So now we begin our forced march towards winter. There is no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and soldier on into certain peril. November’s gloom looms on the horizon and March won’t enter the frame until six months from now. It’s almost time to pack up the cans and condiments, put away the deck chairs, and clean the fridge before sealing up the cottage time capsule for yet another year. A task that’s enough like every Sunday night to feel familiar yet so very different.
Everything takes on a particular gravitas when you know it will be the last time you will do it or maybe not really the last time it will be done but the last time before winter and the last time before summer rolls around again. Some of this is because of the delicate nature of certain end-of-season chores like winterizing the plumbing, which has clear potential for disaster, while others are equally liable to end in tragedy, but less obviously so. Things like:
1. Forgetting to repatriate the items essential for the winter beach vacation. Unless you wait until March (which everyone knows is not a valid substitute for a January or February trip), good luck trying to buy suitable clothes.
2. Putting the sheets away in a brand new place that seems so logical and such a brilliant solution to whatever the problem was with where you used to put them away. Only it won’t seem so logical come April.
3. Placing half-read books back on the bookshelf without a bookmark, especially if the only reason they were half-read is that they got forgotten when a new shiny object of reading desire shoved them down to the bottom of the pile. There is nothing worse than picking up a book in the spring and thinking you have read it already even though you only made it part way through.
4. Not adequately cleaning the oven. Thanksgiving oven detritus tends to become even more petrified over winter. And if you are under the mistaken assumption the oven was left clean in the fall and fail to do a spring inspection, be afraid, be very afraid.
5. Leaving the lounge chair cushions in the ‘dock box’, hoping they will remain unmolested by rodents (with and without bushy tails) that are known to prefer a comfortable winter camping spot.
But, as the saying goes, to everything there is a season. If not for winter how could we embrace spring? There’s a time to hunker down and a time to fling open the windows. A time to plant daffodils and a time to accidentally dig them up in the early spring while planting something else. And, of course, a time to just enjoy the time we are in right now instead of some distant glimmer of summer.
This just in: recent research has shown that the most significant rise in shopping dollar expenditure in the past 10 years has been at big box and warehouse stores, not via online retail purchases. At the risk of dating myself, I remember when the word ‘ecommerce’ was coined and the time when our firm’s nascent ecommerce consulting practice was shrouded in mystery and black magic: the blind leading the gullible with high hopes and deep pockets. Although certainly a large dollar volume moves through Amazon’s virtual stores (and I don’t think there is anything you can’t buy from Amazon, from coffins to plastic surgery), people spend much more time researching potential purchases online than actually getting out their credit cards to complete the transaction. The relevant statistic is that 60 to 80% of internet shopping carts get abandoned long before check out time. So one might say (and in fact I am about to) ecommerce is less than meets the eye.
But back to the whole big box thing. It used to be we had department stores where you could buy just about anything: hardware, wedding dresses, cheese and watches. Gradually (or in some cases drastically), these stores paired down and eliminated their wide range of departments. Suddenly you couldn’t buy fabric at the same place you bought sewing machines or pick up a cake and a cake plate at one go. There are about as many explanations for this as there are explainers. Competition from specialty stores, the prohibitive cost of managing too many SKUs, enthusiastically embracing the 80/20 rule, the high cost of downtown rents, and of course, the rise of internet commerce making both physical location and inventory location irrelevant.
Another factor at play here is of course the pace of suburban sprawl. Downtown is far from the only place to shop and why would you drive downtown and pay for parking when you can drive to your local big box plaza and park as long as you like for free. That’s the good news.
The bad news is your shopping choices consist of Costco and Super Walmart. Costco has to be the ultimate flag bearer for conspicuous consumption. Anyone who has shopped there knows the exact reason why it contributes immensely to the increase in retail expenditure: they don’t call it ‘big box’ for nothing. It is impossible to buy less than two of most things, and certainly impossible not to buy less than very large quantities of the things they sell by the each. And of course that means it is impossible to get out of there for less than triple digits. But look what you can buy: electronics, jewelry, furniture, lawn mowers, garden sheds, mattresses, clothing, books, toys, flowers, etc. Wait a minute – doesn’t that sound kind of like a department store?
