick up the lunches, which are in transported - via bicycle - to railway stations, where they're bucketed by destination, and placed on the train.

When they reach their destination, dabba-deliverers grab their buckets and get them to the office workers who ordered them.

All the dabbawalas receive the same rate - ghastly by our standards, but a way out of abject poverty for the poor, illiterate folks who hold these jobs.

Interestingly, dabbawalas have developed something of a business school cult-following - there's even a Harvard Business School case study about them.

Also interesting: although they don't rely on technology to work their supply chain, the dabbawalas are not lacking in tech savvy, and they have their own web site - - which you will be "warmly welcome[d]" to.

We the Dabbawalas , have been known to provide excellent services without any technological backup. However with the advent of technology and internet in particular we have decided to be part of this info way. On one part our core job of supplying the Dabbas to the people of Mumbai from their home to office will still be carried on without any technology or IT support but we will be using IT in general and Internet  in particular to provide value added services to our prestigious customers.

For starters, they're using their site to make sure that complete and correct information about them is "passed on to the world." Apparently, they have plans to let people order their dabba online, as well.

Like the US Postal Service, dabbawalas are rain-snow-sleet-hail kind of guys - just substitute "monsoon" for snow-sleet.

The site is also used to promote the careers of the dabbawalas, noting their typical characteristics - hard working, honest, reliable, and low paid. "So its [sic] cost effective to employ a Dabbawala."

So in case you need to  employ a person with these characteristics you may employ a Dabbawala. A Dabbawala may be recruited in many companies like security agency, courier industry , small offices , big companies,etc. The Dabbawala will be happy to get a better job and this will ensure good life for the family of Dabbawala.

Note: When a Dabbawala gets a job , first he has to bring a replacement Dabbawala in his place and then only he ,may join a company. This ensures that our system works properly.

Please contact us with your requirement to employ a Dabbawala. We will be very happy to serve you.

I guess that the closest thing we have to a dabbawala is the bicycle messenger, who ride pell-mell around city centers, scattering pods of wary pedestrians who may be foolish enough to step off the sidewalk on a one-way street and fail to look in both directions.

Somehow, I don't think that I'd ever actually hire a bicycle messenger. I would, however, consider hiring a dabbawala if I had the need. And, of course, if I lived in Mumbai.

I also wouldn't mind having a nice curry delivered just about now. Or a lamb vindaloo. Some nan. A couple of pakoras...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Great White Mountains

One summer when I was in college, my roommate Joyce and I - with two days off from our waitressing jobs at the Union Oyster House - we were going to climb Mt. Washington.

To say that we did not know what we were doing is a vast and cavernous understatement.

For equipment, we had a couple of old Boy Scout canvas knapsacks, cheap cotton no-warmth sleeping bags, a WW II canteen. Among other essentials we lacked (including common sense) were hiking shoes. The sturdiest shoes we owned were our white waitress shoes, so that's what we wore. (When questioned, we claimed they were special Italian hiking shoes.) We had packed some food - ham sandwiches and a couple of Table Talk cherry pies.

We took a Trailways Bus to the base of the mountain, and were standing there - in tee-shirts, cut off jeans, and flip-flops - figuring out what to do, when the loudspeaker boomed out: "You, the two girls who just got off the bus. Come up here."

We went up to the building - some sort of ranger station/info center - where a couple of rangers told us we were idiots, and warned "you could get killed up there."

But we thought, well, we thought what smart-ass, know-it-all twenty years old have always thought when someone older tries to give them advice: f-you!

Equipped with the map the rangers had given us, we started up the trail, pulling off after a few feet to change out of our flip-flops and into our special Italian hiking shoes.

Holding our sleeping bags in our arms - we didn't know enough to attach them to our backpacks - we started hiking up Mt. Washington.

We were soon overtaken by the first of several real hikers who would at least partially help us out.

Real hiker number one had some twine and he fixed our sleeping bags to the Boy Scout knapsacks.

This helped us immeasurably, and we slowly and happily made our way up to the base of Tuckerman's Ravine (where intrepid skiers sky down a 90 degree angle surface 12 months of the year -or something like that).

At the base of the ravine, there were lean-to's we could sleep in, which got us off the ground.

There were also a whole slew of real hikers, taking off their real backpacks, and taking out their real camping equipment and making themselves real meals on camp stoves using collapsible pots and pans.

One of them generously fed us part of his meal - steak and corn on the cob - but we were embarrassed to help ourselves too much.

After partially sharing the real hiker's real repast, we slunk off into the woods to gorge on our ham sandwiches and Table Talk cherry pies. We were too embarrassed to let anyone see what we were eating that we shoved the card board pie boxes and the pie tins in the rocks.

During our night in the great outdoors, some sort of insect bit Joyce in the corner of her eye.

By dawn, her eye had swollen to the size of a grapefruit - a grapefruit we sure wished that we had for breakfast.

We stumbled back down the trail, disappointed that we hadn't reached the top of Mt. Washington, but eager to get Joyce's eye looked after.

With no Trailways Bus in sight, we hitch hiked back to Boston.

One of our rides, quite fittingly, was in the back of a big, black hearse that some guy our age was using as a car.

I think we ended up at the MGH Emergency Ward, where Joyce got a shot for her eye.

This adventure came to mind when I read an article in The Boston Globe on all the idiots who, armed with little more than cellphones, GPS trackers, and Power Bars, go mountaineering in the White Mountains.

These days, there are warning signs:

In black lettering on yellow, is blunt: "STOP. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."

They ain't kidding about the worst weather. The highest wind speeds on record have been recorded on Mt. Washington. And years ago, I drove up to the summit with friends - a scary and perilous drive in its own right. It was in the 80's at the base of the mountain, and snowing and in the 20's on the top.

For those who want to leg it up the mountains, high tech has emboldened them to try their luck on the White. Each year more than a few of them get stranded and need to get rescued.

LAST YEAR, THE NEW HAMPSHIRE FISH AND GAME Department, national forest, AMC, and other groups assisted in 164 incidents, about 75 involving injured or lost hikers. Search and rescue missions in 2007 cost the state $150,000, plus thousands of volunteer hours. About $42,000 of that was spent aiding people who were later deemed "negligent."

If you're found negligent, you have to pay for your rescue.

One who was rescued was Bernie Dahl of Winterport, Maine, whose cellphone call for help was answered,

...but not before Dahl reconciled himself to dying on the mountain. "Freezing is a nice way to go. You have an abnormal sense of warmth. I did not pray for rescue, I prayed for understanding and acceptance. I risked my life, and others had to risk theirs. That's not right, I don't deny it." Today, he speaks to groups about the "spiritual experience" and maintains a website (

The night that Joyce and I camped at the foot of Tuckerman's, it didn't get that cold.

It was a nice July night, and our cheap-o sleeping bags worked just fine.

If it hadn't been for the act-of-God bug-bite to Joyce's eye, we would have no doubt forged on and - in those days before cellphone, GPS, and Power Bars - who knows what would have happened.

Curiously, we decided we like camping and a couple of summers later, we drove cross-country, camping all the way.

The next year, we camped our way around Europe. 

But by then we knew what we were doing.

We had Kelty backpacks, and Coleman lanterns. LL Bean tents, and Gaz stoves. Collapsible cooking gear and 20-below sleeping bags. Long underwear and waterproof camping jackets. Maps and an axe.

And forget about those white Italian hiking shoes.

By then, we'd both invested in a pair of solid hiking boots.

But we'd sure started out as idiots so, as much as I want to completely make fun of the dopes who head up Mt. Washington with their cellphone and a smile, I have to pause and say, 'There but for fortune...'

