Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Take my dummy, please

In the beginning, was the clown.

But the clown didn't provide quite enough horror.

So there was the ventriloquist dummy.

I haven't thought of the ventriloquist dummy in many a year. Maybe not since I last turned my eyes and covered my ears to avert the specter of Ricky Lane and Velvel on the Ed Sullivan Show. (The horror. The horror.) And, not that I have an obsession with Ricky Lane and Velvel or anything, but I just googled "them" and an old Pink Slip post came up #1. (The horror. The horror.)

But then there was that recent The NY Times article on Kentucky's Vent Haven Museum, home to 700 ventriloquist dummies, where "the unsettling amazement is unremitting."

I'll bet.

Edward Rothstein/The New York Times

Not that I am anti-ventriloquist.

In fact, as a child, I longed to be able to throw my voice. As did, I suspect, every other kid sitting in a 50 kid classroom listening to a nun - often even scarier than a clown with a ventriloquist dummy combo would ever have been - spout nonsense or completely lose her cool.

How marvelous it would have been, on so many occasions, to throw a voice from the PA system or the statue of the Blessed Mother, saying "I'll just bet."

Like when Sister Saint Wilhelmina was giving us fair warning about shoplifting at Woolworth's by insisting that there were midgets in baby buggies with cameras snapping pictures of kids light-fingering rubber daggers, globe pencil sharpeners, or Hardy Boys mysteries.

These pictures would be developed, and store detectives - every bit as savvy as the PI's on 77 Sunset Strip - would spot the Our Lady of the Angels uniforms and zoom right over to nab the miscreants.

I'll just bet.

Or when Sister Mary Florence told us that if you bit your finger- nails, broke your fast, but said to heck with it and went ahead and received Holy Communion, you would go to hell if you happened to get hit by a rogue bus or a drunk-driving public school grad on the way home.

Really 'sta?  Really?

Or when Sister Aloysius Patrick told us that the fire that had killed a hundred of so kids at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago was actually intended for us. One of God's few mistakes, don't you know.

Sister, sister, sister: you are nuts.

So I did harbor an occasional desire to vent, and even practiced a bit.

Alas, I never completely mastered the closed mouth. Although I was deft enough to have become, like Edgar Bergen, a radio ventriloquist, where it was okay to move your mouth. It was radio, after all. (I could also, I suspect, have been a tap dancer on radio. Too bad radio days were over.)

There is apparently a precedent for Catholic-based voice-throwing, by the way.

Cardinal Richelieu is said to have used a ventriloquist in 1624 to frighten one of his bishops.

We could have used a little Cardinal Richelieu at my school.

Ventriloquism would, of course, also have served me well during my professional career.

All those meetings when I wanted to call BS.

Hmmmm. Come to mention it, I mostly did call BS, which may be why I never had the brilliant career I could have.

I will say that, while I do find most ventriloquist dummies completely and utterly creepy - and thus would not be apt to seek out this museum, if I were ever to find myself in Kentucky - I actually don't mind puppets.

With the exception of Howdy Doody, who to me was nothing more than a ventriloquist dummy with strings attached - the same slack jaw and bug eyes - I was rather fond of Kookla, Fran, and Ollie.  (Fran was a person, by the way.)

I loved Farfel, the puppet-dog - a version of which is displayed in Vent Haven - who shilled for Nestle's chocolate.

I loved Shari Lewis and her sidekick Lambchop, who was cuter than cute and didn't look anything like Jerry Mahoney or Mortimer Snerd or, God forbid, Velvel.

And the Muppets. What is not to love about the Muppets?

But ventriloquist dummies, I'm afraid...While I'm not exactly afraid of them, I do find them, for the most part, nasty, brutish, and short. Smart alecky I can live with, but there's a real malign aura to the "classic" dummy.

I did note on the Vent Haven site that modern dummies - as evidenced by the snapshots taken at their annual ConVENTion - are more varied and interesting than the wooden creature that most comes to mind when one thinks "ventriloquist dummy."

Which, thanks to The NYT, I have been thinking for the last week or so.

(The horror, the horror.)

Monday, June 29, 2009


There are seemingly no end to the iPhone apps out there, which is one of the things that makes the iPhone just so darned desirable and appealing.  And when Apple says "Apps for everything," they really do mean apps for everything.

The latest app for everything that's come to my attention - thanks to my friend Valerie - is something called RunPee.

I'm not all that taken with the name, since it's not all that clear from the name exactly what you'd be signing up for. But apps do not live on name alone. (I think "PeeBreak" or "MoviePeeBreak" would be better, but maybe the url was taken.)

Anyway, what RunPee'll do for you is let you know what parts of a currently playing-in-the-theater movie you can miss without actually missing much. Plus it fills you in on what happened while you're takin' care of business.

You can do check things out already on their web site, so with a little planning ahead, you can learn that, in RunPee's estimation, the best time to run and pee during The Hangover is 43 minutes in, when Phil calls Tracy to let her know he's spending another night in Vegas.

You can then click on a block of scrambled text to learn what you'll miss during the 4 minutes that RunPee gives you to run pee.

Of course, this would be far more fun and easier if you could just do this checking in situ, on your iPhone, and not have to be prepared a priori.

RunPee is the brain child of one Dan Florio, a Flash developer, who sounds like a real character. (It would, of course, take a real character to come up with this particular application. Among his real character characteristics: he's worked as a nude model, lived in a tent while in college, lectured on celestial mechanics, been a massage therapist... He was also working in Manhattan on 9/11. Plus: note to my brother Tom, who's a professor there, he attended but did not get a degree from NAU.)

I'm sure that a lot of people will download this app for its novelty. But, truly, most movies last less than 2 hours, and even a middle-aged bladder like the one contained in my personal body can usually make it through a movie, especially if I don't go for the giganta flat, too-sweet, wretched Diet Coke, and stick with a more modest sized soda to wash down the god-knows-what's-in-it-and-what's-on-it popcorn. Anyway, these days, most of the movies I watch are on Pay Per View, so we take all the pee breaks we want.

And, if I do go to the movie thee-ay-ter, I'm not likely to be viewing Drag Me to Hell or Transformers - neither of which, I suspect, I would mind taking an extra-long pee break during.

I did check out the Classics movie list, but RunPee definition of classic is decidedly not the same as mine. (Yes, I know, it's his application - he can dub anything a classic. Plus the content is contributed by RunPee members, who are unlikely to share my cultural tastes.) On the RunPee classic list: Escape from New York, Terminator, and Die Hard.

Not that I didn't enjoy (more or less) these movies, but my list of classics includes titles like Casablanca and Wizard of Oz. (I am so pathetically yesterday. It's amazing I blog at all. I should probably be typing my poss on a manual typewriter and mimeographing them. Hmmmm. The just thought of that purple, foul-smelling mimeograph "juice" - whatever was in it - has irritated my bladder such that I feel as if I must run and pee.)

Well, now that I'm back, relieved and ready to blog from here to eternity (another classic, by the way), I do want to wish Dan and RunPee the very best of luck. And make a mental note to comb through the iPhone site to see what other peculiar little apps may be lurking there.

Friday, June 26, 2009

BlackBerry summer

Well, I'm in the market for a smartphone, and am leaning BlackBerry - maybe a Storm, maybe a Curve.

I like to think that I won't be one of those obnoxious people, continuously twiddling with my smartphone, checking for those all important e-mails - hey, I personally heard from Michelle Obama just the other day, and I wouldn't want to have missed that missive; not to mention  a key frequent flyer e-mail from American Airlines; and a note from a yarn store that I somehow got signed up for. (I, who barely know knit from purl, or purl from pearl, for that matter.)

But somehow, while I don't think I'll be the worst smartphone offender in the room, I will no doubt be at least occasionally and, I hope discreetly, e-mailing, texting, and googling away. After all, when I first got a cell phone, I almost kept it in a lock box, as if it were a revolver or a vile of anthrax. I only took it out when I was stopped dead in traffic near the Hood plant in Charlestown and called my husband with my E.T.A.

Now, while I'm not one for calling while in an enclosed public place when there are other folks around, I am one of those who walks down the street, yacking away.

There was an article in a recent NY Times on the use (and abuse) of smartphones during meetings, and some of the tales told were pretty interesting.

There was the one about the folks from a marketing firm who were pitching a prospect, who spent the entire in-person meeting playing a game on his iPhone. 

While this does seem a bit obnoxious, the prospect, like the customer, is always right - or right enough, anyway, so that you'd probably ignore this behavior if you wanted someone's business. Besides, the guy was paying some attention - he was asking questions. Still, I really don't think that small, in-person meetings - whatever side of the pitch you're on - is the time or place to be playing a game. One thing if the prospect said, 'hey, I need to respond to this txt', or even said, 'I'm going to be keeping an eye on my e-mail, but I am listening to what you have to say.' Game playing: bad form. And who'd want this guy as a client, anyway?

(I used to report to a manager who would be playing Tetris when you were meeting with her. She would pretend that she was working - 'I have to check something here, blah-di-blah'-  but we could see the little Tetris boxes reflected in her glasses.)

Of course there is nothing all that new about doing side work during meetings. Certainly, since the advent of the call-in meeting, folks have been working-while-attending.  When I worked at Genuity, there was one fellow notorious for calling in to one of the many large-scale call-in meetings we had - generally for some ominous or completely BS announcement from senior management. Most of us would gather in conference rooms to listen in together (put mute on, roll our eyes, and make comments to each other). But Sam would call in from his office, forget to go on mute, and we could hear him madly typing away during the entire meeting - as did everyone else on the call.

Before the tele-meeting, let alone the smartphone, I guess all we could do was cast meaningful glances at each other and doodle.