Except the department stores I remember didn’t have florescent lights, warehouse shelving and aisles clogged with large shopping carts overflowing with more food than any family should be consuming in an average month and lots of screaming children (who previously were only a palpable presence in the children’s clothing department). Then, instead of dealing with an efficient, smartly dressed, pearl clad saleswoman, you get to line up like cattle being ushered through the slaughterhouse gates to get processed through the payment process.
So today I start my one person crusade to bring back the small box store. The store where you can find small quantities of things. Where they wrap them in tissue paper and place them in a bag. The store around the corner from where you live. Where they even might know your name.
About 60 years ago the world changed. And not because that was when Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was brought to market, almost eradicating the danger of juvenile paralysis or because it was when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up commercial shipping between Montreal and Lake Ontario. It’s because that’s when ‘rock and roll’ was officially born, courtesy of a movie called Blackboard Jungle, which featured a song called “Rock Around the Clock”. Unfortunately, with all due respect to Bill Halley and the Comets (and of course, by that I mean not much respect was due), it was a particularly bad example of the new genre of music that was about to overtake popular culture for the foreseeable future.
Apparently, though, ‘they’ have recently (and apparently belatedly) announced the death of rock and roll dominance in popular culture. Rather, according to the people who know these things, we have been in the post-rock era ever since 1991 when Niggaz4life, by N.W.A., sold nearly a million copies in its first seven days and claimed the number one spot on the Billboard 200 – the first time that a rap group had accomplished this feat in the 45 year history of album rankings.
For those of us who were born on the cusp of one of the most disruptive ages of popular music and who have never known a time when ‘rock and roll’ did not exist (and indeed literally grew up with it), it is hard to fathom waiting with baited breath for a new single from Ke$ha (who I assume is part of the hip hop genre, but admit I’m not ‘hip’ enough to know for sure), not only because it doesn’t qualify as something that might be anticipated, but also because the notion of delayed gratification has completely gone out the window. You can download the latest tunes even before they have officially been released and that’s kind of the way it works these days: Consuming tune by tune rather than album by album.
But that was also true back in the day when we pooled our allowances to buy and trade the latest singles at about $1 each. Come to think of it, I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that iTunes launched at 99 cents per song, tying into the same psychological marketing trick that if something costs so little it is easy to consume in bulk. The difference was that when we spent our hard hoarded money we got two songs for the price of one – the A side and the3 B side. When you bought ‘Kind of a Hush’ you also got ‘No Milk Today’. When you bought ‘Yellow Submarine’ you also got “Eleanor Rigby’. And so on and so on.
And I think reports of the death of rock and roll are somewhat premature. The list of major tours in 2015 include the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, The Who, AC/DC, U2 and Smashing Pumpkins – admittedly an eclectic lineup of ‘classics’ but proof of longevity none-the-less. Only time will tell whether anyone will show up to see Kanye or Shad or Jay-Z the equivalent number of years from now, but my guess is their appeal will be about as faded as their tattoos and as tarnished as thirty year old bling.
I have always been fascinated with flamingos. Really, who can resist something that pink? Something that is real but looks fake. Kind of like what Donald Trump claims about his hair. But I digress. Maybe the reason fake flamingos are so popular is because flamingos are so inherently bogus themselves. And speaking of fake flamingos, the guy who invented the plastic lawn flamingo in 1957 – and yes, someone is actually credited with the ‘invention’ – died recently. And if you think that Donald Featherstone was more in the league of Ron Popeil (legendary inventor of many important things, including the Pocket Fisherman and Veg-O-Matic) than in the realm of Rodin, you would be mistaken. Mr. Featherstone was in fact a trained sculpture with a classical art education, and his popular culture masterpiece was modeled on a picture of a flamingo he saw in National Geographic. Here are some important facts you should know about flamingos, both real and weather-proof.
