Monday, December 22, 2014

You don’t have the right clothes

Never one to worry about fashion, I didn’t think much when someone told me I didn’t have the right clothes. We weren’t talking about couture for a high-society event; we were talking about everyday wear for life in New Hampshire.

That conversation took place many years ago, when I relocated for a new job. I was moving from the Philadelphia area, which certainly has snow and ice and other winter hazards. Still, I was totally unprepared for the cold and intensity of a New England winter. My friend was right. I didn’t have the right clothes.

What saved me was a shopping spree that included a full-length down-filled coat, fleece hats and mittens, long scarves, long underwear, wool socks, and warm boots.

What reminded me of this scenario was helping my Florida-based mother prepare for her first winter trip up north in several decades.

We both kept repeating the same mantra: layers, layers, layers. Yet our interpretations were completely different. It’s not unusual in winter for me to wear a camisole under a turtleneck under a sweater. And that’s indoors, where the thermostat is set at 66 degrees.

When my mother arrived up north at my brother’s house and put on her layers – basically a tissue-paper tank top under tissue-paper blouse under tissue-paper overblouse – she still shivered. She also fought our attempts to wrap her in a Carhartt hoodie and pashmina scarf, but the added warmth was too alluring. When we went outside, she protested against the woolen mittens because they clashed with her coat, but I noticed they stayed glued to her frozen fingers.

I was concerned the blast of frigid air would dissuade her from plans of moving up north to be closer to family, but so far she’s been a trooper. We’ve dragged her from model apartment to model apartment, and while we haven’t found her next new home, the door is still open to the search.

There’s nothing to be done about the cold of winter but to dress appropriately. And when the time comes, we’ll see to it that my mother has the right clothes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cloud cover isn’t picture perfect

There’s my granddad. Up on the ledge. Legs hanging over. Nearest the American flag. Watching Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in what remains the largest parade in New York City’s history, in June 1945. Celebrating Germany’s surrender in World War II.

I found this picture while combing through old photo albums with my mother. On the back, my grandmother had written a sweet note to her son, my father, who was then serving in the Navy.

My friend is on a similar search for family history. He recently emailed about an upcoming trip to visit an aunt in Florida. “I'm taking a sharpie so she can identify people in her photo albums.”

With photo albums on my mind, I started sorting through my own stash. I removed photos from the “magnetic” albums, where a clear plastic overlay sticks to the page…and, as I found out, also discolors and damages the photos. But I have thousands of photos – from wallet size to 11 x 14 prints – stored in drawers and boxes and photo sleeves. They span my early explorations with cameras right up until I grew bored with snapping the same family celebrations, year after year after year.

Then digital cameras and, even better, smartphones became the tool to use. Where are these pictures stored? In my computer. On CDs. Saved on USB drives. A few uploaded to the cloud.

As I replied to my friend with the sharpie: It’s hard to think digital photos will ever have as much impact as stumbling across the Eisenhower photo. It's too easy to tuck them away in digital storage. “Will next generations take the time to search?”

His short answer: “No.” I think he’s right. While digital photos are certainly searchable, you often don’t know what you’re looking for – or at. And out of sight is certainly out of mind.

Nothing beats sitting shoulder to shoulder on a couch, flipping through pages to reveal long-gone relatives, while teasing out stories of days past. Huddling around a computer (or notepad or other electronic device) just isn’t the same. There are no charming handwritten notes on the back. And one bad swipe, missed click, or timeout and my tech-adverse mother loses interest. 

She still has my late father's computer, on which there are lots of family photos, but she never turns it on. If we want her to see the latest photos, we email them to the local Walgreens, which prints them out and calls her to pick them up.

She only keeps the computer around so my siblings and I can print out boarding passes when we visit. And for that small favor, I am grateful.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Good people, ideas, and writings

Readers of this blog will notice a range of topics presented. No singular theme. No specific point of view. Just ideas or writings I want to share.

If they originate somewhere else, fine. If the author is someone I know and respect, all the better. Following are excerpts of recent posts from three people I know personally, follow faithfully, and admire tremendously.

1) Roderick Carey
Educational researcher, writer, and teacher educator

Reviving Hope in Troubling Times: Ferguson and the Futures of Black Boys

"Right now, Ferguson is top of the news cycle. Reports focus on visuals that attract viewers, and it's the stereotypical stuff: low-income blacks shouting angry slogans or protesting in the streets. Viewers, listeners and readers are left to make sense and meaning of Michael Brown, of Officer Wilson, and of Ferguson.

