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Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

I’m Boooooored! (Thank Heaven)

In behavior, culture, education, entertainment, Media, parenting, Technology on December 31, 2010 at 1:05 pm
Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt D...

I have to wait to be happy? Really????? Image via Wikipedia

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, a recent conference was designed to be dull:

Boring 2010 is the handiwork of James Ward, 29 years old, who works for a DVD distribution and production company. In his other life, as the envoy of ennui, Mr. Ward edits a blog called “I Like Boring Things.” He is also co-founder of the Stationery Club, whose 45 members meet occasionally to discuss pens, paper clips and Post-it Notes.

For another of his projects, Mr. Ward over the past 18 months has visited 160 London convenience stores and made careful notes about a popular chocolate bar called Twirl, including the product’s availability, price and storage conditions. He publishes the details online.

Boredom has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry. For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published earlier this year found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about “high levels” of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.

The “Boring Institute,” in South Orange, N.J., started as a spoof. Its website says it now plays a more serious role describing “the dangers that are associated with too much boredom and offers advice on how to avoid it.”

Contrast this European lassitude with the go-go-gotta-keep-’em-happy machinations at Disney World, as reported in The New York Times:

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.

And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Seriously. Once you have passed the age of, say, five or maybe seven, it’s not the world’s job to entertain us 24/7. No, really, it’s not!

I do not have children so have been blessedly spared the arms race to keep the little ones perpetually stimulated with DVDs in the car, in their laps, anywhere they might actually have to sit still, alone, in silence for a while. Horrors!

I grew up an only child and, like many of my ilk, learned very young to play on my own, to amuse myself without technology or TV or the endless distractions of other people’s attention and interaction.

This is a Very Good Thing.

I feel nothing but pity now for anyone at any level of the educational system who must cope with children, and the adults they grow into, who are now chronically incapable of silence, solitude, patience and unaided thought.

Ideas come when we have the time, space and — yes — boredom — to think, to ruminate, to reflect and make connections.

One of my favorite recent books is this one, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. She makes, I think, a cogent and compelling argument against hyperactivity, multi-tasking and CPA, the scourge of our age. Continuous Partial Attention was named back in 1998, long before life meant all-interaction-all-the-time.

I love allowing myself to get bored.

When I say “I’m bored” it almost always really means I’m frustrated. Then I go figure out why.

How about you?

The C-Word We Avoid — Class

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Money, movies on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Working Class Hero

Image by christian.greller via Flickr

Finally!

Even if it’s only in the entertainment pages, we’re talking out loud in the U.S. — land of the mythical meritocracy — about social class and who’s rising, who’s (much more likely now) falling, and who’s most terrified of sliding from “middle” (defined as…?) to lower or working class, words used more easily in nations whose central identity doesn’t rely as heavily on the idea of equality and assured social mobility.

In a recent New York Times piece by film critic A.O. Scott:

The idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

Last year I viciously mocked “It’s Complicated” in this blog for the absurd affluence of a divorced woman character, played by Meryl Streep, who lives in a $5 m home, runs her own bakery business and wears impossibly lush clothing and jewelry. Most women divorcees fall far and fast from their married affluence, if they had any, drained from the start by legal fees.

It’s a mug’s game to try and pinpoint “middle class” in New York, where I live in a a suburban town, when a 1,000 square foot shoebox of a 60-year-old house on a postage stamp lot runs $400,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes — barely affordable on an income of $100,000 to 150,000 a year.

In New York, you can make six figures and not have someone snort in derision for calling yourself “middle class.”

Fact is, anyone paying $30-50 per trip by (subsidized) commuter train into the city to work or look for a job, struggles hard here on an income of less than $50,000 for one, let alone $40,000 or less trying to raise a family.

Only now are we seeing films address how we really feel about money and what we really feel about who has it, who doesn’t and what we’re willing to do to get and keep some.

In the New York Post, critic Kyle Smith writes:

Without ever saying so, “Blue Valentine” is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel. It seems obvious that if Dean had arranged such a trip with cool irony instead of urgent eagerness, Cindy would have accepted it in a larky spirit. And if Dean painted canvases instead of houses, his lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be an issue.

American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals.