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Extreme Makeover beneficiaries in extremis

When I was a kid, I loved to watch Queen for a Day.

Four tale-of-woe women would tell their tale-of-woe. The applause of the studio audience would be registered on some sort of applause-o-meter. And one lucky lady would be chosen queen. I don't remember that the gifts were all that big - washer dryer, TV, a dozen Ship 'n Shore blouses - but the queen got to parade down a runway in a red velvet cape, wearing a crown and carrying a bouquet of roses.

At least I thought the cape was red velvet - wasn't that what queens wore? - but, alas, we didn't have a colored TV, so who knew? (For all I know, the show wasn't on in color either.)

Getting a colored TV was one of the reasons I wanted my mother to go on Queen for a Day. The other was for a close dryer.

But I couldn't figure out quite what my mother's tale of woe would be, as her house hadn't burnt down, she wasn't (yet) a widow, and she didn't have a bunch of handicapped kids.

Just having 5 lustily shrieking, healthily combative children underfoot wasn't enough - that I realized early on, especially in a neighborhood where families with over 10 lustily shrieking, healthily combative children - while no means the norm - weren't especially rare, either.

Alas, my mother never tried for Queen for a Day. Eventually, we got the colored TV, but that was well passed the time when I cared about watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. And, as I recall, the dryer appeared in time to rescue me from a few years of hanging the clothing out to dry in broiling summer and dead of winter.

Queen for a Day is long off the air. And the paltry prizes would never fly in this day and age of extreme everything.

I've only watched Extreme Makeover a couple of times, and have found it a weird combination of soppy sentimentality, earnest do-good-ism , and appallingly crazed consumerism.

For those not familiar with this show, it involves a hard luck family in a rundown house. The cases are all "different but the same:" the severely injured Iraqi war vet whose wife just left him and the kids; the family that's trying to jam their drug addicted sister-in-law's 6 kids into their squinchy two bedroom bungalow; the orphaned family whose 19 year old "head" is trying to hold things together while attending community college...

The Extreme Makeover crew swoops in on the lucky family, sends them off on vacation (the ones I've seen all seem to go to Disneyworld), tears down the old house and, with the help of community volunteers and a local construction company, builds a new one.

The new homes are generally wide-eyed-fantasy McMansions: well out of scale with the style, size, and price range of the neighborhood. Just a wild guess, but these homes probably ends up breeding at least some resentment about the initially over-joyed neighbors happy to see a deserving family taken care of. Not to mention that the location probably doesn't do much by way of re-sale value, as the folks who want and can afford such monstrosities are probably more interested in living in a neighborhood of like-edifices, not in the midst of tumble-down, 800 square foot post-war ranches.

The new homes are also fitted out - furniture, appliances - that are ooh- and aah-worthy, but half of which probably don't hold up for that long. One of the techniques used is to design the kids' rooms around the interest-du-jour of each child. Thus, the eight year old girl gets the pink princess ballerina treatment. The six year old boy gets the bed shaped like a baseball glove. Etc. Doesn't take much fast forwarding to see these kids rejecting these rooms.

But, at least for the moment when the lucky family is shuttled back from Disneyworld to see their new life, everything is beautiful.

The families are also showered with things like cars, college tuition at Local U, and enough money to pay the property taxes for a while.

The show has been on for a few years and, of course, there's now some track record of people selling these dream houses - to cash in or because they can't keep up with the upkeep. More recently, a couple of the EM houses have been foreclosed on.

On Zillow, I read that one home was foreclosed because the family couldn't pay off their old mortgage on their destroyed home, nor could they handle the utility bills on their new mega-house. The other foreclosed house was reportedly used as collateral for a hefty loan to start a business - a construction business, of all things. (Such timing!)

According to Access Atlanta, where the second foreclosed home - a whopper at 5,500 square feet - was located, the Extreme Makeover show had this to say:

A representative of ABC offered an e-mail: "'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' advises each family to consult a financial planner after they receive their new home. Ultimately, financial matters are personal, and we work to respect the privacy of the families."

And, of course, they are under no obligation here to make sure that the people they "gift" with a makeover live happily ever after. They're in it for the ratings, the ad revenue, and I'm sure at least marginally for the good-hearted, tears-to-my eye, lump-in-the-throat feel they get when that six year old, who's used to sharing a cramped bedroom with a bunch of sibs, leaps into that baseball glove bed.

But the show, of course, plays into the worst aspect of our culture: the wretched excess, the "stuff cures everything" mentality, the shoddy, quick fix.

It probably wouldn't make for such great TV, but wouldn't you like to see the Extreme Makeover crew build a whole bunch of modest, useful, sustainable homes, Habitat for Humanity style - rather than focus on one out-scale, garish, house-full-of-junk?

I'd love to see a follow-up on all the Extreme Makeover cases to see how they - and their houses - are doing 4, 5, 6 years out. Now that would make for must-see TV.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It takes a get old in

I come from a long line of women who manage to stay active, engaged, alert, and independent into old age. I also come from a long line of men who die young. But, assuming that I take after the -  ahem - weaker sex, I'll be around into my 80's, possibly even into my 90's.

My mother died at the age of 81. Up until her final brief illness - although, at the time, the ghastly two-and-a-half weeks of that illness seemed anything but brief, especially to her - my mother was volunteering at least three days a week in the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store (where she bought as much junk as she sold); taking courses; attending Mass daily; delivering communion to shut-ins in nursing homes; going shopping; and traveling. At the time she died, my mother had three trips planned: one to Chicago for a family wedding; one to Cape May, NJ with the retiree club from her church; and one to Vienna and Prague.

Less than a year before she died, my mother had moved from the house where we grew up into a congregant living facility. There she had her own very nice one bedroom apartment, two meals a day, built-in social activities - and no worries about finding someone to fix the roof, mow the grass, or shovel out the driveway. (The place she lived also got big bonus points because it was right across the street from her church, so she could walk to Mass in the same church she'd been part of since her move to Worcester in 1946 - which was the same church my father had grown up in. Location, location, location.)

My mother's leaving her home of many years relieved her (and her five children) of a major burden. But if she had wanted to stay in her own house, we would have all figured out a way to make it work for her.

Well, I don't have the five-kid thing going for me, so I'll be a bit more on my own than my mother was, but my goal will be the same as hers: to stay active and independent for as long as possible - I hope right up until The End. And don't we all want that?

But I can already see that there are some accommodations that we'll need to make if we want to stay put for the rest of our lives. And why wouldn't we?

We live in a neighborhood where you can walk everywhere - including to the doctors, dentist, and hospital. Not to mention hardware store, drugstore, dry cleaners, coffee shop, grocery stores, movie theaters, cobblers, bookstore, library, and "downtown." We live in an area that has restaurants. That's on public transportation - and is in short walking distance from all three of Boston's train stations. That's alive day and night. That's safe. That's quiet.

But our condo? Well, nothing's perfect.

That light fixture in my little computer room? Sure, I could get up on the ladder and change the bulb, but I wait for the cleaning folks to come and have the tall young man change it for me.

We need better lighting on our staircase - so wonderful in that it takes up so little space in our small condo, so terrible in that it is steep, winding and treacherous - and, while we're at it, we should carpet the stairs and put in a railing before one of us takes a header (which will probably be me carrying an armful of something or other while wearing a too long bathrobe).

Not to mention that HVAC filter that only my husband seems to know how to replace....

Still, it's home and I'd like to stay there for the foreseeable future - and maybe beyond.

Maybe not tomorrow, or even the next day, but I will definitely be looking into Beacon Hill Village , a local organization that helps people stay put, in their own homes, where they want to be, for as long as they can be.

