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Another blow for womankind

My transition from hip, cool Baby Boomer to doddering old lady has been marked by a series of horrifying incidents. The first was when the child in the ticket booth at the movie theatre sold me a senior’s ticket without my asking, and despite the fact that I am obviously barely old enough to drink legally. Then, there was the time the lady at Shoppers Drug Mart gently suggested I might qualify for their seniors’ discount.

cell phone 4The latest blow to my fragile ego came this week when I purchased a new cell phone—not a Smart phone which I’m too stupid to figure out—but a basic, no-frills device designed for infrequent users like me. While I own a cell phone, I rarely use it and have never figured out the rest of the world’s addiction to the eyes-down, thumbs-constantly-engaged lifestyle. My old cell phone died after years of boredom and lack of use, so, I went to Walmart and purchased a new one for $19.95. After removing layers of packaging the size of a bread box, I unveiled my new flip-phone. To my horror, I’d purchased the dummies version which was slightly bigger than my old one, with large numbers that can be read from across a football field.

Hello? Operator?
Hello? Operator?

My new cell phone is a simple device designed for a simple mind. And I like it. Just don’t ask me to text, swipe merchandise for a price check or even activate the voice mail feature. In fact, if you call me on my cell, you’ll probably get no answer as I rarely turn it on. No worries about me talking and texting while driving or having lunch with my Boomer gal pals. But, it’s there in my purse and always charged up in case my car breaks down, or I do. Old things have a tendency to do just that and this old lady may no longer be hip or cool but she is packin’. I’m no dummy. And, thank goodness Walmart still takes good, old-fashioned cash.

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Poking the big auto-makers

bailout1Ford Motor Company was one of the big auto makers that did not accept government handouts when the financial crisis hit eight years ago. Consequently, I now drive a Ford Escape. The logic for the bailouts at the time stated that we could not let the big car companies fail — think of all the lost jobs and the irreversible hit to the economy.  So, we hardworking taxpayers bailed out General Motors, Chrysler and other manufacturers—in effect, rewarding them for bad behaviour and poor management.

Bombardier consistently screws up (click here for the solutions to our problems with Bombardier). The company is poorly managed, seems to have no plan for getting better and continually falls back on empty promises and rainbow-chasing to secure ever more taxpayer dollars from whatever level of government they can rope in. This is another example of bad management being rewarded. Using that logic, perhaps those of us who have overspent our Visa cards and run up thousands of dollars of consumer debt for big screen televisions and vacations should apply to the government for some financial relief.

manager1The competency and creativity of these giant corporations is sadly underwhelming. Why, when the auto makers supposedly employ some of the smartest engineers in the country can they not anticipate customer needs without being poked from behind to do so. We’ve endured decades of dependence on gasoline engines which we know pollute the environment. Safety mechanisms had to be government mandated before manufacturers would incorporate them into their designs. And when their naive business plans failed to deliver, the taxpayers paid the price.

How could all the auto makers be so blind-sided that it has taken Google, Apple and even Tesla to develop and market new concepts for civilian transportation? Perhaps it’s the big fat salaries and benefit packages enjoyed by the executives that killed their imaginations and drive. After all, if they screwed up and managed to get fired, they could live on their golden parachute packages for the rest of their lives. And the oil companies must bear a major share of blame as well.

Where's our "volks wagen" for the future that can still accommodate groceries and a trip to Home Depot?
Where’s our “volks wagen” for the future that can still accommodate groceries and a trip to Home Depot?

Sure, I love my voice-activated GPS and my amber blind-spot alert signal. The touch controls on the steering wheel are lovely and the ability of my husband’s vehicle to tell him to pull over and take a rest if he swerves from his lane are all excellent features, but the progress made by the car industry over the past century could and should have been so much better. Look how much the tech business has accomplished over a mere two decades and how affordable all our gadgets have become. When are the automakers going to put some of that expensive brain power to work on something substantive? Before we know it we’ll be driving cars by Apple and Google while the big auto makers are scratching their heads, sifting through customer survey data to find out what went wrong and begging for more taxpayer bailout money.

