Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stuffed full of stuff

I like to say that, every year, you  should pretend you’re moving and ruthlessly go through your stuff.

While I like to say it, I rarely listen to myself saying it

And, so, I continue to accumulate stuff.

This year, however, as I plan a kitchen and bathroom makeover, and an all-over spruce up (paint, window treatments), I am going to have to go through every junk drawer, every cabinet, every bookcase, and every Fibber McGee closet and aggressively cull things out.

I’ve already done one sweep through the kitchen, so I no longer have the purple cow creamer and two fish molds.

Now I have to really get moving.

It will definitely be so long to the hideous bowl from the Genuity iWinner trip to Hawaii in 2001. And just what was I hanging on to this for anyway? I’ve never used it, and rarely look at it. I’d include a picture here, but it’s way up there above the kitchen cabinet, and the stepstool’s on the other floor. But once that stepstool is back where it belongs, that ugly bowl will be going, going, gone.

I do have to ask myself just how ruthless I’ll be willing to be when it comes to those cute little green-stemmed wine glasses that came from both my mother and my Aunt Margaret. They hold not much more than a sip of wine, and everyone I knows likes more than a sip. I’m betting they’ll stay – for now.

Also on the block are my husband’s books. If there were any possibility on the face of the earth that I would actually read any of them, I’d hang on. But economics, econometrics, physics, math, statistics, finance, philosophy, philosophy of science? I’d be reading the toothpaste ingredients before I’d crack any of theses tomes, however desperate the moment of 2 a.m. desperation when I found myself with no reading matter and the ‘net was down so I couldn’t load up my Kindle.

I’ve already unloaded as many of Jim’s books as I can, but what remains are orphans of the storm.

I’m sure I could find an adoptive home for them, but they’re all marked up with copious marginalia and underlining – all in Jim’s hallmark red ink and sweetly childlike handwriting.

I will keep a few for sentimental reasons. But most of them gotta go.

I thinned my own book herd a few years back, finally getting rid of moldering paperbacks I’d hung onto since high school. Did I really need to keep a 50 year old paperback that cost sixty-cents to begin with? And is going to cause a sneezing fit if I open it and the pages crumple to dust when I turn them?

Fortunately, my stuff accumulation is not all that extensive, given that our condo is only a bit over 1200 square feet in size, and we’ve thankfully never done the rented storage thing.

But rented storage is a very big thing.

Across the U.S., meanwhile, the number of self-storage warehouses has more than doubled in the last 15 years as Americans have inched closer to grasping our manifest destiny to fill every inch with last year’s styles. There are 48,500 storage facilities in the U.S., making it physically possible, in the somewhat creepy formulation of an industry trade group, for "every American [to] stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing."  (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, that would certainly be a kumbaya moment to end all, would it not? (“Someone’s shopping, Lord. Kumbaya. Oh, Lord, Kumbaya.”)

I learned about the canopy of storage roofing in an article I saw on how new luxury buildings in NYC are selling basement storage cages that are going for upwards of $2,000 per square foot.

Of course, if you’re paying $10 million for an apartment, $300,000 for some storage space is not even frosting on the cake, it’s just sprinkles on the frosting. And you do need someplace to store your old Birkin bags.

Still, to spend that much on storage, you’d have to have something worth storing. No Birkin bags here, I’m afriad, but my worth-its might be the green-stemmed wine glasses (sentimental value), but that Hawaii bowl would definitely have to go.

Monday, June 29, 2015

I shuddle to think what could happen

When I was a growing up, there was precious little need for parents to chauffeur their young kids around.The reasons were pretty simple: there was no place to go that you couldn’t walk to, and nothing to do when you got there, anyway. The only organized activities for grammar school kids were hockey (boys) and Little League (ditto). Although parents would schlepp boys to a 5 a.m. hockey practice, both hockey and Little League were pretty much walkable.

While I was in grammar school, I did take piano lessons, given by the parish organist in the tiny living room of her three decker, conveniently located right next door to our school. Mrs. B. was a widow, and sending your daughters to her for “piano” was considered something of a charity. She charged a buck for a half-hour lesson.

Although I “took” for five years, I never actually learned to play much of anything, probably because I was immune to the charms of practicing, and my parents had better things to do than force the issue.

My friend Bernadette and I arranged our lessons so that we went back to back, the one hanging around on Mrs. B’s living room couch while the other thumped away at some simple minded piece from the Schaum (color-coded) piano course. Forget Für Elise. We mastered Crunchy Flakes, and Wun Long Pan, The Famous Chinese Detective. Mostly we mooned around hoping for a glimpse of one of Mrs. B’s devastatingly handsome teenage sons.

Other than the boys (whom we seldom saw), the best thing about taking from Mrs. B. was that there were no recitals. From the parents’ viewpoint, the best thing – other than it costing a buck – was that you could – ta-da – walk.

Things got a bit trickier in high school, which was way over on the other side of the city, with poor after school hours bus service. Until sisters and friends started getting licenses, we relied on rides from parents if we had to attend an evening function, or if we wanted to go to a mixer at St. John’s.

But this was, of course, a half-century ago, and the times have changed a couple of times since then.

And one of the consistent changes is that kids have more formal things to do, and nothing seems to be within walking distance. (Maybe the walking distance thing is a function of growing up in a city. Maybe suburban Boomer kids had to be ferried places.)
But having those things to do means that kids have more places to go, and parents have to get them there.

What a drag, apparently.

To solve the problem of kids on the go, and over-programmed parents with no time (or maybe it’s interest) in getting them there, we now have Shuddle, a “ride-hailing service designed for children of busy parents,” which recently introduced “an app that lets kids as young as 7 summon a car themselves.”

Shuddle, created by former SideCar co-founder and CFO Nick Allen as a sort of Uber for minors, now has a companion app that lets the kids book the rides. Called ShuddleMe, the app lets any smartphone-equipped kid who doesn’t need a booster seat can schedule their own rides up to an hour ahead of time.

“We’ve actually had parents say that they went out and bought their kids a phone so they can use this service,” Allen told BuzzFeed News. “That’s how big a pain point shuttling kids is.” (Source: Buzzfeed, via my sister Trish, who did her share of shuttling over time).

Lest you think that this will be a case of “kids gone wild”, parents will be kept informed, and will be prompted to okay any ride. Plus, both kids and drivers will have a password to make sure they get in the right car, which should work, because a seven-year old will never forget a password.

Shuddle started out in San Francisco (why are we not surprised), but with a recent funding round of nearly $10M (why are we not surprised), they’ll be expanding.
If I were a parent, I would certainly be wary of this one.
Sure, they check out the drivers, but it seems that it will just be a matter of time before someone slips through the exhaustive background check cracks. And that password? How difficult would it be for a practiced perv to con even the most sophisticated, smartphone using seven year old into thinking that they were the Shuddle person for them.

Older kids, I would imagine, would figure out a way to temporarily take possession of mom or dad’s phone, and order up and okay a day out for themselves.

In addition to the ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ issues, I just find this kind of sad.

Your kid gets into the Uber Shuddle and wants to tell you what happened at soccer, ballet, Tristan and Isabella’s birthday party. Only you’re not there. The hired hand is at the wheel.
Sure, you could Facetime with your little ones, but, hey, if you’ve got time to Facetime, how come you don’t have time to shuddle for yourself?

I’m sure all the constant pick ups and drop offs are a drag. I’m sure that Shuddle looks like a real boon to harried parents. I’m sure it’s easy to get sucked into thoughts of empowering your kids to be independent, smartphone wielding consumers. Aux barricades, digital citoyens. But to me this sounds like something that should be outsourced as a last resort.

Seriously, what’s next?

Wait, I’ve got it, At least some of those Shuddle kids must have boring, pedestrian, icky chores to do. How about an app like TaskRabbit – we could call it TaskBunny – that lets rich kids hire poor kids to do their home tasks for them. Rich kids get to keep most of their allowance, and get empowered to act as mini-capitalists. Poor kids get walking around money. Win-win, I’d say.


Over on her blog (Hello Lampost), my cousin Ellen has an interesting take on the advantages of being one of today’s kids with concrete things to do. Not as in order-up-a-ride-on-Shuddle things to do, rather as in being able to take lessons, explore an interest, master something challenging, etc. – things that weren’t available to us as kids. Although us kids of yesteryear had some compensating balances, there are definitely some advantages to todays approach.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Remind me again how we used to live without ATM cards?

My ATM card is also my debit card, which I pretty much only use it as a debit card for grocery shopping. Until a couple of weeks back, I could have said I only use it for grocery shopping. Then I decided to use it a few times while on my trip to Scotland. I debited dinner a couple of times. I debited my 12 hour bus tour of the Highlands. And, true to my debit-card-for-groceries, I used it for a couple of bags of groceries at Tesco.

While BofA couldn’t tell me, I suspect that it was at one of bonny places that lie over the ocean that my card number was stolen.

Anyway, I got “the call” from BofA security the other day, letting me know that there was suspicious activity, that they were canceling the card, and that I could expect a new one in five to seven business days. Five to seven business days? Say what? I’m one of the old fogies that still uses cash for things like the dry cleaners, for an iced coffee at Dunk’s, for toothpaste at CVS.

You mean I’ll actually have to go into a bank and interact with a teller? Do I even remember how?

Remind me again how we used to live without ATM cards.

One of the great things about being a waitress back in the day was that you always had cash in your pocket. But for most of my pre-ATM life, I blessedly was not a waitress. So, like everyone else, I had to plan out how I was going to make sure I had the cash I needed.

One way was to go into a bank and interact with a teller. You presented your bank book (or wrote a check), made a withdrawal (or cashed your check) and walked away happy. Of course, way back then, banks weren’t open on weekends, so you had to figure out how much cash you were going to require and make sure that you had it.

