Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

Well, I already used up a picture of (and blog about) my Christmas tree in yesterday’s post.

And I’ve used up pictures of both versions of Santa with reindeer with broken leg in blogs of Christmas past. (Santa in sleigh ornament, with reindeer with broken leg can be seen here, if you scroll down a bit.  Plastic Santa riding reindeer with broken leg can be found here. Again, scroll down.)

So today, to add to this year’s holiday image mix:

Ah, the ability for sports teams to flog the merchandise. This, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely why the Boston Red Sox can afford a bigger payroll than almost every other major league baseball team.  Having put aside my Halloween-themed Red Sox cap (black and orange, with a jack-o-lantern on it), I have been wearing this for the last month or so.

Pitchers and catchers report on February 14th, which is, frankly, quite a nice belated Christmas present, not to mention a swell Valentine.

Plus, I’ve been able to nab tickets for a couple of games next season. Sure, they’re no account games, and one is a night game in May when it will probably be 40 degrees and raining.  But you never know what can happen.  And this could be the year. (Although nothing will ever match The Year That Was 2004…) If it can’t be the Red Sox year, may it be the year of the Chicago Cubbies.  They haven’t won it all since 1908, a record that makes the Red Sox 86 year drought, which ended in The Year That Was 2004, look like nothing, and makes the formerly long-suffering Red Sox fans look like whinging whiners when compared to Cubs fans. (The ultimate of whom – and I do mean ultimate: she this honor was bestowed upon her last year by the Chicago Cubs – is my Aunt Mary. As of next season, Mary will have waited all of her 86 years for the Cubs to win, which is as long as any Red Sox fan had to wait. If the Cubs win, next year I will wear a Cubs Santa cap.) 

Anyway, pitchers and catchers on February 14th.  Be still my baseball craving heart.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all Pink Slip readers.

In keeping with tradition, Pink Slip is on vacation for a week, so I won’t be back until January 3rd.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and making this hobby of mine so much fun.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

How I manage to get my tree decorated without professional design help

One of these trees was put up (and photographed) by a non-professional; the other was professionally staged.  Can you guess which one is which?

xmas tree 2010image

Okay, okay, I’m sure my amateur smart-phone photography gave me away. So that would be my up close and personal Christmas tree on the left, and a professional decorated (ooh, ahh) tree on the right. (On my tree, that’s really not the abominable snowman perched on top.  It’s Father Christmas, sitting on a crescent moon.)

Although I’d be absolutely on board with having someone select, fetch, and erect my Christmas tree, I can’t imagine not having it decorated by myself, with my very own, very personal, very meaningful decorations.

But, hey, if you’re rich enough, and New York-y enough…

In Manhattan, R. Couri Hay’s tree is being duded up by Campion Platt. 

There will be lavender tinsel, one garland of signed Warhol dollar bills and another made from celebrity photographs Mr. Hay snipped from magazines during the year — images of his “favorite scandals and beauties,” Mr. Platt said, including Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, and Carla Bruni. A video installation showing moody black-and-white Manhattan holiday images,which is also Mr. Platt’s firm’s Christmas greeting, will be playing continuously on Mr. Hay’s flat-screen television. (Source: NY Times article on outsourcing your Christmas decorating.)

Well, nothing screams “Merry Christmas” quite like moody black-and-white Manhattan holiday images.  Unless it’s a festive, all white tree, which another designer pulled together for another rich Christmas “reveler”. 

Come on, people, the reason we have colorful Christmas trees is because it’s a gray, white, dark, cold, and moody time of year. Sheesh.  Don’t these decorators know from the color wheel? At least Campion Platt is using lavender tinsel, which I have never actually seen at CVS.  Then again, I haven’t looked.  And I’m guessing that some of those scandal images may be in color.

Holiday decorating can set you back. Decorator Scott Salvator is doing the do for a couple of clients, and his costs run from $5K to $50K, depending on how much “fluffing” is required.  (I’m guessing he would have turned his nose up at the tree I got from Mahoney’s Garden Center in Allston for $39.98. Plus the $10 I paid the cute Russian student who roped it to the top of my Zipcar.)


…For clients with three or four homes, what many would consider a holiday perk may be more of a necessity.

Must be a total downer to get to house number four and remember that your forgot to have the decorator festive it up for you.

One fun-fest family – who also must not have gotten the message about using color at Christmas – has hired a designer to produce a:

…camouflage-print Christmas for three generations of a Midwestern family (eight adults and four children)… The other day, Ms.[Robin] Bell [the designer] was knee-deep in props, sorting out the gifts she would be tucking into the camouflage-print tote bags she had bought to use in lieu of stockings, the totes being a family tradition she thought up for them a few years ago.

She ticked off the elements: “Camouflage braces and bow ties for the men; boudoir pillows. I’m looking for camo-print shams. I’m looking for fleece blankets. There will be thermal underwear in gray with monograms, travel umbrellas and flashlights.”

She plans to wrap presents in white vellum and brown kraft paper, and tie them up with twine. Extra paper and twine will be delivered to the house, so the clients can wrap their own gifts following her template, she said.

“We’re doing the tree Saturday” — with only white lights and no ornaments, Ms. Bell’s signature — and “we go heavily armed with glue guns. There’s lots of boxwood. When people have more than one house, they want to arrive and hit the ground running.”

Well, I must say that the camo theme makes the all white Christmas seem positively Mardi Gras-ish. (And not just because I first read that thing about glue guns as “heavily armed with guns.”)


And those swag bags! Do we really think that the crew who’s dreaming of a Camo Christmas really needs monogrammed thermal underwear, travel umbrellas, and flashlights? Goodie bags at Christmas (in addition to the camo tote bag stockings, and the vellum and kraft paper wrapped real gifts.)  Okay, the kids will like the flashlights.  They may actually find them the most fun present of all.

To me, the most depressing thing about Camo Christmas is the fact that there are no ornaments on the tree.

Say what?

Isn’t Christmas supposed to be about family, friends, and tradition?

Okay, there’s certainly a possibility that they’re a bunch of rich chicken-hawks, but maybe the Camo Christmas family are military types. A camo is how they roll.

So, couldn’t they have ornaments that were spent shells, or mock grenades, or tiny trenching tools.  (And the holiday dinner could be MRE’s.  Hmmmm.  Maybe I should give Ms. Bell a jingle. Bet she didn’t think of the MRE’s.)

No ornaments?

My own personal tree has lots of them – no two alike.

Where to begin?

There are a couple of plastic ornaments that hung on my parents’ first tree – bells, stocking, and Santa in his sleigh (with reindeer, avec broken leg). Plus a few others that were hung on the family tree for years. The ancient glass balls from my grandmother’s don’t go on the tree. I have special hangers for them, and they go on the mantle, although it makes me so nervous having them up, I’m thinking of retiring them, and preserving them for my nieces – who never knew their great-grandmother – to break.

I have a bunch of counted-cross-stitched ones my mother made, plus a ceramic angel she gave me to make sure there was something religious on my pagan solstice tree. (Yes, Ma, it’s on the front of the tree; and the day-of-the-dead skeleton angel is on the back. You win!)

I have ornaments I picked up on my travels – not from everywhere, but I do have some I got in Ireland (Belleek tea-pot, Belleek tree), Paris (Père Noël), Amsterdam (something delft-y), Prague (eggs), Krakow (eggs), and Budapest (more eggs). And a Mele Kalikimaka ornament from Hawaii, that I never would have gotten if not for my Bing Crosby Christmas album on which Der Bingle sings “Mele Kalikmaka”, which is no “Christmas in Killarney”.  Just saying.

I have ornaments that were given to me as gifts (the crane from Peter, etc.).  Others I bought just because I liked them (Fenway Park Green Monster, etc). I have some completely funky 1950’s-1960’s ornaments that I think my mother got at a thrift store somewhere along the line, including some really cool pink and turquoise with silver ones.

There’s a polar bear with my niece Molly’s name on it; a snowman for Caroline.  A couple of black lab ornaments I got even before my sister Trish got her black lab. I have a number of ornaments that my sister Kath had on her tree, until she stopped having a tree, including her handmade Emily the cat ornament. I have a dreidel in honor of my brother in law, Rick.

When I decorate my tree, the best part is thinking about the associations I have with the ornaments. God knows, I don’t go into a fugue state, musing on each and every one. Still, I do very much enjoy my ornaments.

A tree with just white lights? Phooey.

Camo Christmas?

Double phooey, and a big, loud raspberry.


A tip of the Santa hat to Kath for pointing out this Times article to me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wanna bet? Not at OTB

The good news is that yesterday was the shortest day of the year, so tonight it’s staying lighter just a tad bit longer, and this will – I promise – actually start to get noticeable in another couple of weeks.

It is only because it is getting lighter that I’m willing to throw a dark cloud over the holiday week by showing this picture of the union hall meeting where the recently laid off workers from New York City’s Off-Track Betting Corporation (a.k.a., OTB) gathered for info on their benefits.

Talk about Ho, f-in’ Ho.

The article is just about as downbeat as the accompanying picture. (Source: NY Times.)

For those who aren’t familiar with OTB, NY legalized off-track betting in the early 1970’s. They opened a bunch of betting parlors throughout the city, where people could go and bet on the ponies without having to trek to Aqueduct or Belmont.  Or place a wager with their local bookie.

I’ve passed many OTB parlors. Not surprisingly, they were grim, dingy, ill-lit, and – for most of their tenure – smoke-filled.  Not inviting in the least.

But, then, I am not much of a gambler.

I’ve been to the horses a few times, each time allocating how much I was willing to pay for a night’s entertainment. (Typically, a two-buck wager per race.)  I would pick my pony based on its name, or the color of the jockey’s silks, or some other distinctly unlikely attribute.  Mostly I’d lose.

I take a similar approach to casinos.  Quarter slots only, no more than a $10 spend.  When the roll of quarters runs out, so do I.

