Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday 2013

It probably goes without blogging that I won’t be doing any shopping on Black Friday.

Yes, I have pretty much finished my Xmas shopping anyway.

And, no, there was not one electronic anything on my list. (I checked twice, just to make sure.)

But it’s not that I don’t “need’ any electronics.

My two-year old last-Blackberry-in-existence is on its last legs, I’m afraid, so I’m dickering about whether to just wave the white flag and get an iPhone, or get myself an Android device.

I’ve had a tablet on my shopping bucket list for a couple of years now, but again there’s that dickering between an iPad and an anything-else-pad.

(I could, of course, put off the tablet decision further by commandeering the Kindle my husband bought a couple of months go. What was he thinking? The man doesn’t even own a cell phone. Is he really going to start reading from a Kindle?)

And we could use a flat-screen to replace the tubby-tube in the den.

But I don’t need anything that badly that I’d stand in line in the cold for hours on end, and risk getting trampled in a consumer stampede, to save a couple of hundred bucks.

For some folks, however, The Most Wonderful Time of Year means more than just Salvation Army bell-ringers, ribbon candy, and those annoying Lexus-with-the-big-red-bow ads. It means camping out at what ever big box store’s got big Black Friday bargains on offer.

In Akron, Ohio, the place to be is, apparently, Best Buy, where last Monday – that would be November 18th – the first happy campers showed up.

They’re waiting in comfort, with tents rigged with generators, flat-screen TVs, microwaves, heaters and mattresses. (Source: NY Daily News)

The rules of the game are that a) the tent must be occupied by someone – but not necessarily the same someone – or you lose your place; and b) when the doors open, each tent can have ten shoppers associated with it.

Ah, yes, just a short century and change ago, pioneering Americans raced their Conestoga wagons to stake their claims for a few acres in the Oklahoma Land Rush, lived in sod huts, got visited by plagues of grasshoppers, and wore the same pair or shoes and shirt for life. And if their kids were really, really lucky, they got a horehound drop and a walnut for Christmas.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen into the glittering trap of consumer electronics.

But, as Tony Avitar, who has been gone Black Friday camping in Akron for eleven years, has it. It’s all worth it:

"Originally, I started because you know I have five kids, and when you're on a limited income, or even not a limited income, you want to be able to get them nice presents instead of getting them like some crappy toy," Avitar said, adding that he and his pals would have Thanksgiving dinner in the tents.

Yes, what kid wants to find a crappy toy like a Raggedy Ann Doll, a Tonka Truck, or a Parcheesi game under the tree, when what they really want is an XBox.

That’s sure worth dad spending two weeks in a tent for.

I was thinking that, if folks just went to work for those two weeks, they’d make enough to pay full price for their electronics. But it turns out Avitar is a sound engineer who doesn’t work a regular nine-to-five, and this is a slow time of year for rock shows in Akron, so, he’s good to chill in his tent.

And, as it turns out, it’s not just about the shopping experience:

"Then it kind of became a family tradition my kids started coming down and it became a bonding experience with me and the kids." (Source: Huff Po)

I bonded with my father listening to the Red Sox on the radio, at Holy Cross football games, raking leaves, and going with him to the dump.

Bonding has certainly taken on a new dimension.

But, as Madonna told us oh so long ago now, we live in a material world.

On Akron camper has a “tactical battle plan” for scoring “that Samsung 65-inch television baby”:

“This is where the cold weather training in the Air Force comes in handy because it got cold last night!”

The few, the proud, the Black Friday shoppers!

Meanwhile, it’s not clear you get what you camp for:

…consumer research groups caution shoppers to be savvy about how they shop. Just because a retailer claims it has discounted an item, doesn't mean customers are actually getting a bargain, they warn.

“Retailers also trick consumers on Black Friday into falling for bad deals with misleading original prices, knockoff deals, and rebates,” research group Nerd Wallet warns. “Shoppers who skip the Black Friday lines, then, might not be missing much. There’s a strong chance they’ll see the same items at the same prices for Black Friday next year.”

Caveat, campers!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

Each year, on Thanksgiving, I write about what I’m thankful for.

So rather than keep repeating myself, I’ll let you read what I had to say last year, to which I’ll provide a bit of an update.

Of course, I continue to remain thankful for friends and family, for my home, my work, and for my own health. When it comes to health, I do have to mention that, while we were very optimistic last Thanksgiving, in early 2013, they found a recurrence of my husband’s Cancer Number Two, for which Jim has been treated throughout 2013.

During that treatment – ongoing chemo – Jim was well enough that we were able to enjoy two excellent trips to his favorite place on earth, NYC, including a glorious trip the last week of September, when the weather could not have been better and we were able to take long walks every day. (We even had a fun “celebrity” spotting: Sylvester Stallone’s mother Jackie, dining at L’Absinthe. Not quite as interesting as our July meet-up with Gloria Steinem, but pretty much right up there with last year’s LOL sighting of Jackie Mason.)

A week after our return from NYC, we found ourselves in an ambulance on our way to the Mass General ER, where they discovered that Cancer Number Two had metastasized to Jim’s brain.

The next day brought surgery – successful – and radiation, which causes extreme exhaustion, but which should put the kibosh on further brain mets.

We do not yet know what all this means.

We remain hopeful, but both weary and wary.

Still, when we received the initial diagnosis for Cancer Number Two in late December 2011, we would have given anything for a couple more years. Which we’ve gotten.

Thus, I remain thankful for the wonderful doctors, nurses, radiology folks, and admins/receptionists at Mass General Hospital. Thank you Panos, Rana, Chris, Becca, Kelly, Kevin, Helen, Connie, Kristin, David, Ariel, Lynn, Pam, John, Mohammeda, Abe, Jason, Janice, Ebony and the many others who’ve brought us help and comfort over the last couple of years.

I’d also like to do my annual shout out to St. Francis House, which has been helping Boston’s poor and homeless rebuild their lives for over 25 years now. If you have reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving Day, please consider a donation.

Finally, I’m including a link to Linda Tirado’s excellent Huffington Post essay on being poor: Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense.

For those of us inclined to ask ourselves why they don’t just stop doing self-defeating stuff and behave more like us, this may be an eye-opening read.

One that makes me very thankful that I have absolutely zero experience being poor. (Being a “struggling student” really and truly does not count.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kleargear? Better start reading that fine print on your crap order.

Other than an occasional blog-rant about customer service – which I tend to think of as a personal PSA – I don’t do much online reviewing. Nor do I take online reviews all that seriously.

I’m much more likely to trust a friend’s recommendation for a book-movie-restaurant-painter-plumber-hotel than I am to trust the huddled masses yearning to grind their axes. I do occasionally read reviews, and am always amazed when someone goes on a tear about the terrible service at one of our go-to restaurants, or raves about the food at a joint that we found serves slop avec glop.

Recently, I was shocked to read some commentary on a physician that we very much like and admire. Sure, anyone reading her words would get the impression that the reviewer was more than slightly unhinged. 

So I wouldn’t base my MD choices on online reviews, either.

I think the bias is almost always to yelp if you’ve had a negative experience rather than a positive one, so I always take what I read with a full shaker of salt. Especially if they’re anonymous.

The one exception: if someone says a hotel had bed bugs…

On balance, though, I’m completely in the ‘meh’ camp on online reviews.

But if you’re an online reviewer, you may want to exercise some caution if your reviews are going to skew negative.

As one Utah woman found out.

A few years back, Jen Palmer’s husband ordered some small Christmas gifts from an outfit called Kleargear, which specializes in gag gifts/stocking stuffers. (While not exactly selling a little something in the pale blue box, Kleargear ware can get plenty pricey. You can fork over $895 for a “machine gun” the shoots rubber bands.)

Anyway, whatever got ordered never got sent.

While the Palmers weren’t on the financial hook – PayPal canceled the transaction after 30 days on no action – Jen Palmer wanted to know what had happened to their order. So she tried callilng Kleargear to get an answer. She was met with a not unusual situation: she never got to talk to a human being. As someone who has, more than once, screamed into the void that all I wanted to do was speak with a real person, I sympathize with Palmer’s urge to vent a bit o’ spleen:

So frustrated, she turned to the internet writing a negative review on

"There is absolutely no way to get in touch with a physical human being," it says. And it accuses of having "horrible customer service practices."  (Source: KUTV)

And that was that, or so the Palmers thought.

Then, three years after the spleen vent, Palmer’s husband, who had placed the initial order:

…got an email from demanding the post be removed or they would be fined. says Jen violated a non-disparagement clause. It turns out that, hidden within the terms of sale on there is a clause that reads:

"In an effort to ensure fair and honest public feedback, and to prevent the publishing of libelous content in any form, your acceptance of this sales contract prohibits you from taking any action that negatively impacts, its reputation, products, services, management or employees."

How what Jen Palmer wrote could be construed as “libelous”, and why Kleargear would come after anyone who makes a disparaging comment – as opposed to reaching out to that person to make nice – are beyond me.

