Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day, 2010

Can’t add much to what I’ve had to say on Memorial Days past:

Memorial Day, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation from the Military

Decoration Day

Other than to note that, last week – on a heat record breaking day – my cousin Barbara and I made our annual geranium-planting visit to the family cemeteries. Not only was it broiling, sunbakingly hot when we were doing our gardening – like mad dogs and Englishmen, we were out in the noon-day sun - but I was attacked by horse flies, and have numerous very itchy welts on my arms. (And I absolutely don’t want to think about what those horse flies were feasting on – other than my arms – that made them so plump. Surely, vaults and coffins not only keep the dead in but also keep the flies out…)

Naturally, “our” graves are in a shade-free part of the cemetery, and as we weeded and dug, we cast envious glances towards the cool and shady lane where our great-grandparents and a bunch of other sensible relatives are buried. Next time, we said, we’ll do our burying under the trees.

After we had finished planting, we strolled around the graveyard, which is small (it’s a parish, not a diocesan, cemetery) and, in our case, quite family oriented. We walked by the graves of lots of friends and relatives – close cousins we knew, distance relations we knew of, the family who lived in my grandmother’s decker – and noted how many of the graves were – this being Decoration Day – decorated with flags, put out by the American Legion or the VFW, in holders that indicate the war that someone served in.

We weren’t looking all that hard, but we found a Civil War vet, and veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II (including my father), Korea and Vietnam. No Afghanistan-Iraq vets that we saw, but fewer young folks go to war these days.  Unless you’re in them, they don’t make wars like they used to.

So here’s a nod to our veterans, and to those who are now in the service.


This is a shot of the hillside coming down from the Civil War monument in Boston Common. Some veterans group placed thousands of flags out, and the effect is quite beautiful. Needless to say, my B-berry shot doesn’t do it much justice, but I wanted to post it, anyway.

Happy Memorial Day!

Friday, May 28, 2010


When I was a kid, I was completely intrigued by the idea of eating in an automat. There was something magical about the concept of plugging a nickel in the slot, opening up the little door, and removing a bowl of mac and cheese, or a slide of cherry pie.

Alas, they had pretty much died out by the time I had a nickel in hand,  so I had to settle for the more pedestrian snack machine,. WhBanks of Automatic Windows where food was purchasedere it’s so darned easy to drop in some coin and press a couple of buttons and find that what’s dropped down is B3 – a KitKat – and not C3, the M&M’s you really wanted.

Even if you get the M&M’s, it’s not quite the high romance of the automat.

So I’m all for buying stuff out of vending machines.

But I don’t know how much coin I’ll be dropping into the new age and/or ultra-pricey vend-o-matics that are coming into use. (Info source: NY Times.)

Fortunately, I’m not a smoker, but I would definitely be weirded out by the Japanese cigarette machines that have “have electronic eyes that evaluate customers’ skin and wrinkles to determine whether they are old enough to buy tobacco.” As someone on the other side of the Great Divide in terms of being carded, I now make occasional inquiries about the age when “senior discount” kicks in, and am supremely gratified when someone evaluates my skin and wrinkles and thinks I’m too young.

The Times article mentions nightclubs with “vending machines with flat irons” for hair defrizzing. I was picturing someone swiping their credit card, buying a flat iron, then trying to figure out how to iron their hair on the ladies’ room sink. Not to mention what do you do with the flat iron once you’re done? It wouldn’t exactly fit in a nightclub type of handbag. But, in fact, my further research (going to the google) helped me find out that the hair defrizzers are wall-mounted coin-ops. You put your money in, the defrizzer’s freed up, and you get to defrizz away. (I won’t bother to be on the lookout, as I can honestly say that defrizzing my hair hasn’t exactly been anything I’ve had to contend with in my long life.)

Defrizzing aside, in Abu Dhabi, you can use a vending machine to purchase gold bars for over $1K/ounce.

Think of all the times you had to gob-smack a candy or cigarette machine because you lost a few quarters. Imagine the kind of attack you’d mount if you plugged in $1K, only to see the gold bar dangling half way out of its coil, but not quite dropping.

That would be my worry if I wanted to make an impulse buy of a gold bar instead of a Heath Bar. But losing $1K in a rogue vending machine is, apparently, a misplaced fear.

Today’s super-duper vending machines:

…have touch screens instead of buttons, facades that glow and pulse, and technology designed to stop vending machine rage. Sensors ensure that your credit card is not charged unless the selected item has dropped.

Thank god for those fail-safe sensors! Wouldn’t want a sheikh to have to give the vending machine a shake-down.

And nice to learn that the old job-of-last-resort standby, working retail, may be going the way of the buggy whip maker and the Pittsburgh steelworker.

As Gower Smith, whose company, ZoomSystems, has created about 1,000 automated kiosks called ZoomShops, put it, “A ZoomShop costs less than an employee.”

The Body Shop, Best Buy, Sephra, Apple – they all sell products through vending machines (which have been rebranded as “automated retail stores”).

I don’t suppose that making returns is a trip to the beach.

In a brick and mortar, you can walk it in; in online, you can just put “it” back in the package it came in and send “it” on its way.

Well, I’m sure they’ll figure it out without me.

I guess it’s all part of our wonderful trend toward self-service everything. The Times article cites a 2008 study done by NCR in which 86% of North Americans surveyed “were more likely to do business with companies offering some sort of self-service.”

(Yes and no, from my point of view. I do buy a lot online, but I also like to go to my local hardware and drugstores, and find a pleasant, smiling person – or even a snarling grump -  willing to direct me or even walk me to whatever it is I’m looking for.)

The economics sure seem to support the automated retail store juggernaut.

Not only do they have a wonderfully economical form-factor that lets them ring up an order of magnitude (at least) more in sales per square foot than a boring old mall store. There’s the bennie that if they don’t perform, you don’t  have to close the store. You just unplug it, put it on a cart, and roll it someplace else. And there’s less “shrinkage” due to shoplifting and employees taking 5-finger discounts.

Meanwhile, the old standbys of the vending biz – snacks and the like – are going buggy whip:

… because of trends toward more healthful eating, increased cigarette regulation, declining industrial work forces and more competition from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores open late or 24 hours.

Sniff, sniff. Sort of makes me want to go find a vending machine and by a pack of trail mix.

And I don’t suppose that any of this means that the Horn & Hardart Automat will be making a comeback any time soon?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Not worth spit

I must admit, I have little experience with spit in the workplace.

Sure, there was that time at Wang when I encountered a major hawked up loogie in the stairwell.

And when she got laid off there, my colleague and friend Cathy rolled down her car window and spit at the Wang Towers as she left the parking lot for the last time.

While I don’t think back on the former spit-related incident with much other than a shudder of disgust, the thought of Cathy, in her smart business dress and pumps – she always looked great – spitting at Wang still makes me laugh, even after 20+ years.

But there was, of course, no one in her line of fire.

Other than that, my career has been more or less spit free.

Which is not to say that I haven’t encountered hostility, with plenty of times when people metaphorically spitting up, on, and at me and my ideas.

But actually being spit on.


Nor have I been spit on in my personal life, other than an occasional accidental saliva misting from an overexcited friend.

So I really don’t know what it’s like to be a NYC bus driver – and, according to The New York Times, last year there were at least 51 of them - who’s gotten spit on by an irate passenger.

I imagine it’s disgusting, and that you feel at least moderately, if benignly, assaulted. It probably takes more than one shower – even if you use Lava, followed up by a good scrub-down with a cotton ball soaked in isopropyl alcohol – before you stop thinking that – ugh! – there could still be some residual spit on you.  Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!  Far worse than dog lips touched mine, I’d say.

Plus there’s the anger behind that spit, the hostility. That’s gotta take a few minutes/hours/days, even, to get over.

Still, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal that you’d actually have to take much paid leave to get over it, does it?

But for the 51 spittees – fully one third of the bus drivers who took post-assault paid leave last year -

…the encounters, while distressing, appeared to take a surprisingly severe toll: the 51 drivers who went on paid leave after a spitting incident took, on average, 64 days off work — the equivalent of three months with pay. One driver, who was not identified by the authority, spent 191 days on paid leave.

Okay, maybe people need more time than it takes to whip out a Kleenex and a bottle of Purell and give themselves a bit of a mop up. After all, if the situation had gotten to the point where someone actually spit, I’m sure that the bus driver may have been experienced a bit of gut tightening and heart palpitation.  And if a small-sized driver was spit on by an agitated gigunta, that must be out and out scary.

But an average of 64 days?

Ah, that does seem a bit extreme, unless the driver was experiencing other mental health issues, and the bit o’ spit just pushed them right over whatever edge they were teetering on.

Of course, once someone takes 191 days to get over being spit at, those taking a mere 10, 20, 30, 40, 64 days no doubt feel justified.

Still, this seems to be just a little feather-bedding-ish, a little ‘because I can’, doesn’t it?  Over 80 drivers overall “reported being spat upon in the last year,” so some folks are apparently robust enough to just shake it off.