I did have good luck once in Reno, and won $200 at a quarter slot. I immediately cashed out, much to the surprise of those working the adjacent machines, who couldn’t believe that I’d quit on a lucky machine.  As I pointed out, I’d just parlayed $10 into $200, and that this sort of investment success was not something I was likely to replicate.  Ever. In my whole, wide life.

The lottery I do play.  Not religiously, but with some regularity.

My feeling about the lottery is that, while buying a ticket is a fool’s errand, paying a dollar to get a couple of days worth of ‘what if’ fantasizing about what I’d do with the $38 million Powerball jackpot is well worth the ‘it figures’ I experience when, a couple of months after the drawing has passed, I dig out my lottery ticket and realize that I didn’t even match one number.

Still, those wiled-away minutes when I get to play John Beresford Tipton (the millionaire of the eponymous 1950’s show about a wealthy recluse who sent his emissary around the country to bestow million dollar checks on worthies) are most enjoyable.  And, yes, I would quit my day job and do something else.  Hey, I like my work and all, but it’s not all that scintillating, earth-moving, soul-satisfying, or ennobling.  So, yeah, if I won the Powerball, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ve written my last tech white paper.

Still, I’m not much of a gambler.

But though that’s the case, and though I never set toe in an OTB parlor, I can’t help but feel really bad for the folks who worked there until OTB was closed down earlier this month – the victim of shifting gambling habits (online betting, buses to Atlantic City and Foxwoods), of internal mismanagement, of politics (OTB was some kind of quasi-government entity, maybe just because it forked over so much revenue to the city and state).

A number of the folks interviewed in the Times article had spent their entire careers working at OTB: a 58 year old woman who’d been there 33 years; a 46 year old fellow who’d worked there since he was 18.

“I love what I’m doing,” Mr. [Dennis] Ferington said, a black cap on his head sporting the OTB logo. “And I know I’m the best at what I do.”

What does a couple of decades of taking bets on horse races look like on a resume? Where does Dennis Ferington go to replace the level of pride he felt about being “the best” at his job? Walmart greeter?

For all the problems OTB has had over the years, I’m guessing that the average employee probably felt somewhat buffered from the economic vagaries that have decimated the job lot for so many lesser-skilled, lesser-educated workers. Bookie may not be the oldest profession, but people have been gambling on anything you can gamble on since Ugg and Mog placed a bet on who was going to win the pterodactyl race.

I’m pretty sure that OTB parlors served a social function for the down-and-outers who hung out there, too.

It may not have been much of a life, but, hey, it’s a life.

Maybe because it’s the holidays.  Maybe because it’s cold. Maybe because it’s dark. (Although a bit lighter than yesterday.) Maybe because there aren’t a boatload of jobs out there for the kind of folks who were taking bets at OTB, I find this story especially depressing.

One laid off employee – Angela Page, an 11 year veteran who had “thought [she] was going to make a life out of this,” was talking about what she could do moving forward.

“I’m good at everything,” she said, rattling off her qualifications. “I can serve food. I can run a register. I can stack boxes. I can baby-sit kids.”

Because it’s the holidays. And because it’s cold. And because it’s darks. And because I tend to like New Yorkers, I wish all the laid-off OTB workers the best of luck.

But people who spent 10, 20, 30 years on a job aren’t going to replicate that experience – the routine, the camaraderie, the pride in being good, being the best at what they do – anytime soon.

Maybe because it’s the holidays. Maybe because it’s cold. Maybe because it’s dark.  This makes me very sad.

But no more gloom for Pink Slip this year.  I’ve had enough.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Booth babes. (It seemed like such a good idea at the time.)

A few years ago, when I was waiting to give blood, someone asked me to sign up for the Caitlin Raymond Bone Marrow Registry.  I can’t remember what it all entailed – a cheek swab, I think – but i do remember that the person who “recruited” me was a nice, middle-aged woman.  And that she told me that there was some sort of cut off date, which I was closely approaching, for the age where there was no more interest in your being a bone marrow donor. That age, as I clearly recall, was 60.

So, although I signed up, I’m guessing that my information has now been filed away in the “dormant” database, if not jettisoned entirely.

Other than the first letter I received from the AARP – a good decade in the rear-view mirror, at this point – being told that my bone marrow was nearing its sell-by date was one of the most pointed darling-you-are-growing-old reminders that I’ve gotten.

In any case, they’re always on the lookout for young, healthy registrants for the bone marrow registry, especially, I’m sure, those who will remain in the active database for more than a year or two.

And UMass Memorial Medical Center of Worcester, the home of the registry I had signed up for, has been out in full force recruiting volunteers.

But they’re no longer leaving the recruiting to nice middle-aged women.

Not, they’ve been hiring what in thebooth babes marketing biz we used to call “booth babes.” In fact, the UMass Memorial “paid a Boston-area modeling agency $40,000 to $50,000 a week for models to work in dozens of malls and at special events.” (Source: Boston Globe.)

Having been  to dozens upon dozens of trade shows over the year, I am quite familiar with the use of prospect-wooing models. Most of the trade shows I’ve gone to were techie events, with a majority male attendee list. The last show I attended, maybe two years ago, still seemed to have a goodly number of booth babes floating around. Some things just don’t change.

One of the more memorable booth babes I saw was years ago, at  a financial services technology conference.  British Telecom had models in shorty French maids costumes giving out Twinings tea.  I can’t recall the connection to BT. I guess the tea was English Breakfast.

At another show, I actually wanted some information on a company/product, but when I went to their booth, it was populated by a bevy of cutie-pies in black cocktail dresses, none of whom knew jack about the product being promoted. I looked around that 40’x40’ foot booth in vain for someone in khakis and a company logo polo shirt who could answer my questions. Then I spotted a decidedly uncomfortable looking young woman in a black cocktail dress.  Unlike the booth babes, she was average looking, a bit zaftig, had her hair pulled back in a not-so-becoming pony tail. Plus she was wearing sensible shoes, rather than teetering around in heels. 


I went over to talk to her and, indeed, she was a company employee, the sole person on duty in the booth who actually knew what the company did.

I often wonder about how successful that event was for the company.

There’s no doubt they got a lot of leads, but I’m sure there were plenty of prospective buyers who went away scratching their heads because the folks in the booth didn’t know gigabyte from overbite, ewe from RAM.

Of course, it’s not all booth babes.

One year when I was with Genuity, we hired actors, who stood in cherry-pickers, maybe 15-20 feet above the show floor, reading a script about our Black Rocket Internet service.  One of the actors I recognized from an Exedrin ad. Almost famous.

It wasn’t a particularly successful show for us. Then again, nothing that we ever did was particularly successful for us. Thus the company ended up in bankruptcy, and defunct.  Perhaps we should have used booth babes, and not actors whose greatest role had been the man with the pounding headache.

Booth babes apparently worked quite well for UMass Memorial, as bone marrow registry enlistees were well up.

After all, what red-blooded American male can turn down a pretty, blue-haired girl in a mini-skirt who’s asking for nothing more than your name and a cheek swab?

This being Massachusetts, the plot thickens.

Not only was UMass Memorial outdoing itself in netting bone marrow registrants. But they were apparently charging insurance providers a big, whopping amount to do the initial testing.  Tests that should have cost $100 or so were being charged to insurance companies (and self-insurers) at orders of magnitude more than that.

In the last decade, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island became the only states where legislators mandated insurers pay for bone marrow testing…Nationally, most hospitals and other donor-recruitment organizations do not charge for the testing, said Michael Boo, chief strategy officer for the National Marrow Donor Program.

So, if they’re charging, say, $4K for a $100 test, no wonder they can afford to spring for $40-50K per week for blue-haired booth babes.

Not surprisingly, those footing the testing bills have pushed back on what they feel are exorbitant charges, and UMass Memorial has "stopped using models.”

One more job that ain’t in demand what it used to be.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dial L for Layoff

A few weeks ago, Sanofi-Aventis (big pharma) had a conference call layoff. Employees were sent an email, telling them to be on the lo0kout for an email a few days later.  That email contained a dial in number for a conference call.  If you were invited to the 8 a.m. conference, you still had a job.  If you were asked to the 8:30 conference. Well, sorry, “a voice on the other line …told them to stop working immediately.” (Source: HuffPo.)

Time’s up; pencils down.

(You wouldn’t have to tell me twice to stop working immediately, although if the layoff happened during a conference call, I probably would have been surfing the web, IM-ing with a colleague, or playing Tetris.)

At Sanofi-Aventis, for employees working outside a central office, a squadron of picker-uppers showed up on the doorstep of those let go to get them to let go of their laptops, smartphones, cars and whatever else they had by way of company property.

I guess that Sanofi-Aventis wanted to improve on the efficiency of a 2009 layoff, in which folks were told to sit by their phones and await news of their fate. I don’t know whether those employee received a personal call, or a robo-call.  But, to me, it does make some tiny bit of a difference.  At least if there’s a person on the other end of the line, you can vent a bit. At least until they inform you that they have a bazillion more calls to make and they can’t tarry with you and your outrage, hurt, and confusion forever.

For this year’s Sanofi-Aventis call-in conference,the event was strictly a one-way broadcast.  Those getting axed had no opportunity to ask questions. They just got to listen to the disembodied voice telling them they were history.

In truth, there’s really no good way to tell someone that they’re being let go.  And I suspect that goes double in today’s trembling and fragile economy, when it’s not clear that jobs of a certain type and level are ever going to be coming back.

But a mass, hands-off lay-off does seem especially cold and heartless – even worse than the hired hatchet man portrayed by George Clooney in Up in the Air.  At least the news was delivered by a human messenger, even if, by the end of the movie, the human messenger was via telepresence.

Of course, mass announcements are pretty much how blue-collar, industrial workers have been laid off for years: the plant’s closing on the 15th. Wham-bam.

Now the same sorts of mass events are being orchestrated for white collar workers, too.