1. Flamingos are pink because they eat shrimp. No I’m not kidding. That is 100% true. However, it does raise a few questions. For example, what is it about a flamingo’s body chemistry that causes it to extract pinkness from a shrimp shell? What survival mechanism does being pink provide? Is it the ability to appear shrimp-like so they can sneak up on them quickly? Is it the royalty cheques from appearing on countless Florida t-shirts, mugs and fridge magnets? This mystery is yet to be solved.
2. Apparently there is a fake fake flamingo industry. I’m assuming that China plays a role in this, but that might just be my stereotypical projection. Official plastic flamingos were manufactured by the Union Products company and actually have Don Featherstone’s signature on them. I’ll wait while you go and check to see if yours are genuine or not. The real fake flamingos are also only sold in pairs, one standing up straight-ish and one bending its neck down. So if you only have one flamingo you may have a knockoff. And, of course, always beware of anyone on Craigslist flogging solo pink plastic flamingo-like birds.
3. The plastic flamingo is the official bird of Madison, Wisconsin. There are many aspects of this that are disturbing. Does this mean there are more fake birds in Madison that real ones? Or perhaps it’s just that it’s mostly winter in Madison and having a flamingo or two (or probably hundreds of them) makes it easier to pretend to be in a tropical climate instead.
4. Unlike the fans of Madison, apparently many condo associations ban the use of plastic flamingos as outside decoration. To be fair though, this fatwa also usually extends to garden gnomes, whirligigs, half-tires painted white, and plastic frogs. So we can rest assured they aren’t just singling out the flamingo.
5. I once owned a pair of plastic flamingos. They lived on my front ‘lawn’, which was actually the gap between the inside and outside panes of glass in my second story front window. I am confident this was very hip and ironic. I think eventually they were discarded in a move after they had lost most of their pinkness due to sun damage. Because after all, it’s all about the pink.
There are apparently only 20 Fridays left until Christmas, although I must admit I didn’t count them myself because I draw the line at self-inflicted punishment. Why is it that winter seems endless even though it lasts (from a calendar perspective anyway) exactly as long as summer, while summer zips by like a BMW convertible on the autobahn. This was an actual headline in the newspaper this week: “Have you made your summer plans yet? Too late!” And it’s only June 20.
But I understand exactly what they mean. There is so much angst associated with mapping out how you would like the summer to unfold to maximize its fickle timeline. The mere act of deciding what you might be doing in August brings Labour Day into the line of sight. Then when you get to that final long weekend, there’s the summer remorse that kicks in when you realize you didn’t get around to doing most of the things on your list (or maybe that’s just me…). And I now defy those who say it’s too late to plan. This is what I’m doing this summer:
1. Cooking new things. Of the seven magazines that arrive in my mailbox in any given month, five of them have recipes (and one is entirely devoted to food preparation). I read them voraciously, noting to myself the items that look particularly promising, then add them to the precarious pile of previous issues, completely losing all track of potential future meals. I am going to go through the stack of magazines that lives at the cottage (come to think of it, maybe I need a whole separate list item for that), tear out the summer recipes, and cook my way through them. Right after I finish reading those books I didn’t read this winter.
2. Growing tomatoes. This is, of course, a more long term project because people that know more about it than me say it takes at least 40 days from planting to picking. I have the planting part done, so I can already say I am well on my way to achieving this goal. Or maybe not. The most recent progress inspection revealed only two microscopic proto-tomatoes among four plants that otherwise seem healthy. Therefore, I reserve the right to rescind any invitations for BLTs that might otherwise be on the table.
3. Kayaking. I know many of you will be skeptical about this one, especially those that delight in pointing out that the kayak has not seen water in two years. In my own defense, it’s not that I haven’t thought about taking it out for a spin, it’s just that other things got in the way. This year, I promise, just as soon as we stop dipping down to single digits overnight and the water gets warm enough, I will be circumnavigating the lake. Right after I figure out where I put the paddle.