It’s apparently a tough offense to prosecute, but the way. A cop has to see the spitter in action before he can issue a summons.

London and other cities have found a novel solution: collecting the DNA of the offending spitters.

One driver who, having been spit on by someone who didn’t want to pay his fare, just cleaned himself up at a Mickey D’s and completed his appointed rounds, doesn’t, however, look down on those who take time off.

[Raul] Morales said it did not occur to him to take an extended absence to recover. “Everybody has their own tolerance to these things,” he said.

I would hope that I would have a Moralesian, keep calm and carry on response to being spit on, but you never know.

Things in New York may be getting worse, as most of the upcoming public transpo service cuts are to buses, rather than subways.

Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty.

Ugh! That might not be dirt and grit on the back of the necks of all those Ralph Kramdens out there.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Noblesse oblige

In 1976, when Boston celebrated the country’s bicentennial, I caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth, giving the royal wave (to me, personally, congratulating me, personally, on 200 years of the American way of life) through the closed window of her limo.

A few years later, in that brief interlude between B-school and job-starts-here, I watched QE’s son Charles marry Lady Di on the telly.

A few years after that, my husband and I were taking a walk one evening in London, when we came across a crowd forming outside Prince Albert Hall. What’s going on, we asked one of the fluttering, middle aged, Barbara Pym ladies standing about.

Royalty, we were told, would be arriving shortly.

Sure enough, a black Rolls Royce with some type of crown on top rolled up.

Expecting to see The Queen. Or the Queen Mum. Or Prince Phillip. Or Charles. Or Anne. Or someone that we’d recognize – even Princess Michael of Kent, whom we knew from watching Wimbledon.

Alas, the couple emerging from the limo drew a blank for us.

Who-dat? We politely inquired.

Why the Duke of Gloucester, of course.

Of course.

Naturally, I would have preferred the Duke of Windsor, but he was dead by that point. Or even the Duchess of Windsor, although I don’t think she spent a whole lot of time hanging around England hoping that ga-ga crowds would fawn over her. (I suspect there were more than a few grudge-holders among the group oohing and aahing over Gloucester.)

Other than viewing the occasional trash-ography about Charles and Di, and watching the excellent movie, The Queen, when it comes to The Royal Family, that’s about the sum of it.

It will get more interesting to me when the Brits decide they’ve had enough of The Royal We. This will likely happen after the current incumbent passes on to the great Balmoral in the sky. But I can’t help but believe that the current contretemps involving Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and ex-wife of Prince Andrew,  may accelerate England’s (inevitable) decision to back-bench The Royal Family a bit.

I’ve always had a certain amount (say, a scintilla) of sympathy, perhaps even affection, for Fergie.

I don’t imagine that The Royals were all that much fun to marry into, even if you do come from some kind of quasi royalty (as in, descended on the bastard side from kings of yore) on your own.

I liked that she was zaftig, mouthy, and a bit blowsy – despite the posh background, more Eliza Doolittle than Eliza Regina.

And I liked the fact that she set off on her own, regularly coming to the States and making her living shilling for Weight Watchers.

Alas, poor Sarah never learned much about money management, and all those millions she made talking weight loss have, apparently, poured out of her coffers. It’s hard to keep up royal appearances on alimony of £15,000 a year, even if a lot of your expenses are taken care of for you.

Now, as she confessed on camera,

"Do you understand that I absolutely have not a pot to piss in?"

That was part of what was caught during a tawdry exchange with an undercover “journalist” parading as a businessman willing to give Fergie a lot more than £15,000 for arranging to have him meet Prince Andrew.

This was all part of a sting operation by a muckraking news outlet (owned by Rupert Murdoch, also owner of the WSJ) during which Fergie is shown scooping up the £40,000 down payment, and negotiating for an overall payout of £500,000.

Shaking hands, she says in the video: "That opens up everything you would ever wish for. And I can open any door you want." (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

Not clear exactly what Sarah Ferguson was offering up.

At one point, as I recall from having seen the video replayed on the news a couple of times, she is heard saying that Andrew had advised her to ask for the £500K in exchange for the introduction. Later, however, she claims that Andrew is completed above board, “whiter than white.” Andrew has some sort of role as an international trade ambassador, swanning around the world making nice for British business and trying to attract investment to the home shores. Could he possibly have been in cahoots with Fergie here? By all reports, they’ve remained chummy, and he may well have been counseling her on how she could make a buck or two. (Beats paying alimony.) And if he wasn’t actually going to do anything other than shake hands and make small talk, he well may have been thinking, what the heck. (I don’t imagine he’s any more of a great thinker than Fergie is.)

Fergie has apologized for her “’serious lapse in judgment.’” (I’ll say.) And has chalked it up to her strained finances.

She [also] said her former husband "was not aware or involved in any of the discussions that occurred."

Needless to say, “we” are not amused:

Buckingham Palace said the prince "categorically denies any knowledge of any meeting or any conversation between the Duchess of York and the News of the World journalist."

"Since 2001 he has carried out his role as special representative in complete and absolute propriety and integrity," the palace added.

It will no doubt come out whether Fergie was purely set up here, or whether she had put word out on the street that access was for sale.

I don’t know exactly what she thought access would get anyone.

Sure, some folks just like to rub elbows with royalty, but five-hundred thousand pounds is a lot of elbow rubbing. Do The Royals have much influence in Britain’s business affairs? It’s hard to imagine 10 Downing greasing contract skids on the behest of Buckingham Palace.

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit bad for Sarah Ferguson. Raised to be a nice posh girl who’ll marry well and happily ever after, it’s likely been a challenge for her to figure out how to make a living.

And naive, greedy, silly, and frivolous as she may well be, I don’t imagine that she imagined this sort of outcome when she strolled down the aisle of Westminster Abbey.

I’m sure that the Queen didn’t either.

Wouldn’t mind having been a flea on the back of one of her Corgis when an aide stepped in to brief her and Prince Philip on the latest royal outrage.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Here, here! Bristol Palin hits the speakers’ circuit

Certainly, a single mom’s got to find a way to make a living.

But is there really an organization – other than one who might want to suck up to her mother, so that answers my question – who would pay Bristol Palin between 15 and 30 grand to talk about teen pregnancy, as well as:

… her experiences on the campaign trail and in the media spotlight; her parenting approach; and her outlook on life.

Now, I believe that Ms. Palin could be as effective as the next oops-there’s-a-baby teenager in talking to youth groups about the difficulties of trying to complete an education, find work, and take care of the little one – although I don’t imagine that Bristol faces the same financial hurdles that most teenaged moms do. Sure, she “works in a physician's office”, but I’m guessing, that since her mother broadened the family’s economic horizons, Bristol’s not exactly leading a hard-scrabble life for herself.

Still, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, so Bristol signed up with Single Source Speakers. She’s now:

… listed on the speaking group's website as available for conferences, fundraisers, special events and holidays, as well as women's, youth, abstinence and "pro-life" programs.

It’s not that she’s speaking at conferences, etc., that I question. (By the way, what holidays call for guest speakers?) Who better to talk abstinence than someone who got caught not abstaining? Although I’m guessing that, to many in her audience, she’s going to look like a glamour-gal rather than an object lesson.

But 15 to 30 LARGE? Wow!

Would sentient adults want to write a fund-raising check if they knew that $30K of the proceeds was going to a 19 year old so that she could share her, like, perspective on life? Would a grownup pay to hear her talk about her “parenting approach.”

I suppose she’ll “write” a book, if she hasn’t already.

And she’s certainly entitled to do the American thing, and cash in on her mother’s celebrity and her own personal (if ephemeral) notoriety.

But am I the only one who finds this a bit sad in terms of what’s ahead for this young woman?

Wouldn’t she be better off if she just kept juggling her work in the physician’s office with finishing up her education with changing Tripp’s diapers with trying to have a social life with volunteering to tell a cautionary tale to those in her immediate community?

Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks that Bristol Palin might have more to say about her “parenting approach and outlook on life” in another ten years or so?

By then she might actually have a perspective on parenting, life, and celebrity that was worth listening to.

Not that ‘the young folks’ don’t have an outlook on life – or even one that deserves airing. But 19 year olds are supposed to blah-di-blah about their outlook on life while lounging on their dorm beds, or avoiding the drill sergeant in the barracks. Not at the podium for $30K an outlook on life pop.

And not that there are some people who don’t have plenty of brilliantly mature things to say at a young age. James Joyce wrote ‘The Dead’ when he was 22.

But Joyce was a genius and, while I don’t know for a fact that Bristol Palin isn’t, I’m just guessing. (Bristol, honey, you’re in good company. Including me.)

Remains to be seen who’ll fork over $15K (let alone $30K) to listen to her speak, unless it’s part of a two-fer with her mother.

The exact fee, by the way,

…will depend on factors such as which group she's addressing and what she must to do prepare.

What preparation might that be? It’s not like anyone’s going to ask her to brush up on Waziristan. Of course, they could throw in a trick question and ask her what newspapers she reads, or which of the Founding Fathers she admires the most. (All of them.) It might be easier to prepare if she were asked about Famous Single Mothers. I’m sure that Bristol Palin wouldn’t have to brush all that much up on her knowledge of Jamie Spears.