"Let's not fall into the trap of accepting what the media shows us. Let's look beyond these images to revive hope that things can change. Let's look beyond individuals, to the structures and systems within which they work. Let's lift our critique off of people and onto the cultural norms that strike fear in individuals such that they view black boys as heinous criminals instead of promising youths deserving of attention, love, and opportunities."

2) Hunter Clarke-Fields, MSAE, RYT   
Hunter Yoga

6 Steps to Bring Peace to the Table this Holiday

"When families get together, we bring lots of baggage with us. We bring old habits. We bring our stories and expectations for the other people. We bring defensiveness.

"It can be a stressful time to say the least.

"But it doesn’t have to be. We have enormous power to change the dynamic. We can participate in the status quo or we can become part of the change."

3) Paul Wilke
Founder/CEO, Upright Position Communications

Netfunning: 12 Trusty Networking Tips

"Networking. You either love it or you hate it. Actually, that’s not true…it’s more Yoda-ish than that. It’s more a case of, “Do or do not. There is no try”. Just because it isn't called netfunning, doesn't mean it has to be a chore."

Each post reflects a different interest. And each one interests me in a different way. To read the full posts, or to find out more about each person, follow the links above.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How old are you now?

One day I see a rack of birthday cards for 100-year-olds. The next day I’m at a one-year-old’s birthday party. Talk about polar opposites.

I didn’t used to think about age much. But when a great grandniece entered our family last November, pictures were shared each month to mark her growth from tiny baby to little girl.

My mother never celebrated her age, preferring to keep it secret. When she found herself in the hospital one night, the nurse asked for her birthday. “July 3,” my mother said. “What year?,” the nurse pressed. To which my mother replied: “Every year.”

I get her point. Too many people associate numerical age with preconceptions. Years ago, I saw an ophthalmologist who, after asking my age, immediately recommended bifocals. He hadn’t even examined my eyes. He is now my ex-ophthalmologist.

When I had Maddie, my spotty dog, people would always ask her age. Whatever I answered, the number would elicit a shake of the head as if age told all. After Maddie hit double-digits, she would turn her back when passersby asked her age. Neither of us wanted to hear the stories that were sure to come about their old pets and when they passed.

I’ll admit I’m getting a little touchy about my age. It’s not that I mind the years; I just mind the influx of junk mail trying to lure me into “lifestyle” communities for independent living. Or mailings about prescription drugs I surely should be taking. Or special offers for medical equipment. 

How fair is that when my deceased mother-in-law is still getting catalogs for river cruises?

They say age is only a number, but it’s a number too many people use as proxy for an individual. I may be showing my age, but the reality is I’m as young as I’ll ever be.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Being a victim

Blue sky. Bright sun. The weather couldn't have been more perfect for being a victim.

On a day when I normally would have been running or gardening or otherwise keeping busy, I spent hours laying on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport.

It was EPEX -- PHL's Emergency Preparedness Exercise -- and it was epic.

I had volunteered to be one of more than 100 mass casualty victims. The hardest part was getting to the staging area at 5:30 a.m. to be transformed. Or, as they call it, moulaged.

My assigned injuries placed me in the yellow triage category, meaning I didn't need immediate care but I wasn't walking away. My dislocated shoulder, abrasions and crushed hand (with third-degree burns) could wait for medical attention until after the red-tagged critical patients.

And while I waited, I saw emergency vehicles race to the scene. Firefighters, paramedics and other first responders rushed to assess the situation and take action. From my vantage point on the ground, I saw chaos transformed into order.

For me, it was a day of firsts. First moulage. First emergency drill as a volunteer for the Delaware County Medical Reserve Corps. First time laying down on airport tarmac. First stretcher. First ambulance ride. And, thankfully, first miracle cure: as soon as the ambulance pulled into the parking lot, I immediately returned to full health.

If only all mass casualty victims could be so lucky. At least with drills like this, first responders will be that much more practiced in what to do when things go bad in a big way.

What I found was that being a victim isn't so bad as long as you can leave the role behind when the exercise is over.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

5 reasons lists are passé

Blogs. Landing pages. Magazines. Newsletters. Brochures. All make use of a tried-and-true story format that has become, well, tired and worn-out.

I’m talking about lists:
-- 3 Signs Your Boss Hates You
-- 6 Strategies for a Wealthy Retirement
-- 5 Ways to Overcome Shyness
-- 4 Tricks to Lose Belly Fat

We’ve all seen them. And, if we’re writers, we’ve all used them. Over and over. For years and years.

