Thursday, June 30, 2016

Forget the Citgo Sign. Bring back White Fuel!

Anyone who’s spent any time in Boston, and/or just idled away 9 innings at Fenway Park, is familiar with the iconic Citgo sign the presides over Kenmore Square.ryan_kenmoresq6_biz I rather like it. When I see it, I don’t think Citgo. I don’t think the late and unlamented Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez (Venezuela’s state oil company owns half of Citgo). I don’t think Joe Kennedy and Joe For Oil, an outfit the provides Venezuelan oil to poor folks and a nice living to Joe Kennedy.

No, when I see it I think Boston in general, and the Boston Red Sox in particular. (The sign can be seen from Fenway, and it’s a beautiful sight on a summer’s evening when our boys are in town and winning. It’s become as much a part of a trip to the old ball park as a Sports Bar and Sweet Caroline.)

And now the sign is under threat. BU, which owns the building the sign sits on, is selling.

The university has said it hopes a new owner will preserve the sign, which Citgo leases, but has stopped short of requiring its retention as a term in the sale. That has preservationists, and many everyday Bostonians, worried that development on the site could alter the sign’s place on the skyline, block views of it from some angles, or lead to its removal altogether.

“It has become as iconic of Boston as Old North Church and the Swan Boats,” said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, which launched the signature drive. “We’re trying to demonstrate that there’s broad public support for keeping it.” (Source: Boston Globe)

In July, the Landmarks Commission will decide whether to “grant official landmark status” to it. (In 1980, it was denied landmark status, but we seem to have grown loopier and more sentimental since then.)

Well, there’s iconic and there’s iconic. There’s landmark-y and there’s landmark-y. And I wouldn’t put the Citgo sign in the same class as Old North Church, the swan boats, Trinity Church, Paul Revere’s House, cobblestoned Acorn Street, the Zakim Bridge, the Hatch Shell, the U.S.S. Constitution, and plenty of other things that come to mind before the Citgo sign.

Which is not to say that I’m not rather fond of it.

I just don’t think it has to sit in Kenmore Square forever.

Maybe the Museum of Contemporary Art could find a home for it. After all, the sign is kind of Pop-art-ish. Maybe the Red Sox brass – lovers of all things nostalgic and sentimental – couldWF-Photo erect it over the Green Monster, perhaps dimming the lights when our boys are up to bat.

What I want to know is, where was all the hue and outcry when the White Fuel sign, also a denizen of Kenmore Square, was taken down? Every bit as iconic as the Citgo sign, at least in the more than humble opinion of a long time resident and lover of things iconic. And landmark-y.

It may not have been as artful as the Citgo sign, but it had that old-school industrial retro thing going for it.

If the Citgo sign goes away, I really won’t give it a second thought. I like it well enough. I like seeing it from Fenway. Just not well enough to truly miss it. But just for a moment there, when reading about the Citgo sign, I did truly miss the White Fuel sign. (Please don’t get me going on the old sign from the Red Hat, a giant red neon top hat. That’ll get me boo-hooing…And I just googled it and can’t find a picture of it. Say it isn’t so! Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be…)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pop goes the Fourth of July?

I am less than a 5 minute walk from the Hatch Shell, where the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July spectacular – concert, 1812 Overture, fireworks. But I haven’t watched it in person in years. Make that decades.

When it first started turning into a big deal, in the early 1970’s, I went a couple of times. There were always a few other Pops concerts each summer, over at the Hatch Shell, but the one of the 4th, although not a huge deal, was always special. At one of those concerts, I witnessed one of the most absurd parent-child encounters ever. The audience was clapping along with a Sousa march, and the mom on the blanket next to mine was encouraging her toddler – maybe two years old – to clap along with the clappers along. The kiddo wasn’t having any of it. After a few sweetness and light attempts to get her daughter into the spirit of the evening, she grabbed her daughter’s arm and hissed, “Clap, or I’ll clap your ass.”

Who can blame the child? It was Independence Day, after all. Shouldn’t everyone be able to be a little independent, and not go along with the crowd? To be true to your very own little self?

Anyway, by the time the Bicentennial rolled around, the crowds were starting to get too large for my liking. On July 3, 1976, I believe there was a dress rehearsal concert. I went to that. On July 4, 1976, I stayed home and watched the fireworks out my window. (I’ve lived in four places since 1975, and all of them have had a pretty good view of the Esplanade fireworks.)

For a couple of years, Jim and I lived in a place where we had rooftop access, so we’d sit up on the roof and watch the fireworks thataway. Some years we’d walk around during the concert, and watch the fireworks from the Salt-and-Pepper (Longfellow) Bridge. Then 25 years ago we moved into our condo, with an excellent view of the fireworks out out kitchen and living room windows.

Once they started televising the concert, we’d watch the concert on TV and the fireworks out the window.

Like so many public events, the Fourth of July concert in Boston has gotten bigger, and BIGGER over the years.

This, of course, makes me nostalgic for the days when you could, say, stroll over to the Marathon finish line a few minutes before the marathoners started finishing. And when you could decide in the early evening that it might be fun to take your blanket over to the Esplanade and watch the concert and fireworks.

But then everything had to go and become a very big deal. Which, for the Glorious Fourth in Boston, meant not just listening to the Pops orchestra, but having to have some big name act to go along with it. It meant everyone being disappointed if at least a half-million people didn’t show up. It meant people started staking out space the day before, until they outlawed that. (Now, I believe, you can’t throw your blanket down until 5 a.m. day of.) The fireworks have to be showier, and the showier show has to last longer.

Although I completely adore fireworks, and never want the show to end, I’m one of those folks who in general just likes things better when they’re lower key.

I’ve been up to Salem to watch their fireworks a couple of times, and it’s actually more fun. Crowds, but not CROWDS. Nice fireworks set to music and, as a bonus, you get to look out over the harbor and see the fireworks from the neighboring towns. (Many years ago, I was flying back on July 3rd to Boston from a business trip to Minneapolis. As we flew, we passed over a number of towns that were having their fireworks event on the eve of the 4th. A beautiful sight to behold from the sky.)

As the Fourth of July Esplanade celebration has grown over the years, one thing has stayed constant: the time and treasure support of David Mugar, scion of a local grocery store chain.

The 77-year-old Mugar has quietly contributed 40,000 hours and roughly $20 million to the venture since 1974, when he first convinced Boston Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler to end a July 4 concert with the “1812 Overture” and pair it with cannon fire, church bells, and fireworks. (Source: Boston Globe)

In addition to all the money Mugar has poured in, there have been corporate sponsors brought in as the event (and event costs) grew. For the last decade or so, it was Liberty Mutual Insurance, but they’ve called it quits. So Mugar and his folks went hunting for another key sponsor, not just for this year, but moving forward. (This is Mugar’s last year of involvement.) An initial feeler went out to 1,000 companies. Only 75 even bothered to ask for more info. None of them steppe up/stepped in.

That makes the future murky for one of New England’s signature events, a July Fourth celebration that cemented itself as an institution in 1976 — drawing a Guinness Book of World Records crowd and plaudits from Walter Cronkite — and has since become part of the region’s civic DNA.

This year’s really big show will be televised on CBS. The pop stars will be the decidedly-post Walter Cronkite Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas “and country act Little Big Town, who have a combined 49 million Twitter followers.” Not enough to entice a corporate sponsor. Mugar’s picking up all the costs that won’t be covered by CBS, to the tune of about $2M. Beyond this year, the event is in question.

Part of me wouldn’t mind if it went back to the pokey little event it used to be, when attendance was in the tens-of-thousands, rather than the hundreds. But the other part of me wants it to remain a big deal, even though all I do is watch it on TV, and out my kitchen window.

GE is moving it’s corporate HQ to Boston. You guys don’t seem to ever pay any taxes. How about it?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Going once, gong twice

A few years ago, I found myself intrigued* by the auctions that sold off the ill gotten personal property of Bernie and Ruthie Madoff. The Madoffs, as was befitting of a couple with great (albeit fake) wealth, had pretty expensive tastes – think Rolex watches and alligator purses. Sure, they had some pedestrian every day stuff, too, but even that was pretty nice. The auction raised over $2M. Nothing compared to the Madoff pyramid rip-off, but a goodly amount, even if only a drop in the ice bucket. I don’t know who did the Madoff bidding. A lot of the items were bid up well beyond pre-auction estimates, so there must have been some element of interest in the notoriety more than just the desire to get their hands on the goods. I can’t imagine overpaying for something just because it’s connected to the fake rich and (in)famous, but to each his own. And as rotten to his evil little core Bernie was, he wasn’t a stone-cold killer.

The auction of the household effects of James “Whitey” Bulger and his girlfriend-in-hiding Catherine Greig differed from the Madoff auction in quite a few ways.

The contents of the Bulger auction were a lot more pedestrian and tawdry. When they showed the items on the news the night before the auction, it looked more like a downside yard sale than an upscale auction. Lots of what appeared to be polyester shirts on hangers, out and out crapola. And then there’s the really critical difference: Whitey Bulger was, indeed, a stone-cold killer. Anyone who got in this SOB’s way well, look out.