There is one thing to be said for the Sanofi-Aventis approach: no one’s left on pins and needles, trying to figure out if the angel of death that’s grabbing people out of cubicles for a brief, Kleenex-filled conversation behind closed (glass) doors is going to pass them by.

A friend of mine works for a company that was recently acquired.

Onesie-twosie, they’re pinging off employees.

No communication to the rank and file.

Just the steady, insidious drum-beat of  “10 Little Indians”.

Although the initial pink slips went to senior execs, who’d gotten rich during the acquisition, and who left with a smirk, the layoffs are now working their way down through the ranks.

No one can figure out the “whos” and “whys.” Or the timing. So there’s a whole lot of speculation going on. Are ‘expensive’ workers, who’ve been there a long time, more vulnerable or less? Are you safe if you’re in an area that makes money, or will there end up being cuts across all the boards?

Managers were asked to grade all their people on a Bell-curve.

So just how does that work if you have three folks in your group?

I was asked to do this kind of report card at one point during my career, and it ain’t easy. Especially if everyone in your group is pretty good, if they all have different areas of expertise, etc., etc. For all the “science” of management, when there are no absolute ways to measure things – no sales folks with quota; no production workers stamping out x widgets per hour – if can get completely arbitrary. Especially in the later layoff rounds, when the low-hanging fruit has been plucked and all your marginal performers are already history.  (With respect to rounds of layoffs, no company ever seems to have a one-and-done layoff, unless they go completely out of business.)

Employees at my friend’s company are kind of hoping that there’s a Christmas Ceasefire called, and that there are no lay-offs during the next couple of weeks.

But no one knows.

In 1939, just turned 20 and just out of secretarial school, my mother was laid off from her job on Christmas Eve.  The boss needed to give the work to his niece.  Stop work immediately, and, hey, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Living with that kind of tension that’s happening in my friend’s company – not knowing the magnitude, timing or criteria being used to decide who goes and who stays – can be scary, and numbing. It’s difficult to focus on “work-work” when there’s all that speculation to work through. Yet at the same time, no one wants to be perceived as a slacker.

Layoffs were exceptionally odious when I worked at Wang Labs. Practice didn’t exactly make perfect for Wang – in my less than 3 years there, I believe I lived through nearly a dozen major layoffs – but the company had mastered the concept of the long drawn out layoff run-up. If they announced that a layoff would be held on or before December 1st, you could pretty much plan that December 1st would be doomsday.

Since the layoff would likely have been announced a couple of months in advance, there was maximum time allotted in which everyone could drive themselves and each other nuts by trading rumors. Against this backdrop, the more earnest employees kept doggedly at it, hoping that if an exec overheard them talking about the release of the new XYZ (rather than speculating that only marketers at Level 27 and above were being let go), they would be spared.

At least at Wang you were told face-to-face that you were a goner, a combo of your group manager and someone from HR. In one memorable layoff, the manager of our group had engineered a European trip, and left the honors to the nicest guy in the group.

We had one Russian fellow on our team, and when ‘they’ came for him, he said he felt like the KGB had showed up at his door.

Is that any better than calling in to a conference bridge and hearing that your numbers up?

In some ways, in terms of tension, it may even be worse.

But there’s something to be said for someone having to, if not exactly look you in the eye, then be in your presence when the word comes down.

Unfortunately, the folks doing the actual laying off don’t tend to be the ones who’ve made the overall decision about the magnitude and timing of a layoff. Nor are the disembodied voices making the announcements over Webex.

Nope, the ones making the “hard” decisions are seldom those who have the carry them out.  That’s why they get paid the big bucks, I guess. At least the guy who fired my mother on Christmas Eve carried his decision out in person.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Without blood sausage….

As headlines go, “Without blood sausage, it just wouldn’t be Christmas” is right up there. (Source: NY Times.)

Who knew?

Perhaps because my family doesn’t have a  Christmas Eve food tradition, I wasn’t aware that for some folks (namely, the Estonians) blood sausage is the sine qua non for a festive Christmas Eve.

Food Festivus for the Restivus, for the most part, does not involve the blood sausage in any way, shape or form.

It is not that my family lacks for Christmas Eve traditions.

For one thing, we’ve always opened our presents on Christmas Eve.

When I was a kid this custom was just one more reason why we were weird. Not that it wasn’t fun to open presents when it was dark out, but I always envied those TV and other normal kids who got to scoot downstairs in their PJ’s, at dawn, to see what Santa had left them. Not that there were any stairs to scoot down.  We lived in a flat in my grandmother’s decker until moving into a one story house. Our scooting would, thus, have been horizontal rather than vertical.

Now that I’m all grown up, I rather like having Christmas Eve as the main event.

And we do now, and have always, done plenty of eating (and, now that I think  of it, drinking) on Christmas Eve.

Early on, Christmas Eve was a no-meat day for Catholics. So the grown ups ate creamed salmon, and the kids ate tuna sandwiches. Once the meat fatwa was rescinded, my mother introduced a smorgasbord that included kidney bean and meatball casserole, baked ziti, baked ham, and this completely ghastly fruit salad (that I completely adored) that included grapes, pineapple, walnuts, tiny marshmallows, and I can’t remember what-all-else, in a terrifyingly sweet white sauce made of, I’m guessing, equal parts heavy cream and confectioners sugar.

I now do Christmas Eve at my house and, over the years, we’ve settled on lots of appetizers, followed by sandwiches. (Just as well for me, as I’m not much of a cook.) 

This year, we’ll be resurrecting some of our old traditionals. My sister Kath will be making kidney bean and meatball casserole, and Trish will be doing the ziti. These are both dishes that are within range of my cooking repertoire and core cooking competence, but better my sisters, who are both excellent cooks, do the honors.

There will be plenty of other “stuff” to eat and drink.  Not to mention our traditional song fest, which features “Good King Wenceslas,” “Christmas in Killarney,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”  Not to mention the plastic Santa on a reindeer from my parents’ first Christmas.  Not to mention our more recent adoption of the Yankee Swap.  (I have an excellent swap gift to put into the mix this year. Just excellent.  I went Yankee Swap shopping with my niece Molly and she picked up a lulu, as well.  In fact, hers might well be in contention for nuttiest Yankee Swap ever, which, in our family, is going some.)

We (at least the female “we”) will, barring terrible weather, take a walk around the neighborhood, admiring the shop windows on Charles Street and the lights in the Common.

We will have a quite wonderful time, all in all, but there will be no blood sausage on the menu.

Not that I grew up sausage-free, mind you.

My mother was German.  Her father was a butcher. And every once in a while, Chicago sent Worcester some kind of heavy-duty sausage thing. I remember one arrival: something called a summer sausage, that smelled just terrible, and appeared to be encased in something resembling a tire tread. Summer sausage I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, although I did like kielbasa as a kid. (These days, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, either.) And it’s not like sausage (a.k.a., white pudding, black pudding, and blood pudding – not to be confused with Jello Pudding and Pie Filling) is food incognita to the Irish, either.

But, unlike the Estonians, we didn’t do blood sausage in our family.

…in traditional Estonian village life, verivorstid were made immediately after the slaughter each autumn, when the weather turned cold and the cost of keeping animals warm and fed became too high. Bacon, ham and smoked sausages were laid down for the winter, but blood is highly perishable and must be cooked right away. So the fresh blood sausage was boiled, frozen and saved as a treat for Christmas Eve.

And now, at Estonian House in NYC, the younger generations are learning to make the verivorstid that it just wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without.

In truth, I’d probably like Estonian blood sausage just fine.

It’s just that to our overly refined, too many generations removed from the farm, sensibilities, the name “blood sausage” makes it sound just ghastly.

If they said “Estonian sausage”, and mentioned that it was made with onions and barley, I’d be licking my chops. Especially if they omitted the operative word “blood”.

But blood sausage?

Yecch. (I have occasionally sucked on a paper cut, but that’s about as vampirish as I get.)

I’m apparently not alone.

…in American kitchens, blood is the final frontier of the nose-to-tail movement.

“It’s 7 percent of the animal down the drain,” said Brad Farmerie, who has taught blood sausage workshops to fellow chefs in New York. He learned the craft during his eight years in England, where the principle of using everything edible is firmly in place.

Here, even among those who cure sausages and cut up carcasses, he said, blood is still considered unappetizing and odd.

So, there’ll be no blood sausage on the menu this Christmas Eve. But, traditionalists that we are, we will be singing a rousing chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.
You may say there’s no such thing as Santa.
But, as for me and Grandpa, we believe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Greetings from Qatar, complete with air conditioning as big as all outdoors

A lot can happen in twelve years.

Qatar could become an easy going, laissez le bons temps rouler kind of place. You know, everyone stumbling around from joint to joint, sucking down their open- carry hurricanes and piña coladas from plastic souvenir cups. Raunchy tee-shirts, funny hats, tawdry knick knacks for sale on every corner. Guys and gals holding hands and snogging.  Guys and guys holding hands and snogging. Gals and gals holding hands and snogging. Maybe even a place where a Jewish soccer fan or soccer player might actually feel comfortable, if not actually feel welcome. Maybe even a place that has more than one packy (liquor store) to serve its entire population.

A place where folks who like to carry on, drink in public, drink in private, visit strip clubs and even a working girl or two, and generally let their hair down and their “it” all hang out  – i.e., folks who fit the profile of some non-zero proportion of World Cup holidayers - can have them some fun. And watch them some futbol.

But there probably ain’t nothing going to be happening to Qatar weather that’s going to make it any cooler in summer than it is now.  In fact, a betting person who’d been keeping an eye on climate change might even figure that Qatar’s 120 degree summers might even heat up a bit by 2022.

Which is when Qatar hosts the World Cup, having beaten out the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan – all, arguably, places where the fun (and tolerance) quotient is a tad bit higher than it is in Qatar – for the honor of hosting these games.

First, I’d like to give a bit of unsolicited advice to everyone who thinks it’s a good idea for the U.S. to mount colossal bids to host events like the Olympics and the World Cup. Fuhgeddaboudit!