As someone whose own income plummeted by 75 percent after losing my last full-time job in 2006, this is no idle fantasy. When I went to work as a sales associate for $11 an hour, no commission, at a mall, I began to understand the extraordinary income inequality that is increasingly defining life in the United States.
Our mall attracted the hedge fund guys and their size 0 wives tending their 10,000 square foot Greenwich mansions.
Such attitude! Such entitlement! People who think nothing of snapping their fingers in the faces of the growing servant class.
You and me, babe!
From the Huffington Post:

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers “truly amazing.”

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the ‘roaring” 1920s.’”

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Choos? Chuck Taylors? Doc Martens? What’s Your Style Tribe?

In behavior, business, culture, design, Fashion, Style, women, work on December 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm
Distinctive yellow stitching on Doc Martens shoes.

Docs! Image via Wikipedia

As we head into 2011 — and the publication of my second book, “Malled; My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 2011) — I’m seriously re-thinking how I dress, knowing media interviews and speaking events are soon to fill my calendar. As I wrote in the book, a memoir of selling clothing in a suburban mall, working with men and women 20 to 30 years younger whose looks were so different from my own reminded me weekly how differently we each choose to present ourselves to the wider world.

I typically go for classic, European-inflected choices: a few Hermes silk carres, brown suede Ferragamo loafers, triple-ply cashmere cardigans, gold or silver jewelry, leavened and quirked with bits of vintage, like sky blue suede gloves or a fab ’40s black mohair hat. (Thank heaven for my secret source consignment shops!)

I prefer navy, camel, gray and cream to black, New York’s official uniform. Prints? Not so much.

adore accessories. Especially when you’re on a tight budget, as I’ve been in recent years, mixing it up with fab, affordable accessories can keep you looking and feeling au courant.

My most consistent style signifier is a scarf or muffler, whether silver-shot ash gray ($38, Ann Taylor) or the four crinkled silk ones I bought years ago at Banana Republic (cream, brilliant pink, chocolate brown, ashes of roses.) I buy them long and wide enough that they also work as sashes or shawls. I have scarves of vintage Victorian paisley wool and embroidered silk and modern pieces like the looped circles of burgundy wool I bought from a Paris street vendor.

Once, desperate to finish off a black-tie outfit (Carolina Herrera-esque white cotton shirt and teal silk taffeta wide skirt), I fished out a silk net scarf, in bottle green, I’d bought decades earlier in the Paris flea market. Parfait!

I still have, somewhere, the black suede Doc Marten lace-ups I bought in a London flea market. They are super-comfortable, classic, indestructible. But I haven’t worn them in years. I was feeling snoozy and boring, so I recently took, for me, a huge style risk and snapped up a pair of taupe suede lace-up boots made by Seychelles, edgier than anything I’ve bought in years.

I love them! (And was amused indeed to see a recent photo of Lee Ann Rimes wearing the same boots. ) What a hoot! Especially since she’s young enough to be my daughter.

I liked the editor’s letter in the December issue of Elle:

If there’s anything that expresses individual style, it’s a woman’s accessories — shoes, bags, jewelry. Lots of it? Pared down? Heels with miniskirts? Or maybe the soon to be ubiquitous long flowy dresses — with Doc Martens?…How a woman puts together her accessories is a delicate and surprisingly communicative blend of taste, class (belonging or aspiration to), politics (nose ring, anyone?), career and mind-set. Most women don’ consider what they’re signifying when they jump into their 14-centimeter black YSL Tribute Sandals or sturdy low-heeled pumps as they’re running out the door in the morning, because all of those notion of class, etc. are baked into their choices in the first place.

When you present yourself to public view, what messages are you sending?

Christmas In A War Zone

In behavior, cities, Crime, History, journalism, Media, men, photography, politics, religion, the military, travel, war, world on December 21, 2010 at 1:34 am

As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.

He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.

Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.

Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.

He also brought home a beige piece of paper from IFOR, the UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 sent to Bosnia after the Dayton Accords, negotiated by the late Richard Holbrooke.

The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).

And:

Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)

Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)

Mine  (Mine)

Sniper (Snaiper)

Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)

He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.

Why would he need a carabiner?

It ended up saving his life.

His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”

For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.

His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”

By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.

That was his Christmas meal.

This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.

Grateful.

How About A Baby Elephant For Christmas?

In animals, behavior, business, parenting, travel, women on December 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Here is one extraordinary Christmas gift you won’t find in any store — sponsoring an orphaned baby elephant.

There are far too many of them available for sponsorship, as so many elephants are killed by poachers, leaving these gentle, smart babies alone to die.

