Monday, June 30, 2014

You know, sometimes I do ask the BIG questions

For a  number of years now, The New Yorker has run a Cartoon Caption Contest on its last page.

Each week, a new, captionless cartoon is presented, and readers can propose a caption. The three captions deemed most worthy by New Yorker staff are then voted on by the general, New Yorker reading public, and the winner gets a signed print of the cartoon.

Probably because I’m not especially clever when it comes to cartoon captioning, I’m not a huge fan of the Caption Contest. (This, by the way, is not sour grapes, and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that, the one and only time that I did enter a caption – something about the Jolly Green Giant – I didn’t make the cut.

I was not surprised – my caption, now lost to memory, was not particularly witty and, I suppose, was pretty obvious – but I was, nonetheless, disappointed not to see my name in what would probably have been the only time it would have appeared in The New Yorker.

My disappointment was nowhere near as keen as what I experienced in kindergarten, when I sent a brilliantly conceived and executed crayon drawing of a bunny rabbit in clover in to Miss Francis on Ding Dong School. Each day, Miss Francis chose some drawings to display, and each day I chugged back home to ask my mother and brother Tom whether my drawing had been on.

The answer, sadly, was always “No.”

Why my mother didn’t just say “Yes” will be obvious to anyone who knew my mother. But it was probably just as well.

I would have been a tremendous braggart if Miss Francis had, indeed, shown “Bunny in Clover,” and I would no doubt have been challenged with taunts of “liar, liar, pants on fire.” If my mother had fibbed to get me out of her hair, there would no doubt have been one kid whose mother and sibs had been watching the day I claimed my fame, and I would have been outed. (Liar, liar confirmed!)

I do know, however, that, even after the initial spell of braggadocio had died down, this tremendous feat would have been referred to, again and again, throughout my grammar school career. After all, wasn’t there always someone ready to bring up the fact that Arthur Godfrey had read Mary Shea’s query letter on his show. Mary wanted to know just what made Haleloke’s belly wiggle. (Hale was Arthur’s Hawaiian singer and hula dancer.) 

A few years after the Ding Dong School dis, I did garner a bit of notoriety when I won honorable mention in one of Big Brother Bob Emery’s curlicue contests. (I turned that curlicue into a person in a wheelchair, which no doubt struck at the heart of some staffer who knew a kid with polio. Anyway, my prize was a Huckleberry Hound Carbon Copy Kit, which contained colored carbon paper and some Huckleberry Hound cartoons to trace. Even at the age of nine, I thought that a prize focused on tracing was not especially appropriate for someone who’d almost won an art contest. Sheesh. Shouldn’t they have sent me an easel and oils? A smock and a beret?)

Back to The New Yorker, my friend Claire did make the Final Three at one point but, despite my vote, she didn’t win. Sometimes I really hate vox populi, but I guess the voting is all about “reader engagement.”

Despite my poorly-received entry, and my friend Claire’s brush with fame, I hadn’t paid all that much attention to the actual New Yorker Caption Contest rules.

But the other day, I noticed this:

Any legal resident of the United States or Canada (except residents of the province of Quebec), Australia, United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, age eighteen or over can enter [or vote], except employees, agents, or representatives of Sponsor or any other party associated with the development or administration of the Contest, or any member of their immediate family.

I certainly understand why those Sponsors and Contest administrators would not be eligible. Why tempt fate? Everyone’s mother wouldn’t be as honest as mine.

But residents of Quebec?

Comment dites-vous ‘abomination’?

I mean, what if your name is Reginald Pinch Smythe, and you happen to be an Anglophone resident of Montreal, and you also happen to be a really, really, really good cartoon captioner?

Do you cheat and drive to the nearest province border and mail your entry in from there. (And make sure that you have a PO Box set up in Newfoundland or Ontario.)

And what about New Zealanders? Are their comic sensibilities any less than those of their Aussie brethren?

What about ex-pats, who are citizens but not residents? How come they can’t play?

A lot of people in India speak English, no? And Singapore, and Hong Kong. Plenty of countries in Africa.

Was The New Yorker Caption Contest always such a stickler about who entered? Were they initially overwhelmed by submissions from “foreigners” whose English was not quite up to par, and whose sense of humor was just on a different wave length? Was there such a rush of bad entries that they couldn’t just toss out the ones they suspected would not be of interest without even opening them? I really don’t think it would have dawned on anyone to ask why there were never any winners from Lichtenstein (other than the Lichtensteiner who kept sending captions in.)

Anyway, since I noticed this about The New Yorker, the question just won’t leave my mind.

What does it all mean? How can it possibly be right?

You know what they say. The unexamined life is not worth living, and sometimes you do have to ask the BIG questions.

Friday, June 27, 2014

June 28, 1914. The real shot heard round the world.

One hundred years ago tomorrow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo.

The pictures of Franz Ferdinand always make him look like the unbeatable combination of ludicrous and pompousFranz Ferdinand. That stiffly twirled mustache, those medals for nothing, the shiny height-enhancing cap. He’s often shown wearing a plumed hat, which makes him look even sillier. Films of that era – which used a different number of frames – make all motion appear jerky, which doesn’t enhance the serious factor any.

But there was plenty of serious factor around what happened in the aftermath of young Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip pulling the trigger on Franz Ferdinand.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Germany (in the Austro-Hungarian camp) and Great Britain and France (and eventually us) on the Allied side.

And since one good war inevitably begets another, the War to End All Wars (which was how World War I was initially branded) led inexorably to World War II, yet another war that didn’t put an end to all wars.

As it happened, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a pretty profound impact on my life.

My mother’s parents – Magdalena (Folker) and Jacob Wolf – were ethnic Germans, living in a backwater town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

They were of pioneer stock, their ancestors having emigrated in the 1700’s – in the 18th century equivalent of the Conestoga Wagon – from the Stuttgart region of Germany to the back arse of nowhere.

The Folkers and the Wolfs were farmers, living in one of many all-German pokey farming towns that dotted the Empire.

Their town was Neue Banat (New Banat).

My grandfather was a young man when the war started, little more than a teenager. But along with his brothers – there were seven or eight of them – he became part of the Austro-Hungarian Army. (I don’t know for a fact, but I’m guessing that my grandmother would have had brothers in the army, as well.)

Jake, Nick, Michael, Tony… I don’t know who they all were (other than Jake, my grandfather), but some of those Wolf brothers didn’t make it back.

Somewhere, I have a copy of a poster that was produced in Neue Banat after the war, showing portraits of all the town’s soldier boys. Tote und Lebende Soldaten. The dead and living soldiers, with the dead soldiers shown in the middle, surrounded by a wreath, and those who made it out alive on the poster’s periphery. I looked for it just now and couldn’t find it, but I know there were Wolf brothers within the wreath and others, like my grandfather, on that golden periphery among the lebende.

In 1918, when Jake Wolf made it back to Neue Banat, he married Lena Folker. She was eighteen. He was twenty-two.

They were no longer living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, however.

Neue Banat was now part of Romania, and Neue Banat was now Panatul-Nou where my mother, Elisabeth Wolf, was born in 1919, three days before the first anniversary of The Armistice. (She was part of the World War I baby boom.)

Fast forward a couple of years, and my grandparents were reading the handwriting on the wall, and it didn’t matter if it was in German or Romanian. They wanted out, so they joined some of the Wolfs who were already making their way in the brave new world that was America.

In 1923, with their family passport – issued in the name of his majesty Ferdinand the First, King of Romania – the Wolfs made their way to Chicago. Their passport is stamped along the way in Romania, the Czech Republic, and Germany – but not in the U.S., where they entered via Ellis Island.

On the passport, my grandfather is no longer a farmer, he’s a businessman, which proved true in Chicago. (He prospered as a butcher/grocer.) My mother’s name on the passport appears to be – it’s in script – Laveta. Which is kind of odd, given that Elisabeth in German is Elisabeth in Romanian. Oh, well.

My father’s family was pretty much exempt from World War I. His father and uncles were too old, his brother and cousins too young. He was just five when our boys headed Over There.

The Rogers family did, of course, support the troops.

My aunt embroidered a pillow that read “Come back safely, Moxie Winn” and sent it off to a soldier presumably named Moxie Winn. (Is that a great doughboy name or what?)

The war to end all wars turned out not to be that, but just plain old World War I, making the world “safe” for World War II, which was my father’s war.

He didn’t see action like Jake Wolf did in the rat-infested trenches of the first world war.

As he often said, you went where Uncle Sam sent you.

One of the places that Uncle Sam sent Al Rogers was downtown Chicago, where he was stationed for a couple of years at Navy Pier.

And where he met the daughter of Jake Wolf, who’d been prescient and lucky enough to get the hell out of the old country before it exploded once again.

And that’s how the real shot heard round world helped usher me into being.

Quite a cost though…

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wrestle Mania

Who among us doesn’t have some sort of Walter Mitty thing going on? Sure, we might be sitting in our 6’ x 6’ cubicle all day, staring at a screen and pretending to listen in on conference calls. But in our unreal life - which would be our real life, darn it, if only we had the good fortune or the gumption to carpe that diem – we’re doing something else. Like writing a novel. Or  being a pundit. Or running a bookstore that somehow managed to turn a profit without having any customers, and which featured an over-sized arm chair where you could curl up with a good book and read all day. (Not that any of these would be my Mitty-esque fantasies…)

But there are some folks who go beyond the day dream and actually do something about their secret life, beyond just keeping it confined the deepest, most secret reaches of  the brain.

Over the years, I worked, among others, with a fellow who played bass in a reasonably decent oldies band. With a woman who was a ballroom dancer, and another who entered amateur figure skating contests. With a guy who tried out for the Olympic biathlon squad. And another guy who fenced (swords, not hot goods).

