When you search the word ‘declutter’ Google you get 1,130,000 hits on Google. Or at least that’s today’s result. Tomorrow it will probably be 1,140,000, because apparently Google likes round numbers and because apparently we think more is more. One of the most popular books of late is The Life-changing Magic Of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art Of Decluttering And Organizing by Marie Kondo.
Ms. Kondo has been anointed the Martha Stewart of Japan, but probably that analogy is just to put her in context for a North American market. Near as I can tell, Japan has always been the poster-child for lack of stuff, as evidenced by bedrooms that get packed away each day and luggage that gets purchased on a trip-by-trip basis because there is no place to store it once you get back. Martha, on the other hand, seems to have no end to the possibilities of stuff to acquire and houses (if you can refer to her residences as houses with a straight face) in which to store it. But I digress.
There is no doubt that we all have too much stuff and that even includes me, one who prides herself on not having too much stuff but who in all likelihood has way too much of it. I think part of the issue lies in the notion that having stuff – if it’s the right kind of stuff – defines who we are. You need not look much further than the driveways of my current neighbourhood to figure that one out. I get that you might need an SUV to ferry the kids to school and back, but does it really need to be a Mercedes SUV and do you really need two of them, unless of course one of them is for the nanny.
Our garbage transfer station has a place where people can leave certain stuff for other people to scavenge. Sometimes it’s potentially useful stuff but mostly it is stuff that never started out being useful. Like a long shallow wooden bowl-like thing that might be for a holding a baguette or very fat olives (left by someone, picked up by me, soon to be returned to the dump) and a pristine device for mixing salad dressing that was clearly never deployed for its supposed purpose (left by someone, picked up by me, soon to be returned to the dump – is there a pattern forming here?)
Marie Kondo dictates that you put your hands on everything you own, ask yourself if it sparks joy, and if it doesn’t, thank it for its service and get rid of it. The question this raises is how come there is so much stuff out there that is incapable of sparking joy, and in particular certain categories of stuff that struggle mightily to achieve anything close to KonMari nirvana. Jeans, bathing suits, and winter boots, I’m talking to you. Somebody with more ambition than me will surely see the money making opportunity in doing a ‘reverse Marie’ and churn out only things that are joy inducing. But I won’t hold my breath.
I am a trusted traveler. Or at least I have a card that proves I have told the government everywhere I have ever worked or lived, which apparently somehow makes me less of a threat to the rest of the travelling public and those who toil in the airline industry. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to play out. In reality I am only trusted when it suits the whims of whomever decides what the security and border crossing rules are on any given day.
They have completely reconfigured the U.S. border procedure at Terminal 1 in Toronto (and maybe at Terminal 3 as well, but Terminal 3 is be avoided at all cost). Instead of going through immigration then security now you go through security before entering the immigration hall. This actually makes perfect sense. Wouldn’t you want people to be screened for contraband before allowing them over the virtual border? Thank goodness someone finally figured this out.
My magic card does get me into the special security line but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to take off my shoes and take out my laptop if it is a day I’m not being trusted. The rule of the day is posted on a sign with pictograms showing what we are supposed to do. This results in delays while those of us in line try interpret the instructions (does a coat with a red ‘x’ through it mean we are supposed to take our jackets off or leave them on?) so as not to run afoul of the disapproval of the security staff. The path of least resistance should be to just do what the rest of the public has to do but it’s not. If you take your shoes off on a day when shoes should be left on, your lack of compliance will be duly noted and probably result in a black mark on your permanent record.
So once through security, you enter the completely reconfigured U.S. immigration hall. The magic card allows you to go to the special kiosk that reads your passport and fingerprints and spits out an immigration slip with a very unflattering photo captured on the spot by the built-in camera. It used to be that all you had to do was grab the slip and whisk yourself to the guy that takes the slip. Now you and your slip wait in a line of fellow trusted travelers to talk to a person about why you should be allowed to enter the U.S. Aside from having to show your unflattering kiosk portrait to more than one person, this means an unspecified wait time to cross the border because most of us trusted travelers travel at the same time and of course completely defeats the purpose of being pre-cleared for immigration.