Okay. I’ve ranted enough. It’s not like I’m ever going to have to listen to Bristol Palin speak. I’ll probably be dead and gone by the time she runs for president on the Real Celebrity ticket.

And, hey, despite all that rampant socialism going on, we’re still a capitalist country. If someone’s willing to pay Bristol Palin $30K to talk about her outlook on life, then I guess I’ll have to admit that she’s worth it.



Monday, May 24, 2010

It’s a Way of Life (vote for my Aunt Mary for ultimate Chicago Cubs fan)

Those of us who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Red Sox teams over the years, only to have the dark night of the soul lightened up a bit in 2004 and 2007 with World Series wins, sometimes forget that there are longer-suffering (and equally deserving) baseball brethren just 1,000 miles down I-90.

I speak, of course, of those who love the Chicago Cubs.

I am the daughter of one of them.

My mother, however, married into what we now know as Red Sox Nation, where her children and grandchildren are native born citizens. (Attention birthers: we have proof.)

But she left behind a family of Chicago Cubs fans.

My aunt, Mary Wolf Dineen, is one of them.

Red Sox fans used to piss and moan about all those seven game the near misses. 1946, 1967, 1975, 1978 (when ‘we’ didn’t even make it to the World Services, thanks to ‘Bucky f-in Dent’), 1986…

How’d you like to root for a team that hasn’t been to “the show” since 1945? And hasn’t won it all since 1908.

That would be the heartbreakingly hapless Chicago Cubs.

In 2003, it actually looked like there might be a Red Sox-Cubs World Series, a television dream scenario if ever.

The Cubs remained true to form, and the Red Sox reverted to form, and The Miracle of the Two Ancient Ballparks never happened. After our teams went down, I called my Aunt Mary to commiserate. Mudville One calling Mudville Two, I greeted her.

Anyway, Aunt Mary is one of 10 finalists in the Cubs “It’s a Way of Life” essay contest. If she wins, she’s going to get to throw out the ball at a Cubs game.

She’s been a Cubs fan for all of her 85 years. And she needs your vote. Even though fan votes only count for 20% of the Cubs decision.

In other words, rather than leave it up to whichever finalist had the best viral voting apparatus, they’re going to make a decision in the best interests of baseball Cubs’ marketing. This will be a tough one. In addition to my aunt, there’s another older-gen fan. Then there’s the young woman who named her kids Wrigley and Addison (the street that Wrigley Park is located on).


Do the Cubbies go with sentiment? Trust me, I know how these Olde Towne Teams crank up ye olde history. (Johnny Pesky Day, anyone? And OMG, what we’re going to have to go through in 2012 when Fenway Park turns 100.)

But smart marketers – and Major League Baseball is full of them - also want to make sure they appeal to the rising generation of fans. You know , the kind that will name their kids Ad073dison and Wrigley.

Not that I know about these other candidates by listening to their pitches or reading their essays on the Cubs site. No, in keeping with an almost unbroken tradition, I decide early on who I’m voting for, and read the news and watch the debates only to make sure that “my” candidate doesn’t blow it. And I’m almost strictly a party line voter. So, since there’s no way I’m going to vote for the other guy, why should I listen to his platform? What I know of the Cubbie competition comes from my cousin Ellen, who was with her mother when they went to Wrigley on the day the essay finalists were filmed.

I ask you to do the same thing I did and ignore those other candidates.

Just head to the polls and vote for Mary D. (Who, by the way, looks exactly like my mother and who also looks a good 10 years younger than her 85 years. Mary is what we all want to be at 85: active, engaged, vigorous, alert, opinionated, and still watching baseball.) My aunt’s a bit nervous in the video – in real life, Mary would never say talk about “her children” – she’d say “my kids”.

Listening to Mary talk about being a Cubs fans reminds me of the role that baseball – more than any other sport – has played in the Americanization of immigrants and their children.

My aunt talks about scoring games she listened to on the radio, and mentions that she doesn’t know how she learned that a “K” was a strike. Probably not from her parents,  German immigrants who stepped off the boat – my mother in tow - a couple of years before Mary was born, and struggling to build their life in the New World. What would they know about how to score Tinkers to Evers to Chance. My grandfather, though, did become a baseball fan along with becoming an American citizen.

It’s interesting to note that, while she was born a North Sider, my aunt moved after her marriage to the South Side (White Sox territory) closer to where my uncle Ted (also a native North Sider) worked. Her kids and grandkids are a mix of Cubs and White Sox fans, which is the way the world works.

But Mary’s a Cubbies girl all the way. It’s been her way of life for a good many years – and, we’re all hoping, a good many more.

You can vote until noon (Chicago time) on June 2nd.  What are you waiting for?



No info yet on the Cubs web site, but it was announced during this afternoon’s game that my aunt won the contest.  I just got off the phone with Mary, and she is thrilled.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Fantastic Voyage (I know, I know: TMI)

Years ago, when I was visiting my mother, she got a call from my Aunt Mary in Chicago. Their topic: my mother’s vaginal dryness.

Now I’m not in the least opposed to an occasional stirring conversation about vaginal dryness. But in this case, I had already heard the story both first hand – directly from my mother’s lips to my ear; and second hand, as she recounted it to her stalwart BFF’s Lucille and Ethel. So  - aside from the fact that I was wondering what the big deal about vaginal dryness was for a set of women well into their seventies who were all averaging about 20 years of (chaste) widowhood – I had had it up to my eyeballs and earlobes with my mother’s close encounter with vaginal dryness.

So, I politely took the phone out of my mother’s hand and informed my aunt that they needed to change the topic.

This is by way of introducing the fact that, by the time you get to a certain age, the conversation does tend to drift to things medical.

Which this post is about to do.

Today, I am participating in that swell post-50 ritual: the colonoscopy.

This will be my third. (Oh, how the years fly by between colonoscopies…)

For the first, I refused all but the mildest sedative.

I wanted to be fully alert so that I could watch the fantastic voyage through my colon.

What was I thinking? Did I expect to see a cool little submarine manned by Steven Boyd and Raquel Welch wending its way around my thoroughly cleansed intestine.? (Not that I’d want any movie stars wending their way around my guts – although, if I did have to pick someone, it would be George Clooney, who seems like he’d have a good sense of humor about it. But now that I think of it, the very thought of anyone roaming in my gloaming puts me too, too much in mind of Prince Charles’ wish that he could be Camilla Parker-Bowles tampon. Who said romance and poetry are dead and all that, but ix-nay to any fantastic voyages in my backyard.)

Anyway, about two-thirds through watching the not-so fantastic voyage through my innards – dull, dull, dull; black and white; an almost anesthetizing sameness (kind of like bad performance art) – I realized that I was in far greater pain (both physical and existential) than I had experienced during my mother’s vagina monolog.

So I asked the doctor how much longer I was going to have to endure what had become quite a bit of pain.

He assured me it was not going to take much longer, but that if I wanted some relief, I needed to say but the word. Stoic that I am, I soldiered on. After the procedure was completely, the doctor gave me a clean bill of intestinal health, high marks for intestinal fortitude, and the information that I had an exceedingly kinked and circuitous inner passage that had made my particular procedure take longer than the norm.

Next time out – can it be five years ago already – I requested the full dope-a-rama, and had a pleasant doze during my colonoscopy. (Trust me: this is not a flick you need to see twice. Maybe if there’s some horrible growth in there it gets more interesting, but, in truth, I’d just as soon be out of it when the doctor lets out a gasp. The horror. The horror.)

Today, having subsisted for 24 hours on chicken broth, apple juice, and peach sorbet, I’m off for what I hope (and assume) will be a routine colonoscopy.

With luck, there’ll be nothing to report on Monday.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The butler inherited it. (Indra Tamang at The Dakota)

My day dreams - generally conducted sometime during the fifteen minutes that follow the purchase of a Power Ball quick-pick, when the jackpot is sufficiently large that I can make not only myself happy, but those around me happy as well – often involve a pied a terre in New York City.

Sometimes that pied a terre is in the West Village. Sometimes it’s in Murray Hill, or Brooklyn Heights. And sometimes it’s in the West Side, occasionally in The Dakota.

Now, I am not a particular star-hound, so I am not drawn to The Dakota because it’s been the home of Lauren Bacall, Paul Simon, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland, Boris KarSee full size imageloff, and Connie Chung. Nor, creepily, by the fact that Rosemary’s Baby (a work by the yeccchhh director, Roman Polanski) and John Lennon were both shot there. No, I like it because it’s an outrageously interesting and funky old building (in a fab location on West 72nd and Central Park West).

I’m quite sure that even the meanest of flats there – something in the coal cellar, or under the eaves - would set you back plenty. Plus, you have to be vetted by the co-op board, something which (or so I heard) Melanie Griffith, Gene Simmons, and Billy Joel weren’t able to do. (Now I get the Gene Simmons thing. Who’d want to encounter that first thing in the morning when you’re putting the recycle out. But compare and contrast: Paul Simon and Billy Joel. Who decides these things?)

