Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Jolly Roger Telco. Roger that, you telemarketing pirates.

If you do nothing else today to waste time on the Internet, you need to head over to Jolly Roger Telco and listen to a bunch of recorded dialogs between nasty/nastily persistent telemarketers and robots (there are many different personas available) who patiently engage these nasty/nastily persistent telemarketers.

Jolly Roger’s pitch is simple:

Tired of telemarketers calling your landline or mobile? I'm sorry to say, they will never, ever stop. And no amount of screaming "take me off your list", or "he doesn't live here", or "I will never buy your product" will make these calls go away.

But now there is a way to fight back.  The Jolly Roger Telephone Co. provides a friendly, agreeable, patient robot that talks to these rude telemarketers for you. It is happy to chat, and will typically keep an unwary salesperson engaged for several minutes.

I don’t generally answer calls when I don’t recognize the number, but I have on occasion done the scream-back. And I have on occasion engaged the scammer with enough hmmmm’s and oh’s to waste their time. Of course, now that so many of the calls don’t actually have a live person behind the voice, this really isn’t that satisfying a strategy.

One of my favorite groups to string along was the Republican Party.

A few election cycles back, I somehow found my way onto a Republican call and mail list.

My guess is that it was because at the time I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. That or someone signed me up as a joke.

Anyway, for a couple of years, I got a ton of calls that all started out something along the lines of “Please hold for an important message from Newt Gingrich.” After listening to a recording of Newt going on about Obama’s being the anti-Christ, someone – a real human – would come on to gauge how strongly I agreed with the Newster. I would start pushing back on some of the more outrageous statements being made – “Gee, I didn’t realize that President Obama was the worst president in the history of our country. Wasn’t that, like, James Buchanan?”. And then I’d ask a few clarifying questions. Then the person on the phone would make an ask. Needless to say, I never gave them a penny, but it took years before someone said, “You’re not a Republican, are you?” Baptized a Catholic, but born a Democrat, baby. And that was what finally got me off the Republican call lists.

As for the Democrats, I toss plenty of coin their way, but NEVER give when solicited over the phone. And I have no idea how to permanently get my name and number off any and all of the many Democratic organizations who try to shake me down. I think what happens is I get off a list, only to get re-upped when I make a donation (however paltry) to a Congressional, Senatorial, or Gubernatorial campaign out of state.

Mostly, though, I ignore strange calls – stranger danger! - then check out the number afterwards. Then, if, as I suspect, it’s a scam of some sort, or otherwise someone I don’t want to hear from, I block the number.

These guys have, of course, gotten a lot more cagey over the years, and are now having spoofed numbers with your exchange show up. And, yep, when I see a number starting 617-523 or 617-875, I always pause and think, ‘is this someone I know?” Nah….

Anyway, I mostly don’t need the services of Jolly Roger Telco. But if I did, I’d be all over it. The brainchild of one Roger Anderson  - a telcom consultant who lives, breathes, and genuinely loves telephones -  Jolly Roger was invented because Anderson got sick of telemarketers. So he came up with a reverse robo caller.

Whenever Mr. Anderson hears from a telemarketer, he patches the caller through to his robot, puts his phone on mute and lets his bot do the talking. While the simple robot does not possess anything near artificial intelligence, it does understand speech patterns and inflections, so it can monitor what the telemarketer is saying, and then do its best to try to keep the person on the end of the line engaged. Often the robot just has a little fun. Using recorded lines spoken by Mr. Anderson, it may say the following to the telemarketer: “I just woke up from a nap, I took some medicine and I’m really groggy. Can you go a little slower?” Sometimes it interrupts the telemarketer to ask questions. “Do you drink coffee?” or “You sound like someone I went to high school with.” The idea is to keep the telemarketer on the call for as long as possible. The longer the conversation goes on, the more eccentric the robot becomes. In one sequence, the robot tells the telemarketer that a bee landed on his arm, and asks the telemarketer to keep talking as he focuses on the bee. (Source: NY Times)

Since the article appeared in The Times (February 2016), Anderson raised some Kickstarter and Indiegogo funds, and he does have some pretty amusing robots to choose from.

As I said, if you’re up for a bit of time-wasting, head on over and give a listen. And if you want to buy in, the service is quite inexpensive.

Me, I’ll just see if they leave a message, google any suspicious number, and then block it. But if things get worse – say, the Republicans get me back on their call list – I just might sign me up for some Jolly Roger. And, when it comes to the worst president ever, I most assuredly will have a replacement for James Buchanan.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Yo, Yoplait! That’s some authenticity you got going there.

I don’t remember exactly when yogurt became a “thing”. The late 1960’s? The early 1970’s? Anyone, somewhere along my dietary timeline, I became a yogurt eater. I think I began with Dannon before making a brief switch to Yoplait – which was French (or French-sounding), so seemed a bit more sophisticated -  before going back to Dannon. Yoplait I found kind of slimy. I was definitely more of a Dannon girl. I toyed with Stoneyfield Farms for a while. Then yogurt became Greek to me, and I started buying Chobani. Then I found Fage, which I’ve stuck with for a good long time now, with occasional forays to Iceland (Siggi’s) and Australia (Noosa).

I typically have a couple of some sort of fruit yogurt containers in the fridge for a quick breakfast or lunch. And if I make anything that calls for sour cream, I sub in plain yogurt. And throw fruit in any left over plain yogurt.

So, yeah, I do yogurt.

Just not Yoplait.

Which goes for most yogurt-consumers. Yoplait, it seems, has been on the decline since the Greeks started opa!-ing their way onto the grocery store shelves.

Yoplait has tried to come up with a Greek yogurt of their own. For their first outing:

All they needed was the perfect, authentic ­sounding name. One group argued for the Greek word for health and some oddly ecstatic punctuation: Ygeía! Another camp said that sounded like someone vomiting, and pushed instead for made ­up names that combined Yoplait with Hellenic suffixes, such as Yoganos. For months, several current and former employees told me, executives debated the options. One manager began ostentatiously leafing through a Greek dictionary during meetings; a rival, not to be outdone, started auditing Greek language classes. Eventually a choice was needed. Yoplait, based in Minneapolis, is part of General Mills, the huge international food conglomerate, which prides itself on cleareyed, data­driven decision ­making…So in the end, executives turned to their spreadsheets. They discovered that neither Ygeía! nor Yoganos — nor any of the other ersatz names — tested well. The data pointed in a more traditional direction. So to great fanfare, in 2010, they released their finely tuned attempt to reclaim the yogurt crown. They called it Yoplait Greek. It tanked almost immediately. (Source: NY Times)

That wasn’t the only time that Yoplait tried to crack the Greek code, and all the other attempts failed miserably.

So now they’re abandoning the notion of trying to become fake Greeks. They figured out the what people liked about, say, Chobani, was not necessarily the yogurt. What they liked was the Chobani story. (This may work for some consumers, but I had no idea what their story was. I learned about Chobani because one of my sister’s had it. Nor do I know the Fage story – other than that their name isn’t pronounced in any way that’s intuitive to me. I believe my sisters were my ur-source on Fage, too. And Siggi. And Noosa.) But Yoplait wanted a story, so they came up with something that seems more in keeping with their French roots.

…if, as you are shopping, you happen to pick up a small glass pot of Oui and are momentarily transported to the French countryside, you’ll know that the company has finally figured out how to look beyond the data and embrace the narrative. Yoplait may have figured out how to fake authenticity as craftily as everyone else. In that lesson, there’s a deeper business experiment — one you contribute to every time you pick up a product because you think someone once told you that it was healthier, or tastier, or better for the environment, or something like that. All companies manufacture authenticity to some degree. That’s called marketing. But, increasingly, creating a sense of genuineness is essential to success.

Faking authenticity, creating a sense of genuineness, embracing the narrative.

All I can say is I’m so happy that most of my work has been in the B2B (business to business) or T2T (techie to techie; not a real category, just one I made up) technology world, where I never had to worry about creating a backstory.

How exciting is the narrative when it pretty much boils down to “a customer asked us to do this, and we figure if one customer wants it, there’ll be other ones out there who will, too.” Now, this didn’t always turn out to be the case, but you could never say we didn’t try.

Another common backstory was, “hey, a bunch of our techies were playing around and they came up with this; do you think you could use it?”

Oh, I did work for companies that had narratives. Softbridge built the recorder that was used in Windows 3.0, and was one of the only companies present at the World Trade Center (yes, that World Trade Center) when Bill Gates unveiled Windows 3.0 in 1992. Yay, us! (We never talked about the other part of the narrative: we got suckered into giving it to them for a couple of bucks; if we’d gotten a penny a license for every install of Windows 3.0, we probably would have survived longer than we did.)

At Genuity, our foundational myth was that we sprung from BBN, which did, indeed, invent the Internet (more or less). And one of our guys was the first to use the @ sign in an email message. Plus one of our techies won some sexiest geek alive contest. All this backstory was supposed to get people to pay a premium for our Internet services. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. (In the long run, it didn’t.) But most of our services didn’t have much by way of their own authentic narrative. Thankfully.

