Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Stocking Stuffers? Look no further than the NM Fantasy Gifts. (Part 1 of 2)

One of the things I enjoy the most about the holidays is the annual Neiman-Marcus Christmas Book, especially the chapter devoted to Fantasy Gifts. This year, of course, the Fantasy Gifts take on special importance, as they give us a keener insight into why billionaires can use a tax cut. Truly, when I virtually thumb through the catalog, I completely understand why us blue-state liberal middle-classers should gladly suck it up and accept that we’ll be paying more than we did last year. After all, it’s for an excellent cause.

Here’s what’s in the this year’s goody book.

Personalize your own Armand de Brignac cuvée Part of that excellent cause is making sure there’s someone, knowing there’s a tax cut coming, who’ll feel they can spring for the $150,000 trip to the Champagne Region of France to pick up 24 bottles of your very own personal cuvée. Oh, there’s other stuff thrown in, like a 12-course dinner at a snooty Paris restaurant. And a helicopter tour of Champagne country. Plus five cases of the other five Armand de Brignac champagnes to sip while you’re waiting for your bespoke cuvée to arrive.

Private flight & photo session with Gray Malin For the more pocketbook-conscious (or should I say Birkin bag-conscious), there’s a photo session with Gray Malin for $35K. Now, this would perhaps mean more to me if I’d ever heard of Gray Malin, but I haven’t. So I’ll take NM’s word for it that he’s “famous for his sunny, saturated aerial scenes.” The one-hour session is over LA, so you might want to wait until their hellscape fire is out. Anyway, this gift comes with a post-flight champagne toast with Malin. If you’re friends with the private cuvée folks, maybe you’ll get to sip their bespoke bubbly. (I will note that all of the Fantasy Gifts include a donation to a charity. For this gift, $5K of the $35K price goes the the NM Foundation. There’s a no-doubt worthy charity lined up for the cuvée profits, but here’s the disclaimer: the charity “will retain any profits from the sale of t his Fantasy Gift for its charitable initiatives.” Any profits? Hmmmm.)

19 Madame Alexander Dolls (plus doll house) Sure, Madame Alexander Dolls are lovely. I remember my own lovely Madame Alexander dolls – they must not have been pricey in the 1950’s, or I would have gotten knockoffs for sure – Ginny and Ginette. Too bad I destroyed Ginny’s lovely brunette flip trying to style it. My mother replaced it with a braided blond wig that I think cost three bucks. She figured – correctly – that I couldn’t be bothered undoing the braids. Plus there was the threat of having a bald Ginny doll if I destroyed the second hairdo. Ginette was a tiny little blue-eyed baby doll. Those blue eyes weren’t blue enough for me, so I tried to Magic Marker in eyes that were even bluer. Unfortunately, I took the whites of Ginette’s eyes out, too. My mother did not replace those eyes. Ginette looked fine as long as she was in resting, shut-eye baby doll mode. So, I get why someone would want a bunch of Madame Alexander dolls. But 19 dolls over the course of a year seems excessive. And $8K seems steep. I mean, don’t these dolls retail for about $100 each? Plus that doll house, while sweet, doesn’t look like it would hold 19 dolls. Of course, in this the Age of Narcissism, you also get a custom doll:

…hair color, eye color, and even outfit design for the fortunate giftee, who will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to collaborate via Skype with a top Madame Alexander designer. Will it be a miniature me? A pint-sized replica of a best pal? The dimensions may be small,but the possibilities are virtually limitless. (Source: Neiman Marcus)

The possibilities may be endless, but I’m guessing that more giftees will opt for the mini-me than the best pal.

Sisley-Paris Experience & Products for a Year What might Sisley-Paris be? Well, you’re obviously the sort of person who buys their cosmetics at Macy’s or CVS. Sisley-Paris means “Powerful Plant-Based Cosmetics”, unlike the chemical, bunny-killing junk you’re painting on your skin. Anyway, for just $60K, you get products like their Black Rose Skin Infusion Cream And so as not to be sexist, there’s also plenty of Sisley pour l’homme. Like theimageir Anti-Age Global Revitalizer. I didn’t read the fine print but might “global revitalizer” mean what I think it could? Toss out the Viagra and start globally revitalizing with Sisley? Anyway, on top of all the other goodies in the Sisley goody-bag, you get “a private lunch with a member of Sisley’s founding d’Ornano family in their famous apartment.” Oh. Dear. Oh very, very dear.

A Trip to the Zambian Gem Fields and a One-of-a-Kind Piece of Jewelry I guess Stephen Webster must be to jewelry design what Gray Malin is to aerial art photography. And then some. This gift starts with a trip to an emerald mine, and then a chance to “behold raw emeralds being processed in the sorting house.” Don’t know about this one. I’m flashing on Blood Diamond, and Leo DiCaprio getting shot at. Or shooting someone. I’ve forgotten everything about that film other than the violence. Anyway, for $300,000 you get to go the mines, and then get the emerald of your dreams turned into a ring or brooch or whatever you want to collaborate with Stephen Webster.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Johnny? Mais Johnny doesn’t ride the bus…

The big news in France last week was that rocker JJohnny hallydayohnny Hallyday - France’s version of Elvis - has, metaphorically speaking, left the building. On Saturday, his funeral procession made its way down the Champs Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron – who, amazingly, was called by Johnny’s wife at 2 a.m. the night he died -  spoke at his funeral Mass. A nation mourned.

There’sVee mask Johnny up there to the right. He looks kind of like a weird, devilish cross between Barry Manilow, a BeeGee, and the Vee mask guy. Mostly like the Vee mask guy. I guess it’s a French thing.

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who logged a number of years in Paris, had a good piece about Johnny, in which he admitted the France’s affection for the singer was somewhat mystifying. As he wrote:

There is no complete accounting for national taste in pleasure any more than for individual taste in love.

And here’s what Gopnik wrote to provide a bit of context to that “no complete accounting for national taste”:

Johnny—he was never called anything else—for those who have not been paying attention to the French tabloids for the past fifty years, was the single greatest and most beloved pop star of France. Born Jean-Philippe Smet, during the Occupation, by legend he took the name Hallyday from an “American relative.” He came to be called the “French Elvis,” and this was true—but it was not true in the way that, say, Charles Aznavour could be called the French Sinatra, or the great Charles Trenet the French Noël Coward.

To use those names was to approximate, in terms familiar to us, remarkable artists who finally had to be understood on their own terms. Johnny was the French Elvis in more or less the same sense that an Elvis impersonator in Branson, Missouri, is the Missouri Elvis: he dutifully imitated the manners of the master while translating them into his own personal style.

The titles of some of Johnny’s hits suggest the painfully persistent note of wistful pastiche: “Joue Pas de Rock’n’Roll Pour Moi” (“Don’t Play Rock and Roll for Me”); “C’est le Mashed Potatoes”; “Laissez-Nous Twister”; “Quelque Chose de Tennessee.” In each case, the American idiom was laid out painfully, aspirationally, over a straight up-and-down of the scales of French chanson style, with bad drumming added.

The real virtues of rock and roll—the Chuck Berry virtues of high-speed compression and sly wit, the rebellious wink and the laconic put-down—were as alien to Johnny as they were to Edith Piaf. Famed for his Elvisian antics onstage, he was, surprisingly for a French star, less sexy than sexual, real erotic appeal depending, at least in part, on knowingness. Elvis, as he demonstrated with charm in his 1968 comeback special, knew exactly when to swivel his hips and how to curl his lip. He controlled it. Johnny just did it.

Johnny just did it. Maybe so. But I can promise you that he did not ride in the tour bus with his band. At least not in France, in the summer of 1973.

My friend Joyce and I were hitchhiking around Europe, and somewhere in France – near Carcasonne? it was definitely in the boonies – we got a lift with his tour bus.

We’d heard of Johnny Hallyday. And I’m pretty sure I would have seen him on Ed Sullivan, a Sunday night viewing staple in the Rogers’ household. I’m sure that we (my entire family, with the exception of my way-too-nice mother) would have made some fun of him, in much the same way we made fun of dancing bear and spinning plate acts, and Topo Gigio. But I wasn’t familiar with his oeuvre, that’s for sure.

We knew it was the Johnny Hallyday band because his name was emblazoned on the side of the bus. We were pretty excited hopping on. Here we were, a couple of American girls, and we were going to get to meet a French heart throb. Alas, when we inquired about the whereabouts of Johnny, the band members just gave us a Gallic shrug, one of them telling us, “Oh, Jawn-eeee, he does not ride ze bus. Jawn-eeee flies.” Quel dommage! How much fun would that have been? Joyce and I, too, might have been joining France, and their cute president, Emmanuel Macron, in mourning.

We weren’t on the bus that long. We were heading to Point A, they were heading to Point B. This was July 1973, and Johnny Hallyday was touring all over France. Did they offer us tickets to a concert? I don’t recall. (Unlike Blood, Sweat & Tears, who made me so very happy when I waited on them at Durgin-Park in the summer of 1972 when they gave me two front row tickets to their gig.) We parted on good terms. I think they gave us something to eat.

If you want to see Johnny in his prime, here’s a link to his version of “Let’s Twist Again.” And yes, I did get up and do the twist in this honor. And, no, I wasn’t wearing a pajama-looking outfit like the girls in that video.