The clause goes on to say if a consumer violates the contract they will have 72 hours to remove your post or face a $3500 fine. If that fine is not paid, the delinquency will be reported to the nation's credit bureaus.

Wow, just wow.

Jen Palmer’s first reaction was to get a hold of and have her comments removed.

She was not, of course, thrilled with Kleargmelting-snowman-34ear, but her spleen had long since been vented, and any anger she had over missing out on a melting snowman, or whatever piece of crap her husband had ordered for her, had long since ebbed. But who wants to pay a $3.5K “fine”? And who has the time and psychic energy to fight back?

That would have been that if the aptly named hadn’t told her that she’d have to pay them $2K to delete her post. (Honestly, are Kleargear and ripoffreport in a mutual protection racket?)

Meanwhile, the Palmers learned that their credit rating had been dinged by Kleargear. Which is getting in the way of things like a new car and furnace repairs.

Jen Palmer turned to a local TV show, Get Gephardt, to take the case on, which found that was a frequent flyer on the old complaint boards, and had received a “F rating” a few years back (now upgraded to a “B”) from the Better Business Bureau.

When we tried calling we were unsuccessful in getting through to anybody.

Which is pretty funny, considering this was Jen Palmer’s gripe to begin with.

By email, a person who did not identify him or herself defended the $3500 charge referring again to's terms of sale. As for Jen being threatened - remove the post or face a fine - the company said that was not blackmail but rather a, "diligent effort to help them avoid [the fine]."

It would be interesting to learn if Kleargear hayhst-78359274419338_2268_2807890s ever actually collected on any of these fines. Nice, lucrative sideline if indeed they were.

You have to sell an awful lot of LED shoe laces to ear that kind of profit.

GetGephardt asked Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City first amendment lawyer, what he thought about Kleargear’s fine print. He’s pretty sure that, if push came to shove and someone decided to see Kleargear in court:

"I have a serious question about whether a court would enforce that kind of covenant because it's massively over broad and against public policy," Hunt said.

Meanwhile, the Palmers are appealing the credit bureau that’s given them a black eye.

As for Kleargear, now that their “non-disparagement clause” has been aired, methinks they’ve got a bigger reputatioyhst-78359274419338_2271_5662842nal problem on their hands than just someone griping about piss-poor customer service.

Still, if there’s no such thing as bad publicity, a lot more folks now know where to go when they need wind-up crawling fingers. (Act now: they’re on clearance for $0.45.

If I need cool stuff, however, I will be shopping Archie McPhee.

Lederhosen unicorn ornaments, anyone?


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

There’s just no end to news from Dr. Emil Chynn, is there?

When I saw this article on, I knew that the name sounded familiar.

Then I recalled reading a few articles about a NY eye surgeon who’d offered all sorts of rewards – $10K charitable donations, a $100K Ferrari, free plastic surgery, cash bonuses – to anyone who could find him a wife – or even a date.  Trolling for Ms. Right – size 0, among other “must haves” – Chynn gained some notoriety by sending out a mass e-mail blast to everyone who attended a networking event alongside him.

All pretty pathetic, but Chynn – check out his personal website -  sounds like the classic over-educated, under-socialized weirdo who, nearing the age of 50, would brag about his GMAT scores, and about being “asked to teach by Stanley Kaplan.”

I do have a fair amount of sympathy for someone who is that socially inept, and a fair amount of admiration for someone who is that social inept and seemingly colossally and totally unself-conscious about it. But when it comes to trusting his judgment as a doctor, I think I’ll take a pass.

Because nowadays, Dr. Emil Chynn – media hound extraordinaire – is back in the news for implanting eyeball bling.

While celebrities sporting gold and silver grills on their teeth has become passé, the latest trend is to implant bling—in the eye. A few ophthalmologists in Los Angeles have been implanting eye jewelry for some time in those looking for a permanent twinkle to the tune of $3,000 to $4,000. But now the trend has come to New York: a Park Avenue laser vision specialist recently did his first implant. (Source: Deborah Kotz, on

Yes, the surgeon was the picky-dater himself, Dr. Emil Chynn, a lasek surgeon we should trust because he went to Dartmouth (undergrad), Columbia (MD), and NYU (MBA)? And because he has a fancy-ass Park Avenue practice?

“To me this is just another way to advance the science of ophthalmology,” said Dr. Emil Chynn, the surgeon Eye heartwho did the procedure, in an interview with Fox News (video posted above). He implanted a very small heart-shaped piece of platinum just under the superficial conjunctiva, a filmy membrane that covers the white part of the eye.

The science of ophthalmology? Wouldn’t it be better advanced by looking for ways to cure macular degeneration, detached retinas, and even plain old vanilla near-sightedness?

Who in their right mind wants to attach anything – other than a contact lens, that is – to their eyeball?

I thought that getting your nose or tongue pierced was out there. Doesn’t that nose piercing get in the way of the common cold? And tongue piercing? Why, just why?

But neither nose nor tongue piercing could leave you with an eye infection, or lead to blindness, which would be my big fear – even if I wanted a little gold heart in my eye to begin with.

Chynn pooh-poohs the possibility of blindness – not by the hair on this chinny, chin Chynn.

Chynn said that the implant could cause a little temporary bleeding in the eye and that any infection risk would be prevented with antibiotic eye drops given prophylactically. He also insisted that “there’s no risk of blindness” from the procedure.

Thanks, doc, for even more unnecessary use of antibiotics to clear up problems that shouldn’t exist to begin with and put us all at greater risk of the SUPER BUG.

And, by the way, the American Academy of Ophthalmology begs to differ with Chynn, who – according to his extensive c.v. – is a fellow of the organization:

The group, which represents the nation’s ophthalmologists, sent me a list of dangers posed by eyeball jewelry implantation including blindness from infections, severe bleeding, puncture of the eye, and conjunctivitis or pink eye.

“The American Academy of Ophthalmology has not identified sufficient evidence to support the safety or therapeutic value of this procedure,” read the statement. “It urges consumers to avoid placing in the eye any foreign body or material that is not proven to be medically safe or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Good luck finding any “therapeutic value” to having bling in your eye.

Au contraire, it would more than likely make people believe you’re crazy.

If I’m going to trust anyone on this, it’ll be the Academy, and Dr. John Hagan, a fellow Fellow of AAO, who (on MedHelp), warns against bling-in-the-eye, and surgery to change the color of your iris, or whiten the whites of your eyes. (Huh?)

This is all even crazier than Latisse, the eyelash enhancer I blogged about a while back – the one that gives you “enviable eyelashes,” but just might turn your blue eyes brown in the process.

And right up there with the lunatics who have their pinkie toes removed, the better to fit in pointy stilettos.

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Honestly, would you let anyone who’d perform this surgery near your eyeball?

Monday, November 25, 2013

You better W.A.T.C.H. Out. (Bad toy, bad toy.)

‘Tis the season to go toy shopping, which also makes it the season for the annual W.A.T.C.H. (World Against Toys Causing Harm) list of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad toys. The W.A.T.C.H. list has been around for over forty years, so it must have come about just as the first wave of Baby Boomer’s were having their kids, and took a minute to ponder the toys of their childhoods – and all the electroshocks, poked out eyes, blown off fingers, and blocked windpipes that resulted from the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad toys we grew up with. And, mostly, survived.

Decent survival rate aside, it’s well worth being on the lookout for toys that are harmful.

Not surprisingly, toy weapons top the list.

Realistic looking toy guns, slingshots, boomerangs and projectiles have the potential to lead to tragic, sometimes deadly, consequences. These toys, with the potential to seriously harm or kill children, continue to be found on store shelves, in catalogues, and on e-retailers’ websites. These toys, that resemble real weaponry, have no place in the hands of children. Evidence of the potential for tragedy is the recent death of a thirteen-year-old boy in Santa Rosa, CA, who was fatally shot by a police officer who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.  (Source: W.A.T.C.H./Toy

I completely agree that, in the trigger-happy world we live in, no one in their right mind should give their child a realistic looking gun.

When I was a kid, a policeman would have thought a kid pointing an air rifle or a six-shooter at him was holding a toy. He would have kicked the kid’s ass, but wouldn’t have blown him away. These days, you can’t be too careful.

In a world where it’s Hello Kitty gunincreasingly shoot now, ask questions later, parents should definitely avoid giving their kids realistic looking weapons.

But what to do about the girlie guns – like Hello, Kitty pistols and rifles?

Hello, Kitty, meet Lethal Weapon.

Talk about mixed messages…

Anyway, the Hello, Kitty/Make My Day line doesn’t mtoy gunake the list because they’re real guns, not toys. But the Army Force Automatic Rifle from Chuangfa Toys is a toy.  And if you saw a kid pointing this one at you, or at someone else, and you were armed, you might not be able to process the distinction between kicking a kid’s ass, shooting to wound and shooting to kill.

No, these days, toys like this are a must avoid.