I just can’t imagine who would want anything associated with this bum, even if the “cause” – all the proceeds went to the families of his victims – was a good one.

Some fellow paid $210 for Bulger’s used footwear. He plans to “relax, sit around, an drink a beer in Whitey’s slippers.” Seriously, who wants to slip on anyone’s used slippers, let alone those of perhaps the most vicious criminal ever to hail from these parts?

A guy who clearly has too much extra money on his hands walked away with Whitey’s rat-shaped pencil holder, for which he paid $3.6K. (For those who aren’t up on their Whitey lore, he was an FBI bulger muginformant, ratting out Italian mob members to keep the heat off of his own Irish mafia.) Perhaps this guy, who is 47, is going through a mid-life crisis. The fact that he also bought a replica of the 1986 Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup championship ring for $9.1K suggests that this may well be the case. (Before Bulger went on the lam with Greig, he did a bit of a lam-een with his other girlfriend, Theresa Stanley. When Stanley realized that being on the lam meant that she wouldn’t be seeing her kids again, she bailed. After which Bulger tapped his number two boo, Greig. One of Stanley’s daughters was married to Chris Nilan, a local kid who made it to the hockey pros. Thus the Stanley Cup replica ring.) The final item in this guy’s sweep was Whitey’s hand-carved crucifix.

Talk about a Boston trifecta: us (Irish-American criminals, both criminal-criminals, and, as it turned out, FBI-criminals) vs. them (Italian-American criminals); the local sports hero connection (which would only have been improved upon if Nilan had won the Cup with the Bruins); and mawkish Catholic sentimentality, as in the hand-carved crucifix. Can you say wicked pissah? If only we knew who hand-carved that crucifix.

The item that brought in the most was a gold diamond Claddagh ring. This went for $23K. I realize that there’s no such thing as a subtle Claddagh ring (hands holding heart), but one with diamonds? That was owned by Bulger? Ugh. Just ugh.

Speaking of ugh, another bidder paid $6.4K for the hat Bulger was wearing when the Feds finally caught up with him. What does one do with this item? At least you can melt down the Claddagh ring.

Another fellow gave the “winner” of the rat mug and Stanley Cup replica ring a run for his money by paying $5.2K for Bulger’s “psycho killer skull ring,” $1K for 10 of Bulger’s hats, an $4.9K for the boxing mannequin Bulger “topped with a safari hat and propped in the bulger mannequinwindow of his apartment to make it appear as if someone were keeping watch.” (Source: Boston Globe) 

I’m all for the quirky decorated touch, but what in the world would you do with this nudie torso “topped with a safari hat”? Plug ugly, plus the ghastly association with Bulger.

I just don’t understand people.

I will note that all of the bidders mentioned in the article were middle-aged men. (Most with Irish-sounding names, I’m afraid.) Must be a lot of mid-life crises going around out there. (Coupled with some sort of perverse ethnic pride.)

One bidder was doing so because he’s a friend of Greig’s sister. This guy bought a bunch of pictures of cats and dogs, “many the beloved pets of the gangster and his girlfriend.” He also managed to snag “Bulger’s and Greig’s black leather, reclining loveseat, purchased for $35.” Straight out of Bob’s Discount Furniture, no doubt.

Whitey’s in his eighties, and will die in prison. When Greig gets out of prison – she’s in her mid-sixties, and will be released in 2020 – she can live out her final days reclining in her love seat, looking at her pet pictures, and asking herself why she was willing to toss away 15 years of her life hiding out with a vicious killer. At least Theresa Stanley had the good sense to have Whitey drop her home…

Meanwhile, the auction raised $109K. The Madoffs’ personal effects auction cleared over $2M. I guess the Rolex is mightier than the rat mug.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Guns a-blazin’

It was hard to put my finger on what was the most disheartening thing I heard or read last week. If could, of course, have been pretty much anything out of Donald Trump’s mouth. But that, I suspect, will hold for pretty much any old week between now and November 8th. (With luck, not beyond.) Or it might have been the fact that, the day after the Brexit vote, the second most googled “ask” in the UK was ‘what is the EU?’ (Talk about setting a new low for low-information voting….)

I took a break from mulling this over to read this week’s New Yorker. Namely, an article on the gun business.

I would not categorize myself as an anti-gun nut. Let hunters hunt, and let those who feel compelled to keep a hand gun for “security” purposes go right ahead. (And good luck. I believe the statistics aren’t necessarily on the side of this being a good thing.)

Growing up, the only people I knew who had guns were my city-boy uncles Jack and Bob, who were hunters, and my friend Marie’s father, who was a cop. (When he was off-duty, he kept his in a box on the shelf in the bedroom closet.) In my adult life, my husband’s aunt and uncle kept a number of guns in their home. Bill was a hunter, and also collected old guns. Some of what he hunted was squirrels that got into Carrie’s bird feeders. To take on these varmints, Bill kept a loaded shot gun next to the toilet in the downstairs half-bath. It always made me nervous to use that toilet, let alone how crazy it made me when one of their grandkids went in there when they were still little. (As Bill and Carrie got older, my fear was that someone would break in and steal their guns. After Bill died, I was delighted when Carrie got rid of them.)

So I’m not all that up on gun culture, but I don’t think all gun owners are awful, or that all guns should be outlawed. And I also agree that all the gun laws in the world won’t get rid of all our gun-related crime.

What I don’t understand are things like why anyone should be able to buy military-grade weaponry. Or why there’s resistance to short wait-periods before someone can get their trigger fingers on a new gun. Or why smart-gun technology is considered so anathema to the NRA.

You’d think that the NRA would be all over something that could keep the gun in your bedside table from being used by the burglar robbing your house to kill you with. Or could prevent a four year old from shooting a two year old, or a two year old from accidentally killing his mother.

But, no. Smart guns? NRA no like.

Here’s what I read in that New Yorker article.

In the late 1990’s, Smith & Wesson had come up with a solution “that would not only sell more guns but lower the toll of gun violence.” The company was not necessarily acting altruistically with respect to gun violence. Mostly they wanted to end the mounting number of lawsuits being lodged against them.

In the hope of ending the lawsuits, [Smith & Wesson CEO Ed Schultz] secretly agreed to negotiate with the Clinton Administration. To avoid detection, the talks were held in airport hotels and obscure federal offices. After six weeks, the negotiators were near a deal, and Shultz was sitting across from the Administration’s point man, Andrew Cuomo, who was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Source: New Yorker*)

Imagine that. Doing something about gun violence is such a radical notion that you have to do all this cloak-and-dagger so that no one cops on to you.

On March 17, 2000, Clinton and Cuomo announced the deal: among other things, Smith & Wesson agreed to develop a smart gun and take steps to prevent dealers from selling to criminals. Cuomo declared, “We are finally on the road to a safer, more peaceful America.” But on the day the deal went public the N.R.A. denounced Smith & Wesson as “the first gun maker to run up the white flag of surrender.” It released Shultz’s phone number, and encouraged members to complain. He received many threats. One caller said, “I’m a dead-on shot, Mr. Shultz.”… Online, a boycott took hold, and sales of Smith & Wesson guns fell so sharply that two factories temporarily shut down. In ten months, the stock lost ninety-five per cent of its value, and the company was sold the next year for a fraction of its former worth.

Shultz left the company, and he all but stopped talking to the press. When I happened on a phone number for him, he called me back only to ask how I’d found it. “I need to know where the hole is, so I can plug it,” he said, and declined to talk about the gun business.

Congress, of course, acted nobly.

In 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act immunized gun manufacturers, distributors, and dealers from civil liability for damages caused by their products.

Smith & Wesson got back in the good graces of the NRA, but to stay there:

The gunmaker has never forgotten Ed Shultz’s attempt at compromise. “It almost took down the company,” [CEO James] Debney told an interviewer in 2013. “We won’t make that mistake again.”

Ah. I see. Putting a smart gun on the market would be a mistake.

Even if there’s no mandate that every gun has to be a smart gun.

NRA no like. They fear, I suppose, that this is the thin edge of the wedge issue and that, once there’s proven smart gun technology available, those meddlesome legislatures will start making it mandatory.

Meanwhile, the NRA and the companies it so ably and evilly represents, lobbying guns a-blazin’, keep revving things up, encouraging gun owners to buy more and more guns. There are now more than 300 million guns in the US, which is nearly what our population is.

Disheartening to read that a couple of decades ago, Smith & Wesson kinda-sorta tried to do the right thing. And was nearly driven out of business because of it.

What crazy, disheartening info will this week bring?


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Friday, June 24, 2016

Just in time for Friday: fish sticks

One of our regular fish-on-Friday dinners growing up was fish sticks. The other regulars included pan-fried haddock, corn chowder, and creamed tuna. Stop gagging. They were all delish. Including those fishy, chemically fish sticks, tanged up by swizzling each bite around in the Ken’s Steakhouse Italian dressing that doused the salad that accompanied the Friday fish sticks. The other part of this meal was frozen French fries. Sure, they were thawed, cooked even, but I have to say that the frozen French fries of my childhood were just terrible – soggy and blah. We would fight for the handful of slivery fries that were actually crisp. Good luck!