Au revoir, Jawn-eeee. As Adam Gopnik says, there’s no accounting for national taste.

Friday, December 08, 2017

A Holy Day of Obligation in the United States

Growing up, there were plenty of things that separated kids who went to parochial schools from their peers (a.k.a., pubs) who attended public school.  Wearing w a uniform was the obvious difference. And because we wore uniforms, we were warned by the nuns that we were always visible and recognizable to the general public, who would be judging the entire Roman Catholic Church based on the behavior of students from Our Lady of Angels Grammar School. Thus, it was a double sin to swipe a yoyo from Woolworth’s or throw an ice ball at a car. (Not that a goody two-shoes like me would have done either of those things.)

Even at the time, I had to wonder who these folks were who were doing the judging.Worcester at the time was about 2/3rds Catholic, and the neighborhood I grew up in about 90% Catholic. But, whatever Sta (that’s “Sister” in Worcester-ese) said went.

Another thing that separated parochial schoolers from pubs was that, the occasional yoyo swipe aside, parochial schoolers were honest, and pubs were thieves. Thus, on Catechism day, when the pubs, in their anything-goes clothing, came in after school to sit at our desks, in our chairs, to receive an hour’s worth of the indoctrination we got from the opening bell to the final prayer of the day, we were told to take home anything of value, and push our pens and pencils to the furthest reaches of our desks. Because pubs stole.

The best thing about going to parochial school, however, was that we got Holy Days of Obligation off.

Some Holy Days – Christmas and New Year’s (which when I was a kid was called the Feast of the Circumcision – ouchy- but is now a celebration of Mary Mother of God) – were general holidays. Thus no special benefit accrued to Catholic schoolers. August 15th – the Feast of the Assumption wasn’t worth a damn. We were off for the summer, plus we had to go to Mass, which is what the obligation in Holy Day of Obligation is all about.

The good Holy Days were November 1st, All Saints Day and, not at all coincidentally, the day after Halloween. Getting up and going to Mass was a reasonably good trade-off for having the rest of the day to loll around and eat any candy that your mother hadn’t commandeered. The Feast of the Ascension – 40 days after Easter – was another good one. It was typically a nice enough spring day, a good break between Patriots’ Day and Memorial Day, and an opportunity to taunt pubs who, on a nice enough spring day, would of course rather be outside playing than inside learning.

December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Many Catholics, let alone outsiders, are under the false impression that the the conception that was immaculate was when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Not so. It refers to Mary having been herself conceived without original sin on her soul, unlike the rest of us poor schnooks.

Anyway, December 8th was a very fine day to have off. It meant you could head down to Woolworth’s to do your Christmas shopping, wearing your civvies, so that no one who saw you swipe that yoyo would judge the Catholic Church based on your behavior. Plus, if you did swipe that yoyo, you’d only be guilty of the sin of stealing, not the sin of causing scandal.

I am not taking the day off, let alone going to church.

And I don’t think that Catholic schools get the day off, either. Too many working parents who wouldn’t be thrilled to have their kids home on a weird-ball day.

Still, it’s fun to recall the good old days, when there was something mighty valuable – beyond learning how to diagram sentences and do mental arithmetic -  about going to parochial school.

 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Bah humbug to cyber-scalpers. (Nasty little Grinch Bots.)

I’ve been volunteering the past few years for Christmas in the City, a 100% volunteer charity that puts on a big holiday party for kids living in homeless shelters, and also provides families in need with toys for their children. Between the holiday party and the toy drive, we’re talking thousands upon thousands of presents under one big metaphorical tree.

One of my CITC tasks this year involved working on our wishlist, the Amazon gift registry that contains the toys we could use the most. Each year, we add a few items to it, and take a few items off. The toys on the list run pretty much anywhere from $10-15-ish to $40 (or somewhere in the vicinity of $40). In any case, nothing over $50. At least that was the case when we added new items in November.

Then, what to our wondering eyes did appear but a $30 baby doll that’s now going for $70!

And then there are the Fingerlings. FingerlingNo, we’re not talking fingerling potato here. A Fingerling is a little monkey-like creature that you wrap around your finger. When we added them to our list, they were about $13, as I recall. Now, well, would you pay $50 for this littler piece of crap? I sure wouldn’t, and I hope that no one buying gifts for Christmas in the City does, either. (I just put a caveat emptor warning on our FB page.)

On the news last night, I even heard that they were going for $1,000 on eBay, but I checked just now, and that tulip bulb madness seems to have passed. Still, they’re in the upper-$40’s on Amazon.

Bah humbug to these cyber-scalpers is all I can say.

Mostly, I’m not all that anti-scalper.

I don’t mind the “got tickets?need tickets?” guys outside of Fenway.  I don’t mind an individual standing in physical or virtual line to buy up tickets.  And in real life, I’m guessing that when they’re out there at game time, they’re working for scalping reseller sites. But when the acquisition is all electronic, and a human really can’t compete, that really pisses me off.

I can’t stand it when I have to pay a lot more for a concert ticket because some scalper-bot has sucked up all the inventory the moment the tickets are released. But whoever’s producing the concert doesn’t care, as long as the venue sells out.

Ditto for the scalping reseller sites for sporting events.

But I guess if I want to pay an inflated price for a ticket to see Springsteen or the Red Sox, well, whatever the market can bear…

I suppose I should feel the same way about scalping toys. But I don’t. I hate the cyber-scalpers for running up the price of Fingerlings. They are especially insidious, even though I think it’s really dumb for anyone to get caught up in the ‘toy of the moment’ mania. Still, a pox on the cyber-scalpers’ Grinch bots.

Online scammers with an arsenal of cyberbots are stealing Christmas by buying up the most popular toys of the season and selling them for a hefty markup on third-party sites such as Amazon and eBay.

While the demand for the hottest toys is particularly high this time of year, shoppers are competing against a growing army of bots. For years, scalpers have taken advantage of software robots to scoop up event tickets, but now scammers are employing the same tactics to cheat Christmas shoppers, says MSNBC anchor and economics correspondent Ali Velshi.

"Regular people could never buy them at face value," he tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "The idea that it was bots — scalpers using algorithms — to buy up all the tickets in the first place, and then sell them either via a third-party vendor or independently to people, and this has now moved its way into the hot holiday toy sales industry." (Source: NPR)

We’ve long had these toy scarcities. Remember the Cabbage Patch Kids shortage? Ticket Me Elmo?

But that was pre-“complex algorithm”, which just seems so unfair.

Even though I think it is completely ridonculous to get caught up in hot pursuit of the hottest gifts, which just feeds into our plastic-fantastic, overwrought, junk consumer goods economy.

Can you say mixed emotions?

I guess the thing to do is to try bricks and mortar, where it’s unlikely that someone will be trying to sell a Fingerling for $1,000. Or do what my parents would do, back in my slightly post-Little House in the Prairie childhood, when Christmas was a relatively subdued affair -  a couple of toys, crayons and Play-Do in your stocking, flannel PJs.

If they hadn’t gotten around to getting us (or, in my mother’s case, making us) something that they had planned to – which I promise you was not very likely to be anything flashy from anyone’s gotta have it list – my mother would wrap up a picture of the item. There you go, kids!

But that was when deferred gratification and refusal to be caught up in consumer frenzies were considered best practices for raising kids.

Ah, the good old days, before we had Grinch bots gobbling up all those Fingerlings.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

No Christmas Tree, No Christmas Tree

On Saturday or Sunday – weather dependent – I’ll be going out and getting my tree. I’ll get a Zipcar and head to Boston Christmas Trees in Allston to pick out a nice, six-foot balsam. I don’t go to Boston Christmas Trees every year, but I like to support them, as they’re long term supporters of Christmas in the City, a children’s charity I’m involved with.

Once I get my tree home, I’ll toss it in our building’s tiny front yard, hose it down to remove the allergens – it actually works: I did it last year and didn’t get my seasonal stuffy nose at all – and see if my new pedal-action, supposedly great for one-person Christmas tree stand works better than my trusty, heavy-duty cast iron stand. (The Christmas after my husband died, I discovered that a 6 foot tree is my single-handed tree height limit.) I’ll then let the tree relax (sigh…) for a day or so. Once it’s settled in, I’ll haul out my vast supply of Christmas CD’s and my vast supply of Christmas ornaments and decorate. All will be calm, all will be bright.

One thing I’m not worried about is whether there’ll be any trees left in the Boston Christmas Trees lot.
 
Maybe I should be. Seems there’s a scarcity of trees out there.

This Christmas, supplies of live trees are tight. Some Christmas tree lots are closing almost as soon as they open, citing a shortage of trees and presaging a potential national run on firs this weekend, traditionally the busiest of the tree-buying season.

Some suppliers blame extreme weather this past year. Some blame changes to agriculture, like small farmers in Oregon, the biggest tree-producing state, turning to grapes and cannabis instead.

But most growers blame the Great Recession.

It takes seven years to 10 years to grow a tree. Many farmers planted fewer seedlings or went out of business altogether in the years after the housing bust, when consumers pulled back spending.

