Monday, November 30, 2009


Other than some online gifts for my aunts, and some end of year charitable donations, I've pretty much wrapped up my Christmas shopping. All that's left is the wrapping. Then, it's a wrap.

I had thought that I still needed something for our Christmas Eve Yankee Swap but, mirabile dictu, I found an item that I had gotten quite a while back and had forgotten about. It's a doozy. I can't wait to see who wins it.

In any case, I don't actually do all that much Christmas giving anymore.

Having wound things down to the "pick a sib or in-law" practice for a while, my sibs and I decided a number of years ago to stop exchanging gifts entirely. For a couple of years after, we did stockings, but that was getting out of control, both monetarily and, more important, in terms of unneeded crap accumulation. There is occasionally some sister gifting, or a bit of small stocking stufferish activity (nothing official). Mostly, we've broken the habit. And it sure takes a lot of the stress out of the holiday season.

By mutual consent, I've stopped exchanging with a couple of friends, as well.

Enough is absolutely enough.

I still get gifts for my nieces, a handful of other friends and family members who genuinely like to exchange gifts, and three aunts (two elderly, one not so). But it's a manageable number.

And once I get online - which I'll probably do on Cyber Monday, just to keep my spending hand in -  and order up whatever it is I'm going to send the aunts, I'm done! (Come to think of it, these three aunts would probably all enjoy Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, but no can do. Politically, my mother was the rogue in her family. The other aunt's an in-law who's always kept a Ronny-and-Nancy calendar in her kitchen. Sigh.)

Anyhow, now that I'm (mostly) over an done with, I could read an article in yesterday's Globe by the author of Scroogenomics, with some disinterest.

Joel Waldfogel, a Wharton economist, maintains that the $65 billion that's supposedly going to be spent this holiday shopping season in the US alone represents "an orgy of value destruction."  That's economist-ese for 'you're buying something for $50 that may not have $50 worth of value to me'.  As he puts it, if you give someone a sweater that they don't end up wearing, "You may as well have lit that sweater on fire."

Which is not quite true. The gift-ee can donate it to charity. Somebody, somewhere in the world will end up wearing it, or it will be ragged and recycled into another sweater that someone else won't like.

Nonetheless, I get the notion of value destruction. I am well past the stage where I'm going to buy any article of clothing for my 12 or 13 year old nieces that has not been specifically vetted by them. I knew that worm had turned about five years years back, when I pointed out a really cute outfit in a catalogue and they both recoiled with horror. What they wanted was not the flowered skirt with the ruffled top, but the glittery pink tee-shirt with unicorns on it.

Waldvogel has conducted surveys, and he has found that people value things they buy for themselves at nearly 20% higher than they do the gifts they receive. He translates this into $12B worth of annual value destruction.

Talk about a Jolly, Holly Christmas.

But when you think about it, history is littered with a lot of gift mistakes - probably since the Three Kings of Orient Are brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Baby Jesus. I'm sure Mary and Joseph were delighted to get that gold, but I'm equally sure they were thinking some Bethlehem version of WTF about that frankincense and myrrh, when they could have used a couple of changes of swaddling clothes, spare milk-sop, or even a donkey stuffed with manger hay.

Waldvogel is not a total humbug.  It's okay to buy gifts for those you're close enough to to know what they'd like. And for the kids in your life - who, up to a certain age, are (temporarily) happy with anything. Other than that, he recommends gift cards, or charitable donations, for the brother-in-law who really doesn't need "another golf-themed tchotchke."  Been there, bought that. No golf-themed tchotchke heading to Dallas this year. But I didn't need Waldvogel to tell me that my sister- and brother-in-law don't need any more crap. I could see that with my own eyes. Which is why they'll be getting something nice and New England smelling from L.L. Bean.

I've been doing a bit of that charitable giving for the last couple of years - even in the name of kids, which Waldvogel doesn't recommend. But I had been giving small gifts to a lot of kiddies - children and grandchildren of friends and relations - and when I saw how much these kiddoes were accumulating, the word "basta" went off in my brain. (Actually, what went off was BASTA!)

So now the Globe Santa gets a few bucks in the names of H, B, T, C, G, C, J, A, and M-K. And part of the gift for my nieces is a donation made in their name to either the Globe Santa or Heifer International - they get to pick. (Self-serving? Yea, baby! I get the charitable deduction.)

There's so much pressure onus all to shop up a storm. It's almost as if it were our patriotic duty to rev up the economy by shopping 'til we drop into an exhausted heap at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Yet the out of control shopping - for items large (the non-affordable dream house), medium (flat-screen TV), and small (aw, that sock monkey's so cute; take two, they're small) - by so many helped get us into the mess we're in to begin with.

What's a country to do? Especially when the vast majority of people who inhabit it have way too much stuff already.

Anyway, the one bright and shiny spot in Waldvogel's article was this:

...our [the US] per capita holiday spending is far back in the pack, behind Norway, the United Kingdom, Italy, Finland, and France, among others. The United States is 12th among 26 large world economies in holiday spending. The good news is that we’re not the world’s most vulgar commercializers of Christmas.

What a relief.

On Dasher, on Dancer. Just not to the nearest mall.

Friday, November 27, 2009

One thing I won't be buying on Black Friday

In truth, there is nothing I'll be buying on Black Friday.

I will be walking by the stores, not through them.

(I did do a bit of pre-Black Friday-ing for myself. I finally got around to getting a smartphone, a Blackberry Storm 2. Going in to the store, I figured I was a Tour-type, since I couldn't imagine not having a full keyboard at my thumb-tips. But then I got my hands on the Storm, and one thing led to another. All of a sudden, the smartphones with the full keyboards looked clunky and retro - kind of like the difference between a typewriter and a laptop. And, just as I stepped up to prior learning how-to challenges - learning to pump gas, drive a stick, parallel park - what convinced me that I could master the touch action was the thought look at all the people who know how to do it; surely not all of them are terribly bright and physically gifted....  But, as so often happens on Pink Slip, I digress.)

Black Friday or no, one product profiled in The New York Times the other day will definitely not be on my wish list. That would be a bed of nails from Sweden that one Stockholm store has declared Arets Julklapp! That would be Christmas Gift of the Year!

The modern, Swedish version of the old Indian swami mat uses plastic spikes, not iron, and comes 4,000-8,000 spikes per mat. The fewer the spikes, the greater the hurtin'. And it does, of course, hurt to take on the full-body equivalent of sitting on a tack.

"It’s quite painful initially,” said Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson, 46, a yoga instructor and writer who uses her nail bed almost every day. “The trick is, all the adrenaline rushes, after which you relax and feel nice again.”

When a person stands up after lying on the mat, she said, “the back looks picked at, as if with a fork.”

Hurtin' aside, nail mats are the rage in Sweden.

Last August, 3,000 nail-bed adherents gathered in a Stockholm park to chant continuously and simultaneously for five minutes, breaking the Guinness Book of Records marker of 1,000 simul-chanters.

The official count established by the adjudicator was 2,558 - apparently about 500 were so comfy they fell asleep.

The bed of nails started out as a yoga fad, and there's quite a bit of controversy about what, if anything, using one does, other than - at least until you get used to it - hurts.

But the wholesaler I found online - selling mats in lots of 50 (green only) - promises that:

It is highly effective for:
- Pain relieve on waist,back,neck, shoulder,hip;
- Promote blood circultation;
- Increase Immunity power;
- Body relaxation;
- Decrease Muscle Tension;
- Increase hormone secretion;
- Increase Uptake of Oxygen;
- Improve better sleep;
- Promote Digestion

No scientific proof, yet. But the maker of Shakti mats (made in India) is sponsoring a study of those who regularly lie on a bed of nails. They're not looking for miracles, just for objective data on what it does to blood pressure, heart rate, etc.

Hey, I've had sciatica, and if I still had it and thought for a Stockholm chanting one-minute that lying on a nail mat would make the pain go away, I'd be there.

But sciatica-wise, I'm good. 

Still, I'm thinking Yankee Swap - if the price goes down. Or should I say when the price goes down. Traditionally made in India, nail mats are now be made in China, so it's a matter of time before the makers of the Snuggie come up with a slightly less prickly version for the masses.

It slices! It dices! It takes out stains.

By next Christmas, these will be the Aret Julklapp of the U.S.

Operators will be standing by, and you'll be able to get one - BUT WAIT, CALL NOW AND WE'LL THROW A SECOND ONE IN FOR ABSOLUTELY FREE - for $12.99.

You heard it here: if the recession lasts through next shopping season, anything that releases the well-being hormone, improves sleep, and gets rid of stress will be flying off the shelves like a magic carpet.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

As always on this day, I'm not quite sure who to be thankful to, but I am certain about the what to be thankful for.*

I'm thankful to have a wonderful family and wonderful friends; for my almost ridiculously good health (knock on broadband); for a comfortable (though needs a bit of work) home, in an ab-fab, needs no work location; for more material possessions than I can shake a stick at (whatever that expression means); and for interesting work.

I am fortunate enough not to have a real clue about what it might be like to be without any, let alone all, of the above.

Which is not the case for the hundreds of poor and homeless men and women who, day in and day out, come through the doors of St. Francis House, just off the Boston Common a few minutes walk from where I live.

They come for a warm meal, to get in out of the cold, for a change of underwear, to work in the art room, to see a doctor (or a lawyer), to talk with someone about their troubles, or just to be treated with kindness and respect.

For 25 years, St. Francis House has been helping Boston's poor and homeless. We - I'm on the Board - celebrated our silver anniversary in October.