The Times article also had this anecdote:

In Dallas, a college student sunk his chance to have an internship at a hedge fund last summer when he pulled out a BlackBerry to look up a fact to help him make a point during his interview, then lingered — momentarily, but perceptibly — to check a text message a friend had sent, said Trevor Hanger, the head of equity trading at the hedge fund, who was helping conduct the interview.

Serves him right, the maroon. And as if the world needed another hedge fund manager....

Some folks cited in the article were all up in arms about smartphone use - it's insulting, etc. But others pointed out there there are legitimate reasons to tap away - note taking, fact checking, etc. Not to mention snarky, fun reasons like sharing running commentary with your colleagues. Before there were smartphones, I used to sit on call-in meetings in active IM with a couple of remote colleagues. I don't think we could have survived some of the more absurd meetings we had to participate in without resorting to our steady stream of IM commentary. Still, we were sitting at our desks - not in front of the company CEO or the VP of Sales. They had no reason to suspect that we were making fun of everything they said.

(And speaking of this VP of Sales, she was in a management meeting when a fellow on her team IM'd her to ask how things were going. She responded "like shit". Unfortunately, she was in the process of hooking her laptop up to the projector so everyone could see her preso. The first thing all the other execs saw was her IM session.  I wasn't wild about this VP of Sales, but she was the only woman on the management team and they absolutely, positively treated her 'like shit.')

Anyway, I will draw up my own rules for Blackberry use:

  • Never in a client meeting without letting them know I need to check something or make a call . (Unless it's some huge-o client meeting, and I'm just sitting there in the audience, and I can do some casual, subtle tapping, and everyone around me is tapping away, not sitting there in rapt, still-finger silence.)
  • Never when I'm with a friend without letting them know I need to take a call, or we agree that I need to google something - like what was the name of George Bush the Younger's dog.
  • Never at a wedding, unless I'm sitting in the church waiting for things to begin.
  • Never at a funeral, even if I'm sitting in the church waiting for things to begin.
  • Never on a job interview, unless the interviewer asks for something that I need to find online.
  • If I ever have a job-job again, only in mega, everybody's doin' it meetings - and never, ever in small-ish meetings with, say, the president or the CEO.
  • If I ever have a job-job again, never while sitting there in a small or one-on-one meeting with Mr. or Ms. Big.
  • If I ever have a job-job again, never while sitting there in a small or one-on-one meeting with someone who reports to me. (Talk about a power trip.)
  • Never in a theater, or a concert, other than in the lobby.
  • At a Red Sox game, only when something entirely fabulous happens  - like clinching the pennant, or watching 'Tek take down A-Rod again - and I just have to share the joy.
  • Never while driving. (I rarely if ever use a cellphone while I'm driving, so it's fairly unlikely I'd get sucked into smartphoning while tootling down the pike.)

Other than that, the only hard and fast rule seems to be  - as with cellphone use - BlackBerrying is only okay when you're not disturbing others with your never-as-quiet-as-you-think-it-is tapping, or when you're not being out and out rude.

So I think I'll be okay, and not a total jerk with my new toy - whenever it is that I'm going to get it. But it really needs to be soon.

I'm in technology, for pete's sake. And I'm important.

Who knows? Just sitting here writing this, I may be missing out on all sorts of scintillating communiqués. Sure, I could just check my e-mail and IM and see whazzup. But that would be nowhere near as much fun as taking out my sportin' new BlackBerry and tapping away.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mental health day or, don't cry for me Argentina.

I have to say that I was personally disappointed when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's AWOL excursion turned out to be an affaire d'coeur.

I was really hoping this was a case of I just can't stand this for one nano-second more.

Come on. Who hasn't hopped in the car, headed for work, and thought, I could just take off.

Having commuted north from Boston for many a year, there were plenty of times when I was hurtling up Route 93, heading for work where I knew I was going to have to deal with political intrigue, personnel psycho-drama, management by fire-drill, and fellow employees who were too damned self-centered to clean the remnants of their exploding lunch out of the microwave - when I just wanted to drive on through to Canada. For a few miles or so, I'd think, well, I could pull off the highway at some mall in N.H. and buy a toothbrush and some underwear. Then I'll be good to go for a couple of days in some rundown border town motel, glutting down Tim Horton donuts, and staring at the TV screen while considering career options.

And there were plenty of business trips when I'd think, it wouldn't be half bad to come down with a no-fly flu and have to spend a couple of days in this swank hotel, eating room service club sandwiches and reading People. (This thought never occurred when I was staying in a Grade B motel outside of Topeka, in a west-facing room in the middle of winter with nothing between me and the wind coming off the Rockies other than that flimsy, un-weather-stripped door. Only when I was in, say, a Ritz.)

Of course, I never acted on these impulses.

In fact, when I worked full time, I wasn't much of a one for taking a sick day, let alone a mental health day.

I am someone who has been blessed with spectacularly good health. When I worked full time, I may have averaged one sick day a year. Maybe.

I did take one mental health day.

When I worked at Wang, there was one day when, if Doctor Wang had showed up at my door and ordered me into my car at gunpoint, I could just not face the day there.

I called in sick.

And, guilt ridden, once-a-Catholic that I am, I proceeded to make myself sick, and spent the day languishing in bed. (It still beat work in that particular place, at that particular time.)

But call in I did. As I did the other times I needed to take the day off: the time I threw my back out and couldn't straighten up; the day I needed off for the breast biopsy; the day I hacked up some yuck from my lungs that was the consistency of a chicken bone.

Call in is what you do if you need to take some time off.

Pretty much the most ticked off a manager ever gets is when someone who's sick, or has a sick kid, or just needs a break, stays home without letting you know.

As a manager, to me, pretty much the only excuse for not calling in would be something so catastrophic that it would probably make the news. That or something so traumatic - spouse in cardiac arrest, child suddenly hospitalized - that it trumps all else.

Other than that...

Given the 24/7, gossip driven media, the news about Mark Sanford's affair - as personal and none-of-our-damned-business as it is - was bound to come out.

But what makes it so public (and ridiculous) is the disappearing act, and the faux 'he's hiking the Appalachian Mountain trail' story, when he was off with his girlfriend in Argentina.

Even the Governor of South Carolina is entitled to some personal time off, and it sure sounded like he needed a few mental health days.

So why not just call in sick? Or in dire need of a day off? Have your press secretary put out the story that you're taking a little downtime for personal reasons. Give your Lt. Governor the head's up that, if someone fires on Ft. Sumter, he's in charge.

Obviously, this guy wasn't thinking straight, and is under some supreme, self-inflicted, stress.

The philandering politician is certainly no big news. But aren't any of these guys capable of having a discreet affair - even one that gets exposed - without making them look like colossal jerks?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

That was no lady wrestler, that was my accountant

Half listening, I heard on the news the other day that some city in Montana was asking all of its jobs applicant to divulge the full list of any websites/social media sites that they had anything to do with. I believe they were even asking - can this be right? - for the passwords of prospective candidates to those sites. (Can this be right?) And it used to be that just a Google here and there sufficed.... But I guess that Googling won't getcha everything you want (and possibly need) to know about someone you're about to hire, since people can, after all, have plenty of aliases and be living all sorts of very real or merely virtual second lives out there.  Of course, for 99.99% of the jobs that exist, and for 99.99% of job candidates, someone's extra-work life is none of the hiring company's damned business, and should have absolutely no impact on a hiring decision.

Still, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in a world where the entire concept of personal and private is becoming so foreign.

The above was a digression - something I generally indulge in in the middle of a post, not at the outset - but I was thinking of the Montana requirement when I read an article in the Boston Globe on the Boston League of Women Wrestlers.

I have dim recall of the "lady wrestlers" that were featured on Saturday wrestling in my childhood. The ladies were never really the focus of the action, action dominated (in these parts) by wrestlers like Killer Kowalski and Haystack Calhoun. The women wrestlers I remember were mostly lots-of-hair blondes wearing modest leopard skin bathing suits. (Or am I conflating them with Sheena the Jungle Girl?)

Well, baby, we have apparently come a long way.

The Boston League of Women Wrestlers - nice play on the League of Women Voters, by the way - is a group of (mostly younger) women who, well, wrestle in the "classic" exaggerated persona, in your face fashion that made Saturday morning wrestling so much fun to watch. (Click through warning: this site is not without a bit of raunch.)

Christina Sartori is BLOWW's general manager - her persona is a cheerleader - and, in her words:

‘‘This is what we like to do. Some girls like to do yoga on their spare time, but we prefer to beat each other up.’’

One of those who prefers to beat folks up is accountant Jenna Henson, a Texas A&M philosophy major who wrestles as Skank Williams Jr.  Henson sounds like a philosophy major's philosophy major, and an accountant's accountant: she's shy, and nothing like the "blunt and crude" persona she's developed. But through her life as Skank, she's become more outgoing.

Jaime Krudsen works at McLean Hospital as a pain researcher. When she's not researching, she's inflicting - as the Pennsylvania Duchess, a character that satirizes the Pennsylvania Amish she grew up around.

“My character disapproves of everything, and I am always upset with people because they are showing their ankles,’’ she said. “I don’t like anyone, and I don’t approve of modern cultures.’’

Her signature move it “the Butter Turner.’’

The Wrathalie is the Outback character portrayed by Australian Athalie Paynting, an interior designer with her own company, and says of herself:

"What I really like doing is restoring old furniture and specializing that piece for that specific project.’’

I didn't go through the entire roster on the BLOWW site, but two of my favorites, with especially funny write-ups, were

Dewey Decimate (signature move: "The Late Fee"), who:

... snapped one afternoon while processing a stack of overdue books (all with torn dust jackets and ripped pages!!!)....She went to the 700s (Arts and Recreation) and memorized every wrestling book in the collection. Now you'd better not let her catch you mistreating the written word.