On the other hand, the Big Rock & Roll Ball Pit looksball pit like a big rock and roll pit of fun, doesn’t it?

We used to roll down hills in big old baby buggies, or – if the incline was steep enough that you didn’t need wheels to propel forward motion – to tumble down embankments in old appliance boxes. What we wouldn’t have done for one of these babies!

But W.A.T.C.H. no like:

The manufacturer cautions that “competent adult supervision is required….,” however the box portrays unsupervised children at play.

Personally, I’m just as glad that I was a kid in era when there was no such thing as competent adult supervision, beyond the parental warning to come back home by dark, and/or if you were bleeding profusely.

W.A.T.C.H. also wants to put the kibosh on the “Max Steel Interactive Steel with Turbo Sword”, which could cause impact injuries.

Since anything you put in the hands of a kid, especially – to be a bit gender-specific here – a little boy can cause an impact injury, I suppose it makes sense not to encourage bad behavior by giving a kid a turbofied sword.Disney Fishing Kit

The Disney Princess Backpack Fishing Kit made the list because it contains lead. I agree with W.A.T.C.H.:

Toxic chemicals should not be in children’s products.

On the other hand, this is such a goofy product, I can’t imagine they’re going to sell all that many of them. Plus the kid who gets one is no doubt more likely to be interested in princesses than baiting a hook, so I suspect everything gets set aside other than those cool sunglasses. Which I suppose a kid could chew on the earpiece of – I sure would have – and thus ingesting toxic chemicals.

Come on, Disney, stop lending  your brand to toxic toy manufacturers.

The Black Widow Folding Slingshot is on the list.

Black Widow? Slingshot?

‘Nuf said. (Other than to add that it’s illegal to sell a slingshot in Massachusetts.)

A number of toys make the list because they’re choking hazards and/or the age recommendation is wrong/inconsistent. (E.g., it may say online that it’s for 3 and over only, while on the box it may say 12 M+ Big difference there…)

Then it’s back to the arms race, with the N-Strike Jolt Blaster, which comes with the warning:

“CAUTION: Do not aim at eyes or face. TO AVOID
INJURY: Use only darts designed for this product. Do
not modify darts or dart blaster”

To which W.A.T.C.H. adds:

The manufacturer of this “jolt blaster” which packs a “powerful punch,” encourages children to “[h]ide it in your pocket to get the drop on your unsuspecting target!”
The dart provided can shoot with enough force to potentially cause eye injuries.

Unsuspecting target? Nice one! Let’s arm all those little bullies out there!

The final item on the W.A.T.C.H. list is the Spooner Freestyle, a wheel-less skateboard that riders are waned to “ride at your own risk.”

In W.A.T.C.H.’s view, the warnings should include mentions of safety gear.

Are we nearing the points where helmets will be required for use of all toys?

I’m not trying to make (too much) fun here. Nobody wants to put the children they care about at risk from unsafe toys.

Still, it’s good to remember that you can’t protect children from every possible hazard. And that, left to their own devices, kids will come up with their own dangerous and foolhardy things to do.

How else to account for Gregory H – who would have been 7 or 8 at the time – shoving pistachio nuts up his nostrils while our patrol line was snaking its way up Main Street from Our Lady of the Angels one fine spring afternoon.

What if Mr. Saracen, the mailman, hadn’t happened by to save Gregory? After all, any kid dumb enough to shove pistachio nuts up his nose may not have been bright enough to open his mouth to breathe!

Anyway, I have already completed my kiddy shopping for the year, and my focus, as usual, is on boring and harmless. (I’m sure that N will just love the sweater with the toy soldier on it!) Even if the kids would have preferred that Rock and Roll Ball Pit.

Here’s last year’s post on the list. I have to remember that including pictures without downloading them first just plain old doesn’t work. Sorry about that!

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

On November 22, 1963, I was a freshman in high school, a week and change short of my 14th birthday.

This was a Catholic girls high school, in Massachusetts, largely populated by girls of Irish descent. (Of the 30 or so students in my freshman home room, there were three Maureens. The others were all named Kathleen. Or Patricia. Only kidding – but not by much. There were four Kathleens and two Patricias.)

As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of interest in, and affection for, “our” president and his family.

A few weeks before, on Halloween, two senior girls had come around to each of the classrooms, giving out candy and wearing Jack and Jackie masks.

So, yeah, this was Kennedy country.

At 2:15, the final bell of the week rang, and we all headed out to our lockers.

As we stood, a nun came hurtling down the corridor, holding a red transistor radio in front of her, crying out the the president had been killed.

It took a few moments to process this information, but by 2:30, I’m guessing that the majority of Notre Dame Academy girls were weeping.

Friday afternoon was rehearsal time for the freshman Glee Club, so those of us in Glee headed to the music room, where Sister Marita told us that “The President would want you to rehearse” for our upcoming Christmas concert. So we rehearsed.

I remember two of the songs from that year’s program:

O, Tannenbaum

Which we sang in German. My mother – the only German within fifty miles of Worcester – had written out a pronunciation guide, which I had brought in and read out so we’d get things right. I didn’t speak any German, but my mother had coached me well.

The other carol I recall from our concert/rehearsal was a bit more obscure:

’Twas in the moon of wintertime,
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wondering hunters heard the hymn:


Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,

Anyway, we bucked up and rehearsed. As the President would have wanted us to.

The only fellow student I ran into who was not beside herself with the Kennedy news was our class iconoclast, Genevieve – see what happens when you deviate from the standard approved list of names? – who told us that Kennedy’s assassination was a good thing, “because now there wouldn’t be a Kennedy-archy.”

Little did she know…

Anyway, we all told her that this was an awful thing to say, and that she should probably shut up.

(Fifty years later, I am stunned by her bravery.)

Getting home required a bus transfer “down city”, which was what downtown Worcester was called in those days.

The “Activities Bus” dumped the Main South and Leicester girls in front of a woman’s store (was it Ulian’s? Charles Kay?), where we waited for the 19 Cherry Valley bus to take us home. Some of the boys we knew – from St. John’s and Assumption – were at the bus stop with the afternoon paper, The Evening Gazette – or, as the paperboy who hawked papers on the corner of Elm Street would have it, the “Final Gee-ze-eh-ette”. There was no news beyond the screaming 90-point headline PRESIDENT DEAD.

Is it even worth mentioning that we were riveted to the TV all weekend?

We watched obsessively, while my parents worked around the continuous coverage, since this was their weekend they had scheduled to wallpaper the living room, replacing the green fern pattern with a more up to date and swanky textured white paper with gold streaks in it.

On Sunday, I was sitting there with my sister Kath and our mother when Oswald was shot. Either Kath or I – I’ve forgotten which of us – had just said, “Wouldn’t it be something if he got shot”.

Which he was. And it was something.

What was also something, at least to me, was the fact that, on Sunday morning, John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not arise from the dead, as I had been hoping against hope that he would.

After all, like Christ, the President had been killed on a Friday, so it was only naturally that – God having tested us with this terrible tragedy – he (or, as I now thought of him, He) would emerge again whole come Sunday morning. (I would say that this was the high point of my religiosity and fervor. Faith-wise, it was a rapid downhill from here.)

On Sunday night, we went out for a spin, my father having decided that enough was enough with the no-end-in-sight news coverage.

But there was no escape.

As we drove through down city, all of the store windows were draped with black bunting and displaying large photos of JFK.

I believe that we had Monday off from school so that we could all watch the funeral. Which we did. (It was broadcast in 100% black and white.)

It took a while for things to calm down, and for all us Maureens to get over Kennedy’s death. (The Beatles helped.)

Shortly after Kennedy was killed, a cloyingly sappy poem, Special Deliver from Heaven, began making the rounds. It was a letter sent by JFK to his family, and I, of course, memorized it, jealous that some other Catholic school girl had written this remarkable work, and not I.

What do I remember of it?

Little Patrick says to say Hi
I love you, I’m happy so please don’t cry…

You [John John] stood like a soldier , your salute was so brave
Thanks for the flag you put on my grave

It took a few years before we discovered that Jack Kennedy, once he got to the Great Beyond,  would have been too busy looking up Marilyn Monroe to write a note to his wife and kids. (Johnny, we hardly knew ye.)

Ah, well.

Fifty years!

Hard to believe it’s been that long…

Hard not to  forget exactly how shocked and saddened I was, how raw my grief, how bereft I felt. One of ours. And “they” killed him. Hard to forget how we gathered, that late afternoon (a mild one, almost Indian summer-ish), around the boy holding that Final Gee-ze-eh-ette, staring at the headline PRESIDENT DEAD, as if it were going to tell us something.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The funeral selfie. (Too little sensitivity, TMI.)

On any given day, there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of reasons to ask the grumpy old geezer question, “What in the world is the world coming to?”

The latest one I came across was the young-folk trend of posting selfies taken at funerals because, like, if I have to go to this boring funeral for, like, some old person who’s, like, related to me and, like, I may even like, but, you know, it’s still a funeral, and there’s, like, this dead person, and, ewww, it’s nasty, well, at least I want the kids as school to, like, know where I am and why I’m not, like, at school.