Weekend cash acquisition occasionally meant foraging, i.e., looking through all the places you tossed your change and scrounging up enough to get by. Major success if you scored an entire roll of quarters. Ten bucks! Hey, big spender…

If you had a check-cashing card with your grocery store, you could pay for your groceries using a check, and add on a cash back amount. I’m not sure whether there was a limit to this amount, but my magic number was $50. Even if you weren’t grocery shopping, as long as you had your check-cashing card, you could get some cash at the customer service desk.

Grocery stores had the major advantage of being open on Saturdays, when banks weren’t.

But mostly we relied on banks.

During the Blizzard of ‘78, the banks were closed for a few days, and when they reopened, there was something of a run on them. I remember that my branch bank had a $50 withdrawal limit when they first got back into business. (Lucky for me, that was still my magic cash number.)

And then, miraculously, there were ATM’s. Anytime, and almost anywhere, there was a machine that spit cash out.

I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember the first time I used an ATM.

The instructions said to make your withdrawal in multiples of five. I found that a bit peculiar, but obediently entered in 55.55. It took me a few minutes to realize that multiples of five meant multiples of five dollars. I got my magic number $50 and left.

Over time, of course, the magic number doubled, then doubled again.

When I take cash out, it’s generally $200. But since my local ATM evilly dispenses hundred-dollar bills, I have been known to trick it into twenties by requesting $180, with a second transaction of $20.

A few days after every withdrawal, I always find myself asking where all the cash went. But, of course, if I have cash, I spend cash. If I don’t, I charge – as long as it’s for a reasonable amount. I don’t get anyone who uses a debit or credit card to by an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts.

For the next week or so, I’ll be a cash conserver.

Sure, I have three BofA branches within an eight minute walk from here, but going to one means having to interact with a teller. How do I do that again?

Maybe I’ll just go and roll some quarters.

The young, cash-less millennials will, of course, not understand how painful it is to be without cash in your pocket.But us ancient, cash and carry Boomers? Despite what you hear about us racking up all sorts of debt, we’re the last great cash dispensers.

As I’m reminded now that I’m living without benefit of an ATM card.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pink Flamingos (Worcester’s Own)

As cultural connoisseurs are well aware, Worcester is something of a touchstone for matters pop-cultural.

One of the things that made me enormously proud as a kid was that Worcester’s rock radio station – WORC – was a guinea pig for trialing new songs. “We” – the WORC-listening, request-making, gum-smacking teens of Worcester – were apparently more capable of figuring out what was going to be hit or not a lot better than those presumably more sophisticated, big city, big-haired Philadelphia teens on Bandstand. We determined what they bopped to.

I first heard about this when “Rhythm of the Falling Rain” by the Cascade’s – one hit wonders if ever – was popular. It made the charts on our say-so.

And the first station to play The Beatles in the US of A? None other than WORC.

By this point, I had already dropped WORC and was pledging allegiance to WBZ in Boston, dumping Dick “The Derby” Smith for “Juicy Brucey” Bradley. But d
espite abandoning Worcester’s own, I was still capable of pride in our rock ‘n roll accomplishment. (WORC  - ‘1310 on your dial’ - now broadcasts “full-time in Spanish with a tropical format” (Wikipedia), while WBZ is all-news. Time and culture march on.)

Rock ‘n roll was not Worcester’s only claim to fame.

Worcester was the birthplace of the smiley face.

I remember wearing one when they first came out, when I was in high school. If I’d only hung on to that early-on pin, I could get rich on eBay. Imagine: I was once in possession of one of the original emojis!

But wait, there’s more…

Worcester was also the birthplace of Donald Featherstone, who designed (invented? discovered?) the pink flamingo. The actual design (invention? discovery?) occurred down the road in Leominster. But Leominster’s part of Worcester County, and Featherstone was from Worcester. So, once again, a cultural triumph for the Heart of the Commonwealth.

In fact, cultural-wise, the pink flamingo – first produced in 1957 – predated The Beatles and the smiley face, which were both from the sixties.

This was in the news yesterday because Featherstone has just died.

Whether derided as tacky or treasured for their kitsch cool, his birds have dotted the cultural landscape — not to mention lawns around the world — ever since.

That design was but one of more than 650 he created, ranging from the perennially top-selling swans to an ostrich Mr. Featherstone liked a lot, even though it never took off. The pink flamingos, however, were always the most memorable.

“We sold people tropical elegance in a box for less than $10,” he told the Chicago Tribune on the birds’ golden anniversary. “Before that, only the wealthy could afford to have bad taste.” (Source: Boston Globe)

And while on the subject of taste, Featherstone and his wife dressed for years in matching outfits, designed by Mrs. F and made of wildly patterned material. (It was difficult enough disposing  of my husband’s ratty old clothing. I don’t envy Mrs. Featherstone’s task of sorting through four wardrobes chocked full of crazy outfits.)

Featherstone didn’t have an easy go of it his last few years. He suffered from something called Lewy’s body dementia, a really dreadful malady. But:

Mr. Featherstone lived long enough to see a Disney movie character named after him — a pink flamingo, of course — in the 2011 film “Gnomeo and Juliet,” about a romance between garden gnomes.

During his last days, a pair of pink flamingos flanked the fireplace in his room at Caldwell, and he slept on sheets of a flamingo hue.

Nice to learn that he died surrounded by his invention.

RIP to another quirky Worcester one-off.



Back when Pink Slip was a dewy-eyed, sweet young thing, I wrote about pink flamingos a couple of times. One of the posts was a general paean to lawn ornaments, written when it was announced that the Union Products Company (which originated and produced them) was going out of business; the other announced a reprieve.  After nearly 10 years, it’s hard not to recycle an occasional topic…

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Inns and Outs of the Center Lovell Inn Brouhaha

A few weeks back, there was a feel-good article in the Boston Globe about a couple from the US Virgin Islands who’d won an essay contest. The entry fee: $125. Their prize: a lovely old Maine inn. The innkeeper’s prize: raising her retirement funds (and handing the inn she’d run for 20+ years off to someone in the same fashion in which she’d originally acquired it: via an essay contest).

[Innkeeper Janice] Sage said she hoped to pass along the Center Lovell Inn to someone who envisioned more than a business attachment. She found that bond in an essay that began: “Twelve years ago, we embarked on the journey of painstakingly converting a dilapidated building into a charming guesthouse and restaurant.” (Source: Boston Globe)

The winners seemed perfect: a forty-something couple with one child, originally from New York, hankering (somewhat unimaginably) to get back to the snow and cold, and with a solid track record running a restaurant.

Errrrrr, not so fast,hollered some of those who had entered the contest but hadn’t won. They’re mightily pissed, and believe that they were led to believe that you didn’t have to have any success in the hospitality biz in order to enter. Any old dreamer would do. To some, awarding the prize to Prince and Rose Adams pretty much proves that the contest was rigged. The dreamed and lost brigade has even set up the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission, which has lodged a complaint with the great State of Maine. As a result, the Maine State Police, who apparently don’t have enough to do handling the opioid crisis and keeping their highways clear of moose, are looking into it.

Exaggeration seems to be something of a hallmark of the group (emphasis mine):

“One of the many allegations against Janice Sage and the contest she sponsored is that the advertising of the contest ... was illegally deceptive and violated consumer-rights regulations, intentionally coercing thousands of people to enter a contest that they never had an actual chance of winning,” said Kelley Prass Collins, who founded the group.(Source: Boston Globe)

“Intentionally coercing”, huh? However baity and switchy the aggrieved contestants may feel, I really don’t’ think that Ms. Sage was standing over any of them, brandishing a frying pan: “Hey, you, you look like you could fresh-squeeze oInn in Mainerange juice and change a bed. Enter my contest or else.”

In similar hyperbolic vein, some of the commenters on the articles I’ve seen throw the “s” word around like it’s going out of style:

Many of us believe that the federal government should be involved because this was a scam of epic proportions that fleeced people from all over the U.S. and some foreign countries.

“Scam of epic proportions”, huh? Whistle in the Feds, fit Janice Sage out for an orange jumpsuit, and ask around and see whether Bernie Madoff’s looking for a roommate.

Seriously, folks…

The other “s” word I’ve seen used by commenters to put Ms. Sage down is “spinster.” As if being an older, single woman should subject someone to derision.

Meanwhile, the Maine staties are just focusing on a point of law that says that the outcomes of games of skill can’t be controlled in any part by the operators. This law was set up to protect carnival-goers from the sorts of shady characters who make sure that no bullet from a pellet gun ever gets near a tin duck.

And speaking of guns, the smoking gun in Sage’s hand seems to be her comment that she knew that the Adams’ entry would be the winner the moment she saw it. There’s also a lot of squawk on the part of the losers that the rules seemed to change along the way. At one point, poems were okay in lieu of essays, then they weren’t. People were allowed to resubmit a refined essay, then they weren’t.

One of the big talking points is that winner Prince Adams had written an e-book on how to use GoFundMe to raise money (one tip: use emotion), which to some seems to show that he’s a manipulating con-man, perhaps even suggesting that he was in cahoots with Sage all along.

There’s also plenty of sky-high dudgeon about the handling of a FB page set up for the contest. Sage and her sister-in-law apparently started deleting the negative comments that started accruing – seriously, who wants to be called a ‘scamming spinster” on their very own Facebook page?

So the aggrieved have set up a page of their own where they can feel – their word – “safe”.

Now I understand why they might want a place where they can rant and disparage to their hearts’ contents, but, come on now, they didn’t feel “safe” on the contests page? (Maybe they lost because the judges didn’t think they were tough enough to run a B&B.)