At the same time, total acreage in production declined 30% between 2002 and 2012, according to the latest federal data available. (Source Wall Street Journal – requires subscription)

All I can say is, consider the source. The Wall Street Journal? You mean the folks who think Bob Mueller is the bad guy? That Wall Street Journal?

I’m going with: This is New England, and we’ve got Christmas trees.

Don’t we? After all, the article mentions states like Arizona and Florida that are far away from tree sources. We’ve got Maine! We’ve got Canada!

But, while we haven’t had forest fires, we did have a drought this past summer…

Hmmm….

So I did a bit of googling and, sure enough, Massachusetts isn’t exempt from the tree shortage. Supply down/demand up. And because it takes a good one while to go from sapling to something usable, the shortage is likely to be with it for a few more holiday seasons.

Fortunately, I’m not all that fussy. The tree doesn’t have to be perfect. If there’s no obvious bald spots, I’ll be good. Sometimes it helps to have grown up around a grandmother whose motto was, “If a man on a gallopin’ horse wouldn’t notice…”

…the artificial-tree industry is saying traditionalists should see the shortage as a sign to branch out. Trees can be “tall, short, thin, fat, green, silver, white, ombré, rainbow, upside down, real or artificial,” according to a Facebook post by the American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for artificial-tree producers.

I will say that I’m occasionally drawn to those mid-century modern silvery-white Christmas trees with turquoise or pink ornaments. So Mad Men. But I could never actually go with one of them. As for ombré. Hombre, I’m no fan of fake Christmas trees to begin with. But ombré?

“Don’t be discouraged,” the association said. “That ‘perfect’ Christmas tree is any type of Christmas tree that fits your personality and your lifestyle.”

Me? I’m not discouraged, and doubt I’ll ever be discouraged enough to get an artificial tree (even though some of my best friends and relations have them). As for finding something that “fits”, I don’t exactly have a lifestyle. But I do have a personality, and that personality just says NO, NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO, to an artificial Christmas tree. Talk about no Christmas tree. No can do.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Boston Christmas Trees will have a good enough six-foot balsam, and that my new tree stand will be a dream to use. Look for a picture of my tree some time next week…

 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Custom shoes? I’m in!

By the time I was in 7th grade, my shoe size was 9.5 AAA. I was still wearing Stride Rites at that point, and there were only two choices in that size: regular old black and white/brown and white saddle shoes, and some type of black velvet/black leather saddle shoes. I mostly wore the latter through 8th grade. They were cute. Not embarrassing. And they fit.

By freshman year in high school, I no longer wanted to wear Stride Rites. Unfortunately, my foot had grown a bit longer, and narrowed along the way. I now wore a 10 AAAA, with a AAAAAAA heel. The only 10 AAAA shoes available in Worcester Massachusetts were sold at a high-end women’s store, Marcus. They carried 10 AAAA shoes because that was the size worn by the wife of the owner. Unfortunately, they were the sort of shoes that a middle aged woman would want to wear, not a 13 year old kid.

But they did carry a loafer.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Bass Weejun loafer that every other girl in my high school wore. It was a tan suede Old Maine Trotter. What they lacked in style, they made up for in comfort.

But I didn’t want comfort. I wanted the same Bass Weejun penny loafers everyone else wore. So I contorted my feet a bit, pushing them in to a 9 or 9.5 AA – whatever I could find -  that was at once to short and too wide. As a result, I had a lot of blisters.

For my other shoes – the heels I wore to church – I also went with whatever near size was available

My senior year in high school, saddle shoes were suddenly back in. And Stride Rites came in 10 AAAA.

In college, I wore loafers for a year or so. Then clogs, Dr. Scholl’s, work boots, sandals.I don’t remembering size mattering much.

By the time I was out in the work world, and I had to have decent shoes, I mostly wore 9.5 AA. Suboptimal – lots of blisters and slipping out of the shoe. Occasionally, I’d fine a shoe in my size. There was a place in Boston that sold shoes that fit. Mostly ugly, but they fit.

And then I discovered catalogue shoe shopping, and started to get most of my 10 AAAA shoes from catalogue.

And then, blessedly, there was Zappo’s.

In the last couple of years, my foot grew again, length and width. After a brief stop at 10.5 AA,  I now wear an 11 AA.

Not exactly common – and if I see something I like and click on it, I can be about 99.99% sure that it won’t be available in my size. Still, there’s a lot more choice than I had when I was in high school.

And most of what I wear is of the sneaker variety. (Thank you Asics, thank you Brooks, for the variety of colors that you make, even in my giant size. Not all the color combos, but enough that I’m not stuck with boring old white.)

What I’ve long longed for for my long foot, however, is a custom-made shoe.

Now, technologies including 3-D scanning are bringing consumer product companies closer to developing custom-fit versions of mass-produced goods. But despite the futuristic promise in the field, few products have yet broken through to a broad audience.

“It’s something everybody’s chasing in different ways,” said Bill McInnis, who leads Reebok Future, a division working on manufacturing advances for the Boston company.

Reebok recently opened a South Boston store that allows visitors to design features for their shoes. But like many in the footwear industry, the company is looking for ways to custom-make shoes that fit each customer’s foot. (Source: Boston Globe)

Get that 3-D scanner in there.Maybe it’ll be like the weird glowing fitting “machines”, the fluoroscopes of my youth. Maybe it’ll be like the MRI I just had of my ankle. (Nothing serious, just a few small tears in the tendons and ligaments. Occasional low-level pain. Occasional Grandpappy Amos McCoy limping) Whatever it is, I’m heading to Southie. I’ll be first in line to get a pair of custom-sized Reeboks. Can’t wait!

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Sage of Omaha? You can look it up in the encyclopedia.

I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy reading about Warren Buffett. Not that I read a lot about the Sage of Omaha, mind you, but what I do read, I find interesting.

As in an article I saw the other day on Bloomberg with a headline about Buffett’s owning the World Book.

I grew up when people had encyclopedias in their homes. All those GI’s settling down and having all those Baby Boomers who were all going to be first gen to college. Almost everyone’s living room had a set of some encyclopedia. World Book. Britannica. Collier’s. Colliers EncyclopediaIn keeping with having the most oddball version of what everyone else had, we had Collier’s. Here’s what the 1956 edition – which graced one of the bookcases in our living room – looked like. (You can get it on eBay for $70.) The Rogers kids did a lot of homework projects with information gleaned from one of these volumes. (I was in high school before I did a research project that I actually had to go to the library for.) Information didn’t change as fast and furious as it does today, but it still changed, and one of the highlights of the year was the arrival of the annual update volume for the prior year. Coup in the Congo! Yanks win Series!

Even when I didn’t have a project in mind, I much enjoyed just thumbing through a volume and learning “stuff.” It’s no wonder my head is full of so much of it.

Pliny the Elder might claim that his age was the Golden Age of Encyclopedia, but I’m going with the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Proof point? Look no further: we even had a theme song, Jiminy Cricket singing “Encyclopedia, E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A”.

So, yes, it’s interesting that Warren Buffett owns World Book. But World Book is not alone among his more off-beat assets:

Along with large, thriving businesses such as Geico and the BNSF Railway, he’s accumulated a collectIion of head-scratchers. There’s a bowling shoe brand, a maker of vacuum cleaner bags, almost three dozen newspapers, and the manufacturer of Ginsu knives. (Source: Bloomberg)

Bowling shoes? Ginsu knives? (“Slices roast beef so thin, your in-laws will never come back.”) Vacuum cleaner bags? (Achoo!)

And the World Book.

When the first edition of the World Book came out in 1917, its illustrations were as cutting-edge as today’s virtual-reality video games. By the late 1950s the company was printing more than half a million sets a year, many of which were sold door to door. At one point the sales force numbered more than 40,000.

Good God! 40,000 door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen? Yikes! I remember Fuller Brush. And Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe World Book sellers didn’t come to Main South Worcester.

Early on during his ownership, what with that mighty sales force pounding the pavement, World Book was a pretty good bet for Buffett. But then came the Internet, and suddenly we had encyclopedia on steroids at our fingertips. Sure, a lot of the content out there is intentionally false or just plain wrong. And a ton of it isn’t curated. But a lot of it is good and true. And it’s perpetually updated. So you don’t need to wait months into the new year to get a summation of what happened the year prior. World Book has gone from throwing off enough cash that it appeared as a line item in the annual report. Over the last decade or so, it was just lumped in with a bunch of other miscellany.

Who buys book form encyclopedias? I would have guessed nobody. But, as it turns out, some people do.

After decades of declines, sales of print encyclopedias rose last year and are projected to do so again. Why? It doesn’t hurt that World Book is the last of its kind, a multivolume encyclopedia that’s updated each year.

Whatever the reason – last encyclopedia standing or pure nostalgia – World Book has become a profitable (small, but profitable) part of the Buffett portfolio. And even if it were still a loser, there’s a method to Buffett’s madness.

Because Buffett hangs on to his acquisitions – no quick in and out for the Sage – he believes that sellers want to sell to his Berkshire rather than a ruthless, predatory investor who’s going to come in and strip, gut, and toss. And it’s been working pretty well. If, in 1965, I had had in my possession $100, and had known enough to invest in Berkshire Hathaway, I would be $2 million to the good today.