Beacon Hill Village helps persons age 50 and older who live on Beacon Hill and in its adjacent neighborhoods enjoy safer, healthier and more independent lives in their own homes–well connected to a familiar and attentive community. Faced with the prospect of leaving the neighborhood they love in order to obtain the services of a retirement community, a group of long-time Beacon Hill residents decided to create a better alternative–Beacon Hill Village is designed to make remaining at home a safe, comfortable and cost-effective solution.

BHV was founded in 2002 ago, and, according to our little local newspaper, The Beacon Hill Times, now has 460 members. It sponsors social, cultural, and educational events; runs exercise classes and wellness clinics; and connects people up with the services they need - transportation, errand-running, home repair, computer assistance, etc. - to stay independent - all at discounted prices.

This is Beacon Hill - an affluent neighborhood -  so I'm sure that nothing on their menu is rock-bottom, but they vet the services and - I'm guessing here - they help make sure that you don't end up with "no shows" (like the plumber who decided not to show up for us a couple of months ago - fortunately, it wasn't an emergency).

Membership ain't cheap either - $600 a year/$85o for household. But peace of mind with respect to vendors, plus social opportunities to keep the elder from isolation is worth $12 a week. And for those who can't afford the membership, there's a subsidized, deep discount plan available for those over 60 - fully paid membership is available to those 50 and above. The subsidized plan costs just $100/year, which includes a $250 credit towards programs and services.

Beacon Hill Village claims membership from those aged 51 to 99. Fifty-one seems a bit on the young side - hard to imagine someone in their fifties who wants or needs to take advantage of the social/cultural opportunities. Maybe it's just plain worth it to have access to decent repair people.

(Maybe I need to check this out.)

BHV has become a national - and international, even - model for other neighborhoods and towns. According to the Beacon Hill Times article I saw, more than a dozen villages have sprung up since last fall, and another 20 are in the making.

I am, hopefully, a decade or two away from not being able to run errands and change (most) light bulbs.

Still, I'm delighted - and relieved - to know that Beacon Hill Village exists. (Equally delighted and relieved, I'm quite sure, is my much younger sister. If you don't have children, but you've got sibs, it sure works out better in terms of growing old if you're at the front end of the pack. Thanks in advance, Trish, for all the help!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A little less conversation: what's new with inflight phone use

Although - or perhaps because - I don't fly that often these days, I've been dreading the thought of cell-phone service becoming available on airlines. Internet connectivity - yes - just not cell phone yakka-yakka (or head-phoned Skypers VoIPeeing). There are so few places to escape having to hear people's cell phone conversations, I wasn't looking forward to the friendly skies becoming yet another 'can you hear me?' zone. (One thing about those in-flight telephones, they were sufficiently unavailable, expensive, and clunky to discourage much other than ultra quick calls.)

Let's face it, so many always-on folks sound as if they're projecting their voice, unmiked, to the back rows of the high school auditorium - or as if they're hollering into a juice can attached to another juice can with a piece of string.  And the only thing worse than hearing a full, boring conversation  is hearing half of one - given that you sit through the quiet parts dreading the point where the other party starts talking again. At least on party lines you got to hear both ends.

So who wants to sit next to some blatherer on a long-haul flight rant about her boyfriend, relay news about the big deal, or tell someone  'now we're over Newfoundland.'

But if the early studies are any indication, my fears about overuse of cell phones in flight are ungrounded.

According to an article in the August 9th Economist, Emirates airline and Air France has been offering service on a subset of their planes for a while now, and it seems that there's a little less conversation going on than I would have forecast.

On Emirates, calls were short (averaging 2 1/2 minutes); most took place during daytime flights; and most who used the service were text messaging. Air France, text messages from BlackBerries were the norm. Passengers polled want the service deployed on all flights.

By the way, those safety concerns about interfering with a plane's operations have apparently been overcome (although the take-off and landing prohibitions still stand). And if you think you're going to be able to just run up sky-minutes on your own calling plan, think again.  All calls go out through a router on the plane, so the airlines will be charging (with higher fees for voice calls than for text messages).

But unlike charges for water, peanuts, pillows, blankets, and carry-on bags, this is one charge that I suspect most of those who can't bear the thought of being unconnected for any length of time will be happy to pay.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lost in Space

The Boston Globe reported recently that our city's largest single-family home is well, not exactly under construction, but more or less being pieced together out of two neighboring buildings (four condos and a town house) in Boston's Back Bay.

Investment executive - private equity - Ofer Nemirovsky new digs will include bed-bath-dressing room combos for each of his three kids, as well as Mr. and Mrs. studies, bath rooms, and dressing rooms. (What exactly is a dressing room? I grew up in - and have always resided in - homes where the room where you got dressed was a bedroom or a bathroom. But when I think of the chair in my bedroom that's seldom sat in and is used largely to pile clothing onto, I have a sense that I could use me one of them dressing rooms.)

Of course, those bed-bath-and-beyond suites don't comprise the whole, which includes the requisite exercise and media rooms, something called an "upper lounge", and an office for their house manager.

Well, it's Nemirovsky's money, and he and his wife are apparently entertainers extraordinaire - the B52's played at his 50th birthday party - so they no doubt have things to do with all that space. And 24,000 square feet/$23M worth of house sure screams got a lot of livin' to do.

While my first inclination is to crank about wretched excess and environmental depredation  - been there, done that.

This time I got to thinking about what, exactly, I'd do if I suddenly came into some extra square footage.

Truly, I can't begin to imagine having 24,000 square feet. It's just not possible for me - right up there with trying to wrap my head around infinity or what if there'd been no Big Bang  or who moved the Prime Mover.

And, as a point of comparison, I don't have 3 kids or a house manager. If we divide the 24,000 square feet by 6 inhabitants (assuming the house manager lives in), we get to a more manageable number of 4,000 square per resident.

This would "entitle" my imagination to think about my husband and I expanding our little digs - 1150 square feet - to 8,000 square feet.

While not as unimaginable as the big Nemirovsky kahuna, I still can't fathom having 8,000 square feet - or even 4,000 square feet for that matter. (Confession: I tend to prefer small, enclosed spaces to wide open. Every time I visit my sister Kathleen on the Cape, we pass Brownie's Cabins - tiny little old timey cabins that don't look like they have much more room than the average back yard playhouse. And every time we pass Brownie's Cabins, I remark that at some point I'm going to spend a blissful night in one of them.)

But I can imagine my way to 2,000 square feet of lebensraum, or 850 square feet more than we've got now.

Here's what I'd do:

  • Eat in kitchen. Oh, I can hear my sister Trish now. "Your kitchen just screams 'I don't cook.'" But I do eat, and I like nothing better than sitting around a kitchen table drinking tea. So, I could use another 150 square feet worth of kitchen.
  • Guest room/den.  Even without guests, who doesn't want a guest room. 250 square feet worth of guest room/den would let my husband have complete, unimpeded, 24/7 use of the green room (which is also known as the blue room; the walls are green, the couch is blue) where he has his computer.
  • Bathroom. Admittedly, we already have two full baths, which seems like plenty for two full people. But if we had a guest room, we might actually have guests. 100 square feet for another bathroom, which might sound small, but it would be larger than either of the bathrooms we have now.
  • Exercise room. God knows I never thought I'd have this on my wish list, but it's there now - with room for a couple of pieces of equipment and a TV to while away the time spent sweating. 200 square feet would do it.
  • Big closet. Depending on which way you choose to look at it - sort of a half-empty/half-full referendum - one of the worst or on of the best features of our condo is the lack of closet space. On the downside, taking anything out - like Xmas decorations, suitcases, or the blow up mattress we wouldn't need if we had a guest room - or putting anything back in always seems to entail completely reorganizing the closets. On the upside, if you have no place to keep crap, you have a tendency not to accumulate that much of it. Still, it would be nice to get my Christmas ornaments out without having to crawl on my belly through a narrow space with a flashlight in my teeth. All I ask is 100 square feet.