Maybe this will turn out to have been a scam, with the Adams family and Janice Sage conspiring to make sure that the Adams inn-owning dream came true, all funded by unwitting dupes willing to spill $125 and 200 words worth of their guts for the chance of a lifetime. While not incidentally, funding Sage’s retirement. It would sure end up being a lot more interesting a story if this turns out to be the case.

I’m guessing that what happened is that the judges – however arbitrarily and subjectively – picked the Adams’ entry as one of the top ones, maybe even the absolute winner. After all, they wrote quite sweetly while also demonstrating their chops. I suspect that the judges weren’t necessarily looking for someone who’d run an inn or restaurant. Just someone who’d run something. Nice to be a dreamer with a few good muffin recipes, and all. But I believe the judges were local, and would have wanted someone who could keep the Center Lovell Inn going. Janice Sage may well have weighed in with a “they sound perfect.”

We’ll see.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Ask anyone who grew up in New England what one of their favorite childhood sandwiches was, and I’m guessing that a good two-thirds would name the Fluffernutter. It was certainly one of mine.

Admittedly, I didn’t have the most sophisticated or refined taste at that point in my life.

Other sandwiches on my list back then would have been (in addition to t:he PBJ and the grilled cheese, which remain favorites): American cheese and dill pickle on white bread (no butter, no mayo, no nothing), baloney and dill pickle on white bread (no butter, no mustard, no nothing), and a “bakey”: crisp bacon folded into a slice of white toast oozing melted butter.

And then there was our family specialty sandwich, the Gus, which my brother Tom (a.k.a., Gus) and I invented: bacon, lettuce, cheese, mayo and dill pickle. Still a yummy favorite!

I also liked a tuna sandwich, but only the way my mother made it – big chunks of tuna, celery, lettuce, and onion. And Hellman’s mayonnaise. In third grade, I went to a lunchtime birthday party – a lunchtime party being something of a novelty – and being served a tuna sandwich in which no only was the tuna smashed down to a spread, but there was chopped green pepper in it. Plus there was Miracle Whip rather than Hellman’s. I was totally revolted. Fast forward a few years and I was similarly revolted when someone’s mother added – without asking – tomato to a sandwich. It’s unimaginable to me now, but I wouldn’t eat tomatoes until I was well into my teens.

So while, quite idiotically, I wouldn’t eat a BLT, I was more than happy to wolf down a Fluffernutter: peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on white bread. Some strange folks liked jam on their Fluffernutters (I’m talking about, you, T!), but I was a Fluffpurist.

And it had to be real Marshmallow Fluff, made in Lynn, Massachusetts, and not the execrable faux fluff produced by Kraft.

One of the ways in which I learned to cope with life’s little disappointments was opening up the jar of Fluff, only to find that it had reached the stage when, getting to the bottle of the jar, the remaining Fluff had turned to cement.

Everyone loved Fluffernutters. Including our dog, Grimbald. That is, until he tried one.

One of the stranger things I ever witnessed was seeing Grim snag a Fluffernutter off the plate of one of my brother Tom’s friends. Grim gulped the sandwich down in one bite, but hadn’t counted on the combo of peanut butter and fluff being so sticky that it was clamping the poor dog’s jaws together.

Anyway, my thoughts turned to Fluff (as opposed to fluff, which they do constantly) when I saw an article the other day in the Boston Globe on it.

Since so little is actually made around here (as opposed to thought up, cured, or transacted), we can always expect the odd article on something tangible produced in these parts. One such item is Fluff, going strong for nearly 100 years, brought to us by the Durkee-Mower company, still run by a member of the Durkee family. And whipping up seven million pounds of the stuff each year.

“A lot of people get very, very excited about the whole thing,” [John] Durkee said, shortly after a Globe photographer spotted a pair of apparent Fluff tourists taking pictures of the building. Although the fascination remains a bit of a mystery to him, Durkee said his company recently approved a request by a clothing company to sell T-shirts featuring the Fluff brand at local retailers.

Well, I’m certainly in when that happens.

It’s not a huge business. Just 18 employees who:

work 10-hour days churning up 140-quart batches of Fluff in big, loud Hobart mixers. The finished Fluff is poured through a tube into a filling room, extruded into jars, and packed into boxes by clunking, hissing machines. Some jars are shipped and others stored for the baking season. Later this summer, Durkee said, production will scale up for the school year and the holidays.

Business is steady, and Durkee admits his may be the last generation to run it. As long as they don’t sell out to Kraft! As long as they keep making it in Massachusetts, land of the free and the home of the Fluffernutter.

Haven’t had one in a while, but I feel one coming on soon.

The Globe writer missed a beat, however. Teddie Peanut Butter is also made outside of Boston. Although we were a Peter Pan home when I was was growing up, Teddie’s is the house-brand chez moi. Wonder what it would be like to combine all-natural Teddie’s with all-unnatural Fluff. Might be pretty good… On a couple of pieces of Nashoba Farms sour dough or French, it might actually be a bit healthful…

Monday, June 22, 2015

Not such a grand old flag

My mother once owned a red car. This was at a point in time when Massachusetts only used one license plate, so folks filled in the empty space in the front with something decorative.

My mother’s friend and colleague – a very sweet woman named Inis – found a decorative plate that she thought would work perfectly for my mother’s car: a plate that depicted the Confederate flag. I am quite sure that Inis got this plate for my mother because it was red. As far as I know, Inis had no connection to the South.The same, of course, could be said of my mother.
This was when the Dukes of Hazzard was on, and the dukes drove a car that had the rebel flag painted on its roof.

I suspect that’s why those license plates were on sale in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has never exactly been a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers or the home of slave-owners. Massachusetts was one of the first states to outlaw slavery, and Worcester was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I’m guessing Inis found the plate at Spag’s, picked it up for $1.99, and gave it to her friend Liz (that would be my mother) who had never gotten around to getting her empty plate holder filled in.

My mother plunked the plate in and drove around with it on her car for a while – yee-haw – until, if I recall, one of her kids got her a replacement: a white plate with a rainbow on it. We were embarrassed by the stars and bars plate, but not because it was shorthand for white supremacy or opposition to civil rights. While such associations may have been in the consciousness of some, they weren’t at the forefront of ours back then. Mostly we associated the plate with the Dukes of Hazzard, which was embarrassing enough.

It was not as if our mother were a fan of the show. Hardly. If I were going to pick a show for my mother, it would have been Murder, She Wrote.  My mother loved mysteries and, in fact, resembled Angela Lansbury, who starred in Murder.

Knowing my mother, she was probably a bit embarrassed herself by the association with The Dukes. She would have kept the plate on her car for as long as she did only because she would not have wanted to hurt Inis’ feelings.

If my mother thought for a moment that her license plate was associated with racism, she would have been mortified. She was absolutely one of the least bigoted, least prejudiced people I’ve ever known.

But the association is certainly there now, so it really might be time for those who want to proudly fly the Confederate flag in the name of tradition, to accept the fact that the cause it represents was not an especially noble one, and that the white supremacists and racists have pretty much commandeered it as a symbol. Hanging on to it is kind of like saying that the swastika is a perfectly fine old Sanskrit symbol. Well, yes and no. There may be innocent connotations, but if you wear one on a red armband, guess what, people are going to think you’re a Nazi.

I have to admit that I have no idea what the flag might mean to someone whose great-great-great-grandfather fell at Antietam. And whose great-great-great-grandfather may not have been a slave owner to begin with, but was a shopkeeper or small farmer who just got swept up in “the cause” along with all the other shopkeepers and small farmers. But however folks may want to mask “the cause” as just states rights, when you peel things back, “the cause” was preserving slavery.

Sure, there are plenty of Civil War era monuments in Massachusetts, but I don’t know very many folks whose ancestors were here to fight in that particular war. People fly heritage flags around here, but most of them are the Irish tri-color.

Which reminds me that the Southerners aren’t the only ones with misty-eyed reverence for their overly-romanticized, glorious past. Plenty of American Irish helped fill the coffers of the IRA when they were killing hundreds of completely innnocent civilians – not soldiers, not paramilitary, not coppers. Half the people killed in the Omagh bombing were kids.

Anyway, it might be time for the good people of the South to recognize that the Confederate flag has had its day, and to – at minimum – give up the custom of flying it in public places.

What’s wrong with honoring those who fell with the grand old American flag?

When you really think about it, the Civil War was as American a war as any.

The Confederate flag, whether it’s on a license plate or in front of monument on the state house grounds, has just become too divisive. This is not, at least in my opinion, a case of people being too thin-skinned. Keep flying that flag, and there are an awful lot of people who aren’t going to think about your shopkeeper great-great-great-grandfather. They’re going to think Grand Kleagle and Dylann Storm Roof.

Who wants to be associated with them?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Flying solo: big trip to Edinburgh

Although I wasn’t on my own the entire time, last week’s trip to Scotland – at least the Saturday until Wednesday part of it – was the first vacation I’ve ever taken by myself.

I’ve gone places by myself, but it’s been to visit someone.And I’ve done plenty of business travel by on my own. But this was the first me-myself-and-I vacation I’ve been on. (Other than last August’s over-nighter to Bellows Falls, Vermont, where I was on a mission to inter a tiny bit of my husband’s ashes in his parents’ grave, which really doesn’t count.)

Somethings I liked about it; other things less so.

The flight over was fine. I did what I always did, whether I was with my husband or not: read and dozed, read and dozed. The one thing I missed is the one thing I’ve missed on every flight I’ve taken since Jim died: for some reason, we always held hands on take-off (not landing). I missed that. Sigh.

What I didn’t miss was Jim’s agitation with lines and waiting.

TSA in the States and passport control in the UK were actually both pretty quick, but, in any case, they were easier to get through without my having to listen to Jim pawing and snorting.