Here’s the story that Yoplait’s banking on:

For centuries (or so the story goes), French farmers have made yogurt by putting milk, fruit and cultures into glass jars and then setting them aside. So Yoplait tweaked its recipe and began buying glass jars. “Instead of culturing the ingredients in large batches and then filling individual cups,” the company’s news release reads, “Oui by Yoplait is made by pouring ingredients into each individual pot, and allowing each glass pot to culture for eight hours, resulting in a uniquely thick, delicious yogurt.” Some may question how much these distinctions matter. “But the simplicity of this idea, that this is a French method, coming from a French brand, with a French name, that’s authenticity,” Mr. [David] Clark, who is now the president of United States Yoplait Ouiyogurt at General Mills, told me.

Well, you can’t get much more authentic a French name than Oui, non? (Although apparently some folks in Yoplait focus groups didn’t know how to pronounce the word, while others associated it with a now-defunct men’s mag.)  And the jar is cute-ish.

So, I may give it a try. I suspect they won’t find a convert in me, but as long as it’s not the thin, slimy Yoplait goop of yore, I’ll be fine with it. With or without any fake authenticity.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Professional Chic

I have my occasional moments – courtesy mostly of Eileen Fisher, I guess -  but I do not generally consider myself especially chic when it comes to my clothing. My wardrobe is a combination of strictly utilitarian, classic never-in-style-never-out-of-style, and (on occasion, thanks to some of my sweaters) artsy-funky. Yet I do know how to dress for work, and when I was a full-timer, I definitely dressed professionally. Since I worked in the technology sector, “professional” had a pretty broad and elastic definition, but I almost always came down on the side of professional.

When I worked at Wang, I pretty much wore a suit every day. That was because, as a product manager, I always had to be on the ready to float down to the customer center and give a presentation or demo to visiting customers/prospects. On Fridays, when the odds were lower that I’d be called on, I sometimes wore nice slacks or a skirt and jacket. And I did have one funky outfit I wore a few times on summer Fridays. It was a somewhat hippy-ish long skirt, cotton, in bright blue, navy, chartreuse and white stripes, and a matching sweater with those colors in color blocks. I know, I know, this sounds ghastly, but this was the eighties. The outfit was cool. I loved it. (I just checked out a couple of sites selling vintage Ellen Tracy clothing. Alas, I couldn’t find these pieces, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) Anyway, one time when I did wear it, I got on an elevator occupied by a fellow product manager, a colleague I knew only vaguely but who was on the far right end of the continuum of conservative Wang dressers. I don’t think I every saw here without a paisley silk bow tie. Her eyes almost popped out of her head when she saw me in this costume.

Anyway, when I worked in suit places, I wore a suit. When I worked in separates places, I wore separates. When I worked in more casual places – and, over time my workplaces became more and more casual – I dressed more casually, but generally reserved jeans for an occasional Friday, and always with a nice sweater.

If I’d been a techie, I’m sure I would have ended up an everyday jeans person. But I was always in product management and/or marketing. We just plain dressed better more formally.

These days, as a part time virtual worker, I’m only on site a couple of times a year. I wear a pantsuit, or nice pants and a nice jacket/sweater. Of the clients I do see in person, most are casual all the time – the people I work with are often in jeans – and one is somewhere between formal and business casual, except on Fridays.

When I’m working from home, I may be on a conference call wearing a robe and PJ’s, or workout clothes, or complete grubs. But I 20170624_173950sure know how to do professional – if not chic – when called upon.

All this said, I didn’t know what to make of the clothing that I saw the other day in Marshall’s, hung on a rack marked “Professional Chic.”

Exactly what profession has workers that wear jersey boxer shorts printed with cereal logos and characters? Surely, not the oldest profession. What could possibly be sexy – other than the length – about shorts with Snap, Crackle and Pop on them?

I showed the picture to a friend who has a 5 year old and a 3 year old, and she thought maybe a kindergarten or pre-school teacher, during the summer. Maybe.

And the Honey Smacks frog?

I know I’m know maven of chic, but is that really a chic look?

Maybe Smaxey the Seal, who was the Honey Smacks mascot in my childhood, but Dig’em the Frog? I think not.

Meanwhile, I do believe these are intended as men’s sleep shorts, not something that women would wear to the workplace, even in this era of anything goes.

Looks like the folks stocking the racks at the Marshall’s on Boylston Street have a sense of humor. Or wouldn’t know “Professional Chic” if it did a Dig’em the Frog leap and jumped up and bit ‘em in the arse.

Friday, June 23, 2017

It is good to be George Clooney

One of the reasons I’d like to write a novel is that it would improve my chances of getting a novel published, having a novel made into a movie, and having a novel made into a movie starring George Clooney. Maybe I should take the main character I have in mind and describe his as looking like George Clooney, rather than a cross between Denis Leary and Eamon deValera. That way, I might get to meet George Clooney. (I know enough Worcester guys already, so I think I can safely take a pass on Denis Leary. And Eamon deValera, well, he’s dead and I wouldn’t want to have met him, anyway. And George Clooney was an altar boy, so he is naturally qualified to play a priest, which is what the main character in my non-existent novel happens to be.)

George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney. Since the death of Paul Newman, George Clooney has to be the star who’s doing the best job aging. (I know he’s not that old, but he is closing in on sixty.) Oh, George Clooney will never quite have the macho sex-appeal Paul Newman, but he’s pretty darned good looking.

There’s always the possibility that he’s a jerk in real-life, but he seems like an okay enough guy to me. (Okay. If you google “George Clooney jerk” you do get over a half-million hits. But this proves nothing. After all, when you google “Maureen Rogers jerk”, you get over 58 million hits. These aren’t all that me-ish. One that comes up on page one is the obituary of Luther Rogers, who worked as a soda jerk, and had a daughter-in-law named Maureen. The George Clooney jerk ones I looked through were mostly people annoyed because he’s an out-there liberal. I don’t know. He seems to be nice enough to his parents and sister.)

Anyway, in addition to being a cutie-pie, and perhaps not a jerk, George Clooney is a big old movie star. And a big old movie producer. And he’s got two Academy Awards to prove it.

He’s rich. Plus he has lots of fabulous houses, including one on Lake Como – and who wouldn’t want a fabulous house on Lake Como?

As if this weren’t enough, he has an impossibly glam and accomplished wife – Amal -  and, most recently, twin babies.

So life, if you’re George Clooney, is pretty good.

And that pretty good life has just gotten even better.

It seems that a few years ago, he and a couple of his besties – one of who is Rande Gerber, whose personal fabulousness includes being married to Cindy Crawford – were hanging around drinking tequila in Mexico, where they’d just bought themselves fabulous.

There came a point where George said to me, ‘Why don’t we just make our own?’ ” Gerber told Entertainment Tonight. “It was never meant to be a business. . . . It started out just us drinking it for years, without anyone being able to buy a bottle.”

However, after a few years, the distillery that made the tequila raised questions.

“They said to us, we have a situation. In the past two years, we’ve sent you 1,000 bottles a year, so either you’re selling it or you’re drinking way too much. Either way, you need to get licensed and get legit for the situation.

“We didn’t want to stop drinking our own tequila,” Gerber said. (Source: Boston Globe)

I do wonder what these fellows did with 1,000 bottles of tequila a year. Surely, no one who looks as good and alive as George Clooney would be able to consume that much. But I’m sure that George Clooney has a lot of friends to gift. And, hey, after my unwritten novel about the priest gets made into the movie he stars in, I may well become one of them. Not that I want a bottle of tequila. I’m holding out for an invite to Lake Como and, personally, I don’t even care if George, Amal, and the kids are there. Although I wouldn’t mind some fashion tips from Amal if she could get beyond be tall, be thin, and be rich.

So, all of a sudden George Clooney is in the tequila business with Casamigos brand tequila. Which, all of a sudden, Diageo wants to acquire. Diageo has reportedly: 

…made an initial consideration of $700 million to be followed by a further potential $300 million based on a performance-linked earn-out over 10 years, according to Bloomberg News.

George’s cut could be about $250M, which is probably more than Paul Newman ever made from Newman’s Own spaghetti sauce, lemonade, and cookies. (Newman’s profits went to fund his charitable foundation, by the way. George Clooney, by the way, has a foundation of his own: The Clooney Foundation for Justice.)

Whatever the sale nets for Clooney, talk about icing on the cake of life.

Yep, it’s good to be George Clooney. Wonder how he’ll like Worcester when he comes to film on location?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Uniformly Allergic

Oh, I suppose I should be writing about Travis Kalanick’s ouster from Uber. And how in reading about Uber it turns out that they’re even worse than I thought. And about how I really do make up for it by giving every Uber driver a big tip – so, hey, by the way, how’d I end up with a 4.89 passenger rating, rather than a pure 5.0; who was the jerk who gave me a 4.0????  - And how I’m finally going to switch allegiance to Lyft.

But, no.

I’ll leave Travis Kalanick and his role in turning America into a nation of kabillionaires (1%) and dabbawalas (99%), for another day.

The topic du jour is American Airlines decision to dump its uniform supplier “following thousands of complaints by flight attendants who said the current outfits were making them ill.”

Twin Hill, which is part of Tailored Brands (“We Help Men Love How They Look” – yes Men’s Warehouse is part of this outfit), is losing the deal that has been letting them outfit 70,000 AA employees. Their contract won’t be renewed.