I had one of the happiest moments of my life, in Thailand, riding on the neck of an elephant, guiding him (her?) with my knees, wondering when I’d fall off. It’s a long way down! Adult elephants, to meet their caloric needs, eat a lot, and as we wandered through the Thai forest, the elephant ate constantly which meant bending his head and trunk to the forest floor and pitching me up and down as s/he did.

If you have ever touched an elephant, their skin is covered with thick, long wiry hairs. Their trunk whiffles and snuffles as it explores you, or anything nearby. Magic.

My fantasy second career is as a mahout, an elephant guide.

It costs $50 a year to sponsor an elephant through this trust, run by Dame Daphne Sheldrick. A film about her work has been seen by 6 million Britons when it was shown on BBC.

I plan to sponsor Zurura, found in a ruby mine, whose name in Swahili, means “wanderer.” I hope to meet her someday!

An Angel — At The Mall

In behavior, business, cities, Health, men, music, Technology, urban life, women, work on December 12, 2010 at 8:39 pm
the city of angels

Image by marie-ll via Flickr

“I’m scared,” my mother said last night.

She was on the ward phone in the hospital in a faraway city where she has been for the past three weeks, now facing bowel surgery.

There isn’t much very comforting or helpful one can do, from a distance, to soothe fear.

I know she likes to listen to music and asked if she had a radio, as she loves listening to classical music on her terrific set at home. She did not.

I picked a store a random, one of a huge national chain of electronics stores, choosing one in a downtown mall. The manager, Dean, quickly got on the phone to help me try to buy a small radio, but the payment — her in Canada, me in the U.S. — wouldn’t go through online.

“Let me make this my Christmas present to you both. I’ll take it over to her tonight. I’ll pay for it myself. Don’t worry,” he said.

A stranger called at random, his father had been ill and now, he said, he knew what this was like and wanted to help.

And he did it, that night, taking a radio he bought and paid for to a stranger’s mother he had never met. He emailed me to tell me he had put in batteries, showed her how to use it and “left her with a big smile.”

So said his email to me, sent three hours after I’d called him, 30 minutes before closing time on a busy Saturday night.

I couldn’t quite believe it. But he did it and my Mom was thrilled.

I am amazed, stunned, deeply grateful for a stranger with so wide and deep a heart.

There are angels, even at the mall.

My New Book Is In Galleys!

In art, business, Media, Money, women, work on December 10, 2010 at 4:16 pm

A package landed on our doorstep two days ago. Galleys!

These are the first real proof that all those pages and pages and pages you cranked out of your printer — and your weary head — are actually going to make it into bookstores. They are softcover versions of the book-to-be, the ones that go out now to reviewers and magazines so they can start deciding if/when to feature or review them, months before the book is actually available for sale.

Here it is on amazon.

They’re expensive to produce and so you don’t get a lot of them, forcing strategic decisions about who is your best target to receive one. A dear friend last night, eager to read the book and knowing this, said “I read fast! I’ll send it right back.”

My publisher, Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin, splurged on color covers (my last book, as many galleys do, had only plain paper) and it looks so beautiful. For those of us without children, this is one of those champagne moments.

It’s an odd fact of publishing a book that, just as you are sooooooo tired and all you really want to do is sleep for a month, you must immediately start on planning and creating your marketing campaign, deciding who (you pray) might write or talk about your book, review it, blog it, feature it, tell all the right people about it.

Which is where utter serendipity comes in handy.

A writer I know a little is married to a man with amazing connections in retail and she suddenly asked for three galleys to distribute. The phone rang yesterday afternoon from the PR person for a major Canadian retailer — and it turned out to be a man whose work I knew 30 years ago when we were both in Paris and  both won the same journalism fellowship two years apart. He wants to see one as well.

Like sending your tiny loved one(s) off to kindergarden or nursery school, this is the point at which my baby toddles out into the wider world.

Fingers crossed!

Here’s A Real Horror Film! “Inside Job” Details The Financial Meltdown

In behavior, business, Crime, entertainment, History, Media, men, Money, news, politics, US, work on December 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm
NYSE

Image by brian glanz via Flickr

Go see this movie. Right now!

“Inside Job” is a film that is so utterly horrifying, so enraging, so depressing that you can’t leave the theater unmoved.

Nor can you shrug it off as “just a movie.”

This amazing documentary, all two hours of talking heads and graphs, is a totally compelling explanation of how the recession came to be, and the men who so skilfully engineered it, raking in billions as they did.