And Malicious Mile Heidi who grew up wanting to be a flight attendant, but whose lack of charm ended her up on the Minneapolis to Tulsa run.

Sick of handing out seat belt extenders, eating microwavable meals, and listening to corny pilots, while seeing the same scenery, Heidi snapped.

Ah, snapped.

I know the feeling.

Almost makes me want to shed a couple of decades and come up with a persona of my own.

Maybe I could wrestle as The Marketing Bim, who snapped when the dumbest person in the world asked her the dumbest question in the world at a trade show. Who snapped when the dumbest salesperson in the world showed her the e-mail blast he'd just sent out to everyone in SalesForce - complete with grammatical errors, typos, and flat-out WRONG statements about the company and its products. Who snapped when the cartons containing 10,000 brochures were delivered, and she discovered that she had a typo of her own on page one! (What bim proofed this, anyway?)

All I can say is, none of these women would be likely to get a job in that town in Montana that needs to know all. But I bet they are some fun to work with.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Triple-deckers in peril

As if we needed more bad news from Recession World, The New York Times reported the other day that three-deckers have been disproportionately impacted by foreclosures, and are thus somewhat in a state of peril.

Having spent the first seven years of my life in one, and my Worcester childhood in the midst of them, I meet this news unhappily. One thing to hear that slapped up, pressboard and glue suburban sprawl houses are being abandoned by over-mortgaged yahoos. Another to hear that the steady, stalwart and decidedly unglamorous triple decker is in the throes. Say it ain't so....

For anyone who's not familiar with the real New England, and has somehow come to believe that New England = Freedom Trail, Concord Bridge, Deerfield Academy, Route 6A on the Cape, Fenway Park, Newport Mansions, Mount Washington, Killington, and L.L. Bean, a triple-decker is a straight up wooden house with three flats piled one on top of the other. This picture, lifted from The New York Times (thanks, Gray Lady!) is a pretty good example of one.

The color here is quite authentic. Most deckers were gray, brown, green, pale yellow, or white. What's not captured is the often open-air backstairs, which were the usual mode of entrance and exit - front entry for special occasions only. Front stairs smelled of floor polish; back stairs - if they were open, always felt kind of rickety and splintery. If they were enclosed, they smelled of faintly sour milk, cabbage, and garbage wrapped in newspaper and tied with string (which was how garbage was handled before the coming of the Hefty Bag.

The decker that I lived in - owned and operated by my doughty Grandmother Rogers - was a variation on a theme. (My grandmother called it a 2 1/2 family house - whatever a 1/2 family is.) Unlike most deckers, which were flat-roofed, the third floor at Nanny's was under a slanted roof, so all of the rooms were odd shaped and had major sections along the external walls where you couldn't stand up straight. Cozy!

We lived on the slant-roofed third floor until I was six months old, when we did a switcheroo with the tenants on the second floor, the Deignans, who I'm sure got their rent dropped to move on up to the less desirable third floor. They didn't stay all that long before the exited the building entirely, and I mostly remember the third floor as being unoccupied. Occasionally we got to run around in it. (Oddly, the Deignans were not just tenants of long-standing, but Mr. and Mrs. and one of their sons are buried in a cemetery plot right in front of that shared by my parents, grandmother, and Uncle Charlie.)

Deckers were built in New England cities in the late 1800's through early 1900's as the next step up housing from tenements. Many housed multiple generations or branches of the same family and/or young couples starting out. Pretty much everyone I knew growing up had logged some time in a decker, or at least had relatives who still lived in one. New England's broad shouldered, ethnic, industrial cities are full of triple deckers, a more familiar feature of our landscape than any picture postcard lighthouse or rose-covered Cape cottage, that's for sure.

But these days, their foreclosure rates are way out of whack, and some are being abandoned, or razed.

That's due to the boom years, during which absentee investors bought them up, rented them out, and walked away when the demand started to fall - or when the deckers started to fall apart (which can happen to even the most solidly built decker after years of neglect).

The foreclosure rates reported in The Times indicate that while three-deckers make up 14% of Boston's housing stock, they account for 21 percent of foreclosed property. In neighboring Lynn, they're 9 percent of the stock, and 22 percent of the foreclosures.  In New Bedford, 16 percent of the housing stock are three deckers - but 32 percent of the foreclosures. Triple-decker prices have plummeted to a far greater extent than single-family houses or condos.

In Worcester, 60 percent of vacant, bank-owned dwellings with multiple code violations, are three-families, as are 21 of the city’s 27 condemned buildings.

Poor old Worcester!

I hope that Nanny's decker isn't one of the foreclosed or, god-forbid, the condemned. I don't think it is, as I drive by it a couple of times a year on my way to and from the cemetery. While Nanny's house was on a side street, it was right off of Main Street/Route 9, and up on a hill behind the gas station on the corner, so you can get a straight shot of it without having to turn into Winchester Ave.

Nanny's decker has changed over the years. No longer dark brown with pale yellow and dark green trim - a classic decker combo - it's now unrelieved white. Plus they've walled in the second floor porch (called, in Worcester-ese, a "piazza"), that was our summer family room.

The deckers on Main Street seem, the ones I walked by every day going to and from school, are pretty much the same. The one that housed Vic the Blind Barber's shop still has a store in it, as does the one where Teddy the Tailor's shop and dry cleaners was. The set-back one that sells headstones (models in the front yard) is still there, still selling headstones.

I haven't driven up Winchester Ave in years, but I assume that the deckers of my childhood are still standing.

I loved going to the pale cream one where multiple generations of the Anderson-Johnson families lived. (Protestants! But very kindly ones who were very nice to us beggary Catholic kids. Mrs. Anderson gave us nickels and Milky Ways when we scrounged by, and let us listen to the conch shell she kept on her front porch - the one where she "hid" her extra house key.

Gravel-voiced, chain smoking Gladys "Chubby" Smith lived in a decker next to my friend Elaine's stand-alone house. Chubby was always good for some candy, although I don't remember either Chubby or her equally obese cat Sylvester ever making it out of the overstuffed arm chairs in her living room.

The big gray decker next to my friend Susan's had a slightly more less permanent (sometimes even raffish) element living in it - absentee landlord problem, I believe.

There seemed to be a steady stream of young marrieds, with new babies, living there.

For a while, it was Bea, George and their baby who were in residence.

Bea, with her flaming red hair, and George, with his pack of cigarettes rolled up in his undershirt sleeve, were probably not all that much older than we were - kids who "had to get married" at 16 or 17, while our girl gang at the time ranged in age from 9 to 12.

Anyway, Bea generally invited us in to hang out in her kitchen - kitchens are always the prime hang-out room in deckers - while her baby slept and she sat smoking, waiting for George to get home from his job at the gas station. I can't remember what we talked about, but Bea was good for a bit of while-away-the-long-summer hours when we were bored with Monopoly or playing on the swing set at Hadwen Park.

For a long while, the decker where Bea lived also housed the Fortier family - rough, loud-mouthed boys named Peanuts, Butchy, and Irving, and their sad, nose-running little sister Pearl. Mr. Fortier had a motorcycle, which he apparently couldn't afford to keep on the road. He stored it on the back porch, and most nights sat on it for a few minutes, gunning the motor and, I guess, imagining that the wind was in his hair and he was headin' down the highway, not headin' back into his flat to contend with Peanuts, Butchy, and Irving.

Living in a triple-decker, or at least within spitting distance of one, is almost as important to the cultural experience here as despising the Yankees and skipping work on St. Patrick's Day. Dennis Lehane, who grew up amid three-deckers in Dorchester, a tough neighborhood of Boston, gave them prominent roles in “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and his other noirish novels about the city.

“There’s a sublime beauty about them,” Mr. Lehane said. ...“When I see a three-decker, I immediately feel home,” he said. “Whereas if I see a Dallas or a Houston — that flat, suburban, here’s-another-McMansion look — I find that really depressing.”

I'm with Dennis Lehane here. I'll be truly bummed if the three-deckers go out of business.

Monday, June 22, 2009

De plane, boss, de plane

Well, I for one was relieved to read in The Journal last week that, even after signing on the dotted line for billions from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, many bank execs still felt okay about the use of corporate jets. Personally, I would have felt guilty if these guys and their families got the idea that us taxpayers didn't actually want them to enjoy a small perk or two. Especially when those small perks are so absolutely and completely earned. Plus it was probably in their contracts, and I am completely down with honoring every clause in those contracts. In fact, I'm so down with it, I'm thinking that it might be the right thing to do to read all the fine print in those contracts and encourage- maybe even force - these deserving execs to take advantage of every last thing that they're entitled to.

I don't want or need anyone to feel guilty. And I do not condone for one Gulfstream minute anyone trying to make bank execs look greedy, ridiculous, or tone deaf - and that includes The Wall Street Journal.

Gosh, didn't we learn anything from The Great Depression? What do you think all that Fred and Ginger top hat and tails dancing in swank night clubs was about? It was about making us feel really good that at least there were some folks out there who were enjoying themselves, and not worrying about whether anyone would buy an apple or a pencil from them the next day, or whether they'd be able to find a discarded newspaper to stuff into their hole-y shoe or use as toilet paper.


I am happy as a quahog to know that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor TARP money stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds of golf at the Greenbrier.

One of my heroes: C. Dowd Ritter, who twelve days after accepting $3.5B for Regions Financial, bravely flew with his family in two Regions' jets from Birmingham to West Virginia. He did this so that they could get to the Greenbrier for a Thanksgiving stay in the seven-bedroom, $4,515 per night Presidential Suite, which, by the way, he pays out of pocket for as this is a personal expense.  Frankly, I think he should renegotiate his contract.