SFH started life giving soup and sandwiches, and has been growing and adding services (and guests) since.

Its aim is to help people rebuild their lives. This doesn't happen for everyone who comes in through SFH's doors, but it does happen for a surprisingly high number - especially for those who go through the Moving Ahead Program (MAP). MAP works with folks to help them identify their skills and abilities, and to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Most MAP graduates succeed: they stay sober, find jobs, reconnect with family, secure housing. It's truly a remarkable program. No wonder there are typically a couple of hundred people on its waiting list.

But sometimes the guests who come into SFH are just looking for that warm meal or change of underwear, and they get helped, too.

St. Francis House receives some money from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the funding from the state has been pared back over the last few years. Thanks to a big additional whack out of funding for homeless services in the current state budget, SFH is facing another cutback.

In addition to the direct financial impact that state cuts will have on SFH, smaller shelters and programs for the homeless and poor may well be closing or drastically curtailing their services. Thus, we're looking for heightened demand on our basic services - and this is on top of the overall increased demand we've been seeing for the last year-plus. (Here's some information on the state cuts. If you live in Massachusetts, it would be great if you could call the offices of the Governor and Lt. Governor, as well as your state rep and senator, and ask them to restore the cuts in funding for the homeless.)

More folks coming through our doors, less money coming from the state.

The math ain't pretty.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, before I head off to my cousin's for what will be the 64th - if I've got this right - time that the Rogers-Wheeler clans have celebrated the holiday together, I will be making a donation to St. Francis House that's a bit more than I had intended to make.

But, what the heck.

To me, it's only money. Which I would no doubt blow on something I don't actually need.

To someone on the streets, it's breakfast, a new pair of boots, or the chance to rebuild a life.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, to the men and women who will be dining at St. Francis House today, and to the remarkable SFH staff.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------*Including the awareness that that who should be a whom, but the good sense not to use it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Production Numbers

Ever wonder about those big production numbers in the Macy's T-Day Parade, the ones featuring hundreds of smiling, wholesome, blonde teen-aged girls in candy-cane striped Santa's helper costumes?

Me neither.

Last time I watched a Macy's Day Parade it was just to see the Bullwinkle balloon.

Which is not to say that I wouldn't like to see the parade in person some day - preferably from the comfort of my charming pied a terre in the Dakota.  Being in NYC earlier this week, it was hard not to come across reminders that it's a coming. We were staying on the west side, and the bleachers were being set up all over Central Park West.

But the biggest evidence of the parade was the hundreds of smiling, wholesome, blonde teen-aged girls in bright red jackets that said "Performance Team" on the back.

Naturally, I had to ask just who they were, and was told, 'why we're part of the Mike Miller production in the parade.' Which I, of course, heard as an invitation to get me to the Googlery, which I did apace. (By the way, the person I asked - one of the chaperones - used the name 'Mike Miller' with the confidence of one who expected it to be as instantly recognizable as would that of, say, Sarah Palin, Pope Benedict, or Bullwinkle.)

For those not in the know, Mike Miller Special Events brings together 1300 spirited teens, who are divvied into two groups to perform a routine "based on a theme that Macy’s provides."

So Macy's provides the themes, Mike Miller Special Events supplies the dancing bodies for the "prepositioned performance routine in Herald Square," and the girls get a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see the big city.

Which don't come cheap.

The kids have to get themselves to NYC. There, they're staying at the Hilton where, depending on how much they're willing and able to pay, they're going to be doubling ($2,039), tripling ($1,799), or quadrupling ($2,039) up with fellow hoofers. And unless you're the kid in the triple who gets the roll-away cot, you're going to be sleeping in bed with another girl. Which probably is fine for most kids. This event apparently attracts dance and cheerleading teams, so most of the girls know someone else. But, if you're the lone girl from East Underbite, Oklahoma who qualified, you'll find yourself in a double bed at the Hilton with another loner from West Overshoe, Maine.

This reminds me of a sales kick-off week I went to many years ago in Bermuda.

I was supposed to room - separate beds, thank you - with a pregnant colleague, who was only going to be there for two nights. Her doctor told her that she couldn't fly, so I ended up sharing with a complete stranger, a very nice woman from NYC who snored so loudly that I spent each night sitting on the bathroom floor reading. Fortunately, the sales kick-off events were not so demanding that I didn't have nap time in the afternoons. I still managed to attend most of the prize presentations, including the one where a product line SVP said that next year, his product line would be moving "with all the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut."

And another one talked about his prediction that, unfortunately, he felt that next year would be "nasty, brutish, and short." Apparently, he hadn't gotten the memo that the sales kick-off is supposed to be as upbeat as a Mike Miller production. Which no doubt has a ton more momentum than an entrenched juggernaut.

I'm 100% certain that the week in NYC for the girls is supremely exciting.

I saw New York for the first time my senior year in high school.

I went with my friend Kathy Shea. We stayed at her "career gal" aunt's apartment in the Queens - doubling up on Aunt Mary's living room pull out coach -  and did every touristy thing you can imagine. Not unlike the itinerary for the Mike Miller girls.

Kathy and I, too, went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes - although neither one of us was dreaming of becoming one. The movie we saw was "How To Succeed in Business" with Robert Morse. I don't know what's playing there now. I hope it's not "2012."

And speaking of how to succeed in business.

This week in New York is quite a production number. And it has to be quite a little money maker - all those kids and their folks quadrupling up in the Hilton for what is not exactly short money. I'm sure the costs aren't trivial - among other things, all the participants get a DVD so they can teach themselves their routine before they get to parade-time - but this event is raking in millions of bucks.

Mike Miller himself has passed on to the Big Production Number in the Sky, but the principals of his company have all been in cheerleading industry for decades. Cheerleading industry. Once again, the infinite economy keeps coming up with new industries - unfortunately, not fast enough to make up for the losses of the old blue collar industries. And, like so many of our businesses these days, not exactly producing something tangible.

Except the exuberance and enthusiasm I saw on the faces of the girls who'll be performing tomorrow in the Macy's Day Parade.

That's worth something.

But I've got to say, I'm going to make sure that I never stay at the Hilton during Thanksgiving week.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Devil Made Me Do It

How well I remember how the revelation felt when I read Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

No wonder I was never going to be rich.

All those years in Catholic school? I never had a chance.

Now, it seems, I have another excuse, errrrrrr, reason why I haven't achieved great wealth: I don't believe there's a hell beyond that which we make for ourselves here on earth.

Okay, I'm only kidding here - not about not believing in hell, but about why I'm not fabulously wealthy.

But there was an interesting article by Michael Fitzgerald in the Boston Sunday Globe Ideas section a couple of Sundays ago that talked about a Harvard study by economist Robert Barro and his researcher wife, Rachel McCleary, that:

...examined 40 years of data from dozens of countries, trying to sort out the economic impact of religious beliefs or practices. They found that religion has a measurable effect on developing economies - and the most powerful influence relates to how strongly people believe in hell.

The two collected data from 59 countries - Christian, Islam, Hindu, or Buddhist - and ran economic info and markers on belief in God, belief in the afterlife, and church attendance through a statistical wringer.

Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other. Meanwhile, if church attendance actually rises, it slows growth in developing economies.

Now, I can buy the argument that "religion reduces corruption and increases respect for law in ways that boost overall economic growth."

But belief in hell?

That's a heck of a note.

And one not fully explained - at least as yet.

Not to mention somewhat at odds with the Biblical notion that it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven.

Ah, well, another one of the joyful and glorious economic mysteries.

Meanwhile, December's Atlantic has a [too] provocatively titled article by Hanna Rosin - "Did Christianity Cause the Crash" - that explores whether and how the churches that preach the gospel of prosperity to poor Latino and African-American congregations got their members to 'go for it' with respect to home ownership, whether they could afford to or not. Rosin cites a couple of banks that went after the faithful who, though poor as church mice, were lured into big sub-prime mortgages. She even talks about instances of kick-backs given to preachers for each person they brought in.

Rosin focused on Fernando Garay, who is pastor of a prosperity gospel church in Virginia. This is how she ended her article:

Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”

My guess is that there's plenty of real Christians who the recession has knocked out of their homes.

Sure, most of them probably shouldn't have "bought" their houses to begin with.


Oh, what a world we live in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Consider the snood....

Those trendspotters at the Wall Street Journal have spotted a fashion forward trend, and they're trumpeting the return of the snood. (Access to this article may require a subscription. I subscribe so I can keep up with snood-news.)

Here's their pic of Lady Gaga "sporting" a something that the Journal characterizes as a snood. All I ca[SB10001424052748704013004574517950577360962]n say is, when it comes to snoods, the WSJ has gone gaga. What Lady G is wearing, which looks like Little Red Riding Hood meets the Snuggie, is no snood.

Sure, I'm being a carping purist here. And I know that language evolves over time.  But, however appealing the name may be, a snood is a snood.

And a snood, in my book of snoods, is something that Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth's mother, Marmee March, wore in Little Women - and what a lot of women of a certain age, during a certain time, wore to keep their hair out of the way. Let's face it, if you lived in 1862 and had to chop down a tree every time you wanted to heat water for a sponge bath - let alone to wash your hair - you may not have wanted to have your locks on close display. That lustre? That would be the light from the kerosene lantern reflecting off a couple of months worth of sweaty grease.

No wonder that snoods were ragingly popular.

But a snood isn't a hood, or an infinity scarf, or a hooded infinity scarf. It's a heavy duty hairnet. To your right, Ecce snood, courtesy of Moonstruck Originals, which sells period clothing (in the infinite economy, someone has to).