Put those great brain to work.
Put those great brains to work.

The world is changing. Perhaps the big automakers should be hiring from Silicon Valley. What becomes of all those brilliant and innovative ideas generated by engineering students in university? Do they simply dissolve once they get permanent jobs in organizations where apathy is the status quo, where they just keep doing variations of the same old thing? There’s so much need for safe, environmentally neutral transportation vehicles for the masses. Thank goodness at least Tesla, Apple and Google grasp that reality. Because, heaven knows, we certainly can’t count on the government or transportation and the auto industry to provide us with cheap, efficient public transit any time soon (click here for my take on public transit). We deserve and should be getting so much better than what they’re offering now.

 

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Grand slam with Tom Rob Smith

While channel surfing a couple of weeks ago, I came across The Graham Norton Show on BBC Canada, a talk-show from the UK which I really enjoy. Among the guests was Noomi Repace promoting her new movie Child 44 based on the book by British author Tom Rob Smith. I’d never heard of the book, the movie or the author but the subject sounded interesting so I downloaded the book from the library.

child44Child 44 is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer of children in Russia in the 1950’s. A public relations problem is created by the fact that in the perfect Communist society of Stalinist Russia, the authorities claim there is no murder. Crime and murders are solely the product of decadent western capitalist living. When war hero and respected MGB agent Leo Demidov is assigned to confirm the case is an accident, he uncovers a series of other murders which appear to be carried out by the same person using the same peculiar methods. What he uncovers about the cases and himself in the process is unnerving. It’s a great murder/mystery and I enjoyed it so much I immediately downloaded another book by the same author.

farm1The Farm, also by Tom Rob Smith reminded me of a lite version of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series of books. A psychological thriller, the plot follows a retired couple, Chris and his Swedish-born wife, Tilde when they retire to a remote farm in Sweden to pursue a back-to-the-land lifestyle. Having arrived at retirement without sufficient funds to remain in England, they plan to immerse themselves in Swedish rural life and farming, perhaps opening a Bed & Breakfast in their farmhouse to supplement their income. When their son Daniel receives an unexpected and panicked phone-call from his father claiming that his wife Tilde has suffered a mental breakdown with associated delusions, Daniel struggles with what to do since he has his own secrets. Suddenly, his mother returns to England with bizarre stories of horror, murder and intrigue. Daniel is forced to choose between believing his mother or his father in their differing versions of events. Events described in the book are drawn from Smith’s own life.

speech1Then, I discovered that Child 44 was the second part of a trilogy, so I immediately downloaded the second book, The Secret Speech.  This next phase of the story follows Leo through his second career as a police detective responsible for investigating crimes. Russia is thrown into turmoil when Stalin dies and Nikita Khruschev issues a massive denouncement of Stalin’s regime in a speech that is highly critical of Stalin’s abuses of power. The repercussions of the speech include confusion, disbelief, distrust of fellow comrades and chaos.

These books are a departure from what I normally like to read but I found all three intensely engaging. The fact that I read them back to back says a lot and I plan to read more by Tom Rob Smith. His writing will keep you turning the pages to get to the truth, you’ll gain exceptional insights into mid-twentieth century Russia, and you’ll have fun along the way.

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Have you checked out McDonald’s lately?

Big things are happening under the golden arches and it started with McCafé and quality coffee to challenge Tim Hortons. I first experienced the change a few weeks ago when I encountered a large touch-screen kiosk to place my order. And, standing beside it was a real live attendant to assist this old boomer as I navigated the new technology. Not easily fooled, I quickly concluded this was just another version of printing my own boarding pass at the airport—get the customer to do the work by reducing the personal service.

One day I might even be able to master the touch screen by myself.
I’m confident that soon I’ll even be able to master the touch screen by myself.

