Admiring a master

I found myself at the nearby enormous Fred Meyer store on Christmas Eve morning, something I would normally avoid like a hot-tub full of Republicans.

But my watch battery died and that night’s cake recipe called for chocolate chips…and Freddy’s is the place where one can find both necessities. In fact, this particular store is so big that it has a full-size jewelry store inside it.

There was a queue for the watch-repair man, a very tall fellow with a German accent, who was attracting the sort of attention usually reserved for a magician. He changed watch batteries, untangled gold chains, attached poodle-shaped charms to bracelets.

I was shocked to see that people were tipping him. This is not a big gratuity town; a parking valet outside the swanky Benson Hotel told me he can tell locals from visitors: locals are the ones who say, “Darn! I only have a five..catch you next time.”

When my turn came, I could see why the tips were flowing: the watch-fixer opened my battered Seiko, removed the battery, replaced it, put the thing together again. Elapsed time: 2 minutes. Cost: $10.

He didn’t sit down, but bent over a work bench behind a low glass wall, moving his elegant hands with the grace and speed of a surgeon or a pianist.

Each time he completed a task, he quoted the price, took the money and gave a slight, courtly bow.

It isn’t easy to appear dignified when hemmed in by half-price poinsettias and talking over a recording of Alvin & the Chipmunks singing “Jingle Bells,” but he managed.

Not quite a Christmas miracle, but close

The health care measure passed by the Democrats: It isn’t perfect, but it’s a whole lot closer to perfect than anything we’ve had so far.

If you’re a woman or a man, with kids or without, if you have a chronic health condition or someone who never darkens a doctor’s door…it’s all good. Go out and light a candle to the late Ted Kennedy today. And maybe one for the lobbyists from AARP too.

If you’re fuming about the possibility that your excellent existing coverage might cost a bit more next year…well, just go have some eggnog and get over your selfish self.

Fine send-off

An obituary in The New York Times today for Vietnam War chronicler C. D. B. Bryan includes this gem of a paragraph:

“Mr. Bryan was a smoker, a drinker and an avid and gifted conversationalist who effortlessly commanded the attention of people around a dinner table, his son said. He will be cremated in advance of a memorial service early next year, St. George Bryan added; until then, his remains are to be stored in martini shakers.”


David Pogue, possibly the only person on the planet who can write about using the shift key on your iMac and make it sound fun, raises provocative stuff in a recent blog post. Pogue of course is the genius behind the books, blogs, articles and podcasts on Apple products and other goods in the computer world.

In “Should e-books be copy protected?” he mulls the rising storm around Kindles, Nooks, and the like. If you have a Kindle library of books, should you be able to switch to another e-book gadget and drag all your literary luggage along with you? And, what about passing that book to a buddy who then doesn’t have to pay for it?

I’m fine with moving an e-book from one e-reader to another. It’s like moving a book to a new shelf. Should I be able to pass it on to a friend without paying again? Well, yes. How is that different from lending a printed book to a buddy?

But what about the enterprising folks who pirate and sell the book online for a fraction of the “official” price? Those people we need to send to the electronic woodshed for sure. Of course, we all learned some lessons from the music-piracy mess. Controlling media sharing is pretty much a joke. It’s like catching a greased pig–possible, but laughably difficult.

Here’s what I’m waiting for: Some big macher in this debate to jump up and yell, “Hey! A lot of book-loving, round-the-clock readers are willing to pay for titles! Let’s ask some of them how they’d like to do it!” We rabid readers will rise to the occasion.

I imagine a future in which I make regular PayPal-like payments for increments of reading material — a kind of electronic punch card. Yes, the impoverished student next door will still download pirated stuff for free, but so what? She’s been standing in the aisles at Powell’s reading the stuff without buying it anyway.

Bookworms turn and unite! Pay for your pleasure!

Bite this: A little satire among friends…

At last, a meaningful debate about feeding the hungry:

Should food stamp purchases be restricted to healthy stuff? Or, more accurately, should the rules keep stamp users from buying bad stuff, like junk food?

The New York Times has a series of bloggers weighing in on the question, here.

I personally feel it is high time that we clamp down on the growing problem of government-funded purchases of hot dogs.

Of COURSE, we, the taxpayers who make food stamps possible, should get to decide what poor people eat! (And, admit it, that would be sort of fun, right? No more standing next to some food-stamp slacker at Winco while she buys Cheese Doodles. Now she’s gotta buy… lentils. Yeah, the 10-pound sack!)