The same with the long-wait cab line at Edinburgh Airport. Not that I was thrilled to be standing there in the freezing cold and wind at midnight wondering when the next taxi was going to show, and continually recounting the number of heads ahead of me in line. But compared to what my husband’s reaction would have been, I am a cool-as-a-cucumber Zen goddess.

Another plus of traveling on my own: in my four nights in the hotel, I didn’t bother to turn the TV on once. This feat would not have been possible with Diggy, for whom TV was the backdrop of life. Ah, peace and quiet.

Then there’s the ability to pop into any little tourist site or shop that catches my eye without driving Jim crazy.

Sure, he would have liked eating out in the National Gallery’s very nice restaurant, but he’d have taken a pass on the quick cruise I did through the museum itself.

As for shopping, Jim was the anti-shopper. Other than bookstores – which, given his somewhat esoteric reading interests (economics, statistics, physics, math) were almost always a disappointment, unless we were visiting a university town – and Brookstone-y, Sharper Image-y places where there might be something to dazzle his eye and wallet, my husband could not have cared less about shopping. When it came to clothing, he was purely needs-based. If he needed a new jacket, well, fine, he’d look at jackets. But never once in nearly 40 years did I know him to do the sort of casual grazing that I’m certainly capable of. No impulse purchases for my boy! Sometimes I’d point something out to him and say something like “those shirts look nice.” Inevitably, he’d answer, “But I don’t need anything.” He did not understand the very basic concept that the word need does not enter into a shopper’s vocabulary,

And for anyone who knew my husband, it does without saying that there would have been no 12 hour bus tour of the Highlands. Oh, we might have taken a side trip, but we would have hired a driver, as we had done for a number of jaunts in Ireland, and for a trip from Paris to Normandy.

The downside of traveling solo is that there’s no one to point things out to, to say ‘that reminds me of’ to, to share things with.

And that’s a plenty big downside.

One of the great pleasures of traveling with someone is making observations, and making memories. The older I get, the more I appreciate that one of the more enjoyable aspects of aging is ‘remembering when’, retelling stories, recollecting interesting people and places – and doing so with the person who was with you the first time around. So I won’t have that for my first four days in Edinburgh.

Which is not to say that I won’t be telling stories about my trip to others, or entertaining myself by recalling things that happened. It’s just not the same.

Before this trip, I had not realized just how much of a tourist day can be consumed by figuring out where to eat.

While Jim didn’t like to pop into stores, he loved to pop into restaurants, check out menus, and make a dinner reservation for later in the day.

I looked at an occasional menu posted outside, but by the time I’d seen one or two, I was ready to declare and just go in and eat.

I don’t mind eating out on my own, and I most definitely DID NOT want to give in to the single traveler’s refuge of eating in the room, or dining out book in hand. Other than the one night when I was kind of tired (and grabbed a sandwich and pear at Pret a Manger and ate back in my room), I went out for all my meals, ordered a glass of wine with dinner, and sat there observing. Oh, at the first place I ate, I did feel compelled to tell the waitress – a very pleasant young woman from Hungary – that I was there by myself because my husband was dead. (Just wanted her to know that I wasn’t some sort of loveless weirdo…) But mostly it was enjoyable enough to sit there and take things in. Not that I lingered in any one place, but I didn’t do a gulp and go, either.

Still, going out to eat is more fun when you’re with someone else. I missed sticking my fork in Jim’s plate to grab a bite of what he was having – and I missed having him stick a fork mine.

On Wednesday, I met up with my sister Trish, her husband John, my niece Molly and Molly’s friend Julia. They had taken the Queen Mary over and flown up from Southampton. We all stayed together in a spacious and modern apartment that John had found online, had fun being tourists, shared some nice meals out, and ended each day watching goofy TV shows and drinking wine.

I’m something of a loner by nature. I like being by myself, draw strength by having a lot of quiet time and white space in my life, and am comfortable being a fairly well compensated introvert.

So flying solo doesn’t freak me out. I can definitely see myself heading off again on my own. There are places that I want to see, and I won’t necessarily have anyone I know who wants to see them with me.

I enjoyed the entire trip: the together bits and the alone bits. Certainly, I missed Jim plenty of the time, but things were fine.

As my cousin MB (also a widow) told me after Jim died. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be good. It’ll just be different.”


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Shopping Spree? Nah really…

I’ve never been all that big on shopping while traveling. If a place is new, I like to get a Christmas ornament. And/or some little tourist site print. I do like to look at things, so I’ll nose about. But somehow, there’s seldom anything that leaps out screaming “buy me, buy me.” Maybe it’s because, in this day and age, you can pretty much get anything (other than Christmas ornaments and little prints being peddled by side walk artists) anywhere. So what’s the big deal?

Edinburgh was no different than any other tourist mecca I’ve ?been to. Oodles of really schlocky crap: fridge magnets, key chains, shot glasses, snow globes, mugs, tee-shirts, stuffed toys…The themes change from country to country, so there was, of course, a lot of Loch Ness monster, sheep, kilt and bagpipe stuff. And plenty of junk featuring the darling long-haired Highland cattle (coos).

It was, in fact, a darling long-haired coo Christmas ornament that almost got my wallet out when we were in the gift store at Edinburgh Castle. But at ten pounds – $16 – it seemed a tad expensive. I (incorrectly) figured that I would see plenty of other equally darling Christmas ornaments once we hit one of the many gift/souvenir shops on the Royal Mile (the main tourist shopping drag).

The gift store at the Castle was actually quite nice, but this was the first shop we’d stopped in, and no one was ready to declare quite yet.

One funny thing did occur there.

I overheard a clerk telling a patron that earlier in the day, “a stupid American” had purchased some dog treats thinking that they were for human consumption. “Stupid American!” I gave the clerk the stink eye, and I think she was afraid that I might rat her out, as she hustled over to me and went over-sweet, over-solicitous on me. (By the way, honey, those dog treats weren’t all that clearly marked. Forget “stupid American.” If some tourist had broken a tooth on one of those treats, you’d be hearing from a “litigious American.”)

There were plenty of dog treats around, as the UK is a dog lover’s paradise.

One dog-related gift we came across was a Harris Tweed pouch that held poop bags. Cute but way pricey.

Harris Tweed everything is at the higher end of the tourist marketplace. In addition to the jackets and caps, there were very nice slippers and very, very nice bags. But I figured I could make do with my trusty old L.L. Bean mocs and, while I know that the word need should never factor into the shopper’s vocabulary, so I really need another bag?

Well, you never have enough bags, but I still gave the bags a pass. I figured if I had a change of heart, there might well be a store at the airport where I could pick one up.

Alongside Harris Tweed, other good goods include wool – cashmere and lambs wool.

Lots of sweaters and sweater sets that would put you right at home with Queen E on a weekend visit to Balmoral. Throw on a Barbour jacket and a pair of Wellies, and you’d be all set to head of with the royals and stalk grouse, or whatever it is that they do when they’re on vakay.

Lots of scarves, too. And no end to the choice of plaids available, many just beautiful, many I’d never seen before. I considered buying myself a scarf, but I need another scarf about as much as I need another bag. I did spring for one for a Christmas gift.

As we swung in and out of the shops on the Royal Mile, everything started to look alike. Many of the shops carried identical goods.

Those Harris Tweed slippers that were novel in Store A where ‘oh, no, not those again’ by Store D.

As for the schlock shops, seen one, seen ‘em all, so after one, we pretty much took a pass.

We also didn’t look at the kilt stores, where you can kit yourself out in full formal regalia, which I guess is de rigueur for high end Scots. (Like a tux, you can also rent kilt kit for formal occasions.) If you want to go really seedy low-end on the kilts, there are very cheesy polyester numbers, including skimpy naughty lass ones.

If you’d rather eat than wear your Edinburgh souvenirs, there were plenty of places where you could buy Walker shortbread and other sweet stuff. Plus cans of Haggis. (By the way, I did try it. It just tasted like spicy fried dough. You couldn’t taste the offal at all. Which was a good thing. It was fine. I’m glad I took a go at it. But I wouldn’t run out and buy a can of it.)

The store we liked the best was a shop called Ness, a nice Scotland-based chain with nice, reasonably priced, interesting clothing and accessories. We broke a bit of ground there, with my sister, my niece and I all getting a little something.

But, for me, the Edinburgh shopping experience was mostly a desultory one.

Part of it is age. The older you get, the less you want anything, and you’re just as interested in de-accessioning as your are in acquiring.

I do have a bit of buyer’s remorse, however. I wish I hadn’t cheaped out and had gotten that Highland coo Christmas ornament.

Och, what was I thinking?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

St. Giles Cathedral. (“His life was lovely and pleasant and he died in glory.”)

One of the most enjoyable bits of my trip to Edinburgh was the hour or so I spent wandering around St. Giles, the Church of Scotland’s mother church.

Overall, the kirk looked a bit papist – all that stained glass, all those vigil lights - so I thought that the Church of Scotland, like the Church of Ireland, would have been Anglican. But it’s Presbyterian, the official religion of Scotland. John Knox, in fact, is buried under the parking lot. (Paved paradise, put up a parking lot?)

In addition to all the religious “stuff”, there were all sorts of interesting things to see.

One was a monument to Edinburgh-native Robert Louis Stevenson. (As I said the other day about Walter Scott, there’s something about a country that venerates its writers.)

There’s also a  plaque exhorting us to “Thank God for James Young Simpson’s discovery or chloroform anesthesia in 1847.” Well, the people of Scotland certainly did. When Simpson died, 100,000 people lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege pass by. (Thank you, wikipedia.) There’s something about a country that venerates its scientists… Not that we don’t. In fact, there’s a monument in the Boston Public Garden commemorating the use of ether as an anesthesia, first done at Mass General in 1846.