Of course, in 1965, I didn’t have $100, and I was too busy thumbing through the annual Collier’s Year Book to see what had happened in 1964 (Johnson trounces Goldwater! Cards beat Yanks!) to look at what was going on in money world.

Still, fun to learn a bit more about Warren Buffett. Pretty sage for a guy from Omaha. And good to think that somewhere, there’s a kid paging through the encyclopedia, stuffing their head with stuff.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Lights up!

I’m not one of those folks who go all gush-gush over Christmas. Who start decorating in November. Who just can’t wait to see what’s behind the next door on the Advent calendar.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have some bah-humbugging moments, but I’m no Scrooge. I buy presents, put up a tr20171130_195745ee, send cards, entertain, make donations, volunteer, wrap presents, sing carols, bake cookies, go to a concert. But you’ll never catch me singing ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year.’ That would be baseball season. Or fall (especially if the local baseball season is still on).

Mostly what I appreciate about the Christmas season is that it’s a reasonably good antidote to the darkness that’s falling all around us. And what makes it a good antidote is all those lights.

So what I do love about this time of year is that they light up the Boston Common (colored lights) and the Public Garden (white lights). Both right there in/as my front yards.

20171130_195751Last night, I happened to be walking through the Common just as they turned on the lights for the season. In the past, I’ve gone to the lighting ceremony, but this year I had a meeting downtown, so I was just passing through on my way back home.

Countdown: 10, 9, 8. The Mayor pressed the button, and everyone sang “Deck the Halls.”

I didn’t take a picture of the actual Common Christmas tree, but they also light the deciduous trees, so here are a couple of pics I took when I walked by the Frog Pond skating rink. If there’s a lovelier urban winter sight than folks skating after dark amidst the Christmas lights, I don’t know what it is. (Actually, I do know: it’s this scene with snow.)

Last year, they kept the lights up until February. I hope they do it again this year. If there’s one time of year I do actively dislike, it’s January. Long, cold, dark, and dreary.

But as long as they keep these lights on, I’ll make it through just fine.

 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

No place like home for the holidays. Just ask the AA flyboys.

That glittery gift that American Airlines pilots found in the toe of their stocking? Turns out it was a potential lump of coal for passengers.

What happened was a problem with their pilot scheduling system that allowed too many pilots to sign up for time off during December. Home for the holidays, avoiding some potentially crappy weather, not flying during a stressful time of year when so many travelers are hyped and/or crazed and/or freaked? What’s not to like?

Anyway, American is now trying to figure out what to do with the estimated 15,000 flights that may not have enough crew to fly over the holidays, when there’s no place like home, and everyone in the country who’s not home is trying to get there.

“We are working diligently to address the issue and expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season,” [American spokesman Matt] Miller said. The number of flights involved will decline each day as the carrier reassigns them, he said. (Source: Bloomberg)

The airline is hoping not to have to do any wholesale cancellations, and is offering pilots 1.5x their regular hourly rate. But they may have to up the ante. Kind of like when they try to bribe people to give up their seats on an overbooked plane. Always best to wait until at least the second offer. But, as we’ve learned, you can’t wait too long or you risk getting dragged off the plane. In this case, would AA have to dragoon pilots and drag them on the plane?

American also plans to tap their roster of “reserve” pilots. This would make me a tad bit nervous if I were flying. Just who are these “reserve” pilots? Old guys who may have lost their edge? Young pilots who haven’t yet found theirs?

The computer-system problem will force American to rebuild its staffing schedule, similar to what airlines must do after major weather disruptions, said John Cox, chief executive officer of consultant Safety Operating Systems and a former commercial airline pilot. Revenue will take a hit if American has to scrub many flights. At a minimum, the carrier is likely to face higher labor costs just as investors are stepping up scrutiny of airline expenses.

Personally, I won’t be losing any sleep over American taking a revenue hit. They’ve definitely been more on the naughty side this year than on the nice side. (C.f., passenger dragged off plane. I will note that it was United, however, who invoked some obscure dress code rule for employees’ families traveling standby to keep some kids off of a too-crowded plane.)

The pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, doesn’t like the solutions that have been proposed so far. They’ve filed a grievance, claiming that the offer “violates its labor pact.” They want to find a solution that’s a bit richer than 1.5x pay.

Flights that are scheduled without a captain, first officer or both originate from Dallas-Fort Worth International, American’s largest hub, and airports in Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a company memo to the union, which was seen by Bloomberg News.

I’d be okay flying without a flight attendant or two, but – even though the planes are highly automated – I really wouldn’t want to be captain-less. Or in a situation where God was my co-pilot.

Glad I’m just a little old stay-at-home…

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Turtles all the way down

About half of all people in the US reject the theory of evolution. After all, who wants to be either a monkey’s uncle or a monkey’s nephew?

The percentage seem to bounce around depending on the poll/lunar cycle/how the question is asked, but roughly one-third of all Americans believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya. After all, he is half-black and has a really funny name.

A poll taken last summer showed that half of all Republicans believe that Trump won the popular vote. After all, you really do have to discount all those illegals bussed in from Puerto Rico to pull the D lever on their way to free pizza with pedophiles.

So it really should come as no surprise that there are still folks out there – perhaps even a subset of any and all of the above categories – who believe that the earth is flat.

The movement’s true scope remains something of a mystery — though some flat-earth-related videos have generated millions of online views — but the intent is clear: They are waging war on accepted science — on an understanding of the planet that dates back millennia.

If the Earth is round, they want to know, then why aren’t buildings tilted? Look at the oceans: How does water stick to a ball? And how, if the Earth is spinning at a rate of 1,000 miles an hour, are we even able to function?

To them, images of earth from space are just that — images. The video footage from the moon? Filmed on a movie set. And while they might disagree a bit on the details, they go by what they see. And what they see seems inarguably flat.

“What we observe and what we experience doesn’t seem to match up,” explained Josh Bolieiro of Nashua, during a recent meeting of Flat Earth New England at Revere Beach. (Source: Boston Globe)

I’m no STEM girl, but even I have some rudimentary understanding of why the water doesn’t fall off and why, given that 1,000 mph spin, we don’t all go whirling off into space. Ummmm, there’s gravity. And escape velocity. And, ummmm, wouldn’t you think that, if the earth were flat, someone would have found the edge by now and maybe even have made a leap into the void. Wouldn’t you think that The Edge might have become a tourist destination for those who had already checked off climbing Everest, peered into a volcano, and communed with penguins on the South Pole? Of course, if the earth were flat, there wouldn’t be a South Pole, would there now? But forget tourists. Surely, if the earth were flat, bungee jumping off the edge would be an Xtreme sport by now.

Despite the science on the side of the earth being round, people across the country are taking up the flat earth banner, and flat earth groups are sprouting up all over the place. Thus, Flat Earth New England.

Flat Earth New England…In the home of the august Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d say I’m shocked, but, these days, I’ve become pretty shock-proof.

Flat earthers, I’m guessing, are just into alternative facts. Which is pretty damned depressing. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Bill Nye, the mild-mannered TV scientist, has called the flat-earth movement “heartbreaking.” The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went a step further, suggesting that flat-earthers should be rocketed into space and allowed to return to Earth only after admitting they’re wrong.

Gotta love that Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Researchers (you know, like science guys) have done studies on conspiracy theories – like the “theory’ that pictures taken from outer space that show our fair planet as round are photoshopped  – tend to crop up when it’s VUCA-time, and the world is just chocked to the gills with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 

“What we found,” says Alin Coman, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, “is that it really goes to this notion of a search for meaning.”

Oh dear…

I’m all in favor of the search for meaning. I mean, if searching for meaning is your thing. (Me? I’m with folksinger Iris DeMent: Let the Mystery Be.) But I’m mostly in favor of taking a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to what’s going on in the observable (provable) world.

But I would like to know just what the flat earthers think is holding that Planet Pancake up. Turtles all the way down???

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Chock Full o’ Nuts is that heavenly COFFEE

I don’t imagine there are many Boomers – at least those who grew up in any area where you could buy cans of Chock Full o’Nuts Coffee at the grocery store – who don’t have this jingle imprinted in their brain:

Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee
Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee
Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee
Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy

(For providing you with today’s earworm, you’re most welcome.)

The original wording in that final line referred to “a Rockefeller’s money”. But Governor Nelson Rockefeller didn’t like it. Not, apparently, for the dig at his family. No, old Nelly had some financial interests in South American coffee that had nothing to do with Chock Full o’Nuts. So, see you in court

That’s when “millionaire” got plugged in.

Then, somewhere after the turn of the current century, they had to update the lyrics once again. It’s now “a billionaire’s money.”

Anyway, other than an occasional iced Dunk’s, I don’t drink coffee. So I don’t buy Chock Full o’Nuts, or any other brand for that matter. I do keep some coffee on hand so that I can offer it to guests. By which I mean I take the bag out of the freezer, point to the coffee maker, and tell them to have at it.

Nonetheless, if only for that earworm of a jingle from my childhood, I have a warm spot in my heart (if not my coffee mug, which is reserved for tea) for Chock Full o’Nuts.

But I haven’t given much thought to exactly why a coffee brand would be called Chock Full o’Nuts. Wouldn’t Chock Full o’Beans be better?