This, of course, isn't stopping fashionistas from declaring the Year of the Snood.

Missoni's pushing knit snoods.

Burberry,  "with reigniting the trend," has a Burberry check model for $295, and "also has wool, mink and rabbit fur versions."

Donna Karan's got one for $695.

$695 for a snood! The entire Alcott Family, from Bronson on down, are rolling over in their graves in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord.

Everyone, it seems, is getting into the snood act:

A few weeks ago Bloomingdale's urged customers to "make sure that you're seen in this lavish new accessory." Henri Bendel ranked the snood second amongst its top ten "things we fancy for fall" while Saks Fifth Avenue included it in its "Want It" fall campaign. "Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively was photographed in one on the show's set last month.

At the low end, the Limited and American Apparel have affordable models. The Limited's is acrylic. (Shudder, shudder.)

Burberry, whose chief financial officer recently cited the snood as one of the top drivers of the company's fall accessories sales, attributes the snood's rise to consumers' desire for safety in tumultuous times. "I love this idea of protection that it gives," says the brand's creative director Christopher Bailey, who was so into the look that he showed snoods for men and women on almost every model at his fall 2009 runway show. Simon Kneen, creative director for Gap Inc.'s Banana Republic brand, also likened the accessory to "a Linus blanket," a reference to the blue security blanket always carried by the Peanuts cartoon character.

Well, I have as much a desire for safety in tumultuous times as the next guy, but, given that desire for safety in tumultuous times, I won't be forking over $295 to Burberry for a purple and black check "snood."

The article makes throw-away mention of "traditional snoods" - a.k.a. the hairnet, but they claim that the snood morphed over time into some sort of scarf.

The snood name, however, isn't going down so well with some American retailers. But it's not because they're quibbling over whether a scarf is an echt snood. Rather, it's because the word "can sound more like a Dr. Seuss character than a hot fashion item."

So most U.S. snood-sellers are calling their faux snoods some variation on the infinity scarf.

My sister Kath is the first person I've seen wearing an infinity scarf.

Because of her desire for safety in tumultuous times, she knit one for herself.  And, because her desire for safety in tumultuous times generously extends to those near and dear to her, she has promised to make me one, too.

Neither of us will, however, will be calling it a snood.

Friday, November 20, 2009

WATCH List 2009 - The Land of the Misfit Toys

This is the anniversary of my 2008 post on the list of worst toys - in terms of danger, not of taste and aesthetics - of the year.

Well, the new list of the most perilous toys for 2009 from WATCH - that's World Against Toys Causing Harm - is out. WATCH, a Massachusetts non-profit, has been speaking out on rotten toys since 1973, which means they're now into their third generation. You'd think by now that toy manufacturers would have figured choking hazards out, wouldn't you?

I was most disappointed to see a book on the list - and a Curious George book, at that. But, as anyone who's been to a Borders or a Barnes and Noble looking for kids books lately can tell you, for every book-book there's some sort of book+ merchandise thing - plush this, whirling that, lunch box whatever - to accompany it. It's almost as though if a book doesn't come with a TV show or add-ons - think Dora the Explorer - it's not worth carrying on the shelves. Thus, the last set of baby books I purchased came from one of the last indie bookstores in the area, the Harvard Bookstore, which doesn't sell book avec crap. There, I found some very nice books - one, in fact, was a counting book - that I haven't seen going and coming.

This Curious George counting book comes with an embedded abacus. That's a 6 1/2" metal rod, you got there. Man in the Yellow Hat beware! You could poke your eye out with that! And it's easy enough to see a kid wanting to pry those colored beads out and pop 'em in his mouth.

If you want to buy a counting book, there are plenty of them out there that don't include a built in attractive nuisance. Besides, a lot of families will already have some sort of abacus toy - not to mention that, before you bring your baby home from the hospital, you must be able to demonstrate that you have the rainbow-colored Fisher Price stack o' rings you can count on. This must be the case. Certainly, I don't recall ever being in a home with a baby that didn't have this classic.

And weren't we just talking about poking an eye out?

Could happen with this Disney Pixar WallDISNEY-PIXAR WALL-E FOAM ROCKET LAUNCHER-E Rocket Launcher which is, apparently, jet propelled enough to shoot the rocket 20 feet.

I'm sure I'd feel different about this if I actually knew a kid who lost an eye because of this toy, and maybe this should be for kids much older than three, which is the stated over-under, but kids really love launching something and seeing it take off. Pea shooter, sling shot, baseball bat, in-person/on-person throwing arm... Who doesn't love a 'thar she blows' toy. (One of my brothers had a toy tank that shot big, red, soft plastic shells. We thought it was incredibly cool for the twenty minutes it worked before we broke it. Nobody lost an eye or a tooth during those twenty minutes.)

In fact, WATCH is not being a purse-lipped kill-joy here. The problem with this toy is its labeling. It states in bold that the toy is FOR ALL AGES, but makes a smaller mention that it's not recommended for kids under the age of three.

Inconsistent labeling is a recurring theme with WATCH. People do tend to trust what's on the label, figuring that the toy has been vetted. But they may not look at all the fine print, or notice that fun for all ages really comes with a qualifier.

What else is on the list?

There's something called the Moon Board Pogo Board - which looks to combine a wheel-less skateboard with the bounce of a pogo stick - used to perform tricks. It comes with so many warnings about wearing protective gear, that it's certainly easy to see that kids would like it and parents would hate it.

Then there's the caveat “Do not attempt ‘tricks’ beyond your skill level.” Name me one child in the history of the world - other than child-me, who would have decided immediately that I had no skill level and would have avoided this one to begin with - who would read and heed that warning.

Then there's the Batman with the sharp, pointy ears. (You can poke your eye out!) The xylophone for the 18 month old with the easily removable drumstick to plunk on it with - that could be sucked on and "occlude a child's airway." (Note to parents: Remove drumstick tethered to xylophone. Press on xylophone to demonstrate to child that fingers work.) The stuffed Maltese puppy with the strangulation hazard leash....

Frankly, while the toys on the list all have problems, the problems seem solvable if a parent observes a couple of rules:

  • Read the front and back of packaging, including the small print, and trust the highest age recommendation. I.e., if the front says 3 and over, and the back says "not for children under 5", go with the "not for children under 5" warning.
  • Don't give a baby/toddler a toy with any small, easily removable pieces. Tug on everything first.
  • If you give your child anything that shoots a projectile object, make sure they're wearing goggles - which the kids would probably like, anyway.

And then there's Rogers' rule: for every plastic piece of crap you buy, buy a book, preferably one without an embedded abacus in it. You could poke an eye out with that!

Anyway, if you're buying toys this Christmas, as always, you'd better watch out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Crime may not pay (but Bernie's auction sure did)

Just a brief post today to let folks who may have missed the news know that the Pieces of Bernie and Ruthie auction - sort of like the "results" that Madoff delivered -  exceeded expectations.  But, unlike Madoff's financial results, which occurred only on paper, the auction off of B&R's personnel effects brought in cold, hard cash - about $1M. Twice what the auctioneers thought they'd get going in.

That Mets jacket that Bernie won't be needing in the stir?

The auctioneers had valued it at up to $720, but some sport forked over $14.5K for it.

Bernie's Hofstra College Class of 1960 ring brought in $6K. The pre-auction estimate was $360.

Bernie's gold irons also went for an order of magnitude beyond the estimate.

Ruthie's diamond dangle earrings went for $70K per pair - pre-auction worth was set at $9.8 and $21.4K.

One of the items that under-performed was one of Bernie's 17 Rolex watches. Someone got that for a $65K song - $10-20K less than its appraisal.

Of course, there must have been many other under-performing assets, or the auction would have brought in more than double what was expected. I.e., everything obviously didn't go for a multiple of 10. (Wonder what the cow creamer and the Post-it notes went for?)

But, overall, the auction was a mega-success. Kinda sorta like the results that Bernie's victims thought they were getting, no? An interesting parallel.

I'm assuming that most of those who paid inflated prices did so anticipating that the value of anything Madoff will increase. Hard to believe that anyone would pay a real premium for this stuff.

But in terms of the value increasing, that may not happen A couple of years from now, Bernie Madoff may well have faded completely out of our individual and collective consciousness. (Think Bernie Ebbers.)

Meanwhile, a separate auction of Bernie's yachts (and Ruthie's Mercedes) took in $2M.

Source: AP article from the Auction Central News site.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cogito Ergo Tweet

Time has come up with a wonderful compilation of the greatest inventions of 2009.

Talk about a treasure trove!

Okay, so the first - and best, according to Time - on the list is the Ares Rocket, an invention that I'm afraid to say bores the space suit off of me. (How did it beat out the AIDS vaccine, by the way?) I guess I was just one of those whom the space program just blasted right by.

I remember our first astronaut - Alan Shephard - mainly because it was the first time that we had a TV in the classroom. Some parent must have lent us the little black and white "portable" with rabbit ears. The space shot would have been more thrilling if Alan Shepard had been a Catholic, of course. Oh, well. Maybe we got to watch it to begin with because the President was a Catholic.

A year or so later, I thought the John Glenn orbit was kind of cool.

But other than enjoying the laugh riot that was Bill Dana's HIGH-larious Mexican astronaut, José Jiménez - it was a different time, not so much a kinder, gentler time, as a time when you could tell ethnic jokes, make fun of people's accents and actually laugh out loud - I never paid much attention to the space program. (I did watch the moon landing, and look at the moon that night; and I loved the movie The Right Stuff.)