I'm not sure it was C. Dowd, or some other deserving Regions exec, who was on the company jet for a trip to the U.K. So what if they made "a three-day stop stop in Prestwick, Scotland, which is near several famed golf courses." So what if they have no European operations.

They still could have had plenty of reasons for using the company jet to get over there.

Did you ever consider that they might have been checking out whether it made sense to open a branch bank or maybe an ATM in Prestwick? Plus:

At Regions Financial, a proxy statement says the CEO should always use bank-owned or other noncommercial aircraft, unless flying commercial is more efficient and "does not involve unreasonable personal risks."

So. There.

When is flying commercial - with those nasty TSA waits and wand-scans - ever going to be more efficient?

And don't tell me that flying cheek to jowl with people you don't even know invading your personal space, coughing, sneezing, and drooling on your shoulder which they just happen to fall onto during an in-flight doze, doesn't 'involve unreasonable personal risks.'

And what was Sandy Weill thinking when, after seven measly post-TARP flights on a Citigroup plane to his vakay home on Saranac Lake, and one lousy post-TARP trip with his family to a Mexican resort, he decided he "was waiving his contractual right to use Citigroup aircraft."

Sandy, Sandy, Sandy.

Not good for American taxpayer morale.

You heard it here: we like our bank execs to comport themselves like tycoons lighting $50 cigars with $100 bills. (Failed bank, shmailed bank.)

And, fellow taxpayers, jetting execs do have to pay taxes on their personal trips. For example, the trip to Cabo would have an IRS "imputed income" impact of $3,300, based on mileage. Just because the actual cost to Citigroup would be roughly 10 times that amount is not Sandy's damned fault.

Further, try flying a mile in someone else's Bombardier, and look at it from Citi's and Sandy's viewpoints: a comparable charter flight would go for $90K, which would have the same paltry mileage-based imputed value.

The way I figure, we actually saved a lot of money on this.

Bank of America's Ken Lewis has also been a noble and intrepid fly-boy.

Among his trips was  one from BofA HQ in Charlotte to Greensboro, Georgia, where he was staying at a resort.  Driving time would be four hours; flying time is 38 minutes. And think about what Ken Lewis is worth per minute? You do the math. His time is valuable. The time of most niggling, carping taxpayers is not.

Frankly, this makes me proud to be a Bank of American.

Or at least it used to.

A Bank of America spokesman declined to comment on specific trips but said, "We are implementing a new policy in 2009, under which personal use of aircraft will not be permitted."

It's mean-spirited, spiteful little rules like that that just might get me to close out my BofA accounts.

It would be too much to hope that Regions Financial has any outlets around here.

Maybe I'll just stuff that money under my mattress until the banking world comes back to its senses and, TARP money be damned, lets our bank executives travel the way that God intended them to: in the corporate jet.

Friday, June 19, 2009

See you in court, Colonel

I suppose because I neither watch Oprah nor eat Kentucky Fried Chicken (way too much salt, bone and gristle for my taste - KFC, not Oprah; Oprah I'm fine with - I just don't watch her), I was unaware of a May giveaway in which Oprah posted a coupon on her web site that was good for a couple of pieces of free chicken and sides.

Needless to say, this set off a quite literal feeding frenzy in which a gazillion folks downloaded the coupon and jetted on over to their nearest and dearest KFC to test drive their new Kentucky Grilled Chicken. (By the way, while we're on the subject, how about those ads that always show the buckets o' chicken pieces overflowing when, in real life, what-you-get is quite nicely contained by the paper lid - which was at least the case 30 years ago when I last ate at a KFC? But I digress.)

Anyway, as the hungry hordes descended on KFC, craving their free lunch, some found to their dismay that they hadn't read that finest of fine print: participating stores only. Certainly, I wouldn't have wanted to be the manager of one of those outlets on free chicken day.

Others were informed that their coupons were bogus - whatever that means, for a coupon that was nothing more than a printed pdf - quality seemingly dependent on how much ink was in the old inkjet. Not to mention that the quantity available - even though it was supposedly 4 freebies per customer - was seemingly infinite. So bad on those employees who called out some of the coupon bearers.

Still other coupon clippers found that the stores ran out of "side"  they wanted - no cole slaw for you, bub. To me, this would be no great loss, given that, as I recall, KFC cole slaw couldn't hold a shred of cabbage to my mother's, which set the all time standard for goodness of cole slaw. (Fortunately, my sisters were paying more attention to what Liz was doing when she was on a cole slaw tear, so her secrets are not in St. Joseph's Cemetery with her.)

And some stores ran out of chicken.

So they started giving out "rain checks", which actually one-upped the original offer by including a soft drink with it. And we all know that there's nothing quite like a fast food soft drink to slake your thirst. (You know how they do those blind taste tests to see if people can identify red from white wine? I'd like to see one comparing fast food SevenUp to Coke. Hmmmm. Let's see. It's sweet, it's wet, it's flat, it tastes like waxy cardboard.  I'm going to go with root beer.)

But, for a couple of folks in California, those rain checks are nothing but a noxious effort on KFC's part:

...a "bait and switch" to get people to spend money at the chain. (Source for this story: Boston.com.)

Well, duh,d' duh, duh. Why else would any company make this sort of offer if they didn't think it was going to get folks to spend money with the chain?

But the aggrieved Californians who are mounting their suit maintain that:

... the rain check process [is] "much more onerous" because customers had to visit a local KFC to pick up a form and mail it back to the company to get a new coupon.

Well, I really don't want to make an ad hominem, or ad plaintiff attack here, but I will have to say when I read about how "onerous" the rain check process was, the words "lard ass" were the first one that came to mind.  My second word association was "oh, grow up." My third was, "suck it up."

And so on....

The suit also says the company did not do enough to inform customers of the new policy. The complaint alleges that KFC knew customers would wind up spending money at the chain when they realized there was no free food left to get.

(See above: duh,d' duh, duh. Not to mention that, apparently, not all customers spent money there. Some, apparently, expended rage.)

Well, with every possible good cause someone could take up, it's really hard to expend a scintilla of sympathy on someone who feels so screwed out of - what? -  a $5 meal (if that) that they would go to court over it.

Piss and moan to your family and friends. Refuse to ever darken another KFC door. Curse the Colonel under your breath. Get on the web and find every blog that's picked up on this "crisis", and comment away.  Rage, rage against the dying of the free chicken. By all means.

But is this act on KFC's part so traumatic, so god-awful, so despicable that it merits a suit?

Hey, I'm as much in favor of "suing the bastards" if and when it makes sense and serves a useful social purpose.

This one?

Personally, I was delighted to see that shares of Yum - the company that owns KFC - closed up a bit on the day the suit was filed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Believe It or Not ("Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years")

I'm happy to acknowledge that there are many readers of The Wall Street Journal who cannot abide by the fluff-articles. They're just in it for the earnings reports and an editorial page that balances out The New York Times.

Not me!

I'm in it - to the tune of $90/year for an online subscription - for articles like the one that appeared the other day on the problems that the expanding Ripley's Believe It or Not empire is having coming up with enough oddities to fill their odditoria (my plural of their word).

Apparently someone who spent 34 years of his life constructing a model of San Francisco is not willing to let it go for the measly $40K that Ripley's got on offer.

If I were the SF toothpick artist, I might be willing to take the $40K - even if it probably represents something less than the minimum wage for his efforts.

After all, there's no doubt someone else out there with a one-of-a-kind A-exhibit item who is willing to sell.

As was the guy who made a portrait of President Obama out of nearly 13,000 gumballs, on display in the Times Square Ripley's Odditorium, along with:

...locks of hair that belonged to Elvis Presley, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and George Washington, Ripley's collection of Olympic torches, and animal oddities including a two-headed calf, a six-legged cow and an albino giraffe! ...Ripley's Times Square will appeal to man's basic curiosity and desire to know more about this world and New York City. (Info here taken from the Ripley's site.)

I do have beaucoup d' curiosity about the world and about NYC, but I'm not thinking that an albino giraffe does much to satisfy that curiosity.

The NYC Ripley's is one of:

...over 27 museums in 10 countries will amaze, astound, and even amuse you to laughter as you enjoy your tour.

Actually, I'm way too jaded for a lock of Elvis' hair and a collection of Olympic torches to amaze and astound me. And, believe it or not, those animal oddities are more likely to appall me than amuse me to laughter as I enjoy my tour. (Which, by the way, would cost about $27. Frankly, if I were in Times Square, I think I'd be more likely to be amazed, astounded, and amused to laughter in Toys 'R Us - and that would be for free. But this may just be a personal choice.)

I wouldn't mind seeing the replica of the Coliseum made out of 1,971 playing cards, but I believe that's in Branson, Missouri - a spot where I would bet my booties that I will never step toe for as long as I live, unless I get struck by lightning and wake up with a jones to hear Andy Williams or the Gatlin Brothers.

But back to The Journal, and their big news that the oddity business ain't all that easy, especially given Ripley's expansion plans. In 2010 - recession be damned! -  South Korea, Bahrain, and Mexico will join the ranks of other civilized nations that have a Ripley's Museum of their own. Bangalore, India just got one, and if that doesn't tell us everything we need to know about globalization, I don't know what will.

One of the most sought after "A-list oddities" is the shrunken head.

Every Ripley's museum must have one, and private collectors still covet them, but so far as experts can tell, no one is still making them.

Supply and demand in action, ladies in gentlemen:

A shrunken head that in the early 1970's -  just about the time the fellow started making that toothpick replica of SF -  went for $500 to $5,000 will now run you $50,000.