Anyway, now there’s speculation about whether a long term Dakota denizen, and more recent owner, is going to be allowed to stay.

As The WSJ reported, Indra Tamang was the long-term butler and caretaker to Dakotans Charles Henri Ford and his sister Ruth Ford, who moved on last year – at age 98 – to the Big Dakota in the Sky.

She bequeathed Tamang two apartments in the Dakota, one of which he’d like to sell, the other of which he’d like keep. He lives in Queens, and he wants to hang on to a studio apartment as his – ta-da – pied a terre. (Interesting that you can inherit an apartment in a co-op, but you still have to apply to live there. Hmmmmm.)

The co-op board is pooh-poohing the notion that they’d reject a humble manservant. And, frankly, if I were to win that Power Ball drawing, I’d rather have Indra Tamang as a neighbor than, say, Gene Simmons. (I don’t imagine that Mr. Tamang would be wearing kabuki make-up or sticking his tongue out at me.)

"We at The Dakota are proud that for many years ours has been an extraordinarily diverse community of residents," the statement said.

Wonder whether that extraordinary diversity ever included a common workingman like Mr. Tamang. After all, they don’t just reject celebs, they apparently looked down their nose at some guy who’d made his fortune in the cardboard box industry.

It noted that Mr. Tamang, who has worked at the Dakota for decades beginning in the 1970s, "is held in high esteem by those in the building who know him."

If I were to place a bet here, I’d guess that The Dakotans will vote Mr. Tamang in, all the while congratulating themselves on the “extraordinarily diverse community of residents” they have there.

Knowing that  a former butler has taken up permanent, permitted residency in the Dakotas would, I think, please John Lennon.

And, New York being New York, and America being America, there’s more to Indra Tamang.

Indra Tamang was born in a mud huthouse in Nepal. The first person he met upon leaving was Man Ray. Indra is probably best known for his collaboration with Charles Henri Ford [one of the employers who left him a fortune], but that's not all. He makes delicious tea and lets his big, pokerfaced tortoise swim in the bathtub. (Source: Goodie Magazine.)

Best not let the co-op board hear about that pokerfaced tortoise swimming in the bathtub.

That aside, is this a great story or what?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meet me in Saint-Looey, Looey. (Or in Shanghai)

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing better than to go to a World’s Fair.

Ideally, it would have been via way-back machine. This would have enabled me to see the Crystal Palace, built for the first world’s fair, in London in 1851.

More important, a way-back machine would have let me attend the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, perhaps the most important fair of all time, given that it gave us the ice cream cone. Not to mention that it spawned Meet Me In St. Louis, one the favorite movies of my childhood (as seen in B&W on Boston Movietime – I was not yet on the scene in 1944 when the movie came out).

I saw that movie several times when I was a kid, and I wanted to move right in with the Smith Family of St. Louis, the apotheosis of everything I craved in a family during my haute-WASP envy period. I wanted the nice, comfy house – as a child, I thought all Protestants lived in two-story, upper middle class homes, while Catholics were more likely to be relegated to three-deckers or modest single-family houses. I wanted the big brother, the blustering father, the wise-cracking housekeeper. I wanted my sister Judy Garland to sing to me, and I wanted Margaret O’Brien – the essence of cutie-pie kid – to be me. (Or, rather, I wanted to be Margaret O’Brien: darling, cute, and the family dote.)

And I really wanted to meet somebody, anybody, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, as, god knows, no World’s Fair was going to be caught dead in Worcester, Massachusetts – which is the only way in which I would have been able to get to one.

I envied my mother, who got to go to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. And I would have loved, loved, loved to have seen the pylon, or the krylon, or the trylon, or whatever they called the symbols of the New York World’s Fair of 1939. In fact, I have a pin made out of this very stamp. That’s how much I love, love, love the pylon, or the krylon, or the trylon, or whatever you call it.

Alas, all those World’s Fairs were before my time.

Then there were the ones during my time….

My parents had some friends whose son was stationed in Europe in the service during the late 1950’s, and he brought back slides from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Now, there’s a running joke about how boring it is to watch films of someone else’s vacation, but in a kinder, gentler time, we were just delighted to see pictures of someplace more exciting than Worcester, Massachusetts, or even Chicago, Illinois, the only other place I’d ever been. Needless to say, the Brussels World’s Fair was way in the outer limits – it might as well have been held on Jupiter.

New York City is closer, however.

And I was envious of my friends who, a few years later, got to go to the New York World’s Fair (Queens, 1964-1965). I’m still a bit wistful whenever I fly into NYC and see the Unisphere. Sigh. Queens, NY. Only 180 miles from Worcester, Massachusetts. So near and yet so far. By the mid-1960’s, our family travel horizons had expanded to a couple of weeks on the Cape each summer. But New York City to see the World’s Fair? It might as well have been held in St. Louis or Brussels. Or on Jupiter.

In truth, the closest I’ve gotten to anything World’s Fair-ish – other than a glimpse of the Unisphere out of a cab window – is the Seattle Space Needle (World’s Fair, 1962), which I went up in during a business trip a while back. It was weird, and I didn’t feel entirely secure on its tilting floor.

Somewhere along the line, as everything got more pumped up, heightened, and extreme, World’s Fairs morphed into World Expo’s.

There’s one on in Shanghai now.

Truly, in this day and age, the World’s Fair/Expo seems like such an anachronism.

Unlike in 1851, when most world travel was done by immigrants fleeing to America, it was probably pretty darned exciting to see exhibits of what was out there in the big, wide world. Ooo. Aaah.

Same goes for St. Louis.

By 1904 you had stereopticons, so you could look at postcard images of far away places. But motion pictures were just getting going. Not to mention that most world travel was still being done by immigrants fleeing to America. Again: Ooo. Aaah. (Plus the ice cream cone….)

But now, in our incredibly shrinking world chocked full of globalization and telepresence, it just seems like a colossal waste of time, money, and jet fuel to hold a World’s Fair.

Sure, China wants to show off – but didn’t they just do that during the Beijing Olympics? And doesn’t everybody in possession of a flat panel TV, computer, or Barbie doll have at least an inkling about what China can produce?

Deals seem to be getting done. What’s going to happen at the World Expo that wouldn’t happen anyway?

Okay, a World’s Fair does provide opportunities for face-to-face encounters. And maybe strolling around the Finish or Kuwaiti or Brazilian pavilion will provide some fresh understanding of other cultures that can’t be gotten through reading, films, the ‘net, shopping at Sharper Image, or regular old travel. And why do I think those experiences will be filtered – bier garten at Busch Gardens is not quite the same as seeing where Hitler ran his beer hall putsch.

I dunno. Just sounds like a big trade show to me.  And while I do enjoy a trade show every once in a while, someone will have to convince me that World’s Fairs contribute to world peace, or even whirled peas, rather than just providing an opportunity for gawking (on the part of most of the hundreds of millions of visitors), or hawking (which would probably happen, anyway).

Of course, the US has a presence, with the theme “Rise to the Challenge.” (Gulp.) This was paid for by corporate donations – so it’s at least not taxpayers money leaching out here. (Or course, there is an argument that World’s Fairs are a diplomatic outreach and, thus, should be tax-payer supported.)

Anyway, my days of wanting to attend a World’s Fair are long passed, and now they seem like a colossal and foolish waste of time and money. But I’m sure it wouldn’t have been particularly good for Sino-US relations if we had dissed Shanghai and not shown up. We are, after all, somewhat in debt to them for all those flat panel TVs, computers, and Barbie dolls.

So I won’t be attending.

If someone has slides they want to show at my house, just let me know. (You’ll need to bring your own Bell & Howell projector.)

Meanwhile, there’s a nifty site I found devoted to the history of the World’s Fair: The Expo Museum.

Like all good museums – virtual or not – this one has a curator.

In keeping with the commercial underpinnings of World’s Fairs, The Expo Museum’s curator is Urso Chappell, a designer who specializes in these types of events.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Where am I? (Pray for the geographically impaired.)

A few weeks back, the day before my husband and I were leaving on vacation, there was a “catastrophic” pipe break that affected the water supply of a good slug of eastern Massachusetts.

Because the water authority had to switch to a less clean and pure reservoir source (Canada geese could be crapping in there….), a “boil order” was declared. I.e., we were told that we needed to boil the water we use to drink, cook, brush our teeth, and wash our dishes (unless we wanted to rinse those dishes in a bleach solution). Showering’s okay, as long as you don’t open your mouth.

I bought a couple of liters of water for us, and a few more for an elderly neighbor. (Talk about plague of locusts. The local stores were almost stripped clean.  I saw a woman interviewed on TV who’d just purchased $150 worth of bottled water. Huh? Did she not get the part about “you can boil it and make it okay”? Fights reported broke out in some stores. Gosh, what would people do if there were a real emergency?)

Anyway, we had our modest amount of bottled, and we boiled up about 5 gallons to tide us over until we got to Paris where the water would, presumably, be potable.