So the Ares invention doesn't do it for me.

But tank-bred tuna does. Sure, I know the rap on aquiculture is that it produces the plumped up, hormoned to the gills equivalent of the factory chicken. Still, it's good to know that when the oceans get tuna-fished out, we'll still be able to have an occasional sandwich featuring a salad made of the chicken of the sea.

I also like the Yike Bike, which kind of looks like a rabbit corkscrew on wheels. Yes, steering by leaning does seem like a major invitation to falling off and breaking a shoulder - no thanks - and the top speed of 12 m.p.h. is a tad frightening. But it looks so much like a tech-ish little tricycle, you have to just love it.

As I plan on cultivating vertical farming at a later date - by blogging about it, not actually doing it - I didn't even click through on this winning invention. 

I'm glad someone invented a $20 knee, as I will probably be needing one at some point. But I'm not so glad that someone's cloning puppies - to the tune of $144K per clone. Not that I don't understand doggy-love; I just think that full-body cloning is on the downside of a steep and very slippery slope. Ugh.

Of the first 25 inventions on the list, though, my favorite is something called Tweeting by Thinking. I will admit that, when I first saw it, my initial thought was, 'oh, great, now the mindless twitterers won't even have to risk Twitter Thumb Syndrome, they'll just be able to think their 140 character bon mots."

Then I read the description of it.

It's not really Twittering by Thinking at all.

It's a way for those who are "locked in" - paralyzed but with their minds still working - to communicate by focusing on a character board while wearing an electrode cap.  Locked in people can communicate now, but I believe it's only/largely by having someone count their blinks. This new method will let people communicate on their own. So far, it's slow going: the most rapid tweeters - and, yes, Tweeting is the first application they're using - only run at about 8 characters per minute. But the rate will only be going in one direction.

Yes, I can think of many creepy applications of this down the pike, but I'll probably be tweeting from the great beyond before anyone figures out how to really read an unwitting someone else's mind. But for the here and now, this is a terrific development. It's thrilling to me in a way that no Ares rocket's ever going to be,- although once we completely despoil the earth - something else that will likely be post-my-humous - it won't be a bad fall back position if those with the right stuff can hop into a rocket and check out the next universe to see if we can make a go of it there.

Until then, bravo to the Twitter by Thinking inventors. Cogito ergo tweet is one small step for the locked in man and woman, but what a might leap that small step will mean.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dream on Studios

A while back, we locals started hearing about the Major Motion Picture Studio that was going to be built in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Plymouth Rock Studios was variously the brain child and the love child of David Kirkpatrick, former head of Paramount Studios, and yet another one of those famous-people-having-to-do-with-the-world-of-entertainment-that-I've-never-heard of.

Plymouth Rock Studios was gong to be a very ambitious undertaking, based on:

...a $650 million plan to build 14 sound stages and a virtual entertainment city in the woods of Plymouth, making Massachusetts the production center for countless movies and TV shows.

Needless to say, the locals all got big old stars in their eyes on this one.  PRS was not only going to mean jobs, it was going to mean glam jobs. For who among us has not, for at least one brief shining moment, harbored the fantasy that they were going to be a star.

Of course, putting away our childish things, most of us realized that a) we weren't going to be a star; b) being a star is often accompanied by all sorts of terrible invasions of the privacy snatchers and other rotten things that could make day to day life miserable. (Truly, who wants to see a picture of themselves using a pooper-scooper in the pages of US Magazine. Movie stars: they're just like us.)

Still, I wouldn't mind writing a novel that got optioned. And having it up for an Academy Award. (What to wear, what to wear. Would I have to get contact lenses for the occasion? Does anyone other than Martin Scorsese wear glasses to the Oscars?)

And if Matt Damon stopped me on the street and asked me to play his older fling, or, more likely, his mother-in-law, in a new movie, I might say 'yes.' He is, after all, a nice local boy.

Not to mention that it's kinda-sorta fun when a movie's being made in the 'hood.

Why, Tom Cruise, Katie, and Suri, plus Cameron Diaz, were apparently trick or treating on Beacon Hill a few weeks ago. I, personally, did not observe them in the crowds, which I was happy to escape for a nice quiet dinner. (Nor did I see John Kerry giving out candy, although there was quite a gathering outside of his mansion hoping for a glimpse. Wonder what he gave out. Packets of Heinz ketchup?)

Anyway, the Plymouth Rock Studios idea has - at least for the time being - run aground, and Plymouth will not be turning into Hollywood East anytime soon.

The funding is gone, baby, gone, Kirkpatrick's group having parted company with the Prosperity International LLC of Florida:

...which had approved a $550 million construction loan to the studio developers, has falsely claimed credit for projects it has not been associated with. It is run out of a rented house near Disney World by a man who has been through bankruptcy himself.

The Magic Kingdom weeps.

The Kirkpatrick group has raised $11M and spent $15M.

You do the math.

They're under the waters of Plymouth Harbor as surely as is the hull of the replica of the Mayflower.

Kirkpatrick himself has had his own money woes, having gone through a recent personal bankruptcy, and been:

... reduced to making small-time videos - “Merry Christmas Babies’’ sold 23 copies - and relying on a loan from his mother in Worcester to make ends meet, court records show.

Mother. In. Worcester.

Does the story get any better?

Well, yes it does, and it include a nasty-gram from Anne Rice, the writer who formerly specialized in vampire-related novels, who was doing a project for a religiously-oriented entertainment group that Kirkpatrick had gotten involved in that was going to provide something called 'Spiritainment.'  (The group was promised backing by an ex-con named Bobbitt. You cannot make these things up.)

Enough. You can read the entire convoluted story in The Globe. (Source of the quoted material above.)

I actually do hope that Plymouth Rock Studios gets funded and, better yet, actually takes off - even though the entire project reeks of  'Hey, kids, the economy's broken. Let's put on a show!'

I'm behind having a little Tinseltown come our way. (Hooray for Hollywood!  Hooray for Plymouth!)

And, having broken my head trying to follow the ins and outs of this one, I'm even willing to offer David Kirkpatrick a suggestion.

Forget Anne Rice. I think that he might want to start out with remakes of The Music Man, The Sting, and Elmer Gantry.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Steve Burton, a man in someone else's uniform (So why is this a federal offense?)

Well, I've always wondered just what the Uniform Code of Military Justice is. But now I'm beginning to piece things together and figure out that the operative words may be "uniform" and "military." Or so it seems, if you're following the case of Steve Burton, who went to his 20th high school reunion sporting a Marine uniform, bedazzled by a number of medals, including the Navy Cross. (Source: CNN.)

Trouble is, Burton is not now and never has been a Marine, let alone a decorated Marine, and he's now charged with:

..."unauthorized wearing of military medals or decorations." The federal misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in federal prison upon conviction.

Semper fee, fie, fo, fum. Someone smells the blood of a Palm Springs bank officer, not a mega-decorated jar-head.

That someone was Navy Commander Colleen Salonga.

She was also at the reunion - apparently in mufti - when she spied Burton's chest o' medals and, knowing the rarity with which the Navy Cross is awarded, grew suspicious.

Apparently, Salonga didn't do what a kinder, gentler classmate might have done - ask a probing question or two, and then whisper in Burton's ear that if those really weren't his medals, he needed to take them off.  Or write it off as a bad joke Halloween costume - the reunion was held on October 31st of last year. No, Salonga asked the unwitting Burton to pose with her for a picture. Which she put down her swagger stick long enough to send to the FBI.

Despite the perpetual threat of terrorism and the large number of what I might loosely call crime-crimes, the FBI had time to investigate. (Including a search of Burton's home.) They discovered that Burton had never served, let alone won any medals, and that he'd been blogging about his exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq - questionable taste and judgement surely, but not a federal offense as far as I'm aware.

He also had a picture of himself posted online, again in uniform, this time having humbly demoted himself from high school reunion lieutenant colonel to lowly gunnery sergeant. The medals were fully intact. (By the way, "even if a medal is a replica, wearing it still violates federal law." Who knew?)

Burton hasn't spoken, so it's difficult to say what his intentions were here, but if I were the betting type, I'd place a couple of bets.

First, Burton lives with his partner of eighteen years. If we were to put two and two together, one might be able to imagine that at some point or other during his time served at Alhambra High School, Burton was ridiculed or bullied. Nothing terrible, mind you. Just the occasional trip in the halls, the odd book toss, the hip chuck into the lockers, the stray epithet hurled his way.

What better way to show up the jocks who scorned him as a 98 pound weakling than to show up at the 20th reunion as a decorated Marine?

Second, like a lot of folks - especially those who haven't led particularly glamorous or exciting lives - Burton may have fantasized and romanticized about being a hero. One bit of wishful thinking led to another, and there you are online writing about your combat exploits. (Note: the work-based exploits I occasionally write about on Pink Slip are true, all true, however filtered through the years and through my own desire to make myself look good...)

If it's the first - revenge of the nerd - this story is kind of funny.

If it's the second - well, this is sad and more than a little pathetic. Definitely conduct unbecoming a bank officer.

When I was a kid, we had an expression we used when someone over-reacted to something: "You don't have to make a federal case out of it."

Maybe my moral compass is way off here, but is Burton's offense something we need to make a federal case out of?