Check back with me in September. Surely I won’t have spent far too many perfectly good reading hours staring mindlessly at the lake, or squandered a sunny day by washing the windows, or never mastered the art of the quinoa salad. There’s always a first time.
It is hard to believe that it was thirty years ago – almost to the day – that I sat in Convocation Hall to receive my MBA degree. Imagine, if you can, completing finance and accounting courses without Excel or preparing a 50 page strategy paper without a word processor. That’s how we did it back in the 1980s and somehow against all odds we did manage to do it successfully.
Most of us had no idea what we were getting into, especially people like me with only a passing acquaintance with business subjects and a dubious relationship with numbers. But I am not one to let a total lack of qualifications stand in my way.
My class was rather unusual at the time because most of us had work experience, and not just in banks or the places you would think most MBA candidates would hail from. There was a prison guard (imagine spinning that resume, but on second thought not too much of a reach to herding cats on Bay Street), an architect (apparently not a hot commodity in the 1983 recession), a lawyer or two (also a little surplus at the time), an army officer (during a particularly dull period for international conflict), and a downsized 50 year old (see 1983 recession).
One quarter of us were women, which was also unusual as the female ratio was typically more like one in ten. But don’t go thinking this was a fuzzy, group hug, cohort of women. It was more like a school of female barracudas, which in the words of Wikipedia are “snake-like in appearance, with prominent, sharp-edged, fang-like teeth much like piranhas”. They are also ferocious, opportunistic predators relying on surprise to overtake their prey. The modus operandi of the barracudas was to acquire critical yet obscure information about how best to suck up to a particular professor or what minutiae was likely to be on the accounting exam and use it to make sure they always ended up on the correct side of the bell curve. Because it wasn’t enough just to meet the knowledge requirements, it was essential to ‘win’ the MBA game.
But was the game anyhow? What the barracudas failed to realize is it was less to do with the actual content and more about the process, or more correctly, about surviving the process and coming out the other side with a new set of perspectives and cautionary tales. The prison guard learned that in business, rules are the things you work around instead of follow. The lawyers learned that ‘it depends’ is a reasonable answer. The architect learned that just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should. The barracudas learned that everyone who made it through ended up with the same degree, regardless of being on the Dean’s list or not. Or maybe I lied – they didn’t actually learn anything and if any of them ended up as your boss you will be my witness. And I learned it is completely possible to get through life without a firm grasp on statistics.
Of course everything is different now, and not just because of the electronic helpers. Now anyone can get an MBA if they are breathing and have about $80,000. My era was when we actually had to work for it and therefore, when it actually had some cache. So to the next person (and there have been many) I interview who tells me they have just finished their ‘executive’ MBA and have to make at least $150K a year: don’t even think about trying to tell me what you have accomplished. You have no idea. But I certainly do.
I first encountered a Norton Anthology in first year University. It was the poetry edition, rather than the English Literature version but I think both were edited by M.H. Abrams. Mr. Abrams died this week at the ripe old age of 102. This makes him a shining example of ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, as anyone who tangled with the Norton Anthology in any literary incarnation will attest. Or actually that is only true in retrospect: we did think it would kill us at the time but we certainly did not think a lack of morbidity would make us stronger – it would only mean we would have no excuse not to write the final exam. Mr. Abrams, I belatedly apologize profusely for my lack of faith in your life’s work.
The survey course is a mainstay of first year university English studies. My course was called Poem, Play and Story, and Norton was the representative of the first instance. It was taught by Professor Blake, a card carrying scion of England himself and therefore (in his own opinion) extremely well suited to help us dive into the sacred waters of true ‘literature’. Little did we know they were shark infested, with the tweedy Professor Blake gleefully strewing bloody chum into the abyss in front of us.