But before we left, I went online to see if I could find info on washing clothing, and general ‘wazzup’ on the broken pipe, the boil order, and the communities affected by it.

There was no info on laundry in the article, but I threw a load in anyway.

I figured that using water that a Canada goose might had gone in was really just the equivalent of swimming in a lake. And, as a child having bathed and splashed in a lake that was septic system fed rather than spring fed, I knew that if I could survive, then some sheets and towels could.

No, I wouldn’t have made baby formula or frozen lemonade with the hot and cold running Canada geese tap, but throwing my final pre-trip load in the washer seemed safe enough.

As I am known to do, I have digressed.

While on line, I read the comments made on an article on the broken pipe, the boil order, and the communities affected by it.

Boston was one of the communities.

In one of the earliest comments, Wannamker said,

I live in Allston... Am I not affected? I don't know if "Boston" includes Allston/Brighton or not.

MikeWa helpfully answered:

YES I THINK SO!! Allston/Brighton is part of Boston i you have Boston Police/Fire?-could be a good hint? Better safe than sorry, boil anyway

Wannamaker, perhaps a recent blow-in from Philadelphia, given the nom de comment, came back to thank MikeWa for his boil anyway suggestion. Then returned to add:

And actually MikeWa, we have Brighton Police Department, and Brighton Fire... You're right about better safe than sorry though. No sense in risking it.

Several people jumped in to point out that there’s no such thing as the Brighton Police and Brighton Fire Departments, including dollylou:

HELLO! Multiple people don't know where the heck they live?? Yes, Allston/Brighton are neighborhoods of Boston. Sheesh! Get with the program.

Wannamaker shot back, pretty snidely, I’d say, for someone who doesn’t know where he or she lives:

Thanks dollylou. I guess we're not all as smart as you. Glad you are so mature about it.

I hate to tell you Wannamaker, but, at least when it comes to knowing where you live, dollylou is smarter than you.

Commenters continued to weigh in. GOP wrote:

I live in Allston/Brighton not Boston. Don't you think I know where I live. Shheeshhh!

Well, GOP, not to single you out, but it’s possible to live in Allston/Brighton and in Boston at the same time. It’s the miracle of named neighborhoods. Yes, in the way, way, way back, they were separately incorporated towns, but they’ve been part of Boston for, like, what, a kazillion years. Well before Wannamaker and GOP were born, I suspect.

rickterp did single GOP out:

You live in the City of Boston and specifically the neighborhood of Allston/Brighton. It's really not rocket science.

hubanero, meanwhile, delivered a haymaker to Wannamaker:

Wannamaker: No offense, but if you really don't know that you live in the city of Boston, and you think you've seen "Brighton Police" cars, I don't just think it's intelligence that's at issue.

hubanero may be right here.  It’s either hallucination or complete and utter lack of attention to what’s on the side of a patrol car.

The comments went on, including those from a couple of folks who sprung to Wannamaker’s defense, pointing out that they lived in Charlestown, which is on the map of Boston, but which is really not part of Boston…

Only it is.

The comments continued, interspersed with consistent opinions on laundry (okay) and inconsistent views on dishes (yes, no, maybe).

The comments ran on for page upon page, but I gave up at page 4. With respect to the ‘where am I’ comments, I’ll end with my favorite, this hilarious note from movingtarget2:

It says Medford is affected? I live in Medford. Does anybody know if Medford is in Medford? Do I live in Massachusetts?

Thank you,  movingtarget2.

So, here’s my question:

How can you be a sentient adult, aware enough of the world outside of yourself to make comments in online forums, and not know where you live?

I realize that Boston has distinctive neighborhoods, and things can get confusing.

There are multiple Beacon Streets, for example, so you really do need to know your neighborhood (or at least your zip code).

But it stuns me that someone wouldn’t know what city they live in.

Apparently, just seeing police cars and fire engines aren’t enough to clue someone in. I know, you don’t see property  taxes unless you’re an owner. (God, I do hope that people who own property know where they live.) Obviously, the folks who don’t know where they live don’t have kids in the Boston Public Schools.

And – most obviously and discouraging – they clearly don’t know or care about where they live. The clearly don’t know who the mayor of this city is. Or how the city is run. They clearly haven’t registered to vote. (Maybe that’s a good thing….)

Am I missing something here, or is someone knowing where they live a minimal expectation or not?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Don’t it make my blue eyes brown

In some high school yearbooks, they used to put little phrases, separated by ellipses, next to every student’s picture. These little phrases were usually some combination of commentary on your academic achievements, athletic prowess, favorite music, personal quirks, social life, zany exploits, school activities, and good looks. Often there were little in-jokes and asides. The yearbook staff was responsible for writing these driblets, and it was torture coming up with enough to fill the white space for their not particularly smart/attractive/active/popular/well-known classmates. (“All those aprons sewn in home ec…Nickels in her penny loafers…Good posture….Still waters run deep.”)

For whatever reason, two phrases that appeared in yearbooks during my high school years, both, I believe written about girls who were seniors when I was a freshman, continue to stand out in my mind. One was ‘Who’s a mentie-retard?” (Nice, that one.) The other was “enviable eyelashes,” written, as I recall, about a pretty, popular, well-to-do girl. In a small school, I knew who she was, but never got close enough to see for myself whether those eyelashes were, indeed, enviable.

Not that I would have known one way or another.

“Enviable eyelashes…”

I don’t suppose I have them, but mine aren’t terrible-terrible. When I wear mascara, which I do once every 4 to 5 years, they, admittedly, look better. But mascara makes my eyes itch, and who cares anyway.

Enviable eyelashes are right up there on my personal list of ‘why bothers’.

So I was understandably intrigued by an article in The NY Times a short while back on the risks of using Latisse to plump your eyelashes into the enviable category.

Latisse – which Brooke Shields plumps for in the TV ads - is the miracle drug, or non-drug, or whatever it is, that turns limp, thin, pale lashes into veritable Fuller Brushes.

It’s supposed to require a doctor’s prescription, although wouldn’t you feel kind of like a superficial jerk if you asked your physician to prescribe something to give you thicker lashes. I sure would. And if being prescribed means that it’s covered by insurance, then all I can say is it’s no wonder that health care costs have spun out of control.

Latisse is one of those accidental, Eureka! types of finds – sort of like when Borden’s was experimenting with canned milk products and came up with Glue-All. Latisse came about when it was observed that patients using another Allergan product (eye drops for glaucoma) were growing thicker lashes.

You can’t hold a good product idea down, especially when it comes to vanity. (Remember when people were using Preparation-H to eliminate facial wrinkles?)

So Allergan unleashed – or is it unlashed? – Latisse, and hopes to do $140 million in sales this year.

Talk about enviable eyelashes.

Latisse is supposed to be by prescription-only, but – wink, wink – it’s apparently easy enough to get in beauty salons, or online, sometimes through sites run by Latisse-dispensing physicians. (In some states, it’s legal to prescribe something without seeing the patients.)

For most Latisse-ists, the product works just fine.

But, just like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when it is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad it is horrid.

…the drug can cause redness, itchiness and irritation, which go away if use is discontinued. Less common is eyelid discoloration, which Allergan, the manufacturer, says “may be reversible.” A rare side effect that has captured the most attention is the chance that one’s hazel or blue eyes could turn brown — forever.

Say what?

If I wanted to turn my blue eyes brown, I’d get colored contact lenses, thank you.

Blue eyes, genetically speaking, are on something of a death spiral on their own. I read somewhere that, unless you start tinkering with DNA, they’ll be extinct in another hundred years ago. Do we really need to nudge the disappearance of baby blues along?

I know that there’s no risk without reward, but are “enviable eyelashes” really worth altering your eye color?

Just because it hasn’t happened to Brooke Shields (yet) doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen to you.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Circle the RV’s (Wintertime in Quartzsite)

My sister Kath and her husband Rick spent some time this winter in the great state of Arizona, where, luckily, they look Anglo enough to pass unchallenged.

In addition to some javelina figurines (long story), they brought back with them a copy of High Country News, which, as its masthead proclaims, is “for people who care about the west.” Which, frankly, I don’t all that much. I mean, I like it and all that.  I’m glad it’s there. And I don’t want to see it flattened by a meteor. But mostly I’m a homer, and, if I’m going to spend much time caring about a region of the country, it’s going to be the east.

Still, it’s a very interesting and well written periodical (which I read cover to cover), and the edition they brought back with them had a fascinating article on the town of Quartzsite, Arizona by Nate Berg entitled “Mobile Nation.” (I liked the article well enough to throw ten bucks in the magazine’s tip jar, even though I’m sure that this will open me up to all sorts of odd-ball incoming. Recently – Thanks, Wall Street Journal, I’m sure – I’ve found my way onto several Republican calling and mailing lists. I read and listen to what’s being said with interest. The things that get mailed – at least so far - are pretty pedestrian political party fare. Urgent poll! Would you rather have Congress lower taxes or require that Obama kowtow to foreign despots?  The phone calls are pretty bad, but I listen through the recordings so that I can actually speak to the person at the other end, and tell them that I think their message is exaggerated and ridiculous, and, frankly, without any appear to independents. Which I probably shouldn’t tell them.)

