Monday, November 28, 2011

Thinking Back

Recently in a conversation with a friend, I began to reminisce about life in the workplace during the "good ol' days." We both realized just how fortunate we had been to be working then and how today's workers could never imagine the way we -- along with most of our co-workers -- were treated.

This discussion involved employment during the mid-1970s, when things were good in the U.S. The Vietnam War was over and many products were still manufactured in the U.S. at large plants scattered around the country.

At nearly every job, the minute you became an employee, you received a significant salary, full medical coverage (usually at no cost), life insurance, defined benefit pension plan and/or profit sharing. You accepted the job with the understanding that you would work hard and be well treated.

Today homeowners who purchase a house and aren't afraid to put forth some work to improve that property are said to invest "sweat equity," meaning that they will eventually reap the efforts they make. That is the way employers and employees used to relate. Employers were not afraid to pay extremely good wages to good employees. Hard work was shared and everyone prospered.

My friend and I each had careers in professions where what we did was important and valued. The feelings of importance and value were perceived by both the employer and the employee. This instilled a sense of pride in what we did and, as a result, we did a better job.

Many employers paid "bonuses" during this era. Bonuses varied from one time to the next, usually reflective of how well the company did during that calendar year. Many bonuses were paid at the fiscal year end and often amounted to several thousand dollars. It allowed some employees to take an expensive vacation, pay off bills or invest for the future. This "found" money was enough to tantalize the employees and even helped discourage workers from leaving a job on a whim.

Most employers paid some type of Christmas bonus, usually significant checks designed to help employees and their families celebrate Christmas. In my personal experience, the Christmas bonus, while still considerable, usually was smaller than the FYE bonus. However, it was an impetus to stick around and ride out possible downturns or rough spots.

During this era, most people looked forward to going to work. We were part of a team and helped each other achieve designated tasks. We shared laughs in the coffee room and even socialized on occasion. If we knew that one among us was having personal problems, we wanted to cheer that person, rather than spreading gossip or making the matter worse. After all, we were part of a team.

If this all sounds hard to believe, you likely were not working during the 1970s. I assure you these descriptions are accurate. It's almost impossible to try and describe the situation to someone who wasn't there.

The majority of employers today could care less whether workers like their job. There are plenty of other people lined up as replacements. Defined benefit pension plans? Fully paid insurance? These frills appear to be gone forever and now amount to urban legends, along with job satisfaction.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shopping Madness

We will all stipulate that the holiday shopping season has arrived.

Here's a question to ponder: Do the big box stores really think that having repetitive and, let's face it, insufferable commercials running on television will really make us appear at their businesses with wallets in hand? Do they think we are trained to respond to the obnoxious and simply hand over our money?

Over the years we have responded to certain advertising techniques which now sound ridiculous. If you recall, in the 1950s drama and suspense were created annually over the unveiling of the new car models. Some dealerships would actually tape over the showroom windows with butcher paper so that no one could get an early glimpse. There was hoopla about the new models, festive events including an unveiling and even door prizes. People took the bait and lined up to see the new cars. (That doesn't mean that they would stampede to spend money on the new models, but they demonstrated curiosity and were treated royally for looking.)

Consumers are drawn to products which contain words on their labels like "new" and "improved." These words indicate that something is better than before and we are compelled to find out what change has occurred.

It would seem that the best thing an advertiser can hope for is that "buzz" would be generated about an event or bargain price. It's logical that advertisers are hoping the "buzz" is positive rather than negative.

Now that the holiday madness is underway, I wonder if advertisers have asked the public whether we like an ad and whether our feelings about the ad will impact where we shop. Seems to me that how people respond to ads might be important.

There are some ads running right now that are so obnoxious that when they appear on the screen, one of the following things occurs:
- I hit the mute button and look away
- I begin channel hopping
- I leave the room immediately

If I were an advertiser spending big bucks to run commercials, these reactions could be considered counterproductive.