The good news is that at least they’re attending those funerals.

I’ve run into a number of middle-aged folks over the years who seem never to have attended a wake or funeral until one of their parents died.

This has always amazed me.

Didn’t they have any grandparents? Didn’t they have an occasional neighbor who died? Were there no schoolmates who lost a parent?

I realize that not everyone grows up urban, ethnic, Catholic, where attending wakes and funerals are a way of life.

Still, how do you make it into adulthood without having known at least a couple of people who died?

Talk about boy in the bubble…

So at least these little selfie-takers are at Grandpa’s wake and Aunt Gert’s funeral.

And they’re probably a bit weirded out about it, especially if there’s (ewww, nasty) an open casket on the scene.

And it’s probably not as if it were someone supremely close to them – a parent or a sib – who’s died, so, while they’re somewhat sad, they’re not exactly overcome with grief.

And they want to come off as cool.

And they’re probably used to that iPhone being a seamless extension of their arm. And to oversharing.

And they’re obviously a lot better at taking a selfie than I’ll ever be.

Still, does it not occur to them that this behavior is somewhat inappropriate? (And does it not occur to their parents to tell them that a funeral is a smartphones-off occasion? Guess not, given that even the grownups are tweeting out at funerals…)

Maybe I should be more generous, and just look at this as a cri de coeur from the generation that only knows how to express emotion by using an emoticon.

Not that there’s anything new about taking pictures at funerals.

When my Uncle Jack died thirty years ago, some couple attending his wake asked if they could take a picture of Jack in his casket.

They were constituents – Jack was a state representative in Illinois – and, apparently, they wanted to show some fellow citizens who couldn’t be there.

But the couple didn’t make funny faces or gestures while taking the picture. They didn’t include themselves in the shot. And, fortunately, there was no online to post the Kodak moment to, with or without a vapid comment.

The selfies at funerals thang reminds me of an incident that occurred at my mother’s funeral.

We had just left the funeral parlor and were heading to the church, when a car containing a bunch of late teens pulled up next to the lead mourner car, the limo that my siblings and I were in.

A couple of boys hung out the windows and started making stupid, mocking faces and gestures towards us.

We, of course, thought they were colossal assholes, but we were also rather shocked that they were doing something so mean and imbecilic when they didn’t know the circumstances of this particular funeral.

Sure, we were upset. Our mother had just died. But she was elderly, and we were all grown, and it’s the natural order of things to bury your parents. So we were sad, but we weren’t overcome with grief.

All we could think of was, what if these cretins were mugging it up at someone who’d just lost a child? If the limo contained a grief-stricken pregnant widow whose husband had just dropped dead?

At least the young funeral selfiers aren’t mocking complete strangers.

Still, I do hope that the kids – and the ones on Selfies at Funerals on Tumblr do look pretty young  - grow up and, by the time they’re seventeen or eighteen, find it mortifying that they had ever done anything as inappropriate as posting a selfie while at their grandmother’s funeral.

And may I remind them:

Never laugh when a hearse goes by
For you might be the next to die.
They wrap you up, in a clean white sheet.
And bury you under, six feet deep.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.
The ants play pinochle on your snout.
And one little ant, who’s not to shy,
Crawls in your ear, and out your eye.

So, kids, LOL all you want, but it happens to the best of them.

And one thing you won’t be able to do at your own funeral is take and post a selfie. Although come to think of it, there’ll probably be an app for that by then. Maybe even cams that can post the “experience” of the body being cremated, or broadcast the process of mouldering in the grave.

I’m turning into such a cranky old git.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Arian Foster IPO: sports betting almost took on a new dimension

A month or so ago, I read with interest about Fantex, a new company that’s in the business of taking pro athlete’s public.

This story probably got a bit lost in all the Twitter about Twitter, but it’s a good story in its own right:

Fantex has established a market in which people can purchase and trade shares of athletes’ future earnings, in a sort of stock market for jocks. The company has persuaded regulators that this counts as investing, not gambling.

As of today, anyone over the age of 18 can buy stock in Foster, claiming a stake of his future earnings in increments as low as $50. Fantex is selling $10.5 million worth of stock, which represents 20 percent of Foster’s future earnings. The company takes $500,000 in fees and gives $10 million to Foster. To oversimplify a bit, Foster ends up ahead on the deal if he makes less than $50 million from this point on. (Source: Business Week)

As Fantex will be the first to tell you, if you happen to take a look at their website, the company is:


In fact, it’s not a brokerage service selling any old shares. What it’s selling can only be traded on Fantex. Thus,

…There is no assurance as to the development or liquidity of any trading market.

But, hey, no brokerage service can guarantee you that there’ll be a buyer on the day you decide to become a seller.

The real differentiator may be that:


Fantex, Inc. creates a unique brand building platform for athletes to increase the reach and engagement of their brand. Fantex, Inc. signs a contract with an athlete to acquire a minority interest in their brand and builds a plan with a goal to increase its value, leveraging its marketing expertise.

The notion of the “personal brand” is one that completely and utterly makes me want to gag. Brand Me, Brand You, Brand He, She or It. Brand We, Brand You, Brand They.

Personally, maybe I’m just not a “people person”, but I like my brands to represent stuff.  Coca-Cola: now there’s a brand. Ford. L.L. Bean. Stuff!

Or brands tied to real people – think Martha Stewart – that are actually about stuff. Which, as we see from Ford and L.L. Bean, become people-free brands after a couple of generations.

Even intangible stuff, like Google and Twitter and Facebook, are brands that are about stuff – even if the stuff’s entirely digital.

But a brand that represents the future earnings of an athlete, where the “brand promise” is tied to exploits on the field which have not much by way of longevity, especially in a game like football? That sounds more like a big, fat old gamble to me.

As in, Fantex makes its vig. And the athlete gets to guarantee his money now, just in case he breaks his leg and/or gets caught up in some off-field scandal (think Aaron Hernandez, who should have had an IPO last spring, before he landed in the hoosegow on what may turn into multiple murder charges), and/or doesn’t make any endorsements after voluntary or injury-forced retirement and/or doesn’t get to be one of the myriad jocks raucously and/or quasi-intelligently commenting on games after they’ve hung up their spikes. 

So the athletes really betting that he may be worth more to his fans than he is in real life, i.e., he’s overvalued at present and unlikely to truly cash in big time.

While you, my fannish friend, are the gambler gambling that the athlete of your dreams is going to keep playing, keep making fat money, and keep his nose clean.

Which all seem like pretty bad bets,especially in football, where career-ending or –limiting injuries are frequent, and where, from what I understand, guaranteed contracts (i.e., contracts guaranteed against injury or just getting cut mid-season) are not all that common. And especially in football, where the dumb jock/super-thug/bad behavior quotient seems especially high.

And where, let’s face it, you’re more apt to end up post-retirement with your multi-concussed brain floating around in a jar of formaldehyde than you are to have a lucrative post-player-career life.*

Sounds like a pretty bad bet to me, and one that only a fan who really, really, really liked an athlete would make.

(It also sounds a bit to close to the slavery block, but that may just be my inner PC coming out.)

Anyway, it may be a while before we find out what’s going to happen with the human IPO.

The first Fantex athlete who was to go public was Arian Foster, certainly as appealing an athlete as they were going to find out there. Alas:

Fantex, the start-up promoting I.P.O.’s of National Football League stars, said that it was putting off its stock offering of Arian Foster, the running back for the Houston Texans. Mr. Foster was placed on injured reserve and is expected to have surgery to repair a ruptured disc.

“After consideration, we have made the decision to postpone the offering,” Buck French, the chief executive and co-founder of Fantex, said in a statement. “We feel this is a prudent course of action under the current circumstances.” (Source: NY Times.)

And the only other athlete that Fantex had lined up for an IPO was Vernon Davis, also an NFL player. Davis recently left a game with a concussion, putting him in line to be yet another one of those ex-NFL-ers who gets their brain in a jar.*

If I were Fantex, I might go after a few baseball players…

----------------------------------------------------------------------------*These brains go to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which studies the impact of multiple hits on the health of ex-athletes, many of whom suffer terrible, often catastrophic, ill health in early to late middle age. BU’s research has been getting a lot of press the last few years, and is causing many parents to rethink letting their little guys play football.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bell curve or Lake Woebegone? How do you rank your employees?

First Marissa Mayer’s was installing her new bébé in the office next to her own, while declaring a fatwa on working from home. Then she started tooling around with the Yahoo logo. Now, it seems, she’s placing her deft hand on the HR process.

Yahoo employees were up in arms about a new policy that forces managers to rank employees on a bell curve, then fire those at the low end. According to AllThingsD, Marissa Mayer reportedly told Yahoo workers that the rankings weren’t mandatory, but many people disagree. The company hasn’t responded to a request for comment. (Source: Business Week.)