As you probably know, females are rather over represented in the average post-secondary English class. But this was especially true at the University of Waterloo where the male to female ratio was 13 to 1 and no self-preserving engineering student was going to risk their first year GPA by selecting English as his bird course. So there we were – a class full of fresh faced coeds at the mercy of the Norton Anthology and Professor Blake, with a particular predilection for works that involved the phrases ‘globed fruit’, ‘sultry glances’ and ‘walking in beauty’.
But that was not the problem. The problem is that English teachers everywhere want you to figure out what a poem really means. And of course if you want to get the mark you think you deserve, it has to mean the exact same thing that has already been decided by the academics that have studied it as their life’s work but didn’t actually write the poem or even ever meet the person who did. Entering Professor Blake’s classroom during the poetry phase was like competing in the Hunger Games: ultimately no one was going to dodge the random deadly barbs of his distain at our lack of congruence with his poetic interpretation. Our biggest mistake, though, was thinking running the poetry gauntlet was the worst of it, while in reality Dickens and Daniel Defoe still loomed in our future.
I still own my frayed 40 year-old copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, but not only for the same reason I still have my copy of Bleak House. And I can still recite My Mistress’ Eyes and My Last Duchess to anyone who is too polite to find the nearest exit. But now indeed my heart is ‘too soon made glad’ by reading anything that would have met Mr. Abrams’ high standards of exemplary prose.
A poem should not mean, but be. (Archibald McLeish)
I have not yet seen a crocus nor a rosebud or even a robin on the wing, but it appears that spring is here. Spring is a season that struggles with its identity. Unlike fall, which flaunts its brand of changing leaves and crisp nights, spring always has one leg on the dock and the other on the boat (or more accurately, one leg on the dock and the other on the receding ice flow), not sure where to land. And we all know how well that works out. Case in point: yesterday was well above zero. Today is a cold weather alert. On the sunny side of the street melt water streams into the drains. On the north side, glaciers jealously protect their shrinking real estate. Once you think the parka and snow boots can safely be retired, the inevitable March blizzard laughs in your general direction.
My particular coping mechanism for the fickleness of spring is expiry dates. For example, I just bought some eggs with a best before date of April 25. Surely that’s proof that April will come and even go. If you really want to live vicariously through the longevity of your food, buy bacon. I am pretty sure I saw some packages that claim to be hale and hearty well into May.
Another strategy I use is to start compiling the cottage provisions for opening weekend. Nothing says ‘the ice has to go out sooner or later’ more than a few canvas bags packed with mayonnaise, mustard, olive oil, and cans of tuna, waiting by the back door. Every time I trip over them, after I am finished swearing, I am reminded of the hope that spring will get its act together some time this year.
Of course spring has good reason to be so reluctant to establish its full presence. Because once it is here – that day or two – it is immediately gone. The spring green of new leaves lasts merely a nanosecond. The spring flowers struggle to break through the hard mud and bloom for minutes before the squirrels bite their heads off or the sudden blast of a 20 degree day wilts their petals.
As I was walking home from yoga the other night I saw the first star emerge from the twilight. Okay, not really a star, more likely Venus, but I digress. I was stopped at the light, waiting to cross the street. “Star light, star bright.” I said to myself. And I guess I said it out loud because the woman on the sidewalk next to me gave me a dirty look. I know you aren’t supposed to talk to strangers but I couldn’t help but repeat the rhyme “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight”, which only increased the depth of her scowl. “I can’t see it”, she said. “Maybe you are in the way”.
But who am I to judge a lack of ability to enjoy a simple pleasure of witnessing the sky reveal itself one star at a time (with apologies to the Tragically Hip)? Perhaps that’s the story of her life. Others are always in the way of something. And spring is always, always, always in the way of summer.
This year marks 40 years since International Women’s Year and 30 years since the end of the momentous United Nations ‘Decade For Women’. Luckily, these events were all it took to bring those of us with two X chromosomes on par with those fortunate enough to have a ‘Y’ in the mix. Oh. Wait. Not so much.