Maybe this is Donald Trump’s doing, since a virtual wall is a lot easier to build than a physical one. But I really don’t believe that interrogating trusted travelers or putting babies on no-fly lists is making the world safer for anyone. Just sayin’.
I think more than any season, summer comes with many sounds. Maybe that’s because we are outside more and have more opportunity to hear what’s going on. And of course, we can finally open the windows day and night and can hear both day and night sounds. Friday night at the cottage was one of those nights. At two in the morning a group of city escapees were still reveling at their good fortune, not mindful of how well sound travels across the water. Then the owl that is mostly heard and not seen took up a perch somewhere close to the window and hooted for about 15 minutes before it flew off to terrorize rodents.
But perhaps the most ubiquitous sound in the summer is the ‘summer song’. You know the one – it’s blaring out from car windows and boom boxes starting in June and doesn’t stop playing until everyone is safely back at school. According to Billboard (the folks that are in the business of caring about such things), 2015 didn’t have a song of the summer because there wasn’t anything upbeat enough on the charts during the timeframe to qualify. That puts a lot of pressure on 2016 in a season when none of us want undue pressure. Luckily, a song called ‘Can’t Stop the Feeing’ by Justin Timberlake has taken an early lead, but Drake is fast on Justin’s heals with ‘One Dance’, so that means it’s unlikely that 2016 will fail to deliver. Of course I wouldn’t recognize either of those songs if I fell over them, but that’s because ‘song of the summer’ is by definition a phenomenon of youth.
Also according to Billboard, an official summer song must have more than 110 beats per minute. And I have no argument with that. I think, though, that another criteria ought to be having the word ‘summer’ in the title or at least an explicit reference to sunshine and heat. ‘Summer in the City’, ‘A Summer Place’, and ‘In the Summer Time’ are obvious winners of the summer song title. ‘Sunshine Superman’ was also a bonafide song of the summer even though the lyrics are little creepy. I think I will grant an exception to ‘Call Me Maybe’, which actually needs more than one exception because it was released in the September before its summer song tenure of 2013.
Another dispensation goes to Elton John for ‘Rocket Man’, which neither has more than 110 beats per minute nor anything to do with summer nor lyrics that make any sense. But not only did it dominate the airwaves in the summer of 1972, it has had proven staying power over the years even though it only made it to number six on the Billboard chart. There are dozens of cover versions, including those by Neil Diamond, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and of course William Shatner. Rocket Man was ranked number 242 in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Inexplicably, it was demoted to number 245 in a 2010 revision of the list.
I doubt that whatever song wins the title for 2016 will end up on a ‘best of all time’ list. But that’s probably not the point. Summer is about ephemera and sounds that come and go. And mysterious owls.
I know almost as much about Gordie Howe as I do about Muhammad Ali. Which is to say, not very much about either of them. Or maybe what I really mean is I care about as little about Gordie Howe as I do about Muhammad Ali except that Gordie Howe was more of a presence (as limited as it was) in my life than the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay. I always thought Cassius Clay was a rather improbable name because what better name could there be for a boxer? But it was in fact his real name until his conversion to Islam in 1964 when he decided there was a better name for a boxer. But I digress.
As you probably know, Gordie Howe played in the NHL for 26 seasons starting in 1946. That means there were at least seven years when I watched him on the ice while being held hostage by Hockey Night in Canada since it was the only thing broadcast to our corner of the woods on Saturday night in prime time. Then if you were completely bored, you could stay tuned for The Juliette Show that came on live right after the hockey game at whatever time it ended.
I’m guessing Juliette sat around in her party dress eating bonbons while waiting for Gordie to win one for the Red Wings without going into overtime. Today, of course, it would all have been prerecorded and Juliette could have done other things with her Saturday night. A fun fact about Juliette: because her show was in black and white, she had to tell the audience the colour of her dress (which was always different from week to week). The Juliette Show was also in the top 10 of all Canadian programming in its time, although part of that was the obvious audience bleed-over from Hockey Night in Canada and I’m not sure that ‘Canadian top 10′ would be considered a huge accomplishment in the wider scheme of things. By the way, Juliette is still alive and kicking at 89. Take that, Gordie.
