Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mrs. Miniver Visits Downton Abbey

The stunning conclusion of Season 3 of Downton Abbey two Sundays ago left many viewers angry, disappointed and even vowing to boycott the further adventures of the Crawley family as it struggles to cope with an evolving British way of life in the 1920s. 

Count me among those who didn’t care for the (spoiler alert) sudden demise of Matthew Crawley so swiftly after the birth of his son, the future heir of the estate and title, the Earl of Grantham. Knowing, however, that the actor who played Matthew wanted out, never to return, it was a forgone conclusion he would be knocked off before the curtain came down on the third season. Series creator and writer Julian Fellowes had no other choice, though he might have chosen a less dastardly demise.

This being soap opera of the highest caliber one must expect plot twists and cliffhangers to keep the audience guessing and wanting to return for more upstairs and downstairs shenanigans (you can check various Web sites on your own for titillating news about Season 4 plot and casting news). 

That reference to Upstairs Downstairs was intentional. Fellowes has seemingly borrowed liberally from that classic series of British aristocracy and their servants. But what completely flabbergasted me was my discovery this afternoon of his most blatant reincarnation of a scene in the third episode of Season 1 from the venerable Oscar-winning movie, Mrs. Miniver.

In that 1942 movie, just as in Downton Abbey, the small town where the action takes place holds an annual flower show competition. Every year the winner for the best rose is the mistress of the manor, Lady Beldon. The judges choose her again, but this time she is persuaded by her grandson-in-law’s mother to announce another winner, an elderly villager named Mr. Ballard. 

In Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess of Grantham overrules the judges’ decision to award her once again the first place cup prize for the best rose. She announces the winner is an elderly villager, Mr. Molesley. She, too, was persuaded to do so by her grandson-in-law’s mother. 

(An interesting footnote—Lady Beldon was played by Dame May Whitty; the Dowager Countess is played by Dame Maggie Smith.) 

When the movie ended, I immediately googled to see if others had noted the similarities in the stories. Sure enough they had. When confronted, Fellowes basically shrugged it off. I must admit I was less than happy with this turn of events. It reminded me of when I thought Water for Elephants too closely resembled 1940’s Chad Hanna despite the former’s author asserting she had been inspired by old newspaper pictures of circuses (http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2011/01/before-water-for-elephants.html). I guess I’m not too thrilled with the borrowed creative process. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me that disdains any form of plagiarism. 

Yet, as I wrote two years ago, “My friend and former art director Milton says there are no new story lines, just different treatments of the same themes.” He’s right, of course. West Side Story, for example, is Romeo & Juliet, to music. It’s just I wish Julian Fellowes had shown a little more creativity in lifting his flower scene from Mrs. Miniver

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ennui. Apathy. World-Weariness. Tedium

I consider myself a fairly engaged and knowledgeable observer of politics and world events. But I must admit to a high degree of ennui as it pertains to the machinations of Congress and the president as we draw near to the deadline for implementation of the sequester that will strip many social welfare, education and defense programs of much needed funding if a budget agreement is not reached by Friday.

I’m tired of reading Paul Krugman, David Brooks and countless other thought leaders argue for sanity from the other side. It just is not going to happen. It must be disheartening if you’re a pundit who daily doles out advice and never sees any tangible movement toward compromise. We might still live in the greatest democracy in the world, but it is far from being a paragon of virtue and efficiency. 

Our democracy at present is dysfunctional. When one senator can effectively stop the nation’s business just by threatening a filibuster, we no longer can say the Senate is the greatest deliberative body in history. 

As an aside, I noticed that Pope Benedict XVI changed the rules of the conclave that will elect his successor. He has authorized the cardinals to begin their conclave once all their members arrive in Rome. They no longer have to wait 15 days from the time the papacy is vacant. Benedict is retiring Thursday. 

What struck me as questionable in Benedict’s action is that he left open the prospect of mischief by any one cardinal who might choose to delay his arrival in Rome. Just as Tea Party senators, or just plain conservative Republicans, have stymied President Obama and Democrats, the same fate could befall the Church should just one disgruntled cardinal resent changes in the Holy See. 

Anyway, back to my lament about American politics. It’s gotten so bad that I regularly skip reading the front of The NY Times and immediately skip to the Arts section. Maybe all those years reporting and editing news of the retail industry has made me into a metrosexual more interested in style and worldly goods than world affairs. Whatever the case, it’s a lot more fun noting the incongruities of the metrosexual-inclined.