Poor people, as everyone knows, need guidance…and a lot of it. If they could handle big decisions on their own — like buying white bread instead of whole-grain — they wouldn’t be in whatever mess got them on the bread line in the first place, would they?

Aside from the nutritional case to be made for getting more people into a high-fiber zipcode, closer regulation of food stamps would put an end to the growing problem of poor people spending so much time sitting around dining tables, yukking it up over a fun meal. A serious, focused mindset is key to finding gainful employment and pulling oneself up out of poverty. Every hour lingering over high-fat, high-sodium chicken pot pies is an hour lost.

I could flog this point, but, oops!, there goes the oven timer! Got to go!

Onward science soldiers!

If you thought the so-called War on Drugs was pretty much lost, take heart. Here’s some news about a guy who might just get us pointed in the right direction.

One of the more arresting quotes has to do with alcohol abuse and defining a problem drinker:

“The measuring stick is known as ’3-14′ — so if someone is having 3 or more drinks a day, or 14 per week, that should raise a red flag, and physicians should be much better equipped to intervene and offer treatment options if there is a problem. Ideally, Dr. McLellan said, that treatment would be available in the medical system itself, not segregated in rehabilitation and detox programs, with their high failure rates.”

Winter coats (and boots?) for the herd

A lovely ad on the back of Sunday’s New York Times Style Magazine may have solved our ambivalence toward animals once and for all.

We want them to have a nice life–including a view and space to run around–right up until we kill and eat them.

A woman wearing a fur coat is treated as if she slung her first-born on as a poncho, yet most of us walk down the street with a leather purse (filled with smaller leather doodads), leather shoes, maybe even a leather belt.

Let’s not even get into the animal products used in that hair gel.

To our credit, we know we’re hypocrites. But what’s an animal-lover to do? Canvas shoes only get you so far.

Well, while we were wringing our hands over free-range arrangements, the Hermes people were wracking their sharp French noodles for solutions.

The company’s “Winter at Last” ad shows a lovely model in profile, silky Hermes scarves twined around her neck and head. Next to her is an antlered critter (elk? mule deer?) who is also sporting Hermes. A single tasteful silk scarf, wound around his neck with a suitably small knot. (No worries about snagging it on a tree branch.)

At last, a solution to our uneasy bond with animals. Grain-fed lives are one thing, but nothing says humane treatment like a good accessory.

What we know still hurts us

The question of when a woman should begin annual mammograms is getting a lot of ink, air-time and, yes, close scrutiny in Congress, not a gang I reflexively list under the heading, “People I trust with my personal health-care decisions.”

(I’m trying not to veer into paranoia here, so I won’t dwell on my impression that such waffling never seems to happen around, say, male health problems.)

Most women I know, hear, or read about are quite peeved (or at least, unsettled) that there is such sharp disagreement in the medical-expert world over this. I share their peevedness, and at the same time, I keep thinking about how reluctant we often are to use good preventative-health info when we DO have it.


Thanks to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, we know that that drinking gets rolling early in our lives, immediately boosting the odds for all manner of regrets, from car crashes to quickie marriages at the Vegas Elvis Chapel.

We know that booze is harder on women, and not simply because we tend to be smaller than men. To paraphrase the NIAAA folks, we’ve got less water inside us, so that Strawberry Mojito gets to the brain faster and makes us stupid sooner.

We adult women are more likely to get certain cancers and bone disease from too much alcohol. It takes surprisingly little alcohol to wreck our skin, addle our brains permanently, and cause us to mix up our meds. And although it is rarely written about, over-cocktailing by women is pretty much a direct ticket to picking dangerous/disappointing partners and ensuring a rotten sex life.

Okay, okay, so where does all this blogdignation get me? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the progress made on many health fronts, including awareness of the risks of alcohol abuse. Nor do I think the folks who set health-screening standards should throw in the towel because we American women often thumb our nose at the solid wellness info we do have. I’m not even lobbying for Congress to get out of my doc’s exam room, exactly. (They’d just sneak back in anyway.)

I guess I’m just wishing that while the experts screw around with the mammogram-timing standards, we use some of the down time to pay attention to the solid life-saving facts that have already smacked us right in the kisser.

