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Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Toronto Humane Society A House Of Horrors — Closed Indefinitely

In Health, news on November 30, 2009 at 11:13 pm
Small, brindle-marked dog posed on table in studio

Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

It’s a hell of a story if you love animals – Toronto’s Humane Society closed indefinitely after a raid last Thursday found scary conditions, including a dead cat mummified in the ceiling. Since the raid by the Ontario Society for the Protection of Animals, a puppy, two cats, a dog and a raccoon have had to be euthanized, so terrible was the condition they were found in, reports the Toronto Star:

“I have seen things that have made me cry and haunted my dreams in that building,” said Marcie Laking, a former animal-care worker who has spoken out numerous times against the society.

Laking started working at the society as a volunteer in 2001, and became a staff member in 2005. By 2006, what she had seen in the building had taken its toll.

“I remember taking dead animals when my shifts would start, and dead kittens,” said Laking. “These animals are dying painful deaths – from ailments that are not being treated, are not being treated properly or can’t be treated – and they are dying in their cages.”

The body of the mummified cat was put on display Friday during a guided media tour of the facility. Strooband led groups of journalists and television crews through the area of the building used to house about 1,000 cats.

When Working Retail Resembles Hell

In business on November 30, 2009 at 6:42 pm
Jabba the Hutt

Image via Wikipedia

I left early today. I might even get fired.

This is what today’s Customer From Hell looked and sounded liked as she railed and shrieked at me. This, after I asked her, politely and calmly (and according to company protocol) that deeply provocative question — “What is your zip code?” Yeah. That’s exactly why she decided to start shouting at me: “Don’t you file your taxes? Don’t you know your own zip code?”

Well, hon, I actually don’t live in the store.

If someone decides to start shouting at you at the top of their lungs, would you just stand there and take it? “You’re being hostile,” she screamed. “You’re upsetting me.” Funny thing, I told her, so are you. Then I walked across the room to escape her special brand of insanity.

Freeman Hall’s new book, aptly titled “Retail Hell”, describes his time in the trenches as a sales associate for a major department store. He lasted 15 years. I simply cannot imagine how.

Amanda Knox Awaits A Verdict, The Seattle Student Accused Of Briton's Murder In Italy

In Crime, women, world on November 30, 2009 at 8:37 am
PERUGIA, ITALY - JUNE 13: Amanda Knox and her ...

Amanda Knox. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The sensational murder trial of Seattle student Amanda Knox, 21, which began January 16, 2009, has ended, with closing arguments that lasted seven hours in an Italian courtroom. The case has attracted worldwide attention for the college-age lovers, as her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito has also been charged with the murder. The two met at a concert only two weeks before the murder.

On November 1, Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British woman sharing a Perugia apartment with Knox and two others, was brutally stabbed. Kercher’s father, a journalist, is writing a book about it.

The case, said Newsweek, has already destroyed the lives of everyone it has touched.

It is hard to feel sorry for prisoners who are serving hard time for heinous crimes. But Knox is not a convict, and yet her life has fallen apart. Between the trial (which resumes Monday), the constant media blitz (she is a tabloid sensation across the Western Hemisphere), and the expenses, the experience has essentially wrecked her adulthood. Thing is, she’s not alone. The collateral damage from Kercher’s tragic murder now spans from Seattle to London and Bari to Perugia. Her co-defendant and former boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, is also being held in prison during the trial; his lawyers say he is suffering from health issues, including depression and acute gastroenteritis from stress. Meanwhile, her parents are broke, the victim’s parents are distraught, and even the lawyers who got involved with this case have come to regret it. The Knox trial is poison: nearly everyone it has touched so far has suffered irreparable psychological and financial harm.

The World's Ten Ugliest Buildings. Is One In Your City?

In art, design on November 29, 2009 at 9:26 pm
ROM Crystal - Daniel Libeskind, architect

Image by Randy OHC via Flickr

Where are the world’s ugliest buildings? One of them’s in my hometown, Toronto, according to the second annual list from virtualtourist.com

The Royal Ontario Museum added the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, opening in June 2007, a totally incongruous Daniel Liebeskind designed addition to one of the city’s loveliest buildings, built in 1914 of sandstone. Now its aluminum and glass shards protrude from the north end of the ROM, North America’s fifth largest museum.

Which monstrosity gets your vote?

Writing A Book: Part One — Bring Sherpas!