Good for them. (Me, I blog…)

With this as a backdrop, I was amused by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal on a bunch of guys who, when they’re not at work, release their inner pro wrestler.

As an analyst at H.J. Heinz Co., Lou Zygmuncik spends his days thinking about ketchup sales. But about once a month, he transforms himself into the trash-talking bruiser Dr. Devastation.

Mr. Zygmuncik, 38 years old, is one of two dozen wrestlers in the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance, a bottom-rung pro-wrestling troupe. It sets up its ring at the Teamster Temple, a union hall, and draws about 300 fans to its shows, often including Pittsburgh's mayor, Bill Peduto. (Source: WSJ Online.)

Peduto, by the way, claims that wrestling has a “whole other edge that’s off-the-charts hip.”

God knows I haven’t seen much of pro wrestling since the days of Haystack Calhoun, Killer Kowalski (not to be confused with Stanley Kowalski), and Bruno San Martino, but I really tend to doubt that anything off-the-charts hip occurs in the Teamster Temple. But you never know what might appeal to those fedora-wearing, soul-patch growing, hipsters and their bouclé wool, 1960’s coat wearing girlfriends.

Wrestling peaked on TV in the late 1980’s, when 13.5 million households watched Hulk Hogan take on André the Giant. (Gosh, what was I doing in 1988 that was so all-fired important that I missed that one?)

This year, the industry's marquee brand, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., is pushing pro wrestling online, so far signing up more than half a million subscribers to a new digital network.

(If you’ll recall, WWE exec Linda McMahon is a regular losing candidate for political office in Connecticut. McMahon and her husband Vince may be geniuses when it comes to wrestling, but they’re apparently not smart enough to figure out that, if you want a seat in Congress or the Senate, and you’re in Connecticut, you can tip the election results a bit more in their direction if you run as a Democrat. You’d think they knew about things like odds, and good guys vs. bad guys.)

While on the one hand, there’s WWE, on the other there are a lot of these little Keystone-style outfits – some a notch up -  all over the country.

Every week, dozens of promotions that are run by second- and third-tier companies hold hundreds of bouts. Many wrestlers work for little money while hoping to get discovered by the WWE and eventually get six-figure incomes.

There’s a mixed reaction out there to the pro-wrestling wannabes, but:

"You can understand why people really miss that personal interaction, to boo your enemies to their face and slap your heroes on their sweaty backs," said David Shoemaker, author of a history of pro wrestling titled "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling."

Especially when so much enemy-booing occurs online, with no personal interaction, let alone the lure of the sweaty back. (I’ll pass.)

Sure, those sweaty-backed wrestlers might be wearing face paint or a mask, disguising the fact that they’re an analyst for Heinz or the mayor of Pittsburgh. But it’s probably relatively easy to figure out who they are when you see them in the parking lot of the Teamster Temple.

And there’s no anonymity for the fans. They’re not hiding behind a screen and a keyboard, throwing invectives out there, trolling away.

If they’ve got something to say holler, they just come out and say holler it.

I don’t believe in booing Little Leaguers, pee-wee hockey players, or high school footballers.

But booing can be cathartic. Booing can be fun.

Yay, booing!

But I don’t think I’d boo those Keystone wrestlers:

The Keystone wrestlers themselves say they aren't looking for fame, just to put on a good show for their fans and get away from their day jobs.

"You could work Monday through Friday, but when you have that event you're a superstar," said Mr. Zygmuncik, who in his fights enters the arena brandishing a black Louisville Slugger baseball bat at fans.

In his signature move, "the death certificate," he puts his opponent's head between his knees and drops the guy face-first into the mat. It is great theater. "People are cheering you or booing you," he says.

Which, I suspect is a tad bit more interesting than analyzing whether the latest ketchup ad – like the one where the old lady makes the fart noise with her near-empty bottle - had an impact on sales. (Makes me nostalgic for the Carly Simon Anticipation ads of yore.)

"Stepping out of the curtain in pro wrestling might be the single greatest rush one can experience," said Keith Haught Jr. , a heavyset 23-year-old, who graduated in May with a degree in history and psychology and wrestles as the Jester. "Nothing in my life has beaten it so far."

Okay, I have to raise an eyebrow at someone 23 years old claiming that pro wrestling beats everything else he’s experienced to date. He’s only 23 and, thus, can be easily forgiven.

Still, I suspect that if, at my advanced age, I were to step “out of the curtain in pro wrestling” it might well be my greatest rush ever, too.

It’s just that I’ll never really get to test this theory. And if I did get to pick, I’d still rather choose novelist or pundit.

But you gotta admire these guys who are going for it, one fake throw at a time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mount Olympics on Beacon Hill? No thanks.

Not that it means all that much, but we learned a couple of weeks back that Boston – yes, that Boston – is on the US Olympic Committee’s shortlist for hosting the Summer Olympics in 2024. Washington DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also made the cut.

Next up, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers get to spend a lot of money trying to prove our worthiness in hopes that the USOC will pick our town as the one to make the bid to the overall Olympic Committee, where, unless that august and venerable group decides it’s time to placate the United States and/or makes a show of being august, venerable, and non-bribe-taking, we’ll get turned down.

Of the other cities that expressed an interest in carrying the U.S. banner, Philadelphia and New York prudently dropped out, while Dallas and San Diego didn’t make the cut.

Personally, other than the fact that it’s 190 degrees in the summer, I think Dallas is a great place to host the Olympics.

Sure, they may not have much by way of public transpo, but there’s plenty of place to park out there on the prairie, and they already have all sorts of venues. There’s the Dallas Cowboys’ new billion dollar Close Encounters stadium, and the quite nice Rangers’ baseball field just next door. Not to mention that pretty much every high school worth its mascot and cheerleaders has a football stadium that would do most small- to mid-sized colleges proud. Think Friday Night Lights. It’s no exaggeration. These places are out there.

Hosting the Olympics always looks like a “free and easy” way to improve infrastructure, but the costs are, of course, astronomical. London hosted the last summer game -  and gave us what had to be the zaniest opening ceremony event in Olympic history – at a cost of around $15 billion. The Athens Olympics in 2004 cost a similar bundle, and some claim that all the spending contributed to Greece’s epic collapse and ongoing fail. And it’s estimated that this year’s Winter O’s in Sochi rang it up to the tune of $50 billion plus. (I think the oligarch/Putin premium was at last 100% there.)

I actually don’t know who foots the bill if your city is fortunate enough to get the five-ring circus nod: feds, state, local, corporate sponsors. But I’m pretty  sure that I don’t want to see my property taxes go up to build a bunch of soccer stadiums that won’t get used after the fact.

Boston is a wonderful city for tourists, but it’s not a great city for an extra million vuvuzela-blaring tourists – do Olympic-watchers blare vuvuzelas, or is that just a World Cup thing? – tromping around our narrow sidewalks and streets designed by cows as cow paths. And I’d hate to see the look on the faces of those vuvuzela blarers when they realize that all those brochures depicting Boston harbor cruises and swanboats in the Boston Garden were bait and switch, and that they were they’re staying in a Motel 6 on Route One and getting bussed to Gillette Stadium – oh, the horror – where they get to kill time between watching the hurdles and 100 meter by shopping at the Bass Pro Shop at Patriot Place. (Oh, the horror.)

If the Olympics come to Boston in summer 2024, include me out.

If I’m still up and about, I’ll up and about myself elsewhere. Maybe that will be the summer I spend the month in Paris or Galway or somewhere else that Jim and I always talked about. (Gee, I really hope I get to it before then…)

If, by that point, I find myself in the preliminary stages of full-blown geezerhood, I’ll set in my supplies and hunker down for the duration, perhaps spending a few minutes daily on the front steps, shaking my cane at the vuvuzela-blaring tourists surging by my home looking for Cheers which will, no doubt, still be rerunning in Tajikistan and Paraguay.

With respect to the Boston Olympian madness, a couple of different groups have come to the fore.

One is composed of the business and civic leaders (unsurprisingly led by major construction). That would be Boston 2024.

Another is a bunch of “civilians” who think this is a terrible, horrible, no good idea. That would be No Boston Olympics group (with a surprisingly slick web site, by the way).

I think that the No Boston Olympics folks will win the day. There are plenty of things that Boston is good at hosting.

We’re good at the Marathon. At World Series. At NBA Finals. At Stanley Cup.

I don’t think we have enough seats for the basketball NCAA Final Four, but we’d do just fine with the March Madness on ice that is the Frozen Four.

We did a good enough job with the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and if the Republicans want to take their chances here at some point, come on down. (I promise not to stand on the front steps shaking my cane at you.)

We host all sorts of mid-sized conventions and trade shows, and make a reasonably good go of it.

If the Patriots-owning Krafts succeed in their full court press – or whatever the football equivalent is – to get the Super Bowl hosted in Foxborough, well, have at it. I won’t even say “I told you so” if it turns out that we have a foot of snow and wind-chill factor of 10-below that day.

But, maybe because I’m just not capable of thinking BIG, and because I really wouldn’t want to be bothered by the vuvuzela-blaring masses, I’ll be just as happy if we end up losing out to Los Angeles. Or San Francisco. Or Washington, DC. (Actually, DC might be a good location for it: replace partisan gridlock with gridlock gridlock.)

On the other hand, there’s a group touting Boston as the site for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

When you spread it out over Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, this would make sense.

We’re a hockey town, not a track and field town. People around here ski. They skate. They don’t swim, run, or dive.

Winter Olympics makes sense. Just as Mike Eruzione, of Miracle on Ice fame.Boston garden

The picture on the Boston Winter Olympics home page shows the Public Garden, which is just across the street from where I live. I don’t imagine they’ll be having any of the skating events on that rough ice, or even on the better-groomed ice of the Frog Pond, which is just next door.

still, having the Winter Olympics here might be fun.