Sure, you can make the case that Burton vaguely took away from real heroes by posing as one. But what's the real harm? He wasn't swanning around the Pentagon giving advice. He wasn't cadging health care from a VA Hospital. He wasn't giving interviews crowing about his heroism. He wasn't endangering the lives of others in battle.  He wasn't trying to get a free ride - front row tickets, upgrades to first.

He was pretending he was something he wasn't so that people would think he was brave, a hero, someone to look up to.

Embarrassing, shabby, pathetic? Yes. (Or maybe just a joke of dubious taste, given that there's a war on. Or, rather, two wars on.)

Deserving of a poke in the nose from a real winner of the Navy Cross? Probably.

Worthy of a year in the slammer? Absolutely not.

Burton's trial date is set for early January.

I'm not a big one to complain about waste of taxpayers' money. But isn't this a colossal waste of taxpayers money?

I'm sure that the blogosphere's chicken hawk brigade will be squawking for Burton to do time for this affront to their world, but I'm hoping the government prosecutor comes to his senses and drops the trial, with a warning to Burton that he better not show up at his 25th reunion wearing any "fruit salad".

As for Colleen Salonga...

Come on, Colleen. Sure, it may have been a little awkward to broach the topic with Steve Burton. But, if you had your suspicions, wouldn't voicing them to Steve have been a bit more upright than cagily getting him to pose for a picture that you could send on to the FBI? Couldn't you have used your network to check out the Navy Cross story on your own - surely there's a list somewhere, surely this information isn't secret. And surely you could have contacted Burton once you found that his name was AWOL from any Navy Cross list, and told him off  and warned him that he'd better cease and desist.

The best spin I can put on this is that maybe you wanted to 'make sure' before you made an accusation, and the FBI, lamely, decided to run with it.

But isn't this a consequence that you should have been able to foresee?

(If there's some end-of-days situation and they end up drafting old geezers, and I find myself serving under her, I'm heading to sick-bay.)

As for the FBI. Once they got their wind up on Burton, how about a sternly worded letter to him? Or a knock on the door and a  'you may not be aware' conversation with the local G-man.

Sure, wearing medals you didn't win is pathetic and somewhat distasteful, but it's not such an obvious crime, is it? I mean, it's not up there in terms of 'but of course', heinous offenses like grand theft auto, beating someone's brains out with a tire iron, or stealing military secrets and selling them to Al Qaeda.

Yes, it's "only" a misdemeanor, but there seems to be an awful lot of over-reacting for something that's really fairly peccadillo-ish in the grand scheme of things. (A possible year in jail? Yikes!)

As for poor Steve Burton, he's sure finding out that make-believe war is hell, too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pieces of Bernie

If you're not doing anything tomorrow, pieces of Bernie (and Ruthie) are being auctioned off  through the U.S. Marshals Service by Gaston & Sheehan at the Sheraton Hotel in NYC. Don't worry if you won't be in town - the auction's being simulcast.

I first read about this is The Wall Street Journal , by I didn't want to take their word for it, so I checked out the auction house and the Marshals, themselves. They put together a nicely detailed catalog for their National Forfeited Jewelry Auction, and conveniently pointed out that the Madoff lots are 196-299, and 301-386. I think we could tell from the picture alone that not everything being sold-off "belonged" to Bernie or Ruth.

That stunning cap in the lower right corner comes from an entirely non-Madoff lot. Myself, I'm not a Yankees fan, but if you're a pin-striper with $80-110 of cap money burning a hole in your pocket, the cap is size 7 1/2, and is a special edition (yo!) version. It's made of "black wool/cashmere fabric w/ white gold button top & thread appointments; handmade bullion logo". That would be handmade in Italy. Comes with its own mahogany box.

But the Mets jacket, of course, was Bernie's, and it's kind of too bad he couldn't hang on to it, since those complementary colors sure go with an orange jump suit, no?

To browse the catalog is a little stroll down consumption lane.

Bernie liked watches. Lots of them. Cartier, Rolex, Piaget. And if you can't afford $50-60K to bid on a watch, he also had a lot of watch bands.

Ruthie, I'd say, was more into bracelets and pocketbooks. Especially pocketbooks.

Talk about in came the lady with the alligator purse. And the crocodile purse. And the lizard purse. And the snakeskin purse. Apparently, there's no such thing as too many Vuitton or Hermes bags.

Ruthie's fancy silver, china, and glassware are also up for bid, including 12 individual sterling salt shakers (with salt). There are also more humble little items like her corn on the cob plates, and her ceramic cow creamer. (I have one of those, too! Of course, mine is this goofy purple cow one my mother gave me years ago, and not the cool white version from Williams Sonoma, or Crate and Barrel, or wherever the cool one comes from.)

You'll be able to bid on lots of swell stuff, including a couple of boogie boards with "Madoff" written on them in black marker, Ruthie's golf shoes (size 8, Footjoy), and Bernie's money clip.

You can bid on the Madoffs' his and hers personalized writing paper - comes in the lot with some pens, and a partial (1/5) stack of personalized Post-it notes. Curiously, the 7 Ella Fitzgerald stamps (0.46 euro denomination) aren't in the lot with the paper and pens. They're lumped in with a couple of Ruthie's wallets and a messenger bag. (Wonder if there are any messages still in it!)

There may be TMI contained in the catalog. (Do I need to know - let alone repeat - that Ruthie wore a 28" belt? [All those 32" belts must have gone over heavy sweaters.])

Alas, I won't be going to the auction - nor will I be participating in the simulcast. But I did want to pass the info on to my readers.

And even if you miss the jewelry, etc. auction, you'll still have a chance to get a piece of Bernie, when his yachts - Bull, Sitting Bull, and Little Bull - hit the auction block in Ft. Lauderdale next Tuesday.

Happy bidding!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"How Not to Act Old"

For the life of me, I don't know how I've missed Pamela Redmond Safran's How Not to Act Old, but - thanks to my (younger) sister Trish - I now know that there are little things we need to avoid doing if we don't want to appear (yuck!) old.

And we're not talking just the obvious ones like getting your hair kinked, fried, and sprayed weekly at Al's Golden Chateau. Or  sitting on the subway with your arms clutched, Heimlich Maneuver tight, around your pocketbook. Or reacting with pinched-faced disapproval whenever the name Kanye West is mentioned.

We're talking about things that I hadn't (yet) realized signified geezerhood.

I first learned about Safran from a WBZ TV link to a post by Kate Merrill that Trish sent me on the topic, and here's the handful of must avoids:

  • Wearing a watch Forget that cool looking Skagen you're sporting, let alone Lady Bulova you got for your high school graduation. You need to know what time it is? What do you think your iPhone's for.
  • Leaving a voice mail. I had pretty much figured out that leaving a voice mail for anyone under 30 was a waste of breath. I guess it's still okay to leave a voice mail for a fellow traveler. Unless you want to demonstrate that you've joined the vanguard of those who know that it's such a waste of precious time to listen to a tedious voice message, let alone respond to it. We live in the moment - and that moment is shouting TXT.
  • Cosmos.  Even though I never saw "Sex and The City", a cosmo - or some variation on the martini theme: Appletini, Lemon Drop, whatever - has always made me feel, along with the light attendant buzz,  kippy and cool. According to Safran, the cosmo is "the official drink of menopausal women." Of course, I'm now of an age when it's flattering to be thought of as a menopausal woman. We're not told what's the beverage in today's fountain of youth - Hendrick's gin? - but I think I'll stick with the occasional cosmo. I tend to be drinking one in the company of fellow geez-ettes, in a decidedly non-hip venue, where a kindly and aging bartender is looking out for us.

Sure, all this is good for a laugh or two, but we also know that folks of a certain age hit big time age discrimination in the job market, so Merrill includes a couple of "must avoid" tips from career counselor Kathy Robinson.

  • Don't use long, formal e-mails as part of your job search. Keep it cas, bro. Nothing screams oldster like formal, stilted language. A while back, a friend of mine (roughly my age) was told by her 20-something manager that she shouldn't use words like "picayune" or "recapitulate" because no one would know what she was talking about. (I posted about this here.)
  • Don't use an AOL or Hotmail address. These just holler out of it. You need to be on gmail,, or I'm so hip, I have two gmail addresses, and a one. But who needs them to begin with, since no one wants to read e-mails anyway. Especially the long, boring ones from old timers who use words like picayune and recapitulate.

Hey, I'm no different from the next aging Baby Boomer. I don't want to get old, look old, feel old, or act old.

On the other hand, as I grow old, I become more and more convinced that not wanting to deal with all the new-fangled everythings that never really seem to make things any better than they used to be, is part of nature's way of making us feel that it's gonna be okay to fall into the Big Sleep.

I'm nowhere near ready to put my head on the pillow yet. I really want to live in a world where wearing a watch is the equivalent of carrying an hourglass or a sundial around?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day, 2009

With last week's Fort Hood killings, the military is in the news this Veterans Day.

Bad enough you're at risk if you get sent into a combat zone, let alone you can lose your life to some enraged fellow soldier who goes off his nut.

It's interesting to see how our attitudes towards the military have changed over my lifetime.

When I was a kid, military service just was. Everyone's father had been in World War II. Everyone's older brothers, cousins, and neighborhood kids got drafted or joined up. It just was.

Then came Vietnam, and suddenly it just wasn't.

Now we have the situation in which military service falls disproportionately on the working class and the poor. Although a prolonged recession may up the class and educational profile a bit, the skew is not likely to change any time soon.