Ether. Chloroform. Whatever. Today, when I head over to MGH for a routine colonoscopy, I will be completely thankful for anesthesia.

St. Giles also asks us to “Remember Wellesley Bailey, founder of the Leprosy Mission.” As it turns out, St. Giles is the patron saint of lepers, so a plaque in Bailey’s honor is quite appropriate. Meanwhile, when I googled “remember Wellesley Bailey”, one of the links that came up was “remember the Bailey’s in Wellesley?” Well, I don’t remember the Bailey’s – a local ice cream parlor chain – in Wellesley, but I do remember the one in downtown Boston and, oddly enough, was talking about it just the other day. Bailey’s was known for sundaes that dripped ice cream and sauce onto the aluminum plate that the sundae dish was placed on. This was to distinguish it from sundaes from Brigham’s and Friendly’s, which were not so overflowing that they needed a receptacle placed beneath them. Wellesley Bailey, on the other hand, is remembered for leprosy.

Also in St. Giles is the Thistle Chapel, a side chapel – and relatively recent edition – to the main Cathedral event. This chapel honors the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s royal chivalric order. The Thistle Chapel is incredibly quirky, as befits a place dedicated to knighthood. The walls are covered with intricately carved plaques depicting the crest of each line of knights. Plus there are all kinds of heraldic carvings and folderol, including something to do with pelicans.

The Queen was there just last year, I guess to dub some new Scots knight. I missed part of the tour, having gotten there a few minutes late for its departure, but I think that’s what was being said. You can only see the Thistle Chapel by tour, grubby tourist thieves having made off with some of the knights’ crests.

To me, the most moving part of St. Giles was all the plaques dedicated to the memories of local lads who’d served in one of the British Empire’s many wars.

Francis Aylmer Maxwell died in Ypres in 1917, “a gallant soldier and very perfect gentleman beloved by all his men.” A very perfect gentleman…This sounds so quaint and ridiculous, doesn’t it? And what can it possibly mean? Whether he was a perfect gentleman or not, he was apparently enough of a gallant soldier that he won the Victoria Cross (British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor) during the Boer War. And, although he was a brigadier general and could have stayed in relative safety behind the lines, Maxwell stepped into the action on the front and was shot and killed by a German sniper. Maybe he actually was beloved by all his men. This was no case of “his guts, our blood,” that’s for sure.

I have mixed feelings about all of these monuments to soldiers – and Scotland is chock full of them. On the one hand, if you go and die for your country you deserve to be commemorated. It’s the least we can do. (No, actually, the least we can do is buy a yellow ribbon bumper sticker.) On the other hand, there’s so much romanticization of war, it’s no wonder that young men are drawn to it. (And young women are drawn to the young men who are drawn to it. And so it goes.)

But what was Ypres, where Maxwell fell, really like? Mud, rats, trench foot, filth, blood, guts, body parts. Insane charges over the top of the trench in which our guys were mowed down by their guys, while their guys were mowed down by our guys. Sigh…

Anyway, to me the most poignant monument in St. Giles was to Neil Primrose, killed in Palestine in 1917.

"This tablet is erected by his proud and afflicted father. His life was lovely and pleasant, and he died in glory.”

Well, if Francis Aylmer Maxwell could have been a “perfect gentleman,” then I hope that Neil Primrose’s life was, indeed “lovely and pleasant.” And good that this proud father believed that he “died in glory.”

Hard not imagine that it was just another senseless slaughter of a young man.

Lots to see and think about at St. Giles Cathedral, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Loch Ness Monster. (Speed, bonny bus.)

As charming as Edinburgh is, I didn’t want to fully exhaust its charms before my sister and her crew arrived. So I booked a bus tour of the Highlands. At twelve-hours in length, it was billed as “the longest one-day bus tour in Europe.” Not that this was exactly a come-on to me. It’s just that the shorter one-day tours – one to Loch Lomond, one to St. Andrew’s – were both booked. So…

I figured that, on a 15-seat tour bus, I would find a couple of fellow American (or Canadian or English or Irish or Australian or New Zealander) tourists to chat with, but my bus turned out to have a combo of Chinese and Japanese tourists. And me.

The tour guide, Steve, was a gabber with an odd vocal tick: he added an “ay” to every sentence. Perhaps it’s the Scot’s version of “um.” He also used the descriptor “sexy” to describe everything about Scotland, and everything we were seeing. He also told the most outrageously corn-ball jokes, and I was the only one who appeared to get them. After listening to him for about 15 minutes, I was thinking that this was going to be one 12-hour nightmare, when Steve announced that he was not going to be talking all the time, but would only narrate when there was something to see and/or when we were nearing a point of interest. I was sitting in back of Steve, and, when he made this announcement I patted him on the shoulder and whispered ‘bless you.’

On the way to the Highlands, we made a stop at the small town of Callendar, one of the many stops we made so that everyone could stretch their legs and use the toilet. (This tour company certainly knows their middle aged tourists.) I would have liked a cup of tea, but it’s actually unwise to take a diuretic when getting on a bus that doesn’t have a toilet on it. And I’d already had a breakfast pastry – not the scone I wanted, which the tea shop I’d gone into at town didn’t seem to offer – but a date square. When I ordered it, a couple of tea shop workers exchanged a glance. (Was it a dog treat?) Anyway, it was fine, but I didn’t need anything else.

As it turned out, the very nice Japanese lady sitting across the aisle had gotten scones and shortbread for her party of four (husband and two granddaughters, I’m guessing), and offered me a piece of her nice warm scone and a shortbread cookie. Very nice.

The Highlands were gorgeous, and I actually enjoyed Steve’s narration on the great battles of Scotland’s history, although keeping track of all the Jameses confused me a bit. Ay. Since I knew next to nothing about Scotland’s history, other than a few words of “Over the Sea to Skye” ab
20150608_111305out the boat speeding Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety, it was all new and interesting. Especially the part about the massacre of the MacDonalds at the hands of the Campbells. (I would NOT have wanted to be someone named Campbell on that tour. Perhaps they tone it down when that happens.)

If I didn’t know anything about Scotland’s history, I didn’t know much about its geography/geology either. So it was interesting to be reminded that we all used to be just one big plot of land, and that the mountains of the Highlands are same-same as the Appalachians. Which explains why the Scots-Irish found themselves so at home there.

The theoretical highlight of the trip was a long stop in Port Augustus, which is on Loch Ness.

I opted to take a one-hour cruise of the Loch, which was quite informative. Don’t want to burst any bubbles here, but other than St. Columba’s mythic ramblings about rasslin’ with monsters – some of which took place in Loch Ness – there really weren’t many reported sightings of any monsters until the 1930’s, when the first real roads were put in in the area. Once the number of visitors started to increase, so did claims of seeing a monster. Right now, the scientific explanation is that what people have actually seen are exceedingly large sturgeons, which can live over 200 years and grow to enormous size.

Maybe someday the Loch will be fully mapped, but for now it’s way too deep. As for draining it, it’s way to long, way too wide, and way too deep. If drained, if I got this correct, the entire population of the world would fit in the empty tub. With room to spare.

Anyway, the mega-sturgeon sounds as good as any.

Because I was the only fluent English speaker on the tour, I had a few rest stop chats with Steve and with his driver, a charming recent university grad named Gordon who was the spit and image of Prince William. (Should have taken a picture of him!) Although his mother is American, Gordon is a native Gaelic (pronounced Gall-ach) speaker, so we talked about my attempts to learn Irish Gaelic (pronounced Gay-lig-ah). Although the words look the same, the dialects are entirely different, so I wasn’t able to understand a thing he was saying. Not that I would have been, anyway. I did point out some words on signs that I recognized and told him how they were pronounced in Ireland. But Gall-ach or Gay-lig-ah, this is one impenetrable language.

We made a few stops on the way back – another quaint town, a big monument to commandoes who’d trained in the Highlands – and everyone got a bit of a doze in. (In truth, everyone got a bit of a dose in on the way up as well.)

By the 11th hour, I was singing, “Speed, bonny bus…over the road to Edinburgh…”) to myself. So I was happy to get back “home” (and fortunate that the pick up and drop off was just across the street from my hotel).

Don’t know whether I’d be in a hurry for a 12-hour tour again, but – ay - a day well spent!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sunday in Edinburgh

I spent last week vacationing in Scotland, mostly in Edinburgh. I had been there once before, 40+ years ago, and it had not been on my “must return” places. On that list were Ireland, Paris, and Yugoslavia (as thus it was at the time).

Well, I’ve made good on Ireland about 15 or 20 times. I’ve been back to Paris five or six times. And Yugoslavia – or at least the Dubrovnik piece of it – is on my bucket list.

Scotland was not.

I remembered little of my first time there.

I remembered that Edinburgh was gloomy – dark, dank, rainy, chilly – and that the Castle loomed over the city. I’m sure we stayed in a cheap B&B (we had not yet started hosteling), but I truly have no recall of what my friend Joyce and I did there – not in the same way as I remember other stops in the UK: London, Bath, Lakes Country, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Holyhead (where we caught the night boat to Ireland) - places where I have vivid recollections of what the scenery was like, what touristy things we did, where we stayed, what we ate, people we met.

Other than a mental snapshot of Edinburgh Castle – postcard-clarity recall of that, by the way – I remember nothing else. Maybe we were just passing through. I have firmer memories of Fort William – up the in Highlands. Not far from Fort William, Joyce and I were picked up by a couple of British soldiers, perhaps commandoes, given who I now know trained in this area, and driven (against their orders, it almost goes without saying) to Kyle of Lochalsh, where we took the ferry to Skye, and stayed in a quite nice B&B.