Without sounding like a woe-is-me, wound-licking, hyper-nationalist here, it strikes me that a lot of good money gets expended on these “pick me” efforts, only to find that there are political reasons why “we” don’t get chosen.

Now, while these big sporting events are mostly big corporate events, it’s probably not a bad idea to host them in many different countries and regions, rather than resorting to same-old, same-old. South Africa, by all accounts, did an admirable job hosting the first World Cup held on that continent.  And it may not be a bad idea to hold it in a Muslim nation like Qatar, either, if only to make the point that it’s a small, narrow world, rather than a big, wide one, and that we’re all in it together.

So, with respect to sharing the spotlight, etc. Yay!

Still, since these mega-athletic spectaculars are largely corporate in nature, and since, despite our recessionary woes the U.S. still hasn’t fully renounced its ‘hey, big spender’ identity, these mega-athletic spectaculars still count on some U.S. spend. Maybe if they’re going to keep snubbing us, we should think about snubbing them.

Let’s see if our spending and interest drops off enough that the complete pure of heart, unbribe-able, sweetness and light committees who award the franchise to the mega-athletic spectaculars rethink whether it makes some sense to occasional throw the good old U.S. of A. a bone, without our having to sit up and beg for it (and then mooch home with our tail between our legs when the pull the bone away from us).

Patriotic, jingoistic aside aside, who’s going to want to spend the summer in Doha, even if Qatar loosens up between now and 2012?

Yes, I understand that the Qataris are planning on air-conditioning the outdoor stadiums they’re going to be building for the World Cup. (Which reminds me of my mother nagging us if we left a door open in cold weather: “What are you trying to do, heat the whole outdoors?”)

But talk about a colossal waste of energy.

Sure, they have oil to burn, but wouldn’t holding the World Cup in a place where you don’t have the air-condition the outside make more sense?  Or holding it at a time of year when it’s not 120 degrees out?

Forget the anti-gay laws, the attitude toward Jews, the constraints on women.  Forget that one, measly liquor store.

The weather alone is going to make Qatar a dubious draw for fans, and there just aren’t enough Qataris to fill the stands.

I’ve been in the bleachers of Fenway Park during a humid, 90 degree afternoon game.  Despite sucking down (or pouring over my head) a half dozen bottles of Poland Springs, I had to leave by the fifth inning to avoid being taken out on a stretcher.  Air conditioning sure would have been nice, and I’m sure that by 2022 the Qataris will have figured something out. Still, they can’t outdoor air-condition the entire country, can they?  Sounds like your tourist choices will be the air conditioned outdoor stadium or an air conditioned indoor mall or hotel.

Doesn’t sound like much fun to me. (Maybe the hotel rooms will at least have mini-bars.)

FIFA, the soccer federation, must have weighed their interest in expanding further into the Muslim world, vs. alienating the hordes of fans who like to do the quadrennial trek to wherever the World Cup’s being held, and have a good time while they’re there. It’ll be interesting to see whether this turns out to have been a shrewd financial move for them or not.

But who knows? An awful lot can happen in 12 years.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Does it get any sadder than this?

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these have surely got to include “this holiday season, many Wall Streeters are flying commercial.”

Talk about a lump of coal.

No, worse.

At least a lump of coal has some intrinsic value, like you can burn it to create warmth.  Or use it to make one eye on a snowman.  Or peg it at someone.

Flying commercial.

Does it get any sadder than this?

I think not.

Anyway, I learned about this almost unbearable ending to an already gloomified year in the Wall Street Journal, which – correctly, I’d say – put the Wall Street plight story out there when there’s still time to make an end of year contribution to one of those Santa outfits that takes care of the needy.

What else are our Wall Street guys  skimping on?

Well, those who are still managing to eke out enough of living to fly chartered are foregoing:

…catered in-flight meals, which can cost $1,000 or more for four people.

Hey, I know that $1K sounds like a lot of moola for four in-flight meals – at least when I think about the in-flight meals I’ve been served over the years -  but remember: we’re not just talking the food and the food prep here, but the service and delivery.

Others are “jet pooling” with – get this – complete strangers to keep costs down.

Misery loves company, especially when company can help defray private jet costs. And just as there are no atheists in foxholes, I’m guessing that, even without sharesies on a $1K lunch, there are no strangers after lift-off on a private jet heading from Teterboro, NJ to St. Barts. Just saying.

You think I’m kidding about all this, but we’re currently experiencing the “largest decline in bonuses since the onset of the financial crisis.”  What’s that? Two, maybe three whole years with having to survive on a paltry salary and a measly, barely-buy-a-raincoat bonus.

This is also a major example of trickle down economics at its insidious worst:

December is usually a time when bankers crowd the showrooms and aisles shopping for their next big bonus toys. But jewelers, sports-car dealers and yacht brokers say bankers this Christmas are hard to find.

Heard on The Street:  Bonuses down between 10 to 25% over last year.  Maybe even 50%.


The drop follows last year's much-criticized surge in banker pay and highlights growing uncertainty on Wall Street ahead of regulatory scrutiny and weak financial markets.

But that surge was last year.  And it’s already been spent. Or saved. Or stuffed in a mattress.

Naughty or nice, apparently, matters not.

One Citi banker said colleagues who have been coming out of compensation meetings in the past two weeks "look like they've been hit by a truck."

But not by the Lamborghini they were hoping for.

And, for some, there’ll be less cash in the bonus wallet, as:

Regulators and shareholders have pushed banks to link pay to long-term performance rather than short-term trading gains. As a result, some bankers, accustomed to getting as much as 50% of their bonus in cash, may get only 20% this year, with the rest usually paid out in deferred stock, according to Wall Street compensation consultants.

I call ‘Foul!’

Changing the rules mid-career?

Man, these guys ought to be grandfathered in.

Don’t people get how much good short-term trading does?

It’s not all unremittingly terrible news.  Goldman is down, but their bonus scheme is likely to work out to over $367,000 per employee. (I’d like to see the spread on that one.)

$367,000 may sound hefty, but chartering a decent-sized boat in the Caribbean between Christmas and New Year can run you $250K to $1 million. And that’s before food, bev, and fuel are larded on added in.

An extra $36 7,000 just doesn’t stretch all that far, especially if you’re talking family of four.

Other areas hard hit by the dwindled bonuses on Wall Street include summer homes.  Many are downsizing their cottage rentals and purchases from 12,000 square feet, to a more modest 6,000 to 8,000 square feet.

Can’t we do something for these folks?  Like give them a permanent tax cut or something?

I know people talk on and on about the deserving poor, but how about a break for the deserving rich?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Toys ‘R N’t Us

The place where I work out runs a major Christmas deal-i-o for children who are poor and homeless, and most of us gym-rats take kids names to buy gifts for.

Last year, I took a couple of teen-aged boys, who were easy-peasy enough to buy for. One trip to Radio Shack, and a couple of low-end iPods and iTunes cards later I was done.

This year, having spotted some type of Toys ‘R Us opening up on Washington Street (i.e., within walking distance of both my home and the gym), I figured I could take on a few younger kids.

As I looked through the request list, a family jumped out as just perfect for me. That’s because the 16 year old daughter wanted a gift card for a bookstore. At least that’s what her mom said. Mom. Kid. No difference. I certainly wanted to support a family where someone thinks reading is important.

One brief in-and-out to Borders, and that gift was done.

The gift request for the 12 year old boy was easily enough realized, as well.

He wanted sports equipment.

One basketball, one soccer ball, coming right up.  This left the problem of how to wrap the suckers, but I figured the UPS store would have a box that could hold both balls. (I was correct-a-mundo.)

The request for the youngest child, a girl of 5, was for either something called a Leapster, or for a Barbie doll with some outfits.

There was a fourth, non-related child on the list for this particular shelter: a 3 year old looking for a doll with some accessories.

Toys ‘R Us was calling to me…

Having googled and figured out what Leapster was, I knew that Toys ‘R Us carried it, but that it might be a bit problematic (i.e., over the $$$ limit), once you got the player, and the battery juicer, and a couple of games. I lauded the mom’s desire to have her little one learn stuff, but this seemed overly complicated.  Barbies ‘R Us I could deal with more easily.

For the 3 year old. Oh, baby, that’s who baby dolls are for, no?

It took me about 14.5 seconds to figure out that Toys ‘R Us Express in downtown Boston bears exactly no relationship to the big-box, packed to the gills Toys ‘R Us’s I’d been to out in the ‘burbs.

Untiled floor. Dreary lighting. Poor selection.

A couple of Barbies to choose from, but only one other outfit. (The store-stockers clearly don’t know Barbie, that’s for sure.)

The baby doll selection was equally grim.

I was beginning to wish I’d taken a bunch of MP3-player craving teenagers.

Then a lightbulb, a Christmas bulb, as it were, went off in my head.

I was having lunch with an old friend in Cambridge, in the Alewife Station area, and the Alewife shopping plaza had a real Toys ‘R Us, where I was quite sure Barbie could shop ‘til she dropped, and that baby dolls would be cooing to me as I walked the aisles.

Well wrong I was!

The Alewife Toys ‘R Us – which has been there for eons; I was working nearby when my niece Molly was born 14 years ago, and remember walking over at lunch to buy her a couple of outfits when I heard it was a girl – is gone.


But just as the Toys ‘R Us lightbulb was flickering and dying, another one went off.

Say, wasn’t there a Kay-Bee Toy Store in the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall I always forget exists?  And isn’t that just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the Kendall T Station that I’d be whizzing through on my way home from the abortive trip to the hole-in-the-mall formerly known as Toys ‘R Us.

Before the T went into tunnel mode, I googled and saw that, yes, indeed, there was a Kay-Bee at the Galleria.

Light of heart, and with visions of Barbie dolls dancing in my head, I made my way through pelting rain to the Cambridgeside Galleria.

Alas. Alack.

Kay-Bee’s gone.