I’ve flown American plenty of times, but I haven’t a clue what their uniforms look like. I can make an educated guess that the pilots wear navy blue with white shirts. But the stews? The only stewardess outfit I can vividly picture is the Brannif space bubble uni of the 1960’s, before I’d ever stepped toe on an airplane. I can also vouch for Aer Lingus, likely due to some combination of having flown them a few weeks back and the fact that they’re uniforms are a pretty bluish green color. But I have no idea whether the Aer Lingus outfits are causing an allergic reaction.

American’s did, however, which propelled the company to take action:
American’s move could contain a controversy that has festered for months, as the number of flight attendants complaining of wheezing, fatigue, skin rashes and other ailments grew to more than 3,500 and pilots also reported adverse reactions. It marks the second time in two months that the world’s largest airline has made an unusual concession to workers, following an April decision to grant pilots and flight attendants mid-contract pay raises. (Source: Bloomberg)
Wheezing? Fatigue? Skin rash? Throw in suicidal thoughts and an erection that lasts for more than four hours, and it sounds like the warnings they make at the end of every prescription drug ad.

Anyway, of those uniform reactions, the only one I ever experienced was fatigue. But that will happen if, from second grade through high school, what you wore every day to school was a green jumper and a white blouse. (The only reason it wasn’t from first grade on is that our school didn’t require uniforms when I was in first grade. This would have made us the near-equivalent of the pubs (public school students) we feared and scorned, other than for the fact that our classrooms were behind the church altar. God forbid some six year old would have to go during a funeral. Forget about it!)

So, yes, I have experienced uniform fatigue.

But nothing like this.

Both American and Twin Hill did extensive testing and failed to find anything wrong with the uniforms. Something in the planes themselves? Power of suggestion? Hysterical maladies?

For its part, Twin Hall is doing the “fired, I quit”/the feeling is mutual thing:
“Twin Hill has determined that the reputational risk, management distraction, and legal and other costs associated with serving American in the future would be unacceptable to our business,” the company said by email.
Well, I’d say that reputational risk has already happened, but I get the management distraction. Better they focus on getting more companies to buy their employees logowear that will end up in the donation bin.


I’ll likely be flying American in September when I head down to Dallas to visit friends. I hope by then that the offending uniforms have been replaced. Bad enough we have to worry about being dragged off the plane for looking cross-eyed at someone, or for reading a book with a funny word in the title – fortunately, I’ll be done with Joyce Carol Oates’ The Book of American Martyrs by then. (I’d hate to have the passenger sitting next to me thinking I was up to something other than a compelling, intelligent read.) I really don’t want to have to worry about breaking out into hives if I somehow brush the jacket of a flight attendant.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Artisanal blue collar jobs. (Or, news that sounds like it’s from the Onion.)

These days, any news about blue collar jobs on a growth spurt is good news. Or is it?

Apparently not when we’re looking at a headline that reads “Manual Labor Goes Upscale One Craft Cocktail at a Time.” This appeared in Sunday’s Boston Globe, in the Ideas section. And the headline, of course, gave us a very strong clue that we were talking fedora here, not hardhat. Anyway, the article was an interview that David Scharfenberg conducted with sociologist Richard Ocejo, who’s written about “a group of well-educated and culturally savvy young men out to change the meaning of manual labor.”

Ah, we’re at a moment here. Manual labor has become – sigh – a thing. (Oh, for the good old days when manual labor meant a job.)

The article focused on jobs that lend themselves to artisanality – bartending, cutting meat, cutting hair – jobs that of late have a cool factor stemming for the recent interest in things that are “authentic.” No mention of coalmining, of course, which can’t be done in an urban setting – and may be a tad too dangerous and gritty.

As for that job line up: I can see that there can be a certain craftiness to concocting drinks made up of lilac infused vodka, eau de vie, and nasturtiums. And locavores with a cow raised on prem aren’t going to leave the prime-ribbing to just any old butcher. But an artisanal barber? Is that someone who specializes in man buns? Or “do’s” that look good with a fedora. (By the way, my father – who was bald – was the antithesis of hipster. But that man could rock a fedora.)

Here’s what Ocejo had to say:

These [new high-end craft] jobs are examples of how men can use their bodies to reclaim this lost sense of masculinity. But obviously, it’s very different from previous generations of manual labor — different from the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that President Trump and others were speaking about during the election. The people who are filling these jobs are people who have college degrees, have professional backgrounds, people who have other options — mostly because they have the cultural reference points that these jobs require. (Source: Boston Globe)

As it happens, my Rogers grandfather was a bartender, the proprietor of a saloon, in fact. I don’t think he would have considered himself a manual laborer. That would be more along the professional lines of his saloon’s clientele. And I’m guessing he didn’t spend a ton of time reclaiming a lost sense of masculinity. Before he had the saloon, he was a blacksmith. (Is that man enough for you?) And what was driving him was trying to lose the sense of being on the god-forsaken family farm in Barre, Massachusetts. As for cultural reference points, in taking up blacksmithing at the dawn of the automobile age, he missed the point that the horseless carriage was going to replace the horse. But he was savvy enough to pick up the cultural reference point that he and his brother could make a good living running a bar that catered to boyos in Main South, Worcester. I don’t imagine that he served a lot of craft cocktails. I’m thinking shots and beer to wash down hardboiled eggs and pickled pigs feet. Alas, the saloon went out with Prohibition. (Cultural reference point: a bunch of pious, self-righteous, pinch-mouthed prudes who didn’t want ethnic immigrant Catholics drinking.) And then my grandfather – something of a serial entrepreneur, I guess – owned a drugstore. And then he up an died when my father was 11.

As it happens, my Wolf grandfather was a butcher. (Yes, indeed, I’m a walking ethnic stereotype. My German grandfather was a butcher, my Irish grandfather owned a bar.) His cultural reference point was probably WWI, and, as he made his way back to his home town after his side lost, strapped to the undercarriage (or side, or top: no one left to ask) of a crowded freight car so he wouldn’t fall off, he was thinking: I’ve got to get the hell out of the hell of war torn Europe before there’s another war. So he got married, had a couple of kids – one was my mother – and made his way to Chicago, where he had a successful store centered around the meat counter, bought property, had four more kids, learned to like baseball, and didn’t spend one second worrying about his lost sense of masculinity.

There’s an inequality angle to this. Not having a college degree obviously means that you’re not going to be qualified for a white-collar job, but here we’re seeing an example of how not having a degree — not having cultural capital — can eliminate these traditionally blue-collar jobs.

Being shut out of jobs because they lack “cultural capital” – i.e., they don’t know about lilac infused vodka – should go over well with the traditional blue collar guys. (I don’t want to give them any ideas, but Trump 2020 might want to use Ocejo’s words in their campaign ads. Or at least in a tweet or two.)

The artisanal bartenders and butchers are, of course, setting up shop in the types of cities that attract hipsters – and those with enough scratch to pay $20 for a craft cocktail and $30 for a hamburger made of beef ground from a cow butchered by an artisan. Scharfenberg asked Ocejo if maybe we were running out of neighborhoods that can be gentrified and hipster-ized.

Not to worry.

There are poor neighborhoods everywhere. As long as there are people who are willing to be the pioneers and are willing to move there and live in substandard housing, then the amenities are going to follow.

Oh, those poor true blue collar schmucks living in substandard homes without dual vanities and walk-in closets. Lucky for them, there’ll be a hipster to buy them out so they can move to some lesser location where they can have an en suite master and an above ground pool.

Having grown up in one, I have few illusions about the charms of a blue collar neighborhood. But I sure don’t want to live in a world where all the bartenders and butchers are artisanal. Makes me want to pull out the man bun of the next hipster I see. And then jump in the cab of an F150 and scream my head off.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Here comes the sun? You are my sunshine? Good day sunshine?

With a few notable exceptions, most Americans get that coal mining, like buggy whip making and switchboard operating, is a profession of the past. Fewer people and industries want to use coal – it’s dirty, it’s expensive – and a lot of the coal that’s being extracted is being extracted by machine, not men.

While natural gas  - frack on! – is one of the fuels currently making sure coal stays buried in its seams, according to the Bloomberg New Energy Finance outlook, here comes the sun.

Solar power, once so costly it only made economic sense in spaceships, is becoming cheap enough that it will push coal and even natural-gas plants out of business faster than previously forecast.
That’s the conclusion of a Bloomberg New Energy Finance outlook for how fuel and electricity markets will evolve by 2040. The research group estimated solar already rivals the cost of new coal power plants in Germany and the U.S. and by 2021 will do so in quick-growing markets such as China and India. (Source: Bloomberg)

If the forecasts pan out, fossil fuel pollution may actually start going down in 10 years time.Woo-hoo!

And it’s not just solar. The costs associated with wind energy are plummeting as well.

We hear a lot about tipping points – are the ice shelves goners? Well, this would actually be a good tipping point.

But it got me thinking about another tipping point, that probably occurred shortly after Loretta Lynn warbled “Coal Miner’s Daughter” nearly 50 years back now. And that’s the end of songs about coal mining. Not that these coal mining tunes romanticized coal mining.