Now it’s time to stop – and here are 5 reasons why:
  1. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is doing it…and doing it to death.
  2. List items are often based on FOBOs – flashes of the blindingly obvious.
  3. Who can retain so many points anyway? I’m good for one or two, tops. The rest make my eyes glaze over.
  4. C’mon, we’re adults here. Don’t we deserve cogent arguments and reasoned writing? Let’s leave the learn-by-numbers approach to the early childhood educators, where it makes sense.
  5. Some points are a real stretch, included only because another item is needed to reach that magic number promised in the headline.
The way to make your content stand out is to stop firing off bullet points and tell a compelling story.

Leave your lists for their best-suited purpose: going to the grocery store.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The best seat in the house

The Mud Squad
Summer is packed with outdoor festivals. Bring a blanket or a chair, pack some snacks, and enjoy the day.

Me? I like to go early and get a seat up close. I don't know why. In most amphitheaters, the sound is clear wherever you sit. Still, I like to see the entertainers. And I don't like being distracted by the goings on in the audience.

If you've been to one of these festivals, you know what I'm talking about. The balloon toss. Hula hoops. Dancing circles. Passing food and other stuffs back and forth.

To avoid the circus in the seats, I typically scurry to the front. Even at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, where I sat in the splash zone for The Mud Squad (see them on "The Book of Face").

This weekend, I had to nix all outings after being waylaid by an aggressive and fast-moving cold. Rest. Liquids. And more rest were my marching orders. And that's all I had strength for.

I settled into the sitting room, windows open, prepared to be bored. Then I found I had the best seat in the house for live music.

The orchard next door was holding its annual Arts, Crafts & Music Festival. Over the course of two days, I heard six bands playing favorites, old and new. The sound was clear and full.

Of course I didn't see any of the musicians. But I didn't miss them. I could stretch out, relax, scratch a cat, even nap -- and still enjoy the show.

I realize how scarce an opportunity it is to have live entertainment delivered not just to your door, but through your window. But for a sickly stay-at-home weekend, it was the perfect treat.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Life as a rush job

It started this winter. The feeling that I had to hurry. I didn’t know what for, I just knew procrastination wasn’t advised.

In the back of my mind, I was cognizant of having two elderly parents living a thousand miles away who might need help.

This get-it-done-now attitude had some benefits: an earlier-than-usual vacation; home repairs attended to; and paperwork kept up to date. Projects came in and were turned around without delay.

The opportunity for a mid-summer trip to the Midwest cropped up, and on my last night there, my hurry-hurry strategy began to seem prescient. A telephone message from my dad revealed just how much things were unraveling for my folks in Florida.

Over the following days, concerns shifted from one parent to the other, as both dealt with their own medical issues. The calls were what I had dreaded but expected.

The month of August was a blur of flights back and forth, helping out as much as I could and then heading home. I conferred with my brother over medical options from wherever I happened to be – even on a layover in the Atlanta airport.

As I rushed between crises, time ran out for my father. He passed away after a tough four weeks navigating all the healthcare system had to offer.

There was more rushing around as my parents’ children, grandchildren, a great granddaughter, a niece, a grandnephew – plus spouses – gathered to honor my father’s life. After the service, we all rushed back to our own lives.

Because I had fulfilled my commitments to client projects early on, I was able to spend as much time as needed with family throughout the whole medical morass, from hospital to nursing home to hospice to final arrangements. Good thing, too, because I wasn’t good for much else, finding myself unable to string together cogent sentences.

Now, as life settles into new patterns, I’m ready to jump back into the flow of work; and new projects are appearing on my schedule. 

I don’t feel as much need to rush through deadlines, but I probably will to an extent. There’s no immediate need for me to fly back to Florida at a moment’s notice, but you never know. Time will tell. And I will be ready.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Is this paradise?

Where is your paradise, your Eden, the place where you feel most happy and content?

For some, it’s the beach. Sun, sand, and surf. What’s not to like? Unless you’re more of a woodsy person, where trees, trails, and terra firma do the trick.

In recent travels I’ve noticed claims to paradise in places that couldn’t be more different. Amsterdam is known as a paradise for high times. Cologne, Germany, has been called a knitting paradise (among other claims to favored things).

In Tulsa, Okla., Paradise is a chain of donut shops, which certainly is heavenly if you're Homer Simpson. And in Lee County, Florida, even the Sheriff’s Office buys into the hype with its tagline, “Working to Keep Paradise Safe.”