At least it was a warmish pelting rain.

And fortunately, there was something at the mall called ToyZam.

At first, it looked suspiciously like the down at the heels Toys ‘R Us Express on Washington Street, but on closer look, at least there were outfits for Barbie.

So, I got some sort of Barbie kit, in which B was wearing what appeared to be a cocktail dress.  The package also held two other outfits, so that B could switch off to something “business-y”.  Or to a school-girl plaid-ish costume that, quite revoltingly, resembled that school-girl plaid-ish costume that Japanese little-girl-look prostitutes (and, I believe, Britney Spears in some early video) seem to favor.

Anyway, I bought Barbie a couple of additional outfits: two prom dresses – one formal, one semi, and some career duds.

One was an outfit for Nurse Barbie, which, frankly, looked like it was designed for a Naughty Nurse, soft-core porn flick.  The other career outfit was, I think, for a zoo worker, a la Joan Embry of San Diego Zoo fame. In any case, the prom dresses were far less suggestive than the career gal clothing. If suggestive is the right word to use when writing about a 11.5’’ plastic doll.  Sigh.

ToyZam also had some Groovy Girls, which I love, and which I felt would be a fine substitute for a baby doll.

But there were no Groovy Outfits and a Groovy Girl without Groovy Outfits is like Barbie without a wardrobe.

Back to the baby doll with accessories.

There were actually quite a few choices, but I settled on the one that came with a bed and car seat.  There wasn’t much else to accessorize it with, but I did by a bottle-bib-binkie combo for good measure.

Of course, once home, when I went to open the baby doll box to shove in the bottle-bib-binkie combo, I noticed that the hem on the cheap-o baby doll cap had come undone.

So, there I was, stitching up the unraveled seam of a pink and blue baby doll cap, when I should have been doing something like, ah, working. Or blogging.

No doubt, someone will spot the amateur sewing job and decide that this baby doll is used, and, thus, damaged goods.

I didn’t fully examine the baby doll, but I assume it is not damaged in the way that one baby doll of my childhood was.

The plastic had melted wrong on one of the doll’s arms, and the arm hung at a warped angle from the doll’s shoulder.

Although the doll technically did have an arm, we named it Amputatee. Amputatee became a regular fixture in the crazy games we’d play when our parents sent us down to the damp, unfinished basement when it was a cold winter night, you couldn’t play outside, and we needed to let off steam.

Ah, Amputatee.  She may have been a baby doll that only a mother could love, but love her I did. Even in the craziest of games, I always looked out for her and never, ever, ever let her be killed with a rubber dagger, or thrown overboard. No way.

May the three year old who gets the baby doll with the hand-mended cap get as much joy out of her dolly as I got out of Amputatee.

Anyway, all is calm, all is wrapped, thanks to the box I got at UPS that fits the basket- and soccer balls, but which took most of a large roll of paper to fully cover.  I had an old boot box which nicely fit Barbie and her outfits, and the baby doll with stuff came in its own large but wrappable box.

I really do hate cheap pink plastic crap, but so many toys, especially the less expensive ones, ‘R cheap pink plastic crap.

Made in China goes without saying.

I most enjoyed wrapping the gift card from Borders.

Years ago, I had picked up – in Filene’s Basement, for a few bucks -  a small, hinged, ceramic Villeroy-and-Boch Christmas box.  I had always meant to give it to my sister-in-law, who collects ornate tschotkes – or did until she began de-accessioning recently.  Anyway, the box itself came in a very nice gift box. It was very easy to tuck the Boders gift card in.  I hope the young girl who gets the gift buys books and book-ish things with the gift card, but the $50 is hers to spend on whatever she wants that Borders sells.  I also hope she likes the little Villeroy and Boch box. She’s living in a shelter. It may be the only pretty thing she has.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Bearing down in New Jersey

If someone asked me, ‘quick, name the most urban state in the U.S.’ I do believe that my first response would be ‘New Jersey.’

New Jersey, which was – and perhaps still is – known as the Garden State is, to me, associated more with oil tanks, smokestacks, warehouses, the PATH train, and Newark Airport than it is with anything to do with a garden or any other things-natural.  Sure, I know that there are beautiful, bucolic areas in the state, but when I close my eyes and picture New Jersey, I’m not seeing the rolling hills of horse country.  I’m seeing Newark, Bayonne, Jersey City, and Hoboken. Dense commuter burbs. The vamp leading up to each episode of The Sopranos

If I picture the Pine Barrens, it’s not a barren stand of pines. It’s Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts trying to stave off hypothermia and starvation by sucking on the fast-food condiment packs they found in their car’s glove compartment when they were stranded there (in a classic episode of New Jersey’s own Sopranos.)

So for New Jersey, I’m thinking urban. I’m thinking ethnic. I’m thinking crowded. I’m thinking fast mouth. I’m thinking ‘counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.’

I’m not thinking bear hunting.

But this is bear hunting season in New Jersey, and, while the season is brief – six days only – it was long enough to produce about 500 bear kills.  (Source:  Wall Street Journal Online. You may need a subscription to see the full article.)

Growing up in the ethnic, urban, crowded, fast mouth non-New Jersey world of Worcester, Massachusetts, I didn’t know many hunters. The thought of my father in hunting gear is beyond imagination.

Curiously, however, my ethnic, urban, fast mouth non-New Jersey uncles, Jack and Bob, who were from Chicago, arguably even more ethnic, urban, and crowded, if not more fast mouth, than either Worcester or New Jersey, were hunters, and fisherman.

I think they were duck hunters, and I believe their fish of choice was the Coho salmon, but for all I know they hunted deer, bear, and whatever other prey they found in Wisconsin.

Somewhere around here, I have a picture of one of them, Bob, I believe, in a duck blind with his rifle.

Bob, for a while, sold fishing and hunting gear out of his basement in ethnic, urban, crowded, fast mouth Chicago.

So I know that there’s not necessarily a disconnect between urbanization and hunting.

Still, I was surprised to read about the New Jersey bear hunt, which has been a boon for game butchers, meat curers, taxidermists, and bear-skin rug makers in the state.  Good to know that someone’s business is doing well, other than bed-bug exterminators.

"The bears make me busier, it's a nice little hit," said Richard Santomauro, a taxidermist in Wall, N.J., who is presently working on two bears. He charges $185 a foot for rugs and $255 a foot for life-size mounted animals, measured from nose to toe.

"They don't mind spending the money," he said. "I have one guy who just dropped a bear off and he wants a life-size with a trout in his hands and the trout is another $400 and something dollars." The total cost for that mounted piece will be around $1,900.

I’d hate to wake up in the middle of the night on the pull out couch in that guy’s den, and run into the life-sized bear avec trout while stumbling bleary eyed to the bathroom.

Of course, as I personally don’t know a soul who hunts (Bob and Jack, alas, are both long dead), the likelihood of my falling into the arms of a stuffed trout-bearing-bear is remote.

As is the likelihood of my ever eating bear, which I’ve never done.

Not that the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

Years ago, there was a restaurant in Boston that specialized in game meat. I ate there several times because the non-game meat and fish were pretty good, but after a few meals, we decided that the smell of lion, and tiger, and bear was too overwhelming. (Oh my!)  The place eventually went out of business, replaced by an upscale chain restaurant.

Bear meat is described as greasy and fatty, so it’s not something I’m going to be automatically drawn to.

Frankly, if I’m looking for fatty and greasy, I’ll add salty to the mix and go for potato chips or fried onion rings.

New Jersey bears don’t run grizzly size, but they run big enough – 300 pounds for the average male, 200 pounds for the average female – so that New Jersey bear hunters are sharing their bear in much the same way that, I suspect, Garden State backyard gardeners deal out the tomatoes and zucchini come August.

Hunters can eat their fill, and fob it off on family in friends (frozen pack of ground bear would make a nifty stocking stuffer), but they can’t give it to food banks, which take venison but bar bar.  This is, perhaps, because cooking bear requires care-bear care, as there’s risk of trichinosis.

If you render the fat, by the way, you could use it to, say, make doughnuts. Or whatever else you use lard for.

As a child, I remember reading a book about some post-World War II DP (Displaced Person) children from Poland, who ate lard sandwiches on black bread. Reading about their lunch made me a tad bit queasy.  Give me my peanut-butter on white any old time, but lard on black bread? No, thanks, I just ate.

Fast forward many years, and I was in a restaurant in Krakow that was billed as serving authentic Polish peasant food.

As we sat down, we observed a number of parties, who appeared to be natives, wolfing down some spread that was in an enamel bowl on each table. I couldn’t figure out quite what it was until they plopped some down in front of us.  Lard with flecks of ham in it. No thanks,I just ate.

I did try a teensy-weensy bit. It tasted like blecchy, gross fat with a faint whiff of bacon.

I can only imagine that bear lard with flecks of bear would be even worse.

But, hey, I’m not in New Jersey during bear hunting season, so I guess I’ll never know.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Getting stuffed

Just when I start to fret about what I’ll do with all that time on my hands when I voluntarily retire, or when my “golden years” are thrust upon me, comes an idea for a swell hobby: taxidermy.

I was inspired by an article in the WSJ Online, where, strewn amidst all the fulminating about that arch lefty Obama, there are all sorts of little goodies. 

Like the one about the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest, the fifth annual of which was held in Brooklyn recently.

The winner, by the way, was a woman who’d mounted – apparently, taxidermists don’t use the word “stuffed” – a rat terrier, fetchingly arrayed in a bead-studded, netting tiara. Alas, despite the fetching head gear, the animal struck me as more “rat” than “terrier”.  Which is not to say that the late and lamented was not somebody’s baby.

I couldn’t copy the picture of the winning entry, because it was flash, but here’s Beth Beverly, the winning NYTAXItaxidermist, in a rather stunning chicken hat stuffed, I guess, with Ms. Beverly’s head. Even blown up, I can’t quite determine with 100% accuracy, but I do believe that what’s pointing to Ms. Beverly’s brow is the chicken’s head.