Winter ‘R Us, after all.

And I don’t think that there’d be all that many vuvuzela-blaring tourists in town for it.

Besides, I’ll be even older in 2026 than I will be in 2024.

And who goes out in the middle of February, anyway?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pepper plays a hooker

Every family has it’s own catch phrases, in-jokes, code words, and “just us” vocabulary.

With my husband, there was “yabaddyanget” (something that was scrawled by a professor on one of Jim’s college papers; when he asked the professor to interpret it for him, Jim was told “this is about as bad as you can get”); this professor was at Rutgers, which we always referred to as Rutabaga (long story). Jim and I also had shopping lady (you know one when you see one); Pêche à la Frog (from the old Peter Cook – Dudley Moore skit: code for terrible restaurant); and “stinks like brownies.” (One more crummy thing about widowhood… Although, come to think of it, my sisters have adopted “stinks like brownies,” so I’ll still have that.)

For me and my sibs, the very long list includes “gayyahaddy” (translation: get the hell out of here, as shouted by someone for whom English was a second language, to my father and his friends who were bothering that someone for whom English was a second language); “bum hockies” (bad feet); “It’s only your mother”; and whistling La Vie en Rose under your breath.

Which brings me to “Pepper Plays A Hooker”, which is what my sister Trish and I always say when we see someone wearing something that vaguely resembles an outfit that Pepper Anderson (i.e., Angie Dickinson) wore in one of the many Police Woman episodes in which Pepper went underground as a hooker.

All this long and winding road gets me to the point of this blog, which is that a Japanese company has recently introduced a robot named Pepper which is supposedly capable of reading human emotions. Which, of course, Pepper Anderson was exceedingly skilled at back in the day when she was playing a hooker.

Not that the new Japanese robot is a hooker. Not yet, anyway.

I read about Pepper a few weeks ago, on, in an article that borrowed from the  BBC:

It uses an "emotional engine" and a cloud-based artificial intelligence system that allows it to analyse gestures, expressions and voice tones.

The firm said people could communicate with it "just like they would with friends and family" and it could perform various tasks.

Well, I suppose it won’t be all that long before Pepper is sharing catch phrases, in-jokes, code words, and “just us” vocabulary with its friends and family.

Pepper’s being positioned – by Softbank Telecom – as a friendly-priced (less than $2K) household item that will “function as a pet robot,” and will be available sometime next year. In the meantime, it will be hanging out in Softbank retail outlets, chilling with the customers.

Reacting to Pepper, Tech Crunch invokes the singularity (which I so hope not to be around for), with writer John Biggs quite usefully pointing out that:

…it’s important to understand who will soon be changing our diapers, bringing us whiskey, and eventually enslaving us under a totalitarian robot rule.

That would be Pepper.

Which (who?) you can see here: Pepper, not playing a hooker.

Pepper will be in Softbank stores in February and should be for sale later next year. Why do you need one? Given that it’s not quite strong enough to lift you out of bed nor smart enough (yet) to do your shopping, I suspect this will be an Aibo-like toy for the time being. Soon, however, Pepper will dance its way into our homes, hearts, and, perhaps, down our throats and into our chest cavities. The future, as they say, is so bright we gotta run from the robots. (Source: Tech Crunch)

The folks at Softbank are, apparently, not familiar with our Pepper Anderson as, in their parlance, Pepper is a he. As in:

Pepper is a humanoid robot that takes his surroundings into consideration to react pro-actively using proprietary algorithms. Pepper also comes equipped with capabilities and an interface that enables communication with people, including the latest voice recognition technology, superior joint technology to realize graceful gestures, and emotion recognition that analyzes expressions and voice tones. With these technologies, people can enjoy communicating with Pepper in a natural way, just like they would with friends and family. In addition, Pepper can make jokes, dance and amuse people thanks to a wide variety of entertainment capabilities… (Source: Softbank)

The good folks at Softbank – assuming that their CEO is still human and not yet a robot – don’t believe that there’s anything to fear here. (Paranoia about the singularity, be damned!). They look Pepper as the embodiment of their corporate philosophy:

‘Information Revolution – Happiness for everyone.’ To realize our vision, we have made a new entry into the robot business with the aim of developing affectionate robots that make people smile.

An affectionate robot?

Personally, for me “happiness for everyone” is something I like to think of as human, or at least living-breathing. And I prefer my affection coming from humans and dogs. Not to mention my in-jokes and catch phrases.

It looks like we’ll be safe for a while, however, from the weird faux “affection” of robots, as their battery life is a scant 12 hours. Even if “they” figure out family in-jokes, they’ll still run down a lot faster than the average member of my posse.

Pepper plays a hooker, indeed.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Washboard Abs(urd)

Being a millennial is so darned hard.

It’s, like, nothing is, like, convenient enough.

What a drag!

Fortunately, for the millennials, for every millennial who finds it too darned hard to, say, hail a cab on a busy city street; or stop by a CVS and pick up a greeting card for grandma’s birthday (you mean I need to put a stamp on it?); or stroll around a neighborhood and look at the menus posted in restaurant windows and pick a place that looks interesting, there’s another millennial who’s invented an app and/or service to help expedite (or at least digitize) life’s pesky little processes.

I’m sure that at some point, the young entrepreneurs will put their minds to something more meaningful than coming up with marginal improvements to things that are marginally inconvenient.  And/or things that get folks addicted to continuous technological connection at the expense of true interpersonal connectedness.

I mean, there’s got to be a Jonas Salk or a Thomas Edison or, at minimum, a Bill Gates among the bunch.

Doesn’t there?

In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to settle for more modest breakthroughs. Like Washboard, a new quarter-delivery service which, for $27 will deliver you two rolls of quarters so you can get to the laundromat and do your laundry.

College friends Shaun Chapman and Caleb Brown test launched their new Washboard quarter delivery service Thursday morning, offering consumers rolls of coins automatically shipped to their mailbox each month for all their laundry needs.

Brown, of Pittsburgh, said the duo came up with the idea after struggling to find quarters for their own post-college laundry runs.

“There’s a piece of mind to knowing that you’re always going to have a roll or two of quarters a month with Washboard,” Brown said. (Source:

Well, I suspect that what Brown really said was “peace of mind”, but apparently spelling – like having a jar to throw loose change into so you always have washer-dryer money – is so yesterday.

Actually, I do understand why the young folk wouldn’t have a change bucket. If you never pay cash for anything, you won’t tend to accumulate change.

Still, how taxing is it to make sure you have quarters on hand.

If you use a commercial laundromat, there’s a pretty good chance it has a change machine, no?

And if you use the ones in your building, surely you pass a bank somewhere during your busy day that will let you purchase a roll of quarters at cost. (Remember the Saturday Night Live spoof on the Citibank ads in which happy bank customers gushed about how wonderful it was to do business with a bank that contacted them if they suspected that someone was using their card fraudulently? In the SNL skit, bank customers gushed about having a bank that would make change for you.)

Of course, you wouldn’t want to have to step into a bank every week, so you could actually get multiple quarter rolls at a time. Say, enough to last a month or two.

But, hey, what’s a 35% premium to have a couple of rolls of quartered delivered right to your door?

Brown said he understands the skepticism.

“It’s polarizing,” he observed. “If you have that problem you think, ‘oh, that makes so much sense,’ and if you don’t, it’s just like: ‘these guys are reselling me money.’

“But that’s how anything’re paying the extra couple bucks to avoid going to the bank…To me, that makes a lot of sense, to pay a couple of dollars a month to not have to do that, though I totally understand and respect if that doesn’t make sense to someone.”

As someone who this enterprise doesn’t make much sense to, I, of course, had to swing by Washboard to see their pitch:

Wearing dirty underwear? We provide 2-day shipping on every shipment of quarters.

Oh, dear.

You mean there are actually people out there wearing dirty underwear who are willing to wait two days for a shipment of quarters rather than a) figure out how to get the quarters on their own; b) buy some new underwear; c) hand wash what they have. (I do appreciate that briefs can take forever to line dry. Still…)

They also have a nifty little app that lets you calculate how many quarters a month you need, based on how many loads of wash you do, and how many quarters your laundromat gouges you for.

I find it strange that one of the options is one load per month.

How is that possible?

I mean, between sheets, towels, workout clothes, and normal clothes, I probably do at least 3 loads of wash each week.

Who accumulates one load of laundry per month?

Nobody whose home I want to visit, that’s for sure.

So far, Washboard doesn’t have a lot of takers – fewer than 10 customers. But one person’s nonsense is, I guess, another person’s value prop.

“Knowing I have $20 worth of quarters in my quarters jar makes throwing in a load of laundry any time I want so much less stressful." – Cassidy, Pet Care Specialist

The Washboard-ers are not entirely unrealistic in their appraisal of the potential of their business: they’re not looking for funding. (Good thing.) And they realize that the barriers to entry for this type of business are low.

But Brown insists that the “pain point” of not having quarters on hand when you need them is a real one “that no one ever really cared about before.” (Source: valleywag.gawker) And the company has ambitions to branch out into detergent and fabric softener delivery, as well.

I realize I’m not all that current on laundomats, but don’t they have machines that dispense detergent and fabric softener? Sure, they gobble up more of those precious quarters, but still. Not to mention that even the most time-pressured potential Washboard customer must have to occasionally go to the grocery store, if only to stock up on things like toilet paper.

Note to self on possible market disrupter: toilet paper delivery service.

Anyway, while Brown and Chapman try to build their business one roll of quarters at a time, Brown has come to the realization that he’s now spending a lot of time in bank lines.

"It's funny because I built this thing because I didn't want to go to the bank anymore, but right now I'm just going to the bank and requesting quarters as I need them.”