In my extensive research for this post perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was the existence of the ‘Gordie Howe hat trick’: a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game – clearly a hallmark of a well-rounded hockey player, although apparently he only achieved two of his eponymous hat tricks in his entire career. On the plus side, I would venture to say that this is probably one of his records that Wayne Gretzky did not break or even meet.
I don’t know what Gordie thought about NHL broadcast rights being wrangled from the clutches of CBC by Rogers in 2014. But he probably would care that ratings for the Stanley Cup playoffs this year are down 44% and there has been a similar decline in regular season ratings. Like many things in the sports and entertainment universe, hockey ain’t what it used to be. Apparently audience research has shown that Hockey Night in Canada needs to be modernized to improve its appeal to Millennials. What that looks like I have no idea and clearly neither does Rogers. But at least Gordie has been spared the trauma of dealing with the ‘hipification’ of something as mundane as a hockey game.
Let me first say, in my own defense, I actually do lots of reading on the internet. I probably read the same kinds of things that you do (or maybe I don’t read quite as much of the random content links on Facebook – someone must be clicking on them or there wouldn’t be so many of them, but it certainly isn’t me. And you certainly never saw me do it. But I digress.). I read stuff like news stories on reputable news sites, news stories on un-reputable news sites, and ‘news’ stories on Hollywood gossip sites. But when it comes to reading what is now referred to as ‘long form’ content (meaning it isn’t ‘She took a garden rake and you won’t believe what happened!!’ or ’14 things you never knew about ice cream!!’, I’d rather have the physical manifestation than the virtual one.
Unfortunately, it appears that my preferences (and probably my entire demographic too) are well on their way to irrelevance when it comes to how the newspaper and magazine world chooses to conduct itself. Not that I’m in denial about the economics of publishing today and the necessity of online income streams. Quite the contrary. But here are some recent examples that demonstrate some decisions are not being considered with the big picture in mind.
I have been a faithful subscriber to Toronto Life magazine for at least 25 years, or for half of its tenure as a publication, which I think qualifies me as a loyal customer. I am also a frequent visitor to the Toronto Life website, because of the useful, up-to-the-minute information it provides about events in the city. But there has been a disturbing trend over the past year: the entire content of the main cover story has started appearing on the website a good week before the issue hits my mailbox. This annoyed me so much that I sent an email to the editor to point out the irrelevance of having a subscription when I could read the whole issue online for free sooner than my paid copy. To her credit, I immediately received a response saying she was glad I brought it to her attention and that she would think more carefully about the timing of releasing stories to the general (unpaying) public. Duh!
I also subscribe to the Friday and Saturday edition of a newspaper. They also often publish things online before they hit the physical paper, but at least after a certain point they charge people to read the internet version. So that’s not my beef here. My problem is what happens when I need to interrupt the delivery of the paper. It used to be I received a credit for the un-delivered issues. Now, I don’t get a credit but I get free access to the online equivalent, which isn’t the main website content but a special electronic reproduction of the physical paper, complete with ‘pages’ you can turn, ads as they would appear in the analog layout, and text in columns. This actually sounds like a good option until you actually want to use it to read the paper.
First, the print is of course so small (because the broadsheet has to be shrunk to the size of a computer screen – and don’t even think about trying to read it on anything smaller than a laptop) that you have to zoom in so you can only read a small portion of the text, which is of course still in columns. The other problem is you need the internet to access it, and when I need to cancel my paper I am typically not in a place where it is convenient to download the virtual version. So the result is, I have decided to cancel my subscription for the summer and pick up random papers when it’s convenient. I hope that has the desired effect on the newspaper’s bottom line.
The least well known thing about Phil Kives was his name. Not a bad thing really, since back in the day it was only proper to have your name in the paper twice: once when you’re born and once when you die. This week it was Phil’s turn to punch his second ticket. Before establishing K-Tel, which is why he garnered many more print inches than most of our obituaries will merit, Mr. Kives was a travelling salesman. There was a time when travelling salesman was a respectable profession. So respectable in fact that we have travelling salesmen to thank for the Gideon Bibles in every single hotel room, because the Gideon Society was started when two purveyors of door-to-door goods met when on the road. Or maybe not that respectable, because apparently they failed in their initial quest to start a Christian travelling salesman club due to lack of interest. But I digress.