That brings us to a grand total of 800, so I guess I'd use the additional imaginary 50 square feet for an additional imaginary closet.

So, I can easily see how I could use up 2,000 square feet of space without getting lost in it.

But 24,000 square feet.

To quote the Boston cop working the detail outside the Nemirovsky work-site: "It's a whole different world."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Big Boy's Big Boy

My first waitress job was at Ted's Big Boy Restaurant, which - in the summer of 1968 - had just opened for business.

I was in the first cadre of waitresses hired, and we were trained by "girls" - as they and we were then known  - who were brought in from the original Bob's Big Boy in California as part of the deal to set up a franchise.

The girls from Bob's were really something.

At a time when most girls wore their hair long and straight, a la Mary of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Bob's waitresses had big hair.

Wanda had a giganticized version of the dark black Lucy Baines Johnson (LBJ's younger daughter) flip. Porta was about 6 feet 2 inches tall - at least she was with the stovepipe cone of honey blonde hair perched on top of her head.Big Boy

Both Wanda and Porta gobs of make up,  and us Big Boy's waitresses had to don - at minimum - lipstick, which I had never worn.

My color of choice was the trendy corpse-white, or a sugary cotton candy pink. These colors were an ultra-nice complement to the yellow (what was I thinking?) eye shadow I also wore. What with my self-created orange-ish hair streak - done on the cheap with peroxide rather than Lady Clairol - I must have been quite a sight. (The things you can get away with when you're 18.)

Being a Big Boy waitress came with lot of rules.

You had to wear your name tab well above your left breast. If it got anywhere near bust-level, Porta told us, some wise guy was sure to ask, "What's the name of the other one?"

We also had to address the cooks as "Sir," which seemed especially dopey as the cooks weren't much older than the waitresses. One cook - the younger brother of the store manager - was, in fact, only 16.  Yet we had to call Timmy S, along with his brothers John S. and Danny S. - a crew of very cute Irish boys from Providence - "Sir". Just as we had to call Bob L., Mel A., and Don I-can't-recall-his-last-name "Sir."

Most of the cooks were pretty good humored about it, but Bob L. was kind of  a bully, defensive, I think, because most of us were college girls who were there for the summer, while being a Big Boy cook was, more or less, his career.

Mel A. was an interesting guy. I think he went to Clark, and I wonder whatever happened to the book he claimed to be writing, 86 That Dream.

There were lots of cooks to "Sir" over my two summers and one Christmas break at Big Boys. Ex-cons, Viet Nam vets.

Ordering involved addressing one of the "Sirs" and announcing that you were ordering a Big Boy, a Brawnie Lad, a tuna wheat.

Portions of the food  - mostly deserts - that the waitresses doled out on our own followed paramilitary precision. I felt bad for those who ordered the hot fudge sundaes, with their monitored teensie-weensie cup of fudge sauce, barely more than a thimble full! At Friendly's, they put more fudge on the sundae - especially if you knew someone who worked there.

Even when there was no one in the restaurant in the break between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, there was a hard and fast rule that you couldn't sit down. You had to be rinsing out towels in soapy, bleachy water. Or scrubbing down tables. Or straightening menus.

One time my friend Kathleen took a tiny break, sitting down for a second or two at a table she'd been scrubbing. And there was John S., outside policing the grounds, tapping on the window and wagging his finger at her.

I actually loved waitressing at Big Boy's.

Every night, I would come home and count my tips in the living room - change, mostly - and record the amount in a little red spiral notebook. I worked very hard, but don't imagine I made very much - the food was inexpensive and there was no alcohol served.

After counting my tips, I took a shower, trying to get the burger grease smell out of my hair and off my skin, and then threw my uniform in the washing machine.

Although I worked at least 5 days a week, I had one uniform: white blouse, orange apron, and brown skirt. And the entire kit needed washing every night, save for the clip on brown bow tie.

You had to give back your uniform when you quit, so my second summer at Big Boy's, the uniform I had was used to begin with.

How charming!

My Big Boy stint came to mind the other day when I read an article on a fellow in Kentucky who'd been offered a job at the local Big Boy's - only to have the offer rescinded when they couldn't find a uniform to fit him.

Well, 2X was not big enough for Charles Compton, who weighs in at 349. Since that was the largest size they had, he was promptly unhired.  What with the bad publicity and all, Big Boy called big boy back, apologized, and offered him the job again.

But Compton was no longer interested.

From Big Boy's point of view, this is probably just as well.

In this day and age, with all the attention paid to the correlation between fast food and obesity, probably the last thing you want - especially in a restaurant named Big Boy's to begin with - is someone that large reminding people that they just might want to skip that hot fudge sundae. Even with the skimpy portion of fudge sauce, that's still a lot of empty calories.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Messy Business of Surrogacy

It is certainly understandable that people will go to great lengths to have a child, and surrogacy is one option that's increasingly available to the infertile.

We've all heard the heartwarming stories of the sister-mother-friend - or, more weirdly, a plain old "do gooder" - who's lent her uterus so that someone can have a baby. But, while I'm sure it's been broken on many an occasion, in the U.S. there's a law that makes womb-for-hire illegal. Not so in India, where women can make $12K - $30K for acting as surrogates. And business is baby booming - to the tune of an estimated $445M per year. (Source: CNN.)

"Cheap mothers are available here. There is so much poverty. ... It's employment for them," says Dr. Sadhana Arya with India's Arya Hospital.

"You have treated the surrogate mother like an object, used her as a factory, produced something, given money for it."

But, she says, the final product "is a live child."

Most of the time it works out for the largely Japanese and American couples who take advantage of India's womb-to-rent business.

But, as is inevitable when human life is commodified to this extent, where not only is the "final product" a "live child," but the live child is a product, there's all sorts of opportunity for bad things to happen.

The current case in the news is one of buyer's remorse on the prospective mother's side.

A Japanese couple - using his sperm, and the egg of an anonymous donor - contracted with an Indian woman to carry the child.

Somewhere during those 9 months, the couple got divorced, and the mother to be decided she was a mother not to be. She didn't want the baby anymore.

The father still does, and the problem here is that under Indian law, a single man can't adopt a baby girl.  (The baby's grandmother also wants the child, and she's on the scene as well.)

Easy to trash-Baby Manjhi, a surrogate child, has been stuck in legal limbo. Her adoptive parents divorced before her the woman who decided she didn't want the baby after all, but the entire setup - donated egg, surrogate mother - certainly allows for the a 'hey, not my baby/not my problem' attitude to develop. There's no - literal - skin of hers in the game.

But it seems as if the ex-wife could have made life easier for the baby's father, but - according to the article I saw - didn't want to get involved.

Well, you should have thought of that before you agreed to the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the baby has been sick, the father had to go back to Japan (he's a physician with patient obligations), and the new grandmother is hoping that everything gets cleared up before her visa expires.

Uneasy about how the baby was created, she comes to the hospital to cradle her granddaughter day and night, and has become so attached, she says, she cannot imagine going home without Manjhi.

"I am very worried and stressed. Why can't they let her father take his child?" the grandmother says.

It looks like this one will get straightened out - international bad publicity has a way of doing that - but there are no doubt plenty more stories out there that are variations on this theme.