Note to self on possible market disrupter: roll of quarter delivery service providing rolls of quarters to roll of quarter delivery services.

Just unleashing my inner millennial…

Friday, June 20, 2014

The foolish man builds his house upon the sand. (Tunica, Mississippi edition)

I’m one of those folks who cast a dubious eye on casino gambling as an economic panacea.

Not that I have any great moral objection to gambling. Even though I understand the odds, and would probably be embarrassed to admit I had a ticket if I ever ended up winning more than the seven dollar max payout I’ve hit on one occasion, I’ve been known to buy lottery tickets. At the gym, I buy a Super Bowl Square and always submit my March Madness ladder, which I will have either created based on whether I “like” one college or university better than its opponent, or borrowed from my friend Sean who actually thinks about the brackets. And, if I happen to be in a casino, I will be willing to blow a roll of quarters on the slots.

But that’s about it.

My lack of personal interest in gambling does not, however, translate into Carrie Nation-like disapproval of gambling.

Sure, it’s plenty unsettling and disagreeable to see “fixed income” seniors pushing their oxygen bottles around the floor at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun, no doubt squandering their Social Security checks on keno or whatever. But that’s entertainment.

What I really don’t like about gambling is when people act as if it’s some fabulous sustainable job creator.

Massachusetts is now going through some casino-awarding contortions, which I haven’t paid much attention to. It’s not as if I’m going to be spending any time in these casinos, wherever they end up plunking them. As for New England’s existing casinos, I did go once to either Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. I was passing by with my sister Trish and our friend Shelly, and we popped in, burned through our quarter roll, depressed ourselves at the sight of all those oxygen-cylinder-pushing seniors, and left after 15 minutes.

With this as backdrop, I certainly wasn’t surprised to read about the failure of Harrah’s Tunica Casino, which is located in northwestern Mississippi. In early June, after 18 years in operation, its last one-armed bandit swallowed a roll of quarters, the last chip was placed on red 31, the last croupier raked in the chips. Or whatever it is they do in casinos. (Most of what I know about what goes on in there comes from watching Casablanca.)

The Tunica Miracle — as boosters called the coming of gambling to what had been an isolated, economically moribund slice of the Mississippi Delta — is over. A boom that peaked with 13,000 jobs has slid into a struggle for survival.

The first casino opened on a riverboat docked at a remote river landing in 1992. With people lining up, more casinos came, building glitzy resorts in Tunica County’s northern end, as close to Memphis, Tennessee, as possible. In the first full year after Harrah’s began operation, casinos in Tunica County won $776 million from gamblers. The peak came in 2006, when revenue reached almost $1.2 billion.

But increased competition and a recession that drained patrons’ pocketbooks began to bite. In 2013, Tunica’s casinos took in about $700 million. (Source:

While a couple of smaller casinos will remain open, the overall casino-employment is less than half of what it was at the peak, and gambling tax revenues – which funded public service jobs and infrastructure improvements – are also getting sliced.

Yes, the recession didn’t help Tunica any. Nor, I suspect, did it’s location in the back ass of nowhere. Okay, it’s close to Memphis, but still... Casinos on the Gulf Coast – which also offers goodies like beach and shrimp – are doing well.

What really clobbered Tunica, and is the real crap shoot-ness behind the casino-as-an-economic-miracle fallacy, is that fact that casinos, with their easy money aura, tend to beget other casinos.


In the early days of Mississippi gambling, there was little competition, with patrons trekking from Oklahoma, Missouri and elsewhere. But those and many other states have casinos now. In recent years, competition has gotten even closer to home, with Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, Arkansas, luring many traditional Tunica patrons. Southland won $142 million from gamblers last year, more than an average Tunica casino.

BINGO, as they say in the church hall on Thursday afternoons.

There’s a finite number of gamblers out there, as the Connecticut casinos are going to find out when the Massachusetts casinos open. And as Massachusetts will figure out when Vermont (okay, Vermont would be far fetched) decides to open a casino at the base of Killington.

Gambling is just not the industry you want to bet on for your area’s economic future. Yet, like gambling itself, it certainly has a certain lurid lure. Hey, it’s a lot easier to “get” than biotech. And I guess you do get those couple of good years of construction jobs, followed by casino-based employments.

Still, any region that’s gambling on casinos saving their economy is placing a pretty foolish bet. The smart money’s on industries that are more sustainable.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Losing Lbs., one Oz at a time

I haven’t watched a lot of Dr. Oz.

When it comes to TV doctors, I prefer the old fashioned kind – Jim Kildare, Marcus Welby, Doug Ross, and even Greg House. In other words, fake doctors who stick to doctoring, and don’t’ get caught up in being celebrities.

Oh, I don’t mind the occasional commentary by Dr. Nancy Snyderman on NBC, or our local version, Dr. Mallika Marshall. But, when it comes to my personal health, mostly I’ll take my doctors straight, one-on-one, focused on me and my health, even if it’s only for the duration of my breeze-in-breeze-out appointment.

Sure, I’ll look online – Mayo Clinic, WebMD – for information, but I don’t want to get my medical advice from a “personality.”

So, to me, a little Dr. Oz goes a mighty long way. Decidedly not my medical cup of tea.

Thus, I wasn’t exactly upset to see him getting a bit slapped around when he appeared before the U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, which he did earlier this week.

The hearings were on slimy miracle diet cures.

Lawmakers are taking an interest in diet fads after a string of actions by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against fraudulent players in the industry.

The FTC is currently suing a Florida company that claimed its Pure Green Coffee product would help users shed 20 pounds in four weeks.

The campaign used footage from Oz's show where he discussed the alleged benefits of green coffee extract. (Source: The Hill)

Green coffee extract, eh?

Why am I having a flashback to Steve McQueen trying (unsuccessfully) to treat his cancer with coffee enemas?

Okay, you can’t blame Steve McQueen for making a last ditch effort to save his life, whatever the quackery involved.

But McQueen was an actor, and Oz is a bona fide doctor.

Oz, a bestselling author and cardiac surgeon, acknowledged to lawmakers that he had made the FTC’s job “more difficult,” but defended his motives.

“My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience when they don't think they have hope,” he said.

So, where does cheerleader end off and charlatan pick up?

“I have things I think work for people. I want them to try them so that they feel better, so that they can do the things we talk about every day on the show [like diet and exercise].”

Getting people to lose weight by eating less and exercising more – which, as far as I can tell, is the only sure-fire way to lose weight – is absolutely for the good. So why isn’t cheerleading around eating less and exercising more enough?

Oh, silly me.

It’s not enough because a) it’s boring, and b) we all want a miracle cure. Hey, let me slurp down some green coffee extract – while parked on my couch watching Dr. Oz (and Dr. Phil, while I’m at it). It’s a hell of a lot easier than eating just one Cheeto and doing a few sit ups. Maybe even use that green coffee to wash down a sleeve of Oreos.

But Dr. Oz, apparently, needs more than just old-fashioned pompoms and megaphones, and the chant of give-me-a-d for diet.

“When I can't use language that is flowery, that is exulting, I feel like I've been disenfranchised,” he added.

The “exulting” language that’s in question was Oz having categorized green coffee extract as “a magic weight loss cure for every body type.”

Oz is careful not to endorse specific products, but he does get all enthused about general categories. He then gets ticked off when specific products in those general categories use his “exulting” claims as endorsements, probably because he doesn’t make any money off of it.

The lead senator on the attack was Claire McCaskill:

“The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called ‘miracles,’ ” she said.

Oz didn’t exactly back down, defending himself by claiming that he doesn’t endorse any approach he doesn’t believe in.

And, of course, cheerleading, exulting, and flowery speech is what gets you higher ratings than a calm and boring old Marcus Welby would get by telling you to stop eating chocolate and get off your arse and get moving. Take it from someone who really does need to shed ten lbs., one oz. – not Oz – at a time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Riding the rails (here and there)

On Monday, I took the commuter rail to Providence. It’s a trip I’ve made many times to visit my old and very dear friend Marie. Yesterday’s trip, like my recent visit to Ireland, was bittersweet. The occasion was the annual luncheon of a non-profit where Marie had worked for many years. Marie died in April, and the luncheon included a tribute to her.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was on the local commuter rail this week, and – as is my general experience with it – it was clean enough, comfortable enough, and reliable enough.

Sure, I wish the leatherette seats weren’t that hideous Barney-purple color.

Other than that, count me as a satisfied customer.

For my trip to Providence, I purchased my ticket from a human being.

This was at Back Bay station where I don’t recall seeing a ticket machine. (At North Station, although I generally buy my ticket form a human being, there is a machine option.)

Anyway, last week, my train trips were in Ireland, on Eirann Iarnrod, Ireland’s AMTRAK equivalent.

While I was a bit nostalgic for the beat-up old Ireland trains I’ve used over the years, with their dirty orange engines and rackety passenger cars, it’s easy to be nostalgic when you don’t have to deal with something on a regular basis. The new Irish trains are sleek, modern, techie, and clean. And, unlike on Boston’s local commuter rail, where humans dispense tickets, collect tickets, announce stations, and (sort of) help you off, in Ireland, you barely come in contact with a human being.

Not that having human beings on the old Eirann Iarnrod were an unalloyed benefit.

On one Ireland visit, my husband and I took the train from Dublin to Enniscorthy.

We figured early on that the train was too long for most of the pokey stations it was stopping at, and our hunch was that Enniscorthy would have pokey station, too.

Which meant that passengers had to figure out which car was gong to be the magic one that you needed to be on in order to get yourself off on the actual platform, as opposed to, say, jumping off onto the tracks.