As you may recall, the practice of employee decimation, in which the bottom 10 percent gets regularly whacked out of the organization, was implemented by Neutron Jack Welch when he was steamrolling his way through GE.

Thanks to Master Jack, the practice was picked up by other companies, becoming something of a fad there for a while.

The Institute of Corporate Productivity says the number of companies using either a forced ranking system or some softer facsimile is down significantly from previous years. Companies performing well were less likely to be using forced ranking systems than those that weren’t. Just over 5 percent of high-performing companies used a forced ranking system in 2011, down from almost 20 percent two years earlier.

This isn’t surprising.

When companies are performing poorly, they may grasp at the straw that it’s that malingering bottom of the barrel employee cohort who’s holding them back from Doing Great Things. When, in actuality, the problem is more likely systemic, and/or a result of their having misread the market, built crappy products, failed to react to some business tsunami quickly enough, run into a bad luck maelstrom, or just plain old had terrible leadership.

And guess what? Getting rid of 10% of your employees isn’t going to turn witches brew into gravy and turn a failing company around.

When you are going to have lay-offs, you do, of course, rank your employees, and put those you can most easily live without at the bottom of the list.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re terrible performers.

They may not be as experienced or versatile as the next person in line.

You may just get along with X better than you do with Y, so – all else being equal, so long Y.

You may know that A desperately needs the job, while B has been talking about quitting to become a mandolin maker.

And especially in environments where there are continual lay-off rounds, as has been known to happen in  companies that are circling the drain, after the first round, you’ve probably already shed the poor performers to begin with. MIT agrees:

In a company that is going through layoffs, this gets worse over time, wrote several MIT professors in a study of forced rankings in 2006. “As the company shrinks, the rigid distribution of the bell-curve forces managers to label a high performer as a mediocre. A high performer, unmotivated by such artificial demotion, behaves like a mediocre.”

And if you’re not having lay-offs, and regularly purge the company of those who fall into that dreaded left-hand tail of the bell shaped curve, you’re going to have a colossal morale issue (among managers and worker-bees) on your hands.

Let’s face it, unless someone is in sales or doing piece work, it’s pretty hard to rate employees with the level of objectivity that the bell curve suggests is possible.

What if you have a small group, and everyone’s pretty sharp and hardworking? And they all work on tasks that are as much different as they are the same. E.g., working in different areas that require different types of expertise? How do you pit measure one employee against the other?

And since the curve approach only makes sense over a larger number of employees than anyone could possibly have as their direct reports, who does the measuring? Obviously, it’s the individual managers who know best, no? Not the guy perched atop the pyramid…

I’m sure there are all sorts of forms that “metricize” and “objectify” the evaluation process, but this depends on all managers approaching the evaluation task in the same way.

Ha, I say, ha, ha.

Years ago, I worked (as a worker-bee, not as a manager) in a company where it was decreed that, this year, the vast majority of employees would have to be given a score of three (neutral) on their performance reviews. And that the raises for those who scored a three would be minimal.

My boss, of course, hewed strictly to this policy, and gave us all threes. So we all got crappy raises.

His counterpart in another group of equivalent size ignored the policy. Apparently without much pushback, he gave all his folks a four or a five, and they all got decent raises.

Anyway, Yahoo, which probably didn’t need yet another morale problem to begin with, has one of their very own, didn’t-have to- happen making on their hands. Not a good thing.

This can have a particularly bad impact on innovation, arguably the thing Yahoo most needs now. “When employees worry about being ranked at the bottom of the pile, they take fewer risks, said Cliff Stevenson, who studies workforce issues for the ICP.

…“Inherently the problem in ranking is that, unless it’s based purely on objective data—which you rarely see outside of a call center, it brings in a human element. There’s no way to data-fy that,” says Stevenson. In other words, managers’ prejudices and stray opinions get transformed and codified in what appears to be raw data. This seems to be one of the specific complaints being made by Yahoo employees: The rankings are both high-stakes and completely arbitrary.

High-stakes and completely arbitrary?

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Way to go, Marissa!

Monday, November 18, 2013

P.F., I love you….

I confess: one of life’s guilty little pleasures is reading The Daily Mail U.K., a 100% trash-filled website that stops – or perhaps just pauses – a wee bit short of the outright scurrilous. When it comes to reading about the scandalous, the tawdry, the sensational, The Daily Mail is – there’s no other word for it – sensational. It just never disappoints.

Last Monday was no exception.

There, amidst Alec Baldwin’s stalker, Kim Kardashian’s baby, and Philippine typhoon victims, was a completely marvelous article on a trend:

…now sweeping the upper echelons of New York’s social circles.

Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends – as it were – I give you the rise of the Paid Friend.

The paid friends, or PF’s for short, are not platonic escorts. They are personal trainers, stylists, chefs, and chauffeurs who take their jobs to more congenial levels.

They offer rich benefactors all of the benefits of a friend’s companionship, without the drawbacks like arguments.

A fashion designer, who was anonymously quoted in The Observer’s [ur source for the Daily Mail material] piece much like rest of the article’s sources, told the paper: ‘There is a market, a currency for paid friends in New York. Some people need the money, and some people need the friends.’

She added that paid friends can become addictive acquisitions. (Source: The Daily Mail)

Not content with the DM’s excellent but derivative content, I made my way to The New York Observer to observe just what’s going on, commercial friendship-wise, in the Big Apple.

Oddly – at least to someone not all that familiar with the paid-friend detail – the first example in The Observer article sounded pretty much like a business acquaintanceship that had turned into a friendship (or, variation on a theme: a friendship that ended up with a business angle). Basically, it was about a couple who were friendly with their art advisor.

Big whoop, I thought.

I hope the entire article isn’t this boring.

After all, I have plenty of friends I’ve met through business who I do paid projects for.

I don’t consider myself a paid friend.

In fact, just the other day, I had a conversation with a client of long standing who, along the way, I have come to consider a friend.

As it turns out, I may not be working with him much longer, as – with my recommendation, assistance, and blessing – he’s hiring a full time marketing person. When we were talking about the final steps to bring his new hire on board, I told him that I would miss working with him, and that I hoped we remained friends. We agreed that we probably would.

The next section of the article started out more promising:

“There is a market, a currency for paid friends in New York,” the eternally youthful fashion designer revealed over pecan-crusted seitan at Candle 79. “Some people need the money, and some people need the friends. It happened just last week.” (Source: New York Observer)

But then there was another rather disappointing anecdote about “what happened,” which was  a lame story about shopper who’d come in to the designer’s atelier with her posse – the sort of entourage that the rich and famous travel around with: personal assistant and other assorted hangers-on.

To me, the best part of the story was the mention of Candle 79, where, a couple of years ago, my husband and I “enjoyed” a not-so-tasty, ultra-expensive vegan meal with some young vegan friends. Fast forward a year, and we met Gloria Steinem walking around the Upper East Side. We stopped her, and I gave her a little gush about how important she was to women of my era (all the while thinking that she looks entirely fabulous for her age, which is 79). Gloria graciously stopped to chat with us for about 15 minutes and, as she parted, she recommended Candle 79, where she was heading for dinner with friends.

While I started to smile nicely and thank her, Jim blurted out, “Candle 79? We’ve been there and hated it.”

Talk about someone with none of the makings of a paid friend…

“It’s part of the business; if someone needs constant companionship and compliments, paid friends are ideal,” she [the designer] said sipping her organic cola. “Honestly, it’s just another form of addiction. I do believe that some care, but for the most part, someone’s always on the make.”

Another Big Whoop on my part.

Haven’t rich folks paid to have a retinue around them since, like, forever?

I’m pretty sure that the fellow buttoning Henry the VIII’s doublet and combing crumbs from his beard was getting paid a few pounds, and if Henry wanted to throw in some bitchery about Catherine or Jane or Anne, well, so be it.

No surprise that, as some folks get richer and famouser, their old friends drop out of play, and what you have left instead of your friends is your hangers-on.

This may be sad, but it’s not the equivalent of someone hiring out as a paid friend.

The ex-wife of some Wall Street titan had this to say:

“I think many really successful men don’t actually have time for real friends. Their old friends are either resentful or bitter or ask for money, and the new friends are often competitive. In my opinion, very rich men have paid friends as an expensive filter, because they can control them. They love to manipulate everyone.”

“Was that difficult?”

“It was actually more boring than anything, but I did see an ugly side to it—the laughing too hard at the bad jokes, the constant flattery, the jockeying for position, the tennis pro throwing the game.”

Yes, and the article on Paid Friends was more boring than anything, too.

All about people who rich folks are paying to do things for them, and who end up hanging out together. Or hangers-on who are just as happy to stay around if Mr. or Ms. Rollo Therichkid is picking up the tab. Or rich a-holes who just plain don’t have any friends, paid or not.

It’s entirely possible to be a friend to people who are paying you.

But if someone’s paying you to be their friend, well, that’s just not a friend, at least not in my book.

There are some times in life where you just can’t  get what you pay for.