In return for their service, we give our boys and girls - should they survive -  some educational benefits and, from what I understand, some not so great (mental) health care.  Oh, yes, and then there are the ads playing on people's patriotism.  And all the palaver about everyone who joins the military being a can-do-no-wrong hero, fighting to keep us free (even if some of the wars they fight in seem at best to be tangentially related to "our freedom").

Not that there aren't many members of the service who do behave heroically, throwing themselves in front of a speeding bullet to save a fellow soldier or an innocent bystander.  But most, I'm guessing, are just people motivated by a combination of patriotism, desire for adventure, and economic reality to join up. And while most of them do get the opportunity to be brave - I wouldn't want to be roaming around Baghdad in a HumVee, thank you - most probably don't get the chance to be heroes.

I read the articles in the paper on the New England soldiers who've been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just the other day, it was a handsome young pilot who left a little girl and a wife who's eight months pregnant.  How can your heart not ache for the family?

On Veterans Day, most of us just go about our business.  If the parade walks by, we watch it for a few minutes. Who doesn't love a parade? And that will be about it for the year's thought on Army-Navy-Air Force-Marines-Coast Guard. Until and unless there's another Ft. Hood style meltdown.

I'm not sure if Buddy Poppies - which benefit veteran-related charities - are sold in November, for Veterans Day, or in May for Memorial Day. I will be on the alert this week for someone in an oversea's cap selling them.

Most of us probably don't know many active service members.  But most of us probably do know at least a few veterans.

Happy Veterans Day to all of them.


Here's what I wrote last year on Veterans Day. It still holds.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lucid NYC: party-on, brainiacs

What is the weekend for, if not to fritter away the hours reading newspaper articles like the one in the Sunday NY Times on the dire straits that many young city bachelors find themselves in, now that they can't afford to pay $5K a month rent for the pad of their dreams.

There was the guy who, because he can no longer afford "costly leather sofas":

...fills kiddie pools with piles of pillows for guests to snuggle in on his monthly movie nights.

And the recently divorced 36 year old, living off royalties from an earlier music career, and downsized, apartment-wise, from the loft where:

...two walls were devoted to shelves showcasing his vast sneaker collection.

But my favorite downsized bachelor was the one who pays $750 a month:

...for a five-story ramshackle building in Brooklyn Heights that is packed to the rafters with antiques.

The Collier Brothers ambience is enhanced by the falling plaster, the lack of kitchen, and the lack of heat.

David Friedlander, however, was not so interesting because of where and how he lives, but what he does for a living. He:

...produces Lucid NYC, a series of parties with intellectual content

And if there's one thing I love, it's a party with intellectual content.

Lucid's motto says that it's "creating a more enlightened world one party at a time." And they have a truly swell tagline: "like buying banality offsets."

The parties, I take it, involve brief presentations by intellectual content providers, followed by mingling and hanging out chatting.

Hey, I was completely and utterly ready to make complete and utter fun of the concept of paying to hang out with design agitators, roboticists, and vertical farmers.

And they I thought, why not?

In the party photo gallery, people appear to be enjoying themselves over wine and banality offsets.

Maybe Friedlander's on to something here.

In a world where so much is virtual and so much is shouting, why not start a salon, where someone with interesting ideas can talk about them. And you have more of an opportunity to speak directly with them than you would if they were lecturing at the 96th Street Y or wherever it is that design agitators, roboticists, and vertical farmers might do their thing.

Why not get people to step toe out of their anti-content cocoons, where anything longer than a tweet is too impossibly involved for today's go-go texter to absorb?  Why not run a party that offers something more than networking, self-aggrandizement, and one-ups-manship? (Not that ex-Wall Steeters are the target market for Lucid.)

Unfortunately, Firedlander's probably not on to something that will earn him much of a living in the near future, so he may be hunkering down for a while in that antiques-crammed fire-hazard in Brooklyn Heights. (At least he's in a nice neighborhood. Hope they turn some heat on for him at some point.)

Lucid is hiring, by the way, but -  and this is the unfortunate part - they can't afford to pay anyone right now. (I love their cheesy stock-art photo of "employees". Very funny. It reminds me of the unintentionally hilarious pic that an occasional client of mine used on their "Management Bios" page.  The management team of the firm, as was somewhat clear from their names, were a) all male; b) all Russian. (Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev...) I had to ask him to explain who the young Asian woman, or the Latino-looking male might be...)

If you’d like to attend an event, present or have something to contribute to the website, contact David at

Meanwhile, I sense a blog post on vertical farming coming on...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?

Well, I was working at Wang, but trying to free myself from that repressive and stultifying environment by finding a job somewhere else.

But, like everyone else, when I got home from work, I watched what was happening in Berlin with interest.

And on November 9th, the day the Wall officially fell, my husband turned to me and said, "I think we should go."

And so we did, leaving shortly after Christmas and staying into the New Year, a glorious week that coincided with my intercession between the tedium, boredom, and fear-factor of Wang and the total and complete meshugas of Softbridge, where I ended up spending the next near-decade.

The first thing we did when we got to Berlin was find our way to the Wall. As we neared the Reichstag Building, you could hear it: the persistent clink, clink, clink - and the deeper wham, wham, wham - of people chipping away at it. Hundreds of them: families with small kids, old age pensioners, youths, and tourists.

Even though we had nothing but a nail file between the two of us, Jim and I joined in and helped tear down the Wall.

At one point, in order to get some purchase on a chunk of loose concrete, I leaned into a large hole. While my feet were squarely planted in West Berlin, my head and torso were in Eastie. I looked up and saw a none-too-happy-looking young soldier - he couldn't have been more than 19 or 20 - nearing me, arms cradling a machine gun.

'Oh, great,' I thought, 'If I don't act fast, he's going to drag me fully through this hole and there'll be an international incident.'

Seeing the panicked look on my face, the boy soldier began to smile.

"Zu klein," he said, gesturing to the nail file. "Zu klein."

It didn't take much German to get what he was saying. The nail file was too small.

I smiled back at him and nodded. "Ja," I said. "Zu klein."

He said something else, but I'd nearly exhausted my German. I shook my head. "Amerikaner. Keine deutsche."  I have no German.

What a week. Other than having to game every meal so that we could avoid the smokers, we had a great time.

Nearly two months after the Wall had started to topple, the city remained giddy, electric.

You could spot the East Berliners everywhere. They were the ones with the dull, shabby clothing.

East German families would be standing in front of Woolworth's, noses pressed against the display window, in awe at the bounty of the West. And in the KaDeWe - Berlin's version of Harrod's - bug-eyed East Berliners rode the escalator to the food courts - which are truly magnificent - where they walked around in shock and awe.

Having made our way a few times over to the East Berlin side - you still had to go through Checkpoint Charlie, but it was pretty pro forma, and everyone, after showing a passport, was waved through - we could appreciate just how staggering the affluence and plenty of the West must have seemed to the East Germans.

The grocery stores were grim: bruised apples that should have gone to the cider mill; slimy, not quite fresh looking fish in the display cases.  Bottles of beer were available for the equivalent of a nickel. (If you can't give them bread and circuses, liquor 'em up.) We went into the major department store - I can't remember the name of it, but it had stalls with individual vendors in it - where the quality of the merchandise was abysmally low. Think yard sale in a poor neighborhood. I fingered some underwear. It felt like sandpaper.

And this was the showpiece of Communism?

It's amazing it lasted as long as it did.

New Year's Eve was wild.

We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate to see the new year in, but there was too much crowd for us. We walked around the city. People were setting off personal fireworks everywhere. One fellow shouted "Achtung" as we walked by him. Achtung, alright. He was shooting a roman candle off out of a wine bottle. It zipped by me, nearly missing my head. 

We hadn't thought to make dinner reservations anywhere, so we went back to our hotel and ordered ham sandwiches and champagne from room service.

On our last evening in Berlin, we were coming back to the Western side when we realized that we had to use or lose our ostmarks. Since there was nothing to buy, we stopped in a small bar-restaurant, the Volga, located near the Russian Embassy.

Not knowing exactly what it was - but having visions of something that tasted like a liquid version of a Butter Rum Lifesaver - I ordered a grog. Jim more carefully - he thought - order a rum and coke. Neither drink was actually drinkable. I gave my grog a sniff and felt both lung and liver damage.

Jim looked around and said, "Just think of it. The drinks are terrible. The food's lousy. And up until a couple of weeks ago, the guy at the next table was probably spying on you."

And so it was.

The trip to Berlin was one of the best I've ever taken.

If nothing else, it was nice to see Germans in the news positively for the first time in, oh, nearly a century. (Note: November 9, 1989 was the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht.)

The rest, as the saying goes, is history...

Where were you when the Wall fell?


Maybe not on November 9th. But I was there.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Snot monitor at Disney World (and you thought your job was terrible)

I was reading yet another of those 'be afraid, be very afraid' articles on the H1N1 pandemic - my throat scratchy, my neck glands aching, through every last word. (Did that person on the other side of the street just cough? Thoughtless bastard should be wearing a surgical mask and staying the hell home.)

This one was in the NY Times, scheduled for this coming Sunday, but through the miracle of modern technology, available in the now. It talked about how theme parks just might be breeding grounds for the flu.

There are, apparently,

Disney fans’ discussion boards are buzzing about the fears of transmission and whether some people are putting their fellow vacationers at risk.

Fear and hang-wringing - once those hands have been cleansed with Purell - are not limited to Disney. All theme parks are viewed as germ vectors of the highest order.

Bad enough that there's a recession on, but having to worry about catching your death on "Pirates of the Caribbean" or a "Flying Dumbo".....

No wonder that theme park management is all over this.