During the few days I spent in Florida, several people said to me: “Isn’t this paradise?” As I stood melting in the high heat and stifling humidity, I couldn't disagree. Actually, I couldn’t say anything; I was too busy trying to capture the few oxygen molecules reported to be in the air.

For a short stretch years ago I lived in New Hampshire, a place the locals claimed to be paradise. And it was for a few weeks in the summer, which was more like a mid-Atlantic spring. Then winter came, then winter II, then mud season. Locals were baffled when I scurried back to the Philadelphia area.

Paradise for some is a cruise vacation. For others, it’s Margaritaville. Some like camping under the stars, some won’t even “camp” in anything less than a four-star hotel.

Those seeking eternal paradise might want to visit Saginaw, Michigan. That’s where Paradise Funeral Chapel is now offering “Drive-Thru Viewing,” for those wishing to pay their final respects “in the privacy of their vehicle.”

The only thing I can figure is paradise must be like beauty – all in the eyes of the beholder.

Sing us out Coldplay:
Para-para-paradise, Para-para-paradise,
Whoa-oh-oh oh-oooh oh-oh-oh.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Working (un)smarter and harder

A few years ago, a friend expressed surprise over my ownership of a fax machine. “Gee, I haven’t used one of those in years? Does anyone still fax?”

Oh, yes, as I’m finding out. Government agencies. Medical offices. Some businesses. Sign this, send your approval, submit pages of paperwork.

It’s even truer as I try to help my elderly parents navigate bureaucratic systems from a thousand miles away.

My father does have a computer, and a scanner, and a fax, but he’s currently in the hospital without access.

My mother shuns most technology and only remembers the most basic functions of her mobile phone: answer calls; place calls.

Neither will check voice mail messages, and so my brother clears hundreds from their inbox whenever he visits.

Articles on the Internet portray a much different reality. Smartphones used for shopping, banking, making payments, getting tickets for events, displaying boarding passes.

Sometimes I even believe the hype, expecting the quick extinction of cash in my wallet, newspapers on the kitchen table, magazines at bedside, and mail by my friendly postal carrier Bob.

But this week I’ve been thrown back to the pre-smartphone, un-Web days. In trying to liaise between my parents and various medical, insurance, and municipal agencies, the phone and fax have become tools of the trade.

I even resorted to USPS Priority Mail service when a receiving fax machine hiccuped.

I'll admit I love the digital life, but can we please make it additive, and not a category killer to existing technologies?

It may be hard to believe, but even in an age of smarter-than-the-average-bear devices, it sometimes takes an old-fashioned fax to get things done.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Living on the edge

Today I was sorely tempted to open my back door and yell to those hanging out in my backyard, “Hey, you guys are animals!”

There was a wild turkey at the birdbath, and running around were the usual chipmunks, rabbits, and squirrels, who, by the way, were scaring the birds from the feeder. 

The deer come out at night and nibble my plants. Occasionally, a red fox makes an appearance, and last week there was a snake. Well, evidence of a snake. I found the skin it shed – and that’s about as close as I ever want to get to a snake.

That’s a lot of wildlife for my small plot of land. It’s not like I live in the country. I can walk out my front door and be comfortably seated in a Philadelphia restaurant within a half hour.

And it’s not like I live in the city. I can walk down the street and into the fields of a neighboring orchard and pick-your-own farm market. In fact, when I had a dog to walk around those fields, I was often the “local color” families pointed to when hayrides went by.

It’s like I’m living on the edge of both city and country life. I'm at the intersection of urban and rural. Neither one nor the other, but the benefits of both. I've got proximity to nature and culture, with the convenience of major airports, railways, and highways nearby.

I’m often targeted by ads trying to lure me to a new home, an age-appropriate community, or vacation property. I might look, but I won’t budge.

I like where I am -- and the ability to be somewhere else quickly.

Living on the edge of town and country suits me just fine.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Give it a rest

Stop and smell the roses
Fourth of July. Time to kick back and relax.

My phone buzzes. Several times. In quick succession. Emails have arrived. Maybe messages from friends or family?

Nope. Updates about work topics from LinkedIn Groups.

Saturday night, out late. Coming home from a fun party with friends. Feeling good and a little tired. My phone buzzes. Did I forget something at the party? Is someone checking to make sure I got home OK?

Nope. It’s my gas and electric bill.

As long as I’m on the smartphone, I check Twitter, looking for a laugh. Most of the posts are earnest messages about industry trends or professional development.

To all of the above, I say: Give it a rest. I know, or at least I hope, most of these posts and emails are pre-scheduled for delivery. No one is really sending out bills or “5 Ways to Improve Your Presentation” in the wee hours of the weekend.

