Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Merry Christmas to Teachers

For my oldest daughter, the teacher, and for dedicated Miss Bodkins everywhere.

The next few days groaned by. Now only three more school days remained before Christmas vacation, that greatest time of all year. As it drew closer, Miss Iona Pearl Bodkin, my homeroom teacher, became more and more manic, whipping the class into a veritable frenzy of Yuletide joy.  We belted out carol after carol. We built our own paper Christmas tree with cut-out ornaments. We strung together long strings of popcorn chains. Crayon Santas and silver-paper wreaths poured out of our assembly line.
Miss Bodkin, after recess, addressed us: “I want all of you to write a theme…”
A theme! A rotten theme before Christmas! There must be kids somewhere who love writing themes, but to a normal air-breathing human kid, writing themes is a torture that ranks only with the dreaded medieval chin-breaker of Inquisitional fame. A theme!
“…entitled, ‘What I want for Christmas,’ “ she concluded.
The clouds lifted. I saw a faint gleam of light at the other end of the black cave of gloom which had enveloped me since my visit to Santa. Rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity. Here was a theme on a subject that needed talking about if ever one did.  I remember to this day its glorious wing phrases and concise imagery:
"What I want for Christmas is a red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. I think everybody should have a Red Ryder BB gun. They are very good for Christmas. I don’t think a football is a very good Christmas present."
I wrote it on blue-lined paper from my Indian Chief tablet, being very careful about the margins. Miss Bodkin was very snippy about uneven margins. The themes were handed in and I felt somehow what when Miss Bodkin read mine she would sympathize with my plight and make an appeal on my behalf to the powers that be, and that everything would work out, somehow. She was my last hope.
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Jean Shepherd, 1966.

Shepherd’s book of course became the basis for the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story set in industrial northwest Indiana where Ralphie struggles through boyhood and Shepherd himself serves as the movie’s off-screen narrator. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Show Your Stuff, Winter!

There had been no sign of snow when I put the house to bed, turning down the oil lamps one by one and blowing them out as the flames sank low. Looking forth a moment from the kitchen door, all that I could discover was an overclouded darkness – no wind, no sound, no star. Sometime in the night, however, a howl of wind or sudden and glassy rattle of sleet must have reached me in my dreams for I got up quietly to see how things stood now that a northeast storm had risen in the night.
The house was full of the sound of the gale. It was a winter northeaster, furious with wind and snow, and driving down against us from the dark and desolate North Atlantic and a thousand miles of whitecaps and slavering foam. Wailings and whistling cries, ghostly sightings under the latched doors, fierce pushings and buffetings of the exposed walls – thrusts one could feel as a vibration of the house itself – all these had something of their being in the shelter and humanly-beautiful room. United with these, tumultuous and incessant, rose the higher aerial cry of the gale in space above the earth.
A pair of windows over the sink face the east and the pond, and these were under the full attack of the storm. Volleys of sleet were striking against them, wild gust by wild gust, and great flakes were sliding down the panes. Every now and then I could hear, even through the wind, the sound which snow makes against glass – that curious, fleecy pat and delicate whisper of touch which language cannot convey or scare suggest.
Northern Farm, Henry Beston 1948

We do not live on a farm but I have winterized the koi pond, tucked the goldfish in for the duration, and put up our hand-painted snow stick. Bring it on, Winter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Yankee Sensibilities

A friend and economist here in NH has blogged before about the intersections of economics and finance with "life" but today's blog is definitely worth following the link.  Brian looked at the debt delinquency rate of residents in our state by county and is pleasantly surprized that our most remote and less affluent county (Coos, prounced "Co-oss" - don't ask me why), also has the smallest per capita debt load.

Whether it is the Yankee values of “living within your means,” or doing whatever it takes to honor obligations, it surely wasn’t a robust economy and strong income growth that enabled Coos County to have the lowest aggregate severe delinquency rate.” Read the full post here.
I haven’t yet studied Brian’s data thoroughly but one visual did leap out at me – two of our most affluent counties (Hillsborough and Rockingham) seem to have higher credit card delinquency rates than the other counties. Maybe more affluent NH Yankees can’t lives as well within their means as our more rural cousins? (development density and high-paying jobs are highest in southern NH in proximity to the Massachusetts border) Or maybe I can just blame this trend on the influx of fiscally irresponsible Mass folks into our fair state?? Nevermind. But really, Brian’s blog is worth following. A nice guy too. How many of you can say that about an econ type?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tired New England Factories

Fortunately not all New England industrial sites are as tired looking as these two. We have many vibrant high tech firms in the computer, defense, medical device and other viable sectors. But there is something poignant about New England's industrial past as well.

Chicopee Falls, Mass - Former textile mills common to many communities with access to river resources.

This empty complex in East Longmeadow, Mass was a Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine factory during WWII and in more recent years housed Milton-Bradley/Hasbro toys awaiting distribution.




Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beer - It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

With all the uses these researchers keep finding for beer, like cleaning your carpet, or curing your head cold, the milk and soft drink industries don't have a fighting chance.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I Have Seen the Future of Restaurant Pricing and It’s Not Pretty

This weekend my wife and I went out to lunch with our daughter and her husband and his parents. We had eaten at this restaurant, an old historic New England waterwheel mill, on several occasions and were always pleased. And we were this time as well. But here’s the insight I gleaned from our experience this time – a tiny inclination or a tip into where the restaurant business is heading. The well-kept secret? The industry is testing out the airline’s business model. Yep, piece-meal pricing! Must just now be in the pilot stage (no puns intended).