“Sixteen Tons”? Hardly.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and a deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.”

Owing one’s soul to the company store? That doesn’t sound like much fun. What would a contemporary song reference? I owe my soul to Visa or Mastercard? I owe my soul to my payday lender?

Then there was “Working in a Coal Mine”?

Workin' in a coal mine
Goin' down, down, down.
Workin' in a coal mine
Whew! About to slip down.

I guess if you were lucky the only bad thing that would happen to you in a mine was that you slipped. You could have contracted black lung (if you lived long enough). Or gotten yourself killed in “The Springhill Mine Disaster.” Terrible as it must be if all you ever wanted to do in your life was be a coal miner, or if coal mining is all that you can imagine doing (whether you want to or not), the loss of jobs coal mining jobs… Well, the disappearing act isn’t a completely bad thing.

Even the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” wasn’t exactly an advertisement for the wonders of the coal mining life. Forget Daddy and black lung and cave ins. Mommy ended up with bleeding hands from scrubbing the coal-dust covered overalls on the washboard. Sheesh.

But while the coal mining songs weren’t exactly romantic – unlike, say, songs about cowboys and truck drivers – there were at least songs.

Are there going to be pop tunes about guys working with solar panels, working on wind farms?

Oh, there are plenty of sun songs. “You Are My Sunshine.” “Here Comes the Sun.” “Good Day Sunshine.” And plenty of songs about wind. “The Wayward Wind,” “They Call the Wind Maria”…

I suppose just as the coal-fired plants are being converted, we could convert a song or two so that they applied to those working in the renewables industry But I doubt they’ll hold a candle to the coal mining songs.

Kind of reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s classic tune, “Folk Song Army.”

Remember the war against Franco.
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles.
But we had all the good songs.

Coal mining didn’t have all the good songs, but they sure had some of them.

Guess they just don’t make work songs like they used to.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Rachel Borch, I salute you!

I come from a family of story tellers, and there are many stories we enjoy in the retelling. One of our favorites involves my brother Rich and his buddy Bill, then in their early twenties, driving out Route 9 and, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the road, coming across a foaming-at-the-mouth raccoon lurching around. Fortunately, Rich and Bill were in a car at the time – I wouldn’t have put it past them (especially Bill) to have wrestled with the beast – so they just drove to the local police station to report their sighting. (This is not our absolute favorite Rich and Bill story. That would be the time when, as students, they ran a Christmas tree lot out near UMass. That was until a mighty wind blew up and scattered their merchandise all over Western Mass.)

But their rabid raccoon tale is zip, zilch, nada when compared to that of Maine’s Rachel Borch.

Ms. Borch, who is 21 and, as far as I can tell from a google through Facebook, a student at Eckerd College in Florida, was out jogging the other day in the woods near her home in Hope, Maine. When what to her wondering eyes did appear – directly in her path – but a raccoon. A not mouth foaming, but definitely aggressive, raccoon which bared its teeth and came charging straight at her. The charging tipped Borch off. This wasn’t just any old raccoon. It was a rabid raccoon.

Recognizing that this was all out war – woman vs. beast - Ms. Borch tore off her headphones and tossed her phone down.

What felt like a split second later, the furry animal was at her feet. Borch said she was “dancing around it,” trying to figure out what to do.

“Imagine the Tasmanian devil,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

The path was too narrow for Borch to run past the raccoon, which had begun lunging at her. With adrenaline pumping, Borch suspended her disbelief.

“I knew it was going to bite me,” she said. (Source: Bangor Daily News)

Ms. Borch had the presence of mind to realize that her best self-defense bet was to try to hold the animal down, and that, if she was going to get bitten, her hand was the optimal place.

So, here was Rachel Borch, screaming and struggling with a raccoon that just did not want to let go of her thumb. She then “noticed that when she had dropped her phone, it had fallen into a puddle in the path and was fully submerged.”

This was Ms. Borch’s Eureka moment. Realizing that she wasn’t going to be able to strangle Rocky R with her bare hands, she thought that maybe she could drown it. So she managed to drag the raccoon, its jaws firmly clamped on her thumb while it used its paws to scratch her arms and hand, over to the puddle.

Borch said she held it there for what felt like an eternity until finally it stopped struggling and “its arms sort of of fell to the side, its chest still heaving really slowly.”

She then bolted for home.

Borch remembers looking back once to see if the raccoon had started chasing her again.

“It felt like [Stephen King’s] ‘Pet Sematary,’” she said.

Now that’s a true Mainer. She’s just fended off a rabid raccoon attack and she’s alluding to Maine’s own Stephen King.

She raced the three-quarters of a mile home. Her mind was racing, too:

Borch, who was screaming and unsure of how rabies affects humans, remembers thinking, “Oh, God, what if I just start foaming at the mouth and can’t find my way back?”

She got home safely and her mother drove her to the ER.

Her father, no slouch himself when it comes to presence of mind and cool under pressure, went into the woods to get the dead raccoon, which he:

packed it into a Taste of the Wild dog food bag and handed it over to the Maine Warden Service.

Talk about Taste of the Wild.

Anyway, the raccoon tested positive for rabies.

You survive rabies if you’re treated. You don’t if you aren’t.

Borch has received six shots so far, including the rabies vaccine, and immunoglobulin and tetanus injections. She is slated to receive her last injection this weekend.

These shots are quite painful, I understand. I once had a colleague who was bitten by a feral cat. It was unknown whether the cat was rabid, but to be on the safe side, Jerry had to go endure the shot series.

“If there hadn’t been water on the ground, I don’t know what I would have done,” Borch said of drowning the animal. “It really was just dumb luck. I’ve never killed an animal with my bare hands. I’m a vegetarian. It was self-defense.”

Rachel Borch may call it dumb luck. I call it pluck. Presence of mind. The ability to think fast, cool and smart under horrific pressure. All I can say is that, in time of crisis, I wouldn’t mind having Rachel Borch by my side. Plus she’s going to have a hell of a story for her friends and family.

Rachel Borch, I salute you!

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Boston Globe was my original source for this post, but I drew on a more complete article rom the Bangor Daily News.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Summer Fridays

I have one client that has a nice summer Friday perk: the office closes down at 2 p.m. They’re not alone:

The summer Friday is on an upswing. In a survey of more than 200 employers, the CEB (formerly the Corporate Executive Board) found that the share of companies offering this perk has jumped from 21 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2017. (Source: Bloomberg)

This is a great little bennie.

Traffic around here is insane in general. But it’s insane in particular in the summer.

Sure, once school is out, the daily commute becomes a little less grinding, as in any given week it’s likely that at least 10 percent of the regular commuters are on vakay. But those Friday’s…Just brutal. People heading to the Cape. People heading to NH. People heading to the Berkshires. People heading to Maine. People heading into Boston. People just plain heading home. (Mostly it’s people heading to the Cape, the location that takes up the most headspace in Massachusetts vacation consciousness. Earworm alert and cue Patti Page singing “Old Cape Cod:” If you spend an evening, then you’ll want to stay. Watching the moonlight on old Cape Cod Bay. You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system…

There are a number of things I miss about being in a corporate setting full time. But that summer Friday commute ain’t one of them.

And officially letting people out early is pretty much just reflecting the reality that anyone who can is already scooting out before 5 p.m. And those who don’t feel “empowered” (one of my favorite corporate words) to get up and go and just pretending to work. Too smart to use the company laptop, they’re playing games or ‘net surfing on their personal smartphones. Or they’re lounging around with colleagues talking about their weekend plans.

“It’s not like people are really killing it at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer,” said Brian Kropp, an HR practice leader at CEB. And a lot of employees tend to leave early on Fridays during the summer anyway. (Electricity consumption in New York City dips around that time by as much by 4 percent in the summer.) Companies that allow summer Fridays are simply taking advantage of a simple reality. “By formalizing it, it sends a clear message that we care about you,” said Kropp.

“We care about you.” Awwwwww. I’m tearing up.

But the truth is that where there is competition for workers, the perks will start to get packed on. And letting folks out at 2 p.m. on Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day is a perk with zero cost, and the upside of making employees plenty happy.

Of course, if you’re around here and you’re heading to the Cape, getting out at 2 p.m. won’t buy you much. The Sagamore and Bourne Bridges will be backed up. Route 6 will be a nightmare. You might as well wait until 8 p.m. to leave. Or take Friday completely off and head down on Thursday. Summer Thursdays, anyone?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Make it in Massachusetts. (Rimshot, please…)

Yesterday evening, my walk took me through the Boston Public Garden where, as it happens, there’s a concert every summer Wednesday at 7 p.m. The group performing was the Saxyderms – five brass players (mostly saxes) and a drummer. (The roots of the Saxyderms trace back to Tufts University. So, given that the Tufts mascot is Jumbo the Elephant, the name makes punning sense.) 

I hung through a few of their numbers – very entertaining: I’ll be back. But didn’t get close enough to see what kind of cymbals were part of the drum kit. I’m guessing they were Zildjian, a local company that, in Norwell, Massachusetts, makes about 2/3rds of the world’s cymbals.