Surrogacy is a messy business, and with scientific and technology breakthroughs continuing apace, we're no doubt going to see far worse when it comes to confusing reproduction with production.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Potemkin Olympics: Little Lin Miaoke's Lip Synch Anthem

A few months back it was the folks who were being displaced from their homes because they were eyesores that needed to come down. Then it was keeping the migrant country-bumpkin masses out of Beijing temporarily. Last week it was the vendors whose shabby storefronts were walled off - which not only makes sure they don't get any part of the Olympic tourist trade, but that their regulars can't even get to them. And the other day it was the news that the 9 year old cutie-pie who sang the Chinese national anthem at the Olympic opening ceremonies was lip-synching the voice of a 7 year old who was deemed not pretty enough to represent her country.

God knows, China is not the first country to try to sweep its dirt under the rug , and make sure that what the world sees is prettified. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that at this very moment Denver and Minneapolis-St.Paul  - hosts to the upcoming Democratic and Republican National Conventions aren't painting over graffiti, and engaging in talks on what to do about keeping the downtown homeless out of sight without actually seeming to be doing anything about keeping the downtown homeless out of sight.

Nor is it unknown that the pretty face got the part in the musical and mouthed someone else's words. I know I'm going way back in time here, but I seem to remember that in the movie My Fair Lady, we weren't hearing Audrey Hepburn sing, nor was that Natalie Wood warbling in West Side story.
Still, it's disheartening to learn that the charming and adorable Lin Miaoke got the nod because she is China doll cute - and a minor  celeb already, who has appeared in ads, has her own, blog, etc. And now, by some light, she's an "international singing sensation."

Sort of.

The little girl who was spurned, Yang Peiyi, is apparently, comparatively speaking, more of a plain Jane. But oh, that voice! (And, truthfully, if you look at the pictures, the one child is decidedly "cutesie cute" and the other is "sweet cute." Well, I'm an old fuss-budget crank who'll take sweet cute anytime.)Miaoke
I understand that performers, especially women, have to have the entire package - looks, body, talent, and "it factor"  - in order to have great success. (Talent and "it factor" seem to be enough for men, or I'm missing something about Bono et al.) And that skillful application of makeup and the help of a hairdresser can go quite a distance to beautify most anyone.
But these are very young girls we're talking about here, and it's not a good message to be sending any of the little girls watching the Olympics that what you look like trumps talent. (Or, as is often the case, brains, personality, kindness, or what we used to call "what's inside.")

...a member of China's Politburo asked for the last-minute change to match one girl's face with another's voice, the ceremony's chief music director said in an interview with Beijing Radio.

"The audience will understand that it's in the national interest," Chen Qigang said in a video of the interview posted online Sunday night. (Source: MSNBC.)
"The national interest requires that the girl should have good looks and a good grasp of the song and look good on screen," Chen said. "Lin Miaoke was the best in this. And Yang Peiyi's voice was the most outstanding."
During a live rehearsal soon before the ceremony, the Politburo member said Miaoke's voice "must change," Chen said in the radio interview. He didn't name the official.

For a country that already has a not-so-great recent history with how it values girl babies, this isn't the message they should be sending.

If Miaoke has the personality and presence, what's wrong with letting her croak out the song? If Peiyi has to voice, why not put her in a nice dress, put a big bow in her hair, and let her sing. I can't imagine that many people would have reacted negatively. Peiyi would have just come across as a regular kid with a wonderful voice.

For her part, Peiyi has apparently said that "just having her voice used for the opening ceremony was an honor." And her tutor, Wang Liping,

...wrote in her blog that Peiyi is both cute and well-behaved, with a love for Peking opera.

"She doesn't like to show off. She's easygoing," Wang wrote.
Nice voice. Well-behaved. Doesn't like to show off. Easygoing.
You go, girl!

Maybe you won't turn out to be a superstar, but little Yang Peiyi sure sounds like the kind of kid you like to have around.

Let's hope her school isn't full of mean kids who will bully her for her looks.

If China wants to erect a bunch of Potemkin villages for their big moment, well, have it it.

But if China had been looking for an opportunity to show up superficial, looks-obsessed, decadent Western culture, they sure missed it on this one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Clark Rockefeller's Strange Journey

It's never really occurred to me to claim a new identity, forge a new me. Even when the moment occurred when I could have gotten me a new last name free and easy, I chose to stick with the last name that brung me.

Not that I haven't had an escape fantasy or two. But they're pretty pedestrian, and tend to involve moving to someplace like Pittsburgh or Omaha; getting a nice little no hassle office job that involves answering the phone and photo-copying; finding a cozy apartment - sort of like Rhoda's on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show; and taking out a library card. Mostly I sit around wrapped in an afghan, sipping tea. It's always winter.

But mostly, like Popeye, like most of us: I am what I am. And that means I am who I am.

Unlike the latest "great imposter:" Clark Rockefeller/Christopher Chichester/Christopher Crowe/Christian Karl Gerharstreiter.

For those who haven't been consumed by this story - and that will pretty much leave out everybody who lives anywhere near Boston - Clark Rockefeller, just a few short weeks ago, was the eccentric scientist millionaire dad who kidnapped his daughter Snooks while on a supervised custody visit.

Fortunately, the child was found unharmed, but the story has gone well beyond even the most extreme parental battle over the kids.

Clark Rockefeller, it seems, is trailing a string of aliases behind him, and the bio details include a childhood in Germany; life as an exchange student in Connecticut; a green card marriage to someone who felt bad for him; tenant of a young California couple that mysteriously disappeared over 20 years ago (and whose truck CR tried to sell post-disappearance); and a brief stint on Wall Street as a bond trader.

Then he moved to Boston and, as Clark Rockefeller, hopped on the gravy train: marriage to a high IQ, highly successful business woman who had a child with him, and set him up - almost right next door to where I live - as Mr. Mom while she pursued her high powered management consulting career.

Somewhere along the line, Sandra Boss smartened up - hey, she is a graduate of the Harvard Business School - and divorced him, giving him $1M walking away money.

Well, other than the years he was a house-husband - and the stunted bond trading career, where, it is said, he made few if any sales - one of the things that has most struck me about this entire saga is how this guy managed to go for so long without having a job.

Does being a fake Rockefeller pay anything?

I would think that by now that, given all the publicity, some woman/women or old geezers would have come out of the woodwork to say that they, too, had been conned into supporting this guy, but it hasn't happened yet.

So, just what did he do to pay his rent, keep himself in preppy clothing, and eat?

My escape fantasies all have to include a crummy job.

What was his secret?

Maybe he was one of those con men you run into on the street who give you some tale of woe and ask for $10.

I will admit that I have on occasion given them the $10, knowing I was being conned on one level, but at least entertained by the story. (I always drew the line when someone tried the same con on me twice within a couple of day period, however.) But  cadging $10 at a time seems like mighty hard work, which doesn't seem to be part of Clark Rockefeller's M.O.

I had an uncle who was something of a ne'er do well. Without getting into the full story of Uncle Charlie's career - which included, among other unsavory details, some affiliation with Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the late 1930's, Charlie had stints in his life when he didn't work. Or didn't work much. Or didn't work hard.

But the price he paid was that he had to live with my grandmother and bum money off her. Or bum money off of my father and my aunt. Or off of his long-suffering, long-standing girlfriend Sue (whom he couldn't marry because, inconveniently, he had a wife he'd been briefly married to). Or off of other relatives. And relatives of relatives. And friends of his. And friends of relatives. And relatives of friends.