Take, for instance, two press releases that appeared back to back in my in-box even before the Academy Awards telecast finished. They represented a clash of metals, gold vs. platinum. On the one hand, celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kristen Stewart, Kathryn Bigelow, Renee Zellweger, Olivia Munn, Nicole Kidman, Gloria Reuben, Jane Fonda, Jessica Chastain, Samantha Barks, Catt Sadler, Octavia Spencer and Naomi Harris were decked out in gold jewelry, while the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Amanda Seyfried, Naomi Watts, Adele, Kerry Washington and Zoe Saldana chose to show off platinum baubles. Does it matter to the ordinary viewer? Probably not. But it sure beats thinking about which political party is more attuned to what the public wants.

Indeed, here are some data from a January 17-22 Harris Poll that reveals how divergent Republicans and Democrats are in their approach to handling budget cuts: 

As could be expected Democrats favor cuts in defense spending 61% vs. 21% by Republicans, while 74% of GOP members want to chop federal welfare spending vs. 32% of Democrats who so desire. 

For a look at why Republicans will have a hard time convincing the electorate they are a party of the future, consider these numbers: by a more than 2-1 margin over Democrats, Republicans want to cut the food stamp program, federal housing programs, spending for mass transportation, pollution control measures, federal aid to cities, and federal job training programs. They are more than four times more likely to favor cuts in health care spending and federal aid to education. By 48% to 29% they want to cut federally funded scientific research programs. 

Just how out of whack is the Republican view? From 1980 to 2013, of the 19 programs studied by Harris, only one—defense spending—registered an increase in the number of consumers who desired spending cuts. All the others saw a reduction in those who favored slashing the budgets of the respective programs. 

It’s too difficult to make sense of it all. Instead, let’s turn to another survey, from Harris Interactive, about one of the more vexing issues troubling mankind, or at least those men and women who live together in marital bliss, or discord. Sponsored by Bosch Home Appliances, the survey purported to shed light on something that can come between partners—the proper way to utilize a dishwasher. Apparently, the biggest fight couples have is over the need to pre-rinse dishes. Six out of 10 husbands and wives argue about this. For the record, Bosch says pre-rinsing is not required. I’ll spare you details of the rest of the survey. Your welcome.

Well, that’s enough metrosexual news for the evening. It’s time to watch Fashion Police’s recap of the Oscars.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ride 'em, Cowboy

Finley went on his first carousel ride Monday. Pretty common occurrence for many a three-year-old, you might say. But Finley is hardly your run-of-the-mill toddler. Naturally, I'm prejudiced, but I am honest to a fault, and one thing I can tell you about our grandson is that he's not the most daring of infants. 

In that regard, he's a chip-off-the-old-block. In other words, both his father and father’s father—me—were kinda wussy as kids. Dan couldn't abide carousels, swings, or any ride until around his seventh or eighth birthday, unlike Ellie who was a daredevil from the get-go. 

Gilda and I were pleasantly surprised by Finley’s courage. Allison reported on her blog (http://findingfinley.blogspot.com) that the little fellow really got into it, repeatedly yelling out, “Ride ‘em, cowboy,” as they circled around. Which begs the question, how much does genetics play in the social development of the young?

Of course I claim credit for any good traits Finley demonstrates. As for the, shall we say, soft traits, well ... I didn't ride a roller coaster until I was 35. I was in Orlando with several colleagues covering a discount store convention. We had a free afternoon so we went to Disney World.

Space Mountain. I had heard it was heart stopping (signs warned the faint of heart to stay off, which didn’t scare my 75-year-old uncle a few years earlier. He just took his false teeth out and had a wonderful time). I couldn't chicken out in front of my peers, so into the darkness of Space Mountain I went. Actually, it wasn't totally dark in my car. There were ten tiny white illuminations on the handle bar of the car, exactly where my knuckles grasped the cold steel. When the ride was over I resisted the suggestion we repeat the experience.

A year or two later Gilda and I took Dan and Ellie to Disney World. Now about seven years old, Dan decided he was ready for a roller coaster ride. First up was Thunder Mountain, a roller coaster themed after gold prospectors in the Old West. As she did with anything that possessed a degree of fright, Gilda “permitted me the pleasure” of taking Dan on the ride.