"Today, you probably can't buy a fake one for $5,000,"  [Ripley's VP of exhibits Frederick Meyer] says. A high-quality shrunken head -- one used for authentic tribal purposes, with long hair and decorative elements -- now costs about $50,000.

One would think that, outlawed or not, that $50K price tag would get some tribes coming up with an authentic tribal purpose - like buying iPods and Coke Zero for everyone - that would put them to skinning, boiling, and curing heads of tribe members who died of natural causes, and adding them to the worldwide supply. (Economics being economics, this would, of course, drive down the price. Gosh, see how economics can screw up the work of even the most remote tribe out there.)

The price of heads is also driven up by private collectors.

"You could count the number of players on both hands in this country," says Jay Conrad, a retired roofing contractor in Lakeland, Tenn. He says he bought his first shrunken head in 1983 for $500 and has owned dozens over the years. "I'm interested in the dark side of human behavior," he says.

(For the record, I, too, am interested in the dark side of human behavior, which may or may not be reflected in my salt and pepper shaker collection.)

And can you imagine the approach line of a shrunken head collector?

Hey, babe, I'm a shrunken head player.

Deformed animals are also much in demand by Ripley's - every museum needs at least one.

Hard to believe that Ripley's relies on natural freak-of-nature animals, like the one in four million six-legged calf.  Seems like this would be a no-brainer for some mad scientist with time and agar on his hands.

Ripley's, by the way, hears from tons of folks trying to pitch their oddities as A-list worthy. As on American Idol, most end up disappointed:

Like a large-scale drawing of the Sultan of Oman made from a single, continuous line. It's one among many museum hopefuls detailed in a stack of papers in Mr. Meyer's office at Ripley's Orlando headquarters.

"A Ripley's customer doesn't care about the Sultan of Oman," Mr. Meyer says. "It's a C-plus, not an A. If it was Elvis, it might be an A."

Attention all continuous line drawers: you heard the man. (Tonight, I will try my hand at a continuous line drawing of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. First, though, I will practice on a circle and a square.)

Sometimes Ripley's puts fakes on displays.

There are, after all, an estimated mere 10 authentic iron maidens - essential to any medieval torture display worth its salt -  in the whole, wide world. (Talk about things they aren't making anymore, this one's a:

...coffin-like medieval torture devices that killed people with inward-pointing iron spikes affixed to the interior walls.)

Ripley's has two real ones - I wonder what real means. One that's served its purpose?

Talk about something that's not going to amuse me to laughter.

Oddity creators and collectors out there?

You've got, Ripley's needs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More tales from the Gilded Age

I for one will be completely bummed when The Great Recession runs out of stories on the super rich, if not super famous, and the hard times they're facing. So far, however, the wretched excess chronicles seem to be holding steady. (Phewww.) The most recent episode I caught was in The New York Times the other day. In this one, we follow the perils of Edra Blixseth, the doyenne of the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive ski resort (think Bill Gates as member, and think ski-run called EBITDA - ho, ho!), who is having to downsize drastically following a divorce from her husband Tim.

Alas, Ms. Blixseth, who clawed her way up from night waitress to restaurant manager to hotel owner before she truly struck it rich with Mr. B., is having to work her way out from under a whole pile of debt. She has recently declared bankruptcy.

This means that the moated Château de Farcheville  - which I originally read as "Farceville" - is one the market. Unfortunately it's outside of Paris, and I would only be interested if it were inside of Paris.

She's also unloading Porcupine Creek, a 30,000 square foot "home" that comes with a private golf course, not to mention:

....the prayer room, the gym, the beauty parlor, the wet room, the cozy massage alcoves and the private theater adorned with murals; then there’s the 18th-century French furniture, the Italian stained glass, the bedroom suite from the Vatican, the ancient Tibetan Tankas.*

Bedroom suite from the Vatican? Whose, pray tell? (If only these four-posters and brocade swags could talk. Even if that talk were in Latin, I'm sure that I could dredge up enough from my four years of high school Latin to get the gist.)

Her boyfriend - the under-noted ballplayer, underwear model and soap opera actor, Jack Scalia - has had to sell his Bentley. (Is it too much to hope that Mr. Scalia is somehow related to the Supreme Court Justice? I think not.)

It would take a forensic accountant to sort through the entire Blixseth mess, but luxury property - and some piss-poor decision making - is at its heart.  (How's this for bad timing/ill-luck: just last year CrossHarbor Capital Partners offered $400M to take the Yellowstone Club off of her hands. They just snapped it up for $115M.)

All this downsizing will likely bring an end to oh so fun soirees, like the:

... $90,000 party that Ms. Blixseth had at Porcupine Creek for more than 100 guests. Guests were invited to whack piñatas shaped like Mr. Blixseth and which contained chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Voodoo dolls resembling Mr. Blixseth — complete with stickpins — were also on display.

This was, I'm assuming, post-separation.

Despite the bespoke Voodoo dolls, there is a rumor that the Blixseths are getting back together, that the divorce was nothing more than a ploy to confuse their creditors over who owed what to whom.

Ms. Blixseth more than denies this rumor:

“I would rather feel the cold steel of a revolver in the roof of my mouth and pull the trigger than to ever think about living a day with that man again,”

That seems pretty clear to me. (And, by the way, despite all that enmity, the "brown, gourdlike object" that Ms. B took out of a curio cabinet to show the reporter had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. B. It was a camel scrotum. Nothing more, nothing less. Just a little something to hold water.)

Before the glow of the Gilded Age began to dim, and before the bloom was fully off the rose of the Blixseth marriage, the Blixseth's had planned to build, at Yellowstone Club:

... the most expensive home in the world. Priced at $155 million, the 53,000-square-foot home, called the Pinnacle, would have a heliport, an ice skating rink and underground parking for 20 S.U.V.’s.

Alas, this spec house to beat all spec houses never got built - although one of the houses at Yellowstone does have a heated river running through it.

At least, until it gets sold from under her, there's the Porcupine Creek house, with the prayer room where Ms. Blixseth can go and chill out.

Hers is full of Buddhas, a photo of herself and the Dalai Lama, and a bobblehead doll of her former husband. (Wonder if she got a bargain by ordering Tim Blixseth piñatas, Voodoo dolls, and bobbleheads at the same time.) She uses the bobblehead as part of her prayer ritual, then "uses sage to rid the room."

Ms. Blixseth admits that, when it comes to all this real-estate bankruptcy hoo-hah, "people are tired of the game.”

Tired of this game?

What, is she crazy?

He or she who is tired of tales of the Gilded Age is, no doubt about it, tired of life.


*I didn't know, either: they're paintings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Meet the Flintstones...

Sure, I see the news and know that the unemployment rate in Massachusetts is pretty high (8% or so). And Boston doesn't make the top ten list of places that the recession will only flitter in (or by pass entirely). Those cities all seem to be in Alabama or Texas.

But, in truth, it doesn't feel all that recession-y around here.

I walk through downtown Boston most every day, and the streets are crowded with folks going to work and, this time of year, school trips and tourists.

Cosi, where I grab a take-out lunch once or twice a week, remains packed with people willing to spend $7 or $8 on a salad.

You mostly need reservations at our neighborhood restaurants.

Maybe the stores are empty - I don't know: I'm not in them.

For the most part, however, it really doesn't seem bleak and depressing in Boston.

I guess it's because, while housing prices certainly went up- up- and away over the last decade, we didn't have a lot of housing speculation, so no big real estate bubble to burst.

And, of course,  because we have so little manufacturing here, with so much of it drained out of the Commonwealth by the 1980's.

So we really aren't experiencing the recession in the same way as folks Florida. Or in Elkhart, Indiana (erstwhile RV Capital of the World). Or in Flint, Michigan, which since Michael Moore's Roger and Me has been the poster child for the collapse of the U.S. auto industry. And the attendant collapse of the cities built around it.

Flint's on my mind these days.

Yesterday, I saw an article, from The Telegraph (UK) that talks about a plan being put forth by Genessee Michigan County Treasurer Dan Kilkee to bulldoze parts of the city and let them revert back to nature. Apparently, the idea is being considered for other Rust Belt cities that have experienced substantial population loss, and have great swaths of land full of abandoned, wrack and ruin houses.

Even though I don't live in Flint or Detroit or Buffalo or any of the other cities likely to come under the dozer, I do find this prospect somewhat depressing. I like cities. And I have a particular soft spot for big old industrial cities. Frankly, if I were going to see anything bulldozed, my preference would be for the jerry-built crap suburban sprawl that's been slapped up in the last couple of years.

But the death of the great industrial cities is more or less the nature of capitalism, unforgiving of those who couldn't keep up with "progress."  Now they're giant, brick and mortar ghost towns, larger scale versions of the flimsy wood Western towns abandoned once the mine played out.

All of these old industrial towns are supposed to remake themselves as education and health centers. But who will be coming for school or a checkup if there's nobody with a job, other than those who work in schools or hospitals? Hmmmm.

Anyway, a few weeks back, The New York Times had an article on the remnants of the GM workforce that once employed 27,000 workers in Buick City alone (out of 80,000 overall in Flint), but is now down to 450 folks hanging on for dear life in a creaking old engine plant.

They've been offered cash buyouts, which 60,000 members of GM's union workforce have taken over the last 3 years.

No, even though many of the Flint holdouts, having put in 30+ years on the line, would be eligible for a pension (which may or may not be built to last) they'd rather stay working.

“I just get up in the morning, wash up, and drive here every day,” said O. C. Cooper, a 64-year-old machine operator at Flint North. “It’s just been a way of life.”