McDonald’s has now upped the ante and totally blew me away when I visited a few days ago and had a customer experience unlike anything they’ve offered in the past forty years. They now have a Create Your Taste build-your-own Angus burger option to rival the popularity of customization offered at Harvey’s and Five Guys. Once the attendant showed me how to scroll the screen up and down (duh!), I was offered a choice of different buns, cheeses and zillions of condiments including grainy mustard and caramelized onions. While I was delighted to finally be able to get a slice of real tomato on my burger, they still don’t offer relish. Can’t figure that out since they offer chipolte, garlic aioli and other exotic selections, but no plain old relish which as any traditionalist knows is an essential ingredient in a burger. Sliced pickles just aren’t the same.

Would you prefer fresh or caramelized onions?
Would you prefer caramelized onions? And check out those buns.

But the fun was just starting. The kiosk attendant helped me pay and handed me an electronic number pad (similar to those at Panera Bread) and asked me to take a seat at a table. A few minutes later, a handsome young (albeit hair-netted) waiter delivered my order to my table, presented like something from a French bistro. My burger was resting on a faux wooden bread board, alongside a mini deep fryer basket lined with a square of crisp paper containing my hot fries. Then, Mr. handsome young waiter went over to the soda machine, dispensed my Diet Coke for me (checking beforehand whether or not I wanted ice), and asking when he returned if there was anything else he could do for me. Unfortunately, as soon as he walked away, in my excitement my elbow accidentally tipped the handle of the fryer basket launching my fries at nearby tables with amazing speed. That kind of thing tends to happen whenever I encounter a cute guy offering himself to be of service to me.

McDonald’s have hired an additional three thousand staff to support this new level of service. Traditional Big Mac combos can still be ordered at the counter for less cost, but, damn, I liked being treated like a somebody and getting my burger exactly the way I like it, except for the relish problem of course. And to promote the new service, my fries and drink were free. Bonus.

happy mealI expect this new level of service delivery originates with John Betts, McDonald’s new C.E.O. I must write him a “Dear John” letter thanking him for thinking of the customer for a change. The experience, the service and the quality of the food exceeded expectations, as we say in the biz. If you haven’t been there lately, visit your local McDonald’s and try this boomer’s version of a happy meal. And, I’m confident I’ll soon be able to navigate the new kiosk without help. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for getting a boarding pass at the airport.

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An Irish perspective on French resistance

tree1If you’re a lover of historical fiction like I am, then you’ll enjoy the story of an Irishman serving the French Resistance during World War II in A Country Road, a Tree by Jo Baker. When real-life Irish writer and former secretary to James Joyce Samuel Beckett experiences writers’ block while living in his native Ireland, he returns to Paris in 1939 at a crucial time in world history. The Nazis’ invasion of France brings an abrupt halt to ordinary life for Parisiennes and all ex-pats who have been caught in the net. Passing on the opportunity to return to the relative safety of Ireland, he stays in France.

With his French lover, Suzanne, Beckett flees Paris to a village in the southern so-called free zone where they both live in constant fear of betrayal or discovery by the Gestapo for their previous clandestine resistance efforts. Suzanne loses her appetite for subterfuge and Beckett’s quiet insistence on continuing his efforts to thwart the Nazis causes tension in their relationship. While trying to survive they are witnesses to the arrests and disappearance of close friends and are powerless to help.

What I particularly liked about this account is the insight into the daily lives of ordinary people who worked for freedom. Even small acts of sabotage or resistance could have resulted in death but simple people carried out simple acts on a daily basis for the greater cause. The tensions between Sam and Suzanne escalate as the story develops and we are carried along in their struggles to not only survive but to prevail. There are no dominant acts of heroism, just everyday efforts by ordinary people which is something we can relate to as ordinary people.

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Thank you for your thank you

You're welcome?
You’re welcome?