At least they shouldn’t be.

Just because digital delivery and social media have the capability for 24/7 connection doesn’t mean they have to be used 24/7.

Consider the receiver. Why not give us all a little time to unwind from the week.

If you feel compelled to post at all hours, and on off days, at least make it funny or lighthearted or otherwise appropriate for downtime.

Let’s keep the work in the workday. And help us all put a proper end to the week with work-free weekends.

That would be a more social thing to do.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bringing back the hatpin

It’s the oldest and simplest of my accessories that’s gotten the most notice these days.

In summer hat-wearing weather, I’ve been hiding under a woven brim for portable shade. To keep hat on head – and hair piled up beneath hat – I’ve been relying on hatpins.

I’ve gathered a collection over the years, even though they’re mostly stored away, out of sight.

This summer they’re on display. Stuck through the back of hats and all but forgotten by me. Until people – mostly women – ask about them. 

“It’s a hatpin,” I say.
“Yes, it works in all but the strongest winds.”
“Oh, I’ve had these for years; in fact, some were my mother’s.”

I think the last time I bought a hatpin was decades ago, when I mostly used them to secure my hair in a bun. Then I started wearing my hair shorter, then shorter still, until tiring of the maintenance. I chose the path of least resistance for my unruly mop: wearing it long.

So, buns were back in and out came the hatpins. And the curious looks.

Still, everyone who noticed has agreed: “What a good idea.”

Hatpins may be a throwback to the last century, when women wore big hats without bonnet strings, but they’re still fit for purpose.

Sometimes it’s the simplest tools that do the best job, even in a high-tech world.

Interested in hatpins? Read more at these sites…

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dispensing wisdom

Josh Binder, Rutgers 2014
Tis the season of commencement speeches.

I certainly don’t remember who spoke at my graduation ceremony, much less what was said. But I might have been more attentive if one of the following 2014 graduation speakers were at the microphone.

Charlie Day, “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Merrimack College
“Everything I'm truly proud of in this life has been a terrifying prospect to me. From my first play, to hosting "Saturday Night Live," getting married, being a father, speaking to you today. None of it comes easy. People will tell you to do what makes you happy, but all this has been hard work. And I'm not always happy. I don't think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what's uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run. Be willing to fail. Let yourself fail. Fail in the way and place where you would be proud to fail. Fail and pick yourself up and fail again. Without that struggle, what is your success anyway?”
Ed Helms, “The Office”
Cornell University

“Only a fool would deliberately scare himself. Be that fool. Here’s the thing: scaring ourselves is, well, it’s scary and that’s not necessarily fun for anybody, but you have to do it because it’s the most potent catalyst for growth.”
John Legend, musician
University of Pennsylvania

“I know what it means to be all about the rat race and winning. But years from now, when you look back on your time here on earth, your life and your happiness will be way more defined by the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. You'll get much more joy out of depth, not breadth. It's about finding and keeping the best relationships possible with the people around you. It's about immersing yourself in your friendships and your family. It's about being there for the people you care about, and knowing that they'll be there for you.”
Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer, public-health researcher
UNC-Chapel Hill

“The aim of college is not complicated. It is to learn and try stuff so you can expand as a human being. Find what you care about. Maybe even figure out who you are and what you are here on this rock for… One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea. It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in your own small way. It could be a classroom where you teach, a business where you work, a neighborhood where you live. The key is, if you find yourself in a place where you stop caring—where your greatest concern becomes only you—get out of there. You want to put yourself in a place that suits who you are, links you to others, and gives you a purpose larger than yourself worth making sacrifices for.”
These few excerpts barely scratch the surface of engaging, funny, and insightful commencement speeches, but they’re enough to tell me I should have listened more closely when I was in cap and gown, all those years ago. Because whoever gives the speech at graduation, there is valuable advice and experience to be shared.

For “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever” visit the NPR website for a searchable list of 300 addresses going back to 1774.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Streetwise: poetry on demand

When it comes to street entertainers, what springs to mind for me are jugglers, mimes, and musicians. Never poetry.

Until, that is, I found myself in the midst of poets, typing away on small, manual typewriters, on the sidewalk of Overtoom in Amsterdam on King’s Day.

The Amsterdam Writers Guild was celebrating "the biggest street party of the year" by offering poems on demand, free, in English or Dutch, on the subject of your choice.

I stepped up and put in my order. A poem, in English, about Philadelphia.