There is, of course, a backstory:

That name was chosen by the company’s original owner, William Black, when he rented a tiny space under a staircase in the basement of a building at Broadway and 43rd Street. The challenge was what he could sell. His lease said he could not sell anything sold by the drugstore upstairs. Nuts, he said. There was a cut-rate theater ticket operation opposite his stand. He was counting on its parade of customers to buy his nuts. They did. The coffee came along in 1930. With the Depression, nut sales dwindled. “He had to reassess his business, as it was collapsing,” [Senior Marketing Manager Dennis] Crawford said, “and he had an asset that was underutilized. He had a roasting machine, an oven, and he thought, ‘What is it that I can do, how can I use this roaster to do something to save the business? I can go down to the docks and buy green coffee as it comes in and start selling date-nut sandwiches made from the nuts and coffee to drink with it.’” (Source: NY Times)

Somewhere along the line, Chock Full decided to start selling their coffee through grocery stores, and not just at the lunch counters that made up the NYC chain. (Pretty much all gone by now, but I remember them from early trips to New York.)

And somewhere along another line, Chock Full o’Nuts wanted to start placing their product on grocery store shelves in states west of the Mississippi where, apparently, folks so far away from the Manhattan origin story didn’t get why something could be called Chock Full o’Nuts and not be, well, chock full of nuts. And what with nut allergies and epi-pens, who wants to risk anaphylactic shock when there are plenty of coffee brands out there that don’t claim to be full of nuts.

Which has brought us to the point whereChock full o' nuts the company has added a NO Nuts disclaimer to its can.

I get that they want to avoid market confusion, and that folks seeing the brand for the first time might not understand what the message is – kind of when you look at the word ORANGE written in bright blue. A mixed message, no? (Which leads me to yet another earworm: the song “Your lips tell me ‘no,no’ but there’s ‘yes,yes’ in your eyes.” Once again, you’re welcome.)

And yet, as far as the new disclaimer, I say nuts to that. Read the ingredients, for crying out loud. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. Who has time to read ingredients? We must know at first glance that this coffee can is not chocked full of nuts.

As it happens, the focus groups that Chock Full o’Nuts worked with didn’t express any concern with nut allergies.

Mr. Crawford said that issue never really came up in focus groups. “It was always something like, ‘Is there an added ingredient in the coffee?’” he said. “They were looking for pure coffee, which is what it is and always has been.” Analysts who follow the coffee industry said the “no nuts” notice catered to current consumer preferences. “Consumers are going for natural, authentic and transparent beverages,” said James Watson, the senior beverage analyst for Rabobank.

If folks were looking for “pure coffee”, why wouldn’t you just say “pure coffee”? Doesn’t saying “no nuts” set off a different set of questions?

And that blather about consumers “going for natural, authentic and transparent beverages,” I guess that would explain bottled water – check, check, check. But what about milk? Unless it’s the blue-ish, watered down dreck they used to sell at Elmer Wolfe’s “store” (an adjunct to Elmer’s bar, where he sold bread and milk), the closest place to buy anything near my grandmother’s summer lake house in Illinois, milk is not transparent. Are milk sales down, too?

Coffee, however, is not something I think of as natural, authentic, and transparent. I think of it as adult. Invigorating. Bracing. Lingering. Something you take a break with.

Ah, marketing.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Water, water everywhere

When I was a kid, my parents nicknamed me “Radar Ears” because of my ability to pick up on a conversation anywhere in the house. Of course, it helped that my bedroom when we lived in my grandmother’s decker opened right onto the kitchen, which was the hub of our universe. When we moved to a tiny, standalone house of our own, my bedroom was next to the living room which, since the kitchen was so small, became the hub of our universe (until they built an addition, known as “The Porch” because that’s how it started out before it was winterized into our family room cum dining room). Anyway, my hearing is nowhere near as acute as it used to be in the days of yore when I could hear my name (or the name of a sib, or a relation, or a neighbor) mentioned in the living room while I was half-asleep.In fact, I would have said that my hearing is actually starting to go a bit. That is, I would have said that my hearing was actually starting to go a bit until 3:33 a.m. on Saturday, when I woke from a sound sleep to the sound of dripping water in the stairway.

I am no stranger to water damage, and sometimes I even think of my condo as my own private Water World.

A year of so after we moved in, the long-gone woman upstairs had her 9 year old son for a custodial weekend. While she was sleeping it off, sonny boy deliberatively ran the bathtub to overflowing, and it overflowed on our heads, cascading down through the light fixtures in our foyer.

Ah, my favorite combo: electricity and water!

Of course, nothing compares to the Great Flood of Ought-Five, when a burst pipe in the penthouse unit opened the floodgates. We have a beautiful, ancient, elaborate plaster medallion ceiling in our living room, which we almost lost. But 4 weeks of drying time, with the heat jacked to 85 and rent-a-blowers on blast – blasting hot air into the 17 basket-ball sized holes that  had been carved out of the space in the middle of the medallions – saved the day. All together, we were out of our unit for 6 weeks while order (to the tune of $45K or so – yay, insurance!) was restored.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my home office, minding my own business (probably playing Tai Pei), when water started pouring from the ceiling light. (What is it with water and light fixtures?)

Turns out they were trying to figure out where a leak in the roof was by flooding it. Don’t know if they found the leak in the roof, but they sure found a way for water to wend it’s way onto my head.

Then last winter, I was sitting in the den watching Rachel Maddow when those Radar Ears clicked in. I opened the den closet door and, what to my wondering eyes did appear but water coursing through the hole in the ceiling where the Xfinity cable comes in, and sploshing all over the place.

It actually took over a month of multiple plumbers making multiple visits to diagnose the problem – a crack in an internal drainpipe that we share with the building next door – a drain pipe that no one even knew existed. In the middle of winter. In the middle of a winter with a couple of off and on blizzards with melts in between. Which made it hard to diagnose, because when there was a freeze on, I had no water coming in. For a month, whenever we had a thaw, I was bailing over 10 gallons of water, each day, out of the massive catch container my friend Joe set up for me in the closet.

In each of these water crises, I’ve done what I always do when there’s a water crisis: called Joe who owns a unit in this building but doesn’t live here. An engineer by trade, Joe grew up in a large family that owned a good deal of rental property. Joe’s father made sure all of his kids – both boys and girls – learned carpentry, plumbing, painting, and electrical work. He can, and does, fix everything and does a great job – far better than our useless management company that can fix nothing and does a terrible job.

So when I heard that first drip on Saturday morning, my thoucatching waterghts turned to Joe – especially when I saw that the drip was coming through a light fixture.  

I waiting until 8 a.m.to text him, which gave me time to set out the catch-container, lay down the old towels, and blue tape trash bags to the stairwell walls so that they didn’t get all splashy. The water was a nasty reddish color - looked like washed out blood – but that was due to the corroded copper pipe. The water, mercifully, was clean: in-flow to the toilets along the stack, not outflow.

That corroded pipe is in the ceiling between my unit and the one above. And here’s the hole that Joe cut in my stairway ceiling. There’s a companion hole in the bathroom wall of the unit above mine. 20171125_174552While Joe was working, he took a couple of breaks to call a couple of plumbers he knows. (Why didn’t I call? We knew from experience that it was best for Joe to leave messages for these fellows. Not that we had any degree of confidence that we would get a plumber over here during the weekend – especially given that the Pats had a Sunday game. As if… But the hope was that Joe would make a temporary fix, and the plumbers will show up at some point this week to do a permanent job.)

By 8 p.m., Joe had made the temporary fix, a length of plastic piping snaked from the unit above me into mine, with connectors on either end connecting it to “real” piping.

Never live in an old building. Never live in an old building that, when it was reno’d in the 1980’s, used shoddy contractors who did shoddy work. (When I reno’d my unit two years ago, my GC found trash, including a coffee cup, in the walls of one of the bathrooms when he opened it up.)

Did I mention that, in late August, the two-family building next door had a fire? Very little fire damage, but those firefighters don’t spare the water, so my neighbors are out of hearth and home for a year while their hearth and home undergoes a gut reno.

The fire damage was minimal because the firefighters were able to get to their building through ours. They told Joe, who was here at the time doing reno work on this unit, that, if they hadn’t been able to get to the fire through us, we might have also had a fire and sustained similar water damage.

Fortunately, I missed this bit of excitement, but did learn of it from midnight texts (with photos) from Joe and my friend Nancy.

While Joe was working away, and running out for supplies, I did cleanup. Fortunately, I had some contractor bags, but boy do those suckers get heavy when even partially filled with bloated sheetrock and sodden two-by-fours. I also kept the dryer busy, trying to keep my plentiful supply of ratty towels dry. Because even though that plastic container caught most of the direct water, there was a ton of splashing onto the stairs.

All this cleaning up of debris, and hand-wringing soggy towels so that they would drive in less than 3 hours, pretty much made my hands sand-paper dry. And somewhere, in the course of rubbing hand cream (lemon verbena! my favorite) into my sand-paper hands, I managed to mislay my wedding ring.

Well, that would have been the topper of the day.

I had visions of dumping out the contractor bag and rummaging through all those pieces of bloated sheetrock and sodden two-by-fours.

Fortunately, I found the ring. The high point of one crappy (and wet) day.