Anyway, I have to confess that, although I haven’t had them in years, I occasionally crave fish sticks. While I occasionally crave them, I don’t often think of them. But I was put in a fish stick state of mind when I saw an article the other day on Bloomberg that wasn’t particularly about fish sticks. Rather, it was about advanced fish-slicing machinery that uses algorithms to figure out how to fillet a fish. What does the fish slicing is:

…the Flexicut, a machine built by the meat processer Marel that uses X-rays, water jets, and software to cut fish quickly and precisely.

Marel, which sells about $1 billion of meat-slicing gear a year, has just started rolling out the Flexicut to fish factories. (Source: Bloomberg)

These fish cutters work a lot faster than a fish cutter of the human persuasion. The MS 2730 “can process up to 25 fish/min and now offers automatic back and belly trimming.” There isn’t going to be a steel-driving John Henry beating the steam-hammer with this baby. The machine is definitely going to win. (And, of course, John Henry’s victory was pyrrhic, as he died right after he “won.”)

Marel makes a lot of nifty fish processing gear, including machines designed for deheading and gutting, desliming and rinsing, pinboning, and skinning.

And what Marel equipment is doing is replacing a lot of people who have been doing the deheading, the gutting, the desliming and rinsing, and pinboning and skinning by hand. Just some of the rotten, low-end jobs that are going to be going away as more and more processes are automated.

The woman interviewed for the article stated that, while the fish-processing jobs would be replaced, there would be exciting new technology jobs emerging. True, of course, in the macro sense, but it’s unlikely that many folks who were deheading and gutting are, all of a sudden, going to turn into techies designing deheading and gutting algorithms. And you need more fish cutters than you do deheading algorithm designers.

No use to rage against the machine. A lot of jobs are going to be dodo’d over the coming decades. Many of them are lousy. (Working in a cannery? Plucking chickens? Making sausage?) But the only thing worse than a lousy job is no lousy job.

I’m not arguing to save these jobs. I’m just suggesting that we might want to start thinking about what people at the wrong end of the skill continuum are going to do when their jobs are automated. (And they will be automated, with or without the minimum wage being raised.)

We can’t hold back this tide, any more than we could hold back the tide of globalization. (Does anyone really believe that all the factory jobs that went to China are coming back here? Hell, they’re moving to even cheaper places than China.) But what we can do is try to do a bit of planning, and put programs in place to provide a safety net and training for whatever’s coming next (probably not algorithm design) for those being displaced. We didn’t do an especially good job of this with globalization. We just let the Rust Belt rust. We “got” that, at the macro level, this was good for the world, overall. We enjoyed the low-cost flat screens. And we ignored the guys who used to make washing machines until their meth labs started blowing up. Let’s not do the same for the fish cutters of the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Forbes Under 30 Summit: coming soon, to a City Hall Plaza near you (me, that is)

Last year’s Boston event brouhaha was around the blessedly aborted bid for the 2020 Olympics. Although I knew it would have been a major cluster headache, I was a bit on the fence about it. Until I read that they might be playing beach volleyball on Boston Common, and holding bicycle races in the Boston Public Garden. Forget NIMBY. When I heard about these possibilities, I went completely Not In My Front Yard. Fortunately, both the Governor and the Mayor came to their joint senses, and we took a pass on the five-ring circus.

This year’s Big Idea was having a Grand Prix race on the waterfront over Labor Day weekend. That bad idea thankfully vroomed out of town.

But “we” will be hosting this year’s Forbes Under 30 Summit.

For some pretty obvious reasons, I was not aware of the Summit. But it sounds adorbs. Or sick. Or whatever word I’d use for neat, far out, groovy, out of sight, if I were part of the target demographic:

The Under 30 Summit, the world’s greatest gathering of young entrepreneurs and game-changers, is more than tripling its size and scope in 2016. From October 16-19th, over 5,000 of the planet’s current and future leaders in every field will converge on Boston for 5 interconnected Summits, encompassing innovation in Science and Technology, Finance and Investing, Media and Creativity, and Policy and Social Good, as well as a VIP track for Forbes 30 Under 30 honorees, which will be held at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall.

Here’s to you, Under 30 game-changers. As the passing generations are apt to do, we’ve left you with something of a mess to clean up. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but for all the good stuff – amazing advances for women (if you don’t think they’re amazing, then you just weren’t there); a more open environment for our gay friends; generally cool and at least occasionally useful technology, some medical advances (AIDS, thankfully, ain’t what it used to be). But we’ve left enough unfinished business – climate change, the seemingly blithe and blind-eye acceptance of the less-than-pleasant impacts of globalization, worsening lives for the left behinds  – that there’s plenty for the kids to take care of. Go for it, kiddoes! We need you!

Then there’s the Under 30 Village, that will take over Boston’s “mammoth” City Hall Plaza. Well, take City Hall Plaza, please. Since the “new” City Hall was built 50 yars ago (perhaps the best – or worst – example of brutalist architecture ever erected), it’s been surrounded by a brutalist brick and concrete no man’s land that, for all the concerts, food trucks, demonstrations, farmers’ markets, and  Big Apple Circuses that have been plunked down there, has always been completely cold and uninviting. U-G-L-Y.

The Under 30 Village will bring together participants from all 5 tracks for demonstrations, networking, performances and food and drink. At night, the Under 30 Summit shines, with our signature evening activities, including the Under 30 Music Festival (past acts have included Afrojack, Wiz Khalifa and A$AP Rocky), our famous citywide Bar Crawls, and the Under 30 Food Festival. And the final day is devoted to service, with optional opportunities to speak at local schools and mentor Boston’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

A day spent mentoring? Is this speed mentoring? Or will relationships get forged that will continue through social media?

But that’s a quibble.

May they enjoy Wiz Khalifa, et al. May they consume all the vegan fare and urban forage they can wrap their mouths around at the Under 30 Food Festival. May the weather gods smile upon them. Mid-October can be glorious. Or not. But, thanks to the climate change these guys are going to do something about, there may be more green leaves than leaf-peeper glory. Maybe they’ll get the feeling that it might as well be spring.

I’m going on a bucket-list trip to Venice this fall. We haven’t picked the time quite yet, but it’s conceivable I’ll be away.

But if I’m here, I’m sure I’ll mosey around while the Under 30’s are here.

They’re a lot more welcome than the Olympics or the Grand Prix, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Monkey business

What’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys?

Actually, there are a ton of things more fun than a barrel of monkey.

After all, a barrel of monkeys is shrieky, smelly, grabby – a log scale version of an individual shrieky, smelly, grabby monkey.

So a barrel of hula hoops, a barrel of tarot cards, a barrel of ice cream – and plenty of other barrel-fulls  – would be a lot more fun.

Not that I’m a monkey-ist, mind you. I have nothing against primates. Some of my best friends are primates, and in a past life even got up close and personal with the bonobo (pygmy chimpanzees) troop at the San Diego Zoo. (A story for another day.)

A Chinese village learned about monkey business the hard way. Xianfeng was looking for a way to improve their local economy. As with so many locales, they landed on tourism. But what was going to attract tourism to their home town? It took a village, but they came up with the idea to use monkeys as a come on. So,

In 2003, over a span of nearly seven weeks, the residents of Xianfeng village lured dozens of macaque monkeys down from nearby mountains. Xianfeng is located in China’s Sichuan province, where another tourist attraction, Mount Emei, is famous for its monkeys. The villagers were, perhaps, inspired by the mountainous monkey refuge, according to China’s CCTV News. (Source: Boston Globe)

At first, it worked out pretty well, and thousands of tourists came to town to watch the monkeys monkey around. Then the lead investor in the scheme died, and, with it, overall business support disappeared. By this time, there were 600 monkeys in town. And all of a sudden, Xianfeng was dealing with a nuisance of its own making.

At Xianfeng the monkeys steal food, get into cacophonous fights, and break into homes, CCTV News reports. On nearby Mount Emei, visitors to the monkeys’ habitat are now warned not to touch or feed the furry denizens, and to clutch valuables tightly as the animals have been known to abscond with objects and drape them from the treetops.

It’s not just in Xianfeng. It’s a pan*-China problem.

Even in urban Hong Kong, the macaques are not afraid of humans, nabbing food from human hands and convenience stores.

Every family has its lore. Part of the Rogers family story line involves a monkey taking a cookie out of my sister Kathleen’s hand while, when out for a Sunday drive, the family stopped at a roadside attraction on Route 9. Kathleen was only two at the time, so if I were there, I was an infant. So there’s little actual recall of the monkey incident. Yet whenever we were tootling out Route 9 in Spencer on a ride – and we were a family that went out for a lot of rides – someone was sure to pipe up with “that’s where the monkey stole Kathleen’s cookie.”

I had my own Route 9 incident, but it was not as exciting or glamorous as Kath’s. At the age of four, out with my father, Kath and Tom running an errand – okay, it was a trip to a packy for my father to pick up a case of Knickerbocker beer – I tripped and fell coming out the door. And every time we passed that packy, someone could be counted on to trill, “there’s where Maureen tripped and fell.” Not the only time in my life I tripped and fell, but it was the only time I tripped and fell while leaving a liquor store.