The poet who took on the challenge had a bit of an advantage. His name is Cameron Kelly (wearing the gray tie), and he is from Pittsburgh. While about 300 miles lie between our two Pennsylvania cities, from the vantage point of Amsterdam, we were next-door neighbors.

So he thought for a minute and then began clacking away. The result, minutes later, was “Key to the City.”

It was the best deal of the day.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Selfies for centuries

Amy's selfie

Selfie was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013. Among the factors in its choice was this: “It seems like everyone who is anyone has posted a selfie somewhere on the Internet. If it is good enough for the Obamas or The Pope, then it is good enough for Word of the Year.”

Selfies are many things – fun, ubiquitous, convenient. One thing they’re not is new.

The earliest usage of the word selfie is credited to a drunk Australian who posted a photo in 2002 of his banged-up lip and apologized for the focus by saying, “…it was a selfie.”

If you define selfie more broadly – as a self-portrait photograph – then Robert Cornelius takes first place. This Philadelphia chemist took a photograph of himself in 1839, making it the first photographic portrait.

And if you define the term simply as a self-portrait, then the practice dates back centuries and includes just about every major (and minor) artist. From modern painters such as Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Picasso, and Matisse to those who preceded them, including Monet, Van Gogh, Goya and Rembrandt.

Whether painted centuries ago or snapped in an instant, a selfie is a selfie is a selfie. The content is constant; what changes are the tools and technology for getting the job done.

So when you take your next selfie, there’s no need to be self-conscious. You’re in good company and following a time-honored tradition.

Monday, April 14, 2014

It’s a dirty job

Winter was tough on my garden.

Perennials have become non-perennials, and their demise left some divots in my flower beds.

No problem. I’ll just buy some dirt to level things out.

Dirt? There’s no such thing as dirt any more, at least not in garden centers.

They have topsoil, potting soil, garden soil, vegetable garden soil, garden soil for raised beds, and mushroom soil.

They recommend testing the soil, amending the soil, preparing the soil. Mixing in compost and manure to add nutrients. Mixing in perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss to aerate the soil and retain moisture.

If I did all that, I’d be taking much better care of my soil than I do myself.

What ever happened to just plain dirt?

It has to be around. I see it all the time. Under my fingernails. In the corners of my house. On the floor of my car -- and my garage. I hear the whine of dirt bikes on nearby trails. I’ve even made a dirt dessert out of crushed Oreo cookies.

I guess dirt has gone all upscale. Bought into branding. Trying to differentiate itself in the market.

Good for dirt. Sorry, I mean SOIL®.

But back to my garden. I dug around, found some old dirt, spread it out, and now everything is ready for planting. I’m not even going to bother with nutrients or mulch or other fancy schmancy soil amendments.

There are so many colorful, interesting flowers at the farm market, I'll just buy replacements for those that don't thrive at my place.

Now that winter's finally over I can get outside and keep up with the garden. It's a dirty job, and that's half the fun.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cookies that bite back

I do a lot of research on the computer.

Depending on the client, or the story I’m writing, my search terms can range from medical ailments and computer scams to art projects and fast food. While on the phone with aging relations, I have searched for senior services, HurryCanes, and devices to make everyday living easier.

The downside of my wide-ranging searches? Cookies. Dozens and dozens of tracking cookies deposited on my computer daily. The outcome is visible and immediate, with age-inappropriate, totally off-target, and often gross ads popping up on webpages. Even with ad blockers engaged.

Thankfully, I don’t need diapers, either for babies or the elderly. I’m not in the market for online dating, reverse mortgages, or satellite TV. And while I have no affinity for belly fat, I’m not interested in finding the secret cure. For awhile I was opening new pages with hesitation, ready to shield my eyes from goopy fried-egg ads for skin care or unappetizing photos of the latest miracle foods. Then I got tough.

I searched for ways to block tracking cookies and followed all the tips. That slowed the deluge, but didn’t stop it. I began to selectively delete cookies from my browsers. While that had incremental value, it was a bothersome task.

The technology used by ad re-targeting campaigns is just too good (which means it’s too bad for me). Re-targeting is billed as “a second chance to engage visitors with ads” after they’ve left a site. Me? I don’t need re-targeting. If I want to buy something, I know how to get back to the source; bombarding me with ads on other sites is just annoying…and creepy.

The best progress I’ve made on my cookie diet is using the DuckDuckGo search engine, which allows you to search anonymously. 

The site also links to:
  •, which is a worthwhile (and scary) read about the extensive trail of cookie crumbs that result from Google searches – and the implications
  •, a resource for tools to stop getting tracked in your browser
  •, a tool to escape the filter bubble and see a broader range of search results
  •, an explanation about the flaws of a browser’s Do Not Track setting
It’s not that I’m paranoid about being tracked. I just don’t need to be reminded about where I’ve been.