Friendship’s one of them.

Friday, November 15, 2013

That’s some fortune teller alright

There are fortune tellers, and then there are fortune tellers, who are apparently better at building their own fortunes than they are at telling you whether you’ll meet a tall, dark stranger.

Business Week had a recent article on a Florida woman who was scammed out of pretty much everything she owned by a strip mall “spiritual healer”. As poor Michele Zlotkin admits:

“I sat down and talked to this guy named Trinity and I don’t know what happened, but the next thing I knew, I was going to his place more often than I should’ve gone.” Over the next six months, she would give $130,000 in gift cards, watches, and cash to Trinity, who told her he was using them to get her recently deceased father out of purgatory. (Source: Business Week.)

Zlotkin, at sixes and sevens after her retirement as a school teacher and the death of her father, started out small: an $80 palm reading.

But “Trinity”, whose real name is David Uwich, quickly figured out that he’d found a mark.

He needed money to build a shield to fight the devil so Zlotkin’s father could get out of purgatory. He needed the Rolex watch so he could destroy it and prove that Zlotkin’s father had given up earthly needs. (Police later found the watch at a pawnshop.) “I know it sounds ridiculous,” says Zlotkin. “But he was very, very, very convincing.”

After blowing through her savings, maxing out her credit cards, and cashing in her retirement plan, Zlotkin finally awoke from her fugue state and realized that a) hey, we’re Jewish, so what do we know from purgatory; and b) I was scammed.

It turned out that Uwich was well known to the Boca Raton PD, and he was arrested. But successful prosecutions of this and other fortune telling/psychic scams are difficult.

How can you prove that they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain?

How can you prove that they weren’t really communicating with your loved ones in The Great Beyond?

How can you prove the Uwich didn’t manage to get Michele Zlotkin’s father out of purgatory.

Let’s face it, the answers to those questions are in limbo.

While Michele Zlotkin certainly got taken for an expensive ride, she’s not alone – or even much of a big spender.

…during the trial [of Rosa Marks], bestselling romance novelist Jude Deveraux testified that she paid Marks $17 million over nearly 20 years.

$17 million? That’s an awful lot of tall, dark strangers, curses, hexes, and communing with the late George Appley.

I was a bit taken aback to learn just how many folks there are out  there who think they’ll find the answer to their big life questions by staring into the crystal ball.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, over the past 20 years the percentage of Americans visiting fortune tellers and psychics has remained steady at 15 percent.

Which seems quite shocking to me – who are these 15 percenters? – until I remember that there are a couple of psychic readers on Charles Street, the main drag of my neighborhood, which is one of the most upscale and highly educated ‘hoods in Boston.

Although I think that it might be a hoot, I’ve never been to a fortune teller/psychic. (I have had fun with the Ouija Board, and I have some tarot cards around here somewhere.)

I am certainly an unlikely candidate to get suckered in – I’ve got way, way, way too much of the skeptic gene in me – but it would be fun to see how they figure out your “tells”, and listen to what they have to say.  Something fun to do on girls’ night out.

And there is nothing illegal about fortune telling, psychics, spiritual healers, whatever. They’re “work” is pretty much covered under free speech. (With a bit of caveat emptor tossed in.)

It’s the out and out frauds that spot the vulnerable, the easily manipulated among us, and go to ka-ching town that give this “business” a bad name.

($17 million?????)

While I don’t have any direct experience, I have watched the reality show “Long Island Psychic” a few times, and found it quite entertaining.

In my favorite episode, the LIP (that’s Long Island Psychic for you who are not particularly sensitive or attuned) went to a gathering of late-middle aged Italian American women to psyche them out (or whatever they call these engagements).

She told the group that she was sensing that someone had had a recent loss, which is not a bad guess when you’re with a bunch of late middle agers, especially given the elasticity of the word “recent.”

Anyway, LIP glommed on to one woman who weepily said that her mother had recently died.

“I can picture her walking around in some kind of a housecoat,” the LIP said.

Oh, yes, the recently bereaved nodded. That’s my mother.

“She has Kleenex in her housecoat pocket, am I right?”

Again, there was the tearful nod.

“And she has rosary beads with her a lot.”

Mamma Mia bingo!

LIP assured the daughter that her mother wanted her to know that she was in a better place, etc.

I’m pretty sure that in an equivalent gathering of late middle-aged women, I, too, could have figured out that one of them would have had a still-hurting loss. And it doesn’t take a psychic to figure out that the average late, lamented LI Italian-American mother might have worn a housecoat, kept wadded up tissues in her pocket, and “said” her beads. (I bet she kept a lot of old Cool Whip containers around, too.)

Or maybe you do need to be psychic to know this kind of stuff.

Do I feel a new profession coming on?

I promise I will not scam anyone out of their pension…

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My kingdom for a pension! Poor King Albert’s tin cupping ways.

Last summer, Good King Albert of Belgium abdicated his throne, handing the crown and scepter over to his son, Philippe.

Al apparently wasn’t much of a negotiator, and what looked like a golden parachute at the time – a cool $1.2 million a year – has turned out to be the royal equivalent of the least you can collect on Social Security.

Now King Albert is back at the trough, rattling around the Belgian parliament with a tin cup, looking for something closer to the $15 million he got when he “worked” full-time as King.

French-language Le Soir cited unidentified sources as saying the former monarch would like the state to cover the upkeep on his main residence, Belvedere Castle, north of Brussels. It also said the king's intermediaries had floated the idea of government funds for his yacht, or to have the Royal Navy take over its crewing, fueling and repairs. (Source: LA Times.)

Then there’s the home in Paris, and the home in Rome…

So far, King Albert is not having much luck increasing those defined benefits which, I’m guessing, grossly succeed any defined contribution he ever made. And the Belgian parliament apparently agrees:

On the floor of parliament, news of the 79-year-old royal's plight was met with mockery and derision by representatives of Belgians struggling with nearly 8% unemployment and a $17-billion budget deficit…Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo was apparently unmoved. He was quoted by news media as vowing that "the government does not intend to change a comma" of the royal compensation program.

It’s hard to come up with a lot of sympathy for a retired royal with a sweetheart deal that gives him $1.2 million to spend each year.

Especially because I don’t imagine that he had to work all that hard to “earn” it.

I mean, this is Belgium, for crying out loud.

What’d he have to do? Not play favorites when it comes to Flemings vs. Walloons?

God knows I have little sympathy for the British Royal Family, but at least the main ones seem to work pretty darned hard, what with having to make an appearance at every ribbon cutting for a salmon hatchery, well-baby clinic, and new trade mission. Which there’s no doubt a lot more of in Great Britain (population: 63 million) than in Belgium (population: 11 million).

Plus, other than the Belgian news and EuroRoyal Monthly, no ones stalking your every waking moment the way the British royals get stalked.

I don’t remember the last time that I saw a letter to the editor of People commenting on Queen Paola’s hats, or noting that Albert wasn’t half the man King Baudouin was. No one weighing in Prince Amadeo’s girlfriends. No Mrs. Millie Frump of Dahlia, Ohio, who just knows in her royal-watching heart of hearts that Princess Diana is looking down from heaven, just delighted with Prince Harry’s new gal. (So, Mrs. Frump, just how well did you know Diana?)

I also want to note that the British Royals do an awful lot for the country’s tourism trade, as well as the sale of kitsch. (Remember when Diana’s sister, on the eve of her wedding to Charles, told her that she couldn’t back out because her face was already on the tea towels? Well, I do.)

Anyway, it doesn't look like King Albert is making any headway with his tin cupping. Who wants to hear someone retired on $1.2 million a year poor mouthing?

Sell one of your homes, why don’t you?

Trade in the royal yacht for a Boston Whaler.

Worse comes to worst, you can have King Philippe tack an in-law apartment onto the royal palace.

You abdicated for him. He owes you one more than the Belgian taxpayers do.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Toy Story 2013: Hall of Fame Inductees are just ducky

One of my favorite posts of the year is when the Toy Hall of Fame declares its inductees for the year.

Last year, my hopes were on Clue, chalk and little green army men to make the Hall.

Alas, the winners were Star War action figures and dominoes, which, frankly, I don’t really consider a toy at all.

Unfortunately, I missed the announcement of this years finalists which, once again, included Clue and little green army men. Chalk got dropped, but bubbles were added to this year’s list of nominees.

Bubbles! What a perfect toy! Inexpensive, “fun for all ages,” portable, and requires no ability whatsoever to make work and enjoy.

When I was a kid, fancy-dancy bubble pipes were the rage. This was the one and only image I could find of the type of bubble pipe I’m talking about, and you can tell from the b&w and the outfit on the kiddo that we’re talking ‘bout my Bubble pipe of my childhoodgeneration here. In fact, this little guy looks a lot like my brother Rick.

While this was the preferred pipe of my era, I will admit that, as an adult, I have grown fonder of the simple and perfectly functional wand that comes inside the bubble bottle.