As for Quartzite, it’s a town in the middle of moonscape nowhere that, each winter:

…becomes the center of the RV universe. Up to a million vehicles, representing a significant chunk of the 8 million or so RVs on the road in the U.S., roll through during "the season," when swap meets and trade shows lure vendors, tourists and anyone with a home on wheels into town. Winnebagos and Bounders and Itascas flood the city and its surroundings, where an informal community blossoms every winter like a rare flower.

The swap meets are apparently the big draw – over 2,000 vendors, which would make it a mega-version of the swap meet (billed, if I’m not mistaken as an arts and craft show) that my cousins and sister and I attended in Florida earlier in the year. While Kath and Ellen were buying jewelry (there were some good craftspeople there), Laura and I drifted around until we came to the tent of an odd little couple from Wyoming who were hawking special cloth sacks to bake potatoes in. (I bought a Red Sox one for my sister Trish, who couldn’t make the cousins weekend in Florida.)

Well, a huge, perpetual swap meet wouldn’t be much of a draw for me. (My limit’s the $6 potato sack.)

Nor would the thought of contending with 1 million RVs.

But, as my parents always reminded us when we’d whine that “everyone else gets to” [stay out, buy a popsicle, cross Main Street], we’re not everyone else.

As one of the swap meet vendors said of the Quartzsiters:

"They're down to earth. You don't have a lot of snobbery here."

Well, I’m down to earth. That’s not a problem. But I will admit to at least a modicum of snobbery, and that modicum, I’m afraid, covers RVs. Even those equipped with:

…satellite television and roaming Internet access. King-sized beds with Egyptian cotton sheets. Solar panels and high-end power generators.

Some of these babies are as big as the house I grew up in. Difference being, our modest little house was on a foundation, and we had running water that came from a city pipe, and we could flush the toilet without fretting about whether this one was going to be the one that overflowed the holding tank.

Having all these blowins puts no small stress on the services of a small town (pop. 3500).

A recent rainstorm had town officials working overtime to block off flooded roads and tow out trucks and cars that got stuck in the mud. And with tens of thousands of extra residents tapping into the city's water supply and sewage infrastructure, the system risks being overwhelmed. Local ATMs sometimes run out of cash, and gas station pumps occasionally run dry: RVs average single-digit gas mileage -- and do a lot of filling up.

Many of the RVers don’t stay at formal RV parks. They do something called “boondocking” in Long Term Visitor Areas (LTVA). Overnight RV parks cost over $30 a night, which adds up if you want to plunk down for the winter. The LTVAs, where you can stay for up to 7 months at a time, charge next to nothing. And, of course, next to nothing is exactly where you’ll be.

But “campers” they do get the companionship of fellow RVers, and many of them come back, year after year, to circle the wagons – metaphorically, yet pictorially - with their friends.

As Berg point out in his article, these communities are something of eco-disaster areas.

LTVAs are essentially sacrifice zones, where the sparse, fragile desert ecology has been annihilated by the seasonal cities.

Not to mention, the fossil fuel that RV behemoths gulp when they go. I don’t think there are any Prius RV’s – at least not yet. Maybe there are some that are nuclear powered…

One thing that can be said about the RV communities is that there doesn’t appear to be much crime in the Quartzsite environs.

While the RVers can certainly take pride in the fact that it’s ultra-safe to live there (which they no doubt attribute to the fact that a lot of them are packin’), from a sociological standpoint, it’s more likely because it’s a fairly homogeneous group. And they’re old.

Sure, you read every once in a while about the marijuana granny. Or the bank robbing geezer (as often as not some old coot who just got sprung after 40 years in the slammer, and can’t adjust to civilian life). But, let’s face it, crimes are committed disproportionately by the young. 

Isolation probably helps, too.

If you’re a million miles from nowhere, predatory criminal gangs probably aren’t going to head your way when there’s plenty of pickins’ closer to home.

There’s also little opportunity for impulse crime, I suspect.

Is some kid going to hotwire a 40 foot RV and take it for a joyride?(Might be fun, though….) And if there aren’t any stores or gas stations to rob…

That flagpole seller at the swap meet only brings in so much cash.

An ephemeral community like this also doesn’t have the strains that come with permanent communities. Hey, if you don’t like the people next door, you can pick up and leave. And there are no covenants that say you have to let someone you don’t like into your circle of wagons. You’re free to associate strictly with doppelgangers. That’ll tend to keep the friction down, unless you’re the family feuding kind.

There's an area where gay RVers tend to camp, and another (farther away) where the nudists are.

Ah, the gay RVers. (Are they the ones with the Egyptian cotton sheets?)

Not everyone’s in a big-ass RV, by the way. One fellow interviewed in the article spent the winter in “a 12-foot trailer and a screened patio area.”

But a lot of it is big-ass RVs, and it’s hard to get past their petrol-snorting. But there is a conservation aspect to their existence that Berg points out.

"Being in the boondocks, you have to be really careful about how much you consume. You can't really use up a lot of water, because then you have to move and get more. And if your tanks get full, same problem. So you don't take a shower every day. And when you do, it's two minutes long," says [Kazys] Varnelis [Professor of architecture at Columbia University – a city place, if ever].

Which means that those RVers are, in some ways, more environmentally friendly than I am.

I may not own a car. I may rely on public transpo and shanks mare to get me most places. I may live in a condo, not much larger than some of these RVs. But I am not willing to go without a daily shower. And, except when it’s a pee-run in the middle of the night, I’m sure not willing to go without flushing the toilet.


Photos by Etienne DeMaglaive, High Country News

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Carpetbaggers: Scheming their way into Boston Latin School

I am the proud aunt of a “sixie” (for sixth-former), a first year student (7th grader) at the Boston Latin School (BLS), the oldest public school in the country, and by all accounts one of the best. It is a rigorous and challenging school, and graduates tend to boast that college (even in the Ivies) is nothing compared to what they went through at BLS.

Getting in is highly competitive. Thousands of kids take the exam, and only 400 are accepted. There are two other exam schools in Boston, but they are considered second tier. BLS gets the gold star.

Many of the students at BLS spent their grammar school years in private or parochial schools, and BLS is the only public school their parents would think of having their children attend. My niece Caroline, however, has been Boston Public Schools all the way.

But, wherever the kids come from – private, parochial, or public – you’d sure like to think that they’re all residents of Boston. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

Every year, some carpetbaggers are flushed out when it’s found that their parents have purchased or rented a small footprint second home in Boston, while continuing to live in the suburbs.

The other day, Caroline mentioned that an incoming sixie who was spending the day “shadowing” at the school had told people that he really lived in Winchester, but that his parents had bought a condo on Comm Ave so that they could establish residency in Boston. Well, smart enough to get into BLS, but not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Sorry, kid, but I hope someone dimes you.

Of course, sometimes, families actually move into Boston – such is the lure of BLS.  But mostly they do whatever they need to do to make pretend that they live here – a six-month lease during the application period is apparently one dodge.

Periodically, there’s a crackdown on carpetbaggers.

So far this year, Boston public schools have revoked acceptance offers to four would-be exam school students for next fall because they do not live in the city, while another 31 are being investigated for possibly falsifying residency documents. Those students represent the vast majority of the 48 exam-school invitees who took the entrance test last fall as nonresidents and who later filed paperwork indicating they had moved to the city. (Source: Boston Globe.)

Now the City Council is looking at a proposal that will close residency loopholes to some degree, establishing a requirement that you have to have lived in Boston for a year to take the entrance exam.

That will seemingly help a little, but someone intent on gaming the system will just get that condo a year earlier. Where someone’s got the means, they can always find the ways, no?  And there can, of course, be circumstances in which someone has actually just moved to Boston and wants their kid to try for BLS.

But on the whole, I’m all in favor of cracking down on the carpetbaggers, those scalawags!

How about having those with condos show proof that they actually live and breathe in our fair city, rather than just establishing a pied a terre so that their kids can shoulder some true city kid out of a place at BLS or one of the other exam schools. Those 31 interlopers pushed 31 potential BLS students into Boston Latin Academy, where they pushed 31 potential BLA students into the O’Bryant School, where they pushed 31 potential O’Bryant students into the blackboard jungle of the un-exam Boston public high schools, where nobody but nobody sends their kids if they can at all help it.

So, if you were living in a nice comfy upper middle class house in Newton, Brookline, Winchester or wherever when, wonder of wonders, you decided to move into a small-ish city condo, then show us that a) you’re voting here; b) your other kids are no longer attending public schools in those communities; c) you actually live here.

I’m okay with someone who honestly and truly moves into Boston after their kid gets into BLS. It may not be the best of scenarios – they’re still displacing a city kid who’s probably coming out of a school that’s nowhere near as good as the one their suburban darling attended. But at least they’re living here.

For the others, the ones who game the system…Shame on them.

What are they teaching their kids?

That as long as you’re within the letter of the law, you can forget the spirit of the law? That they’re entitled to whatever they want?