But the fix was in. I slept for the first few hours Saturday night with one of my Radar Ears cocked for the sound of dripping. Fortunately – and thanks to Joe – it was water, water, nowhere. Just the way I like it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Remind me to sign up for Lyft

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a pretty regular Uber user. Oh, I like to support cabbies, as I know they make better money than Uber. But you can’t beat the convenience of Uber. Call a cab, and there’s the crapshoot waiting. Will they show up, won’t they show up. And when will they show up. No way of ascertaining any of this without calls back to the dispatchers.

With Uber? You watch the little cartoon car make it’s way down the street to the pick up location. Three minutes away… Two minutes away… Arriving…

Plus Uber is a lot cheaper than taking a cab.

So I always give the Uber driver a good tip (in cash).

And, unless they’re all liars, most of the drivers I’ve had – and I do talk to all of them – don’t mind driving for Uber.

But I do know, of course, that Uber is a crappy company.

They don’t treat their non-employees all that well. And they don’t treat their employee-employees all that well, either. The work environment is reputedly toxic, especially for women. Last summer, Travis Kalanick was forced out, mostly for being a tyrant and an all-round shit.

And now this…

Hackers stole the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers from Uber Technologies Inc., a massive breach that the company concealed for more than a year. This week, the ride-hailing firm ousted its chief security officer and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps, which included a $100,000 payment to the attackers. (Source: Bloomberg)

What did the hackers get? Oh, just the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of 50 million Uber users, including I suppose mine. According to Uber – oh, so trustworthy – no credit card info or trip location deets were snagged.

As for driver info, personal information was hacked on 7 million drivers, among it, the driver’s license numbers for 600K of the drivers in the U.S. According to Uber – oh, so trustworthy – no Social Security numbers were snagged.

Uber should have reported the hack to regulators and to the drivers whose info was compromised. And I don’t know what the legalities are here, but shouldn’t I and the other 49,999,999 million Uber users have been told that some of our personal info was lifted, even if it wasn’t our credit card numbers? Perhaps Equifax can guide them here…

Uber acknowledges that they shoulda done a better job, but:

said it believes the information was never used but declined to disclose the identities of the attackers.

Because we should trust the goodness and integrity of hackers?

Okay, these must have been low-end, amateur hour hackers to settle for a $100K payoff. Weren’t they aware of how much Uber is worth, at least on paper?

Uber assures us that all is well:

“At the time of the incident, we took immediate steps to secure the data and shut down further unauthorized access by the individuals,” [Kalanick replacement CEO Dara] Khosrowshahi said. “We also implemented security measures to restrict access to and strengthen controls on our cloud-based storage accounts.”

Why am I not assured?

On the to do list: download the Lyft app.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017 (my broken holiday record)

I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving, every bit of it from the Macy’s Day Parade to the overeating to the next-day turkey sandwich.

When I was a kid, the day started with a trip to Parson’s Cider Mill.

Although I grew up in a city, the neighborhood was pretty weird. It was full of three-deckers, grocery stores and pharmacies, hairdressers and barbers, gas stations and used car lots, schools (public and parochial), churches (Catholic, Congo, and one weird evangelical other), a couple of mangy parks, and other urban trappings. It also had plenty of country: in or just off myParsons cider street alone there were deep woods, a pond, and a working farm of sorts that even had a couple of cows, until one harsh winter when they froze to death, standing in place, and the Worcester Public Health Department had to come up and bulldoze them over and out. We had fields to play in. An abandoned reservoir. And we had Parson’s Cider Mill, open between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and where we would get two gallons of cider for each of those holidays, as in those days, no one served wine. Grownups had a highball or two (or a sherry for most of the women), then everyone drank cider. I still have an empty jug. (Not quite my Rosebud, but definitely an icon of my childhood.) After Christmas, our empties were stored in the basement and brought back to Parson’s for a refill the next Thanksgiving, when my father would take us kids (and our Radio Flyer wagon, used to haul the cider back home) around the corner to Parson’s. (It sounds almost Little House in the Prairie, doesn’t it?)

This year, I’ll be celebrating at my sister Kath’s, and much looking forward to it. There will be cider, I’m quite sure, but – alas – Parson’s is no more. (Not that we’d be going out to Worcester to fetch cider, mind you.)

Thanksgiving…

This year I’m thankful for the things I’m always thankful for: family and friends, my work, good health (other than a few mechanical difficulties: who knows what yesterday’s MRI of my ankle will reveal), a lovely home, wonderful memories, and the fact that, nearly one year in, the republic, while teetering, still stands.

Here’s last year’s post, if you want to see the full bill of thanks fare for the day.

This year, I want to do a special shout out to St. Francis House, a day shelter (and more) doing amazing work to help Boston’s poor, especially those who are experiencing homelessness.

While I’ve been involved with St. Francis House for many years, this year, I decided to spend some quality time by regularly volunteering in the kitchen and in clothing distribution.

Each day, SFH serves more than 700 meals (breakfast and lunch), and chefs Seth and Laurel do a spectacular job turning out nutritious and pretty damned good meals – and a spectacular job making things fun for the volunteers who help prepare and serve meals. (When I do a 9-1 shift, I eat lunch there before we serve. Everything I’ve had has been very tasty. And there’s been laughter at every shift I’ve worked there, too.)

Each month, SFH distributes 750 changes of clothing: new undies and socks, and mostly donated (some new, some used) shirts, pants, and sweaters. Working in Fresh Threads (our clothing distribution center) is quite interesting. In the kitchen, we just see the guests as they go through the food line. At Fresh Threads, volunteers work one on one with guests, talking to them about their clothing druthers and then going “shopping” for them. Although I don’t have a regular shift that I work, I’ve had the same people a couple of times, and have gotten to know them a bit. So I know that M doesn’t want any clothing with “plastic” (i.e., polyester) in it. And that D doesn’t like white tee-shirts because they remind him of prison.

We’re usually pretty well stocked with shirts and, to lesser extent, pants, and can generally get someone the long sleeved, collared shirt they want, but maybe not always a pair of jeans.

What we tend to run low on are shoes/boots and coats. When a warm parka comes in, it’s probably back out the door in 10 minutes. But there’s never enough, and it’s tough telling someone to try again next week for a warm jacket when it’s 30 degrees out. Ditto a pair of sturdy boots or shoes. Guests can get a fresh set of duds – undies, shirts, pants – once a week. But they can only get shoes and outerwear once every three months. More than once I’ve tried to convince someone not to take that pair of shoes that don’t really fit, not to take that lightweight jacket that will be useless tomorrow. But when you’re desperate…

When I think of the clothing choices I have in my closet. The food choices I have in my larder. And the fact that there’s never a day where I have to worry about where I’ll be laying my head down that night.

To see these folks who have so little, yet are – get this – pretty much just like us. Maybe a few more bad choices, always a lot more bad luck.

If you’re feeling inclined to make an “I’m thankful” donation today, you could do worse than make it to St. Francis House.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Falmouth, Maine, freegans better look that gift turkey in the whatever

One of the prized memories of my childhood was finding an unopened bag of M&Ms in a snowbank. Free candy! I was so in…

But, other than wild blueberry picking as a kid, my life has largely been foraging-free.  My mushrooms come from the produce department, I wouldn’t eat roadkill if my life depended on it, and while I like the idea of fiddlehead ferns, I don’t think they taste all that great.

Sure, I love doggie bags and leftovers, but I tend to know where they came from. Ditto with my groceries.

But I know that there are urban foragers out there, picking dandelions out of sidewalk cracks or whatever it is that they do. And that there are freegans and/or poor folks who go dumpster diving behind grocery stores and restaurants, looking for whatever’s been thrown out that’s still edible.

A fellow up in Falmouth, Maine, took it one step further, coming upon what he must have thought was his lucky-day dumpster dive and making off with a truckload of free turkeys.

In a post on Facebook on Monday, police in Falmouth, Maine, cautioned that a man in a pickup truck plucked a large amount of foul fowl from the trash behind the Hannaford supermarket in town, after the birds went bad when a refrigerator unit at the store suffered from an apparent mechanical failure. He then allegedly gave some of the turkeys away, police said.

“Turkey Warning: (yes for real),” police wrote on Facebook. “Someone has actually removed these turkeys from the dumpster and thought it would be a great idea to redistribute them. It’s not a good idea, it’s a very bad idea. These turkeys were discarded because they were a hazard to consume. If anyone had acquired a bird from some non-conventional manner from someone you don’t know, discard and replace it.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Wonder if this guy stopped to ask himself why, a few days before Thanksgiving, Hannaford would be tossing out 75-80 turkeys if they were okay.

I know you can ignore plenty of those “best if used by” dates. That Progresso soup? You could probably crack open a can of C-rations from WWII and they’d still be edible. (That is, if you happen to like Spam.) And yogurts are good for another 10 days or so.

But we’re not talking something stamped with a meaningless expiration date here. We’re talking poultry. Which under the best of conditions is one big germ factory. Which is why we have special cutting boards devoted to chicken. And why we boil our hands after cutting raw meat.

Hannaford discarded these turkeys after they had “thawed and bloated” because of a fridge gone bad.

“Thawed and bloated.” Boy, does that ever sound appetizing.