There were twenty-three other entrants, whose mounts included a hyena, a squirrel and a puffin.

Which got me to wondering about what animals I would use for my taxidermy-in.

For starters, I wouldn’t want to work on any animal I knew and loved.  That would be way, way, way too upsetting.

Since I’m not a hunter and, even in retirement can’t imagine becoming one, that leaves the local fauna. 

So my choices would be the usual: pigeons, rats, mice, Canada geese, ducklings from the Make Way for Ducklings pond, sea gulls and other birds. (And, no, I wouldn’t kill one for sport; I’d just have to be on the alert enough to find a fresh kill before too much unpleasantness had set in.)

What else do we have around here?

I’ve seen a raccoon, smelled skunks, and spotted a hawk. For a while, there was a turtle living in our front garden patch.

Maybe I could nab a coyote at the Cape. You can hear them howling from my sister Kath’s in Wellfleet.

While we’re thinking Cape, maybe a dolphin or a whale will wash up. (Might be easier to tackle something smaller, like a rat, for my first project, however.)

I guess I’m not lacking be lacking for ideas, just for opportunity, since I can count on one hand the number of dead animals I’ve seen that haven’t already begun decomposing. I understand that there’s a certain amount of yuck factor to any taxidermy, but I’d prefer that decomposition not be a major part of it.

Anyway, I probably have a few years to figure it out. And since there is such a thing as a professional taxidermist, perhaps this could be a follow-on career for me. And demand for things-taxidermed is apparently on the upswing:

"For many years, when you'd think of taxidermy, you'd think of some guy's wood-paneled basement red room out in the country," said Mike Zorn, a guest speaker and judge who co-owns Obscure Antiques & Oddities in the East Village and hosts a new television show, "Oddities," on the Discovery Channel. "Now it's everywhere, in advertising, fashion, art. Juicy Couture bought a pile of heads from us a couple years ago to decorate their stores with."

Advertising? Fashion? Art?

Who knew?

I bet I could easily rustle up a bunch of rat heads for Juicy Couture. What do you suppose they pay per capita?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Upper Crust downer

Having – out of the clear blue – become football fans this year (i.e., we’re watching games, with interest, that the Patriots aren’t playing in), my husband and I are going to be watching the Indianapolis Colts play the Tennessee Titans.

I know, I know.

If I really thought about football, I wouldn’t watch it.

Watching a bunch of testosteroned overgrown boys try to stove in heads of the testosteroned overgrown boys on the other side of the yard line, all so that by the time they’re in their early fifties half of them are completely addle-pated. Throw in martial music, all the warrior/gladiator lingo, the God-and-country sub-themes, and the entire this is war (football is hell!) nature of pro football, and it really shouldn’t be on my must see TV list.

Yet this year has featured so many super narratives: The redemption of Michael Vick, who did time for dog fighting and is now back, and put on a dazzling, record breaking performance a few weeks back. Then there’s the end of the trail (presumably) for Brett Favre, a charter member of the over-the-hill-but-can’t-imagine-life-without-football gang, raging narcissist division. And my personal favorite, the off-and-on meltdowns of Peyton Manning.

Truly, we’re tuning in tonight to see if he can pull off a brilliant performance, or, failing that, if his head is going to explode.

Pizza and football have a way of peanut-butter-and-jellying in our house, and my husband suggested that we get a pizza for tonight’s game.

Alas, I had to inform him we are no longer patrons of the local pizza that Jack Welch has termed “to die for.” (Not that any pizza is to die for, but it was pretty darned tasty.)

No, we’re off Upper Crust pizza until the brouhaha over their rotten treatment of employees is cleared up. (If then.)

This whole situation has left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth, and much as I crave a bespoke sausage-extra-ricotta-and-roasted-red-pepper pizza – or the “good-for-you” off the menu MGH with all the veggies, I won’t be dialing the Upper Crust tonight, or any time soon.

Here’s the quick version of the story, which is fully told by The Boston Globe.

Since it was founded in 2001, the Upper Crust has been using a steady supply of Brazilian workers, working 80, even 100, hour weeks, and like so many other immigrants, sending money back home. It should come as no surprise to anyone who gets out of the house on occasion that most/all of the workers were illegal. And, thus, subject to exploitation.

Such as screwing them out of overtime by writing them two checks – one for a 40 hour week, the other for any hours over, each at the same regular rate. No O.T.

Upper Crust also – voila - turned workers into managers so that they wouldn’t have to pay them any overtime. (Something tells me that these managers didn’t get any of the come-and-go perks that management types get in the free world.)

The disgruntled employees – good for them – took their gripe to the U.S. Department of Labor, which found for the employees, and ordered the Upper Crust to pay back pay to the total tune of 350 thousand dollars. That’s a lot of dough.

Federal law requires that even illegals are entitled to time and a half, a “law intended to dissuade companies from hiring such workers as  way to scrimp on payroll.”

But Upper Crust needed that money for expansion, so they went a-scrimping.

And the Feds ordered Upper Crust to pay up.

Upper Crust no like:

For the workers matters only got worse after the [Department of Labor] investigation. Upper Crust demanded that the immigrants surrender the government-ordered checks for overtime pay or else lose their jobs, according to interviews with five former employees, four former managers, and a class action lawsuit filed…in July.”

Not true, claims the Upper Crust flack.

But you have to wonder.

Nor, the Upper Crust says, is the allegation that:

Upper Crust began drastically reducing weekly paychecks to recoup the federally ordered payouts. [Valdeir Pereira] Pinto, for example, started earning $455 for 80 hours, according to copies of his paychecks and time cards submitted as part of the lawsuit. That is about $5.70 an hour, or $2.30 below the minimum wage. Pinto said Upper Crust deducted more than $8,000 over about seven months – the full overtime payment he received – and then fired him.

This is pretty darned tough work – sweaty and demanding – for $5.70 an hour. That manager title – Upper Crust claims Pinto was a manager and thus not entitle to O.T. – is really not worth all that much. You can’t eat title, that’s for sure.

It is certainly possible that the class action suit against Upper Crust gets thrown out.

But there was that initial Labor Department finding. And there’s the part about illegal immigrants jeopardizing their stay here by outing themselves through the suit…

Wish that we had good alternative pizza nearby.

Guess I’ll have to figure out where the closest Bertucci’s is – and whether they deliver. Maybe Sweet Tomatoes will decided to venture into the city from Newton.


It would be so much more fun if I could watch Peyton Manning’s head explode, or even se him put in a best-ever performance, if I could do so while munching on a slice of Upper Crust.

Sometimes life is so darned hard!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

No such thing as bad search algorithm gaming? Guess again.

In what will have to be the greatest excuse for the inexcusable since Dan White’s “Twinkie Defense”, a Brooklyn online eyewear retailer claims that he:

…mistreated customers because he thought their online complaints raised the profile of his business in Google searches.

Hey, I was a waitress at Durgin-Park, a venerable Boston institution that specialized in rude waitresses and, when I was there lo these many years, insane management.

“The Boss” during my tenure knew absolutely how to abuse a customer.

One time, I was serving two women who had ordered the “Poor Man’s Roast Beef” lunch special, which featured a thin slice of rump roast, au jus.  When I went to pick my order up, it was clear that one of the two women was going to refuse delivery.

One slice of Poor Man’s was pink, fat free, and appetizing looking. The other was pieced together from four stray end cuts: the rinds was charred, the meat itself a not-so-tempting gray and marbled with gristle.

I told the cook that this was going to be trouble.

“I know,” he told me. “Just try to sell it. If she refuses it, I’ll give you another piece.”

Out I trotted with the two plates.

As predicted, the customer who I placed the burnt gristle in front of refused delivery.

I started back towards the kitchen when I was accosted by The Boss.

“Where do you think you’re going with that?”

When I explained the situation to him, he grabbed the offending plate out of my hand and asked me where my station was.

He then proceeded to march over to the two women, slam the plate down, tell them there was nothing wrong with the meal, and to get the hell out of his restaurant and don’t come back.

He then turned to me and said, “And make sure you charge them for the cornbread.”

The price of the entire meal was 99 cents, and I most assuredly didn’t charge them for the cornbread.

While the situation was ridiculous and embarrassing, I must say it was almost worth it to see the shock and awe look of WTF on the faces of those two ex-patrons as they gathered their belongings and exited the premises.

Would that there had been an Internet on which they could have posted a review! (By the way, when you google “Boston tourist trap”, Durgin comes up, as does Union Oyster House, another t-trap where I worked.)

Naturally, I doubt the two women with the Poor Man’s Roast Beef ever returned.

But The Boss didn’t care.  He hated complainers, even when they had a legitimate point, and he just wanted those two gone, baby, gone.

But the world has moved on, and, at least in the eyes and mind of Vitaly Borker, ticking your customers off is a good business model.

For Borker, however, ticking the customer off was no ordinary, get-lost-and-don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-arse-on-the-way-out customer mistreatment.

According to the article I saw on him in yesterday’s NY Times, he had engaged in a “campaign of intimidation against a woman who had bought a pair of glasses from DecorMyEyes over the summer.”

When she tried to return the glasses, which she believed were fakes, he threatened to sexually assault her and later sent her a photograph of the front of her apartment building. He also sent menacing e-mails, one of which stated that she had put her “hand in fire. Now it’s time to get burned.”

In an interview with a reporter from The New York Times in October, Mr. Borker maintained that scaring Ms. [Clarabelle] Rodriguez — and dozens of other customers in the last three years — enhanced the standing of DecorMyEyes in Internet searches on Google.That was because Google’s algorithm, he claimed, was unable to distinguish between praise and complaints. All of the negative postings translated into buzz, he said, which helped push DecorMyEyes higher in search results and increased his sales.

Now he’s been charged with a number of different Federal counts, including mail fraud, making interstate threats, and cyberstalking. Some of the charges carry a possible penalty of 20 years in the stir. He also has local charges lodged against him; state charges a possibility as well. A crime trifecta, as it were. (If he had any international business, he’d probably have Interpol on his tail.)