Mr. Kives was, by his own account, a travelling salesman extraordinaire, proving that neither modesty nor lack of self-confidence interfered with his ambitions. One of the keys to his success was the ability to craft questions to clinch the sale that could only reasonably be answered ‘yes’. Such as, ‘don’t you want your wife to cook better meals?’ or ‘don’t you want to look neat and tidy?’ or ‘don’t you think if you listen to classical music everyone will think you are smart?’ (Okay, maybe I made that last one up.)
According to Mr. Kives, his career really took off when Seymour Popeil (father of Ron Popeil, scion of Ronco and beloved by fishermen everywhere) refused to let him sell his wares because he was getting ‘too big’. Such is the cut-throat world of the gadget huckster. But that didn’t keep young Phil down for long: that’s when he got the idea to produce compilation records. The first big seller was 25 Polka Greats, surely the most unlikely title to have been snapped up by a million and half U.S. households, the most unlikely part being finding 25 polka tunes that could be labeled as ‘greats’ (although I don’t think Mr. Kives worried too much about accuracy in advertising). Apparently you can still buy Hooked on Classics today, in case you were not one of the original 10 million who added it to their record collection the first time around.
Aside from inventing and popularizing the musical polyglot, Mr. Kives was also a pioneer in the art of the infomercial. If you think about it, this was a natural extension of door-to-door sales: instead of having to knock on the door you go straight into the living room. And given the amount of air time taken up by the modern infomercial, he was clearly on to something.
At this point in history, it is hard to imagine how many new things it’s possible to invent. Even Elon Musk is less an inventor than someone seeking to perfect things that have already been invented. So say what you will about the lasting importance of Veg-o-matics and Miracle Brushes, at least Phil Kives made a lasting mark on day-to-day life.
Opening up the cottage is like a cross between Halloween (the trick part, not the treat part) and April Fool’s day (the that’s a joke right? part). Even though we do our best to batten down the hatches and wrap a swath of protective cover over everything in sight, the ravages of winter and random acts of time that take place behind our backs always have the last laugh. Herewith the known chronicle of opening weekend 2016 (there will, of course, be ample room for the unknown chronicle to make its presence known in the weeks to come).
1. Although this fact was well known on closing weekend 2015, when the barge was at least considerate enough to limp into the dock rather than give up the ghost in mid-lake limbo, we have four boats with nary a working motor between them. Kind of an issue when living on an island.
2. Even though there are no visible ways they can possibly be getting in, at least one mouse breached the walls last year. We know this because one of the cats deigned to interrupt his nap to fulfill his job description, and not because we witnessed this heroic feat but because a month or two after the fact the carcass made its presence known. So just in case, before closing up I placed mouse poison in attractive locations. And sure enough, at least one mouse had an all-inclusive winter vacation spent dining on Warfarin, sleeping in freshly made beds, and lounging on the couch (which was also apparently a tasty thing to eat).
3. The kitchen faucet decided to call it quits. Probably because some errant drops of water froze in the mechanism that runs the spray nozzle. So the question is whether to spring for a new faucet or just remove the bits that don’t work and do without a spray function. The answer, as anyone with a cottage knows, is the latter, because you don’t mess with anything that works at least within a tolerable range of acceptability because it will never end well.
4. One of the crowning achievements of 2015 was the final completion of the dock and its associated shoreline deck. I will not go into the details surrounding the 15 year journey to realizing this key infrastructure component because that would just add insult to injury, the injury in question being ice damage. Fortunately most of the dock remains functional. Unfortunately, some effort will be required to rehabilitate other parts. And we all know the only truly limited resource is time.