Now, this isn’t a huge market. But still…

Zildjian has been making cymbals for nearly 400 years. Not in Massachusetts, of course. Yes, there were Europeans here starting in 1620 – they landed in Plymouth a few years before Zildjian was founded in 1623 – but the Pilgrims don’t strike me as the sort of folks in any need of any instrument of joy and pleasure. They were plenty content with a set of stocks and a dunking zildijianchair. I don’t recall ever reading about musical entertainment at the first Thanksgiving.

No, Zildijian immigrated its cymbal business to the Boston area in the 1920’s.

Sarah Hagan works at Zildijian, and has what I can only imagine is a very cool and interesting position. She’s director of artist relations. And, among the artists she relates to (or that Zildjian has related to) are Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, and Buddy Rich. How’s that for gear fab, fab gear.

Her top priority is showcasing the Zildjian brand on stage. She works with 2,500 artists worldwide and is constantly scouting and signing new performers to endorsement deals. Hagan also represents the company at music trade shows, drum festivals, and awards shows. (Source: Boston Globe).

Hagan is herself a drummer, and still has the first set of Zildjian cymbals she got as a kid.

She’s a local, and grew up near the Zildjian factory and pretty much always wanted to work there. When she joined the company, she was familiar with the product, but along the line got to learn about the manufacturing process.

Making a cymbal from the Zildjian alloy is a very skilled process and involves the work of many master craftsmen. Our cymbals are made out of copper, tin, and silver, and the cymbal passes through 15 sets of hands as it’s hand-crafted.

Hagan also gets to drum on the job, either officially “testing cymbals in the drummers’ lounge, or pre-show at a venue.”

Then there are the informal times:

“Lunch breaks here are fun — sometimes employees get together and have a little drum jam.”

This sounds like the perfect job, and how often does that happen?

I have a former colleague who played bass guitar in rock bands from high school on – through college, through B-school, throughout his quite successful career in the tech world. After he left his last tech company, he became CEO of a Massachusetts cool guitar company – among his artists were Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Joni Mitchell. The company was eventually sold, and the product line is in some sort of limbo. But when my colleague was at the guitar company, it was a perfect fit. He was definitely in his element, and I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the factory. The one thing that sticks out in my mind was that they used pizza ovens to bake the paint on the instruments.

I never had a job that was perfectly consonant with their personal interests, but I sure enjoy knowing that they actually do exist out there.

Rim shot, please.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

We got shoes! (I’m a sole man…errrrr, woman.)

Fifty years ago today, I can pretty much tell you what I was doing, and that was working in a shoe factory in Worcester. I was on the completely unskilled end of the line. I applied shoe polish to the raw seams of combat boots, and cleared glue and other gunk of those boots. At the workstation in back of me – our workstations were ancient wooden tables, probably dating to the late 19th century, and painted over many times - my friend Kim (now a partner in one of Boston’s largest law firms) worked as a “heel podder”, gluing pieces of leather into the heel end of a boot’s inner sole. We made $1.40 an hour. Every day at lunch, our friend Kath (now Kim’s wife) picked us up and we went to McDonald’s for lunch. There, because at that moment in my life I didn’t like the “stuff” they put on a burger, I got fries and a small chocolate shake.

Halfway through the summer, probably because I wore glasses and was able to deploy my junior high Spanish to inform the Cuban workers in our area when there was no overtime work on Saturday (“No hay trabajo en sábado.”), I was kicked upstairs to work in the office. This involved a pay increase to $1.70 an hour, which delighted me. But although I now wore a dress, stockings, and (made in New England) Weejun penny loafers to work, my actually tasks remained mostly blue collar.

Half the time, I operated a little handset rotary printed press to create the piecework coupons (pronounced “kewpons”) that workers detached and put into their piecework books each time they finished with a rack of shoes in whatever state of production. You had to accrue a certain number of kewpons to make anything above the $1.40/hour wage, and even when I turned on the jets and killed myself, I never quite made it up to that level. (I don’t think Kim did either, but I’ll have to ask her. Certainly she was the more likely of the two of us to have achieved this bit of paywise nirvana.)

Over Christmas vacation, I went back to work in the H.H. Brown office but, unfortunately, I was only there a couple of days when I had to have my wisdom teeth yanked which, in those days, entailed an overnight hospital stay. And, of course, a ton of boring, feverish, stay in bed misery.

The next summer, I worked as a waitress, a far more lucrative endeavor. (My friend Kath was a fellow Big Boy waitress with me.) A good gig that I worked for two summers and two Christmas breaks.

Anyway, it was my stint in the shoe factory that has made me especially sympathetic to the lot of shoe workers in New England.

Shoes used to be a big deal in these parts. Massachusetts, in fact, was once considered the Shoe Capital of the World. Even today – long after most of the shoe factory jobs have fled – there are a lot of footwear companies located here: Converse, New Balance, Reebok, Sperry, StrideRite. Timberland in NH.

And then, up in the great state of Maine, there’s MaineSole, founded by Dick Hall and some other alumni of Dexter Shoe, who are:

…attempting to bring shoe manufacturing back to Maine, at least in a small way. Founded last year, MaineSole is a case study on the difficulties of “reshoring” American jobs once an entire industry—manufacturing plants as well as suppliers—has migrated to another continent. During the 1960s, footwear factories in Maine employed 20,000 people, according to data ­compiled by the state’s Department of Labor. That number has dwindled to fewer than 2,000, ­mirroring a nationwide trend. Even L.L. Bean Inc. makes many of its shoes abroad these days, though its trademark Maine Hunting Shoe is still produced at one of the two facilities it operates in the state. (Source: Bloomberg)

Things are moving along rather slowly. So far, there are only 10 folks on the payroll – at its peak, Dexter employed 800 in the town of Dexter, Maine - and their output is not quite up to what it was when Berkshire Hathaway made what turned out to be a fiasco acquisition of Dexter Shoe. Back in those days, Dexter turned out 7.5 million pairs a year. MaineSole’s level is more along the lines of 100 pairs a week.

But they’re not interested in the mass market biz of selling shoes to J.C. Penney customers. “Think $325 hand-sewn penny loafers.”

Unless they can cure posterior tibial tendonitis, I won’t be forking over $325 for penny loafers, even if they’re hand sewn. But I wish them well.

MaineSole will not bring Dexter, Maine, back to where it was when Dexter Shoe ruled.

There was a bowling alley, a movie theater showing first-run films, and a dance for teens every Saturday night at the old town hall. “It was a great place to grow up,” says Al Kimball, 65, who followed his parents into a job at Dexter Shoe and is now the factory manager at MaineSole. “Anything I wanted was right here.”

Well, that was then and this is now.There’s no more going to be a big resurgence of shoe factory jobs in New England (or anywhere in the US) than there is going to be a big bump up in, say, coal mining jobs.

Still, I’m rooting for MaineSole to make it.

Most of the workers they have on board are folks my age, folks with experience in the old-style shoe companies like the one I worked in. The MaineSole founders are hoping to attract enough investment to let them build their business and get it into a more stable mode before all the old soles souls hang up the awls for the last time. MaineSole wants them to stick around to train a younger generation of skilled shoe workers. “If I lose them,” [MaineSole’s Kevin Cain] says, “it’s like something going extinct.”

I get that going extinct bit. I can pretty much guarantee that there’s no call for anyone with my rudimentary skills applying shoe polish to the bare-naked seams of combat boots.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Be Prepared? Boston apparently is…

There are few things I enjoy as much as ridiculous lists, especially ones that rank Boston and Massachusetts high for some arbitrary reason. Of course, while the lists may well be ridiculous, Boston Massachusetts actually is a great place to live. Sure, the housing costs are insane, and the traffic – if you commute in and around Boston – is insane, too. But “we” always come out pretty high in the rankings for things like health and education, and those aren’t arbitrary. And, there are other reasons that I like being from this neck of the woods, and they came to mind as I watched last Saturday’s Pride parade. There, I was delighted to see our Mayor, our Governor (an R, by the way), both of our US Senators, some of our Congressional reps, and plenty of state and local elected officials enthusiastically marching in support of our LGBT community. (Actually, Elizabeth Warren wasn’t marching; she was dancing.)

Anyway, last week’s ain’t life grand here came from a Deutsche Bank ranking in which they deemed Boston the eighth best city in the world in terms of quality of life.

Boston is the highest ranking US city on the [Deutsche Bank] list, with locations such as San Francisco (18) and Chicago (22) also making the cut. Overall, 47 cities were ranked.

The annual report from Deutsche Bank, called “Mapping the World’s Prices,” determines quality of life by looking at eight key factors: purchasing power, safety, health care, cost of living, property price to income ratio, traffic commute time, pollution, and climate.(Source: Boston Globe)

Given the factors they looked at, I’m sort of surprised we came out so golden. Yes, we’re relatively wealthy and absolutely healthy. And this is a pretty safe city. Plus you can drink the water and breathe the air. But cost of living? Property price to income ratio? Traffic commute time? Climate?

Climate, huh? Last week we celebrated “what is so rare as a day in June when it’s 47 degrees day,” while yesterday we sweltered at 95 degrees.

What cities beat Boston out? Wellington NZ, Edinburgh (climate???), Vienna, Melbourne, Zurich, Copenhagen, and Ottawa. But, hey, We’re Number One in the good old US of A.