Unfortunately, the conductors seemed to have made themselves scarce, and the barman couldn’t tell us what car we needed to be in, either. We eventually found a couple of old ladies who knew what car you needed to be on to get off the train in Enniscorthy, so all we had to do was mind the gap, rather than, say, jump off onto the tracks.

Ah, the good old days.

No conductors on Eirann Iarnrod these days.

Once your train gets called, you slip you ticket into a machine that gains you access to the platform. And hang onto that ticket, as in some stations, you need to use it to get out.

On the train itself, the only human being you’ll see is the kid manning the tea cart. This will no doubt be robotized as some point in the not so distant…

Instead of humans, you get canned announcements – charmingly in both Irish and English – that all end with mind the gap and/or keep your feet off the seats.

As for buying the ticket, Eirann Iarnrod really, really, really wants you to buy it online. So much so that the charge will be nearly doubled if you actually have the nerve to go to the station and buy it there – even if you go to the station and use a ticket-dispensing machine, as opposed to queuing up to buy your ticket from an actual human. To add insult to injury, if you want a reserved seat – with your name electronically displayed over the seat – it’s free on line, but five euros offline.

Curiously, I was able to buy our tickets from Galway to Dublin (and reserve our seats) online but, when I went to buy our tickets from Dublin to Limerick, my credit cards were all rejected. (Pay Pal, unfortunately, is not yet up and running.)

So, grrr, grrr, grrr, a ticket that should have cost 30 Euros cost 53 Euros.

I’m sure that there must be some old rural Irish geezer with no Internet access workaround, so that old rural Irish geezers with no Internet access don’t get gouged. At least I hope there is.

But it was interesting to see that Ireland’s railroad is so much more technically advanced than what we have locally (or on AMTRAK, which I also take on occasion). And so avidly squeezing humans out of the travel equation.

I guess in some respects we’re just a public transpo and technology outback…

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ireland Abú

Well, I have to say I found Ireland a lot more positive, economically speaking, than I did last time I was back in 2011.

The people we spoke with were cautiously optimistic. Yes, things were on an uptick, compared to a few years ago.

There seemed to be fewer “ghost estates” – abandoned construction sites – than we saw in 2011. Maybe because some of them have been torn down.

Yes, there are still plenty of projects that seemed to have been stopped in mid hammer blow, in mid concrete pour, wheelbarrows tipped up on rubble heaps, making the housing estates look for all the world like a latter day Pompeii.

But there don’t seem to be as many obvious signs of construction devastation and ruin.

Certainly, the streets of Galway and Dublin, where we spent our time, were teeming with both locals and tourists. The restaurants and pubs were full.

In Galway, I went into the Penney’s to buy some wash cloths, and the store was full of Irish housewives, shopping away. So it wasn’t just the stores catering to tourists where there was buying.

I asked all of our cab drivers – Pat, Mike, Michael, Martin – how business was, and they all said that it was picking up.

We were in Dublin on Friday, the Friday before the Monday on which Bloomsday is celebrated.


This is the date – June 16, 19004 – on which James Joyce had his first time out with his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. A first date that is famously commemorated in the novel Ulysses.

The celebration was already underway on Friday the 13th.

We saw a long-ish bicycle parade up Grafton Street, the riders all decked out in 1904-ish garb.

In the outside patio of Davey Byrnes pub, Bloomsday celebrants were sitting sipping red wine and, presumably, eating gorgonzola sandwiches – homage to James Joyce/Leopold Bloom, who stops there on his pilgrimage through Dublin.

Years ago, I was food-poisoned after eating bad oysters at Davey Byrnes.

Should have stuck with a gorgonzola sandwich, like the revelers who were sitting out there last Friday in their fake straw boaters.

Anyway, I’m just as happy we won’t be here for Bloomsday.

Hard to believe that most of those observing this literary high holiday will actually have read this near-impenetrable novel.

I did get through it, but it wasn’t the pleasure that Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners were.

But, literary-wise, I’m a traditionalist.

Ulysses was at least coherent and readable, unlike Finnegan’s Wake which, IMHO, is neither.

I’ve managed to machete my way through about 1/4 of Finnegan’s, and I scratch my head in wonder that anyone not familiar with Ireland and Catholicism can hack their way in. And how does this get translated into other languages?

I do understand the pleasure of just reading Finnegan’s out loud. And as I do have the familiarity with Ireland and Catholicism, I will get through it in its entirety. Eventually.

It’s on my bucket list, right up there with Venice.

What, I wonder, would James Joyce make of all the hoo-hah over Bloomsday?

Joyce, who famously said that "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow."

Most say that he would despise it, but I think he was enough of an egoist that he’d get off on it.

(His only living heir, grandson Stephen Joyce, is best known for suing the pants off/complaining about anything that gets done in his grandfather’s name. I’m pretty sure he’d be appalled by the guys with the fake boaters sitting out in front of Davey Byrne’s.)

Meanwhile, the other James was much on my mind throughout this trip, my first trip to Ireland without my husband Jim since 1985, when we made our first trip there together.

This is a place that Jim very much loved, and where we very much enjoyed traveling.

We did some “memory lane” on this trip. Meeting up with friends at MacSwiggan’s in Galway. Having a wonderful dinner at the Malt House, also in Galway. A day trip to the Aran Islands.

Some of Jim’s ashes were interred, at his request, in Galway Bay.

Dublin was less “our town” than Galway, but my nieces and I walked by many places where Jim and I have been.

Bittersweet, for sure.

But Jim would have been delighted that our nieces, Molly and Caroline, so very much enjoyed their introduction to Ireland.

And that Ireland does seem to be on at least a bit of an economic rebound.

I couldn’t have Diggy forever, so Ireland Abú.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Inis Mór

Well, my nieces and I had a wonderful trip to Ireland: low on the purely touristic experiences, high on the just plain being there.

Not that we avoided tourism altogether.

We did spend a day on Inis Mór, the largest – pop. 800 -  of the Aran Islands,which are off the coast of Galway/Connemara.

My husband I had made two trips to Inis Mór, maybe 10 years back, maybe 20 (maybe earlier – time does tend to scrunch up).

On the first trip, on a typical Irish cool and rainy day, we took a ferry over – The Queen of Aran – which we quickly nicknamed the Shah of Iran. The boat was small and unlovely, and we got the message that we were in for it when we saw, hanging from each of the portholes in the cabin, a plastic shopping bag. We had been pre-warned by a friend who’d journeyed to Inis Mór in the early 1960’s, in the pre-plastic bag era, when they set out old pots and pans for seasick travelers to use.

Anyway, by the time Jim and I figured out that we needed to be on deck, and not in the “comfort” of the cabin, it was too late.

I couldn’t even reach the plastic bag, but lost it in the Sunday Boston Globe travel section on the Aran Islands, which I had just been reading. Jim, for whatever reason, refused to give it up. He just put his head – a head which was sweating profusely and had turned a nasty shade of grey-green – down on the bench and closed his eyes for the duration.

There wasn’t much on Inis Mór, but one of the townswoman had a small shop in her front room, and we were able to buy the last package of Dramamine on the island. So we were good for the trip back.

On the island itself – back in the day – there was a pub that we went to, in which a traditional session was going. The local fishermen – enjoying a day off (it was Sunday) – performed an incredibly intricate, loud and agile circle step dance, while hooting and hollering in Irish.

On that first trip, we also walked up Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus),the cliff-side fort on Inis Mór, where my husband scared the crap out of me by going over to the unfenced edge to look over.

Before we walked back to town, we took a rest on a stone wall at the foot of the climb to Dún Aonghasa, where a cow who’d been grazing sauntered over and stuck his head between us.

Not much was doing on Inis Mór, back then. The pub, Dún Aonghasa, the cow…

Fast forward a few years, and we flew over in a small (six-seater, I think) plane.

When we made our reservations in Galway, the woman told me that there was a weigh-in for the flight. When I mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to lose 10 pounds by the next morning, the woman told me, “Don’t worry. It’s very discreet.”

Well, I guess if you consider a scale with a face the size of Big Ben (facing out into the waiting area) “discreet.”

Inis Mór was a bit more built up, the second time around, with a modern tourist center.

It was at the tourist center that we enjoyed one of our favorite Irish experiences.

The only other person on our plane was a woman named Sheila, with whom we ended up spending the day.

She wanted to exchange some dollars at the tourist bureau, so we accompanied her there.

The woman running the desk told us that she wasn’t the person who did the currency exchange, but that she’d check and see whether the vice-president in charge of Aran Island money changing was available. She went behind a curtain, not six feet from where we were standing, and the next thing we heard was yer woman saying, “So,I’m to tell them you’re not here, is it?” (They don’t call it an Irish whisper for nothing.)

We had lunch in a little restaurant that hadn’t been there the first time around.

Things were, on trip two, more touristic than they’d been on trip one.

On both of those earlier trips, we’d taken the bus up from Galway to Rossaveal, and there wasn’t much build up along the way, especially once you passed Spiddal.

Trip Three to Inis Mór showed just how many changes had occurred over the years  - maybe 10 years, maybe 20 (maybe earlier – time does tend to scrunch up).

First off, the weather could not have been more perfect.

After two pelting days in Galway, it was sunny, balmy (by Irish standards), and the blue sky had nothing but big puffy white clouds in it.

Second, the area between Galway and Rossaveal was much more built up.

Sure, there were a few abandoned construction sites, but not as many as I would have predicted. Mostly, there were loads of what appeared to be new suburban and vacation-homes.

The pier in Rossaveal was pretty new, and the ferry boats were large – seating hundreds, not dozens – and stable.

I had prophylactically taken a Dramamine, but it was in no way necessary.


The Inis Mór pier was new, as well.

And there were a lot more shops and pubs around. There was even a SuperValu supermarket replacement for the front room shop run by The Missus.