I suppose these are the same parents who’re hiring consultants to help their kids craft their résumés for the elite colleges, who help package and position them for “success”.

A pox on their houses. (Or their one-room condos.)

If you can afford to rent a fake place in the city, you can afford to send your kid to BBN, Milton Academy, or any one of a number of pricey private schools in the area.

Please do so.

You’re in position that the families from the deckers of Dorchester or the Mattapan projects aren’t.

Not every kid at BLS is poor, of course. I suspect they may even be disproportionately middle and upper class. But a kid growing up in a Beacon Hill town house is as much a city kid as the kid from leafy, suburban-like West Roxbury. Or those deckers and projects.

They’re Bostonians.

I’m paying a hefty tax bill to pay for the schools attended by Bostonians.

Those from the suburbs who have no intention of becoming one of us for real need not apply.

The Boston School Department has an investigator to ferret out scofflaws.

Ferret away!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“American Rust” by Philipp Meyer

I buy, borrow, and read a fair number of books each year. But I don’t tend to read many book reviews, other than an occasional glance at the mini-review in The New Yorker.  Instead, I rely on word-of-mouth – my family and friends always end up talking about what we’re reading; picking up whatever an old reliable writer has out; and grazing the literary fiction tables (‘our picks,’ ‘new in paperback’, ‘buy two, get one free’), where I buy based on cover, title, and blurb.

That’s how I found Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, which I’d never heard of, although it was published in 2009 to no small acclaim.

I’m no literary critic, so I can’t offer up any high-falutin’ review here, other than to say that I loved this book without much of any reservation. But since this is a blog about business and the economy, I will write about the related issues that underpin and inform Meyer’s novel.

Without giving away any of the plot – which is certainly compelling -  the story revolves around (and is delivered from the viewpoint of) six principal characters who live in (and, in one case, escaped from) a grim, near-dead steel town in the Mon(ongahela) Valley of Pennsylvania. (The town is the fictional Buell, but the setting and circumstances couldn’t be more real.)  That a couple of the characters are old enough to remember when the town was vibrant is a poignant counter-point to the experiences of the younger characters, who have little or no recall of the big-shoulder, blue-collar prosperity that was once there.

The steel mills in this area started going out in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and everyone by now knows the story of how American steel failed to invest in plant modernization (as their counterparts in other industrial nations, namely Japan and Germany did), which led to the collapse of the industry, the loss of hundreds of thousands of dirty, dangerous, yet head-held-high and decent paying blue collar jobs. Jobs that were replaced for the lucky few (or their children) by work in newer, cleaner, moderne  industries. And replaced for the many with low-pay, low-skill, low-pride jobs greeting shoppers, bagging groceries, and emptying bedpans. (One of the characters had been offered a job capping landfills.)

For those of us who live in areas that have been post-industrial – and relatively successful – for decades, American Rust is a grim reminder of the other America where houses go for $40K, the only restaurants are down at the heels bar and grilles that stay alive by peddling drugs out the back door, and where the elegant old 19th century City Hall has to be abandoned for a soulless cinder block municipal building because the town can’t afford the upkeep.

The folks in these areas don’t piss and moan because there’s no Nordstrom’s in walking distance. They don’t pray for a Wegman’s to open nearby.  They don’t indulge in an occasional frappacinno. If they’re lucky, a Walmart’ll open on the outskirts of town and they’ll see if they can luck into one of the keep-your-mouth shut minimum wage jobs there.

It’s a scary world, that’s for sure, as we thud up against the mess of pottage reality that we have collectively beggared ourselves for: an MP3 player in every ear and a flat screen TV on every wall.

Globalization is inevitable (and, on balance, a good thing). If we have to consume a bit less so that others can have a bit more, so be it.

But, damn, didn’t “we” run into the techno-global embrace  so wantonly and recklessly – and it felt so fine at the macro-level, didn’t it - that we ignored the micro reality of the millions of individuals and their families whose lives have been irreparably damaged by the trade-offs we’ve made, and not just materially. But, hey, their own damned fault. Should have gone to college and majored in computer science. (No, wait, those jobs are going away, too.)

I don’t want to live in a planned economy, where the only thing on offer are pairs of gack-colored shoes with two left feet.

But I wouldn’t mind if we had an economy that was a bit more – sorry to use a non-word here – planful.

Maybe we’re just going to have to suck up the lack of economic stability in the brave new world, and get on with our lives in  a society where being an American (for most people) means patching together a makeshift livelihood, made a bit more palatable by an occasional breakfast at Denny’s and the NFL on Sunday.

This sure doesn’t sound like the recipe for political stability, though.

It’s been over 40 years since I was a high school kid reading Grapes of Wrath, but Philipp Meyer’s doing for the folks of steel-country what Steinbeck did for the Okies. Putting a face on it, and putting voices (and heart) to it. (If Bruce Springsteen wrote a novel, this would be it.)

American Rust is highest-order fiction, with a strong political and economic sensibility. But it’s never agitprop – no wooden, spouting characters here. (Think: antithesis of Ayn Rand.)

This is a good and important book, and I’m giving it the Pink Slip Seal of Approval. I didn’t want it to end, and right now I’m hoping that Meyer’s has it in him to give us a sequel, so that we can read the new chapter in the book of Buell, Pennsylvania, and the lives of Isaac, Poe, Lee, Grace, Harris, and Henry.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Food, inglorious food

The last time I ate institutional food on any regular basis – other than salad bars at work – was when I was in college, where the food was beyond awful. That regular dishes on the menu had nicknames like “puck,” “abortion,” and “scum” should tell you all you need to know.  On really bad food nights, we could walk to the store to get sandwich makings, or settle for a pint of ice cream.

But if you’re in prison - where I’m betting the menus run to the likes of “puck,” “abortion,” and “scum” – you can’t just walk around the corner for a pint of mocha almond. (Not to mention that they probably don’t let you keep a metal spoon in your cells, as we were allowed to in ours. I mean our dorm rooms. Just because they were made out of cinderblock, doesn’t mean they were cells.)

Aramark  is one of the major purveyors of food services to correctional institutions, a big player in the prison-industrial complex.

ACS prepares well over 1,000,000 meals a day for state and municipal facilities, partnering with our clients to meet the unique challenges of the corrections environment.

More than a food services provider, ACS endeavors to go beyond for its clients, delivering solutions to critical issues like recidivism, officer morale and retention, safety and security, and inmate behavior and health.

I’m guessing that food plays some factor in recidivism. Who wants to spend 20 to life eating Aramark institutional chow?

Although we do read about imprisoned Mafiosi who are somehow privileged enough to be able to cook up their own veal picatta and linguine marinara, my hunch is that a facility that’s spending as little as 70 cents per “customer’ per meal is not serving up much that’s fresh and interesting.

Anyway, for prisoners who want a bit more choice in their diet, Aramark offers an extension to their prison food line. (Source: WSJ.)

Inmates—or, more often, their relatives—place orders on Aramark's "iCare" Web site. The company tailors its menus to each jail's rules.

Prices generally run $7 to $12 for a hot meal and $20 to $100 for a junk-food box filled with beef jerky, iced cookies, vanilla cappuccino or other goodies not available in the commissary.

The Meal Deal will run you$39.99 for:

Nissin Ramen - Chili 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Beef 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Chicken 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Shrimp 3.0 oz (5)
Trails Best Meat Sticks - 1.12 oz (5)
Instant Chili - 4.0 oz (3)
Chili Rice and Beans - 4.40 oz (3)
Panola Cajun Hot Sauce - .5 fl oz packets (12)
Saltines 16 oz
Double Barrel Spicy Meat & Cheese Sticks - 1.12 oz (5)
Kosher Pickle (3)

$39.99 sounds high for this, but I guess someone has to make sure that no one’s smuggling any contraband, like a doobie or a rasp file, in with the kosher pickles or double barrel spicy meat & cheese sticks.

The Breakfast Getaway – and who came up with that name? – also costs $39.99 for:

Mrs. Freshleys Grand Honey Bun - 6.0 oz (7)
Mrs. Freshleys Texas Cinnamon Roll - 4.0 oz (3)
Powdered Sugar Gem Donuts - 4.0 oz (3)
Maxwell House Coffee - 3.0 (2)
Orange Drink - 21 oz pack
Creamer - 50 pack
Sugar - 10 pack
Oatmeal - Maple and Brown Sugar - 10 pack

Different prisons/jails allow different packages. No Snack Attack  (only $19.99) for prisoners in the Champaign, Illinois lock-up.  But if someone loves you and you’re in the stir in Marion, Oregon, you can snack away:

2-Ruffles 1.5oz
2-Blazen Buffalo 1.75oz
2-Cheetos Crunchy 2 oz
2-Doritos Nacho Cheese 1.75oz
2-White Cheddar Popcorn 1oz
2-Crackers- Cheese/Peanut Butter
2-Crackers- Peanut Butter Toasty
1-Lemonade drink mix 6 oz
1-Crunch N Munch 4oz
2-Salted Potato Chips 6oz

And is this Birthday Bag ($19.99) grim or what?