(My personal, unauthorized contribution to Charlie's wallet: my father "lent" him the money my parents had earmarked to buy my baby pictures. So, my extremely cute baby pictures, alas, all had the word PROOF stamped over my face in dark purple ink.)

I used to wonder when I was a kid why everyone in the City of Worcester knew my Uncle Charlie.

Mostly it was because he had borrowed a ten-spot from them at some point. (Often to pay for a mythical operation for my grandmother.)

I eagerly await more details on the strange journey Clark Rockefeller/Christian Gerharstreiter.

And what I most want to know is how this bum managed to get around for all those years without working.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lifehack's 10 Skills

Over on Lifehack, there's an interesting post by Dustin Wax entitled "10 Skills You Need to Succeed at Almost Anything."

From a general skills point of view, the list is pretty good:

  1. Public Speaking
  2. Writing
  3. Self-management
  4. Networking
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Decision making
  7. Math
  8. Research
  9. Relaxation
  10. Basic accounting

He asked people to suggest any skills he may have missed. I gave the comments a glance, but the only ones I recall are having a foreign language and touch-typing.

Well, it's nice to have a foreign language. While I don't exactly have one, I can make myself understood in a couple. And I'm one of those nerds who, before I visit a "foreign country", takes it upon myself to learn the rudiments. Good morning. Good night. How much. Where. Left. Right. Toilet. No smoking. Yes. No. Please. Thank you. I lose the rudiments the second I've cleared a country's airspace, but retain little fragments. Thus I can say thank you in Polish (Dziekuje - ok, I had to look the spelling up on this one); red wine in Hungarian (voros bor); and apple pie in Irish (piog ull).

However, touch typing is an excellent addition to this skill list - and one which I don't know how anyone gets by without in this day and age. It should be mandatory in junior high school. I learned it in summer school between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. My high school didn't offer it - not academic enough - but my mother thought it was an essential skill for a girl, so it was off to my one and only post-kindergarten foray into the public school system.  My sisters both learned touch typing as well. My brothers didn't, and I well remember my mother typing their high school papers - a service not available to her daughters. Ah, those were the days.

I'd put touch typing on the list right up there with accounting - maybe even a bit before it. (And, just so you know, he's not talking about double-entry, debit-credit accounting. He's talking about being able to track and record income, expenses, and project time.)

The only other skills missing are the ability to take and give criticism - hard to do, but essential (especially if you're ever going to have to manage anyone).

So the skills are all good, but it got me thinking about the personal attributes, without which I don't think having an excellent set of skills matters much.

Here's my list of "10 Attributes You Need to Succeed in Life"

  1. Empathy.
  2. Listening ability.
  3. Curiosity.
  4. Flexibility.
  5. Sense of humor.
  6. Sense of proportion.
  7. Willingness to look foolish.
  8. Willingness to try something new.
  9. Willingness to compromise.
  10. Willingness to stick to your guns.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Meet the Beetles: Worcester's Tree Problem

Like most old New England cities, Worcester has a lot of trees. And some of those trees are being invaded by a variety of not-so-fab beetles: the Asian longhorned.

The beetles - which destroy the trees they live in - are likely to have immigrated from China via packing crates containing yet more of the junk we can't live without - and which we're not so sure any longer that we can live with either.

The home town newspaper - the Worcester Telegram - has the scoop, although I did hear it first on TV news.

The plague being visited upon the trees in the Kendrick Field area of Worcester is not of the annoying-but-not-that-harmful variety. (I.e., the beetles aren't like the grotesque gypsy moths of yore, which invaded Worcester sometime in the last few decades. I remember one weekend we were all home to help my mother pry their larvae out from under the shingles on the house. A truly disgusting experience. They chewed up a couple of trees in the yard pretty badly, but didn't kill them. A year or two without leaves and they were back.)

No, the Asian longhorned beetle can do real harm, and The Feds have been called in.

The Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency because if the beetle were to expand from quarantined areas “it has the potential to wreak havoc nationwide, affecting such industries as lumber, maple syrup, nursery and tourism and [cause] more than $41 billion in losses.”

So Worcester will be trying to figure out how many trees are infested, and come up with a plan to remove them - which apparently can't take place until after the first frost. Fortunately, first frost in Worcester tends to be early, so folks won't have to wait that long fretting about whether the beetles infesting their maple have jumped tree and are now boring into their weeping willow.

Removal ain't all that simple: special rules for discarding them involve burning the infested trees  or grinding them into pulp.

Worcester isn't the first place in the States to meet the beetles.

They first showed up in Chicago a decade ago, and 1700 trees had to be destroyed before the hog-butcher-of-the-world was declared Asian longhorned beetle free. In the NY-NJ area, the beetles have claimed 6200 trees, and they're not home free quite yet. (It is just a coincidence that my mother, who spent 55 years of her life in Worcester, grew up in Chicago. And a further co-incidence that one of the only other cities here to have hosted these beetles, Brooklyn, was home for a number of years to my sister Trish and her husband John. Or is it??????*)

Knowing Worcester, the town will take some perverse pride in being one of the elite few to have longhorned beetle problems, especially given that cities like Chicago and Brooklyn are on the list.  Chicago and Brooklyn, as we Worcester-ites tend to think of them, are "real" cities that people who aren't from have actually heard of and maybe even been to.

Meanwhile, Worcester's City Manager - another Worcester curiosity: in the late 1940's (I think) Worcester's good government types managed to push through a change in Worcester's government - out with the strong mayor system, in with professional management -  has declared something that Telegram report Lee Hammond likens to "martial law" covering trees within a 1.5 mile radius of the area where a handful of infested trees have been found.

Residents - this is Worcester, after all: the Midwest of Massachusetts - will no doubt co-operate with federal, state, and local officials. Civilian trees will be replaced at no cost to the homeowner. But, of course, if you have an 90 year old horse chestnut tree, you're probably not going to be around to see your tree truly being replaced.

The Asian longhorned beetle....Just another one of the trade-offs we make for an endless supply of goods from China.

Yes, globalization is (mostly) for the good, and (absolutely) inevitable.

You can't protect yourself from everything, but in our lust for rock-bottom prices and endless consumption, we have sadly not done a lot of "what if" analysis on the implications of all this China trade.

And I do wonder just what was in those packaging crates that bore those pioneering Asian longhorned beetles to Worcester's back yard.


*"President Lincoln was warned by his secretary, who was named Kennedy, not to go to the Ford Theater. President Kennedy was warned by his secretary, who's name was Lincoln, not to go to Dallas, where he rode in a Lincoln Continental made by the Ford Motor Company...." [Am I the only person who remembers the ridiculous and tacky "co-incidence" record that was popular after JFK was assassinated? People would actually call up radio stations and request it, although I don't remember any "This one goes out for Skip and Mary, Joe and Linda, and Pete and Nancy." And certainly no one over said, "I give it a '5'. It was good to dance to.']

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Eye Popping Pill Popping Discovery

Well, now that I've finally gotten off my duff, joined a gym, and started to work out - and, man, do I hate sweating - along comes the news that scientists have identified a couple of drugs "that mimic many of the beneficial effects of exercise." (This from The Boston Globe.)

The drugs burn fat and boost endurance  - so what's not to like?

Plenty, of course. Especially the worry that while the drugs aren't on the market just yet (and have only been used on mice), competitive athletes might be able to find a lab to create human versions of them. Not to worry about the Olympics being tainted: the World Anti-Doping Agency has a test the checks for the components of the wonder drug.