This being Dan’s first roller coaster ride, I was giving him some pointers, like never stand up and it's okay to scream, when the ride started before he was fully seated. I wasn't too worried as I presumed there would be plenty of time to sit him down during the ride to the top of the first steep drop. I didn't know, however, that the cars on Thunder Mountain begin at the top of the slope. We quickly swooshed downhill with Dan barely staying in the car. I grabbed hold of him and wouldn't let go for the next 90 seconds or so. I thought he'd be scared stiff but he was exhilarated. He wanted to go again but deferred when he realized he wanted to go on Space Mountain. 

As we walked slowly, ever so slowly, over to Space Mountain, I implored Gilda to take him. She demurred. As we got closer to Space Mountain, providence intervened. It started to drizzle ever so slightly. I saw my escape hatch. I told Dan Space Mountain didn't operate in the rain. Since he didn't know the ride was completely indoors, I got away with the ruse. It started raining even harder, so we wound up leaving the park, never again to be confronted with the Space Mountain challenge.

Ellie was too small to ride Space Mountain during that visit, but six years later she and Dan rode the circuit at Disney World Japan. While I was interviewing the head of a major Japanese retail conglomerate, Gilda and the kids went to Disney World Japan with a guide. Gilda told the guide she didn't have to accompany them on Space Mountain but she felt responsible. She came off the ride with paler skin, Gilda reported.

Friday, February 15, 2013

It's Elementary

I really like Sherlock Holmes. Read all the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories growing up. Loved Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce's film interpretation of the Holmes-Dr. Watson team, though it hardly resembled the original manuscripts. 

I've been fascinated by some of the modern takes on the crime stopper and his sidekick, including a new one on CBS, Elementary. Too bad I really don't have enough time to diligently watch Elementary. Interesting twist having a woman play Watson. But what personalized it for me was Aidan Quinn in the role of a police detective tied to Holmes. I played a half round of golf with Quinn six years ago.

I'm not a golfer by any stretch of the imagination, but one of my magazine’s conference supporters, Morgan Stanley, sponsored a charity event and extended an invitation. The hook was the chance to meet several NY Giants players and coaches, including Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin, as well as athletes from other teams and WNBC-TV sportscaster Bruce Beck. This was the summer before the Giants won the Super Bowl against the 18-0  New England Patriots. 

Eli was not yet a proven star quarterback. He was a lot taller and fuller than I expected. I didn’t realize he was 6’4”. Coughlin was taller as well, 6’2”. He's usually bent over on the sidelines when seen on TV. Retired Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis was enormous, easily deserving of his nickname “The Bus.” Beck, on the other hand, was tiny, in the mold of Bob Costas but with broader shoulders.

Anyway, as a member of the host country club in Rockland County, Quinn was assigned to my foursome. He served as a guide and semi-official host. I told him my favorite film of his was Avalon. For nine holes he chewed on a cigar and played with us. He left us right before I drove one of my better tee shots a good 150 yards, right, that is left, into the pond guarding the par-three green. By that time I had stopped counting strokes. When asked how good a golfer I am I always say I generally hit par, as long as par is about 135.  I’m good for at least that many strokes and at least five or six lost balls per round. How anyone can find this game relaxing and enjoyable is beyond me. The game is far from elementary.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Splat Goes Wrestling

Even as I profess liberal and progressive stances in politics and social issues, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to sports (that doesn’t mean the Yankees have to win the World Series every year, though that would be nice. A little tedious to anyone not a Yankees fan, but who cares about them, anyway?).

I’m not really a big Olympics follower, but I do lament the decision by the International Olympic Committee’s 15-member executive board to drop freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling from the 26 sports to be included in the 2020 Summer Games. Wrestling was part of the original competition in ancient Greece when the Helenists first gathered in 708 BCE to crown champions of the body. Wrestling has been part of the Modern Olympics since 1896. People of all sizes and shapes can participate, not just the humongous, gargantuan or muscular as in other sports, such as weight lifting, basketball or gymnastics.

I never wrestled, not counting, of course, the ‘rastling my brother Bernie and I did growing up. We’d roughhouse in our bedroom until one of us (guess who?) would wind up crying and the other would retreat to the bathroom, leaving the former to bear the brunt of parental admonishment.