Anyway, to return to Xianfeng’s monkey business. Sometimes there are good business ideas. Sometimes there are bad business ideas. And sometimes it’s hard to figure out in advance which is which. Every business plan has that paragraph devoted to risk, so I’d be curious to know whether the Xianfeng business planners had anticipated that all those lured-in macaques might start running amuck, stealing cookies from toddlers, and draping stolen objects in trees.


*Obscure primate pun. I know that there’s a difference between monkeys and great apes, like chimps. But the genus for chimp is “pan”, so I couldn’t resist throwing it in.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Coloring between the lines? Not very creative of you, I’m afraid.

I haven’t picked up one for myself yet, but I know a number of folks who are coloring in adult coloring books. They find it relaxing, and their decisions on color and on their choice of crayon, marker, gel pen, or colored pencil provide an element of creativity. The coloring books they work on have pictures with intlittle lulueresting and elaborate designs – not the simple, pedestrian outlines of the coloring books of our childhood (c.f., Little Lulu), so the end products can be quite beautiful (c.f., green wolf).

coloring book

Wendy Woon is the Deputy Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art, and an adjunct professor at NYU. She 
“gets” why someone would enjoy their coloring books.

There's a kind of pleasure in slow, methodical coloring within the lines. I get that. But what worries me most is the lack of willingness to color outside the lines, to make a mark of one's own. (Source: Daily News)

She then talks about a kindergarten classmate who, after coloring his squirrel orange, then purple – and scribbled outside the lines – was pressured into conforming. The kid caved and brought in a neatly colored brown squirrel that everyone knew his mother had colored in for him.

This recalled incident hit a nerve with me, as I had been a boring, non-creative color-er in my day. I’m embarrassed to admit that when my non-boring, creative color-er cousin Ellen made Santa Claus wear a blue cap, and ignored me when I called her on it, I reported her deviance to my Aunt Mary. To my six-year old annoyance and shock, my aunt defended her renegade daughter.

I admit I was wrong to have tried to force Ellen, and that she was right to think outside the Crayola box. But I’m thinking that the kindergarten teacher giving kids a coloring assignment may be trying to develop skills rather than focus on unbridling a kid’s creativity. Maybe coloring inside the lines helps with small motor control. Maybe telling the kids to color a squirrel brown helps teach them colors. Maybe giving them homework helps kids learn to be organized and get something done.

Hey, I’m all for fostering creativity, so maybe a better approach would be to have the kiddoes drawn an outline for themselves, and then pick whatever color they want and color their outline in, trying to do it as neatly as possible. But the truth is that a lot of real life involves following rules. Stop at the STOP sign. Don’t exceed the dosage. No smoking in the airplane toilet. The numbers need to add up.

Not everything is a creativity-fest.

But where Woon really lost me was when she wrote about “some inspiring young students at Black Mountain School in North Carolina.”

We started talking about graffiti, the coded nature of each artist's tags and how they become a kind of visual language recognized by others, in essence creating a "community.”

One student told the story of a friend that became ever more isolated and lonely in the city. But when he got out of his apartment, he began to see the marks and messages of people he knew and it made him feel less lonely and more part of the city, something bigger than himself.

Gee, I’m sorry to hear about a kid who felt isolated and lonely in the city, but it seems to me there are ways to find a community that don’t involve defacing the public sphere with “marks and messages” that are, to many folks, the antithesis of community. These are the people who find them ugly and threatening.

Boston, fortunately, was never as blighted by graffiti as NYC, and it’s mostly died down around here. But when I saw lovely buildings in my neighborhood tagged with graffiti, I was heartsick. I was always delighted when they caught the miscreant and made them clean up after themselves.Hey, I always wanted to say, if you want to express yourself, do it on your own house. I’d be okay with parks like the skateboarding parks where kids could go spray away, but I’m definitely NIMBY on graffiti. And I don’t want to see it on my subway cars or commuter trains, either.

My sister Trish lived in NYC in the 1980’s, and she remembers when both the inside and outside of subway cars were covered with graffiti. She found it depressing, disturbing, and tension inducing, which is I’m guessing a pretty standard reaction. (It sure was mine.) Us boring, color-between-the-line folks would rather see a nicely rendered coloring-book picture of a squirrel (purple, orange, or brown) than someone’s creative graffiti “art.”

And you have to ask why a Chico 147’s desire to find community via this type of creative expression trumps a commuter’s need to commute in a subway car that’s not graffiti-ridden. 

Last December, one of my client’s invited me to a team holiday party at one of those places where they set everyone up with an easel, a canvas, a bit of paint and a couple of brushes – and coach them through 20160619_195838the process of copying a painting. (In our case, a Van Gogh.) It was amazingly fun, but one of the most interesting part was seeing how different everyone’s “oeurvre” turned out. This is mine. (I was one of the ones who wasn’t that great at perfectly following instructions, and one of the first to give up on trying to exactly replicate the original.)

Tremendous fun. Enough fun that I’ve put taking a painting or drawing course on my bucket list.

Am I going to turn into an artist? No, not really. That wouldn’t be my intent. And, thanks to Pink Slip, I already have my Sunday Painter (Word Edition) outlet.

But I also have getting a coloring book and some markers on my bucket list, and I’m guessing I’ll get to this item first. 

I don’t believe in stifling anyone’s creativity. But sometimes you really do just want to color between the lines.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reassessing risk, Disney edition.

Disney didn’t get to be an empire with a $169 B market cap without being smart and savvy. They’re obviously brilliant marketers, and canny merchandisers. And earlier this year they were ranked as the world’s most powerful brand. A good deal of that powerful brand rests on Disney’s ability to deliver fun. Isn’t Disneyworld billed as “the happiest places of earth”?

I can’t even begin to imagine the pain – the lifetime of pain – that has been visited upon the family of the toddler who was snatched and killed by an alligator. Unimaginably horrific. However many millions that Disney settles on this poor family, it can never be enough. The only situation I can think of that is worse is the cases you read about where a parent inadvertently backed over their own child. The entire incident is just beyond the beyond.

And whatever risk assessment led Disney to not put up any alligator warning signs is, I’m quite sure, being reassessed.

I looked at the pictures of that lagoon beach. Sure there was a ‘no swimming’ sign, but the beach was sandy. There were lounge chairs. It was inviting. Who can blame a family for letting their little guy get a little splash in by wiggling his piggy toes in the water? I’m sure if they’d seen a sign that said: ‘Caution: there are alligators in the lagoon, and sometimes those critters walk onto land’ they might have hung out at the pool instead of the beach.

All sorts of folks are coming out to say that they’ve seen alligators on Disney properties, and that when they voiced their concerns, they were shrugged off. ‘Hey, this is Florida. Gators be here.’

Although I have been to Florida, and I have seen alligators in residential areas, I hadn’t realized just how prevalent they are. As in pretty much every fresh water body in the state has alligators in them. The good news is that, even though their brains are the size of a couple of olives, alligators are for the most part smart enough to steer clear of humans. The not so good news is that as both the human and alligator populations in Florida have grown, alligators have become habituated to humans.

This is happening in part because humans, even though their brains are larger than a couple of olives, have been feeding the alligators, even though to do so is against the law.

And some of this feeding has been going on in the Disney lagoon where the child was killed.

It seems that it wasn’t enough to have the standard, $500+ hotel rooms. So Disney built bungalows on stilts in the lagoon, and these go for $2K+ a night. Why leave any money on the table? And it seems as if guests have been sitting on the bungalow porches and feeding the alligators that populate the lagoon. Disney employees have come forward to say that they had warned higher-ups about this situation. And claimed to have gotten no response.

For Disney, I’m sure, the calculus meant weighing the benefit of putting out alligator warnings vs. the likelihood of something bad actually happening (alligator attacks are very rare) vs. the cost in terms of turning off folks who come to the happiest place on earth to escape their everyday cares, not to have to worry about an entirely new set of fears that don’t exist anyplace else on earth. (My biggest nature fear is having a rat cross my path, which invariably happens if I’m walking on Newbury Street at dusk.)

I’ve got to imagine that there are both old-school and high-tech things that Disney can do – and it already doing - here.

Although I don’t imagine there are any visitors hanging about there these days, the lagoon is now fenced off. There are new signs being put up that warn of alligators and snakes.

Signs don’t always do it for people. Just a couple of weeks ago, some young dolt visiting Yellowstone wanted to get a closer look at a hot spring. Even though there are signs saying stay on the walkway, he took himself to the edge and fell in. The hot spring is so hot, there was no body to recover. It just disintegrated.

But even if signs are made to be ignored, I would think that Disney needs to go all out on signage, and with information in the rooms, and given to people at check-in. Just a reminder that there are wild animals around, and you need to keep your distance. Maybe some info on what to do when you spot a wild thing.

And there has to be sensor and monitoring technology that can alert personnel when a new gator makes its way into the lagoon (which is man-made) from the adjoining lake. This isn’t rocket science, and the lagoon – while 14 feet deep – isn’t Loch Ness, which, at its deepest point, is 755 feet deep. If they want folks to hang out on the beach, or to kayak on the lagoon, which ain’t all that big, they may want to do a better job making it alligator free. While they’re at it, how about cameras on the bungalow porches, and automatic, no-refund ejection if you’re caught feeding the wildlife.