In addition to Ms. Rodriguez, Borker has several other victims threatened.

The Feds found a number of weapons in Borker’s home, including a semi-automatic. His lawyer claims they’re stage props. (Somehow I don’t think that Laurie, my optician, has a real or fake semi-automatic in her possession.)


It is unclear if Mr. Borker was right about the cause of DecorMyEyes’ surprisingly strong showing in online searches. But last week, Google published a post on its official blog stating that it had changed its search formula so that companies were penalized if they provided customers with what it called “an extremely poor user experience.”

In DecorMyEyes “About” section, the company touts that:

By doing continual upgrades to the site, the shopping experience for each customer is an easy and enjoyable one.

Easy and enjoyable?  “I know where you live”, etc.?

And that, has been recognized by various media outlets several times over the years including press in Magazines, Newspapers, and on Television.

Bet they won’t be adding a link to anything written about them in The New York Times.  Then again, Borker may still believe that his behavior was good for the business, and that having a slew of online complaints is worthwhile.

Maybe he’s right, but I find it hard to believe that there are people who’ll bother to google a company and not proceed according to what they fine. I understand that you can have an occasional disgruntled customer, or bad commenters trying to sabotage your business.  But if I see that a company’s ratings are by and large terrible, and that their head-guy may be heading to jail for threatening customers, I would definitely pause and rethink whether 70% off on Burberry frames is quite worth it.


I’ll be sticking to Laurie.

Sure, she’s pricey, but unlike Vitaly Borker, she can pick out a pair of glasses that will actually look good on me.

Plus I can’t imagine anyone in her shop stalking a customer.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

“Chilling relic”, alright

A few weeks back, in The Economist, I noticed an ad for something called I’m sure it caught my attention because it is so unlike the usual sober business and technology ads that populate this mag.  The allautograph number pictured a sultry, Kardashian-style babe in a huge dark glasses and a strapless pink satin gown, besieged by (male) autograph hounds.

Anyway, I tripped on over to allautograph (which, weirdly for a company that just spent beaucoup on a full-page, full-color ad in a premium magazine, resolved to a different URL), only to find that it was a pretty boring collection of signed movie, show, and rock posters.

Not for me.

Nothing wrong with movie, show or event posters – especially if you’d been to said movie, show or event – but, unless you got Marlon Brando or Jerry Garcia’s autograph on it yourself, I don’t really see the appeal.

And autographs, in general, leave me cold when they’re just that: autographs.

I understand that a Teddy Roosevelt fan might delight in having a letter that TR sent to someone in which he mentioned that he’d bagged a couple of antelope. Or a Eudora Welty scholar would want to have a Eudora-edited typescript of “Why I Live at the P.O.”

But an autograph, unless you got it yourself, and it had your name included in it. Ho-hum.

Having decided that allautograph was disappointingly not blog-worthy, I perked up when I saw an article in The New York Times on the estate sale for the effects of Dominick Dunne.

Alas, the cachet of a middle brow, middling talented, star-struck, celebrity-chasing, celebrity wannabe writer is limited.

As one antique dealer noted, the associating with Dunne was mostly worth nada.  Ishmael Ribar was quoted as saying:

“Except for very specific stuff, people here are paying for a table what a table is worth.”

Most items went for lowball prices. Sometimes the winning bid was an order of magnitude less than what was anticipated in the catalog.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

And then I spotted an online mention of a sale of Kennedy assassination memorabilia. (Now there’s a niche for you.)

It’s on offer from Nate Sanders, an auction house that has memorabilia that’s a lot more interesting than allautograph’s Rocky poster signed by Sylvester Stallone fare.

A lot more interesting.

Interested in a first draft of Lee Harvey Oswald’s death certificate? Got over $4k (the last bid I saw was for $4,200) burning a hole in your pocket?  You are so very in luck.

Want something Oswald-related for a stocking stuffer, but find the death certificate price too steep? There’s a nice Easter card he sent to his family.  What a thoughtful guy.

If you want something really rare, and aren’t bothered by the completely and utterly macabre, there’s the pine coffin that Oswald was originally buried, and lay moldering, in for nearly twenty years. (His body was exhumed in 1981 to resolve some ‘who is buried in Grant’s tomb’ controversy). The coffin is going to go for over $15K, and I’m completely baffled with why anyone would want this, or what they would do with it. I mean, it’s described as “soft”, “splotchy”, and “caved in.”

A portion of the original fabric that lined the top of the casket had fallen upon the decomposed remains.

I guess the owner would be have bragging rights, along the  lines of “shake the hand which shook the hand which shook the hand of The Great John L.” Or something like that. But seriously folks…

If you want to spend less, and end up with something that actually works (as opposed to a stoved-in, rotting coffin), there’s the:

Original porcelain embalming table used to hold and embalm the body of Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being prepared for burial… In very good, working condition.

I like that “in very good, working condition”.

But who needs an embalming table, now that Jeffrey Dahmer’s dead? Do taxidermists do embalming?

If you want to get your mitts on some Kennedy assassination memorabilia – come on, they’re not making any more of this stuff – but prefer something more Kennedy and less Oswald, there’s this:

…chilling relic from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A section of the seat upon which he and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sat when Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger on his Mannlicher Carcano… Light blue leather seat section which composed the main portion of the bench seat and clearly shows rust-colored staining consistent with long-dried blood… Measures approximately 3" x 3".

Dried blood? This sure trumps the cloth that touched the decomposed remains of Lee Harvey Oswald.

No doubt that somewhere a lunatic is considering a bid, in hopes of taking that “long-dried blood,’ extracting some DNA, and cloning JFK.

Only nine more shopping days until the Kennedy assassination sale ends.  Bid on!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hear the beat of dancing feet. It’s the song I love the melody of, Forty-Second Street.

Although I will not be racing back there anytime soon – once bitten (by a bed-bug), twice shy -  I love New York.

Even though my first glimpse of The City was out of the smudged window of the Trailways bus from Worcester, heading down Amsterdam Avenue, it was love at first sight.

I don’t remember if I saw Times Square on that first visit. It’s not the sort of place that would have a drawn a couple of seventeen year old Catholic school girls.  We had our sites set on the sights: Statue of Liberty (we climbed up), Empire State Building (we elevated up), the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (the movie was How To Succeed in Business)… We stayed with my friend Kathy’s aunt in Queens, and I found the subway to and from Long Island City into Manhattan especially exhilarating.  Sure, I’d been on the Boston T plenty of time, but this was so much faster, more crowded, smellier. Just plain old more interesting.  Kind of like New York City, overall.

But I do believe that we passed on Times Square.

Not so a decade later, when I started going to NYC more regularly.

In my twenties, I was in a kind of ‘try it even if you know you’re going to hate it’ mode when it came to some elements of raunch, so I actually did a couple of old-time Time Square things.

I went to a down at its heels bar (jazz bar in its heyday?), the Metropole, that had strippers dancing on the bar. These were hardly glamour girls, that’s for sure. In fact, they looked like what my friends and I would have looked like stripping, if we hadn’t gone to grad school instead.  I remember that you had to buy two beers each to sit at the bar. I believe the price was $5.50 for two beers, which was an exorbitant amount. And I believe the beers came mismatched: no two bottles alike. One bottle, as I recall, was Rheingold.

We stayed about five minutes.

I’d seen enough.

Ditto the peep show, although I doubt I lasted 5 minutes.  Five seconds would be more like it.

But I was in my twenties, and I wanted to see what stuff was like.

The Metropole and the peep show were pretty much as I imagined they would be: seedy, tawdry, scummy, nasty, depressing.

Which pretty much sums up the Times Square of that era (mid-late1970’s).

Everything I needed to know about Times Square could actually have been accomplished by watching Midnight Cowboy.

When my sister Trish was heading off to college in 1977, my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided that she needed to see New York City. And that meant a walkthrough of Times Square, on the way to dinner at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.

Trish was being an independent eighteen year old, walking a half dozen feet in front of us, looking very cute in her black turtleneck and black hat.

She walked ahead of us until a pimp in a doorway yelled to her, “I thought I told you not to walk your honky ass on this side of the street.”

Needless to say, Trish bolted back our way and walked between us.

Ah, Times Square.

For the past 30 years, Times Square has been cleaned up and prettified.

No more Metropole; no more peep shows.

Now it’s fancy new office buildings, and chain hotels, chain restaurants, and chain stores. What a relief.  Now tourists from across these United States can spend time in the Big City, secure in the knowledge that they can eat at Applebee’s, and buy a stuffed Little Mermaid at the Disney Store.  Or – no guts, no glory – go into a non-national chain souvenir shop and buy a foam Statue of Liberty crown or an I-heart-NY tee-shirt.

Next month, with the opening of the 11 Times Square office tower open, marks the “official” end of the redevelopment of Times Square. (Source: NY Times.)

Needless to say, there are two pronounced camps on whether the redevelopment effort represents an improvement or not.

On the yay side:

Success is evident. Crime is down significantly from the days when pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and dope pushers prowled Times Square and the Deuce, as that stretch of 42nd Street was known. The number of tourists is up 74 percent since 1993, to an estimated 36.5 million last year, and attendance at Broadway shows has soared to nearly 12 million.

That’s a pretty hefty “yay”.

The nay-sayers, of course, bemoan the plastic, Disney-fied, theme-park (them = consumer excess) that Times Square has become. They claim that they could be in Anytown, USA, that there is no longer anything inherently New York-y about Times Square.

I am no big fan of plastification, homogenization, Disneyfication, or any of the other “fications” that are blanding up the world.

I like things one-off, I like things local, and I don’t want the only choices in the world to be between TGIF and Outback, Holiday Inn and Courtyard by Marriott, Macy’s and Macy’s. Bor-ing.