Our other stop in Scotland was a hostel overlooking Loch Lomond, which was quite lovely. The hostel was an old country estate that, during WWII, had been used as a billet for the RAF. Some of the rooms still had the name of the flight lieutenant who’d lived there over the door.

Anyway, I went to Edinburgh because my sister Trish and her family were heading there for a few days after their sale on the Queen Mary. I decided to come over a few days before their arrival and get a bit of solo vacation in before meeting up with them.

My first decision was quite wise: there was a day flight, and I was able to take that. Needless to say, the day flight wasn’t to Edinburgh; it required a layover in Heathrow, putting me in Edinburgh at 11 p.m. And, given the dearth of taxis at the airport at that time, into my hotel by midnight.

I’ve only taken the day flight across the pond once before, and it’s absolutely the best way to avoid jet lag. Too bad there are so few of them.

Lack of jet lag made my first day in Edinburgh a good one.

I was staying at a hotel downtown, a close walk to all the sights.

First up: a monument to Walter Scott.

Say what you might about Walter Scott as a writer – and all I can say I is that I read Ivanhoe freshman year in high school and found it excruciatingly boring - you have to like a country the puts up a major monument to a favorite writer. Even if the monument looks like this. Scott MemorialActually, a lot of monuments in Edinburgh look like this: dark and gloomy. Then again, many of the monuments are dedicated to those who lost their lives in one of many wars. One even included a remembrance of those lost in the War of 1812, where I believe they were on the wrong side.

The Scott monument sits next to a lovely park, the Princes Street Gardens, which are in full rhododendron bloom. And, fortunately, the weather this week – at least by Scot’s standards – is prime.

When I walked out on Sunday, if was sunny but cool (low 50’s) and blustery. I had on a sweater, scarf, and jacket and felt comfortable. Many of the natives were out and about in summer dresses and sandals. I commented to one woman that she was very brave and she replied, “Oh, I just want to take advantage of this gorgeous summer weather.” Later, when I stepped in out of the bluster to have a gelato for myself, the girl at the counter was kvelling (or the Edinburgh equivalent) about how great it was now that summer had arrived.

After my amble in the park, I climbed up about 200 steps, give or take, to get to Old Town, where Edinburgh Castle sits. I walked up to the Castle, but decided that it would be more fun to wait and explore with Trish and family. So I just meandered around Old Town, which was quite crowded on a pleasant “summer” Sunday, and found myself in St. Giles Cathedral –more on that in a later post. A most excellent stop.

My sister Kath had mentioned an article she’d seen on Stockbridge, the Beacon Hill of Edinburgh, so I legged it over there. Quite a nice walk, past more gardens. What struck me there (and elsewhere in Edinburgh) was how many of the stores were second-hand shops run for the benefit of some charity or another: lung, cancer, Oxfam. Far more than you’d ever see in the States anywhere. We do have second hand shops on the Hill, but they’re antique stores or second hand clothing places that are run for the moi charity. One of the shops I saw had a sign that read “What’s given in Scotland, stays in Scotland.” I wouldn’t say that nationalist fervor runs high, but Scotland’s flag – the blue and white saltire – flies proud in most places.

After getting lost once, and only once, I was directed back toward my hotel by a very nice gentleman who noticed me standing dumbstruck on a corner trying to map where I was standing to what was on my map. I’m glad he came over to me. Some of the streets weren’t marked, and I was about the head in the wrong direction.

My overall impression of Edinburgh was that it – not surprisingly– reminded me a lot of cities in Ireland. Not surprising, what with geography and all that, plus given that many of the main buildings (government, bank, and grande dame hotel – the Balmoral) were built out during the Victorian era. Edinburgh is, also not surprising, has a lot more Rule Brittania-style monuments. It’s also darker (more blackish-brown than gray) than Irish cities. And less boisterous, noisy and chaotic. The locals are not the jaywalkers the Irish are either, and stand on corners for what seems an inordinately un-pedestrian friendly amount of time waiting for a walk sign.

That the Scots are more decorous than the Irish is no surprise. Although they are in Scotland, they are also veddy British.

The first time I traveled to Europe, I was struck by how neatly the Brits queued up for buses, how politely they waited their turn at things, how quietly they spoke in shops. When we got off the boat from Wales and landed at Dun Laoghaire outside of Dublin, Joyce and I felt a bit more at home: folks were jostling to get out of the rain and on to a bus, and one old lady was prodding slow-movers in the arse with her umbrella.

Nice dinner to end Sunday in Edinburgh. I decided for the salmon and against haggis, but will try this delight (which involves sheep gut, offal and oats) before I leave. I’m hoping Trish, John, Molly and Julia will share a portion with me. Five forks in will be better than one!

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Pros and Cons of a Surface Pro 3

I wasn’t planning on replacing my no-longer-so-trusty laptop the same month as I forked over big bucks for a fancy new smartphone. But there I was with my no-longer-so-trusty laptop doing the stall and crawl all over the place. Between the clients, the Pink Slip, and the bit of volunteer work I’m doing, I really can’t be without, so…

I had already decided on a Surface Pro 3, the combo tablet and laptop that would bring me into the tablet world (ooh, aah) and could also double as my workhorse. Two trusted technology advisors – my brother-in-law John and my old friend Peter – both have Surface Pros and like them. (Like me, they’re both pretty much non-Apple folks. Hell, John used to be anti-Microsoft, even. He was the last person I knew who actually used OS/2.)

A couple of weeks into it, here’s my take on the Pros and Cons:

It’s cool looking. I really like the overall look, and I really like looking technology current. A lot of my clients are really young, and not lugging around a laptop anvil makes me appear a bit more on trend. (Of course, the biggest favor I did myself there was getting rid of the Blackberry. As I’ve said, it had gotten to be one step above a Bakelite rotary dial.)

It’s lightweight. Seriously, it doesn’t weigh all that much more than my new smarty-smartphone. It fits in a pocketbook, and it’s easy to use on a plane, even if the person in the seat in front of you has his seat reclined further back that you might have thought was physically possible. (Of course, since pretty much everything in life is a tradeoff, the tradeoff for featherweight is that the keyboard feels a bit tinny. But it’s worth it.)

It’s a bird, it’s a plane. Although I’ve pretty much just used my Pro in full PC mode, the keyboard detaches and turns this into a nifty little tablet. Not that I really care to have a tablet, mind you. It’s just that now I do. And being as it’s a tablet, it has those fun tablet characteristics, like swooping around with your finger. And it comes with a pen that, once I get used to it, will make up for one of the major cons: cursor and mouse instability.

The mouse plays cat and mouse. I’ve gone through pretty much all the techniques available that are supposed to solve the mystery of the disappearing mouse, but the mouse is just wild. Completely erratic and all over the surface. I set it up so it’s large and black, but in order for you to see that it’s large and black, it has to be visible. But now you see it, now you don’t. I set things up so that, when the mouse goes missing, I just need to hit the Ctrl key to show me where it is. The problem is that it’s invariably hiding in the upper-left hand corner. It’s coaxing it out of its hidey hole that’s the problem. The cursor is similarly flaky, at least when using Live Writer (the application I blog with). You think you’re at Point A and start typing, but you’re really at Point B. I think that once I get a better handle on using it,the pen will prove mightier than the mouse. We’ll see. (I did buy an optional external mouse, which is Bluetooth. It’s not working at the moment…)

It runs hot (and makes a whirring noise while it’s at it). From what I’ve read, this is either a problem that goes away with time, or it’s a problem related to a certain batch of the devices. I have until the end of June to get a new one, so we’ll see if it’s still running hot at that point. If it is, I’ll make sure they don’t replace it with another one from the bad lot. (When the hot stuff goes away, it will take the whirring fan with it.)

Too many tiles. I’m sure I can figure out how to rid the screen of at least some of these suckers, but for now they’re there, and I’m just not liking them. Too much look and feel for my tastes. Then again, I’d be just as happy to run apps from the command line. (Don’t tell any of my young clients about it. They won’t even know what the command line is.)

It ain’t cheap. I knew going into things that I was not going to end up paying the get-you-in-the-door price. Still, I was a bit sticker-shocked. (Probably good practice for my upcoming reno projects.) The one thing I ended up cheaping out on is the carrying case. I could have sprung for the cool Kate Spade one – which is what I did for my new Galaxy 6S – but that just seemed like a waste, when there were perfectly good options included in the package that I bought. So I chose one which looks like the portfolio that the Bulgarian Minister of Agriculture would have carried in 1982. Sigh… But I just can’t go back and get the Kate Spade. Not until I find out how much the tiles I’ll be putting in my renewed bathrooms are going to run me.

The Bottom Line
I’m happy with my Surface Pro 3, and would do it again. (This assumes that there aren’t flames coming out of it the day after the 30 day on-the-spot replacement period ends…)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Quantified Self? As for myself, I much prefer the Qualified Self. Or just the plain old self.

Years – make that decades – ago, when I worked at the long-defunct First National Bank of Boston, there was a typing pool which, I believe, was monitored for output. At least that’s how I remember things. This was, of course, well before computers were widely used in the workplace, and the computers that were used were impersonal. They were honking mainframes that did batch whatever in the background, or honking mainframes that were accessed via dumb terminals to take advantage of processing through something called time-sharing. (It used to mean you got to use a slice of a big computer, not a slice of a vacation-land condo.) The first time I used time-sharing was to log onto Data Resources International’s system to print out some economic data. While I was grabbing that data, the system crashed, and I thought that I had caused it. Well, I sure lived and learned.

Given the state-of-the-art at that point, I don’t know quite how the “girls” in the bank’s typing pool were being monitored. Maybe they just had to hand in their work at the end of the day, and someone counted up lines typed or whatever. But I do seem to remember some sort of computer-based or mechanical monitoring. (They probably used IBM Selectrics with memory carrels. Could this have done it?)