We had lunch at a lovely little restaurant at the foot of Dún Aonghasa, where there was quite a little shopping center: a couple of cafes, shops selling Aran sweaters, and other goods aimed at tourists (including the usual POS keychains, etc. – which, were also available in one of the shops near the pier). The restaurant served a lovely salad, made with Inis Mór goat cheese.

Another change was that you now had to pay to climb up Dún Aonghasa. Not to mention that, if you were gong to be there during the summer, you could take evening yoga classes up there. The cliff side remains open, and, needless to say, I didn’t get anywhere near the edge. (And yes, my nieces – especially Caroline – got a bit too close to the edge for my comfort. They weren’t alone. Most people drifted quite near to it, and many were a lot more dare devil than either Molly or Caroline were.)

I told the girls that my bet was that the yoga instructor was not a native of the Aran Islands. (Nor, I suspect, was the guy weaving and selling baskets as we climbed up to the cliff. Nor the goat farmer that made the cheese in the very tasty salad I had for lunch.)

We took a mini-van tour around the island, and the driver told us that, in the last ten years, tourism had replaced fishing as the primary industry.

The good news, of course, is that you’re not likely to drown from tourism.

So I suppose that, on the whole, the Aran Islands are now more prosperous and comfortable than they were back in the day.

Still, it was comforting when we went into a pub while waiting for the ferry back to the mainland and found that the bar was loaded with old geezers downing pints of Guinness and gabbing away in Irish.

Sure, they were wearing jeans and baseball caps, but it was good to see that some things have stayed the same.

I just wish that there’d been some ceili music playing, and that the old geezers had gotten up and done a bit of a dance.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Whither Pink Slip?

Taking the day off to enjoy Dublin with my nieces.

Maybe afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel (a grande dame which I’m a bit disappointed to note is now a Marriott). Or maybe poor-man’s tea at Bewley’s.

Maybe poking around Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, wondering why the Church of Ireland, which had relatively few members compared to the R.C.’s, felt entitled to grab the beautiful old churches.

Maybe looking at the Book of Kells and thinking about what it must have been like to be one of those civilization-saving monks back in the day.

Anyway, back on Monday, with some posts about the Ireland trip.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Memento Mori

I will be the first to admit that one of the best things about museum-going is going to the museum shop. Some museum shops are so alluring that, on occasion, I’ve been tempted to bypass the museum entirely and just get to the goodies. It’s not that I ever end up buying all that much in a museum shop. I just like looking at how the museum manages to commercialize their collections.

Probably the strangest – and, admittedly, least tasteful  - item I ever bought in a museum shop was at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a JFK museum located in the old Texas Book Depository building, from whence Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. It was a pen with a photo of Jackie in the (in)famous pink boucle suit and pillbox hat, mercifully taken before her JFK Tiehusband shot, so not yet bloodstained. Nonetheless, it was supremely tasteless, so supremely tasteless that it may no longer be available. (I checked the online store and it’s not there.  Which is not to say that it isn’t in the store itself. If this tie is any indication, they sure don’t have a problem with tacky.)

Anyway, in my experience, historical museums tend to have more kitsch on sale than, say, hoity-toity art museums, where stuff just seems to be more elegant and brainy.

Not all historic museum shops are full of kitsch, of course. There was a shop at Auschwitz, and I’m pretty sure I stuck my head in just to make sure there were no “My grandparents went to Auschwitz and all they got me is this tee-shirt” goods on sale. I think it was mostly books, and maybe some pictures – of what, I’m blanking on. But I’m pretty sure there were no snow-globes, baseball caps, or pens depicting prisons in striped suits. Fast forward another hundred years or so, and nothing would surprise me.

The museum shop that’s creating the furor of late is the one at the just opened National September 11 Memorial Museum.

The shop, of course, is just one of the many things that people – most appear to be family members of victims  - are complaining about. Some don’t like that the unidentified remains will be housed (note: not displayed) at the site. Some are angry that a fancy-dancy reception was held at the museum. Some are ticked off that there’s an nice café going up there.

Okay, so all museums don’t have remains on prem, but the complainers need to keep in mind that the lifeblood of any museum is not general admissions, it’s donations. And hosting receptions, running a café, and, yes, having a shop where visitors can buy souvenirs.

As museum shops go, I didn’t find the 9/11 memorial too chocked with ultra-tacky, ultra-tasteless wares. I might raise an eyebrow at the twin towers Christmas ornament. And Rescue labthose guardian angel tchotchkes honoring first responders aren’t my cup of tea. And the stuffed search and rescue dogs, while definitely cutie-pie, may be a tad too cutie pie. (Awww…..)

But most of the stuff seemed pretty bland – mugs, lanyards, key chains with subdued images on them. And plenty of the run of the mill NYPD/NYFD that you see all over the place.

There was one item, however, that so many took umbrage with that it was immediately taken off the shelves. 911museum - cheese platterAnd that was a commemorative ceramic platter with markers at NYC, the Pentagon, and the place in Pennsylvania where United 93 crashed. I believe those markers are hearts. Pretty tacky, but it could have been worse. Those markers could have been little airplanes. Or it could have been billed as a pastry board – “Let’s roll!”

Still, it’s pretty bad. But I don’t imagine that the store would have sold all that many of them. If nothing else, what tourist wants to lug this home? I’ll take a couple of the lanyards, please.

Eliminating the cheesy cheeseboard from the stock items does raise the question of where the remainders – note that’s remainders, not remains – go.

Does the manufacturer take them back, yank out the hearts, and turn it into a just plain vanilla, good old US of A platter? Can’t be easy taking off the hearts without leaving a scar… Or do they end up in third world countries, alongside the tee-shirts touting the losing team in the latest Super Bowl as the winner?

The museum (and its shop) are taking the pushback seriously:

Responding to criticism of the gift shop since the museum's dedication earlier this month, Joe Daniels, president of the memorial foundation, said Wednesday in an interview that the museum would enlist more help in vetting products from the 9/11 family members who sit on the foundation's board.

Merchandise reviews, he said, will now take place in the museum store itself, allowing the vetters to see the items in the context of what many regard as a sacred space.  (Source: WSJ Online)

Well, that’s good. As it is a sacred space, especially, I’m certain to those who lost a loved one on 9/11.

Last fall, before the museum was completed, but when the memorial itself was open, my husband and I visited the site, on what turned out to be our last trip to NYC. We didn’t spend a lot of time there – it was crowded, it was hot, Jim was in the midst of chemo, and, in truth, it wasn’t Jim’s “thing” to begin with – crowd, heat, and chemo aside. But it was very lovely, and it was very moving.

And to keep it so, the museum shop will need to keep selling “stuff”. That’s just a fact of museum life.

Nice to have the family members on the foundation’s board help vet the items that get sold, but nothing is going to be to everyone’s liking.

As for that ceramic platter, I would have let the market do the talking. Seriously, was anyone actually going to buy these things?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kingdom come, kingdom go

Well, I’m in Ireland, where some claim that everyone’s descended from kings.

I’m a bit dubious.

Personally, I think that, if I went poking around the bogs, I’d find that my ancestors were sitting around in a dirt-floored hovel, staying warm by huddling with their pigs and tossing an occasional clump of turf, with clay pipes clamped in their toothless mouths.

Of course, back in the day, this may have been how Irish royalty lived, so maybe there is something to be said that we’re all of royal blood.

But Ireland pretty much ran out of royals quite a while back. (The flight of earls in the early 1600’s?) Any kings or queens after that were Brits and, let’s face it, who wants to be descended from them?

And who wants to be a monarch in this era of 24/7 “news”, insanely aggressive paparazzi, and the generally celebrity-besotted culture we live in, in which the average gawker feels entitled to see and hear everything – right down to the thong-clad posterior of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton – that has anything to do with the royals (by blood or marriage or dating)?

But, let’s face it, at least in the English-speaking world, most of our interest is focused on the British royals which is no doubt a function of the British royals being English-speaking – hey, they’re just like us – and the fact that they actually attend to a lot of (however unnecessary) royal duties, like cutting ribbons at pre-schools and patting the knees of soldiers in infirmaries, and having fancy-schmancy weddings that get televised.

So we don’t tend to know a lot about lesser royals in other countries, other than to laugh up our sleeves at titled poseurs who occasionally make some sort of a news splash. (Ho, ho. Prince Von Sturm und Drang dropped trow in Gstaad in front of Lady Gaga.)

Thus it’s a nice change of pace to hear a bit about other royals, what with the news that Spain’s King Juan Carlos is calling it quits after a 39 year reign.

“A new generation deserves to come to the front line,” the 76-year-old king, who has suffered from health problems, said in a televised statement from his palace near Madrid. “My son Felipe, the heir to the crown, embodies the stability which is the monarchy’s identity.” (Source: Business Week)

Juan Carlos was born while his family was in exile following the Spanish upheavals of the 1930’s that resulted in the long and brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco. And speaking of Franco, Juan Carlos has the dubious distinction of having been anointed by Franco, who named him his successor as head of state in the late 1960’s – that old softie.This resulted in JC’s getting enthroned a couple of days after Franco passed on, putting the Spanish royals back in business. (On the plus side, Juan Carlos does get some credit for helping Spain make the transition from Franco-rule to democracy. Having spent a couple of weeks in Franco’s Spain, I can affirm that this can only be seen as a good thing.)

Anyway, Juan Carlos, at 76, is hanging up his crown in favor of his son, Crown Prince Felipe.

It’s not clear what exactly the King of Spain does, other than function as the titular head of state. Maybe if you’re on the ground in Spain, you have a better perspective on what he does, other than swan around representing tradition and stability, and inciting the ire of anti-royalists.

By the way, Juan Carlos is not the first Euro-royal to give way to the younger generation in the past couple of years. Queen Beatrix of Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium both retired last year. And while he didn’t give us his throne for a son or daughter, I guess you could say that Pope Benedict XVI abdicated, as well.