Then there was yesterday’s news: a report from consultancy AT Kearney on world cities and their “preparedness for future growth.” They looked at:

…128 cities based on their projected levels of importance and competitiveness. The ranking combines cities’ scores across various data points, including environmental performance, patents per capita, the number of business incubators and Fortune 500 companies, and quality of life, according to the World Economic Forum. (Source: Boston Globe)

I like that environmental performance is a factor here. Maybe this means that, when we’re hit with that 100 Year Storm, I won’t end up kayaking in my living room. Here’s hoping.

But these gold stars on Boston’s forehead got me thinking about the personal and particular things about my town that are on my list of why we have a great quality of life. Or at least I do.

  • Being able to walk to the ballpark. Oh, I’m supposed to say access to healthcare or museums, but the number one quality of life factor for me is being able to walk to (and back from) Fenway Park to watch a ballgame. I did it the other night with my sister Trish and my niece Molly. It was a perfect evening for a game, and the Red Sox won. But I just love the feeling of walking down the Comm Ave Mall (note: not a shopping mall, rather a tree-lined greensward) and seeing the crowd build as you near the park. My singular favorite urban experience.
  • The Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden. I’m lucky in where I live. Not only can I walk to Fenway, but I can walk out my front door, cross the street, and be in the Boston Public Garden. That’s where the swanboats are, and where they (they being people, not swanboats) change the flower beds every month or so from spring through late fall. I walk through a few times a week, and every once in a while sit on a bench and read. Just lovely. The Boston Common is larger, and not as groomed or flowery as the Public Garden. But it’s got plenty going for it. There’s the Frog Pond, which is a wading pool during the summer and a skating rink during the winter. (And if walking to the ballpark is one of the great urban pleasures, seeing skaters at night spinning around the rink is another one.) The Common is also the site of all sorts of political protests. Just this year, I’ve been there for the Women’s March, the March for Science, Earth Day, and the March for Truth. But there are plenty of little protests that pop up all the time (including one the other day protesting the imposition of Sharia Law in America; huh???). It’s a wonderful gathering place to speak your piece. Plus the Boston Common is quirky looking. Oh, the shady paths, the greenery, the dog meet-up, the ball field are pretty standard fare. But there’s also an ancient cemetery. And the Common is five-sided. Five uneven sides. Love it.
  • Ice cream.  New Englanders, I believe, consume more ice cream than the national average. So it’s no surprise that we have all sorts of real ice cream places, and don’t have to resort to abominations like Baskin & Robbins. Just around the corner from me, I have a gelato place and JP Licks. I don’t pop in all that often, but when I’m out for a walk and jonesing for some ice cream, I know where to stick my head in. And it’s not just my ‘hood. There are a lot of ice cream places here. Since ice cream is such a major contributor to quality of life, it’s no surprise that Boston ranks high.

So it’s great that we’re prepared for the future. And it’s also great that we’re prepared for the present with Fenway walks, the Public Garden, and ice cream.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The catalog to end all catalogs…

There’s a Woody Allen movie  – at least I think it’s a Woody Allen movie – from back in the day when WA was funny, before we knew he was a despicable creep, in which the nebbishy protagonist goes into a drugstore to buy some girlie mags. Going through a little ‘I’ll take one of these, and one of these’ routine, he picks up an Atlantic, a New Yorker, a New Republic (or periodicals along those lines) and then, as if as an afterthought, tucks in a Playboy and Penthouse into his stack.

This scene came to mind the other day when I got a catalog from Carol Wright Gifts in the mail.

Now, I had never heard of this catalog, and from the cover it looked pretty low-rent and cheesy. But I started to flip through thinking it might provide fodder for a blog post. Plus, even though I occasionally contact an array of unsolicited catalogs and ask them to take me off their list, on balance I do enjoy thumbing through catalogs. And I do order a fair amount of stuff online, often after I’ve gotten the catalog. Carol Wright didn’t look like I’d be buying anything from them. Not the cheap looking sheer curtain panels or the cheesy looking chenille recliner cover (not on my recliner, thank you) or the cheesy and dumpy cotton drawstring capris, all of which graced the front or back cover. And I don’t own an aluminum outboard boat, so I don’t need any of that waterproof Flex Tape (as seen on TV: just not by me) that will let me plug a leak.

Nonetheless, I started flipping through, just to confirm how crappy the wares on offer were. And I was not disappointed. Bored mostly, but not disappointed.

A few items gave me pause. If that MoodMatcher lipstick changes color with your mood, why would you need six different tubes with six different color lipstick? Shouldn’t one do the trick? Wouldn’t it be like having six different mood rings? I mean, what’s the point?

Some of the stuff was practical enough – pop-up food covers – and some of the stuff was whimsical enough – solar-powered flamingo lights. But mostly it was cheesy clothing, cheesy accessories, and cheesy home goods. And a lots of “As Scene on TV” stuff. (Okay, I had seen that Comfort Click belt advertised.)

I kept thumbing through and got to the old-folks stuff  - incontinence, denture, support stockings – so I figured it might have been my demographic that landed me on the Carol Wright Gifts list.

And then I turned the page and found an array of him and her sex aides, including any number of anatomically correct “massagers.” (That purple on was a little less anatomically correct, but maybe they had to tone it down a bit so that it could be seen on Oprah and Dr. Oz. Where, we were told, it had been seen on.)

Turn the page, and we’re back to the geezer (“trim toenails without bending”), the practical (“mini blind cleaner reduces cleaning time by 80%” – which would presume you spend much time blind-cleaning to begin with), and the goofy (the haircutting umbrella with the picture of a man enjoying the haircut his wife was giving him. Only it looked like all there was to him was a disembodied head sticking out of a garbage can cover. On second glance, maybe he was all there: the grin on his face suggests that, beneath the service, something may have been going on with one of the page 24-25 items.).

For some reason, I kept paging through and there, after all kinds of muumuus and the banana saver, was yet another sex toy spread, including an anatomically correct something that looked to be the color of Barney the dinosaur. (I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…)

Turn the page, and here we are with the My Pillow guy, stain-resistant pet rugs, cobbler aprons and bunion shields.

I will not be ordering anything from Carol Wright. If I want oddball stuff, I’m strictly a Vermont Country Store kind of gal.

But what an agglomeration Carol Wright offers. Wonder how many folks are ordering cat decals, peacock wall art, a muumuu, and then, say, one of these. Maybe even in a color that matches their muumuu and sheer curtains…

Friday, June 09, 2017

“Time Stands Still For No One”

The mail yesterday wasn’t particularly exciting. Oh, sure, there was a striped jersey from Yala Design. (Even on sale, they cost plenty, but they’re the most comfortable tee-shirts I’ve ever had.) And a bank statement. (Got to turn that into online.)

I was hoping for a check from a client, but nada.

At least there were no bills. No one looking for a donation.

And then there was the curious flyer. “Time Stands Still For No One.” Muted tones of pink and beige. A terra cotta cherub. Dusty pink, fully-blown roses. Pearls on a tray. A decorative glass jar with an ornate20170608_200413 gold knob on the lid. A stop watch. All very late 19th century granny-looking. Delivered with the images all blurred. Or is that my golden-oldie eyesight?

“Time passes so quickly. Before you know it…You start thinking about all those things you need to take care of…but haven’t.”

I have a list that’s the length of my arm chocked full of things I need to take care of…but haven’t. All those old laptops. The kitchen windows that need washing. Finding a home for shoes that I ordered and wore once.

But stepping up the planning for my “final arrangements” wasn’t on the list.

I have done a bit of it. I own an ash plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where I’ll be chilling for eternity (or until the oceans rise enough to obliterate Massachusetts) with my husband, my sister Kath, and her husband. 

But I haven’t done anything else to relieve my loved ones of the “financial and emotional burden” of making decisions that, according to a local funeral home, I am “better prepared to make today.”

I know they mean well, but there are other decisions I’d rather be making.

Oh, I could prepay for my actual cremation. After all, something really should be placed in that pre-paid ash plot. And that something should be ashes in a cardboard box, no? But what if the place I’m prepaying for that cremation service goes belly up? I’m pretty sure that, unless the seas rise really fast, that Mt. Auburn Cemetery will still be around. It’s already managed to stay alive for nearly 200 years.

I guess I should be happy that someone thinks I’m a desirable marketing target.

Sure, there’s dental implants, 50+ vitamins, 55+ living communities, Jitterbug phones, and Depends. Plus I get all those phone calls for “I’m fallen and I can’t get up” devices. None of which I’m interested in. Not yet, anyway. I do get regular missives from health insurance companies looking for my Medicare supplemental business, but I’m happy with my plan. And I suppose if I were a geezer guy instead of a geezer gal, my ears would prick up when an ad for Cialis comes on. But mostly, I understand that, as a consumer, I’m no longer all that desirable.

No one with grey hair in that ad for Pom Wonderful. No one with creaky bones pedaling that Peloton. Young studs only for that F-150.

“If this has reached you at an inappropriate time…we sincerely apologize.”

Nothing to apologize for, sincerely or phonily. But what’s an inappropriate time? The day one gets the news that they’d better call hospice? The day their spouse dies? (Drat! I should have considered advance planning.)