5. On a more positive note, it looks like the garlic I planted last fall is coming up, as have the early spring flowers. I have never planted garlic before and learned after the fact that you are supposed to separate the cloves, not just put the whole head in the ground, which kind of makes sense but was less obvious than the purveyors of garden garlic seem to think it should be. So anyhow, the garlic is coming up and I will consult Mr. Google to find out what you do with the green bits above the ground and figure out when I’m allowed to uncover what’s below the ground. Be afraid, very afraid.
The guy who invented email died earlier this month. Although at this stage in email’s evolution, we probably would rather bury Raymond Tomlinson than praise him, there is no denying its influence on how we conduct our personal and business correspondence today.
I having been using email since 1985, giving Ray a bit of a head start to perfect things after he first taught computers attached to ARPANET to address each other individually in 1971. By 1986 I was actually in charge of our entire corporate email system, a responsibility I was as far from being qualified for as being in charge of refueling the space station. Luckily being in charge meant having a group of people who did the actual work of making sure the system was alive and well and accurately transmitting electronic messages coast to coast. My crowning achievement was overseeing the day we had to break the system into two parts to accommodate the growth in user base, which happened on a weekend so as not to prevent inconvenience. And that in itself tells you how far we have evolved (or actually, devolved): it was perfectly okay to go without email on a Saturday and Sunday and the world did not end. Fortunately the electronic surgery went off without a hitch because I have no idea what I could have done if everything had gone south except head south myself to Paraguay or somewhere else without extradition.
Email initially replaced paper memos as the primary device for internal communication. Like email, memos arrived in your personal inbox. Like email, memos were often useless distractions, such as announcing a redesign of the spaces in the parking lot (an actual memo I actually got in 1979). Unlike email, it was easier to say you didn’t get the memo and therefore willfully ignore the shift in lines of the parking spaces.
But to give it its due, email is perhaps one of the few electronic innovations that actually contributed to the (as yet unattained) goal of the paperless office because it made the paper memo and its cousin the three-part inter-office communication form obsolete. Oh, except for the guys (and they were all guys) who had their secretaries print out their emails before they would read them, and then have them filed after duly stamping them with the ‘read’ stamp.
Of course email may have made a dent in paper consumption but it created an entirely new problem: inbox bloat. That’s because it’s possible for anyone to issue memos to anyone else all day and, even worse, all night. It also allows the dreaded ‘reply all’ function, which we all know is the 10th circle of hell.
For reasons that escape me, if you search for ‘memo template’ you will get 535,000 results. I personally have not seen the electronically created version of a paper memo since about 1990. However, one thing that was good about them was there were rules about when to use them, rules what to say in them, and especially, rules about who to send them to – part of what we used to call the ‘rules of business’ communication. And that’s really what companies are trying to re-institute when they make forays into trying to reign in rampant email. If they would just go back to first principles of memo best practices, the problem would be solved. Oops – gotta go – my inbox just pinged me.
We should all know the difference between what happens online or on screen and what actually happens In Real Life (IRL) but somehow it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between these two things. Isn’t IRL where we spend all of our minutes, hours and days, and isn’t NRL (Not Real Life, a term I may have just coined and don’t even think about trying to steal it) the antithesis of actual things that matter. But I digress. Here are some things we see every day on various screens and devices that I wish actually existed in real life.
1. Good wardrobes for working women. Although apparently, The Good Wife gets most of her clothes off the rack, the outfits sported by all of the women on Suits and by Claire Underwood as she swans around the White House are all figments of someone’s very customized imagination. There are endless instances of beautiful neutral colored shifts, effortlessly glamorous trench coats and leisurewear that never ever existed IRL. If TV shows can’t even find clothing appropriate for women in positions of power, how could any normal human being ever hope to look as well turned-out? And even if Alicia does manage to make do with ensembles that do exist IRL, she can only do it by spending $1000 on a blouse (double that on shoes).
2. Technology interfaces. Have you noticed that any technology that appears in a movie or television show bears no resemblance to functionality available on your IRL devices, even if it isn’t science fiction? For example, any time something is copied from one place to another, the documents show as a thumbnail and then whisk themselves neatly off the screen in a chic little ‘whosh’. Or if something is being transferred secretly from a phone to a thumbdrive (something I’m sure that happens every day), you see each individual file being transmitted in a line-by-analog-line to the transportable device. IRL we still get the ‘blue screen of death’ more often than we thought was possible in the 21st century.