I did have first hand experience with my personal productivity being monitored, but that was back when I spent a summer working in a shoe factory. For each pair (or maybe it was rack) of shoes or boots we worked on, we clipped a coupon – pronounced “kew-pon” – and put it in our coupon book. At the end of the week, the foreman collected these books, and those who exceeded the baseline piecework rate got paid extra based on how much they did. When someone first explained piecework to me, I thought that we got paid  for each coupon clipped on top of our wage of $1.40 an hour – which, even in 1967 was pretty grim. Would that life were so easy…

When I found out that you wouldn’t make any more unless you surpassed the baseline, I set a goal of doing so. So I turned on the jets and, during one exhausting day, actually got past the minimum daily requirement. I think it translated into about twenty-five sense in my next paycheck. Not worth the agita and exhaustion. (It probably didn’t help that plenty of the shoes I worked on were rejected, which meant no piecework coupon for you. One of my tasks was putting shoe polish over the raw, unfinished seams of combat boots. Invariably, some of the polish dripped down into the unfinished, whitish uppers of the boots. The boots were still fully functional, but they looked messy. I don’t know if Uncle Sam ever turned away any of my boots, or whether some poor grunts in Vietnam took one look at the boots they’d been issued and said ‘who the f made these?’ By the way, while I was working in the shoe factory, my friend Marie had a swell job in the office of a factory that made M16’s. This was a) when physical goods were made in Worcester; b) pre-Vietnam War consciousness on our parts.)

These days, when everything, anything, and everybody can be weighed and found wanting by technology, companies are starting to take a look at where their employees are spending their time. This has been going on for a while with customer support representatives, who are measured for how long they spend on a call, whether the problem was resolved, whether there was any upsell, etc. And they’re used to being spied on – “This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes…”

Other personnel are also tracked. Think UPS and FedEx.

Now this employee monitoring is landing on the desks and desktops of other white-collar workers, and one of the ways it’s getting done is via an application from Sapience called Buddy.

Buddy is supposedly an “exclusively personal” tool, with managers only able to see macro level data.

But would you trust a company that says:

Sapience sources work effort and patterns in a highly automated manner with virtually no manual intervention. It is designed to promote the concept of a 'Mindful Enterprise™. (Source: Sapience)

And a product (the charmingly named “Buddy”) that’s described as an application that “guides” employees “towards Personal Excellence and Work-Life Harmony.”

Sounds a tad bit “Great Leap Forward” and let’s all swim in the Yangtze with Mao to me.

I read about Buddy in an article on Buzzfeed, which was sent to me by my sister Trish, who keeps an especially keen eye out for workplace horrors. (As long as your company is not yet monitoring where you cruise to, you’d might enjoy reading what writer Caroline Donovan has to say about things.)

Sapience monitors the applications employees use, the web sites they visit, and how much time they spend on line. Companies already do some of this – that’s how they manage to nab Fred for spending half his day on porn sites – but there’s something a bit insidious about Sapience trying to suck in employees on improving their personal productivity as a way to get them to be happy about giving over yet more of their privacy and selves to “the man.”

In truth, managers pretty much know who’s productive and who’s not, and they don’t need Buddy to tell them so.

Sooner or later, of course, everything we do will be quantified.

Maybe they’ll be replacing the national anthem with “Every Breath You Take.”

In case you’ve forgotten the words and music, here’s a link to this great Police hit.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

“Love” for sale

In the beginning, idols gave autographs. And it was good. At least if you wanted an idol’s autograph. But an autograph, an impersonal touch of the flesh as the idol moves along the rope line…These were for pedestrian, every day, run-of-the-mill fans. Not quite enough for those with the money to buy the kind of experience they want. And fortunately for these superfans, there are plenty of idols out there willing to sell ‘em what they want.

You can share a backstage moment – and here’s betting that such a moment has a stop watch on it – with Maria Carey for $3K. Lady Gaga did a recent group event. Fans paid $1,350 to listen to her talk for 40 minutes, then got an assembly-line handshake and picture take. Kind of like sitting on Santa Claus’ lap. It seems personal while you’re perched on his knee, but there’s someone in an elf costumer moving the line along. But $1.3fK and $3K are just the tip of the love-for-sale iceberg:

The burgeoning business in celebrities selling themselves as much as their talent has been a boon to such companies as XM Concierge. For $20,000 to $150,000, Simon David and his team at XM have helped clients secure elite meet-and-greets with celebrities, as well as private meetings before concerts and performances at weddings and bar mitzvahs. How would you like to spend a few hours roller-coastering at Disneyland together, or grabbing a cup of coffee on your way to work, like old pals—or even taking a trip to Mister Softee with them before taking a leisurely stroll around Manhattan?…

Music promoter Deborah Brosseau estimates that around 60 percent of her projects have added a profit-based, ticketed meet-and-greet component in the last five years or so. “Now that label and book deals are so skewed, in-person events are a stronger income stream, and any VIP packaging is more money for everyone,” she says. “It used to be that you could get a picture with someone as a trade-off for your fandom, but now there are no freebies.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Hey, if you’re an idol, everyone wants a piece of you. Why not make ‘em pay for it.

And, since these idols are performers, they’re pretty darned capable of convincing you that they’re really making a connection, that the real you is meeting the real them.

It’s really difficult for me to imagine any performer with whom I’d like to share a Mister Softee. George Clooney maybe? But the whole time I’d be thinking “This guy’s an actor. He knows I’ve paid for the pleasure of meeting him. I know that he knows. He’s probably thinking ‘how pathetic is this broad that she’d pay big bucks to have a Mister Softee with me.’ And I don’t even like Mister Softee. So the whole thing’s a waste.”

I don’t know if George Clooney even does this sort of thing. Probably too busy trying to figure out how much his gorgeous new wife is spending on clothing. But, of course, those expenses suggest that he might have the need to sell a bit of himself off. He can be off charging some schlump $20K to have a Mister Softee with him while the little woman is off buying a $20K pocketbook. On the other hand, George is an actor and, unlike their brethren in the music biz, actors (at least those of the stature of GC) haven’t yet had their money-making opportunities cut into by technology. You can download a song, rather than the album. Or you can pirate the album. Sure, you can pirate a movie, too, but no one’s going to download a single scene. Anyway, as the music business has taken a hit, more musicians are opting for the free money. On the list (by no means exhaustive) are Madonna and Ed Sheeran,

I suppose if I had to pick a musician, I’d go with Bruce Springsteen. But I would no doubt feel the same way about a paid visit with Bruce as I would about one with George. I’d know that he knew that I knew that he knew. And I’d really feel ridiculous paying to spend time with someone who could just as easily have been sitting across the aisle from me in eighth grade if I’d grown up in NJ rather than in Worcester. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with my close (and free) encounter with Bruce’s drummer, who I ran into at the corner drugstore when Bruce and the boys were in Boston a couple of years back for a couple of concerts at Fenway. (Great concert, by the way.) Anyway, while waiting to pick up my husband’s prescription, I had a mini-chat about old-fashioned drug stores with a guy who looked familiar. It was only after he left the store that I realized it was Max…

Bruce and George would probably be the type that sold themselves on behalf of a charity, which is a bit nobler than the moi-charity grab and go. (The company that sets you up with charity-focused celebs is BidKind. The one person named here was Carrie Underwood who brought a brother and sister to near tears, and convinced them that she would have liked nothing mor3e in the world than to “continue chatting” with them,)

I did go over to look at XM Concierge, to check out what kind of experiences are on offer.
In addition to celebrity meet-and-greets, they’ll get you into a splashy fashion show, make sure you’re the guest in the talk show audience who gets to ask a question - “connecting you to the crème de la crème of entertainment experiences,” and making sure you have “your moment to shine.” They’ll even rehearse you so that you don’t flub your big moment.

Not for me, I’m afraid. A random free encounter with a celeb is one thing – I was once on a flight with Kurt Russell: we did not speak – but to pay for the experience? Yowza.

Anyway, even if I wanted to madly meet some celeb, I’m about to start a big home reno project, which is where all my extra $$$ will be going. But wouldn’t it be fun to have Martha Stewart come help me pick out a backsplash? Wonder what she’d charge?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Something about this just isn’t right

Even though we get enough of them that they should be no big deal, big storms in the Boston area are always big news. And you can be guaranteed that each big storm will have a reported on the beach in Plum Island on the North Shore, and Scituate on the South Shore. That’s because every big storm is pretty much guaranteed to completely wipe out at least one home on Plum Island, and partially crush at least one home in Scituate.

I do feel bad for the folks that live in either of these places, or in any of the other storm-battered shoreline communities of Massachusetts. Many of the waterfront homes have been there forever, many in the same family for all that time. Tough to see your cottage floating out to sea: all those mildewed cushions that Great-Great Aunt Ethel made in 1922, the tennis trophy your father won in 1947, the bathroom papered with New Yorker covers from the 1960’s, all those mismatched Melmac plates.

Of course, many of those beachfront “cottages” have swanked up over time. So when one of them tumbles into the drink, it’s a lot more expensive to replace. But, what the heck, that’s apparently what taxpayers are for.

Case in point, a place in Scituate that started out life as a humble cottage, but, over time turned into a 4-bed, 3.5 bath sprawler. This house was last sold for $1M in 2007, which is pretty much the same amount it’s valued at on Zillow. Which may just be Zillow being Zillow. Or it may be that it would be tough to sell, given that it’s been storm damaged “at least 10 times.” For its troubles, owners over time have gotten $1M in subsidized insurance payouts and grants – a cool (or wet) million that helped the owners turn the modest cottage into this:

scituateTwelve years ago, the house was – with the help of a $40,000 federal grant – raised up 3 feet. Now it’s going up another 5 feet, thanks to another grant, this one to the tune of $180K. Raising the structure makes sense. Let the water flow under, rather than over and through it. Most of the towns in vulnerable areas like these have new construction laws that regulate how high a structure has to be, and you see all kinds of new builds on stilts.