Yet when the local and one-offs are peep shows, rent by the half-hour no-tell hotels with pimping, whoring, and drug-dealing habitués…

It’s not like we’re talking about the good old days of mom and pop candy stores, the third generation cobbler, or Milly’s Millinery. 

Besides, while any of the individual chain stores in Times Square could arguably be found anywhere else in the world, it’s the glorious agglomeration of all of them. Plus the traffic. Plus all the signage.

Sure, you can find plenty of crowd, glitz, and glimmer in Las Vegas.

But where else you going to find a statue of Fighting Father Duffy, chaplain of the glorious Fighting 69th?  All those honking yellow cabs.  All those Broadway shows.

Not to mention this Duane Reader billboard that my niece Molly snapped in Times Square during her recent visit to New York City. I’m quite sure my sister (Trish of honky ass fameBed bugs) wouldn’t have taken Molly to stroll around the Times Square of yore, but if you’re in The City, buzzing through Times Square is a fun thing to do, especially on a Friday or Saturday night during good weather.

I sure love New York.  Too bad about the bed bugs.



Friday, December 03, 2010

Duck and Cover: here comes the airborne Humvee

Many years ago, while tootling down I-95 from a weekend visit to Maine, we were stopped dead in our tracks for quite a while. As folks are wont to do when stuck in traffic, we gabbed about how cool it would be if we could just go airborne and fly over the whole mess. This capability, of course, would have to be reserved for our little fun on four wheels.  Hell, if everyone could turn their car into a plane, then the skies would be full. Of course, the skies are bigger than the highway system. Still, the Jetson thought of everyone flying from Point A to Point B is scary.

How many millions of air traffic controllers would we need? (Bring back PATCO!) Would people heed the traffic controllers, or decide that they were entitled to whatever open area they spotted, in much the same way that a-holes take to the breakdown lane when there’s a lot of traffic (no doubt congratulating themselves that they are smart enough to do so,  when all these dummies like me are resting our heads on our steering wheels and sighing)?* Would people fly recklessly, weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds, not signaling?  Would they fuselage-gate? Would the State troopers take to the skies, with interceptor engines?

On that day in Maine, we found out, once the traffic began to move, that someone had landed a Piper Cub (historic Rogers’ family shorthand for any small plane) on the highway. Kind of the reverse of the great highway escape we had been envisioning for ourselves, before we returned to to our fear-of-flying-car senses.

Still, I was intrigued to learn that there is a flying car in the works – and has been for a few years – and one company that’s building one, Terrafugia, is local:

Terrafugia (ter-ra-FOO-gee-ah) was founded in 2006 by award-winning MIT-trained aeronautical engineers and MBA's – who also happen to be passionate private pilots. The company’s mission is to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing personal aviation. The result: the Transition Roadable Aircraft.

As an MIT-trained MBA (albeit not an award-winning one), I began to like this company even more (albeit with my flying car fear-factor still operative).

Their Transition is a “dual-purpose” vehicle, but it’s built more or less as a plane you can drive, rather than a car that can fly. I.e., you drive your Transition to the airport and take off. You don’t just start cruising around, getting your kicks on Route 66, and decide you want to fly over (not drive through) Winslow, Arizona.

Still, the handwriting is on the wall – or the contrail is in the sky – and at some point or another these “dual-purpose” vehicles will no doubt be de rigueur for those who have one of everything else, and feel that their estates aren’t complete unless they have both a hangar and a (12-car) garage.

Still, it’s kinda cool looking, although still a little scary. I know, I know: if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns, and in the hands of good pilots/drivers, the Transition will work. But what about bad drivers, of which there are so damned many.

Ominously, the model pictured has Mass license plates. Our Commonwealth, I’m a-feared, is considered something of a national model for bad drivers (although I don’t know if this is borne out by the facts, and I’m too lazy to look it up).

But the Transition is not aimed at bad drivers.

The Transition® addresses head-on the issues private and sports pilots face: cost, weather sensitivity, high overall door-to-door travel time and a lack of mobility at destination.

No more getting stuck with a crappy rent-a-car with failed AC in the middle of the desert, as has happened to me.  You just take off in your Transition.

More ominously than those Mass. plates, Terrafugia is working with the Pentagon to develop a flying Humvee. (Source: Boston Globe.)

Not that I begrudge the Pentagon working on this way-cool Transformer, “a four-person flying military vehicle,” which is a hybrid Humvee-helicopter sort of thang.


The Transformer will be used for:

…medical evacuation, avoidance of improvised explosive devices, remote resupply, and Special Forces insertion.

It’s all good, military-wise.

What I’m worried about here is that the Transformer will end up the same way the Humvee did: used by civilians for no purpose other than to show-off, intimidate, and guzzle gas.

I was delighted when they stopped producing the Hummers.  Who needed them?

I live in a crowded urban neighborhood, and, during the Humvee hey-day, there were a couple of these beasts on our narrow streets, casting a mighty scary shadow on my lowly Beetle.

My fear is that there’ll be no stopping some gear and propeller-heads from wanting a Transformer of their own.

The Transition I can see.

The Transformer? Puh-leeze, oh lords of the firmament and the earth, do not let this become a consumer item.


*Every time I see someone pulling this trick I think ‘where’s a cop when you need one?’ Well, one day – I believe it was on Route 3 where it meets Route 128 – there actually was a cop, pulling over the scofflaws and ticketing them. Tee-hee!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Red Bs? No: red bees.

Like any good Bostonian, when I hear “red B”, that image that comes to mind is that most potent and universal of Boston signifiers: the Red Sox logo. But in NYC, where the red B is anathema, they’re talking red bees. At least in the Brooklyn part of NYC, where lives the maraschino cherry factory where some honey bees have been raiding the maraschino chRed Berry bottle – and turning themselves and their honeycombs a nice bright red, or perhaps a shade of cerise, in the process. (Source: NY Times.)

Although they would prefer their bees to act naturally, and sup from wildflowers, or weeds, or whatever trees grow in Brooklyn, or on Governors Island, where there’s a farm, the Brooklyn beekeepers are not mad as hornets about this. They’re just perplexed.  As beekeeper Cerise Mayo – and is that a great name, or what?  - said:

“Why would they go to the cherry factory,” she said, “when there’s a lot for them to forage right there on the farm?”

Well, Cerise, how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve tasted cherry juice?

When I was growing up, one of the most fabulous treats I could think of was to sneak a couple of cherries out of the maraschino cherry jar that was always in the fridge.  Using fingers, which could be licked afterward. Yum! Or by spearing them with an olive spear-er.

My parents weren’t sitting around slugging down Manhattans, by any means, and life was not in general one big bowl of maraschino cherries, either. But when they had their friends over on a Saturday night – the men (most of whom didn’t wear suits to work) in suits, and the women in nice dresses – my parents did serve Old Fashioneds, which call for a cherry.

And my mother used them in “spread” and desserts.

Appetizers weren’t widely served in the world I grew up in, but when they were called for, what would sit better on a Ritz cracker than a concoction of creamed cheese, crushed pineapple, and maraschino cherries?

My idea of heaven, age eight.

Crackers and cheese didn’t exist then, by the way.

In fact, cheese really didn’t exist all that much on its own. (Crackers, however, did.)

Cheese meant American, Velveeta, or creamed used for the pineapple-cherry dip.  My mother also stocked “chivecheese”, creamed cheese with chives in it, that I didn’t realize was cheese – hmmmm: maybe it isn’t – until I was an adult. It was a tasty spread used on crackers, but was not as special-occasion as the pineapple-cherry delight.

The most common dessert use (other than throwing one on top of the Hershey’s syrup used to drown a bowl of ice cream) was to top off two-toned pudding (chocolate on the bottom, vanilla on the top).  Sometimes, my mother chopped up cherries and added them to frosting, usually for Washington’s birthday, when she’d make a cherry-tree themed cake.

My absolute fave cherry use was in this wickedly sweet cake that we would beg for. (At least some of us. My father had a tremendous sweet tooth, which not all of his children inherited. My mother, who made a different scratch dessert for the family almost every day could take or leave the sweet stuff.) The cake part of the cake under discussion here was in and of itself thin and dry. It was the topping that made this treat special, and us aficionados delirious: thin white frosting topped with chopped walnuts, canned pineapple, and maraschino cherries. Yowza! Just thinking of this cake is enough to induce diabetic shock, and the feeling that a squadron of demon elves are attacking my teeth with ice picks. Ah, what I wouldn’t give for a piece of it now. 

So, no, I don’t blame those poor critters one bit for lusting after maraschino cherry juice.

Could the tastiest nectar, even close by the hives, compete with the charms of a liquid so abundant, so vibrant and so cloyingly sweet? Perhaps the conundrum raises another disturbing question: If the bees cannot resist those three qualities, what hope do the rest of us have?

Maybe when we’re chasing down a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies with a half-liter of high-fructose colored water, we’re just acting naturally.

The cherry factory under suspicion is the Dell’s Maraschino Cherries Company – web site available in Chinese, Español, English, Italian, and Russian, by the way; I get the Chinese: think gummy sweet-and-sour, but I’m not quite sure what the Español or Italiano markets are doing with maraschino cherries, let alone the Russians (although maraschino cherries are red-star red). Dell has been bottling maraschino cherries in Brooklyn for over 60 years.

Dell hasn’t admitted that they’re the problem, but there is a smoking gun of sorts: the red bees contain Red Dye No. 40, which is used in maraschino production.

Meanwhile, the honey produced by the red bees of Brooklyn has a metallic taste and is – surprise, surprise - “overly sweet.”

Beekeepers “fear that the bees’ feasting on the stuff could have unforeseeable health effects on the hives.”

But there was an upside to the downside, as David Selig, another Brooklyn beekeeper noted:

“When the sun is a bit down, they glow red in the evenings,” he said. “They were slightly fluorescent. And it was beautiful.”

A (maraschino) cherry on top, as it were.


At least this bee-story is not as dire as the one I posted on a few years about the bees dying off.