3. Apartments that people who do not come from a family of billionaires can afford New York, LA, San Fran (fill in the desirable city here) etc. I’m sure that Carrie Bradshaw’s midtown bachelor pad would rent for at least $10,000 a month while her earnings as a freelance writer would be more in line with having 5 roommates in a two bedroom slum. People on TV also never have dirty dishes, piles of laundry or cat barf on their carpets. Or maybe they do, and they just have an army of cleaning people that works away quietly in the dead of night to make sure everything is shipshape by morning. IRL we wake up to the same mess we left the night before, compounded by fresh cat barf to step in while searching for something relatively clean to wear.
4. Pets that make money. Of course a handful of people have been able to monetize their pet’s cuteness, but if you do the math it works out to about .0000001% of the pet population that is paying their own way. My cats, for example, are perfectly content to sit back (or lie down) and live a completely work-free life, even though they are at least as adorable as any star of the Internet Cat Festival. IRL pets remain on the wrong side of the household balance sheet.
5. Food that dances like no one is watching. The most recent issue of Bon Appetit is entirely devoted to taking pictures of food, including the ‘rules’ for taking photos at dinner. If you need proof that society as we know it has devolved to a dangerous level of vacuousness, you now have it. Photogenic food is now mandatory, as is the requirement to take and share photos of every meal, snack and raw ingredient. IRL, you are certainly allowed to admire what’s on your dinner plate, but then please just get on with the business of actually eating the food.
Yes, it’s a thing. And a very lucrative thing apparently. There is a job called being a ‘namer’. People pay people to come up with name for their idea, product, concept, movie, drug, colour, and I’m sure babies if you happen to be Kanye and Kim (do you really think they came up with North and Saint on their own?)
In fact the drug thing is kind of the Olympics of naming because there are so many rules around what you are allowed to call drugs (at least in the half of the world that claims to be civilized). One of the gauntlets a pharmaceutical must pass is the dreaded ‘doctor’s handwriting’ test: Whatever name in question must not be possible to be mistaken for something else when being interpreted by a pharmacist. Something like cyanamid (a deliquescent caustic crystalline compound) turning into cyanide (any chemical compound that contains monovalent combining group CN). Oh wait – maybe not a good example.
We do know, however, there are names that can go horribly wrong. The classic is the perhaps apocryphal tale of the Chevy Nova’s launch in Latin America (feel free to look that one up). Another of the better examples of ‘what were they thinking’ happened in 2002, when thanks to the Enron-related downfall of Andersen Consulting, the major accounting firms were all forced to send their ‘advisory’ practices to wander on their own in the desert. Pricewaterhousecoopers (in itself a poster child for naming gone very wrong) decided to call its newly minted consulting offspring ‘Monday’. According to those who do the math, this exercise in rebranding cost $110 million, or roughly 2 percent of the offshoot’s projected annual revenue. Much hilarity ensued. I can report, having been an actual employee of PwC (the post-Monday retrenchment name for the consulting arm), that I am not at all surprised they were hoodwinked into buying that particular version of the Emperor’s new clothes. But honestly, what would any sane person be thinking? Here are three examples of what they failed to anticipate.
1. “I don’t like Mondays.” They missed this one because of course no accountant would know anything about Boomtown Rats, only rat races in general.
2. “Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.” In fact, as we know, every other day of the week is fine. So perhaps they should have moved further down the list of potential names.
3. And finally my personal favourite: I Bought Monday. Because probably to escape the shame of retrenching and recoup some of the tithe to the ‘namer’, PwC managed to convince IBM to buy its consulting arm and thus unceremoniously kicked Monday to the curb. In a more ironic turn of events, once the statute of limitations on accounting firms having advisory businesses expired, PwC proceeded to poach back its key employees from IBM. But that’s another story…
So next time you notice – or even more telling, don’t notice – a name, remember that it didn’t happen by accident. Imax and Jello and Coke and Apple and Starbucks and yes, even IBM, are all proof that names matter.