The holdouts are pretty realistic about their prospects "out there."

“For me to go out and get a job these days, at my age and with a limited skill set, where do I go?” said Victor Brown, 55, a repairman at Flint North.

There's no guarantee that these jobs will survive the cuts and plant closings that are still to fall out of the GM "rebirth."

“General Motors has taken good care of me,” said Mike Stoica, 60, who started at G.M. fresh out of high school in 1967. “I’ve had a good life for not having a college education and doing something I love to do.”

Well, those days are pretty much gone.

Now we all have to stay current - where current shifts every few months or so. We need to continuously re-invent ourselves, "Brand Me" it up, be perpetually on the make.

But that's probably not going to happen to the guy who's been working at the plant for over 40 years.

He has no doubt looked around and seen that the alternative is Wal-Mart greeter or burger flipper.

Why not stay working for GM as long as you can?

In many ways it has to be a complete downer to be one of the last remnant, especially when you lived through some pretty good times.

But you've still got your respectable paycheck, the companionship of your fellow workers, and a place to go when you get up in the morning.

Sure, I'm betting that these guys feel like a holdover from a long by-gone era - Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone in a world of George Jetsons.

Why not stay working for GM as long as you can?

Heck, I probably would.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My head hurts

Usually, I spend some time on the weekend doing a bit of Pink Slip-ping - writing a few posts (sometimes even five of them, a full week's worth).

This past weekend I guess I was in slacker mode.

Not that the usual array of topics didn't present itself.

After all, just this weekend I read that Ruthie Madoff's hairdresser has tossed her out as a customer, after more than 10 years of doing her baby blonde "highlights" (highlights being the euphemism for dye-job for women over the age of 50). Frankly, I found this pretty shameful on the part of the hairdresser.  Sure, we all want to know what Ruthie knew and when she knew it, and no doubt the folks her husband bilked didn't want to see her in the next chair when they were getting their foils wrapped. Still, it's hard to believe that the hairdresser couldn't have found some time - early or late - when he could have "done" Ruthie.

Her florist, and a favorite restaurant have also dumped her. I get how the restaurant can get away with this, meeting her at the door, glancing at the empty tables and saying, 'Sorry, we don't have any room...'  But can a florist look you in the eye and say that every last bloom in the place is spoken for.

So there was Ruthie...

Then I stumbled on a video done by a French filmmaker that showed how the derelict land in Detroit is going back to nature. At least that's what I think it's going to show. I got halfway through and found it way too eerie and not a little depressing. I will return, however. (To the video, not to Detroit, where I've actually never been. And there doesn't appear to be any reason now.) I feel a treatise on post-industrial America coming up.

Make that post-industrial Rust Belt America. I also saw an article over the weekend about how the few remaining manufacturers in some Rust Belt cities are fleeing to the South. Who wants to be the last person to turn out the lights in Dayton? Or run into a moose on their commute into downtown Detroit.

Of course, the Great Southward Migration will no doubt cease and desist when the great south heats (and dries) up a bit more, and us Northerners will be sitting on aquifer that will be as valuable as bubblin' crude was to the Beverly Hillbillies.  (Is it ours, by the way, or can the Dry Belt just stick straws in it and suck it out?)

And one of the interesting things that emerges in the commentary on the North going South is those who fear that the red states will turn blue, as those damned liberals who ruined their states will proceed to ruin the heaven on earth that is Alabama.

All of this was really starting to hurt my head.

What I really wanted to do was read about something that had nothing to do with business or the economy, while eating Popsicle.

Then my niece Molly came to my topic rescue.

Molly is 12 1/2 and we were hanging out with her while her parents went to a party.

Our on-demand movie, Doubt, had just ended - note to anyone who went to parochial school in the 1960's: this is a deeply disturbing film that completely captures the look and, more importantly, the feel of those days - and Molly happened upon my 10 year old Palm Pilot.

The Palm Pilot hasn't seen a lot of use lately.

My phone numbers are on my cell, my calendar lives between Outlook and paper. (There's still something to be said for a good, old-fashioned, month-at-a-glance calendar.)

I have absolutely been in the market for a Blackberry since forever - just haven't gotten around to it.

But, frankly, the day is coming and coming soon.

I've been embarrassed to trot the Palm out at meetings. If I'm with my tech clients, they look at me as if I'd taken out a quill pen and parchment. If I'm with non-tech folks, I'm increasingly brought up short by finding that even the lowest of the tech low seem to have a Blackberry or other smartphone these days.

My trusty old Palm was in plane sight because I'd been looking up an address.

Molly was amused and delighted to find it - the equivalent, I suppose, of me coming across a wind-up Victrola with horn, or a stereopticon, in some relative's house. Or spotting a Studebaker or Hudson on the road. Ahh-ooooooo-gah!

Molly has a cell phone, an iTouch, and a Nintendo DS (the latter two pieces of electronic-a she bought out of her own savings, thank you very much; the cell phone was a Christmas gift). She's already talking iPhone.

Me, I need to figure out whether to go Storm or Curve.

Curve's probably easier, since it's got the "real" keyboard. but I like the Storm's screen real estate. (At least I think I've got this right. I guess I'll figure out which is which at the Verizon store.)

I'm never an early adopter, but I'm usually not this late, either.

Better get me one of them smartphones before I really start feeling as if I'm carrying around a Bakelite dial phone and a paper calendar the size of a Gutenberg Bible.

Plus we need a new wireless router to replace the hoary Linksys that is the tech equivalent of two Donald Duck juice cans and a hank of string.

All this stuff in the news... All these decisions to make about technology...

No wonder my head hurts.

The only good news is that my hairdresser is still doing my "highlights" for me.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Food, Glorious Food

There was an article in The Boston Globe yesterday on local companies that are trying to help boost post-layoff morale by feeding the troops.

Having had a long career in high tech, I've long known that the tech army marches on its stomach. Food has been an integral part of the culture of pretty much every place I've worked.

My first job out of business school was with Dynamics Associates, a funky little Cambridge tech consulting company that held a weekly "Friday Party," featuring beer, wine, junk food, and - in the early days - a bit of weed. But most of the focus was on the junk food, which we would take turns shopping for at the market across the street. As long as you had the main food groups covered - salt, sugar, fat, and grease - no one cared what you bought. And one of the bennies of being a weekend warrior was that there was usually a decent ration of food to keep you going on Saturday and Sunday.

Sometimes the food was symbolic - lots o' eatin' o' the green around St. Patrick's Day. And one Valentine's Day, a day on which we'd had a small layoff, my friend Michele and I (the day's shoppers) bought a big, pink heart-shaped cake and gouged a jagged wound right through the middle.

At Wang Labs, my next stop, food was less of a big deal. No one was going to spring for Friday munchies for a couple of thousand people. But my group had brown-bag lunch together every Friday, at which we played trivia. Each week, someone brought in a quiz on whatever topic they fancied, and the quizzes were so weird and varied that anyone could win. I remember doing one on what's on different state license plates, and another (on my birthday) that was multiple choice questions about things that had happened to me in grammar school.  (Quick: who sneezed all over himself and everyone sitting near him while we were kneeling on our chairs reciting the rosary?)

Wang's one nice tradition was a Christmas Eve party that was held for each individual group. Kids and spouses were invited, and Wang sprang for the grub. The parties ended by noon, and we all got to go home early. Then came the new regime, which decided to put the kibosh on the family-invited/half-day off bennie, and substitute a new fun tradition: on Christmas Eve the senior execs would serve us a full-fixings turkey dinner in the cafeteria.

Well, the lines were so long that my group decided to go down late. On our way in, we were met by the real execs hastily leaving the caf, ripping off their Santa caps and looking like they'd just spent a couple  of hours on the rack, rather than serving their beloved employees.  My team got served by lesser VP's whom no one recognized. I'm sure the food was equally mediocre whether served by the new President, Rick Miller, or by Joe Blow, the VP of Internal Process. Still!

The high point of the new way to celebrate the holidays was the memo that went out warning that anyone who left work early on Christmas Eve would have to take vacation time or else.

And joy to your scroogish little world, too, Mr. Miller.

Next stop: Softbridge.

Since it had the same founder as Dynamics, it was no surprise that we also observed Friday Party. Since we weren't as close to junk food shopping as we were at Dynamics (which was just outside of Harvard Square), we mostly sent out for pizza, calzones, and chicken fingers.

In the latter years of Softbridge, we played down Friday Party a bit, and played up Friday lunch, where we held a weekly meeting and took turns bringing in dessert. (We only had a few dozen people there, so it wasn't all that onerous.) Woe betide anyone who forgot it was their turn to do dessert. Come noon, they would have to head out and pick up something on the quick.

Although I always baked something - usually brownies or apple cobbler - it really didn't matter if you brought in something homemade or a Crisco-and-confectioner's-sugar-slathered sheet cake. We could really mau down those desserts.

At Genuity, free food for techies was taken to an absurd level.

When I first joined the company, food was served at pretty much every meeting. And I do mean food. Some morning meetings featured full breakfast buffets. Food left over from a meeting was left out for anyone to grab, and the informal rule among the admins was over-order. Thus, in addition to normal amounts of leftovers, there were always a few extra sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies, and sodas.

Afternoon meetings meant cookies, candy, ice cream, and soda.

I went to one meeting - with about five or six attendees - where there were enough petit-fours to cater a small wedding.

In addition to two platters of petit-fours, there were a dozen candy bars, a dozen bottled waters, and a dozen sodas.

I gained five pounds my first six months at Genuity.

Then we got a new, kick-butt president who declared fatwa on the free lunch. (There really was no such thing....)