Anyway, if I take advantage of the offer, I get 10% off.

Should I put prearrangements on my bucket list for the bucket list?

Nah. In an actuarial sense at least, I have a few years yet. Maybe between now and then they’ll come up with some kickin’ technology that will render cremation obsolete. As long as there’s a trace of something left to inter. I’d hate to think that I wasted my money on that ash plot.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Dumb smart kids…

It’s probably not big in the news elsewhere, but Boston being Boston and Harvard being Harvard, the news that Harvard has rescinded the admissions offers of ten high school seniors because of the offensive memes they have posted on a Facebook chat site is, well, news.

Harvard had, it seems, set up a Facebook page for those who’d gotten early acceptances in December. Not surprisingly, a lot of kids glommed right on to meet their fellow classmates and, of course, to preen about their having beaten out a ton of really smart kids: Harvard accepts a higher percentage of early admissions applicants than it does applicants from the general pool (14.5 percent vs. 5.2 percent), but any way you look at it: most kids don’t get in.

Some of these kids probably got the legacy lift; or the parent-as-donor lift (c.f., Jared Kushner); or the no-one-else-applied-from-Moosejaw, Wyoming lift; or the St. Grottlesex jock lift – the sorts of lifts that put them a nose ahead of all those indistinguishable smart kids with great grades, great SATs, great recommendations, great extra-curriculars. But those lifts only get you so far. If you were accepted to Harvard, you’re more than likely “smart.”

But, as my husband use to say, there are an awful lot of dumb smart people out there. And surely the Harvard Ten are among their ranks.

Anyway, over time, the FB page/chat/whatever produced an offshoot group that its founders dubbed “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”

These are children of the social media era. Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006, when these kids were in primary school. So they’ve come of age adeptly at using social media. But I guess they were too busy grade grubbing, taking SAT classes, and participating in activities they didn’t give a hoot about but which the outside college application advisors their parents had no doubt hired advised would look good on their applications, to notice that a lot of students were getting into a lot of trouble for what they were showing or telling on social media.

A bunch of kids in Massachusetts were criminally charged after a girl they’d bullied committed suicide. Some college guys lost job offers because of a stupid video they posted – can’t remember if it was racist, sexist, or both. These are just a couple that come to mind, but there are plenty of real life examples out there. (Hell, haven’t these kids been paying any attention to POTUS and the pitfalls of Twitter.) And, we’ve been told, students are “educated”on the appropriate use of social media.

Then there’s the Miranda that Harvard (and most other schools) give to the kids they accept: this offer is contingent on your grades holding up for the rest of the year, and your not doing something criminal or immoral – or something cringe-worthy enough to make us have second thoughts about having tendered one of our precious acceptance offers to you.

The memes that were posted were pretty coarse. Jokes about oral sex, religious Jews, and gas chambers. Jokes about getting turned on by child abuse. Jokes about Mexican kids hanging themselves in the school bathroom. (Ho, ho!)

A bunch of kids trying to out-gross each other and, in the process, demonstrating their complete and utter lack of maturity, their stunningly poor judgment, and their stone stupidity to think (or not think) that this wouldn’t get noticed and, if noticed, that it wouldn’t matter.

There are now ten homes in which parents are some combination of rip-shit at Harvard (how could they?), rip-shit at their kids (how could you?), lawyering up, scrambling for a gap year program in which to insert their kid, placing frantic calls to the admissions consultant they thought they were done with, gritting their teeth when someone asks them about their Harvard-bound genius offspring, calling the caterer to cancel the graduation party, etc. And there are ten kids who are some combination of rip-shit at Harvard (how could they?), rip-shit at the kids they followed into this FB slough of despond (how could they?), and maybe (for the more reflective ones) rip-shit at themselves (how could I?). They’re embarrassed. They’re humiliated. They’re depressed. They’re wondering what next. They’re wondering whether, if they reapply and use “what I learned by getting caught posting coarse memes” as their essay topic, they can mea culpa their way in.

What a mess.

I’m not a free-speecher here. Harvard has every right to decide they don’t want these kids in their incoming class. My cousin the guidance counselor (retired) thinks it was a good decision. I think that Harvard might have used this as a “teachable moment” and deferred these kids for a year, during which they needed to demonstrate that they were Harvard-worthy.

But Harvard is certainly within its rights, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over these kids who won’t get to use those phony humble bragging rights (“I go to college in Cambridge…”), who won’t get to meet Malia Obama at parties, who won’t get to go through life with most people thinking they’re plenty smart because Harvard said so. These kids have demonstrated that they’re a bunch of infantile jerks. Not that there won’t be plenty of infantile jerks in the Harvard Class of 2021, if past history is any predictor of the future. But here’s some advice to those kids: Smarten up. You really don’t want to go through life as a dumb smart person.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Doing it up brown?

I’ve been reading that vinyl LP’s are making a comeback. And I’ve been reading that “brown furniture” is death knelling.

Not in my house. At least not in the living room.

My favorite wood is cherry, but in my LR (which doubles as my DR), I have a mahogany table and chairs, and a matching credenza. I’m guessing the set is from the 1930’s or 1940’s. We got it 30+ years ago at an antique store in Brookline, where it likely landed after an estate sale, demonstrating that, even back in the 1980’s, interest in brown furnishings were on the decline.

I also have a dark wood chair that came from my Aunt Margaret’s dining room set. Not sure what the wood is – I’m no expert – but it’s dark. Not to mention too rickety to sit on.

Then there’s the claw foot table that came from my grandmother’s house. (Mahogany.) And the rickety desk and rickety chair (fake mahogany) that also came from Nanny’s. I know just how rickety that chair is because it fell apart when I went to sit in it a few weeks ago. I have some wood glue, and I’ll get around to wood gluing it at some point. But since I’m usually here by myself, there’s no big hurry. As long as I avoid the Peg and Nanny chairs, I’ll manage not to break my hip while attempting to sit and have my lunch.

I also have a mahogany glass-front china cabinet. It holds the CD’s that replaced vinyl LPs. I got this about 30 years ago at an antique store in Cohasset. Again, it likely landed there because no one wanted it.

But it looks like when I got to jettison my brown furniture – whether pre- or posthumous – I may not have any takers.

The Baby Boomers who were apparently all too eager if not willing to latch on to some of their parents’ and grandparents’ wares are finding no takers for this and all the other stuff they’ve accumulated and need to shed now that they’re downsizing.

For generations, adult children have agreed to take their aging parents’ possessions — whether they wanted them or not. But now, the anti-clutter movement has met the anti-brown-furniture movement, and the combination is sending dining room sets, sterling silver flatware, and knick-knacks straight to thrift stores or the curb.

And feelings are getting hurt, as adult children who are eager to minimize their own belongings — and who may live in small spaces, and entertain less formally than their parents did — are increasingly saying “no thanks” to the family heirlooms. (Source: Boston Globe)

This, of course, has given rise to something called “senior move management.”

The thriving industry is a symptom of the challenge. While the senior-move specialists assist older clients with the mundane aspects of moving — choosing a mover, say, or calling the cable company — they also play the role of family therapist, buffer, diplomat.

I have no children to guilt and, in truth, while there are few things that I hope stay en famille – the steer horns that hung in my grandfather’s saloon, my grandmother’s cookie jar – in truth, once I’m gone, it all my stuff ends up in a flea market or on eBay or at the St. Vincent dePaul thrift shop, that’s fine with me. If it just hits the dumpster, well, I don’t want to know about it. Which, presumably, I won’t.

And, fortunately, I never did get fancy china, silver, or crystal. So I don’t have to worry about someone turning their nose up at my Lenox and Waterford. (My dishware is Dansk, and my stainless came courtesy of my mother who used, I believe, Betty Crocker coupons to get it. Since my mother was a mostly scratch baker – the only boxed cake mix I remember her using was for angel food cake - I’m not sure how she managed to collect enough Betty Crocker coupons to get full stainless sets for each of her daughters, but there you have it.)

In any case, at 1,200 square feet, and never having owned a big house in the ‘burbs, I’m somewhat downsized already, so I don’t think I’ll ever have to avail myself of the senior move management industry.  

Unknown just a few decades ago, the field now has a trade group — the National Association of Senior Move Managers — that counts 950 member companies.

One of the services they offer is reaching out to family members to see if there are any takers for, say, that Hummel collection.

I was talking to a gym acquaintance a few weeks ago, and she’s going through this problem now. S is younger than I am – maybe in her 50’s – and she was an only child whose parents both died within the last few years. She decided to move back into the house she grew up in. But she wants her stuff there, not all those ghosts of Christmas past.

Yes, she wants to keep that cool 1950’s luggage her parents use on their honeymoon. It’s fun and – of course – she can store stuff in it. But what to do with her mother’s Royal Doulton statues? She’s reached out to all her cousins to see if someone wants the Balloon Seller. But all her cousins are trying to figure out where they can foist off the stuff they’ve inherited from their parents.

Meanwhile, I actually have another accumulation I need to do something about: all those dead laptops going back 15 years or so. I have a closet full of them. Maybe I should call one of those senior move management companies and have them come over and take a look. Maybe I can throw a tchotchke or two in as a sweetener.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A very hungry Caterpillar

Many years ago – 22 in fact – I went on a sales call at Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois.