But here’s the question: If a house is a repeat offender, and is in a vulnerable area, why should taxpayers be on the hook for raising and/rebuilding?

I can definitely see it for the first instance of the destruction of a home that’s been there from before we knew as much as we do now about weather and climate effects. Maybe even some help the second time around. But there will get to the point in some locations where it’s going to happen over and over and over.

Yes, I understand that folks who live in these locations do pay really high flood insurance rates. But I’d say a place in Scituate that’s had a string of major damage incidents is the kind of place that we the people might want to give up on when it comes to throwing good taxpayer money after bad. There’s got to be a point – three strikes you’re out? ten strikes you’re out? – when it’s time to let someone who wants to stay put foot the bill on their own.

“This is a repeated mistake,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon, an advocacy group calling for better management of coastal resources in light of global warming. “The way the federal flood insurance is administered now, there is a threat to public safety, a threat to public tax dollars and a threat to the environment by rebuilding in these vulnerable places. (Source: Boston Globe)

As the seas warm and the water levels rise, the storms are going to get worse and beaches are going to erode regularly. Chalk it up to man-made climate change, or just what happens over time, but yesterday’s waterfront is tomorrow’s underwater. We joke that Worcester (50 miles inland) will someday be on the ocean. And there’s some grim truth to it.

I live on land reclaimed from the ocean, and half of my unit is below sea level, so I’m probably just a Hurricane Sandy from being able to launch a rowboat in my den.

And I sure hope that someone’s there to rescue me if and when the time comes.

But if I found myself flooded out repeatedly, after a couple of rounds, I’d expect someone to tell me I was on my own.

There’s something not quite right about taxpayer money going to help rebuild or raise up a home that’s been at the trough so many times. Maybe time to up stakes in Scituate. Lots of nice lakes out Worcester way.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Baby, Baby, Baby

Not having had kids, one thing I never had to do was figure out what to name the baby. My choice, no doubt, would have been traditional and/or Irish. Elizabeth. Mairead. Alex. Liam. (Alex would have been after my father, whose name was Albert, a name which he hated. It’s really not a name that anyone should burden a child with, even though, as nicknames go, Al isn’t bad. The story was that my father was named after some habitué of my grandfather’s saloon. On the day of my father’s birth, his father was telling the barfly that he had a new son. Supposedly, the barfly said “why don’t you name him after me?” And so he did. I give the story some credence because this is a family long on naming babies after other family members, and Albert just wasn’t on the list anywhere. My father by no means got the worst name of his generation. He had a first cousin named Bertha Hanratty, who died in early childhood. It might have been the name...)

Anyway, although I’ve never personally done the honors, I’m always interested in what people name their children – especially when the names are way out there, completely preposterous, and are going to doom their bearers to living up to them and/or having to explain the spelling of their daffy name over and over and over again.

The Social Security Administration publishes an annual list of popular baby names, and the extended list includes all names given to at least five lucky newborns. Huff Po culled through the list and picked out the Top/Bottom Winners/Losers. Here goes, America. You’ve really done yourself (and your offspring) proud!

Billion is the name that five parents chose for their bouncing baby boys – ever to aspire! – while eleven settled on a more pedestrian goal for theirs by calling him Million. Billion can, of course, go by just plain Bill. But a boy named Million? I guess, as Milli Vanilli showed us, you can use the nickname Milli. But a Billion here, a Million there. Pretty soon it all adds up to too many people who care only about the Benjamins.

Lay Has the unfortunate term “a good lay” fallen so far out of usage that there are people out there who’d actually name their daughters Lay? And actually spell it this way. Maybe they’re retros, who’ve fallen under the spell of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay.”

Dagger My friend Sean has a grandson named Jagger, and the baby actually managed to get baptized in a Catholic Church. But as Sean pointed out, he got to name his kids, not theirs. (When my cousin Ellen and her friends started having grandkids, they wisely decided that they would never second guess or make fun of – other than in their own heads – the names that anyone’s grandkids were given. Fortunately for Ellen, her grandchildren all have perfectly fine and normal names that are also interesting. It can be done!) In addition to all the little Daggers on the loose, there are now five kids named Renegade. (Be careful what you wish for!)

Common is becoming more common, probably due to hip-hop artist who uses that handle. I’d rather think it was an anti-reaction to all those Billions and Millions out there, and the rampant narcissism in today’s society. Still, it’s hard to think of a less self-esteemy name. Perhaps next year, Uncommon will come into vogue.

Payzley And I thought that Paisley was bad enough. Why would anyone give their kid a name that no one can spell? One thing if it’s a real name that no one can spell – like Seamus – but a fake name? Let’s just hope there’s no one out there who named their daughter Payzley Lay. Although it works for Pele, I really don’t think the name Pay Lay is wise.

Dead Presidents. Sort of. If you’re going to name your daughter McKinley, you really shouldn’t cutesie it up with Mickinley. But five parents chose to do so. Another five named their daughters Kennydi. Clinton or Sanders might make okay names, but let’s hope that neither Mike Huckabee nor Rick Santorum is elected president. Not that there isn’t sufficient reason for that to happen already, even without the prospect of helpless children being named after them.

Londynne is the latest spelling variant for children being called London. I’m sure there are all sorts of variants to Brooklyn – which just lends itself to mixing up the spelling – out there as well. Other place names that made the list included Everest and Verona. Ugh!

Sadman Really? Sadman? I hope that this is an Arabic name, a various on Saddam which, like Adolf, one would hope has wandered into the baby name wilderness from which there is no return. If not, is there anything sadder than the thought a parent looking into their baby’s face and saying ‘He’s such a little sad man.”

Excel was the name given to five girls. Better than Billion. Yet still…Who would name their child after a Microsoft product? What’s next, boys names PowerPoint?

Ruckus will no doubt what your baby will raise at some point in time, but why raise the odds by naming him that? Let’s hope these little guys don’t end up friends with Dagger and Renegade. No telling what might happen.

Lay. Ruckus. Dead Presidents. Life’s hard enough without having to go through it with an awful name. I know, I know. Some folks want their kids to stand out, to be unique. But there are other ways to stand out: accomplishment, character, personality. Take it from one of the many Maureens in my high school class: it can be done.

Friday, June 05, 2015

A Little Free Library grows in Little Compton

In May, my sister Kathleen and I spent a weekend in Naperville, Illinois – just outside of Chicago – there to celebrate the 90th birthday of my Aunt Mary. Naperville, where my cousin Ellen makes her home, is a great walking town and a great reading town, and Ellen is both a great walker and a great reader, So we walked, talked books, dropped in the town’s wonderful indie bookstore, and, on one of our walks, passed what appeared to be a nice wooden birdhouse, only this birdhouse was stuffed with books rather than starlings and bird seed.

Ellen asked us whether we were familiar with the Little Free Library movement.

Well, no, we weren’t.

Little Free Library was founded in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin, when Todd Bol, in a tribute to his school teacher mother, built a model little red school house, filled it with books, and plunked it on a pole in his front yard with a sign that read FREE BOOKS. And a philosophy of take one, leave one.

The idea has really taken off, and today there are over 25,000 little free libraries, worldwide.

Although it was fun to see the Naperville’s LFL, I didn’t give it much thought.

It’s not as if I were going to go ahead and put one out front, where it would be just as likely to end up stuffed with banana peels, Starbucks cups (I was going to say Dunkin cups, but what’s on the corner is a Starbucks), and little plastic dog poop bags.

Then the other evening, I had dinner with two old high school friends. Missing was the fourth member of our band, my great and good friend Marie, who died last year just two months after my husband did.

Marie was a great reader, and one of the great pleasures of visiting her was coming away with a bag of books (and dumping a bag of books in her lap, while I was at it). We didn’t always agree. She liked Jonathan Franzen a lot more than I did, even going so far as standing in line to have him sign her copy of Freedom, a book that I despised.On the other hand, I really enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which she thought was dreadful. But mostly we liked the same writers, and much enjoyed introducing each other to new writers. (She gave me Lionel Shriver, I gave her Stewart O’Nan.)

Even a year after Marie’s death, I still find myself wondering what Marie would think about something I’m reading.

Anyway, while we were missing Marie at dinner, we had the pleasure of the company of Marie’s husband John.

We asked John, a recently retired (mostly) attorney, what he was doing with his time, and he mentioned that he was puttering around and taking care of some projects.

He whipped out his phone to show us his latest:
LC Library
A Little Free Library just outside their second home in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

Hard to think of a better tribute to Marie…

I’ve become a quasi-convert to digital readers.

I still go to the library. I still buy physical books. I still trade them with my sisters, cousins and friends.

But I also do a fair amount of reading on my Kindle. (I say “my” Kindle, and it is mine. But it was pretty much my husband’s last consumer purchase. Since Jim read only dense tomes – physics, math, economics, philosophy of science – and read with a red Bic in hand so that he could make his notes in the margin, I have no idea what he was planning on doing with the Kindle. He bought it shortly before they found a tumor in his brain, which may explain him buying it. All he did was unpack it and hand it to me.)

But the downside of the Kindle – and it’s a big one – is that you can’t share it with anyone.

I like to trade, and I trade with my sisters, my cousins, and my friends. My sisters and I have actually talked about doing a device-swap and reading what the other guy has stored on hers. And you can’t put a digital book in a Little Free Library.

Love the idea. Love that there’s one in Little Compton, dedicated to Marie.