As I was reading David Eddie’s Damage Control column in this morning’s Globe and Mail I had pangs of guilt. A reader asked for advice on how to handle ungrateful recipients of birthday and Christmas gifts who never sent a thank you or even an acknowledgement that the “gift” was received. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends who share this concern are legion. When someone takes the time to tuck a cheque or gift card for a slice of their hard-earned income into a birthday card which they’ve gone to the store to purchase, put in the envelope with a stamp they’ve also purchased and walked it to a mailbox, how difficult can it be for the recipient to email a quick note saying, “Thanks so much for your birthday gift. I’m saving for a new bicycle and your cheque helps bring me closer to my goal.”? After all, young people spend hours a day texting.

As a pecunious twenty-year-old traveling Europe on a Eurorail pass, the luxury of staying free with friends of friends was an invaluable gift.
As a penurious twenty-year-old traveling Europe on a Eurail pass, the luxury of staying free with friends of friends was an invaluable gift.

My own guilt stemmed from all the years I was an ungrateful young girl who probably also took other people’s generosity for granted. Was I sufficiently grateful for all the people who kindly provided room and board for me when I was traveling around Europe in 1967? I turned up unannounced at the door of a girlfriend’s aunt and uncle in Rotterdam and they dropped what they were doing, showed me the sights and even provided an evening slide show of pictures taken when my friend had visited as a child. I did give my hostess a hand-crafted brooch of a Canadian maple leaf with a native stone embedded in the middle, but was I sufficiently appreciative? What about the couple who lived on an American army base in Germany who put me up for a month? Although I did the ironing and dishes, helped around the house and acted like a nanny for their four children, I worry whether I was appreciative enough of their hospitality.

I am forever grateful.
I am forever grateful.

When my brother and I were growing up we were fortunate enough to have an exceptional older couple who lived two doors down from us, who were so kind and loving they were like grandparents. Did I sufficiently show my appreciation for all the carefully chosen Christmas and birthday gifts they gave us, not to mention an always-open door to their home for cookies and comfort? My parents certainly did their best to instill the importance of manners in both my brother and me but were we always as conscientious as we should have been?

How can I thank you? Let me count the ways. . .
How can I thank you? Let me count the ways. . .

A friend recently drew the line at inviting a teenage European relative back for a visit to Canada this summer. After hosting him for three annual visits that included chauffeuring him to all the tourist spots like Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Montreal, an Indian Pow-Wow (which the relative had specifically requested), and various other time-consuming and costly sight-seeing excursions, my friend and her husband finally said, “No”. The reason? The visiting relative spent most of his time texting or Skyping his girlfriend in Germany and never once expressed his appreciation for the effort put forth by his hosts. My friends also picked up the entire tab for a trip to New York, including tours, hotels and meals, while the visitor spent all his time looking down at his smart phone trying for internet connections. A simple thank you note when he got home would have gone a long way. The parents have to accept some responsibility for this thoughtlessness too.

Hosting a dinner party or barbecue can involve considerable time, effort and expense. Be sure to follow up with a thank you.
Hosting a dinner party or barbecue can involve considerable time, effort and expense. As a guest, be sure to follow-up with a thank you.

With the convenience of email there’s no excuse for not taking a few seconds to thank someone who has done something kind for you or remembered your birthday with a card enclosing a cheque or gift card. And when a friend has taken the trouble to shop for and prepare a lovely meal for you or hosted you over a weekend, a thank you is meaningful. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it doesn’t even have to be a fancy card. A simple email will often do the job. Even when I was working, I always took the time to send a note of thanks for corporate gifts that I received at Christmas but as someone who also gave corporate gifts, I know that unfortunately this wasn’t the general practice in business.

I can’t be sure I was sufficiently grateful for all the wonderful things people have done for me over the years, but you can be sure I’m conscious of it now. Boomers are now aunts, uncles and grandparents which means we’re frequently the giver not the receiver and we appreciate the appreciation. Am I right? David Eddie and I think so.

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