Mr./Ms. Advertiser, please try to avoid running ads which include people I would not engage in conversation and most certainly would not allow into my home. These include:
- Extremely hyperactive women focused on getting to the bargains first
- Women with high-pitched, nasal voices who insult the viewer's intelligence
- Rude families pushing or shoving one another at the table

Most of us watching prime time television are over the age of 6, so please treat us with a little respect.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiday Form Letters

There are many things that we all find annoying: people sharing their cell phones with others, undisciplined children in stores, bad drivers…the list continues. But with the approach of the holidays, nothing annoys me personally as much as opening a Christmas card from an old friend to find a "form" letter.

You must be familiar with this type of letter. These are often printed on holiday stationery in an effort to look personal. But they are addressed to "Dear Friend" or "Holiday Greetings to All." I find such letters laughable and usually make humorous comments about the senders. So if you send me a letter, save yourself some time and trouble. Just mail the card.

People must be so busy that they apparently compile the contents over time to reduce holiday stress. The result is a vivid description of EVERY annoying problem they experienced throughout the year, 99% of which is of no importance. These ditties include such items as dental work, bank overdrafts or inopportune flat tires, things most of us encounter but forget immediately. No doubt these letters writers are thrilled when such events occur, noting them down for inclusion in the "annual report" to friends and family.

Many letters are actually hilarious. One family always refers to itself in the third person: "John and Susan had a great time at the beach this summer." It makes one wonder who typed the letter.

Last year, one author opened with rather trivial matters ("Our dog got out and was gone for several days)" then added several pages later -- almost as an afterthought -- that the husband's brother has a terminal illness. Come on folks. Read them over first.

The number of these letters seems to be increasing. I would estimate 75% of my cards has such an enclosure. It would serve the writers to at least personalize the contents somewhat. I have also been known to type letters because it takes less time. But I include the person's NAME and to omit the humdrum which is of little interest.

If you are in the habit of sending form letters, try to hit the highlights of the year and even include a question about the recipient: "How are you guys getting along in your new home?" "How are things in [insert city name here]?"

That way the recipient will think that you actually do care.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thank Goodness for Thanksgiving

Once we passed Halloween, it's inevitable that the "big" countdown began. As soon as the seasons changed, the advertising push for Christmas was underway.

But first, we get to enjoy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. By the time it rolls around, most people are deeply into the Yuletide shopping turmoil, checking availability for church activities or office parties and generally in a frenzy. It takes a while to get everything done before December 25, so there is no time to waste.

Whoa. Here comes Thanksgiving Day, an American original, which provides a chance to reflect and be glad for what we have. Thanksgiving represents what Christmas should be -- perhaps what it was once -- and could be again. All that Thanksgiving asks of us is to be with family and friends and enjoy simple things like time together and eating good food. Unlike Christmas, it doesn't require presents or pretension. For that fact, we are truly thankful.

The Pilgrims didn't have it easy. They ventured to this country for religious freedom and had incredible difficulties to overcome. But they succeeded and made the best of it. Their determination is worth celebrating.

Like the Pilgrims themselves, Thanksgiving is uncomplicated. The first feast was likely simple by today's standards. It's doubtful the Pilgrims were confronted with the enthusiastic banquets that many of us prepare. In observation of this most pious and solemn occasion, cooks across America have come to add "holiday favorites" each year, until their tables are overflowing with cranberry concoctions, sweet potato sculptures and vegetable varieties to please nearly every palate. Some cooks insist on including homemade noodles and cornbread along with the traditional fare: turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. Dessert can include everything from pumpkin and pecan pies to bread pudding and cake.

Thanksgiving encourages us to lend a hand to those less fortunate. Church halls and activity centers across the country serve turkey and all the trimmings to those who might not be with family or have the required resources. Similar meals are often provided at Christmas, but that season has come to be visits from Santa and toys for the kiddies and less about helping adults.

The gluttony of Christmas is a relatively recent development. People used to attend church services and enjoy a meal together, much as Thanksgiving is observed today. Holiday gift giving seems to have exploded after World War II with the advent of mass advertising, when the U.S. was riding high.