The drug, by the way, does its magic by reprogramming the gene that governs muscle fibers and metabolism, and is based on some earlier research that "used genetic tinkering to create super mice that ran twice as far as normal rodents and ate ravenously without gaining weight." I don't know about that running twice as far as normal rodents, but the ability to eat ravenously part sounds like fun. (Yes, I will have that second hot fudge sundae, now that you mention it.)

Of course, the miracle drug hasn't been tested, so anyone trying to cook up their own in the chem lab is taking a risk, but - as we all well know - when it comes to big athletic bucks being at stake, some folks just see the dollar signs.  And not the longer term effects.

With steroids, that's your body falling apart.

With genetic engineering, who knows?

Way too scary.

So I'll stick to my 45 minutes of hell in the sweat box. On the other hand, I'm not obese, don't have some debilitating condition that precludes exercise, nor do I have a dormant metabolism. (That is, I don't have a completely dormant metabolism. I sure didn't escape the menopausal slow down.)

Of course, I'm not a competitive/professional athlete with yellow shirts, gold medals, and kabillion dollar contracts on the line if only I can pedal faster, run longer, hit the ball farther.

So who decides what's cheating and what's okay?

Not gifted with 20-200 vision? Laser surgery, baby.

Might it be just a bit helpful to have slightly longer quads? Like the other guy was born with? Go under the knife - or, maybe more easilly-peasily - under the laser beam.

Want super lung capacity? Breathe deeply on this magic inhaler.

If surgical procedures and drugs are available that just happen to make anyone faster-stronger-better, why wouldn't athletes take advantage of them?

All you're doing in some of these cases is pulling even with the guy born with the ability to hold his breath for 5 minutes, or to see ants on an anthill from 100 yards.

Where do you draw the line?

Does every athletic record end up with an asterisk?

In the old days, we just had to worry about comparing home runs from the dead,ball era to those of the live ball era.

Now will it be altered vs. unaltered states?

Will we have different sports leagues and events - kind of like we buy organic vs. doctored food?

The "health nuts" will go to watch the natural athletes  compete. The natural athletes will wear undyed burlap and clunky shoes. The fields they compete on will have burn spots and tough grass - none of these doctored, crazily green lawns for us! The records they break will be those held by Roger Bannister, Wilma Rudolph, Bronco Nagurski.

Everyone else will be drawn to the glitz and glamour of the unnatural athletes who are breaking all the records.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Baloney Man

Last week, the Boston Globe had an article on an ordinance just approved by the Boston City Council limiting the times when ice cream trucks can play music over their loudspeakers.

The new rule: when the wheels on the truck go round and round, the jingle can be playing. But once the ice cream truck is stopped and open for business, the surround sound's got to be silenced.

While it does seem somewhat petty and carping to complain about listening to "The Entertainer" for a few minutes while the neighborhood kiddies who've heeded the clarion call stand their trying to figure out what treat to buy - that ice cream Tweetie Bird with the blue gumball eyes? the red-white-and-blue rocket-sicle? -  ice cream truck "music" played incessantly can bore a hole in your brain.

My niece Molly's in a summer basketball league that plays outside, and once the ice cream guy shows up, you can't hear yourself think.

While there are no ice cream vendors roaming the streets of my neighborhood, there is a stationary one kitty-corner across the Public Garden from where I live.  But I don't think I've ever heard it play music.

Ah, the ice cream man!

When I was a kid - in the days before anyone had re-heard of Scott Joplin and "The Entertainer" - the ice cream truck played "Three Blind Mice." And he made plenty of stops on our street,which - if I've got the arithmetic correct, had about 50 kids living on it during its peak Baby Boom years.

Not that they made much money off of the Rogers kids.

It's not as if my parents were anti-ice cream.

We always had half-gallons in the freezer, and in the summer my mother bought those multi-colored, tasteless styrofoam-ish waffle cones and we rolled our own. (Forget waffle cones: I'm a sugar cone girl all the way.) My mother also made fake popsicles out of lemonade and grape juice.

Plus there was never any problem taking your nickel and going to Sol's Maincrest Pharmacy and buying a real Popsicle brand Popsicle which, if you were with a nickel-less sib or friend, you'd go sharesies by cracking it in two on the side of the soda fountain counter. (Those were the day of double-wide Popsicles.0

And when we took rides - which we did a lot - we always stopped for ice cream at Dairy Delight, the Cherry Bowl, or Verna's.

And sometimes on a night's stroll, my father took the troop up to Friendly's for a cone.

But the ice cream truck?

Almost never - maybe once a summer.

Which didn't stop us from lusting after something off the truck, that's for sure.

On one memorable occasion, my brother Rick - who must have been 3 or 4 at the time - started badgering my father for money for the ice cream truck.

"That's a bunch of baloney," my father told him.

Well, Rick headed for the hills - the wooded hill next to our house - and as the ice cream truck pulled up to our corner, Rick hollered to him, "You're nothing but the baloney man."

Well, baloney man it was from there on out, driving each night around our block, "Three Blind Mice" announcing his arrival.

"The baloney man's here," one of us would say, then we'd head out to the backyard, out of earshot of the music and the screeching kids whose parents didn't think it was baloney at all.

The next morning, we'd get our freebie substitute.

My father's cousin Ellen was married to the owner of Blanchard's Dairy, and Phil Blanchard, along with my father's cousins Matt and Ned, were occasionally our milk men. Even when it was a non-family member milk man, the milk man would always let us hop into the back of the truck and help ourselves to big chunks of ice. That the ice chunks were covered with black film from the diesel fuel just added to the taste and the allure.

Who needed the baloney man, when you could suck on a big rock of diesel covered ice that glittered like a diamond once you'd rubbed - or licked - the diesel off?  (Don't knock it unless you've tried it!)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rauchen nicht verboten

The first time my husband and I went to Berlin - over New Year's 1989-1990, just as The Wall was crumbling - we figured out pretty early on that, in order to be able to enjoy lunch at the wonderful cafe around the corner form our hotel, we had to get there by 11:30. If we showed up any later than that, the restaurant would be full of acrid blue smoke from all the natives puffing away. We would gobble down our salad and goulash, with a wary eye on the door for the entrance of the local clientele. All of them, it seemed, walked in smoking, and, before they even sat down, tossed their cigarette packs in the middle of the table so that they wouldn't have to put up with the bother of having to reach into their pocket to retrieve their next smoke.


Last time around - May 2007 - things had gotten a bit better. Most places we ate at least had a no-smoking zone of some sort - usually small and the least desirable location in the place (other than for the smoke factor). But there were still an awful lot of smokers around, which comes as something of a shock now that we're so used to fully non-smoking establishments in Massachusetts. (And even in Ireland, you can't smoke in public places any more.)

A week or so ago, I saw an article in The Economist that talked about the July 1st smoking laws that went into effect in all 16 of Germany's states.

This would presumably improve their abysmal rating:

Last year the Swiss Cancer League ranked the tobacco-fighting zeal of 30 European countries, and placed Germany 27th.

And we can assume that the 3 countries behind them are probably Soviet bloc countries where smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes was the one great pleasure that anyone got out of life.

But for the Germans: ban, schman.

As The Economist pointed out, Germans who would wait for the "walk sign" before stepping foot off of the curb - even with nary a car in sight for miles - apparently have had no problem just saying no to smoking laws. And, as reported in The Telegraph (UK), their highest court has now overturned the short-lived ban as unconstitutional.

Restaurants and bars have been screaming bloody blue smoke murder about the ban, and the high court ruling came after a couple of small bar owner made the case that their businesses were being hurt by it. Their bars were too small to have a separate smoking area and thus, they argued, they were placed at a competitive disadvantage.