They tipped their hand though when we asked our waitperson about separate checks for the luncheon. She responded that she could do that willingly, but we needed to be aware that “they” might charge us an extra dollar per person for that request. I asked who “they” was?  She replied that “they” was the computer. Sometimes “it” charged patrons for splitting checks, sometimes not. So she couldn’t be sure. She also didn’t know if the computer’s name was Hal or not. But if we wanted one check and then split the bill up ourselves using three different credit cards, that was OK and wouldn’t trigger an additional charge. (“Yet!” I thought in my mind but kept my mouth shut).

But it’s quite clear where all this is headed over time, isn't it? Now it’s a base price for your meal and then just tax and tip additional. But soon I can see that the “unit pricing” concept will take hold fully in this competitive industry.

“Oh, you’d like a booth with a seat cushion or more leg room? Certainly; no problem. There’s an extra $2/person charge for that. We call it our ‘comfort’ charge here at the Cozy Mill Restaurant. Did I mention you can get seating with a waterwheel view for just an extra $3.00 per party?”

“And since you brought in bags with you (purses and camera cases count as ‘bags’ you know), I’ll need to add a $0.50 handling and storage charge for each to your bill.”

“Now, as you look over our scrumptious menu, be aware that we have some new ‘extras and upgrades’ that you may find will enhance your experiences today. You’ll see these listed under ‘sides.”

Cloth napkin instead of paper - $1.00 eco fee

Silverware instead of plastic utensils - $1.00/set

Glass of water - $0.50 water treatment fee
Salt and pepper shakers (only in pairs) - $1.50 rental fee
Itemized bill - $2.00 accounting fee
I know, you’re thinking you’ll just frequent the drive-thrus when all this gets fully implemented. Do you not realize that airports already have a business model that takes into account landing, taxiing and ramp fees? Oh yes, the restaurant industry consultants are looking at that component right now.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Every Time You Use Your Discover Rewards Card --- an Angel Gets Its Wings

Now, I may have gotten a couple of important holiday proverbs incorrectly mashed together. But I have a good excuse – I’m a confused guy these chilly December days.  First of all, I thought the national election was held back on November 6th. But every time I turn on the news channel or surf the web I see folks on the campaign trail. Making speeches, shaking hands, kissing babies, asking for donations – asking babies for donations. It seems similar to the likes of the sorry Japanese soldiers stranded on isolated South Pacific islands at the end of WWII who, long after VJ day, are carrying on their assumed duties, manning the battlements, searching the horizon for the enemy planes to shoot out of the sky. After 4 years of war they know nothing of peace, only the call to duty. The post-war years go by and the world moves on, as it must. But not so for His Emperor’s finest. 

I also get confused in December by the run up to Christmas. Why did our Christian faith leaders ever think it was a good idea to co-op Winter Solstice for such an important church celebration day?  There’s not much going on in late January – they should have carved out that block of time instead. I’m afraid they well underestimated the power of the wallet (or back then, the “purse”) to captivate human attention and year-after-year to gain new ground in the quest to swamp all else. Camping outside days on end to buy the latest toy or electronic game. Really?

And I’m confused that Christians, having largely lost the battle for Christmas songs and pageants in schools and nativity displays on town greens, find themselves grasping for any symbolic straws we can hold on to against the onslaught of Grinches. The Christmas Tree and Santa Clause as protected religious icons?  Backed into a secular culture corner, is that really all we’re left to defend?

But mostly I’m confused by Christmas lights and the suburban elves who drape their houses and evergreen shrubs each year with holiday cheer. I see a trend toward shortcuts and taking the easy way out. Fewer hand-strung lights with their characteristic unevenness (aka individuality) to be replaced with those pre-formed light nets that can be practically tossed out the second floor bedroom window down onto the waiting yews below. Once plugged in they radiate mathematically perfectly-spaced little nodes of light into the suburban darkness. Awful.

December is not supposed to be about perfection, and certainly not about rampant spending of funds that most of us don’t have, or of wars-that-won’t-end. It’s supposed to be Advent, the preparations for the one who is perfect to come down to Earth for those of us who are far from perfect.

Monday, December 3, 2012

50 Years Ago We had a Glimpse into Washington DC circa 2012.

In 1961 TV producer Leonard Stern (Get Smart, Sgt. Bilko, Honeymooners) was having his house remodeled. As he observed the construction workers building a hood over his fireplace, he noticed they had sealed their steel ladder inside. It took hours for the workers to deconstruct the fireplace to retrieve the ladder. With this incident in mind, Stern approached the ABC television network. I'm Dickens He's Fenster, starring John Astin (in his warm up to The Addams Family) and Marty Ingels (The Dick Van Dyke Show) was ultimately given the green light for the 1962-63 TV season. Unfortunately the show was cancelled after just 32 episodes.

This clip reminds me of the current state of affairs in Washington DC.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Too Dumb to Drive

I hope this doesn't put NH into the running for the most clueless resident population but a gentleman on the other side of our state was arrested for crashing and rolling his car during a snowstorm this past week. Lest you think this is just a case of the local constabulary picking on a poor, unfortunate citizen of our fair state, the man had taken the seats out of his car and was driving while sitting on the car battery. The charge of reckless driving doesn’t quite seem adequate. I’d vote for that coupled with “reckless endangerment of the State’s reputation” and maybe “felony boneheadness.”  Seems like 5 to 10 breaking igneous rocks in the Granite State’s finest public house would be just about right. By public house I mean jail. I just hope we don’t find out the guy is a State Rep and involved in THAT public house.