The IOC, it is said, is trying to be more modern in its appeal. After all, how many movies can you name that included wrestling? The World According to Garp. That’s one. And Win Win, which, coincidentally, is being shown on various HBO stations this week. Can you name another? OK, let’s count Requiem for a Heavyweight even though Harlan "Mountain" McClintock was more of a washed-up boxer than a wrestler. And there’s the first Spider-Man movie where Peter Parker enters the wrestling ring to earn money for a car. And who can forget Man on the Moon, the biographical flick of comedian Andy Kaufman which included his wrestling women.  

So there’s some theatrical history with wrestling and, according to The NY Times, the sport has broad global appeal. At least 180 countries have governing bodies for wrestling. During the last Olympics in London, 29 countries won medals in wrestling. 

If the IOC can make wrestling say uncle, who knows which sport will be next on the target list? Perhaps the Winter Olympics will sweep curling away. Or maybe the biathlon that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, though it’s hard to imagine the National Rifle Association sitting still if such an eventuality were to come to pass. 

It’s possible wrestling can get a late reprieve when the Olympic Committee meets again during the summer to consider which sport will become the 26th part of the two week extravaganza. Wrestling will be competing with rock climbing, rollerblading and wakeboarding for that coveted spot. Let’s consider these sports. Only one—wrestling—has as its objective forcing your opponent to sustain a hard and unexpected landing from maybe two feet above ground. The three others have the “splat” effect of unintended falls. In this television age, where wipeouts are theater, wrestling doesn’t stand a chance. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Celebrities, and Popes, Among Us

One of the things I miss most about not working in Manhattan is the serendipity of coming across a celebrity on the street. Or in the airport while traveling. I’ve written before about running into and saying hello to celebrities as diverse as Neil Simon, Steve Allen and Audrey Meadows, Alan King, Richard Lewis, Johnny Damon, Joe Torre, David Wells, and Gilda’s all time favorite encounter, Al Pacino. 

When she lived in Greenwich Village, Ellie kept up the mystique of running into notables. She once trailed Sarah Jessica Parker for blocks along the Hudson River promenade. The Village is a great place to see stars mingling with the masses. One time after dropping her off, I said hello to Jason Jones of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as he was pushing a baby stroller.

Meeting VIPs seems to run in the Forseter blood. My sister Lee has an avocation of selling jewelry and other knickknacks at flea markets around Los Angeles. Sunday she and her partner Sherry were at the Rose Bowl. Sherry had brought along some chocolates to entice buyers when Dustin Hoffman passed by with two friends. Though she was reluctant to push the chocolates on him, she screwed up her courage later in the day when he returned as they were packing up. He not only took the tasty treat but he also posed for not one but two pictures. 

Lee said, “He was soooo recognizable.” I agree. About 10 years ago I crossed paths with him on East 57th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. He was walking rather briskly so there wasn’t time to even say a quick “hello, I like your work.” I don’t think he’d remember me. I always knew he was short and from our encounter, and now his picture with my 5’5” sister really confirmed it.

Now that the pope is retiring, is Queen Elizabeth II’s voluntary departure from the throne in the cards? Gilda doesn’t think so. I’m not that sure. We’ll see who’s more prophetic.

As startling as the headline about Pope Benedict XVI retiring was, it was hardly as eye-popping as the one a regional British newspaper ran about 40 years ago. In large letters it blared, “Pope Weds.”

It was all a scam by my friend Dave Banks, then an editor on the small paper, and his buddies, a prank they wanted to play on one of their colleagues in charge of newspaper distribution. They had all had a rather liquid dinner. After returning to their work stations, the editors created a fake broadsheet to wrap bundled newspapers trucked to newstands across the country. 

They thought their friend in the distribution area would get a chuckle from seeing the fake headline, but he was too tanked from dinner and fell asleep. By the time he woke up the papers had been shipped with the provocative headline. They scurried to contact all the drivers to retrieve all the broadsheets. As the pope’s marital status has never been in question, they must have been successful.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sales Promotions and Top Down Management

Did you hear about the Baltimore furniture store that gave away $600,000 in merchandise as part of a Super Bowl promotion that promised free goods if a Baltimore Raven returned a kickoff for a touchdown during the penultimate game? 