With real cookies, I'm a clean plate girl. With tracking cookies, I'm more of a clean slate girl.

I want every day on the Internet to be a brand new adventure.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What about me?

Most of my clients work in big organizations. When I ask about differentiating factors, they often cite their degree of customer focus. They describe being customer-centric, improving the customer experience, going the extra mile. 

I guess it’s different in the consumer world. Recently, I’ve had several experiences where the marketing focus seems to be all about “them,” instead of “me,” the consumer.

The most vivid example comes from someone I’ll call Buddha in the Basement. He’s the heating technician who sat himself in front of my furnace as if it were a meditation altar, then yelled upstairs for me to come down and hear his spiel. He tried to upsell me on various and dubious services, expecting to convince me by explaining how much he liked the company.

The spring catalogs are no better. Maybe copywriters have tired of describing how wonderful my life would be if only I bought this season’s fashions. Instead, they write about how much they enjoy the merchandise:
  • “We pull on the Dynamic Skirt when we need to change the dynamic, or simply be dynamic.”
  • “Even when we don’t have salt in our hair or sand on our feet, we can still slip into a summer state of mind with this slip-on.”
  • “We can all use a lift sometimes so we created this strappy racerback tank…”
  • “What we love most about this patchwork is its graphic patterning and warm, sophisticated color palette.”
It’s like the waiter who tries to influence my menu choices based on his favorite foods. A recommendation now and then is nice, but it doesn’t matter if the dish includes things I hate, like cilantro, heavy sauce, or too much garlic.

The customer may not always be right. But if I’m doing the buying, I want to be the one who’s most satisfaction with the transaction. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Winter? My Bad

I’m headed toward the light.

With Daylight Saving Time this weekend and spring officially two weeks away, longer days are already evident and my spirits are on the rise.

This winter has been a record-breaker. For some, it was a back-breaker.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, there has been more snow more often and with more variety than ever I can remember: snow storms, ice storms, even thundersnow.

For this I say, I’m sorry. It’s my fault.

Years ago, after a three-foot snowfall, I bought a snow rake for the roof. It was supposed to prevent structural and water damage from heavy snow and ice dams. Because I was so well prepared for the next big snow, it didn’t snow at all, or maybe just a dusting, for the next several years. I ended up refitting that snow rake as a long-handled window washer to reach the second floor.

My friends have stopped inviting me to cross-country ski weekends in the mountains because whenever I show up, the trails are bare and there’s no snow in the forecast.

Well, this year I took the hint. I refused to buy snow tires for my car. I didn’t even look at new winter coats. I gave away old thermal undershirts that had been clogging my drawers.

Then winter hit, with a vengeance.

I can only express my sincere apologies. And promise that next year, I’ll be better armed to deal with ice and snow and sleet and freezing temperatures. I'll get snow tires, replace old snow shovels, polish up my skis, and buy all-weather boots.

That should be just the trick for ensuring a mild and enjoyable winter for all next year.

You’re welcome.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

When I’m 93

Sisters Hannah and Sylvia
Few could tell the story of their 93 years – and counting – as simply and beautifully as Roger Angell.

His piece in The New Yorker -- This Old Man; Life in the nineties – invites the reader into his world with three words: “Check me out.” His wry observations of aches and medical adventures over the years quickly turn to the people, places, and pets who have made an impact on his life. A life well lived and well told.

My mother-in-law and her sister both lived into their mid-90s, and while their last few years were not trouble-free, the women were easy to be around. Neither wanted to be a bother, and they were gracious and thankful for the ongoing support of family and friends. 

Earlier this month, I attended a birthday party for an 80-year-old. When I walked through the door of the Philadelphia Rock Gym, where the event was held, the guest of honor was hanging from the ceiling. I wasn’t surprised. I had seen him do that same climb at his 75th birthday party.

Granted, these are not typical examples of aging. But they do exist. That's hard to remember when I'm bombarded daily with messages supposedly targeted to my age: Are you insured against catastrophic illness? Interested in moving to an adult community? Will you outlive your money?

Aunt Sylvia didn’t worry about outliving her money. She never thought she had much, and she was never extravagant. Her habit of squirreling away little bits, through payroll deduction into U.S. Savings Bonds during her working years, stood her in good stead. At some point, she totally forgot about all those bonds accumulating interest in a safety deposit box. But their discovery, in her early 90s, helped to finance her last months in a caring facility while leaving a nice inheritance for a number of family members. 