Just don’t expect to see any torch-passing among the only royals who really matter, i.e., the Brits.

Next year, knock on ermine cape and diamond tiara, The Queen will pass Queen Victoria’s tenure as the longest reigning monarch in British (and modern European) history. Even if she did feel like giving it up to Charles and Camille, or asking Charlie to step aside in favor of Wills and Kate, she’s not likely to do so until she’s eclipsed Victoria’s record.

Me, I’m just as happy to be sitting here in the land of saints and scholars, rather than the domain of kings and queens.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kindled. (Guess I didn’t order any Hachette books.)

Although I’ll probably break down at some point and pick up a physical book or two, this is the first vacation I’ve gone into as a 100% digital reader. (Recent trips to Tucson and Dallas were maybe 2/3’s digital.)

What’s on my Kindle?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Yes, I know that this will be a complete an utter tearjerker. With what I’ve had going on this year, do I really want to read about a couple of kids with cancer? Oh, why not. I like a good cry as much as the next guy.

I’m a World War II junkie, so I’ve got Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See on there. I’ve never read any Doerr, but a couple of my writer-reader friends recommended him. So here goes.

While I’m feeding my WWII jones, I thought I’d read Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker a while back.

Having read a long article about Edward St. Aubyn in a recent New Yorker, I downloaded all four – or is it five? – of the Patrick Melrose novels.

And just in case I run out of reading material/immaterial, I grabbed a freebie: Bleak House, which I wasn’t able to get into 50 years ago when I started it, but which my sisters highly recommend. The price was right. And it ought to hold me. If I recall, the Modern Library Edition I once owned had 1,028 pages. Only about ten of which I read.

I downloaded these books, which took all of about a nanosecond, shortly after I heard a discussion on public radio about the brouhaha brewing between Amazon and Hachette, one of the world’s largest publishers. (Among other houses, it owns Little, Brown.)

I was only half-following the radio story, but one thing that stuck in my mind was that, as part of the pissing match, Amazon was steering readers away from Hachette books, suggesting alternative titles or that the reader get the book elsewhere.

No warnings went off while I was merrily downloading, so I guess I didn’t get anything from Hachette/Little Brown.

I thought maybe a couple of recent NY Times articles would shed a bit of reading light on what was going on. Which it kinda/sorta did.

Hachette is (as of this writing) negotiating terms with Amazon, and as Hachette goes, so will go the rest of the publishing industry.

At stake is the role of the publishing industry, and, attendantly, how writers who make money will make money. Amazon, for its part, would like to disintermediate, get rid of publishers as the middle man, and pass some of the cost savings on to the customers. Oh, and while they’re at it, they’ll squeeze a bit out of the writers, too. All on behalf of the consumer.

While I do make my living writing, I don’t make my living with creative writing of the type that publishes publish and readers read. But I’m all in favor of creative types making money. And I know plenty of folks, many of them young, who are trying to make an artful living. A generation ago, some of them could reasonably have been expected to get decent advances, have a decent if not extremely lucrative career between writing and teaching, etc. But they’re now being pummeled to death, metaphorically speaking.

On the other hand, I know plenty of writers who don’t need to support themselves writing who are happily e-publishing and experiencing modest success.

“Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good,” Hachette said in a statement. “They are not.”

There are many considerations here besides money, the publisher said, noting that authors are engaging “in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.” It added, “In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment and connection.” (Source: NY Times.)

I suspect that the Hachette and the publishing companies are fighting a hold-back-the-tide battle here.

Personally, I hope that good quality books will continue to be published. It may be harder for good quality writers to build an audience and sustain a career, but, let’s face it, the vaunted publishing world has promoted plenty of lousy, schlocky writers over the years.

Oh, I’m sure that they defend the Danielle Steele’s by claiming that their best-sellers enable them to subsidize greater works of lesser monetary value. Which is probably a crock…

And their claims about some of their value add. I have noticed a disturbing trend over the years of an increasing level of errors that, in the past, would probably have been caught by a copy edit. (Yesterday, while reading Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square, I came across “Money” for “Monet.”)

Anyway, it’s all about the Benjamins: the publishers want a bigger cut. Which, not surprisingly, is what Amazon wants, too.

So far, most of the money-making writers are backing the publishers, but I suspect that in the end, they’ll defect.

The danger in all this is, of course, that Amazon becomes the only publisher in town and, thus, a gatekeeper. But, unless the anti-trust forces step in, I see the Amazon model prevailing.  The cost of publishing an ebook is miniscule, and the cost of doing a physical printed copy on demand isn’t that high either, so why not publish everything from Aunt Bee’s Mayberry memoirs and grits recipes, to Tom Clancy (or whoever’s going to replace him) cardboard thrillers, to some cretin’s sub-literate “novel”, to Donna Tartt?

If two billion people can find their way to YouTube to watch Gangnam Style, then two thousand can find their way to a literary novel.

Amazon’s probably not doing itself any favors by refusing to ship Hachette books. (Nor by their recent decision to cut author royalties on self-published audio books.)

Still, my long term money (monet?) is on Amazon.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep buying physical books at Trident Bookstore (pretty much the only indie bookstore in Boston), and checking physical books out of the Boston Public Library. (I’m currently on the fourth of five books I took out last week.)

But lugging books on vacation is a drag. Plus there’s always the fear that I’ll run out of reading matter. (Not much of a fear when going to Ireland. But still…) So I’ll probably be doing an increasing amount of book-buying on Kindle. And, sorry to my writer friends, I won’t really be thinking all that much about how the writers are getting paid.

Still, part of me is sentimental about the good old days of publishing.

Other than downloading books onto Kindle, which is incredibly quick and easy, why does everything have to be so darned hard?

Monday, June 09, 2014

Fly by night

Well, if all has gone well – and there’s no reason to believe that it would be otherwise – I am in Ireland. With me are my nieces Molly and Caroline, and a tiny bit of my husband’s ashes, which I’ll be scattering into Galway Bay at some point, and maybe on Inishmore, as well.

As Jim had long wanted to introduce the girls to Ireland, and as Jim and I had made so many trips here over the last three decades – I’ve lost count, but we’ve easily been here 15 times – this will be a bittersweet vacation. 

But I’m sure we’ll have fun.

Our flight will have been steerage, which is always fine with me, as I’m someone who is content to read-drift-read-drift-read-drift a long flight away.  And Ireland is, by overseas flight standards, a short hop.

But if I were rich, and if we had been gong from London to  Abu Dhabi, and if we were traveling next January (and believe me, if I were going to head to Abu Dhabi, it would be in January, not June), and if only two of us were going (or if I were willing to fall on my steerage sword and let the girls lap up the luxury), and  if we were flying Etihad Airways, well, we could avail ourselves of a 125 square foot three-room suite, niftily dubbed The Residence:

The space, which costs about $43,000 for some flights, is priced to include two travelers and comes with a butler, chef, and shower. (Source: Business Week)

Plus a Swarovski crystal jewelry case for the ladies, and a cufflink case for the fellows. (Not the fellahs, however, as they are not likely to be flying Residence class.)

Just think: a chef to prepare vegan fare for Caroline while the butler made sure that the temp was just right for Molly’s shower.

The Residence actually reminds me a bit – just a bit – of the decidedly less luxe yet similarly contained roomettes that we took a couple of times on our family trips from Worcester to Chicago.

When we first took trains en famille to Chicago, we were in the regular old sit up all night cars. My parents would pile the suitcases up on the floor in front of the seats to create a little sleeping platform on which to stretch out their sleepy kids. There were three of us at that point, and we were all pretty little.

I don’t remember it as being comfortable or uncomfortable, one way or the other.

What I remember was the frigid cold water that was dispensed at the front of each car, and the conical paper cups it was dispensed into. I also remember that the window shade extended across two rows, and that, as a four year old, dying to see out, I one battled a soldier in the seat in front of us to keep it open a crack so I could see out.  I’d slide it up a bit – just enough to peep out - and soldier boy would slam it down as, apparently, even a half-inch of light prevented him from enjoying his nap. (Gosh, I forgot to thank him for his service. Oh, wait, in those days we didn’t thank anyone for “going in.” Everybody – i.e., every able-bodied young man – spent a couple of years in the military, like it or not. There’s actually something to be said for that approach...)

Next trip out, we drove, which must have been a real treat for my father as he was the only driver and there were no interstate highways, just Route 9 wending it’s way from Worcester to Chicago. Not to mention that some of us got carsick.

And then there were four kids, and my parents were apparently flush enough to get the roomette, with their scratchy-covered seats that converted to a bed, the teeny-tiny toilet cum sink, and the fold down second bed that came out of the wall. On the next trip, when there was another baby on board, we got a couple of other little sleeping compartments to augment the roomette. My brother Tom and I slept in one, sharing a bunk, and I remember seeing my mother in some sort of sleeping chamber the size of a mortuary drawer, with a canvas web hammock slung about six inches over her head, in which slept the baby.

I imagine the travelers in The Residence will get a bit more rest than the Rogers family did as we swayed across the rails on our way to Chicago.

We also didn’t have a personal chef.

We always traveled on Fridays, leaving Worcester late in the afternoon, and my mother packed tuna sandwiches Kids Menufor supper. We did eat breakfast in the dining car – ooh, aah – I even remember what the menu looked like. Which was this, only turquoise.

But that was going from Worcester to Chicago.

For The Residence, we’re talking London and Abu Dhabi. (Am I the only person who sees “Abu Dhabi” and thinks “yabba-dabba-doo”?)