Disney has ordered over 200,000 hand sanitizers for Disney World, which will be located throughout the park. Probably a reasonable precaution. I went to the 60th b-day party for an old friend's husband recently. It was held at a roller-rink, and there were quart pump-jugs of hand sanitizer all over the place.

Disney is, of course, pretty high on cleanliness to begin with. Forget the happiest place on earth, how about the most clean-compulsive place on there. I remember my first trip to Disney Land, and the amazing number of employees walking around with dustpans and brooms. They almost seemed individually assigned to stalk each "guest".

But there are more important things to focus on than whether some cad drops a gum wrapper.

...visitors who display serious symptoms can be referred to a park’s first-aid center for medical assistance.

How'd you like to be the person charged with approaching someone displaying "serious symptoms" and referring them on. Why do I smell law suit here? ("We paid a kabillion dollars for this dream trip, and I don't need some smiley-faced, snot-nosed kid pointing out my snot nosed kid. My Hortense, in fact, suffers from chronic runny-nose-itis, and she's no sicker than the guy in the Goofy costume.")

And, speaking of the guy in the Goofy costume:

If a sick child uses, say, Goofy’s costume as a tissue, a handler (one of the employees who act as the eyes and ears of the characters in costume) can instruct the character to change into a fresh costume.

Now there's a job I wasn't aware of: handler for the costumed character. Wonder if they take turns, or whether someone always has to play the straight guy. Wonder if they get to work with different characters, or whether a handler develops a specialty: princess-only; Donald and Daisy, but not Minnie and Mickey.

Personally, I'd rather be the handler, on the outside looking in, than a character. As a handler, my character preference would be another story. Would it be better to work with a smiling, simpering, princess, or have to put up with Mickey, Donald, or Goofy voice in your ear all day?

And to think that one of the handler's job responsibilities is checking whether some kid blew his nose into, or smeared her ice cream all over, Mickey's shorts or Snow White's pretty little vest.

Of course, germ vectors move both ways, and, as much as theme park patrons may beware walking into a perfect flu brew, how about the workers. Especially those in costume. (That handler job is looking better and better, isn't it? At least no little tyke is trying to hug or kiss you.)

A "travel health expert at the C.D.C." - now there's another interesting specialization - thinks that worrying about theme parks "might be overblown." Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky siad:

“To single out Disneyland and Disney World is not appropriate with regard to transmission of H1N1,” she said in an e-mail message. “There are too numerous to count opportunities for people to be in close spaces together, whether in movie theaters, in crowded shopping malls, on public transportation as well as during most individuals’ daily activities.”

Those daily activities - those are the ones that'll get you every time. Especially if your daily activities include donning a Cinderella costumer and hugging a couple of hundred enraptured pre-schoolers. Yes, that handler job is looking better and better all the time. Better to be a snot monitor than a snot monitee.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Leader of the Laundromat

How well I remember my first trip to the laundromat.

My friend Bernadette's family washing machine was broken, so her mother asked us to take a couple of loads over to Pat's Laundromat, conveniently located across Eureka Street from the Lees' house.

We started up the first load, and then realized that we hadn't put the detergent in. Undaunted, we opened the washing machine - a front loader, of course - so we could throw in the Tide. Which we did manage to accomplish, more or less, but not before nearly flooding Pat's Laundromat.

I probably had little use for laundromats again until I got an apartment when I was in college, and had to do my wash in the laundromat on Queensberry Street.

From there on out, until we bought our condo in 1991, I was a laundromat user. Often, we'd schlepp our laundry in, start it up, then head to a neighborhood restaurant. I'd pop out mid-meal to get the dryers going, and by the time we were finished, so was the laundry.

I actually kind of enjoy the laundromat experience. a) I like doing laundry to begin with. b) There is something intensely satisfying about getting 4-5 loads done simultaneously.

When we got our condo, there was a teeny little room with a laundry hookup in it. There was also a communal (and free) washer and dryer in the basement.

It didn't take me more than 3 seconds to decide that the teeny room would be my office, and the communal set up would be my laundry area.

There are only 6 condos in the building, and one has its own laundry, so it generally works out pretty well in terms of availability.

Of course, everyone in the building is not as observant and thoughtful as I am about making sure that once through the spin cycle, a load doesn't just languish there. Or as conscientious about cleaning the dryer filter. Or as knowledgeable about overloading. (There's a couple of young MIT grads in our building. You'd think they'd be able to figure out that if you take up every available bit of cubic space in the dryer with sopping wet towels, there's no air circulating, so those sopping wet towels won't dry.) Or as knowledgeable about underloading: we used to have an OCD guy living in the building who would use the washing machine at 4 o'clock in the morning to run a full load containing one pair of socks or a single dish towel.

As a result, I do a lot of laundry-tending and note leaving. (Good thing I like doing laundry.)

In some sense, all of this makes me supremely qualified to own and operate a laundromat, which was the topic of an article in yesterday's Journal.

The article focused on coin-op laundries because it was "thought to be impervious to recessions such as self-storage facilities and car washes," and - thus - was attractive to ousted wage slaves who, when they got pink slipped, vowed 'never again.'

A laundromat makes an attractive business for a number of reasons. First, pretty much everyone, by the time they're in their early twenties, has at least some experience with the core function, and some direct knowledge of the environment itself.

Plus,it's thought to be pretty much recession proof. Clothing has a way of getting dirty, linens get grubby, and very few people resort to washing their sheets in the tub, using a scrub board.

Apparently this recession is somewhat challenging the notion of recession proof, as some will be doing their laundry at mom's (probably after they've moved back in with her), and, in immigrant communities, a lot of the clientele has left the country, at least pro tem. (In the Journal article, the clientele gone missing in one neighborhood are referred to as 'vanishing Hispanics,' which kind of sounds like a magic act.)

Still, there are upsides. As the WSJ points out, while start up costs aren't trivial in terms of buying an operation, there's no inventory to worry about (beyond making sure that the vending machines have those handy little packets of detergent and dry bleach for those who come without their own). And, best of all, there's no problem with receivables - it's all purely pay as you go.

But before you head to the google to see about buying a laundromat for yourself, please note that, while interest in becoming laundromat moguls is high, the credit squeeze is making financing harder to come by.

If you do find your way in, you should know that:

About 70% of laundry owners in America are single-shop operators, and 20% operate only two, limited economies of scale having discouraged the rise of dominant national chains.

This is until Walmart finds some way to expand into the biz, I suppose.

The coin laundry represents a $5 billion-a-year industry of about 35,000 stores. "You can operate one of the best laundries in the country by yourself and for yourself," says Mr. Wallace.

I like that thought.

My laundromat would have book-swap shelves, for all the books I have read that no one else wants; for all the books I haven't read that no one else wants; and for the books I began, but just couldn't get that far into.

It would have decent, non-fluorescent, reading lamps, and plastic (they're practical) chairs in colors other than tangerine and aqua, colors that were apparently established as the laundromat chair tones sometime during the 1950's or early 1960's.

Although I would rather have my laundromat be a reading room, I would probably have wi-fi. (I would be careful to monitor things to make sure that consultants didn't hang out all day just to cadge wi-fi without ever throwing a load in. I would also enforce the 'no throwing an occasional quarter in an empty dryer' rule to keep said consultants from appearing to be doing laundry. Mean spirited, I know, but....)

I would run gratis 'how to do laundry' sessions for laundry neophytes, demonstrating the proper use of bleach and proven folding techniques.

I would have a snack vending machine, but would not encourage having any potable liquids on prem, since I wouldn't want to feel obligated to have a toilet.

My laundromat would have a juke-box, but no piped in muzak. And I would get to pick the selections.

One of which would, of course, be "Leader of the Laundromat," a mid-1960's hit by The Detergents, that parodied the mega-hit Shangri-la's hit "Leader of the Pack," which would also be available. (Vroom, vroom.)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Now they're telling us a Bombers' win is good for the economy. Damn Yankees!

Monday night, I was delighted to see the Philadelphia Phillies dig in, man up, and win a do or die game in the World Series. They may, of course, have merely staved off what seems inevitable: a Yankees win.

A Yankees win.


As an American League fan growing up when the Red Sox were cellar-dwellers and the World Series meant the Yankees, I was an October-only Yankees fan as a child. But that changed when the Red Sox became a contender, and the last time I rooted for the Yankees to win was in 2001, when they were America's Team and should, by rights and corny story-telling, have won it all.

That was then and this is now, so it's boo, hiss, Yankees, buying their way to contention and beyond with a checkbook as big as the Empire State Building.

Their 2009 payroll was $201 million, surpassing the next in line NY Mets' paltry $135 million. What better metaphor for the overall American rise of the super-rich and decline of the middle class?

Not that the middle class has no chance. It can be argued that the Phillies, with a $113 million payroll that places them 7th among the 30 MLB teams, is (upper) middle class. (In case you're wondering, the Olde Towne Team ranked 4th at $122 million - a hefty amount, but one dwarfed by the big spenders in pin stripes. Source for payroll info: ESPN.)

But a conversation on relative baseball spends, and America's lurch into banana republic status, will have to wait.

The topic du jour is an amusing article in the WSJ that argued that history shows us that if the Yankees win the Series, the economy will hum back to life in 2010. However, if the Phillies win, the economy will remain in dire straits.

The Groundhog Day argument is, admittedly, specious, but it's still fun.

Since 1930, the Yankees...have been a harbinger of average of 5% GDP growth in years following a series victory, healthy by any measure. In years in which the Yankees didn’t win the World Series (either they lost or didn’t make it) U.S. output expanded at an unspectacular 2.9%.