Reading Roger Angell’s story brought back memories of the 90-somethings and other seniors who have passed through and out of my life. At the same time, it reminded me to treasure those who are still hanging around.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Old (folks) news

Who needs statistics about the graying demographics of TV news watchers. The commercials tell the whole tale.

There are whole blocks of medical ads. From knee replacements to CyberKnife surgery to HurryCanes to any number of new pharmaceutical pills, creams, and injections.

The ads for prescription medications close with a long list of side effects that sound worse than the initial problem, ending in “Ask your doctor.” If I asked my doctor about everything I saw on TV, she would stop taking my calls.

The ads are so pervasive during network news programs, I keep the remote handy. At first sight of dry mouth guy, I hit mute before he opens his own dry mouth to ask, "Do you have dry maothhhh?”

Forget the erectile dysfunction ads. Couples in matching bath tubs. Couples snuggling on the front porch. Couples camping on the beach or playing around in the kitchen. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was fun to have erectile dysfunction…at least until the announcer rattles off all the possible side effects.

Forget research showing potentially misleading claims are “prevalent throughout consumer-targeted prescription and nonprescription drug advertising on television.”

Forget that, according to Popular Science, the 6:30 news slot is “a prime time frame to run drug ads—that's when old people are watching, and old people love their drugs.”

At the very least, why can’t health care companies make ads people don’t mind watching. It's not impossible. Think Super Bowl ads. Think viral video ads. Think anything but what is already being aired, because I’m blocking these ads as fast as they flicker on screen.

Rx ads almost make me nostalgic for other scream-worthy commercial categories -- like political candidates or Christmas holiday shopping.

At least the remote is my friend. Right near the oft-used mute function is the red power button. It gives such a satisfying click when it turns the TV off.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I’ve Got the This & That Technology Blues

Handheld this, mobile that,
Interfaces so user friendly.
Babies in strollers navigate smartphones;
Their parents push hard to catch up.

Tap this, swipe that,
Technology couldn’t be easier.
My mother refuses to touch a computer;
She rarely uses her cell phone.

Watch this, record that,
My TV is big and thin.
Streaming movies from many sources;
There aren't enough hours in the day.

“Like” this, follow that,
Social networks keep on growing.
How many people can really be friends,
If I never see them in person.

WiFi this, Bluetooth that,
I find I’m always discoverable.
My favorite feature is “power off,”
A mental break from constant contact.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Black-box mania

Black-box technology used to sound so secretive, so James Bond-ish, so indestructible. When planes crash or equipment fails, investigators go straight to the black box for clues.

Black boxes of a different kind now infiltrate my house. I know and love them for what they do, without understanding a bit about how they do it.

One thing I do know: I now have much more choice in phone and TV services, with much less cost. And I rely less on (and pay less to) the cable and phone giants in my area.

Here are a few of the magical black boxes I have come to embrace:

  • Roku: This streaming video player is smaller than my wallet and didn’t take much of a bite out of it in purchase price. When paired with Amazon Prime (which also allows me to borrow books from the Kindle Lending Library), I was able to binge-watch entire seasons of "Downton Abbey" and can revisit episodes of "Fringe" whenever I want.
  • Google Chromecast: This thumb-drive-sized gadget, with its equally small price, supersizes my Internet viewing experience by sending movies and TV shows to my HDTV. I hate watching TV on my computer, so now I’m catching up on content I can only get online…and I can watch on a comfy couch, on a big screen, instead of my small computer screen or tablet.
  • Ooma has redefined the telephone in my home. With a black box about the size of my Kindle, I cut the cord from my landline provider while keeping my same number and getting free nationwide calling. I ponied up for the (reasonably priced) premium services so I can blacklist telemarketers and political pollsters. I'm so happy when their calls go straight to voicemail, without any disruptive ringing.
  • With my Panasonic digital phone system, I can plug handsets into any electrical outlet and they connect to the base unit on my office desk. And the system works seamlessly with the Ooma telo (black box) and an additional Ooma handset, so I’m never far from a phone.

To be fair, among all the black boxes is an essential white one: an Apple AirPort Internet router. It connects all the pieces in my wireless network. You might say it puts the weeeee in my “wee-fee,” as some call Wi-Fi.

Black or white, these boxes do amazing things and offer more options than traditional providers. The only thing they don’t do is find more hours in the day to fit in all the programming and services now available.

Maybe that will happen with next-gen black (or white) boxes.