I’m sure they’re on it – and probably giving special attention to those bungalows. Especially given that it’s probably just a matter of time before someone overnighting in one of them decides it’s not enough to just toss Cheetos to the alligators. Someone’s going to want to go skinny dipping.

Disney will be assessing its risk here, and assessing, and assessing. There’ll be more warnings, more physical barriers, more preventive measures. They may not be up to their eyeballs in alligators yet, and the death of the poor little kiddo may be a one-in-trillion happenstance, but whoever decided they didn’t need to worry the pretty little heads of tourists with alligator warnings, and who, in fact decided that it was okay to make the lagoon environs something of an attractive nuisance, is likely rethinking those decisions.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The end of an era

When we moved into our condo, 25 years ago, there was an “old timer” living in the building. He’d been there forever, – since the 1950’s  – in a cramped basement apartment, somehow managing to shelter in place (was it rent control?), even after his apartment was condo-ized. This week, that “old timer” turns 99, so 25 years ago, he was “only” in his mid-seventies. Some old timer…

When we moved into our condo, and I met J, I recognized him right away. He was the bartender, and (as it turns out) the owner, of a bar in Cambridge I’d been to a couple of times. I knew him as an old grouch, as that’s what he’d been to me and my colleague Nancy when we made our monthly pilgrimage to the eponymous “J’s” for a grilled cheese sandwich, a diet coke, and an episode of All My Children, a soap that we both followed. There was never anybody else there. The TV was sitting there in the bar, unwatched. We were hardly disturbing anyone’s peace. We were good tippers (nothing like ex-waitresses). Yet the old grouch would slam down our sandwiches, anger-spray our diet cokes, and only grudgingly turn on AMC for us.

And here he was, the old grouch. In my building.

(By the way, “J’s” wasn’t the only bar that the old grouch owned. J had another place, quite well known as a music venue.)

Anyway, Jim and I rarely saw the old grouch. He worked really late at his club, then stayed in bed all day.

On rare occasions, he’d call us and ask – actually demand – that we help him take care of some little problem or other. He couldn’t figure out his answering machine. The light in his hall was out. Maybe he thought we were the live in supers. But we took care of whatever the problem was, telling each other that we were paying it forward, and maybe someone would be nice to us when we were old grouches.

Mostly when J saw us, and we greeted him, he kind of grudgingly acknowledged our existence with some sort of cantankerous hello. The only nice thing he ever said to me was when he told me that he really liked the tulips I planted each year. (J’s windows were on the front garden.)

Who cared that we weren’t best buddies? He was just an old grouch, nothing to do with us.

There was one period, however, when J kinda-sorta pissed us off. He invited a young ex-con to bunk in with him. I really do believe in second chances, but W was pretty hard core: surly, menacing, unpleasant. I was more than happy when W decamped.

J worked well into his eighties. Having had a night owl schedule for so long, he kept it up even after he quit. Most nights, he went out to dinner and then hit the bar scene. We’d see him walking over to his favorite place in Back Bay, and comment that he had the vigor of someone a decade (or two younger).

J still went out every night, but suddenly he started to slow down. He was no longer walking to his favorite place, J was out front flagging a cab. Sometimes I’d jump in and flag one for him.

We’d make sure J knew if something was happening in the building – water off for a couple of hours, or whatever. We’d run an occasional – very occasional – errand for him. Nothing noble, nothing above and beyond, just commonplace whatever. I always made sure that the ice was cleared from the steps that went down to his little basement flat.

Then J hit his mid-nineties, and he wasn’t really going out much anymore. Sometimes, I’d find him sitting on the front steps, taking in the sun. I’d get him a cup of water and tell him not to stay out to long. After a few minutes, I’d go out to check on him, figuring that someday, I wasn’t going to find him, but his body, dead from the heat.

Over the years, J’s landlord, M, could not have been better to him. J’s only child lived on the West Coast. She came East once a year or so, and, when J became house-bound a couple of years ago, she arranged for home aides to take care of him. But M, who had always been very attentive to J’s needs, stayed close to the situation, and made sure that J was getting the care he needed.

Running into them in our common laundry area, I got to know J’s home care aides, mostly middle-aged women from the DR. (One of them is a story for another day.) I made sure that they had my number, and told them they could call me or come by and knock any time if J fell. Or if he died, and they wanted someone to sit with them while waiting for someone to come and “call” it, and for the funeral parlor guys to come and fetch his body. The only call I ever got was when one wanted to know whether there was trash pickup on a holiday.

When my husband was dying, we had to laugh when Jim said, “Christ, I always said that g.d. J would outlive us all. And now it’s happening.”

Once J became housebound, I rarely saw him. He actually had plenty of friends who visited. He didn’t need someone who didn’t know or particularly like him, and whom he didn’t know or particularly like paying a call. But I heard him, moaning and hollering. I asked the home aides, and M, J’s landlord, about it. Just standard old age stuff, they assured me. He was calling for him mother, praying for God to take him.

A few weeks ago, when I was in the laundry room (which has a rear door into J’s apartment) I heard real yelling coming from J. “I’m in pain. I’m in pain.” I knocked on the door, and the aide told me that when she changed J and cleaned him up, it was painful when she touched his sores. Oh. I told her that he had bedsores, and she told me that she’d make sure the visiting nurse knew.

I called M and let him know. I ask him if he wanted me to call J’s daughter, but M said he’d take care of it. Then M jumped into immediate action. He got city elder services involved. He got one of those pressure-relieve mattresses brought in. He stepped up the nurse visits. And elder services made the call that J needed to be in a round-the-clock care setting. And then they made the arrangements.

Yesterday morning, J left for a nursing home. It’s quite a nice one. It’s Catholic, which J will like. (I believe he was in the seminary at one point in his life.) They’ll be able to move him out to get a little sun. They’ll make sure he gets turned regularly. He’ll be well taken care of.

Not that those home aides didn’t take good care of him.

If it means being in physical (bedsores) and/or existential (praying to die) pain, I don’t want to live to be 99. But if I do, I hope that I will have the same sort of kind, strong, good home caregivers that J has had. And a landlord as generous and attentive as M.

I won’t be surprised if J dies tomorrow. But he’s a tough old grouch, so I will be equally unsurprised if he makes it to 100.

Whatever happens with J, it’s the end of an era. And the beginning of a new one. While I’m not the grouchy type, I am now officially the old timer in residence here. Yes, there are a few people in our little building who are a couple of years older, but I’ve been here the longest.

I’m not going to say I’ll miss J. But still…Let’s just leave it that it’s the end of an era.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Oh, for the days of Bread and Circus

Way back in the day, if you wanted brown rice or (for some unfathomable reason) kale, there was only one place to get it around here, and that was at Bread and Circus. I didn’t shop there a lot – there was never one all that convenient to where I lived or worked – but there were a couple in Cambridge, and I did enjoy shopping there. Not everything was great. Those carob cupcakes had no flavor at all. But there was something about the Bread and Circus experience that I loved. Why, if I remember correctly, you could even get a copy of “Our Bodies/Ourselves” if you had, say, worn yours out thumbing through it. (Oooh? Aha!)

And then, sadly, nearly 25 years ago, Bread and Circus (a.k.a., Bread and Wallet) was bought out by Whole Foods (a.k.a., Whole Paycheck).

Around here, no one was all that overjoyed to see these interlopers lope in from Texas. But life goes on.

When the Whole Foods replaced my trusty (but beat-up) Stop and Shop, I did most of my grocery shopping there.

It was mostly fine. But sometimes you just want Cheerios. Or paper towels that actually absorb a liquid spill.

So I’d make an occasional foray to the Shaw’s/Star Market – the name seems to ratchet back and forth – in the Prudential Center. This store, if not for its insanely dysfunctional layout, would be fine. The produce is decent, the selection great, and they do stock Cheerios and Bounty. But it was a bit of a longer schlepp than Whole Foods, so mostly I shopped at Whole Foods.

And then – miracle of miracles – a Roche Brothers opened on the site of the old Filene’s Basement. It’s about the same distance from my house to Roche Bros. or Whole, but Roche Bros. has both real, non-tricked up food, plus the good stuff, like Nashoba Farms bread and organic cashews. There are a couple of things I like at Whole, so sometimes I drift over. Or if I’m walking by on my way back from the train station, I’ll stop in. But mostly I pledge allegiance to Roche Bros. Great store. Great service. Great family. Great story. Think globally, shop locally.

When I was a Whole Foods shopper, I would, on rare occasion, buy some prepared food. But those rare occasions will become extra-rare, given some recent info:

The Food and Drug Administration has warned Whole Foods Markets to resolve serious violations found at a regional food preparation facility in Everett after inspectors discovered condensation from ceiling pipes dripping on food, as well as evidence of the germ Listeria.(Source: Boston Globe)

Whole Foods was – or feigned – surprise, claiming that they thought they had cleared all this up. (The findings were based on an inspection this past winter.)