In culture, Media on November 29, 2009 at 10:43 am
This is an open suitcase

Time to unpack...Image by emmamccleary via Flickr

As we were leaving a friend’s home after Thanksgiving lunch, a fellow guest turned to me. Like almost everyone I meet socially, she had sighed wistfully hearing I’d written one book and was now writing another. “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I’ve got such stories,” they tell me. Only a few seem to get that it’s not quite as simple as pounding away at a keyboard for a few months.

“How do you write a book?,” she asked. “Do you have an outline? Do you just start writing?”

Writing a book is to daily blogs or daily/weekly/freelance reporting as a Tibetan trek is to a leisurely stroll through your local park. Bring Sherpas!

The former demands a sort of extremely solitary discipline, your writing life — minus competitors, colleagues, editors. You now have only one deadline, and it’s soooooo far away (mine is September 2010) it feels a little unreal, a shimmering oasis on the other side. Of course, you can write a lot faster and turn it in early, which also gets to you the Holy Grail of your next payment; they may eke it out in four bundles over two years. But it also has to be really really really good. No pressure!

I’d lined up my five first readers as soon as it sold; these are five friends and colleagues whom I trust to read carefully and thoughtfully and offer me helpful feedback. They’re essential, in my view. By time you’ve finished a 75,000 or 90,000 or 130,000 word manuscript, you’re often sick to death of it and it’s become far too familiar for you to capture its flaws and omissions.

To sell a non-fiction book most of us sell a proposal, call it a very, very detailed outline, with one or more sample chapters allowing acquiring editors to decide if they like your tone, voice and story. You tightly compress every scrap of your best stuff into this vehicle, find a great agent, send it out, and pray. After it sells, like some circus clown whose little cardboard suitcase carries far more than it looks, it’s time to beautifully re-expand those initial ideas into a book, something you hope like hell will have lasting value to others.

I love writing. So that bit doesn’t scare me. I just have to go do a lot of it now.

As I move through this process, I’ll offer occasional updates.

Retail Reporters Keep Getting It Wrong: My Black Friday Report

In business on November 29, 2009 at 8:07 am
In a mall... a funny fair... crazy!!

Image by Antoine Hubert via Flickr

Every day, I read the business section of The New York Times and I read The Wall Street Journal. I listen to NBC Nightly News, BBC World News and PRI’s business show, Marketplace. The received wisdom is: people aren’t shopping, people are only buying what’s on sale, people are only buying hot, trendy items like fake hamsters.

Not at our store. I’m forbidden from giving specific figures, having signed an NDA when I started working there, but in our wealthy neighborhood — with shoppers streaming into the mall from big bucks enclaves like Scarsdale, Greenwich, Cos Cob and Darien in their shiny new Range Rovers, Escalades, Mercedes and Lexuses (Lexii?) — they’re spending plenty. I had a four-figure sale to a woman heading off with her family on a ski vacation in Switzerland, the largest single sale I’ve ever had.

It was the usual Black Friday madness, our entire staff working together re-making every pile of sweaters every five minutes like some retail Augean stable. The place looked like a plague of locusts, albeit bearing fat wallets, had swept through.

I worked 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., getting off easy; one of my co-workers, a single mom with a long bus commute, had to wake at 3 a.m. to get to the store by 6 a.m. Our breaks were 30 minutes, not the usual hour (unpaid) but our boss supplied boxes of pizza and bottles of soda to fuel us through it all. We now know enough to drink as much water as we can and lube up our hands with moisturizer many times a day; we get dehydrated and handling clothing all day sucks the moisture from your skin. Sometimes it gets so dry it cracks.

Many shoppers asked if we were having a sale and, with only a few things marked down, harrumphed and left. That’s nothing new, though. We’re asked every single day for every form of discount: military, students, teachers. Who does do this? Not our company.

Working a sales floor, even part-time, affords me an interesting perspective on this recession and on who’s spending and why. I tell you one thing: people with money are whizzing through it as though it’s 2005, not the second full year of the worst recession in 70 years. The wealthy are so insulated, with their 8-carat diamonds and Birkin bags and four-ply cashmere. Whoever’s hurting out there, it ain’t them.

Making Adultery Pay — Jenny Sanford Cashes In On Mark's Deceit

In Media, women on November 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm
COLUMBIA, SC - JUNE 24: (EDITOR'S NOTE: ALTERN...