1-Cookies - Butterfinger 6oz
8-Salsa packets .5oz
1-Tortilla chips 6oz
1-Jolly ranchers 7oz
1-Gummy worms 4.5oz
1-Sour bears 4.5oz
1-Tea mix 6oz
1-Lemonade mix 6oz
1-Lined Paper tablet, 50 sheets
1-Birthday card

Do you use the pencil to sign the birthday card to yourself, or to write your thank you note on the lined paper tablet? And, what, no party hats?

Well, there was only so long I was willing to hang out on that depressing Aramark iCare web site – just long enough to figure out that we’re talking solid junk food here, not Harry and David ‘fruit of the month’ packages.

But back to the WSJ article, which tell us that the business of providing snack food packages for prisoners is not without a bit of controversy.

…critics worry the service will trigger jealousies, promote unhealthy diets and coddle prisoners…[They]fear the deliveries will inspire envy, violence and extortion. "It's like with kids—you don't bring cookies to school unless you've got enough for everyone," said Gordon Crews, a criminal-justice professor at Marshall University

Hard to disagree with those complaining about unhealthy diets, given that what’s on offer is heavy on empty calories, salt, fat, sugar, and grease.

As for “triggering” (hah) jealousies, from what I know about life in prison – taken largely from Jimmy Cagney movies, novels, and occasional articles in The New Yorker – envy, violence and extortion have long been staples of the prison diet.

Sure, someone may be willing to stick a toothbrush shiv into a fellow prisoner’s ribcage for a package of shrimp ramen, but if the shrimp ramen weren’t there, it would probably be over something else that’s equally petty.

And the correctional institutions can restrict who gets what. Forget time off for good behavior, it’s junk food in if you keep your nose clean.

Plus I really hate it when people rant about “coddling” prisoners when they hear that they’re allowed to take courses, have TVs in their cells, or work out in the weight room. Hard to think of a better recipe for recidivism disaster than having a bunch of mostly young men sitting around staring at 4 walls all day, making themselves more anti-social and psychotic than they were when they came in. Just being locked up is pretty damned anti-coddling, in my book.

Imagine not having any control over your life? Not being able to hit the fridge for a midnight snack (healthy and/or junk; last night mine was 4 Girl Scout Thin Mints), and then sit up all night grazing through the pile of ‘buy two, get one free’ books you just picked up at Borders?

I’m with the Bexar County (TX) Deputy Chief who runs their correctional programs, who says that:

…letting an offender's mom buy him a club sandwich now and then "is an act of kindness."

And with Rock Island County’s (IL) jail administrator who says:

"Jails are always run better when your inmates are happy."

The corrections departments who offer iCare make money off of it, by the way. The Indiana state prison system will rake in more than $2M this year from it. Bexar will make half a million bucks.

Revenue from the meals has saved prison programs, such as parenting classes, wardens say. And in some institutions, inmates get job-training credit for preparing the hot meals in the jail kitchen and packaging the junk-food boxes.

Hmmmm. I don’t know how you can get job-training credit for slicing up a meat stick and adding it to your breakfast getaway oatmeal, but whatever.

There’s also some concern that Aramark may let its regular food service go to hell while focusing on what may be the more lucrative snack biz. Stranger things have happened…

Anyway, if I needed yet another reason, the thought of having a loved one send me a Birthday Bag is enough to keep me out of the slammer.

And I do wish there was something a tiny bit healthier and more interesting in those iCare packages.

But I suppose if I were in prison, I’d be happy enough to get the Chocolate Lovers special.

But I suppose I’ll never get to find out.

We are happy to serve you.

If you’ve been in NYC at some point or another over the last 40 or 50 years, or if you’ve ever watched an episode of one of the many incarnations of Law & Order, you’ve certainly seen one: the Greek-style paper coffee cup that all the little non-chain coffee shops and delis seem to use. I’ve never seen one any where else – maybe there’s some paper cup covenant that they can only be sold in New York – but this coffee cup says NYC to me in the same way as the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, or a sea of yellow taxis on Park Avenue does.

This is one iconic little product, no?

And now, Leslie Buck, the man who designed it, has died at 87.

In reading his obituary, I was struck by so many details that make this a quintessential New York story.

Buck was a Holocaust survivor, who made his way to the new world after the war. There he Americanized himself from Laszlo Büch to Leslie Buck, and, at some point in the 1950’s, got himself into the paper cup business. (Ah, for those pre-styrofoam days.)

It was as the director of marketing – a position that I have also held, but not at a company that produced anything as useful and tangible as a paper cup – that Buck designed the cup, which he dubbed the “anthora”, apparently a garbled version of “amphora.” ‘Anthora”, “amphora” – it was a pure instance of marketing genius.  Far, far better than any of the product logos I came up with when I was a director of marketing with a non-existent budget. (Thank you, Piet Mondrian, for inspiring one of my logos.)Of course, those products – software all – are no longer with us, which can’t be said for a cup of coffee. Anyway,

Sherri [the paper cup company where Buck worked] was keen to crack New York’s hot-cup market. Since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, Mr. Buck hit on the idea of a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek flag. Though he had no formal training in art, he executed the design himself. It was an instant success.

Know thy customer, alright.

I can just picture Mr. Buck roughing out his idea, then refining it, but not spending all that long on it. Probably less time than it took Starbucks to decide on how big a venti should be. (Okay. That’s a joke. If they’d decided on 19 ounces, it’d have to have been a diciannove.)

Although Buck never made any money off of the design* – which was knocked off by a number of other paper cup companies – he did make up for it in sales.

At its peak, Sherri was selling 500 million cups a year. Even after the Dunkin’-Starbuck-ization of the corner coffee shop market had taken hold, the company still managed to sell 200 million in 2005. As the corporate world turns, Sherri was sucked up into Solo, and they no longer carry the Anthora as an off-the-shelf stock item. You can, however, special order. Paper cup makers of the knock-offs still manufacture them, which is why you still see people walking around Manhattan warming their hands around them.

The Leslie Buck Story. Only in America. (Only in New York.) We are happy to have been served by you.


*Same goes for Harvey Ball, the Worcester man who designed the smiley face.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Bits et pieces

Yesterday, we took what, in retrospect, was a forced march across Paris. (Distances on map not as close as they first appear.)

Fortunately, at the other end, we had a wonderful late lunch/early dinner at L’Esplanade, a very nice restaurant overlooking Les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. We didn’t visit Nappy this time, but did pop in last year when we were here with our nieces. By the time we got to Les Invalides, we were, metaphorically speaking, like the two cartoon guys crawling through the desert toward the oasis.  Lucky for us, the oasis wasn’t a mirage, and we both had a very nice risotto with l’angoustine. (Of course, it should have been nice at over $40 for what might have been a cup, cup and a half of risotto and a couple of teeny-tiny little mini-lobsters.) Throw in a kir royale a piece, and one molten chocolate lava cake (two spoons), and it all adds up…

We walked a bit afterwards – what were we thinking? – before throwing ourselves in the path of a cab and taxiing home.

I think we put in at least 15 miles yesterday. We’re big walkers, but this was a bit over our typical long walk form.

Today, we take it easier. A bit. Perhaps we’ll hang in listening to CNN news until it warms up to 50 degrees…

Right now, we’re trying to find out if there’s a parade celebrating VE Day tomorrow.

There has been other times we’ve been in Paris on May 8th, so we’ll head over to the Arc d’Triomphe tomorrow someday to see what’s up.

We’re also keeping a close eye on the volcano ash, which is now managing to close airports in Ireland and Scotland.

With luck it will stay where it is for the time being, and we’ll be all set to return home on Sunday.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s being covered by International CNN:

  • Here, here. No pure winner in the UK election. We get Florida, they get a hung Parliament, in which – can this be right? -  the Queen has some bigger role than she normally does with respect to the government.
  • Dow, now. Watching the newscasters and (ahem) experts huff and puff over yesterday’s market rollercoaster reminds us of how the weather forecasters go nuts over any “weather event”. How much is really news and how much is just revving things up so we’ll keep watching?
  • Beware of Greeks. Watching the Greeks rioting has not been edifying. Part of me is channeling some pretty Tory thoughts their way. (As in, ‘For god’s sake, you should be grateful that the EU’s bailing you out of your self-inflicted problems. Just suck it up and get with the pay-cut program…’) The other part of me is wondering whether this is the spectacle we can expect if the US ever, say, raises the Social Security age to 70, and the gray-haired Tea Baggers start thinking, ‘hey, just wait a derned minute…’ Or, whether this is what we’ll see if the “retirement age” isn’t raised to 70 and the “young folks” (Gen X, et al.) start agitating against the Boomers, who will no doubt become the blame-game punching bag (who, me?) for whatever social and economic ills we end up experiencing. I would hope we would behave better, but…

Meanwhile, we’re almost ready to come home. Paris is magnifque and all that. But, at this point, I don’t want to worry about a motor scooter mowing me down on the sidewalk. And I’m sick of all those smokers outside the cafes. I want to watch baseball.