FDA inspectors who visited the Everett plant, known as Whole Foods Market North Atlantic Kitchen, wrote that they saw condensation dripping onto surfaces where dishes such as pesto pasta and mushroom quesadillas were being prepared or stored, as well as uncovered barrels of egg salad “that were placed in an area below the condenser. Condensate was observed to be dripping at a rate of approximately once per second.”

Phew! I make my own pasta salad, never bought any mushroom quesadillas, and hate egg salad. (My husband loved it, so I may have gotten it for him on occasion. You don’t suppose…)

The FDA inspectors also found a type of Listeria that indicated the presence of a more severe form of the germ when they tested swabs of more than 100 surfaces throughout the facility. The letter said it found Listeria welshimeri, a form of the bacteria that the FDA said is an indicator of the probable presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly form of the bacteria.

Oh, and they over disinfected salad stuff. And employees didn’t use hot water to wash their hands. And all sorts of other gacky stuff.

I’m sure that Whole Foods will remedy all this, but, well, yikes!

I logged plenty of time in food service (of the restaurant variety), and I saw all kinds of things going on. But never condensate dripping on the egg salad.

Yuck upon yuck.

So happy that, last spring, Roche Bros. opened nearby. They even sell wine now. What’s not to like?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

“The World’s Best Restaurant”? What can this possibly mean?

Well, just in case you’ve been holding your breath – or holding out on making a reservation for your next dining experience – Osteria Francescana, Modena Italy, has been named the world’s best restaurant. Really. Really?

I’m sure that it’s a swell place. After all,

Osteria Francescana is filled with artworks collected by [Massimo] Bottura, and the dishes reflect his love of artists such as Ai Weiwei and Wassily Kandinsky. They are colorful and exuberant, complex and fun—yet totally focused. His Caesar Salad in Emilia may look like naked lettuce, but hidden inside are 15 ingredients: the cheese in the form of crispy wafers; the eggs cured in salt and sugar and then air-dried until they are hard enough to grate; the tomatoes strained through cheesecloth for at least 12 hours. (Source: Bloomberg)

Okay, if you’re like me, you’d rather eat out at a place that was willing to strain tomatoes for 12 hours, and cure an air-dry eggs until they’re hard enough to grate than do it yourself. So I’m sure that any restaurant willing to go to these lengths is a swell place.

Plus, if you’re like me, you don’t have any Kandinsky on your walls, or any Weiwei on your coffee table. Not that, if you’re like me, you wouldn’t want a Kandinsky on your wall. But then there’s Weiwei.

As it turned out, I’m so out of it, I’d never actually heard of Weiwei until I saw this article on the world’s greatest restaurant. But, as it also turned out, I had actually seen some Weiwei, up close and personal, just the other day.

Out on a walk with my cousin MB on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, we ran across a group of giant bronze animal heads surrounding a splash fountain that kids play in during the summer months. We made a few comments revealing just what sort of philistines we are – we thought the sculptures were weird, creepy; we hoped that they weren’t permanent – and went on our way, which was to Weiweithe Saturday Greenway craft fair. And now, come to find out, what we were commenting on, in our philistine-ish way, was Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”, which is “intended ‘to highlight global issues of looting and repatriation of cultural treasures.” Pink Slip to Weiwei: repatriate away.

Fortunately, from my pedestrian perspective, they’re only here until October.

Just one more sad indicator that I apparently know as much about fine art as I do about fine dining of the 12-hour tomato straining variety.

In my day, I actually ate fairly often at some quite highly-rated restaurants, especially on trips my husband and I made to NYC over the years. On our last few trips, we managed to eat at some Boulud or another, some Bernardin or another, and the Jean-Georges (located, I am embarrassed to admit, in some Trump building or another). Back in our early days, we swore by the late and lamented Côte Basque, the late and lamented (at least by us) Lutèce, and the late and lamented (at least by us) Caravelle. We also had one memorably terrible meal at The Four Seasons. With the exception of The Four Seasons, these places all folded in 2004, which was actually well after we had stopped bothering to eat there on our trips to New York. But fancy dining out remained a fun part of our frequent NYC trips. 

Of the NYC “biggies”, our favorite was La Côte Basque, where they had a fabulous seafood terrine, a great beef dish (name forgotten: the gravy was to die for), and a spectacular chocolate cake. In quest of these and other delights, we’d often hit the Côte a couple of times on a trip. Because we were nowhere near as poshly dressed (to put it mildly) as most of the diners, I know that there was occasional eye-rolling when we came in. One time, the waiter whose section we were put in eye-rolled something to the maître d', who sotto voce’d back to him, ils sont très gentils. Well, yes, we were very nice, but I’m sure what he meant was “they may look like rubes, but they tip well.”

Another memorable experience there was the time my husband complained about the smoked salmon appetizer, telling the waiter it wasn’t up to their usual standards.

Given that my husband was known to eat tuna fish straight out of the can, I thought it was completely ridiculous that he felt that his refined palate could discern the difference between one pricey smoked salmon and the other. But, as it turned out, the restaurant had recently changed the source of their smoked salmon from Norway to Scotland (or the other way around), and, according to chef proprietor Jean-Jacques Rachou (who came out of the kitchen in his toque blanche to speak with us), they had not done the same lengthy vetting process they usually did when changing sources. He apologized profusely, and came out at dessert time to whip up a Chantilly cream with Grand Marnier that he dolloped onto to our chocolate cake for us.

So, anyway, I’ve been to plenty of really good restaurants, and I know that there can be some place that’s a favorite. And there can be plenty that are pretty darned good (if not great). But there are an estimated 15 million restaurants worldwide, leading me to believe that there’s really no such thing as the world’s greatest restaurant. Just more silliness, brought to us by the folks who think that it really matters that someone takes 12 hours to strain a tomato…

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Hub of the Universe

On Friday, the day that The Greatest was buried in Louisville, a front page headline on read Muhammad Ali to be buried in Boston-made casket.

Now, this may not have been an above-the-fold header in the paper version of the paper, but it’s still quite something that it was a biggie online.

Things like this are what I most love about The Hub of the Universe.

Boston is, at once, a sophisticated city – “world class” is the term we like to throw around – and an incredibly pokey little backwater that’s always thrilled when there’s some kind of local connection to something big.

It’s nothing I didn’t grow up around. In the pokey little backwater at the heart of the Commonwealth (and that would be Worcester, Massachusetts), we were steeped in Worcester connections, Worcester firsts. Space-man Robert Goddard. Humorist Robert Benchley. Famous ‘r Us.

The David Clark company made the space suits for the Gemini missions. Esther Forbes, who wrote Johnny Tremain – which was turned into a Walt Disney serial  –  grew up in Worcester. The smiley face was invented there. So was the diner. A Worcester girl – “our” parish, even – once made it to the finals of the Miss America pageant.

I remember being thrilled to learn that WORC was used to test new singles, as its listeners – that would be Worcester teens – were so discerning that we could suss out a hit. (The song I remember this bit of info being associated with was “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain,” by those one-hit wonders, the Cascades. We, the kids of Worcester, green-lighted it!)

We were inordinately proud when Worcester was named an All American City, not realizing just what a bit of hokum that was. And Celtic great Bob Cousy lived in Worcester. How about that?

And lest you think that Worcester’s glory days are completely in its Robert Benchley/Bob Cousy past, I have two words for you: Denis Leary.

Oh, sure, I’ve heard him called a Boston boy, but he’s a Worcester-ite. And I can forgive him if he does that before-the-cock-crows “I’m from Boston” thing. I’ve done it myself. Sometimes it’s just easier to say you’re from a place people have heard of.

For Worcester – one of the largest cities in the country that no one had ever heard of, even people who lived 50 miles down the road in Boston – all this focus on “’famous’ people and stuff from Worcester is pretty understandable. We were sitting out there in Central Mass, all by our lonesome, but close enough to Boston to live perpetually in its shade.Not to mention the shade that was thrown our way by Bostonians who’d actually heard of us.

There was something almost embarrassing about Worcester’s earnest little attempts to be somebody. We coulda been a contendah, if only Boston didn’t exist…

Anyway, when I moved to Boston in my late teens, I wasn’t quite expecting my adopted home town to be quite as hokey as Worcester was. And, certainly, it wasn’t.

Boston was the capital. A big league city, in all four major sports. It had Harvard and MIT, and so what if they were in Cambridge. And lots of famous people came from Boston, like Leonard Nimoy and Leonard Bernstein. (Worcester had Roberts; Boston had Leonards.) And famous stuff had happened here, like the Boston Tea Party and one-if-by-land. The cherry on the top of the sundae: when you said “Boston” people were familiar with it.

Still, there was a defensiveness about it.

If Worcester wasn’t Boston, then Boston wasn’t New York City.

Not that we have to be New York City, but in the back of the collective mind was a niggling sense that the words of New York, New York were true. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Whereas, all that making it in Boston meant was that if you could make it here, you could obviously make it in Worcester, or anyplace else in New England.

Whatever the roots or reality of our inferiority complex, we tend to really enjoy things more when there’s a local connection. Miracle on Ice? Those are OUR guys out there. And Ho Chi Minh was a dishboy at the Parker House. We see the world through the filter of Boston. Maybe this is true everywhere, but it’s true here in spades.