Writes Felix Salmon, of Reuters:

No financial journalist could have made this film: we were all far too close to the people and events depicted in it, which turn out to have really needed an outsider’s perspective. This is surely the first and last piece of financial journalism that Ferguson will ever make and it’s much more effective for it.

As Bob Mondello says on NPR:

“pretty much any 30 seconds of interview footage in Inside Job will make you want to throttle the nearest banker, broker or economic analyst.”

You Want A Job?

In behavior, business, Money, news, US, women, work on December 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm
Unemployed match-seller's sign: Please help me...

Image by State Library of New South Wales collection via Flickr

Dream on!

The latest unemployment figures are as dismal as ever, at more than 9 percent.

The New York Times, in a depressingly accurate occasional series called “The New Poor”, discussed the long-term wear and tear of prolonged unemployment this week:

It does not help when job seekers are repeatedly rejected — or worse, ignored. Constant rejection not only discourages workers from job-hunting as intensively, but also makes people less confident when they do land interviews. A Pew Social Trends report found that the long-term unemployed were significantly more likely to say they had lost some of their self-respect than their counterparts with shorter spells of joblessness.

“People don’t have money to keep up appearances important for job hunting,” said Katherine S. Newman, a sociology professor at Princeton. “They can’t go to the dentist. They can’t get new clothes. They gain weight and look out of shape, since unemployment is such a stressful experience. All that is held against them when there is such an enormous range of workers to choose from.”

Though economists generally agree that getting the long-term unemployed back to work quickly is necessary to keep people from becoming unemployable, the mechanism to do so is unclear.

I arrived in New York in June 1989, the first recession (of three since then) and one that hit my industry, journalism, very hard. I had had a rollickingly great career in my native Canada and expected my trajectory to continue. Hah!

It took me six months — which is mighty quick these days — to find a job in my field, advertised in the Times. In between, I watched my ex-husband, a doctor in training, head off to work every day, feeling like a total loser. I had no income, no friends, no support network.

I cold-called 150 people. By the end, one of them warned me: “You have to alter your tone of voice! You just can’t sound so depressed.” I used to cry for hours every day, terrified I would never regain my momentum, energy, identity.

People who have not yet lost a job — such a euphemism, like you misplaced it! — have no idea the toll that job loss takes on your head and heart, let alone wallet.

I watched a new friend take this tumble about four months ago, spinning crazily and miserably from a high-profile, well-paid job to…sitting at home in the suburbs. She was a wreck.

Her hairstylist of many years, in a gesture of astonishing compassion and generosity, kept coloring and cutting her hair free as she went out onto job interviews for great jobs where, they both knew, she was competing against people 20 years her junior, possibly people who still had jobs and incomes and could afford to stay looking sharp.

It costs money to look like you’re worth something.

She has just been hired back into her field, into a terrific job she is really excited about. She is over 50.

Huge sigh of relief.

How are you or your friends or neighbors or relatives coping with prolonged job searches?

Where Great Design Comes From

In art, behavior, business, culture, design, Style, Technology, work on December 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm
Rhode Island School of Design

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a link to an odd, wonderful design by a 24-year-old Swedish student.

It’s for a ceramic hanging holder for fresh fruit, and looks like something an elegant Hobbit might use. I discovered his work through Design Milk Daily Digest, which every day offers a tightly edited, well-chosen mix of international ideas about architecture, furniture and product design.

I love his playfulness and willingness to try something so unlikely.

What I like most is actually seeing the thinking and hard work behind the final product, which we so rarely witness. At a conference I attended a few years ago, one of the creators of design firm Pentagram, Michael Bierut, gave a talk, with slides, explaining how he arrived at a design for a children’s museum exhibit.

I am fascinated by process.

I don’t simply want to study or observe items in a shop or a museum or a show or at a conference. I’m eager to know where these ideas come from, what was most difficult or interesting about bringing them to life — not just to market.

When I heard John Maeda, who now heads the Rhode Island School of Design, speak in Manhattan, he minced no words when discussing why great design so rarely comes to mass markets — the suits who run the numbers, he said, love uniformity, predictability, projections and guidance to reassure investors. The designers, whose very job it is imagine the new and unthought-of, scare the hell out of the suits. Therefore — constant conflict!

I’m forever hungry for visual beauty and inspiration.

What design blogs or sites or publications inspire you?

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