So, given that we’re traveling now, and supposing we weren’t going to Ireland, but somewhere more exotic, albeit less woman-friendly… Anyway, absent the availability of The Residence until next winter, we could hunker down with plain old vanilla first class, a relative bargain at $15K, which provides a 6 foot 8 inch perfectly flat bed (with dupioni silk covered duvet), personal chef, mini-bar, wardrobe, and furniture covered with Poltrona Frau leather.

Aer Lingus, it almost goes without saying, does not have anything that even remotely resembles Etihad first class, let alone The Residence.

Thanks to frequent flyer, Jim and I did fly first – or was it business? I don’t even think there’s first any more on Aer Lingus – to Ireland a couple of times. It was comfy enough, especially when we got to fly up in the bubble of a 747. And we got a little swag bag that included a pair of cheesy light blue socks with a shamrock on them, and a tiny little Parian china dish with an ornate Book-of-Kells style letter painted on it.

What I couldn’t tell Etihad about traveling in style…

Friday, June 06, 2014

Hey, Restoration Hardware, CEASE AND DESIST already

For years, I was driven mad – mad, I say – by the regular appearance on the doorstep of our building of mounds of White Pages and Yellow Pages that nobody in our building seemed to want, even for use as doorstops or emergency toilet paper, in case there’s ever a shortage.

So, for years, when the shrink wrapped stacks of White and Yellow pages tomes would appear on our doorstep, I would lug them into the foyer, leave them there for a week or so, then set them out for recycle.

If nothing else, it was good exercise, even though I did consider hiring a backhoe or dump truck a couple of times, to assist me in hauling the waste from front stoop to out back, where the trash pickup happens.

The White Pages and Yellow Pages glut, while it hasn’t disappeared, has somewhat abated over the years. The books have shrunk in size, and Verizon doesn’t seem so hell bent on so widely distributing them, either. (Seriously, when was the last time anyone you know looked up a number in the White Pages? Or let their fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages?)

But now there’s another organization that’s picking up the Verizon mantle, delivering landfills worth of catalogs. And that would be Restoration Hardware, or RH, as they’re now known, having decided to pare down their name while pumping up the volume on the materials they send out.

I am, blessedly, not on the RH hit list, but others who have, at one point of another, lived in this building, sure are.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago, two 17 pound, shrink-wrapped collections of catalogs showed up on our doorstep. (With an array of catalogs that weighs as much as a small anvil, it’s nice to know that RH is still keeping the hardware in their “H.”)

One of the collections that arrived was addressed to Lars, who moved out nine years ago; the other to Megan, who’s been gone a lot longer than that.

I will admit that I unshrink-wrapped the Lars delivery and extracted – from the dozen or so sub-catalogs contained within – the Small Spaces, Bath, Interior, and Lighting editions. While, taken as a whole, I find RH overwhelmingly monotonous, pretentious, and just plain silly, at the micro level I like some of their stuff. And as I’m looking to do some home improvements around my personal Small Spaces, Bath, Interior, and Lighting, I was sort of interested in what they have on offer. Of course, this was a month ago, and I haven’t cracked the spine on any of these catalogs yet, but there’s always tomorrow. And my Small Space, Bath, Interior, and Lighting restoration needs aren’t going anywhere. (Much as I would like for someone to come in, take charge, fix everything that needs fixing, improve everything that needs improving, restore everything that needs restoring, and wake me when it’s over…)

What I didn’t set aside were Outdoor, Upholstery, Leather, Furniture, Rugs, Linen, and Objects of Curiosity.

Since a couple more of these collections showed up the other day, I did pull out Objects of Curiosity from Sarah’s (gone at least five years). I thought it might make for good Small Space, Bath reading, but, on first glance, I don’t think I’ll be the market for an 1890s Stag Head ($345) or a Vintage Wallpaper Factory Bar Cart ($1,895). I have enough Objects of Curiosity of my own, already. Thanks  just the same…

The real Object of Curiosity is who buys this stuff? Me, I liked RH better when they sold stocking stuffers.

Business Week – among others – picked up on this latest catalogue initiative on RH’s part. BW reported that RH considers the catalogs “source books” that us wannabe designers will hang onto as a “design library”.

RH declined to share the number of catalogs it mailed. The company did want to remind us that we used to receive its catalogs much more frequently. Its 2013 annual report states that RH’s advertising costs were $83 million, much of that spent on its catalogs. RH’s capitalized catalog costs were $49.3 million. (Source: Business Week)

I’d like to know how many of those catalogs actually reach the intended. If my building is an indication, not many…

One of the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the environmental impact of sending out 17 pounds worth of unwanted “wish books.” Not to worry. RH likes to think of itself as a sustainable kind of luxury retailer.

All the paper is “forest certified,” according to RH, which means that it comes from sustainable sources. Rest assured that the retailer is part of something called the Verso Forest Certification Grant Program. And guess what? All of the shipping is carbon neutral, thanks to a special UPS program that purchases certified carbon offsets on behalf of the company.


Sure makes me feel better. How about you?

Meanwhile, of the four RH shipments that have arrived chez moi – “There are pieces that furnish a home. And those that define it.” – only one has been addressed to someone who actually lives here.

That would be Taylor.

Taylor just had her third birthday, and next time I see her I’ll be asking whether there’s anything in the Objects of Curiosity that she has her eye on.

Maybe that collection of German carnival noses (“skillfully reproduced from turn of the century German carnival molds”) – a steal at $295.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

What’s in your Kickstart crowdsourced wallet?

I’m something of a fan of Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms.

I haven’t exactly emptied my wallet over there, but I have thrown in on:

  • A plastic ring that I can use in lieu of my public transpo pass (note to self: put some money on the ring and see if it works)
  • Tee-shirts that are made in the USA, and have some magical property about them (can’t remember why now, but my husband really liked them)
  • Tote bags made out of coffee bean bags (this was a St. Francis House operation)
  • Some locally-made movie that, at a friend’s request, I put $150 down on – and never heard peep from the producer/director about (that money was supposed to buy my way in as an extra, although, come to think of it, maybe he didn’t raise enough dough, so maybe I never actually had to pony up).

Anyway, I really should mosey on over there from time to time to see what the Wallet Populi on Kickstarter is up to.

Meanwhile, Business Week has saved me a trip, with an article a few days back on the plethora (pleathera?) of slimline wallets that make there way on to Kickstarter.

There have apparently been more than a dozen, including the TGT (pronounced “tight”), which raised over $300K in 2012, and:

…the EZ Wallet, the Helone, the Thinny, the Slimtec, the Simple Wallet, and its sequel, the Simple Wallet 2.0. Some promise RFID (radio-frequency identification) shielding for consumer protection, one is 3D printed, another has an antitheft scheme that communicates with your smartphone. (Source: Business Week)

Wonder if that “antitheft scheme” wipes out the credit cards, or sets off an exploding, bank heist dye packet?

Anyway, I can understand the appeal of a slim wallet. Most men don’t carry a murse, and who wants to go around with a bulge in their back pocket that screams “pickpocket me”, or an uncomfortable bulge in their front pocket. (Oh, you of dirty minds.)

(What I can’t understand is why women can’t even get away with carrying a wallet that’s the size of the old-fashioned, bulky men’s wallets. Why do we have to carry wallets that are the size of a clutch bag? Is it that we don’t have pockets for our change? We carry more credit cards, and things like our hospital cards and library cards and our membership card in the ACLU? I understand why women carry pocketbooks. We’re the ones that take care of the “stuff”, freeing men up from the burden of having to worry about Kleenex, snacks, Band-Aids, aloe vera hand sanitizer, a notepad, pens, lip balm, and stamps. (Someone actually came up to me on the subway years ago and said, “You look like the type of person who would carry stamps on you. Do you have one I could buy?” Well, although I no longer carry stamps on me, at that time I was, in fact, the type of person who would and did carry stamps. Maybe it was the sensible shoes…))

There are a couple of reasons that small wallets are so big on Kickstarter. According to Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler,

“As we started looking into it, we realized that this was kind of the training-wheels product for a product designer.”

The wallet is also a product that:

…requires comparatively low upfront costs, little material, and fewer moving parts. “There are only so many ways you can screw it up,” Strickler says. And the production process is a solid intro to manufacturing fundamentals such as light supply-chain management, fulfillment, and shipping. “It’s basically a learning tool,” Strickler says. “It’s also a tangible demonstration of how many people are trying to make a manufactured good.”

The slim wallet is, of course, a natural for a world in which cash is no longer a carry item among the demographic who spend. I continue to be amazed to see the “young folk” whip out their debit card for an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts, or a tube of toothpaste at CVS. No wonder there’s a generation out there incapable of figuring out the right change.

The slim wallet’s success also points to a lack of variety in a limited male accessory market. There are belts, and socks, and wallets, and that’s it. “It seems that people are always willing to give a new wallet a chance,” says Matt Hall, of Obstructures, who last year successfully launched a wallet comprised of two plates of aluminum held together with rubber bands.

And, of course, of that Big Three, a wallet is the simplest to manufacture. Belts need hardware and punching; socks, well, socks are hard. So there you have it.

Back in the day, you could always get your father an ashtray or a carton of Lucky Strikes for Father’s Day. Now, you can get him a trimmed down wallet – with lots of choices out there.

There are also brand extensions on the way. For TGT, there’s “a line of tablet and laptop cases”. (Think Levenger’s, I guess.) Obstructures is branching out with a pocket tool and a modular clipboard. (Think Levenger’s and Brookstones, I guess. Maybe even SkyMall.)

The appeal of small-batch items, especially those with compelling origin stories, speaks to a demand for authenticity at a time when most products are made in soul-sucking Chinese factories.

Kickstarter as “origin story”? Sounds good to me. But I’m guessing all these captains of slim wallet industry can’t wait until demand gets to the point where those wallets get “made in soul-sucking Chinese factories.”