The fellow who found the turkey trove was pretty proud of his find. He didn’t try to sell them. He just put a picture up on Facebook and invited his friends to come and get them. He’s not being charged with any crime – dumpster diving is not against the law – but Hannaford wants folks to know that these turkeys may not be safe to eat, even if you cook it in a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes per thawed and bloated pound.

Hannaford, by the way, like any other head’s up company, learned about the turkey giveaway via social media. They then called the police and asked for their help getting the word out. Which Falmouth PD, sworn to protect and serve (just not bad turkey), did.

So folks in the Falmouth, Maine, area are warned: if you got your bird from a guy in a pickup truck who found them out back of the Hannaford’s, it’s not to late to dump it and get yourself a Butterball with the weird little popup eye.

Meanwhile, this story reminded me of a famous family Thanksgiving when my Aunt Margaret served raw turkey.

My aunt didn’t cook turkey in her oven. She had a special turkey roaster – I think my mother had one as well – that was straight out of the 1940’s. Appliances from back in the day were still in good form 30+ years later, which is I think the approximate timing of the Great Raw Turkey Incident. Anyway, Margaret’s turkey roaster was on the fritz, and it was not cooked all the way through. My cousin Barbara’s boys were still young enough at the time to not do what the rest of us were doing, which was hide any bad slices of turkey under a pile of mashed turnip. Just young enough at the time for one of them to say in a quite loud voice, “Grammy, this turkey is raw!”

At which point, my cousin Barbara reached out with her famous claw of death, grabbed whichever kid had just pointed out that the turkey was raw, and hissed in his ear, “You’ll eat it!”

Death before hurting someone’s feelings!

Good luck to the Falmouth, Maine, freegans. I’m hoping that most of the bad turkeys were found. But I’m guessing that at at least one Thanksgiving table, some kid will be saying, “Grammy, this turkey smells funny!”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

No bedbugs? No shit!

On one of our last trips to NYC, where we had gone many, many, times, my husband and I each came home with what looked quite a bit like a bedbug bite. We examined our clothing, flashlight inspected the corners of our roller bags, and pretty much decided that we hadn’t taken any of those critters home with us.

When I say pretty much decided, I mean that Jim pretty much decided. I spent the next couple of months after our return on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I felt bedbugs everywhere. I kept tossing the mattress over, looking for the telltale signs of bedbuggism. I tore my bureau drawers apart to see if I could find any bedbugs lurking in a crevice. I sent away for bedbug repellent, and doused the legs of bed and bureaus. I got some sort of bedbug detection kit that I never really used, but felt comforted just having it around. (It was shipped in a plane brown package, like porn used to – or so I’m told.) I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep until, after a couple of months, I decided one Sunday to get out to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy special anti-bedbug mattress and pillow covers. At last: a good night’s sleep. Big sigh of relief. Jim, he’d been sleeping just fine all along.

During this entire period, I never actually saw a bedbug. Just those initial telltale, three-point bite-marks Jim and I each had on the back of one of our legs. I really do think we were bitten. And I think we were likely bitten at this really old-fashioned French restaurant that we used to go to – now closed – where we were always the youngest customers by about 20 years. If it were nice out, we always ate in their small outdoor seating area – nothing much: just a couple of tables on the sidewalk on Second Avenue - but on that bedbug trip  we dined inside of the La Mediterranee. Sacre bleu! It always smelled a bit mildewy. No wonder they closed.

While our problem (actually, my psychological problem) was resolved by installing anti-bedbug bedding, since then I’ve been careful to leave my suitcase on the luggage stand in a hotel room. Supposedly, bedbugs can’t climb up the metal legs.

Anyway, that’s the sum total of my experience with bed bugs.

So I never encountered the problem in the workplace.

Workplace infestations are apparently quite rare, but they do happen.

One place that suffered a recent infestation occurred at SimpliSafe, a home security outfit with offices in downtown Boston. SimpliSafe brought in exterminators, and had managers meet with their groups, but their employees – at least some of them – don’t think that the company has done enough about it.

In recent days, three employees have protested outside the company’s Downtown Crossing headquarters. “No bedbugs, no [expletive]!” they chanted one morning, passing out fliers that read “Support United SimpliSafe workers.”

The three employees, who work in the company’s call center, said they launched the same chant inside the office last week and were suspended with pay. One employee, Abraham Zamcheck, was arrested on disorderly conduct charges after he stood on his desk to lead the chants, he said. (Source: Boston Globe)

What triggered Zamcheck to jump on his desk for a bit of rabble-rousing was a text from colleague Ryan Costello, one of a trio of employees (Zamcheck and Lauren Galloway were the others) who had circulated a petition that:

…demanded an apology from management and a pledge for more open conversation going forward...“It has come to our attention that there is a bedbug infestation in the office and that management and HR have known about this for some time,” the petition read.

Costello texted Zamcheck after he was called into a senior manager’s office, telling his buddy that he was about to be fired.

After seeing the message,Zamcheck stood on his desk and began to chant: “No bedbugs, no [expletive], and “Hell no, we won’t go.” About 10 others joined in, employees said.

Managers called the police, who arrested him.

Costello wasn’t fired. Along with Zamcheck and Galloway, he was suspended. The three are now protesting outside of SimpliSafe’s offices, and maintain that the bedbug problem, and SimpliSafe’s way of handling it, “was a symptom of deeper problems in its workplace culture”

It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find that a call center full of young, underpaid staffers who had to sit on the phone listening to people complain all day had some pretty deep workplace culture problems. And that employees would be disgruntled.

“I was aware that it was a possibility we’d get fired, but we hoped by standing up together we’d be able to stop [mistreatment] in a meaningful sense,” Costello said. “We are now suspended and are trying to get our jobs back, and continue this struggle for change here.”

The article I read didn’t get into any details on the non-bedbug grievances, but it’s not hard to imagine what they might be: call center, rotten pay, carping customers, ghastly hours. And management at SimpliSafe may be truly dreadful in terms of using up and spitting out employees. It’s been known to happen.

Still, standing on your desk Norma Rae-ing about bedbugs, and then standing outside the building protesting, might not be the way to get their message across. Sure, they got an article in the Boston Globe, but just what are Boston Globe readers who don’t subscribe to SimpliSafe’s services going to do to support the SimpliSafe Three?

In a way, I kind of like the way they’re going about it. It’s sweetly old school. But in this day and age, might it not have been more effective to go on Glassdoor.com, anonymously complain about the company, and then make sure that someone in management looks at Glassdoor?

The protestors say that they only got 35 folks to sign their petition because people were scared about losing their jobs. That certainly could be the case. It can be scary to standup to senior management (wrote the person who was once fired for trying to organize a waitress union and, decades later, as a full-blown professional, was fired for pretty much challenging the company president to a thrown-down in front of the company’s employees to see whether they believed his interpretation of what was happening in the company or mine). But, in an economy where there’s near full employment, and where call center jobs seem to be plentiful, it might just be that people are content working at SimpliSafe.

Maybe it’s time that someone started trying to organize call center workers – what a horrendous job – but standing on your desk screaming about bedbugs might not be the best way to go about it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Gaillimh Abú? Oh, boo hoo

What better thing to do on a cold and blustery November Sunday than head out to Fenway Park for the afternoon to watch a couple of exhibition matches of a sport you know nearly nothing about?

In this case, the sport is hurling, an Irish game that’s somewhat like lacrosse and somewhat like field hockey. Only faster – I do believe it’s the fastest field game, and I must say there is not a slack, boring moment to be had in it.

Sunday’s matches were part of something called the Players Champions Cup. I don’t know if this Cup is just a made-up Boston one-off, or something that the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) operates when it brings an Irish native game to the States (in addition to hurling, there’s Gaelic football and camogie). But there was a pretty good crowd. Whatever the case, there was a pretty good crowd – I saw an estimate of 28,000, made up what looked like a combination of Irish n-generation Americans and Irish immigrants, many sporting the colors of their County. (In most American cities with significant Irish immigrant presence, there are also plenty of folks who play GAA games. In Boston, they’re actually quite popular.)

In the first preliminary match, Galway (Gaillimh if you want to go native) whipped Dublin. In the second, tighter match, Clare beat Tipperary.

We were rooting for Galway in the first match. Although I have no Galway roots, it’s my favorite place in Ireland, and my niece Molly spent a semester there. So we were all in. I don’t own anything in Galway’s colors, which are maroon and white, but I did find a challis scarf with a lot of reddish purple in it. And I knew better than to wear my blue parka, given that blue and black are Dublin’s colors.

Another everyone-loves-a-winner reason to root for Galway: in September, Galway won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship, which is a really big deal. Each County in Ireland fields teams (at junior and senior levels) in each of the GAA sports and they play matches throughout the year. Then, I think, the ladders run through the four provinces, and it all culminates in a big final match played at Croke Park in Dublin, home of the GAA (and the locale for a killing spree during the Irish Civil War, when 13 fans and 1 Tipperary footballer were gunned down in reprisal for the earlier killing of a number of British soldiers, among others, by the IRA).

September is one of my favorite times to be in Ireland, as the weather is usually quite nice then. Many of the trips my husband and I took were when the All Ireland football final was on, and you could always tell which Counties were in the finals by all the colors flying in the towns we went through. We never went to a game, but we’d always find a pub where we could watch the football final. Always fun when we found ourselves in a County that was playing.