The trip out there was memorable for a number of reasons.

The first is, of course, that while my colleague and I were driving back to Chicago after the ruinous meeting at Caterpillar, we heard reports on the radio of the Oklahoma City bombing. We were driving through AM country – soybean fields, I think – and the radio stations kept drifting in and out, but I remember that we kept saying that we must be mishearing things. Who would bomb a daycare center? It was only when we got to Chicago and checked into our hotel that we got the full story.

Anyway, we didn’t get the deal at Caterpillar.

We realized in the first three seconds of the call that we were just there to satisfy a due diligence checklist – column fodder, as we used to say – and the people we were speaking with were not all that Midwest nice.

(The trip wasn’t a total loss, as we’d had an excellent meeting with our customers at State Farm, who went out and bought more stuff from us. Plus we got to eat in their caf, where they had several forms of jello mold on offer. If only I could have brought a take-home bag back for my mother. Plus, we’d gotten to stay at an idiotically decorated hotel in Bloomington called Jumer’s Chateau.)

If I recall correctly, Caterpillar also had more security than was the corporate norm back in those days.

Anyway, I never did like Caterpillar…

So I was interested to read that they’re looking at a whopping past-due bill from the IRS. And that the accountant who’d blown the whistle on their corporate malfeasance was looking at a whopping pay day for himself.

Here’s the story:

Nearly a decade ago, accountant Daniel Schlicksup was attending a Caterpillar off-site at which the upper-ups were hammering home an ethics message.

Anyone aware of financial malfeasance or trickery was obliged to report it immediately. Later, then-Chief Executive Officer Jim Owens pressed the point, saying he slept well because he couldn’t imagine Caterpillar experiencing the sorts of ethical lapses that had doomed Enron Corp. and other companies. (Source: Bloomberg)

Epiphany, Mr. Schlicksup.

He’d been telling his bosses that the company was engaged in an overseas tax arrangement that, by his reckoning, had helped it illegally avoid more than $1 billion in taxes. Now, as Owens spoke, Schlicksup concluded that no one had passed his warnings to the CEO. “I thought to myself, ‘Jim, it’s happening here,’  ” Schlicksup later said in sworn testimony. “ ‘You just don’t know it.’  ”

So he went and started internally blowing the whistle, which included a) a memo describing how his bosses had retaliated when he tried to raise these issues, and b) over 100 pages documenting how Caterpillar, hand and glove with PwC, “had devised a way to shift billions in profit to Switzerland to avoid U.S. taxes.”

This eventually resulted in the Feds being whistled in, and an eventual conclusion that Caterpillar had done some fancy tax avoidance on more than $8billion in revenue.”

And it ain’t over yet. Caterpillar is still being investigated – the IRS et al. raided their offices in March - and criminal charges may be brought against some of their past and present execs.

Caterpillar, meanwhile, maintains that its position on how they handled the tax situation is correct. Like any other company, they were looking to profit maximize within the constraints of our apparently draconian corporate tax code. In other words, they were just being a very hunger caterpillar for profits. Just like any other red-blooded American company.

Not surprisingly, Schlicksup has left Caterpillar. (Without, I’m disappointed to say, updating his LinkedIn profile.) And, not surprisingly, part of Caterpillar’s defense of themselves is an attack on him.

The company has portrayed him in court filings as a paranoid, self-righteous employee who buried his own future there.

But if the IRS ends up prevailing, and claws back the $2B is believes Caterpillar cheated them out of, Schlicksup stands to make $600M. This will far surpass the relative chump-change $104M that a former UBS banker was awarded. (He couldn’t collect until he’d done some time. But he appears to be enjoying life. His LinkedIn profile describes his position as “UBS Whistleblower” and touts his book, Lucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy. And in his profile picture, he appears to be wearing some type of Oktoberfest outfit and hefting a beer stein. Prost!)

If you want to read about how a tax avoidance scheme works, check out the Bloomberg article. It’s plenty interesting. So’s the take on Schlicksup and his set-to’s with his managers, and his being kicked aside to an IT job he wasn’t qualified for or interested in, but which he stuck with even after he went public with his whistleblow. (He later negotiated his departure from Cat.) Schlicksup comes across as  something of a hectoring noodge. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. (It takes a hectoring noodge to know one…) Anyway, the corporate (non-tax-dodge story) is plenty interesting, too.

Even if there ends up being no criminal prosecution, the IRS may still go after the back taxes. And:

The IRS has a standard formula for whistleblower awards: It pays 15 percent to 30 percent of what it collects.

Which could end Schlicksup up with that payday being in the $600M range. That’d make anyone want to whistle(blow) while they worked.

Monday, June 05, 2017

All the world’s a playhouse?

The other day, my sister Kath sent me a link to an article in the WSJ about a well-to-do family in Sioux Falls, SD, that has turned their 13,000 square foot home into a “vast playland.”

From a kid’s perspective, what’s not to like? They’ve got a skeeball game. A stage for their performances. A lofted playhouse.
“…a large swimming pool and a play set that includes a climbing wall, firehouse pole and zip line…a sleepover room with privacy curtains, lots of plugs for electronics, and a custom-cut Tempur-Pedic mattress on the floor that can sleep eight. The custom-built curly slide gets more use than the stairs.” (Source, since, as a non-subscriber, I couldn’t access the WSJ article when I linked to it for a second time: MansionGlobal)
While this certainly sounds like kiddy paradise, I couldn’t help but think of how all this ready-made funhouse doesn’t deprive kids of being able to exercise their imagination muscles.

I hardly grew up in the little house on the prairie, with a corncob for a doll and a log for a toy train. I’m a Boomer, and, while I didn’t grow up in a crap-accumulation culture that’s anywhere near equivalent to what’s out there now, we had plenty of stuff. Especially when compared to the stuff of our parents’ childhoods. For her 10th birthday, my mother got a violin case. (Fortunately she already had the violin.) I don’t recall my father ever mentioning a toy. His childhood adventures were largely outdoors and/or sports related, and his tales of growing up were often Huck Finn-esque. (Without having traveled down the Mississippi on a raft with a slave.)

But, in terms of the ratio between store-bought and do-it-yourself, I’d say the bigger number is on the DIY side.

The best thing, of course, was an appliance box, which you could use as a playhouse. Better yet, you could stuff a couple of kids into it, and push it down a steep bank. Wheee!!!! Speaking of stuffing kids, if you had, say, an old baby buggy – one that was so hand-me-down and decrepit that even your very own parents wouldn’t use it for the new baby who was something of a surprise – you could load that up with kids and push them down a street with a reasonable incline. I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt, at least not to the degree (blood, broken bone) that would send someone running home. Maybe that’s because we had so many kids in there that we buffered each other.

Another excellent source of amusement was a tree that had fallen down.

There was a field near us where, one fine day, some ancient and honorable (and mostly dead) tree toppled over. Before someone came in to saw it into pieces and haul it away, we had a few weeks with our answer to Adventureland. We called it Dino the Dinosaur, but mostly we clambered all over it,bouncing up and down on the branches. A few years later, a hurricane took down a tree at the corner of our yard. Yes! Another free jungle jim!

In the woods next to our house, there was a big old boulder that could be used as a house, a ship (sometimes to bring immigrants over – we were all the grand- or great-grandchildren of immigrants, sometimes as a warship), a Conestoga wagon…Have boulder, will imagine.

It goes without saying that construction sites were golden. As were the odd burned down buildings. (We weren’t just exploring these things on our own. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is of my father taking us into a burnt out house. There was one thrilling moment when he opened a door, only to find that the floor in the room we were about to enter had collapsed into the basement. Did my worry-wart mother – she of the violin case – have a clue what her Huck Finn husband was doing with her kids on those Sunday walks while she was relaxing with an Ellery Queen mystery or the crossword puzzle?)

And, of course, there were the giant water pipes near the abandoned reservoir. Is there anything more fun than running through a giant cast iron pipe, yelling your fool head off?

We weren’t generally encouraged to yell our fool heads off, of course. Nonetheless, when one of our weekly family rides took us through a the Lincoln Tunnel in downtown Worcester, we were allowed to roll the windows down and scream out Babalu-y in tribute to Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy fame.

Somewhere recently I saw a reference to a child playing with a 400-piece kitchen set. I’m assuming that came with all sorts of plastic pork chops and apples. Wasn’t it more fun to use acorns, leaves, pignuts, mud, rocks, and those bitter little red berries (whatever they were) to make fake food?

Most of our adventures took place out of the house. Then again, the house I grew up in was more like 1,300 square feet than 13,000. And this was an era when your mother kicked you out first thing in the day and locked the door after you.

But even in the house – especially in the cellar – there was plenty to do. Who needed a stage? We could perform our plays, most notably a murder story – “Oh, Martina, will you marry me?” – that involved a death by rubber knife, which we performed for with no audience (we were all in it) on the plane old basement floor whenever we needed a bit of amusement.

Hey, I would have loved having that corkscrew slide in the house that the Sioux City kiddoes have. And I know that the older you get the more likely you are to fall into grumpy old fart nostalgia. Still, I think that the more opportunities kids have to use their imaginations and make their own good times, the better off they are in the long run.