Anyone who bought furniture between January 31 and 3 pm game day last Sunday from any Gardiners Furniture store would have their money refunded. Gardiners had been running a Super Bowl kick return promotion for three years before Jacoby Jones ran 108 yards to pay dirt at the start of the second half of the game the Ravens won. Co-owner Gary Mullaney sponsored the promotion as part of a traffic-building scheme. Fortunately, for Gardiners, he also opted to insure his idea, just in case. The insurance policy cost $12,000 (http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/bs-ae-gardiners-follow-20130204,0,6257047.story). 

As I write this, it’s snowing outside, the early stage of a blizzard that will blanket the New York metro area as it makes its way up into New England. I’m reminded of a sales promotion tied to snowfall run by Potamkin Auto Centers Limited of Manhattan back in January 1996. Potamkin promised free leases to anyone who signed for a car between December 22 and January 2 if it snowed more than four inches in Central Park on January 8 between 10 am and 10 pm.

Sunday, January 7, it started snowing, and snowing and snowing. The biggest snowfall in 48 years. All told, 20.6 inches fell from Sunday through Monday. But Potamkin escaped unscathed, except for its insurance policy of $32,000, because the devil was in the details. During the 12 promotion hours, only 3.3 inches of snow fell (http://www.businessinsurance.com/article/19960114/ISSUE01/100011057). 

I was reminded of this brush with snow history because I recall being told the idea for the car lease promotion might have come from an ex-publisher colleague who was working for Potamkin at the time. I can’t verify if Arthur was indeed the originator of the plan, but it worked. Potamkin leased 104 cars during the contest period, worth nearly $1 million in rental fees.

Arthur died recently. I think he’d appreciate being remembered for his salesmanship, even if he wasn’t directly involved.

Top Down Management: With much fanfare one year ago J.C. Penney announced a new policy of everyday low prices. No more sales every week. Just everyday low prices. With little more than a whimper two weeks ago the company reversed course and conceded customers couldn't be enticed to shop its stores without the attraction of sales. So they're back.

This reversal of fortune is a slap in the face of CEO Ron Johnson, who came to Penney from a successful stint as head of Apple’s stores. Decisions by CEOs often run counter to expectations, but are made for personal as well as business reasons.

Sticking with Penney, some 25 years ago the company abandoned its New York headquarters in favor of Texas, because, it was rumored in the trade, its then chairman William R. Howell was interested in running for the U.S. Senate from his native state, Oklahoma. Never happened, to my knowledge, but he did commute by helicopter to the new corporate headquarters in Plano, outside Dallas. 

Target changed its check acceptance policy when its leader couldn’t pay for purchases to furnish a condominium he and his wife bought as a warm weather vacation retreat from Minneapolis’ brutal winters. When Bruce Allbright rolled his shopping cart full of household goods up to the checkout counter, the cashier told him corporate policy stated the maximum personal check she could accept was for $100. Though he complained it was an unrealistically low amount, she responded that even if he were the chairman of Target she could not violate company rules. She stood her ground even when he revealed himself as chairman of the chain. The next day Allbright amended company policy to accept checks up to $1,000. 

Most supermarket chains have one store that stands out from all others, in appearance and in the diversity and quality of its offerings. It usually is known as the chairman’s store, the one where he or his wife shops. So it was with the now defunct Colonial Stores of Atlanta.  

It happened some 30-plus years ago that in its effort to cut labor expenses Colonial’s management team decided meat no longer would be processed in-store. Whatever was shipped to the stores and arranged in the refrigerated bins was the only meat available. And so, the story goes, when the chairman’s wife went to her store to pick up some chop meat, and couldn’t find any, she was stymied in her efforts to get the staff in the meat department to grind up some chuck. Against new corporate rules. 

She bought some prime beef, brought it home and cranked it through her hand grinder for a meat loaf. Her husband praised her cooking that evening, but swallowed harder when she explained what she had gone through and what she paid for the prime meat instead of the chuck she originally sought. Recognizing the inconvenience and the extra expense his customer would face, the chairman rescinded the meat department rules.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bookending New Orleans

Pigskin Bookends: The National Football League season started off its first weekend last summer with a controversial non-call of offensive pass interference in the end zone and ended Sunday night with a controversial non-call of defensive pass interference in the end zone. The first non-call cost the Green Bay Packers a win against the Seattle Seahawks. Replacement refs failed to make the call. The season-ending non-call came in the Super Bowl by the regular refs and cost the San Francisco 49ers a chance to cap an extraordinary comeback effort to go ahead of the Baltimore Ravens. 