There’s a local joke that cites a fictitious newspaper headline: "2 Hub men die in blast, New York also destroyed"

So no one’s really surprised that, on the day that Muhammad Ali was buried, we were headlining the Boston connection:

When boxing legend Muhammad Ali is laid to rest in Louisville, Ky., he will be buried in a solid mahogany casket designed and manufactured at a small factory in East Boston.

For the record, Ali’s family chose the Concord, which “retails for as much as $25,000.” Boston’s own New England Casket Company.

We really are the Hub of the Universe!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

On Saturday, I stood in a light rain to watch the annual Pride Parade. It’s always touching to see the young kids coming out for this event, their exuberance and pride so sweet and lovely to see. How easy they appear to be with being out. The millennials are said to be the most open and accepting of generations when it comes to sexuality, and this is wonderful. But when I see the older generation of gay men and women who also come out for the parade, I am reminded that “open and accepting” is brought to you by the brave men and women who came out when it was not quite such an open and accepting world.

One of the things I like about the parade is how many LGBT groups represent their companies. The parade passes quite near to my home – years ago, it use to go right by my doorstep – so I’ve been watching it off and on for years. Earlier on, there were few – if any – workplaces represented. The groups were mostly directly gay-related, or from religious organizations (Catholics from Dignity, and, of course, every UU church around). And, of course, PFLAG, starting from back in the day when, if wasn’t easy to be gay, it wasn’t so easy to be the parents of gay folks, either.

But now there are a ton of work groups. And here they were, groups from EMC, Wayfair (“you’ve got just what I need”), Eastern Bank, all of the major hospitals, Walmart (yes, Walmart!), Converse (where the marchers were sporting some excellent rainbow colored Chuck Taylors), TJ Maxx (I snagged a nifty rainbow-striped shopping bag they were giving out)… Too many workplaces to keep track of.

I remember the days when it was not such a common or easy thing to be out at work.

Once you got to know someone, they’d eventually let you know. They’d drop a name, or tell you outright. The situation was not all that hush-hush – I don’t recall anyone every saying “don’t tell anyone else” –  but it was considered pretty gutsy to put a picture up in your office, or bring a partner to an event that included spouses.

I remember one Christmas party when a lesbian colleague introduced her wife (this was decades before gay marriage) to our COO and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. COO were quite conservative (they were from Kansas, and he was retired military), especially by the standards of our lefty, Cambridge, software company. I was close enough to gauge the reaction of Mrs. COO. Her eyes were bugging out of her head. But they were pros: polite and composed. And I was very proud of my colleague Margaret. (I haven’t thought of her in years. I hope she got to really marry her wife, and that they’re still together.)

But overtime, gay was okay in the workplace. And, pretty much, everywhere else. At least pretty much everywhere else I go. (Last year, even dear old Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalize gay marriage.)

All of a sudden, all those many years ago, I realized, hey, some of my best friends are gay.

One of them called me at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday.

Peter asked whether I’d seen the news about Orlando, and I thought he was talking about the Christina Grimmie murder.

No, he said, the night club.

Oddly, although I usually check the headlines first thing in the morning, I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I looked online. Oh, the night club.

We talked about whether it was going to turn into an act of jihadi terrorism or an anti-gay hate crime. Turns out that it’s looking like a two-fer.

We talked about how it was likely that those who were gunned down were young. (Let’s face it, few people our age are out clubbing at 2 a.m.) We talked about how it seemed to make it even worse that this is Pride Month everywhere.

So many different threads to unravel here.

How many disaffected young Muslim Americans are vulnerable to getting sucked into nihilistic jihadi evil. How easy it is to get your hands of weapons, even when you’re someone who’s been checked out by the FBI for having at least a whiff of terrorism around him. How many people there still are out there who are insanely, blindly, hatefully warped by their hatred and prejudice towards gay people.

And what about all those beautiful young folks I saw on Saturday, proudly walking in the Boston Pride Parade?

This was the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history. And it was directed toward the gay community.

When these massacres are “generic” – i.e., not aimed at any group in particular – they are still, of course, terrible. And for the family and friends of those killed, it probably doesn’t matter whether the intent was general or particular. But when they’re aimed at a specific community – the member of Emanuel Church in Charleston, the LGBT “kids” partying at Pulse in Orlando – to those of us not directly impacted, it does seem worse.

I think of all those joyous young people I saw whooping it up at Saturday’s parade. Keep the pride, kiddos. Let’s hope that at some point we’ll be able, as a society, to do something about the prejudice.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Travel agents? Apparently, they’re the new thing.

I’m a big fan of the show, The Americans. The plot revolves around an All-American family of the Reagan-era. Nice suburbjapanesse lanternsan home in the DC area. (And I do enjoy the fact that, hanging in the entry way of that nice suburban home is the same thing that hangs in my den: a crewel work of Japanese lanterns in a “modern” vase. The difference being that mine was made by my mother, while theirs was probably picked up by a prop person at a yard sale.) Two typical kids. Working mom.

While the Jennings may look like the All-American family, looks can be deceiving. Not to mention that spies are everywhere. And a couple of those spies are living in the Jennings’ typical suburban home, as Philip and Elizabeth are Russian spies under deep, dark cover doing their spy stuff. Part of their cover? Their business. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings own and operate a travel agency.

Travel agency. Well, those were the days.

Or were they?

I’ve done a fair amount of travel, and even in the good old pre-Internet days, I didn’t tend to use a travel agent. I do remember going over to one of the airline offices – most of which were in the Statler Building in Boston’s Park Square – and asking about schedules and prices, and picking up tickets. For hotels? We used travel guides, and phoned or faxed to make our reservations.

I do recall a couple of trips to travel agents. One visit I recall had the travel agent droning on about an exciting fare to somewhere called “The Bicentennial Nightly,” or, as the agent abbreviated it, the BN. Well, that was obviously 1976, but I can’t remember where we were heading on our BN. For years after, however, when we planned our trips we’d ask ourselves whether we’d be able to secure a BN fare for ourselves.

Businesses had travel offices that either ran everything on their own, or were the intermediary between you and the travel agency that they worked with. You put in your request, and your reservations got made for you.

And then there was the Internet, and who needed a travel agency? You had everything you needed online. Oh, I assumed that if you were doing something really out of the ordinary for personal travel, you might want to work with a travel agent. But our travel was pretty garden-variety: we went to NYC, we went to California, we went to some city in Europe. No terra incognita for us. If we liked a place, we frequented it. (NYC, Ireland, Paris…)

But, until I saw an article the other day on Bloomberg, I didn’t realize that online booking services, with their clunky interfaces, are considered old school – almost as old school as dropping in on a travel agent. To get some new school thang going, appearing on the horizon are “a series of disruptive travel services that are blending human intelligence with mobile technology. The goal: striking a middle ground in an industry where the personal touch still means something, but the bottom-line savings of D.I.Y. tech is hard to beat.”

There’s Skylark, which you join for $400 a year and which is focused on the “luxury leisure market.” Skylark is an outcropping of Ovation Travel.

“Until recently,” [Ovation president Jack Ezon] said, “our agency’s high-end customers weren’t going online—the internet was really a mass market space.” (Source: Bloomberg.)

Hey, you upscale snob, that’s me you’re talking about in the mass market space. I’ve booked some pretty pricey hotels online, thank you very much. I guess they just weren’t luxurious or leisurely enough. Not to mention that I don’t do enough travel to justify spending $400 a year to use an app that “is paired with a live travel specialist” who you can contact via the channel of your choice: phone, IM, email.

The service will help you coordinate a scavenger hunt for the kids in Rio or get VIP access tickets to the British Museum in London, for instance. 

Hmmmm. I don’t imagine, in this time of Zika worry, that there’ll be a boatload of folks signing their kids up for scavenger hunts in Rio.

Marchay’s more upscale: $2K for annual membership, and bills itself as a “private travel collective,” in which members must spend a minimum of $25K per year. With a price tag of $25K, we’re not thinking Soviet farmers or kibbutzniks. If you join this collective, you get to work with a dedicated team member. And you get big discounts at primo hotels.

Lola is the brainchild of Paul English, whose other brainchild was Kayak.

Lola lets users text their travel needs to specialists, who do the research and present a handful of options—all via an in-app messaging system.

Those handful of options are generated by an AI back end that “can detect patterns in your preferences and automatically generate personalized recommendations.”

Not clear what Lola will cost. (Maybe it will follow Kayak. Not that I know how Kayak works…)

Essentialist will cost you. In year one, it’s free. After that, it’s $1.4K a year. At Essentialist, you’re paying for content. And it’s not just any old content, but the kind of scoop it sounds like you might find in the glossy books you find in hotel rooms. You know, the ones with some trendy articles and a lot of ads.

“This isn’t the standard information that you can get from a lot of travel sites and authorities,” said [co-founder Nancy] Novogrod. “It’s very on-the-ground and insider-y, on a very contemporary and innovative platform.”

You also get “travel planning and support” for your air and hotel reservations, plus “access to experiences that aren’t generally available to the public. For instance, Novogrod leveraged her connections in Venice to set up a family dinner in a private palazzo not generally open to the public.”

Or, I guess, a scavenger hunt in Rio.