Win or lose, just an appearance by that Yankees in the World Series seems to foretell the next year’s growth. The economy grew an average of 4% in years after the Yankees lost the World Series. We’d also note that the last time the Yankees played the Phillies in the World Series (the Yankees won in four games) the economy grew a robust 7.7% the following year.

On the other hand, while the Phillies have a far skimpier World Series record to draw on, their victories in 2008 and 1980 foretold paltry (2.5% in 1981) or even negative (2009 numbers aren't in yet, but they'll be lousy) growth. When the Phillies lose, however, growth averages 5% in the subsequent year - same as with a Yankees win.

I really don't like where this 'head's I win, tails you lose' story is going.

Who wants to feel that it's a matter of economic patriotism to root for the Yankees? Talk about 'lie back and think of England.' No thanks.

Post hoc, of course, doesn't necessarily translate into  propter hoc. Although, as WSJ "Numbers Guy" Carl Bialik observed,

“Perhaps the Yankees thrive in years in which their rate of outspending other teams surges, and that their investments stimulate the economy. Or they only outspend when their staff economists forecast economic growth.”

Something to think about, anyway, in those breaks between pitches when I want to tune out Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.

But I do not buy the argument that what's good for the Yankees is good for the country.

For the duration I will keep calm and carry on, cheering for the Phillies to take it all. (Go, Pedro!)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Executive pensions on the rise - whew, am I ever relieved

Just when you think you'll never hear anything jolly out of corporate America, today's Wall Stree Journal brings the heartening news that executive pensions rose last year by nearly 20%. And for the most highly skilled and valuable, pensions rose by a well-deserved 50%. (Access to the full article may require a subscription, or picking a paper subscription off the vestibule floor of your building, which is where the ones that get delivered to my building end up. I recycle them.)

Will I ever sleep better tonight, or what?

Because I want to share the wealth, or, rather information about the wealth, I'm lifting the WSJ's chart, so that you can see some of the details for yourself, and rejoice in your own modest way that the pension liability for the top 4-6 executives of GE is $140.7 billion. Yes, unless there's a typo, we're talking billions. I know, I known, there are more than 4-6 top executives - that's a rolling number. There may be 100 or so top 4-6 executives, all deserving post-executive suite compensation that reflects the fact that "share prices at the companies declined an average of 37% in 2008 and many firms froze employee pensions and suspended retirement-plan contributions."

[executive pensions]

(Question to self: can BILLIONS be right? Can I believe my own eyes and/or the typesetter at the WSJ?)

Anyway,I'm not working full-time any more, and I never worked at GE to begin with (as if), but I, for one, think it's alrighty that GE's top guns will get to share $140.7 large ones. And that the boys from BofA can belly up to the $63.2B bar.

Way to go!

Who's more deserving of comfort in their old age? Who better to have a decent place to lay their weary head after all those taxing - metaphorically speaking - years of being executives?

Hey, I was an executive in a 50 person company for a few years, and, brother, they were dog years. The three or four years I was on the management team were more like 21-28 years. Unfortunately, the dog-year-i-ness is not reflected in the pension that I'll be getting once I hit 67 from the company that finally acquired us and put us out of our misery. I managed to hang on a year or so under the new regime, so I'll be getting a cool $300/month (if I round the figure up).

I recognize that I'm no Jack Welch, and, commensurately speaking, I'm sure he's worth a billion times more than I am.

Pensions are, of course, tied to overall compensation - fair's fair, no?

Big bonuses, especially in the final years of executives' tenure, boosted some top executive pensions substantially, filings show. One of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s two supplemental pension plans for executives uses the three highest bonuses in the five years prior to retirement to calculate the executive's pension. Thanks to this, a $4 million bonus to CEO Rex Tillerson in 2008 helped push the total value of his pension to $31 million from $23 million.

An Exxon spokeswoman pointed out that the proxy states that "by limiting bonuses to those granted in the five years prior to retirement, there is a strong motivation for executives to continue to perform at a high level."

I get where Exxon's coming from. Wouldn't want those guys to slack off once they could see those retirement years on the horizon. Wouldn't want 'em sitting around, feet up on the desk, looking at property on golf courses in Naples, Florida, and calculating whether their Social Security check will cover greens fees.

Nope, the world - and capitalism - was much better served by their spending those sunset years figuring out what metrics to use this year to calculate their bonus (pi times the number of cars in the company parking lot on an average day, divided by 1/10 of the decimal portion of the stock price at its trough, as long as on that date, the decimal portion was also at its trough - unless it was zero). And back-scratching their board of directors into writing the check.

Reaching a milestone birthday also can enhance an executive's pension. Altria Group Inc. CEO Michael E. Szymanczyk's pension rose when he turned 60 last year, triggering a subsidy built into the pension formula, boosting its total value to $23.5 million.

Mr. Szymanczyk benefited from an early retirement subsidy, a feature widely used in employee pensions in the 1980s and 1990s. The subsidy, which typically kicks in when a worker reaches age 55 or 60, enables him to retire with the same pension benefit he would have received if he remained on the job until age 65. The subsidies were intended to encourage older workers to retire.

Well, I, too, am reaching a milestone birthday in just a few weeks. If there's anyone out there who would like to encourage this older worker to retire, I've got two words for you: subsidy welcome.

Monday, November 02, 2009

'When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's Christmastime, too' (Bob Dylan's got "Christmas in the Heart.")

It's almost that time of year when I pull out my Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Leon Redbone (what was I thinking), and the half-dozen or so other Christmas CD's I own, and start playing away.

I wasn't planning on adding to my collection, when an ad in The New Yorker caught my eye.

Bob Dylan's just released a Christmas Album.

Say what?

My first thought was, has Bobby jumped the shark, errrrrr, reindeer. When did this happen?

Sure, I was a fan back in the day, and I do occasionally put on some Christmas In the Heartof the Bob albums - Freewheelin', Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Greatest Hits, Nashville Skyline -  I listened to so frequently in the 60's and 70's that all I need to do is queue up one note and I can take the entire album solo from there. But I really haven't paid him much attention in years - make that decades - other than to note at one point that he was doing corporate events. Positively Wall Street. Sigh.

Of course, the times, they are a changin', and Bob Dylan is nearing 70. Maybe he wants to entertain his grandkids. Maybe he just wants to do something for charity (proceeds from sales go to a charity called Feeding America). And maybe it's a case of he just wanted to, and because of who he is, he just can.

Anyway, rather than just take potshots at the new album, I thought I'd go out and buy it. (With a Borders coupon, it was less than $10. A man in a coonskin cap... wants eleven dollar bills. You only got ten.)

The first thing that leaps out is the sheer kitsch-i-ness of the front and back covers - and the fact that, aesthetically, and even thematically, they don't really connect.

On the front is the Currier & Ives, over-the-river-and-through-the-woods sleigh ride scene. Hurrah for the pumpkin pie, and all that, but I would have liked it better if Bob had given us a bit of a wink here, and had himself driving the sleigh.

Maybe he's one of the three wise men on the back cover. Maybe the other two are Hurricane Carter and JChristmas In the Heartohn Wesley Harding. But forget for a moment who might be gathering no moss on those camels. Would this not have been in the running for "worst Christmas card received" in 1961? It certainly would have in my family, where we sent (and received) a couple of hundred Christmas cards each year. (It helped to have a bunch of kids to address them, seal the envelopes, and lick the stamps.) Cards received spent their first year as decoration, taped around doorways. They spent their second year as tags on Christmas presents. But this one! Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison aside, blue and Christmas just don't particularly go together.  Perhaps this is a nod to Bob's Jewish heritage. Whatever. It's one hideous Christmas card. (And, would the Star in the East be glowing quite this brightly, and the sky still be so dark, if the sun were that far up?)

So Dylan went secular on the front, and religious on the back. But what was really interesting was his stocChristmas In the Heartking stuffer: the naughty Vargas Girl on the inside cover. Say what? Has Bob completely gone of his gourd? I would expect to find this in Playboy, or on the calendar in some dad's basement workroom in, say, 1965. But not in an album entitled Christmas in the Heart, authored by none other than Bob Dylan. Talk about Santa, Baby.

But its the music that makes the album, right? And the music on this one is downright weird. Not that you expect Bob Dylan to ever sound as if he's enjoying himself, but if he were going to, might it not be on a Christmas album?

Hell, no. Other than on a Tex-Mex "Must Be Santa," I don't really get much emotion out of the songs. In fact, they all pretty much sound like parodies of Dylan - as if someone had the zany idea of stringing together a bunch of Christmas songs - a mish-mash combo of sacred and profane - and performing them in full Dylan voice (backed by a sweet-sounding, ethereal girl group).

The diction, especially, suggests parody.

Hark the Heeeeer-illled Angels sing.

And that "Venite Ador-ay-moose"? Bob sure didn't take Latin from Sister Daniel Vincent, or learn the words to "Adeste Fideles" listening to Der Bingl.

Then there's the pronunciation of Christ. Now, I've heard Kee-riced plenty of times, and Cry-iced, but Cry-eeest the Lord? That was a first.

So I probably won't be listening to this album with any regularity. Although I will drag it out on Christmas Eve, and play a few tunes. Maybe I can squeeze in "Must be Santa" between Bing's "Christmas in Killarney," and the 'een sisters' a capella version of "Good King Wenceslas".

But if I were to lose this CD, I would not be suffering any subterranean homesick blues over it, that's for sure.