I don't expect that Christmas trends will change any day soon, although it would be nice if they did. Meanwhile, enjoy Thanksgiving as it was intended: a day to celebrate what we have and to enjoy a meal with family or friends.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Aging Gracefully

I recently read an online article which identified 30 celebrities who were deemed to be "aging gracefully". This topic happens to be one about which I feel strongly and something which everyone should try to achieve.

Among the celebrities named were several still in their 40s, doubtfully "aging" at this point. But what intrigued me more was the definition of "aging gracefully."

Certain of the identified celebrities have been outspoken against plastic surgery of any type. I happen to agree, although those listed most likely have had at least a little "work" performed. I wouldn't think too many people wish to resemble a hood ornament on a vintage automobile, windswept and forever frozen in place. Moderation is good in all things.

Aging gracefully requires more than cosmetic retouches or hair color, involving more attitude and self-confidence than skin texture. People who are "aging gracefully" have a certain joie de vivre, a vitality that sets them apart. I recently watched "The Holiday", a 2006 movie featuring a then-90-year-old Eli Wallach. The actor and his performance personified this joie de vivre. (If you haven't watched it, the film is well worth your time.)

The recent list of celebrities omitted several people who I would have included: Cloris Leachman, Eli Wallach, George Clooney, Julie Harris, James Cromwell, and Tom Wilkinson to name a few. But among those included in the article were:

Diane Keaton
Clint Eastwood
Helen Mirren
Meryl Streep
Denzel Washington
Pierce Brosnan
Emma Thompson
Jamie Lee Curtis
Isabella Rossellini
Bette White
Annette Bening

It is good to remind the public that aging should not to be dreaded. As the majority of the Baby Boomers join the "stay natural" movement, more people will learn to roll with the punches.

To quote Oscar Wilde: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Photo Frenzy

I like kids. But enough already. When did it become OK to share every photo of your grandchildren with people you barely know?

I recently received an email from a friend which attached pictures of her granddaughters. During a two-week period, I got 60 photos relating to Halloween. One set of pictures was taken at a pumpkin patch. The second set showed their adventures with trick-or-treating. Whoop-de-do.

People used to say that we should always "Know your audience." That seemed to imply it was best to share information with someone who might be interested.

When I was in college, there were two views of parenthood: (Group 1): Have kids early and figure out what to do with them later and (Group 2): Career-focused folks who wanted to give the marriage a test run and see if it stuck. I was in Group 2. We used to get together with Group 2 friends and DISCUSS things: books, cooking, movies, future plans, etc. Once our friends migrated from Group 2 to Group 1, all they could talk about was diaper changes, constipation, runny noses and embarrassing mishaps. Those of us who stayed in Group 2 vowed that if we got around to having kids, we would NEVER morph into the Group 1 gang.  But quite soon, most group transfers changed nevertheless, spoke only in monosyllables and only about the kiddies.  I always found that a little sad that they had relinquished actual conversation for the latest method to remove spit up from upholstered furniture.

Now those same Group 1 people have become grandparents, again focused on their grandchildren. When I was little, grandparents held a different position. They were sweet, patient and to be respected. They did not live to spoil us, although they did innocently and discreetly. They were to be visited and to share holidays and special occasions. A night spent at the grandparents was beyond special -- mostly because it was not a common occurrence, which kept it all the more unique.

Perhaps television is one of the reasons for the changing role of grandparents. Instead of talking to their grandparents and actual saying or hearing interesting things, now visits with grandparents often center around the television. You may talk during the commercials or when the show is over. No one must interrupt the program.

Also, a program like "America's Funniest Home Videos" has elevated events like spit-up, poop and toilet training, bringing such topics into our front rooms. "AFV" proves that there is money in turning children into characters doing stupid things. Send in the video -- no matter how private it might be -- and show the entire viewing audience that you are an indulgent parent of a less-than-stellar child. You might win enough money to make it worth your while.

I also blame the digital camera for the lack of discretion shown by parents/grandparents. In the "old" days, taking a photo required a little effort. You needed to pick a situation that warranted photographs -- birthday, Easter Sunday finery, family around the Christmas tree -- and then take a few photos to record the occasion for the future. It was also a little more costly: you had to take the film to be developed.