If bubbles are in this corner in terms of accessibility and outright fun, Chess is in the opposite corner.

If I don’t consider dominoes a toy, imagine my chagrin at finding chess on the list.

Well, given the decline in the number of STEM graduates, I suppose we should be happy that there are actually some children out there who consider chess a toy, but I sure wasn’t one of them.

Chess-as-toy reminds me of a client call I made, with my boss, oh,  30 years ago. We were having lunch with the client, who worked for Pitney Bowes, when we got on the topic of some early computer-based chess game that was popular. Our client – let’s call him Bob – mentioned that he had attained Level Two.

My boss, who had a quite wonderful way with those he did not consider his intellectual equal, which was just about everyone he came in contact with, let out a rip-roaring snort. “Level Two? My six-year-old son is past Level Two.”

As I mentioned, Clue made the nominee list. (Spoiler alert:  always a bridesmaid…) As did Fisher-Price Little People, and Little Green Army Men. (Spoiler alert: if little green army men can be bridesmaids….)

The Magic 8 Ball was also nominated. While the Magic 8 Ball is an exceedingly useful item – one which, I believe, was used to set strategy in several companies I worked for, including the one that had Pitney Bowes as a marquee client  – I don’t actually consider it toy-worthy.

My Little Pony, while exceedingly heinous, is undoubtedly a toy. But the less said about My Little Pony, the better.

Nerf Toys were nominated, and I’m down with this choice.

Pac-Man was, too. While I am in no way, shape, or form a gamer, at some point, this one has got to make the Hall, since (handheld chess game aside) it pretty much ushered in the electronic game era.

Rubber Ducks were on the list, a brilliant choice. Like Rubber-duck bubbles, rubber ducks are inexpensive and oh, so, easy to use. (Would you take a chess set into the bathtub with you?) Rubber ducks even have their own theme song.

As a child, I had a much beloved rubber duck. My was not a cute little yellow duckie, of course. It was a no-nonsense, rubber mallard. (Where did my parents get the odd-ball toys they stuck us with?) I cherished Duckie Doodah and, somewhere, there’s a photo of me, sucking on Duckie Doodah’s bill. (I’m offering a finder’s fee for that snapshot, by the way…)

The Scooter was nominated. Like last year’s pogo stick, a scooter was a toy that everyone was aware of, but which no one I knew possessed, or had even seen on real life. Like the pogo stick, it seemed like a relic of the 1930’s and 1940’s. I am happy to see that scooters have made a comeback, although I must say that some of these parents on Charles Street let their kids scoot around too damned fast.

Rounding out the list was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Certainly fun, certainly a toy, but let’s just see if they stand the true test of time.

And the winners?


The Rubber Duckie. (Pink Slip thumbs up!)

And Chess. (Pink Slip thumbs down.) Kids – at least the brainiacs – may be willing to try this at home, but, come on, chess is not a toy.

Bubbles, now there’s a toy. Maybe next year…

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bully boys: NFL “culture” runs amok

Over the past week or so, I’ve been following – off and on – the story about the Miami Dolphin’s player, Jonathan Martin, who left the team after deciding that he’d had enough with the locker-room-on-steroids behavior that he’s had to put up with there.

If you aren’t up on this story, Martin is a second year offensive lineman, and not in any way, shape, or form your stereotypical NFL lunk-head. A classics major with a degree from Stanford, he’s the son of two Harvard-trained lawyers, one of whom is black, the other white.

Okay. It’s not exactly surprising to learn that a sport that glorifies violence, runs on war/military analogies, blares martial music during its televised games, and is, without a doubt, a true redoubt of full-bore testosterone, is not exactly a refined, brainy, high-culture workplace. But some of the abuse that Martin has had to put up with was vile, even given the low standards that one would suspect.

Why should anyone have to put up with being called a “half-nigger”, and get sent a text message by a teammate threatening to run a train on his sister.

As the story gets out, piecemeal, it now appears that tough-guy and abuse-rin-chief Richie Incognito (who has since been suspended) may, in fact, have been encouraged to by Dolphins management to toughen Martin up. 

I have read a couple of very thoughtful pieces on this situation, and I’ll direct you to both of them

On Bleacher Report, Ryan Riddle – a former professional football player – has an excellent article on his experience as the team weirdo during his playing days. Like Martin, Riddle was well-educated (Berkley), introverted/socially awkward, “half black, half white”, and not interested in the sorts of things most of his teammates wanted to talk about – hunting, rap, expensive clothing. Riddle’s standoffish-ness and brainpower made him the butt of plenty of hazing, but, unlike Martin, Riddle was willing to knock a few heads to get the guys to back off. Eventually, they left him alone.

Riddle also directly takes on the Martin situation. While not condoning in the least the vile behavior of Incognito et al., he does make the point:

We need to consider the possibility that Martin possesses a character and personality type that does not fit in the harsh world of the NFL. Furthermore, we should be careful with any attempts to make a uniquely demanding sport tolerable for those who struggle to thrive within it.

The Darwinian qualities we perpetually seek to minimize are, in fact, the very elements that make the game so special.

There’s a reason I have not mentioned Richie Incognito once until now. For me, he represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin. But his tendencies and character are that which happen to contribute to his success in the NFL.

Though he often crosses the line and can be seen as a raging madman, he actually better represents what an NFL general manager wants than Martin does from a character standpoint. Intense, violent, brutal and aggressive are assets for an offensive lineman—whereas kind, friendly, passive and peaceful are not.

This is just the nature of the game.

If these two personality types were working in a law firm, Incognito would likely feel like the outsider struggling to relate to his coworkers, while Martin would presumably be more at home than ever. In this hypothetical environment, Incognito would be the brunt of constant ridicule and made to feel both primitive and inadequate. (Source: Bleacher Report.)

This story has got me thinking more about football. And my thinking leads me to conclude that football replaced the non-violent, slower-paced and more intellectually satisfying (to me, at any rate) sport of baseball as “America’s game” at just about the same time that our society and culture were going through some incredible changes.

The feminist movement was bringing women into positions of power. Blue collar brawn jobs were being replaced with pink collar “knowledge worker” jobs. No more draft, so most American men no longer experience the military. Gay folks started emerging from the closet. And oh, yeah, we lost the war in Viet Nam.

No real surprise that, when macho-ville started to topple a bit, and our belief in America the Indomitable got a bit shaky, sports fans went atavistic.

And here comes football, roaring into town to satisfy that atavism.

For starters, just look at the team names.

Baseball has Red Sox and White Sox, Orioles and Angels.

Football is Buccaneers, Steelers, Raiders, and Cowboys.

Football is The Bears; baseball is The Cubbies.

Interesting that one of the few “soft” names in football is the Miami Dolphins, which in some weird way probably contributed to that particular team having to prove their manhood more than some others. (It doesn’t sound like any of the teams in the NFL are exactly kind and gentle, but it does appear that, in some, the level of brutality and rancid behavior is less pronounced.)

I certainly wish Jonathan Martin the best of luck.

It must be terrible to have achieved what must have been a longed- and long worked-for dream to play in the National Football League., only to discover that the environment it comes with is so shamefully appalling. But Martin has a lot of other options – options that many other players, likely including Richie Incognito don’t have. Maybe Martin needs to move on and leave the sick, violent, misogynist culture of football behind him.

As I mentioned in a post I did last week, I’m a sports fan.

Sure, baseball is my main squeeze, but I enjoy (and can intelligently follow) any of the Big Four. But, as I also mentioned last week, football is to sport as veal is to eating out. I can only watch/order it if I don’t think about it.

I think I’m off football for a while.


It’s interesting that most of the Dolphin players have come to the defense of Incognito (who is white), with the African-American players dubbing Incognito “honorary” (as in honorary black man), and viewing Martin as inauthentic, less than black.

There’s a good article on this angle by Jason Whitlock over on ESPN, which starts out:

Mass incarceration has turned segments of Black America so upside down that a tatted-up, N-word-tossing white goon is more respected and accepted than a soft-spoken, highly intelligent black Stanford graduate. (Source: ESPN.)

Definitely worth a read.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

I’m not a veteran, but every once in a while, I do get to take the day off, and this is one of those days.

I especially like it that this “second Monday” holiday actually falls on November 11th – real Veterans Day – this year.

If you wan to read my thoughts on Veterans Day, you can read what I said last year (forgive that typo: son’s should be sons; but if I’m too lazy to blog on Veterans Day, I’m also to lazy to go back and correct a typo, which is actually more painful than one might imagine…) or the year before.

Happy Veterans Day to all the vets out there…

Friday, November 08, 2013

Chocolate chips? Them’s fightin’ words.

I’ll admit, if I hadn’t already tasted chocolate-covered pretzels, I might be a bit skeptical about chocolate-covered potato chips.

But I have, and they’re pretty good.

So I’ll have to say that a chocolate-covered potato chip sounds like a righteous combination to me.

What’s not to like?