Me, I’ll stick to the clunky DIY online approach. My travel is nothing special, except to me. And so far, the DIY approach, has been so good.

As for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, at some point they need to get caught, don’t they? Wonder what will happen to their travel agency business.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Butcher’s Granddaughter

I am something of a walking-talking ethnic stereotype. My Irish grandfather was a saloon-keeper, proprietor with his brother Jim of the Rogers Brothers Saloon. My German grandfather was a butcher, who owned his own grocery store. (My cousin Ellen it locked in a tie here: her Irish grandfather was a Chicago cop.)

My mother was definitely the butcher’s daughter. The Norman Rockwell family gathering scenario of the father gravely carving the turkey didn’t exist in our family. My mother knew how to carve meat, and generally did so, wherever the family gathering was held. A man carve meat? Not in our house. That was women’s work.

(As an aside, my mother’s favorite kitchen tool was a fabulous utility knife that her father had given her when she got married. After 50+ years of daily use, a chunk fell off the by-then thinned blade. My mother was crushed. She was never going to replace that honey of a knife.)

I’m only the butcher’s granddaughter in name only. I wasn’t even two when Grandpa Wolf died, so I have no recall of him at all. I mostly buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts. When necessary, I don’t so much carve as hack. My Grandfather Rogers died when my father was 11, so he’s always been a mystery man to me. Yet, heritage-wise, I probably do a better job handling alcohol than handling meat.

(And speaking of professions that went out of business. Before my grandfather opened his saloon, he was a blacksmith. He was smart enough to go with a sure thing for his next business. Too bad about all those Carrie Nation do-gooders.)

Anyway, although I could probably live quite happily as a vegetarian, I sorta/kinda have a soft spot in my non-eviscerated heart for butchers.

So I was interested in an article I saw a while back in the Boston Globe on the shortage of butchers.

While foodies, chefs, and everyday shoppers increasingly want to trace their meat back to the farmer and town where the animals were raised, slaughterhouses and supermarkets are having trouble finding enough workers who are willing or able to cut meat for a living.

“It’s very hard to get someone to butcher,” said Richard Blood, a seventh-generation butcher who works at his family’s Groton slaughterhouse, Blood Farm. They’ve been looking for six months to fill an opening for a butcher and in the fall will need another. Finding help “is always a headache,” he said. (Source: Boston Globe)

Blood? Blood! I always thought that Wolf was a pretty good name for a butcher. But Blood! It doesn’t get much better than that. Well, actually it does. In the article, there’s a quote from Paul Butcher, a meat cutter at my very own Roche Bros. (Names can, of course, get a lot worse. The mother of a friend of mine once saw a surgeon named Dr. Klutz.)

Anyway, whether you’re looking at butchers – who work on the entire animal – or meat cutters, who work on smaller pieces of meat – the numbers are going down. The number of “slaughterhouse butchers” in the state are down 82% since 2012; when butchers and meat cutters are combined, there were 150 fewer in Massachusetts in 2015 than there were in 2000. Across the country, the numbers have declined by 9,000 over the past two decades.

It’s really no wonder that it’s hard to find someone willing to be a butcher. There’s the blood. There’s the gore. There are the guts. (Who wants to disembowel?) And for short money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, slaughterhouse butchers and grocery store meat cutters make about $30K a year.

Here’s what Richard Blood has to say:

“You’re working with blood, you’re working with all kinds of fluids,” he said. “And they don’t give a hog a towel bath before you butcher it.”

And, in the words of Roche Bros.’ Paul Butcher: “a lot of people are just grossed out by it.”

I did mention that I could be a vegetarian, did I not?

So, it’s a crappy (sometimes literally) job, and ill-paid, to boot. And the need for it is, given that many grocery stores only carry meat that is fully packaged already. All the butchering and meat cutting is done at a central facility and distributed ready-to-go.

What you can do to increase the supply is to – Econ 101 – raise the wages. But if you raise the wages, there’s even more incentive to go with the cheaper (and probably at least partially automated) centralized Walmart meat facility route.

And speaking of professions that went out of business. Before my grandfather opened his saloon, he was a blacksmith. He was smart enough to go with a sure thing for his next business. Too bad about all those Carrie Nation do-gooders.

Anyway, I don’t miss walking around the North End and seeing partially skinned rabbits hanging in butcher store windows. I don’t ever care to see a calf or pig head sitting there on chipped ice, surrounded by fake grass. (In Ireland, the butcher store ‘ick’ is the little lamb tongues.) And, while I’m at it, I’m not all that fond of seeing a blank white fish-eye staring at me when I order trout or some other fish that comes with its head still attached.

Still, I’m not the butcher’s granddaughter for nothing. So it’s sad to see the profession on the wane. I’m guessing that, unless there’s another call (hah!) for Prohibition, which is what did in the Rogers Brothers Saloon, there’ll always be bars.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Test Drive? Not for much longer.

Test driving the car of your dreams may soon be a thing of the past. Not that it’s an experience I have a car-load of experience with, but I’ll miss it nonetheless.

Un-American as it may well be to admit, I’ve never been much of a car owner. I’ve lived, worked, and gone to school in cities. The great thing about cities – if you pick your spots right – is that in a lot of them you don’t need a car. In my mid-thirties, I got my first car when the company where I was working upped stakes from on-the-Red-Line Cambridge to off-the-public-transpo-grid Lexington. That first car was a used Honda Civic, a 1981 I think, that I bought from a colleague. I don’t think I test drove it. I just gave her a check for $2K and took possession.

The car was from the era when Civics were complete rust buckets. The color: dirty white with authentic rust accents. The car had 52,000 miles on it, and got me where I had to go, which was to Lexington and, later on, to Lowell. But it got rustier by the day. Then the driver-side door permanently locked, so I had to use the passenger side door, humping over the gear-shift to get me into the driver seat. And then it started to give out, making a terrible noise when I was in fourth gear.

Emergency: I had to get a car. A new car. I went to Pride Lincoln Mercury and test drove my Mercury Tracer on the Lynnway. It was an enjoyable experience to drive a car that you could shift with ease, and that didn’t require you to stomp on the clutch to get it in. My friends Peter and Tony drove me to the dealership – it wasn’t clear that my car would make it - and Tony (speaking Greek to the salesman) negotiated the deal, which got me $100 on the trade-in for my Civic, sight-unseen. The next day, my Civic chugged its way to the dealership, never making it out of third gear. (In fourth, it definitely sounded like it was going to blow apart.) When I got to the lot, the car choked and died. The sales guy told me that, if he’d seen the car, the trade-in value would have been zero. But I had my first ever new car, and had had my first ever test drive.

But we’re entering the era of the no test drive, no showroom car buying experience, big time.

Cadillac, it seems:

…has plans to replace showrooms with physical vehicles on-site to ones with virtual reality headsets for customers to use, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Cadillac’s president Johan de Nysschen will reportedly soon ask store owners to commit to switching to the virtual reality headset model. At the revamped showrooms, customers can learn about new products with the headsets. (Source: Fortune)

It’s not clear whether these headsets will provide info-only, or whether they’ll also allow people to do a test-drive a la Flight Simulator. But surely that’s where it’s going. With all the technology around today, it’s certainly going to be possible to simulate everything, from the dashboard right down to that wonderful new-car smell, and the feel of fine Corinthian leather – or whatever luxe material they use for the seats in Cadillacs. 

I find it pretty interesting that it’s Cadillac going this route, rather than some hip, young-skewing brand. Can’t you just picture Uncle Arthur in his fly-boy sunglasses and Sans-a-belt pants putting on his headset and virtually test driving his new Caddie? Of course, my image of the Cadillac driver is an old geezer, when in real life the average Cadillac owner is probably my age. (Which I guess makes them old geezers. Sigh…) Which means that they are not likely to be technologically-averse. Unlike the ancient Uncle Arthur of my Caddie-driving imagining.

Whether this approach backfires on the Cadillac demographic or not, it’s pretty clear that the test drive will be yet another experience of the past.

After I left Wang for another job on the Red Line in Cambridge, I sold my car through an ad in the Want Advertiser. I can’t remember if the guy test-drove it or not. I was just happy to once again be car-free.

Then that Red Line company re-lo’d to Burlington. So once again I needed a car.

This led to my second (and probably final) test drive, and the purchase of my second (and probably final) new car. That car was a New Beetle, purchased in 1998 when they were the Next New Thing.

I test drove a Newbie just to get the feel of it, but that test drive wasn’t necessary at all. For me, the New Beetle was love at first sight. Who needed love at first test drive? All that Baby Boomer nostalgia, plus a flower vase. What’s not the love?

I had to get on a wait list to get that car, and I bought a blue one, even though I’d never even seen a picture or sample of what that blue looked like. I had some nervousness about whether the color would be an ugly reflex blue, but it was quite pretty. i enjoyed that car but, once again, once I no longer needed it to commute, I got rid of it. Volunteers of America came and hauled it away, and I got a tax deduction.

Pay phones. Newspapers. Test drives. Yet another thing to miss, even though you don’t actually need them.

But life goes on. Driving does, too, until the self-driving car renders the entire thing obsolete. Guess we’ll have to settle for virtual test rides.