Now parents/grandparents take pictures of Susie waking up, Susie at breakfast, Susie getting dressed, Susie going to day care, Susie at nap time, Susie and her friends, Susie asleep. It's wonderful that the folks want to take such precious photos. Kids grow up way to quickly. But these souvenirs belong in a photo album, picture frame or hanging on the wall. For goodness sake, I don't want to look at digital photos stored on someone's telephone when I happen to encounter the grandmother in Wal-Mart's parking lot! Most photos are far more fascinating to the person who knows the subject of the picture.

So, please, grandparents out there, this year evaluate whether your holidays photos need to go to everyone in your email address book. Perhaps share them with someone who might actually care. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

It's Really OK

Never mind that the calendar reads early November, Christmas is well on the way. Advertisers refer to early Yuletide merchandising as "Christmas creep," because, I suppose, ads quietly arrive and start shoppers thinking about the holidays.

Pick a random TV channel nearly any day and you will likely encounter ads for the following items that will make an ideal Christmas gift:
  • This year's must have toy, which probably requires absolutely no creativity from the user. Both parents and extended family are sure to be convinced that their own infant/toddler must have this gizmo. The kid could probably care less, but the advertisers are not marketing to the kiddies.
  • The newest and greatest gourmet kitchen device which likely relates to brewing something or is designed to cook an item you eat once a year at a restaurant that prepares it more easily and admittedly better.
  • A lovely jewelry item that will win her heart. She doesn't care that it's expensive or gaudy, only that you thought enough of her to go to all that bother. Jewelry is one of those purchases that sound nice and photographs well, but let's face it, other than a wedding ring and maybe one nice pair of earrings, most women will scarcely wear something with enough "bling" to get her robbed on the street.
It's really OK if we all step back this year and relax a bit about Christmas. The holiday season is going to arrive anyway and we will all feel jolly as a result. There will be enough music and old movies to set the mood. Let's try and back off on the spending just a bit, no matter how the advertisers insist.

It's really OK if you don't buy a gift for everyone, like people in the office or guys in the car pool. People inevitably feel compelled to purchase and wrap a gift for someone they might not even like just because is the thing to do. Especially in this economy, most people don't have extra funds for splurging. If a situation seems to require a gesture, why not make a charitable donation in that person's name? The local food bank or hospital charity would appreciate the funds. There are countless agencies who would appreciate a donation -- senior centers, children's homes, and veterans' facilities to name a few.

Want to do something but can't spare the funds? How about helping out as a volunteer? There is probably some nearby organization which would appreciate an extra set of holiday hands to wrap gifts or help serve meals. You could really make a difference and will probably walk away from the experience enriched yourself.

Christmas used to mean more than ca-ching. It meant being with family, reflection on happier times behind and hopefully ahead, creating memories to help us through times such as these. It also meant recognizing the good in each other, a trait that seems elusive in today's world.

Let's all try to face the coming holiday season calmly. It's really OK.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Older and Wiser

I happen to subscribe to the notion that maturity brings wisdom -- or at least a sense of calm. Just look around you for examples of how judgment and responsibility seem to increase with age. If you still aren't convinced, here are some quotes by well-known folks who apparently share this inside knowledge.

To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.                                                                - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.                        - Pearl S. Buck

Age does not protect you from love, but love to some extent protects you from age.
                                                                                         - Jeanne Moreau

None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.     - Henry David Thoreau

And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.
                                                                                    - Abraham Lincoln

There's no such thing as old age, there is only sorrow.          - Edith Wharton

Live your life and forget your age.        - Norman Vincent Peale
I don't believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.                      - T.S. Eliot

The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy.             - Helen Hayes

The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.           - Carlos Castaneda

And one of my personal favorites:

Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese. - Billie Burke             

So the next time you think you are alone in this aging process, think again!  There are some great ideas out there from such folks as quoted here.  See for yourself!