How fitting that the start and end of the professional football season should be bracketed by similar controversy. In the opening week game a Green Bay defender was clearly pushed out of the way by a Seahawk who caught a Hail Mary last play pass into the end zone. No foul was called. In the Super Bowl, 49er end Michael Crabtree was clearly held by a Raven defender by his jersey in the end zone, yards beyond the five yards from scrimmage where contact is permitted. Crabtree was impeded. He couldn't catch the pass. No foul was called. Instead of getting four more tries from the one yard line to score the go-ahead touchdown, after trailing at one point during the third quarter by 22 points, San Francisco turned the ball over to Baltimore to run out the clock and secure the championship.

I have no allegiance to either team, and there are those who believe there was no foul in the end zone. I’m not one of them. San Francisco should have had more chances to score. If the 49ers had scored, they would have fulfilled my prognostication about a late touchdown to take the lead and we’d have seen if I was further correct in predicting a Hail Mary pass by Joe Flacco. Well, we’ll never know, thanks to the refs. But I did get right Baltimore’s early domination, San Francisco’s comeback, a fumble by Baltimore and the point total, 31, achieved by San Francisco. 

A Taste of New Orleans: I’ve been to New Orleans about eight to 10 times, always as part of a convention either sponsored by the publication I worked for or the retail industry. Gilda joined me during my first trip there, in the fall of 1977, when I was a field editor for Nation’s Restaurant News. While I worked the conference we produced, MUFSO (Multi-Unit Food Service Operators), Gilda partook of the spouse’s program, visiting a plantation outside the city, riding on a streetcar, viewing Mardi Gras floats in their garage, and eating in some fine restaurants. In Commander’s Palace, a  distinguished establishment, the spouses were served turbot, at the time the “in” fish, much like Chilean Bass has become in recent years. Gilda still recalls how one woman, married to a McDonald’s franchisee, disdained the turbot, saying she never eats any fish except the fish filet sandwich at her husband’s fast food units. It was that type of crowd.

Anyway, about a week before our trip to New Orleans, the restaurant critic of The NY Times, Mimi Sheraton, wrote a review of the food scene in the Crescent City. She found it wanting, except, she noted, for an out-of-town humble shack called Mosca’s where she had the most divine fried oysters, garlic chicken and barbecue shrimp, all cooked Creole Italian style.

Naturally, we decided to go there, cautioned by Mimi’s article that no reservations were taken and that the last guests must arrive by 9 pm. Along with a fellow editor, Connie, and her husband, Bill, we left plenty of time to taxi from the Fairmont Hotel in downtown New Orleans down Highway 90 to Avondale, almost 20 miles away. Though the cabbie claimed to know how to get there, it quickly became evident he did not. We kept double-backing and crisscrossing roadways, looking for Mosca’s. This was way before cell phones; there weren’t any public pay phones along the dark roads we rambled on. We were four hungry and squished adults sitting in the back of a Mercury Marquis (the unofficial New Orleans taxi model). Since I had recommended Mosca’s, my seatmates were getting quite upset with me. 

Finally, at 9:05, we came upon two whitewashed buildings supporting a backlit Budweiser sign. Lots of cars out front, on the grass. We begged entry, explaining the taxi driver couldn’t find Mosca’s. They took pity on us, but advised it would be an hour and a half before we’d be seated. We could stand at the bar. Gilda, Connie and Bill were not happy, even with $1 drinks, 25 cents for sodas (remember, this was Louisiana, 1977). We waited just 45 minutes to be seated, a few tables away from where Momma Mosca sat watching over her customers. We ordered the recommended dishes. They were more than divine. They melted away Gilda, Connie and Bill’s collective anger. It was, we all agreed, one of the best meals we ever ate. 

The power of a good meal to smooth over differences was not lost on me. Several years later, as editor of Chain Store Age, we ran a long article about problems at Sears, Roebuck & Co. Upset, the CEO of Sears dispatched the head of the public relations department from Chicago to express corporate displeasure. I took him and his assistant to Shun Lee Palace on East 55th Street, down the block from our office. Considered by some to proffer the best Chinese food in the city, Shun Lee melted away any semblance of protest from my Windy City visitors. They so thoroughly enjoyed the meal that we ordered a second round of each dish. For such an honor, the chef emerged from the kitchen to personally bow his respect. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Super Bowl Forecast, Shopping with Kids, Container Ships, Gerrymander Blues

Want to know how the Super Bowl will turn out so you can spend your time concentrating on the commercials? Read on ...