After that, we had to content ourselves with an occasional group pizza, or the annual "treat" in which the execs came around with a Good Humor cart for us. Ding-a-ling!

There was one post-fatwa blowout, however: on the day of our IPO, there was a lavish catered event in the company courtyard to "celebrate."

Alas, by the time the big event began, the market had closed for the day, and every one who had any skin in the friends and family game - which would include me, unfortunately  - knew that the offering had gone out below the pre-IPO price.

If we'd been able to sell that day, we all could have salvaged something, but we were locked into a six-month hold. At which point, the value of a share was nearing zero.

The IPO food was the least they could do, but it didn't exactly make up for the $11/share that so many of us lost.

The final stop on my full-time work  journey was NaviSite, where there wasn't much of a free food culture when I was there. Just the guy who brought donuts in every Friday...But he got laid off, and there went our food, glorious food.

So I get why companies feed the troops.

Nothing says lovin' like a free slice of pizza and an ice cream sandwich.

But nothing boosts morale like hearing that the company made their numbers for the quarter, and that business is looking good.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What's in your major?

Well, before I saw the light of practicality and mammon and went to business school, I was a sociology major, so I'm a good one to talk. But I have to say I was drawn right in by an article I saw in The Wall Street Journal Online (originally from mentalfloss) that listed eleven rather odd college majors.

Of course, some of the majors weren't all that odd.

Packaging Michigan State offers a degree in packaging. I'm guessing that this is an industrial engineering degree, and majoring in it strikes me as plenty sensible. Since fresh food and automobiles are about the only things that aren't packaged to death, it seems as if there'd be pretty strong demand for this profession - especially if we want to be environmentally aware and get the ten tons of packaging per capita we landfill each year under better control. And, while I didn't go look at the MSU course catalog, I'm sure hoping that there's a course in there that teaches students how to design packaging that is NOT one of those plastic clamshells that most electronics "stuff" comes in.  You know the kind - you buy a new wireless mouse and you need a hacksaw to cut through the packaging. When you finally break through and try to pry it open, you end up slitting your thumb off. So I'm good with this odd-sounding, yet quite important degree.

Bakery Science Since baked goods aren't a product that's likely to become an import any time soon, I would think it makes quite a bit of sense to major in bakery science - especially if you're in Kansas, where Kansas State offers the major, and you're close enough to wheat fields and silos to learn how the metaphorical 'bill becomes a law' (grain becomes a bun?), up close and personal. Jobs in food production are important, and I'd rather have someone figure out how to cost-effectively produce bread that's delicious, nutritious, and builds strong bodies twelve ways, than have some food science major focusing on how to create square tomatoes with no taste, or more ways to torture factory-bred chickens. ('Let's take their beaks off and pluck their eyes out....')

Canadian Studies  A number of schools, including the University of Vermont, offer this major. I don't know exactly what you'd do with it, other than teach Canadian Studies, but what's wrong with learning a bit more about our neighbors to the north. Let's face it, most of us know only that they say 'aboot', that they're police force wears red jackets and funny hats, and that boy-children are kidnapped at the age of 6 and forced to become hockey stars. And that the Quebecois periodically agitate to secede so they can go speak French in peace. Culture vultures can probably add Alice Munro and Gordon Lightfoot to their mix of knowledge  Canadian.  I have a cousin who majored in Irish Studies and, if that had been around in my day, I might have, too. So, other than questioning its utility, it seems to me that Canadian Studies  - which I'm guessing covers history, politics, geography, and literature - seems to at least pass a not entirely rock-bottom threshold of academic rigor.

Ecogastronomy Speaking of neighbors to the north, the University of New Hampshire lets you major in this subject, offering:

...a program that will educate students on how food gets from farms to their plates. With an eye towards sustainability, students study food at a number of steps along the road to their mouth to gauge the ecological impact of what they eat.

This sounds like a reasonably good thing to learn and/or worry about. We are, after all, becoming more attuned to eating locally, not depleting the oceans of tuna, etc. But I must admit, it sounds more like a course or two than it does like a major.

There are a couple of music-related majors on the list.

Jazz Studies As with Canadian Studies (and probably most major that includes the word "Studies" in it), Jazz Studies - which covers both playing jazz and learning about "its history, cultural significance, and major figures," seems like it would be only good if you wanted to teach, well, Jazz Studies. But, given how precarious the income stream of most jazz musicians is, this may not be a bad fall-back position. But it's really hard to see true hipsters taking Coltrane 101, or Advanced Miles Davis. Wouldn't they just, like, listen to their old 33's and 78's, man? Or go to some smoke-filled dive and make music?

Piano Pedagogy  This is just a fancy name for becoming a piano teacher. So why isn't this just called "Music Education"? Sure, you will want to specialize in some instrument or family of instruments, but I wonder whether there is something inherently different (other than the obvious) about teaching piano vs. teaching the violin vs. teaching the oboe? Of course, making sure that piano teachers have a clue is not such a bad idea. I took piano lessons from a very nice woman, a widow who gave lessons in the living room of a three-decker next to my grammar school. She was extremely sweet and kind, and I was an extremely lazy and indifferent student, but she really wasn't very effective. She did have very nice looking son who was a couple of years older, and the thrilling aspect of being at Mrs. B's was that we might get a glimpse of her boy Donny. Other than that, the only good thing about piano lessons was that, if you took from Mrs. B - and she was pretty much the only game in the parish, if you didn't want to get on the bus and go to a "real" music school like St. Gabriel's, where the serious pianists went - you never had to participate in a recital. There was no such thing.

What else can you take in college these days?

At University of Maryland, there's an offshoot of a plant science  degree that's specific to "Turf and Golf Course Management." The growth in interest in golf may have slowed down, but it's still a big business, and - with all the chemicals and pests that greenskeepers have to worry about, it's not a bad idea that they learn a bit about what's in those jars and bags with the skull and crossbones signs on them. It does make me wonder, though, whether you can take a course in Mini-golf Management as well, with more of a focus on where to put the lighthouse vs. the whale hole.

Becker College, which is just outside of that well-known equestrian center, Worcester, Massachusetts, lets students major in Equine Studies, where they can "concentrate in riding instruction so that they can eventually teach lessons." (What did I just say about "teaching" and "studies". Those who study studies teach.... ) But elsewhere, Equine Studies is more about equine business management. (So call it Equine Management, why don't you?)

At Southern Illinois University you can take up Blacksmithing, which really doesn't seem like anything you'd need to major in. My very own grandfather, before he figured out the car was going to replace the nag, had a blacksmith shop. (He dumped smithing to open a tavern, wrongly guessing that there was no end in sight for this business. Alas, he got whacked in the head by Prohibition, which closed down the Rogers Brothers Saloon. And I wonder where my business acumen comes from....)

Family & Consumer Sciences sounds an awful lot like Home-Ec, other than when it's taught at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, which "prepare(s) the student to acquire the values, knowledge, and skills necessary to be proactive to strengthen the function of the contemporary family from a Biblical perspective." One wonders what the Biblical perspective on microwaving might be. Or top load washing machine vs. front load.  Hmmmmm.

My favorite major has to be the one offered by Vincennes University, where you can major in Bowling Industry Management.  Subjects taught there include "pinsetter mechanics and lane care."  Well, I suppose that there is an awful lot going on at a bowling alley that needs study. Should you allow adults to play with gutter guards? How much spray should get shot into bowling shoes between rentals? What's the right proportion of revenue between 10 year old video games and bowling? How crisp is crisp enough for chicken fingers. Are flat screen televisions and/or blaring music essentials?

Kind of makes you want to go back to college, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When ya gotta go

Well, one of the major news story in Boston earlier this week was the one about the bus driver who pulled over mid-route and relieved himself on the side of the road.

When the driver stopped the bus at a point where there was no bus stop, one of the passengers reported that she:

... followed the driver with her eyes and grew more surprised.

“I could not see him from the waist down, but the body language that I witnessed, it’s unmistakable when a guy’s peeing – on the side of the road,” she said.

The passenger - a nurse, no less, and one who works with the homeless and has, thus, very likely seen someone urinate in public before - somehow felt compelled to report the bus driver to the MBTA.

The driver will receive some sort of discipline for his infraction (which he didn't deny, by the way).

The article (which was published on boston.com, the online version of the lamentably going bust Boston Globe) set of a storm of commenting.

This is not surprising: any story about the MBTA, or T, (our local transportation system) tends to draw a lot of rather contentious comments. Most recently, the big story was the texting T-driver who'd rammed into another trolley car because he was texting his girlfriend. Dozens were injured, including the T-driver, who was subsequently fired. Bad enough, the texting T-driver turned out to be transgendered, which brought all kinds of everything-bashers out of the woodwork. Talk about heaping on....

But the comments that I read on the bus driver with the call of nature were surprisingly common-sense. Of the 40 of so comments I scanned, I'd say they were running about 20:1 in favor of the driver and against Nurse Nancy.

I had never really given much thought to how terrible it must be for a bus to have to relieve himself/herself. Where do you go? It's not like on a subway car, where (other than on our Green Line trolley cars) there are booths where at least someone could discretely pee in a jar. Plus I believe that all the subway stations have toilets for drivers. (Again, this wouldn't help the Green Line drivers once they get above ground, where there are no stations, just trolley stops.)

A treatise on the general lack of public facilities will be saved for another day.

What I will say is:

BFD that someone pulled over to pee. Now, seeing people take a whiz in public is not my all time favorite thing in the world, but if ya gotta go, ya gotta go. Why this busy-body Nurse Nancy had to go and report him, I'll never know. Especially since, if a man urinates in public, he can get arrested for indecent exposure, and end up with a sexual offender designation on his record. Which I would think that someone who works with the homeless would be well aware of. A lot of these guys have this offense on their records - and try getting a job or an apartment if you're listed as a sexual offender.