Cry, baby, cry. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There’s even a TV series now about a wronged political wife, The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies. Now Jenny Sanford, independently wealthy — how handy is that? — is writing a memoir about her lying dog of a husband, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Why do we care?

When you’ve got bags of your own money and can kick your adulterer quite literally to the curb, how much do you have in common with your readers?

Millions of women are “forgiving” if not forgetting their hound-dog husbands these days — as they have for decades — because one or both is stuck in a crappy recession, can’t keep or find a job paying enough money to allow them to separate, and/or may own a house that’s underwater and they can’t refinance. So the lying loser wearing their ring is still in the house. For many women right now, divorce is simply too damn complicated and expensive an option. Very few, like Jenny Sanford, have a whole extra beach house where they can go sit and commune with their thoughts, a big New York City publisher awaiting their manuscript.

Silda Spitzer kept a lid on it, and more power to her for doing so.

Spare us.

When Your 'Home' Country Feels Alien: Frustrated Indian Re-Pats Returning To The U.S.

In business, world on November 28, 2009 at 2:46 pm
Magnus' panoramic view map of India

Image by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL via Flickr

Many ex-patriates dream of one day returning home, triumphant, with their American education and/or professional successes, happy to settle once more into a culture they know, love and miss.

Or not.

Turns out, heading “home” can be so alienating you turn right back to the U.S., reports today’s New York Times. A fascinating piece examines the experience of several Indian businessmen who moved to India after years of living and working in the U.S., where business culture is so profoundly different they simply didn’t fit in: they talked back to their managers, challenged authority, asked direct questions, insisted on action, not just discussion. They didn’t like endless government red tape either.

I’ve lived this experience, running headlong into problems when doing business, or trying to, with Canadians. Born, raised and educated there, and after two staff newspaper jobs, I left Canada in 1988. I’ve lived in New York, doing most of my business in New York City or with other Americans since. Oy!

I love Americans’ commercial directness. If someone wants to do business with you, you know it, you know it fairly quickly, and it happens. If not, you move on and that’s normal. In other cultures, India and Canada included, things can move much more slowly and even stating in plain direct language what you want can be considered pushy and rude — enough so to blow a deal. I’ve managed to reduce, I was told, someone’s Toronto assistant to tears, for using language and a tone that most New York college interns wouldn’t even blink at.

I used to do cross-cultural consulting with Berlitz, training senior execs moving from the U.S. to Canada and Canadians moving to the U.S., sort of a cultural intrepreter.  Such differences, subtle and large, fascinate me as so many faux pas are made every day by people who really don’t understand how differently other cultures think, behave and respond.

The great thing about being an ex-pat is tasting another culture, or many. The tougher part is — where’s home?

Nice Not So Nice For Teens — Citywide Curfew, Video Camera Enforced, Begins Next Week

In Crime, world on November 28, 2009 at 8:44 am
"Nice, France"

Nice, where young 'uns behave. Image by HGruber via Flickr

The city of Orleans, birthplace of Joan of Arc, already has a partial one in effect. Now the Mediterranean city of Nice plans to impose a curfew between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. on all kids younger than 13 who are out in the streets without an adult chaperone.

“I want a city where the honest feel at ease and wrong-doers are nervous,”said Nice’s mayor, and France’s Industry Minister, Christian Estrosi. Juvenile delinquence, thanks to increased policing, is down 13 percent in the city since the start of 2009, he said. The city of 360,000 plans to enforce the new law using 550 video-cameras now being installed, all of which will be up and running by April 2010.

Any child found alone on the streets will be returned to their home, he said.

The plan, which I read about in Liberation, a leftist Parisian daily, has already provoked more than 400 comments on the paper’s website.

Picture Of A Stump Sells For $3,510,000; Canada's Second-Highest Art Price Ever

In art on November 27, 2009 at 9:30 pm
That’s one hell of a stump — $3,510,000 worth, the second highest amount ever paid for a Canadian work of art. The Group of Seven were Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists who painted scenes of Canada’s landscapes in the early 20th century. The stump sketch is an early version of  painting by Lawren Harris; the panting hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Those who enjoy the Group of Seven (and I’m one of them) love the mythic quality of these paintings. If you ever visit Toronto, make time to visit the McMichael Collection, which groups many of these in a gorgeous setting on the outskirts of the city. The Art Gallery of Ontario also has some great Group of Seven works. One of favorites is J.E.H. Mcdonald’s Tangled Garden.
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