The courts ruled in their favor, and

Now, all German states will have to review their smoking bans and come up with new legislation by 2009, either banning smoking outright or allowing it in one-room bars too.

One would have to ask why, with the rest of the Western world increasingly anti-smoking, would put up such resistance to something that is better for your health, better for the environment, and cheaper to boot.

But, apparently, in Germany,

...smoking has established itself as a lone act of rebellion against the prevailing culture.

Under the Nazis smoking was frowned upon. After 1945 smoking became a symbol of a post-war freedoms and broadmindedness.

Interesting theory, but given that the war has been over for more than 60 years, it's hard to believe that there are many elder-smokers out there still lighting one up to stick it to de fuhrer. It's hard to believe that this little bit of broadminded rebellion hasn't died an ugly death, isn't it?

It will be interesting to see what 2009 brings with respect to German smoking bans.

Meanwhile, the smoking lamp is lit, and  rauchen nicht verboten in Germany.


For some reason, thinking of "smoking" and "German" in the same breath, has planted the tune Johnny Schmoker in my head.

And, oh, no, it's now being supplanted by Spike Jones comic ditty, De Fuhrer's Face.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, isn't it?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Courting Disaster: Tim Donaghy's stunningly bad career decisions

Last week, former professional basketball referee Tim Donaghy was sent to jail for 15 months for his role in an illegal gambling scheme.

It's a bit unclear to me precisely what Donaghy did, but, prior to his sentencing, he had:

admitted he traded inside information on games in 2006 and 2007 for cash payments from James Battista and Thomas Martino, friends of his from high school. (Source: Seattle Times.)

Donaghy, apparently a compulsive gambler - not a good addiction for someone associated with pro sports to have; just ask Pete rose -  had wagered on 100 games that he'd been involved in as a ref. Did he provide undisclosed information on injuries? Did he ever actually throw a game, where the W-L outcome was determined by bad calls? Did he finagle things to accommodate the point spread he was betting on? Or did he "just" bet on games which he reffed, thus giving himself an unfortunately way-too-vested interest in the game's outcome. An interest that could certainly have an impact on his judgement, even if he convinced himself he wasn't really cheating.

So now he's doing time, plus providing restitution to the National Basketball Association to the tune of just under $100K for each game where he didn't provide "honest services." If that's 100 games, that looks like almost $10M, a lot of walking around money for someone whose job, while interesting, certainly never paid the amount that the mega-stars (or even the journeymen players) rake in. Oh, yeah, and his wife left him.

There are still rumors of "more to come", with at least one other referee implicated in questionable activities and with ongoing blogosphere rumors of long standing about explicit or tacit league pressure to prolong the length of playoff series (best-of-five, I think, in the first round; best-of-seven in the rest) so that TV revenues can be maxed out.

Who knows where this will all lead - or if it will lead anywhere at all, or just kind of end up like the baseball steroid investigations that periodically heat up, then die out.

Meanwhile, a 41 year old man 13 years into the career of his dreams - and maybe of his father's dreams as well: Donaghy's father was a college basketball ref - is going to be spending at least 12 months in prison. This will take him through pre-season, high season, the playoffs, and beyond, during which he will have plenty of time to think about some of the worst career moves a human being can make, i.e., those that involve integrity.

Let's face it, in terms of re-hire-ability, those who have been exposed as liars, cheats, and thieves are probably less desirable than someone who mows the CEO down in the parking lot. Not that I'd want to hire either, but somehow violence is easier to see as a one-shot aberration, a wiring problem, something that you can get over "with help".  Hand in the cookie jar stuff, on the other thing, comes across as a more deep seated character flaw.

Donaghy will obviously not be refereeing any basketball games - except, perhaps, pick-up games in federal prison - any time soon. Then he's got those fines to pay off, which I'll wager account for more money than he ever managed to make gambling.

Sure, someone sympathetic will set him up in a business. (And people 20 years on will vaguely recognize the name and ask him, 'didn't you used to be....' questions.) Maybe he'll write a book - cautionary (probably boring) or tell-all (wildly interesting). I'm sure that the NBA is more than a little nervous about the prospect of a juicy tell-all. Maybe he'll do self-help seminars. Maybe he'll find a place of sports-talk radio.

But Tim Donaghy is not going to be following any direct path on the career trajectory he started out on.

All because he got sucked into something that was illegal - and stupid, stupid, stupid. Stunningly bad career moves, on and off the court.

What is with these guys? If they don't have any scruples about behaving immorally in the workplace, does it not occur to them that someday they just might get caught?

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Gone, Manny, Gone

Well, yesterday the final chapter in the long and torturous saga of the Boston Red Sox; eccentric superstar Manny Ramirez; and the obsessed, way-too-involved-emotionally-with-these-boys Red Sox fan belt drew to a close.

With inches to spare on the trade deadline, Manny was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team owned, interestingly, by Boston native - and, presumably, native Red Sox fan - Frank McCourt. (Note to literary types: no, not that Frank McCourt.)

For those who don't follow The Olde Towne Team (obsessively or not), Manny may be the greatest right handed hitter playing baseball today. His swing is powerful and fluid, and when he connects - well, it's Green Monster magic at Fenway Park.

I've seen Manny hit a few dingers, and, with my sister Trish, witnessed his grande finale in a Red Sox uniform on Monday night, when Manny went yard with a 2-out in the ninth shot that did nothing to salvage the game.

I've posted before about Manny, and how I wouldn't want to have to manage him. (Why I'm Glad Manny Doesn't Report to Me.) That was in December 2006, when we were going through one of the manny he-loves-us-he-loves-us-not crises that characterized his years with the Red Sox.

In 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years (and Manny was the Series MVP) Manny's little eccentricities and weirdnesses were all excused as (chuckle, chuckle), "Manny being Manny." Sometimes that's been a good thing. Sometimes it hasn't.

This season, it's been toxic.

We've had rife suspicion of Manny's deliberately dogging it on plays to demonstrate that he's disgruntled with the Red Sox. There's him slapping team-mate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout for displaying too much emotion after a strike out (and incident that was chalked up to testosterone display among brothers). And a far worse display of pique in which Manny slugged the Red Sox' 64 year old traveling secretary to the ground because the guy couldn't come up with 14 on-the-spot tickets for a sold out game in Houston. There's been bad-mouthing ownership. And rumors that his demoralizing behavior has been, well, demoralizing his teammates.

The last week or so, Manny's been wah-wah-wahing in the press about lack of respect, and how the Red Sox doesn't "deserve" him. (Well, that's true.)

As with most situations in professional sports, when you find out what R-E-S-P-E-C-T means to he, it's M-O-N-E-Y (despite protests to the contrary). An aging Manny wants a 4 year, $100M contract which, at his advanced age (36), he's not going to get from the usually oh, so, pragmatic Red Sox.

So Manny is gone, baby, gone.

So's a big management headache for Terry Francona and the Red Sox front office.  So's a big irritant for his colleagues on the field. So's a high annoyance (and often amusement) factor for us fans.

Over the years, I've managed an occasional prima donna and/or head case, and it's no fun. No matter how talented and productive they can be, they tend to drag everyone else around them down. You find yourself weighing their productivity and performance against their high maintenance and drag on the whole.

I generally enjoyed Manny over the years.

Sure, I won't miss tearing my hair out as he cakewalks down to first, rather than try to make a single out of a somewhat slight hit that every other ballplayer on the face of the earth would try to beat out. I won't miss seeing him take 3 pitches from Mo Rivera in the last gasp of a high stakes game against the Yankees. I won't miss listening to him bellyache about how he doesn't get any respect.

But oh, that sweet, sweet swing!