The Baltimore Ravens will get off to a fast start. At the end of the first quarter they will be leading the San Francisco 49ers 13-3. San Francisco will score a touchdown midway through the second quarter, but the Ravens will counter with a TD in the closing seconds of the quarter to take a 20-10 halftime lead.

The 49ers will score at the start of the second half, but Baltimore again will show its resiliency by scoring a touchdown. It will be 28-17 at the start of the fourth quarter. San Francisco will close the gap to 28-24 with slightly under 10 minutes to play. Neither team will be productive for the next five minutes, then San Francisco will recover a Baltimore fumble, leading to a go-ahead touchdown with just under two minutes to play. The Ravens' next drive will stall on their own 35 yard line, forcing quarterback Joe Flacco to show his arm strength by heaving the ball more than 70 yards to the goal line as time expires. In a jump ball for either the winning touchdown reception or a successful pass defense, San Francisco will intercept, Flacco’s first interception of the post-season. Final score, San Francisco 31, Baltimore 28.

Knowing my devotion to Costco, Allison sent me several cute pictures of our grandchildren seated in a shopping cart at their local Costco (if you want to see for yourself, here’s a link: http://www.findingfinley.blogspot.com/). 

The picture of the kids in the shopping cart reminded me of a play group friend's mother when Dan was very young. She brought her two kids to the supermarket. Her baby was about three months old, so she put her in her car seat inside the shopping cart and sat her three-year-old boy up front. 

As they went through the store she would hand stuff to the toddler to put into the cart. All went well till they visited the canned goods aisle. It was like incoming missiles on the baby as the boy kept chucking cans over his shoulder onto his young sibling. When the mother finally realized why her baby was screaming, she freaked out and started running away from the cart. She eventually regained her composure, never again to make the mistake of putting the baby in the shopping cart basket area. 

News came Saturday that a potentially crippling strike in ports along the Eastern Seaboard had been averted. Container ships would continue to be loaded and unloaded. 

Not earth-shattering news to most, if not all, of you, but of interest to me because of a tour of a cargo ship I had arranged for a conference on supply chain logistics back in 2007. The Port of Oakland is not the most active on the West Coast, but it did provide a working backdrop for those on the tour. 

Forget your memories of cargo ships and longshoremen’s activities from the Marlon Brando movie, On the Waterfront. Loading and unloading ships is a highly mechanized activity today. Cargo is shipped in containers, stacked high on deck and deep below deck. 

We toured the APL (American President Lines) Thailand, built in 1995. The ship traversed the ocean between Asia and North America on a 35-day sequence that included a nine-and-a-half day voyage to Asia and a 10-day return trip. Ports of call included stops in Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Usually, each stop was less than 24 hours. The 276 meter x 40 meter APL Thailand, with gross tonnage of 64,502, had a 23-person crew which at the time included three women and two cadets from the Merchant Marine Academy. 

As we watched from the bridge, containers would be hoisted and moved into place. It looked like a giant Jenga game was being played as containers were stacked tightly together, with everyone hoping nothing would be done to make the pile tilt over and crumble. The efficiency was mesmerizing. As captivating as any example of human and robotic efforts to maximize the use of every square inch possible while knowing that on the open ocean an incorrect consolidation of containers could impact the seaworthiness of the vessel.

Sunday’s NY Times carried a submission from Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton and the founder of the Princeton Election Consortium. It’s another warning about the evils of gerrymandering and how Republicans, for the most part, are trying to steal elections by altering the significance of the popular vote (Democrats, so far, have not been as open in their pursuit of hegemony). 

I bring Wang’s opinion to your attention (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?ref=opinion&_r=0) chiefly to get you to look back at the last map among the ones I posted last week that displayed the sliver of Democratic congressional districts, even in states where President Obama garnered enough votes to color them blue (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/24/republican-vote-rigging-electoral-college_n_2546010.html?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=012513&utm_medium=email&utm_content=FeatureTitle&utm_term=Daily%20Brief). 

For sure there are progressives living in the rest of the country. But when you see the stark reality of the  Democratic districts versus the enormous land mass of the Republican districts, as currently drawn up, one cannot fail to understand how divided our country truly is.