Somehow, we were never there for the hurling final, so I’ve never seen any hurling played. 

For the first half of the Galway-Dublin match, we tried to figure out the rules by just watching. My brother Rick, who played pretty much every American sport growing up, was able to pick up on some of the rules as we went along, figuring out the difference bHurlingetween a 1 point play, a 3 point play, and a 5 point score, and picking up on the fact that there seemed to be some sort of rule similar to dribbling with respect to how long you could hold the sliotar (the ball) in your hand.  But at half time we gave up and went to the Google. It was just too much of a struggle to try to guess what would be called a foul. Apparently, whacking someone in the head with a hurley is perfectly okay.

And we did get to see something that approached a bench clearing brawl. Great craic!

Then there was the side words on the score board: Sin Bin. At first I thought they were some sort of Irish thing. Sin Bin? Sinn Fein? Then – duh – I got that they were referring to the penalty box. My friend Michele, sitting next to me, was about to ask me whether, in my decades ago attempt to teach myself Irish, I’d learned the words “sin bin” when it dawned on her, too.

Happy to see a Galway win, as did the crowd around us, which seemed to have more Galway girls and boys than it did Dubs.

The second match featured Tipperary and Clare. We were rooting for Clare, mostly because Michele has some connections in that County. So why not. (You really can’t go to a sporting event and not pick someone to cheer for. What’s the fun of that?) It was a pretty exciting game, made the more exciting for us less-than-knowledgeable fans, because the County colors for both Tipp and Clare are yellow and blue. Closer match than Dublin-Galway, and Clare won.

By the time that match ended, it was getting chillier and chillier, and ain’t none of us willing to spring $9.25 for a cup of hot chocolate. So we shivered on. Despite the cold, we decided to soldier on through the final. It helped that these were shorter matches than would normally be played – a bit over 40 minutes each, with a six minute break between the halves. (Is it just me, or does the word “halves” look funny? What’s wrong with “halfs”?)

The first half was all Clare, but Galway came booming back in the second. But not booming back hard enough.

No Gaillimh Abú for us, I’m afraid. So boo hoo.

But all in all, a fun day.

And I’m now something of a hurling expert, having seen three – count ‘em three – matches  Perhaps the word “expert” is too strong. But at least I’m now someone who can more intelligently watch the game and appreciate it. Especially now that I now that Sin Bin isn’t an Irish term. I haven’t felt this same degree of sports authority since the last time I watched the winter Olympics with my late husband, and we found ourselves second-guessing the judges on sports we’d never heard of, let alone seen.

Nice walk home from Fenway, but we were more than happy to get inside, where we warmed up with mulled cider that costs a lot less than $9.25 a cup!

Friday, November 17, 2017

You better W.A.T.C.H. out, I’m telling you why

You blog long enough – in my case, 11 years and counting – you have certain evergreens that you revisit again and again. For instance, I observe most holidays with a holiday-related post. And by the time the first Christmas tree has gone up outside Macy’s, I’ll have started doing a number of gift and/or toy-related posts. Thus, yesterday, I had a piece about this year’s inductees to the Toy Hall of Fame. Probably next week, I’ll be doing a piece on this year’s Neiman Marcus crazy-arse wishbook. And I typically watch out for the annual W.A.T.C.H. List, which each year calls out the most dangerous toys out there.

Like pretty much (but not quite) everyone in the world, I don’t want to hear about any kids getting killed by some spectacularly unsafe toy. A choking hazard. A mismarked age range.

Yet I always feel a bit nanny-state about some of the toys that end up on the annual list, especially when I compare and contrast them to the toys of my childhood. The toddler iron that plugged in and heated up. The stuffed poodle with the easily removable eye that corkscrewed in and out of the stuffed poodle’s eye socket. As for bicycle helmets. Huh?

I’m happy that I grew up in the era of free-range childhood. Folks (such as parents) didn’t spend a ton of time worrying themselves to death about whether their kids were playing themselves (and other kids) to death. Caveat, children, more of less.

I suspect that it’s thanks to organizations like W.A.T.C.H.  (World Against Toys Causing Harm) that those stuffed poodles no longer come equipped with beady little eyes attached to sharp-edge corkscrews. And that’s good…

But the net result is that it looks to me that dangerous toys ain’t what they used to be. Still, on general principles, it would be best to avoid these suckers (info taken from the W.A.T.C.H. list):

HALLMARK “ITTY BITTYS” BABY STACKING TOY:The knock on this toy is that it doesn’t come with any age warnings.Itty Bitty Of course, anyone who’s ever known a baby would know by taking just one look at this that it’s for a baby. Plus, it’s called a Baby Stacking Toy, so there’s that cue. But those little hats and bows can come loose, and, thus, become a choking hazard. So it’s really not the age warning so much as those chokables. That’s what caused the Consumer Product Safety Commission to recall this product as of August 31, 2017. It’s a pretty cute toy. Everyone loves Disney. They need to figure out a way to secure Donald’s cap, and maybe embroider a bow on Daisy.

PULL ALONG PONY has a pull cord that measures 19 inches. That happens “despite the industry’s standard requiring strings on playpen and crib toys to be less than 12 inches in length.” There’s apparently a loophole that let’s a pull toy have a longer cord, which presents a strangulation hazard. I know that there are occasional stories about little ones being strangled by the cord of blinds, but a pull toy? Could that really happen with a 19 inch piece of string? Me? i wouldn’t want to chance it. Cut the cord to a shorter length to keep on the safe side. How long a pull cord does a one-year-old need?

WONDER WOMAN BATTLE-ACTION SWORD Sure, we had cowgirls like Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, but when it came to the toy weaponry of my childhood, it was all boy. So the girls final get a weapon of their own – a light sword – and, don’t you know, it gets put on the no-no list because it can cause blunt force injury. “The rigid plastic sword blade has the potential to cause facial or other impact injuries.” Would this not be true of any battle-action sword? You don’t have to be Braveheart to understand that when you wield a sword, you’re using a weapon. If Wonder Woman uses a sword – and I don’t know: does she? – why shouldn’t a little wannabe Wonder Woman get to use one? As for impact injuries, anything in the hand of an excited kid – say, a Barbie doll – can do the same.

HAND FIDGETZ SPINNERS The warning on this fidget spinner is that it’s “a novelty gift item. It is not intended to be used as a toys.” But some spinners come with “potential small parts hazards”", which can choke you up. But I wouldn’t worry that much about them. Sure, keep them out of the hands of anyone too young to need a fidget spinner to work out their anxiety and/or boredom, but wait until next year. Fidget spinners will likely have gone the way of the Pet Rock.

SPIDER-MAN SPIDER-DRONE OFFICIAL MOVIE EDITION This pricey toy is for kids over the age of 12, and comes with  a number of warnings: “Drone has rotating blades that move at high speed, posing danger of… injury…Keep spinning rotors away from fingers, hair, eyes, and other body parts”… and other cautions/warnings on package/package insert.” From my point of view, drones in general should be kept out of the hands of pretty much everyone not qualified to use one, let alone kids (even if they are over the age of 12).

NERF ZOMBIE STRIKE DEADBOLT CROSSBOW This is marketed for kids as young as 8. Who are “encouraged to load ‘arrows’ into Crossbowthe ‘deadbolt’ crossbow, pull back the ‘primary pressurized lever’ and fire the projectiles in order to ‘strike back’ at ‘zombies.’ The force of the arrow launch presents the potential for eye and facial injuries.” Who in their right mind would give an 8 year old a crossbow, even if it’s firing Nerf projectiles?

SLACKERS SLACKLINE CLASSIC SERIES KIT “The manufacturer warns of the potential for ‘severe injury’, including ‘a strangulation hazard, especially with children.’” Strangulation? Not to mention fall-related injuries. Fun for all ages, alrighty.

OVAL XYLOPHONE I love the idea of a baby plonking away on a xylophone. But the drumstick used for plonking away “has the potential to be mouthed and occlude a child’s airway.” Guess this one could use a warning that this one requires adult supervision.

JETTS HEEL WHEELS This toy comes with these warnings: “USING HEEL WHEELS CAN BE A DANGEROUS ACTIVITY AND MAY RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH. … USE AT YOUR OWN RISK….” Can you imagine picking up a toy for your kid, reading “may result in death” and casually tossing it in your shopping cart? And yet there are so many toys that can result in death. Maybe all of them. That’s a kind of a problem inherent in toys: they can be stupid and dangerous. And inherent in kids: they do stupid and dangerous things, with or without toys. Still, best not to encourage them. Especially when those Heel Wheels have the special feature that they throw off sparks. And “sparks can burn.”

BRIANNA BABYDOLL The final item on the non-shopping list for responsible toy buyers is this baby doll, that comes with removable ponytail holders, creating a choking hazard. Seriously? A manufacturer can’t figure out how to sew threads on to doll hair. Come on. Even I could figure that one out.

Anyway, this is the W.A.T.C.H. List for this year. With so many toys out there, why would you spend on ones that are known to be hazardous? Even if there probably isn’t any such thing as a non-hazardous toy, especially if they get into the wrong little hands.