Old airwaves

Whenever I read big news in the TV industry, I think back to the wild predictions made by my father in the 1960s.

He’d gone from radio (“The Night Owl Show”) to local TV (“From the Esso Desk…”) to management of local TV (a station wagon emblazoned with the NBC peacock) and finally to the nascent cable business, which his fellow New Englanders regarded as just to the left of Edsel manufacturing.

The early days were not exactly glamorous. I have fond memories of driving around with him while he craned his neck, looking up at power poles and cables. When he spotted someone illegally tapped into his cable service, he’d knock on their door and tell them to Get up that pole and disconnect it before I sue your ass. It worked quite well.

He could spin quite a vision of the future:

Someday, we’ll all have hundreds of channels to pick from. (This was in the days when NBC, ABC and CBS were it.)

Television sets will get really, really thin, like wallpaper. (Almost there, Dad.)

Every town will have its business on its own little channel. (We call it “local access.”)

I’m not sure what he would have made of the news today that Comcast is buying up, among other things, his old employer NBC. That’s such a leap from the early days of the television business that even he might need a minute to catch up.

There’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s a little like a phone company providing your conversations. All Comcast is NOT doing these days is leading me to the recliner and handing me the remote.

Naturally, this big-business buying up big-media makes me nervous. But one thing does hearten me.

First, despite the too-high rates and the Byzantine channel structure, I have to say that I always get very good customer service from Comcast. I periodically call to whine about the cost of this or that, or question some pay-per-view listing. (Really, I’m sure I only saw ‘Mall Cop’ once.) Each time I’ve gotten an articulate person who figures out how to solve the problem. No small feat.

So, maybe there will be a Nordstrom effect — other media companies, wireless providers, utilities and the like will have to adopt the customer-service model because the big kid on the block is doing it. We’ll see.

Look what you started, Dad.

That noise? Oh, it’s my knee.

Even in this youth-obsessed culture of ours, there are a lot of things about aging that are kept very, very quiet.

You’d think any such bad tidings would be waved at us like so many flags, just as a way to further nationalize us into the high-fiber, deep-breathing, sun-avoidant, heart-rate-monitored, liposuctioned, mood-enhanced, hair-colored landscape of middle-aged America.

Yet somehow, we remain in the dark about the inevitable crossing over from Mono During Finals Week street, which heads straight through the Shouldn’t Move the Couch Alone zone, eventually pulling up to the Weird Maladies cul-de-sac. None of these territories are marked on a map. It’s easier to find out where Jennifer Aniston lives.

Suddenly we’re regulars in the Emergency Room, sheepishly huddled among the knife wounds and screaming ear-infected babies. We know what everyone else is thinking: She doesn’t look sick to me. Of course they don’t know, just as we didn’t until now, that Weird Maladies not only exist, they almost always happen on weekends or after hours.

Rashes, ringing in the ears, locked up backs, knees and jaws; apocalyptic reactions to foods once considered treats; numb hands, inexplicably swollen nose bridges. Who could have imagined?

One can only hope that during all the hard work over our new healthcare policy, someone slips in a small line-item for better age-related health education. No Child Left Behind was all well and good. Let’s get on to No Adult Sandbagged by the Inevitable.

Partner = Best + Friend

You know those “sponsored” links that show up on the bottom of some news sites? This morning some clever algorithmic gnome decided I should read this blog called The Frisky: Love. Lives. Stars. Style.”

The link took me to “Girl Talk: Should Your Boyfriend Be Your Best Friend?” — a headline I couldn’t resist, for some unfathomable reason.

The author, one Jessica Wakeman, has her doubts about whether it is wise to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Doesn’t that put a huge load of responsibility on one person? What if I suffocate this person with all my needs?

Or, more truthfully: Aren’t I more vulnerable if my partner is my best bud? As Wakeman so winningly puts it:

“It has occurred to me that if my boyfriend were to be (God forbid) hit by a Walmart 18-wheeler, I would be isolated.”

Jessica, I know I’m way outside The Frisky’s target demographic. (It’s possible I was never in it.) But trust me: If you’ve found a boyfriend who fits the Best Friend bill as well, you should grab him.

To paraphrase (and slightly mangle) the wisdom of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker: I’ve been partnered by a best friend, and I’ve been partnered by a non-best friend, and a best friend is better.

Me and The Frisky, right in sync. Yeah, I’m cooler than I look.