Has Nurse Nancy never been to Paris? On my last trip, I didn't notice any pissoirs on the street, but we did stop in a cafe where there was a urinal next to the door to the ladies' WC. (My nieces really enjoyed seeing this one, I can tell you. Fortunately it was not in use at the time.)

Sometimes, even if you don't have that cup of coffee or soda, things happen, and I'd a lot rather have my bus driver pull over and let it go than any of the alternatives I can think of.

A few years ago, I was in a panic driving to work. There was a terrible black ice situation that I didn't realize until I was trapped on Route 93. It took me 5 hours to get 30 miles. Fortunately, I never have that cup of tea at home before I leave for work, or I would have been in trouble. Not a lot of private places to pull off on 93 - and I only had a one-door car, so I couldn't have made a little privacy zone for myself.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out for the driver, but I'm happy that the weight of public opinion, when last I looked, was in his favor. Vox populi, vox dei and all that. (At least in this case.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Agony of the Self-Employed

Years ago, I remember seeing a New Yorker cartoon captioned, if my memory is accurate, "The Agony of the Self-Employed."

The cartoon pictured a man sitting at a desk, talking to himself, saying things like:

"I can't stand working for you."

"When are you going to get it done?"

"How about a raise?"


Then there is the old joke about the person who'd says he'd like to work for himself, but can't afford to pay himself anything!

(Which leads me to a digression: I once had an accounting professor who claimed that a client of his used inherited wealth to open a business. When the client brought his books in, my accounting professor saw - to his horror - that the man had been using money on which he had already paid taxes to give himself a salary. This is probably one of those "apocryphal but true" stories. Nonetheless....)

I have been free-lancing (product marketing, mostly in the tech world) for almost 5 years now -and it's really more like 7, with a brief interlude of full-time employment when I went to work with an old boss of my mine.

So far, so good.

As I tell people, I make about half the money, but have about 10 times the life satisfaction. No commuting/no car, no politics, no non-essential meetings, no people to manage, nobody else to worry about, and no doing the types of marketing work I hate. 99% of what I do is messaging, research, writing, and customer outreach - all things that I very much enjoy.

It works for me at this stage in my life, the only drawbacks being the unpredictability and the lack of health insurance, drawbacks that are to me by far outweighed by day-long visits with friends, staying up half the night reading and sleeping in a bit, volunteer time, and off-hours treks to the gym. I also like the project variability - learning about new companies and their tech products and markets is something that I find very interesting ans satisfying.

I hope I can keep this up for a good long while.

The only regular job I would considered at this point would be one that was part time and didn't involve a regular commute.

In a few years, when I'm old and gray (which I may actually be under the dye job), I think it would be fun to take a quasi-retiree-job in  a college/university or non-profit, as writer, editor, or even as an administrative assistant,  as long as it was a place I could walk to and the people were decent.

But for now, freelancing 'r us. And it works because I'm someone with a background (and degree) in business, a strong network, and the ability to "quick study" companies and their products, and figure out what to say about them. Sure, they keep saying that 'if you can do it over the 'net, so can someone in India', but that just hasn't been the case yet for the type of work that I do. (See: so far, so good.)

Anyway, there was an article in The New York Times on Sunday on how the recession is hitting free-lancers, particularly those who provide personal services like yoga instructor, personal chef, tutor...things that can become discretionary pretty darned fast in a down-market. The bottom line: times are tough, a lot of people who are freelancing really do want to work full-time, there's a glut on the market....

The article made me think about a fellow that I met last week who could easily have been profiled in the article.

My brother needed some work done on his home computer and, since I have free time - and could (and did) just as easily work from his condo as from anyplace else, thanks to wi-fi - I told him I could be there when the IT guy came.

In chatting with the technician, I learned that we had both worked for the same company at one point and had, in fact, both left its employ (via the pink slip) at about the same time.

Since then, I've been mostly freelancing - which I enjoy.

He has also been mostly freelancing - which he doesn't like so much - especially not these days, when there are too many geeks -for-hire chasing too little business.

Oh, he likes the nature of his work, and when there's a lot of work available, things are okay. But....

He's signed up with a bunch of IT services companies, and - for the most part - when they get calls, they put them out there to all the technicians who are registered with them, and whoever jumps on it first gets the job. So far, he's not working any place where they put the jobs out to bid - so there's been no race to the bottom pricing. Yet. He gets paid a decent hourly rate, but doesn't have enough work.

He'd love to go back to full time, but - at 50 - he's hitting a bit of age - or maybe it's wage - discrimination. He interviewed for an ideal job recently, only to find out that it paid about $15/hour. This was for someone with networking skills. $15/hour? Say what?

For this guy, the time he worked at Genuity was the high point of his career. He made good money and loved the work. His wife worked there as well. While at Genu, they were able to buy a house. The future looked all sorts of rosy and bright.

Then Genuity tripped, stumbled, and fell into bankruptcy.

I was delighted to leave, and voluntarily.

The geek-for-hire not so delighted, and not so voluntarily. (The same went for his wife.)

Fast forward: his wife has full-time work, less pay but great benefits and reasonably secure (they hope) in a local college.  The geek-for-hire has been mostly doing geek-for-hire (sometimes on long term contracts, but never as a full-time employee). They had to sell their house, but fortunately did so before the bubble burst.

We keep hearing, don't we, that this is the wave of the future: most workers (other than go-getter entrepreneurs) part of a self-employed company of one, "brand me", living from one contract to the next (if they're lucky), or scrounging for whatever hourly jobs they can piece together for themselves.  Oh, and be prepared to be a renter who can flee at a moment's (or one month's) notice to where the jobs are.

I look at this guy and I think, is this the way to build a stable society?

Or is this going to be okay, since the rising generations will know that this is the way the world works, so they'll build their lives around it?

But for the guy who came to de-tox my brother's desktop - monkey in the middle: middle age, middle class (barely), and middle-level skills  - just an average guy - this is not the way that he intended things to play out.

Gotta imagine that there are a lot of folks out there just like him, and The New York Times yoga instructor who just went on food stamps. Hanging in, hanging on - but not by much.

You can argue that the yoga instructor deliberately chose a career that was chancy. It's harder to make that argument about the IT guy.

For some of us, there's humor in the agony of the self-employed. For others, it's safe to say, it's more about the agony these days.

Monday, June 08, 2009

BzzAgent's cubicle offer - tonic in a depressing world

There's never a shortage of topics for Pink Slip.  Even on those days when I despair that, while there may be plenty of topics, I won't find anything I really want to post on, something always presents itself.

In grazing around this past weekend for a Monday post, a couple-of-weeks-old article on MSNBC on how bad it is for survivor morale to have empty cubicles seemed to be the the "something" that was going to present itself for today's topic.

This is, after all, a topic that - after all these years in high-tech - I do know quite a bit about.

Even after 20 years, I can still conjure up the image, not to mention the deathly feeling, of walking around the Wang Labs towers during its long and ugly death spiral (which, during my relative short time there involved at least a half-dozen major lay-offs).

Now, Wang, by the time I got there in 1986 was depressing enough to begin with, and the regular lay-offs didn't help. (Neither did the cost-saving initiatives like turning out half the lights and not picking up the trash every day - nothing like the sight of a communal trash bucket near the coffee machine, overflowing with coffee grounds, banana peels, and pizza crusts, to start the day off right!)

Most of Wang's white collar employees worked in cubicles, and most floors in their buildings (3 towers of what was intended to be a four-tower complex that formed the letter "W" when seen rom above) held rows upon rows of dreary little cubes.

Once the layoffs began, there were some floors that were entirely wiped out, and it was ultra-depressing to cut-through one of these on your way to a meeting. Make that ultra-dark and ultra-depressing: if they turned off half the lights in the active areas, they turned off all the lights in the ghost-town floors.

But it was even more depressing to work in an area that was full one day, and more than decimated the next.

During the last major lay-off I was there for, everyone in the cubicles surrounding mine was let go. I can no longer recall all the names of those who labored in our little pod - I didn't work directly with most of them - but Dick and Kevin, who were on my team, were gone; as were Debbie and Joanne, who abutted my cube. I had mixed feelings about Joanne's exit, I must say, as she had a) one of the most piercing voices I've ever heard, and b) a mouth so foul it made me seem like a Mother Teresa whose speech was reserved for praying the rosary. Truly, to this day I am still pretty much incapable of coming up with any good business reason why someone would need to use the "c" word, particularly on a regular basis.

Anyway, while I was reading the article on how empty cubicles are bad for morale, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a bit on what BzzAgent did when they had a lay-off and the consequent newly freed-up space. First, they pulled everyone together so that the gaps (and missing colleagues) weren't in everyone's face; then they offered their spare cubicles to entrepreneurs to use for free.

After 11 people lost their jobs due to downsizing at the end of last year, all the desks were centralized so there were no empty spaces in between workers. But that still left a section of empty cubicles in the office.

CEO Dave Balter felt the empty space distracted from the culture of his company. So he offered the workspaces to budding entrepreneurs in town for free —  phones, Internet and receptionist included.

"I had no jobs to offer, but I had space," he says.

Is this a great and generous idea, or what?

BzzAgent, if you don't know them (and I didn't, until now), is:

...a word-of-mouth media network powered by a half-million people. We pair consumers with products and supply digital tools that make widespread opinion-sharing easy.

They're located in Boston, just a mile and change from where I live. Too bad I'm not a budding entrepreneur - just a fully bloomed marketing freelancer.

Hey, Dave Balter, if you've got any cubes left, give me a shout!