According to results of study published in the New York Times last weekend, fewer large U.S. companies are run by women than by men named John. Further, of the 1,500 companies included in the Standard and Poor’s index, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James for every woman sitting behind (as opposed to outside) the chief executive office door.
Certainly one thing that jumps out here is the unoriginal naming convention for boys. Over the past 100 years the top five names for boys have been James, John, Robert, Michael and William. (I’m guessing Michaels tend to be slackers since they don’t show up as much on the CEO list.) People take much more creative license when naming girls, with flagrant disregard for how that name might look when appended with ‘Vice President of Finance’ (parents of LaToya, Krystal, and Tifanni I’m talking to you.) Ironically, I think North West will make out quite well in that department since everyone will think she is a man (and she may well need this ‘leg up’ because of course by that time Kim and Kanye will be yesterday’s news both for the gossip rags and their respective revenue streams.)
But of course we know it’s conformity that is the real ticket. Those Jims, Bobs and Bills are most comfortable with their own kind. One of the things aspiring female executives are advised to do is learn to play golf. That’s because the guys get a lot of ‘work’ done on the golf course. The theory is that if you can join the game you can compete in it. This of course is not true. The guys will humor you on the links but the real conversations will happen in the men’s room on the 19th hole. Remember the kerfuffle when Ginni Rometty became CEO of IBM and much angst ensued at the Augusta National Golf Club about whether or not they would be forced to admit her as a member? And this was in 2012. And it took them until last year to acquiesce.
Back when I was only just learning the ways of the business world, a friend and I stopped for a bathroom break on our way to class. The women’s bathroom being as it always is (yet another prevailing injustice), while we waited in line for the next available stall two older women behind us remarked on our text books, marveling that things had progressed so much that girls like ourselves could be studying corporate finance.
Fast forward to a mere five years ago, when a male subordinate told me not to worry my pretty head about the progress of an important project. There are no words.
Three cities. Eight cab rides. Eight cab drivers that relied solely and completely on their GPS to find my destination. In five out of the eight cases, if I had not come prepared with a printed Mapquest map and detailed directions, I would still be circling the Atlanta suburbs or be hopelessly lost in downtown Bellevue. In three of the eight cases my destination was the airport. The airport, people! You know, the place where all the planes take off and land every day. The place that, if you look at the road signs instead of the computer on your dashboard, is clearly and helpfully designated by the image of a plane on the highway sign. The place that, one would think, is surely the most common destination for any cab driver.
On the plus side, using the GPS makes cab drivers more money, because even if it isn’t automatically set to default to the longest route, there will be ample re-routing along the way due to dead-ends, road closures (that flashing neon sign must just be a mistake) and one-way streets going the wrong way. The lack of direction issue unfortunately extends far beyond the confines of the cab to the dispatchers. When I called to inquire where I should be waiting for an airport pickup, given the fact that a three foot high concrete barrier separated my location from the road, there was a black hole of silence.
I am sure that map reading is the next thing on the endangered skill list (right in front of telling time on an analog watch and immediately behind memorizing telephone numbers). This is all fine and dandy while we have electronic devices to tell us which direction is north or south (except of course when they literally do not know which end is up), but what about in the zombie apocalypse? Which road goes out of town? Bribes being accepted (hard currency only) via Kickstarter if you want a spot on my team.
Apparently the posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, is much larger in London cab drivers than for the rest of the population. That’s because before they can put their shingle out on the road they spend on average four years memorizing every nook, cranny and obscure landmark of London in addition to all the streets, roads and avenues it contains. But even London cabbies, long a respected profession, are under siege by lesser services, like ‘mini cabs’ that are exempt from the rigorous geographical testing process. And Uber has also joined the fray. Hang on to your hippocampus, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The problem with electronic devices is of course they are only as good as the human(s) who programmed and populated them. Ever since 1950 when Mr. Turing asked whether or not machines could think we’ve been trying to make it so or at least trying to prove it so. Next thing you know we’ll start believing everything we read on the internet. Oh. Right. Never mind.