It does, after all, include pretty much all of the major food groups: salt, grease, sugar, and chocolate. It’s crisp. And it’s based on the potato, which as anyone of Irish descent understands is the first item on the dinner plate that your fork takes aim on.

Unbeknownst to me, this gourmet delight has apparently been around for a while. They’re made by small market snack producers like Utz (which has penetrated the New England market, such that, when, on Mad Men,  Sterling Cooper – remember them – got the Utz account, we knew what they were talking about). And Asher’s among others has an upscale version. (A 4 oz. bag goes for $4.50; I saw a 3 pound box that costs about $50. While on the subject of Asher’s. Like Utz, it’s headquartered in Pennsylvania where, I believe, the Peeps empire is also located. Not to mention Hershey’s. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that Keystone State thing. After all, a lot more people are familiar with snacks than they are with keystones.

Anyway, Lay’s is now getting into the fray, with a product that will be lower-end than Asher’s, but will – unlike Utz – have a more national/multi-national footprint if they decide that there’s a permanent market.

For starters, they’ll be rolling them out at Target.

But I, alas, am not their target market:

The chipmaker says the salty-sweet combo is tailor-made for young women, who apparently can’t get enough of the stuff.

Jennifer Saenz, Lay’s senior director of marketing, noted in an e-mail: “the increasing popularity of chocolate-covered snacks among our target audience, millennial women. … They are looking for those more indulgent, savory/sweet combinations.” (Source: Business Week.)

Millennials, huh?

Aren’t they the ones trying to keep the weight off so that it’ll be easier to teeter around on those spike heels? Or am I confusing them with another demographic?

Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot more ballerina flats and skimmers on the sweet young things lately, so maybe they’re hunkering down into comfy-hood.

Well, whether Lay’s wants my approval or not, I’ll give this product a nod. Which is not to say that I’ll actually go out and buy any. Just that I think the idea’s just fine.

Not all that original, given all the other chocolate-covered chips (not to mention c-c pretzels) that are already out there.

But, as a product extension of a plain old bag of Lay’s, I bet they take off. (Would that State Line were still in business, or Wachusett – which was acquired by Utz, of all things.)

While I welcome the arrival of a generally available, well-priced chocolate-covered potato chip, what really caught my interest was part of the comment stream, where a woman named Cheryl set out her complaint:

HOLD THE PRESSES!!! ok I am angry,,,when Lays had their "name us a flavor" contest...Chocolate was my submission....I accepted the fact that it did not win....but it was good enough for them to produce after all ...and they are calling it original..NOT COOL LAYS...

Actually, the contest was “Do Us A Flavor” (get it?), which was won by cheesy-garlic bread flavored chips. (The runners up were a chicken and waffles (tinged with maple syrup) suggestion, and a Sriracha-flavored version.)

Anyway, Cheryl clearly had her fume on:


Another commenter calmly pointed out that there’s a difference between a chocolate-flavored chip, and a chocolate-covered chip:

The difference is this chip is actually dipped in chocolate. The name you flavor contest was for flavor additives. For example: the chicken & waffles chip is not dipped in batter and fried, it just has the flavor. Huge difference.

But Cheryl wasn’t having any, and she’s lawyering, errrr, lawering, up:

I don't know how they were making them who knows ..I only know that my flavor was..Chocolate ..even the name was the same.."chocolate chip" they never said how they were making them..didn't care..powdered,dipped,..what ever...I was robbed...didn't win the contest...but yet they used the concept... the only change was they used the wavy ...what a rip off...getting a Lawer as we speak!....

Yet another commenter jumped in to note that chocolate-covered potato chips have been around for years:

Calm down, you did not invent this flavor. (And anyway, there's a good chance Lays didn't read your submission. A big company like that would never read every single suggestion. Relax.)

But Cheryl’s sticking to her guns:

This I know...but Lays did not come up with it either..and it was not in their line up until a few months ago..with my submission...I'm calm....they can explain it to the judge..already found's like Mc Donalds doing a burger contest..someone submits Big MIC..and the produce the Big Mac...then claim credit for an need to reply.

Cheryl isn’t the only one staking her claim, on Lay’s FB page, we hear from Sally, who is aggrieved on behalf of a neighbor:

    During your recent contest my neighbor submitted a name for a chip "Cho-Co Chips" with the description, "Potato Chips drizzled with chocolate..." We never heard back, you chose 3 other ideas, then within a few months later you come out with chips dipped in chocolate for your newest chip, my neighbor's idea... She is elderly and homebound, and she almost cried when she saw the first commercial for this on television as she had actually thought she had a shot at winning because she thought that her idea was so good, as you also obviously did. You cheated an elderly, homebound woman who asked me daily to check on the status of the "Cho-Co Chip" submission for her. I bet this post gets deleted and I get no response. Let's see if you are fair and admit to the truth... Please make an elderly, homebound woman who bares quite a bit of pain daily happy and fess up and at least give her some recognition.... after all, you did steal her idea and market it as your own. Not fair..

    Kim, another voice of reason, piped in to say that  the chocolate-covered idea was in no way an original:

    They won't delete it, and for the mere reason of that they probably got thousands of that idea, it was actually my idea too....sorry just saying. As sorry as I feel for that elderly women, there are thousands of women out there who have been eating lays chips and throwing a Herseys kiss in to their mouth for years.

    Thank you, Kim, for that idea. I will get on it shortly.

    If Lay’s still has their Do Me A Flavor contest entries sitting around, they might want to have an intern go through them and find all the ones that suggested chocolate-flavored chips and comp them with a bag of Chocolate Chips.

    And good luck to you, Cheryl.

    Even if you do get to court, you probably don’t stand a chance against the housebound old lady.

    Thursday, November 07, 2013

    Donnie, Donnie, Donnie. Don’t ya realize there’s no FiOS in Boston?

    Apparently the ad’s been out for about a month, but I saw it for the first time the other day.

    The ad I’m talking about is for Verizon, the one in which Donnie Wahlberg raves about FiOS.

    Okay, these days, he plays a New York City cop on TV (in Blue Bloods, a show in which his sister is played by Bridget Moynahan, the Tom Brady baby mama), but Donnie, he’s one of ours. (Pronunciation key: one a aahs.) He’s a Dot Rat* – that’s son of Dorchester to you, sonny – all the way.

    Now, I don’t doubt for a New York Boston minute that Donnie is a stand up guy.

    Why, here he is standing in Copley Square, in front of Trinity Church.

    Donnie Wahlberg - Trinity

    And there he is again, standing in some impressively townie place. Why, I do believe that’s Charlestown where Donnie is putting the “i” in FiOS for us.

    Donnie Wahlberg - Charlestown

    All that’s missing is the scally cap, or some bit of sports gear – Red Sox World Championship 2013 would work – but, even without the gear, the minute Donnie opens his mouth, you know that, when it comes to representin’, he’s wicked pissah.

    So when Donnie tells us, “this is New England, where people tell it straight; no phonies, no fakers, no shortcuts,” we get where he’s coming from. He’s a home town honey.

    Although, is there any region in the country – other than, perhaps LA – that wouldn’t pride themselves on the same things.

    Of course, in our case, we know it’s true.

    Anyway, like any good Bostonian, Donnie can do a bit of trash talking. And the target of his trash talk in the Verizon ad is – no surprise here – Comcast.

    Because Comcast, ya know, hasn’t put down all the cool fiber optic so that it can stream basketball games, Blue Bloods, and New Kids on the Block videos to us wicked fast.

    “Comcast can talk all they want, but New Englander’s know the truth.”

    Yes indeed-y. And the god’s honest truth is that there is no FiOS in Boston. And no plans to expand here, either.

    The dirty little secret: if you live in the city of Boston, and you have high speed internet access, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s coming to you from Comcast.

    We might not want to get taken to Xfinity and beyond, but we don’t actually have a ton of alternatives. (RCN, anyone?) And that ton of alternatives most decidedly does not include Verizon.

    Since Donnie Wahlberg no longer lives here, he is perhaps not aware of this. But surely Verizon is. So why would they poke us in the eye with the sharp stick of Boston location shots, when there are perfectly beautiful non-Boston areas in Massachusetts (queue small town with white-steepled Congo church in autumn) that probably do get FiOS. Alas, they wouldn’t have been able to honestly substitute the triple-decker hills of Worcester for the townie shot because FiOS isn’t available in Worcester, either.

    Donnie, Donnie, Donnie.

    Let’s go New Englander to New Englander here, Dot Rat vs. Worcester girl. Let me tell it straight: I call BS on any Verizon FiOS ad from which one might infer that you can get FiOS if you actually live in the city.


    *One of those “you know you’re from Boston when…” things is knowing what a Dot Rat is. So I was watching a Red Sox game this summer, and the new pretty girl that NESN always has to hang out with the “real” announcers was reading off the tweets that were coming in. She came to one from a Twitterer going by the name “dotrat” and read it out as Do Trat.

    Meanwhile, if you want to watch Donnie’s commercial, you can find it on The New Kids on the Block’s site.