Monthly Archives: October 2008

Random Thoughts on… Halloween

I’m guessing that if you go out tonight, you’ll see an assortment of scandalous Sarah Palins and sexy Joe the Plumbers. There will also be a glut of nurses, cabaret dancers, and schoolgirls, because we all know that Halloween is the one evening when looking trashy is socially acceptable. But, if you’re not one for fishnet stockings and go-go boots, here are some other last minute Halloween costume ideas, as culled from my friends and co-workers.

  • Holy cow! Find a cow costume, and combine it with an angel costume. This will be especially appreciated in pro-America areas of the country where people actually say “cow” instead of the s-word. Other expressions that beget costume ideas: cool as a cucumber, moral fabric, smoke and mirrors, wet blanket, when pigs fly.
  • Dress up as a cocktail (idea stolen from my co-workers…thanks!). Cover your face with blood and carry along a few tomatoes–you’re a Bloody Mary. Find a bomber pilot outfit and aviators, and you’re a Kamikaze. Throw on some horns, wear red, and you’re a Red Bull. Cosmopolitans, White Russians, Car Bombs…the list goes on. if you can drink it, you can wear it.
  • A Fun Disease. Dress up as a fun disease, like flesh eating bacteria, the bubonic plague, or the clap. Basking in your power over the weak-stomached, you should go up to those dressed up as nurses and doctors and ask for their diagnoses.  That way, you can make others feel dumb for not knowing that you are an enlarged microbe of typhoid fever, obviously.
  • The Walk of Shame. This one is best done with a group of three girls. The first girl is the “Before,” simply dressed like she is going out. The second girl is the “After”, with smeared makeup, crazy hair, and drinks spilled all over her dress. The third girl is the “Morning After,” wearing a man’s shirt and carrying her heels. It’s social commentary, really.
  • Rags to Riches. With a friend, dress up as either a hobo or a billionaire (complete with bling, of course). One of you will be derelicte, trailer-park chic, while the other will play the role of a haughty ice queen, channeling a character on Gossip Girl, or Cindy McCain.
  • A 401(k). Walk around slumped over all night. When people ask what you are, just say, “I’m your future savings, withering away. Muahahaha.” After all, Halloween is supposed to be scary.
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2008: The Race That Was

We’re five days away from November 4th, and it kind of feels like summer camp is ending. I’m a bit sad, but I’m also excited that it’s finally over. After the 4th, there will be no more political ads, no more pandering for votes, and no more McCain-Obama melodrama… something we can all look forward to. To me, election day is almost like an early New Years: I expect that everything will turn out fine, but I still have a little pocket of dread that Y2K will hit, the country will be catapulted back into the dark ages, and Joe the Plumber will become Secretary of State. And so, with the upcoming end to a tumultuous campaign, here is our requisite look back at what we’ve learned in 2008, The Race that Was.

  • If you want to be President, start vetting your acquaintances. If someone you know ever did or said something crazy, you’re on the hook by association. It doesn’t matter how well you know them: if you have an acquaintance who eats babies, you’re a baby eater too.
  • If you want to be Vice President, shoot some moose, drop your g’s, and wink a lot: Vettin’ is not necessary. Neither are press conferences, direct answers, or substance. Simply put on $150,000 worth of designer digs, and tell people that the other presidential candidate eats babies. And if it doesn’t work, well, there’s always 2012. By then you should be able to handle a press conference or two.
  • Tina Fey should send Sarah Palin a Christmas card. With a picture of her in a black power suit, surrounded by the pile of money she’s made.
  • Once again, Ohio and Florida decide. And we shall find out if they are “pro-America” on November 4th. If they are not, we should consider seceding them to Canada and Mexico, respectively.
  • The economy is like an ugly stepsister. When you’re in the family, you don’t want to trot her out at the risk of repulsing other people. So, you dress her up, throw on some lipstick, and try to divert all attention to the pretty, wink-happy stepsister instead. When you’re outside the fam, you take one look at the atrocity, say, “holy crap,” and schedule an emergency extreme makeover.
  • The focus of this election being the economy. Back in 2004, the election focused on terrorism and Iraq. In 2000, social issues like gay marriage and stem cell research were at the forefront. It’s interesting to see how priorities change… Thanks, George.
  • Joe the Plumber has come to symbolize middle America. But, he owes back taxes, he’s not actually a plumber, and his real name is Sam. And if he’s making $250K+ a year, middle Americans should probably look for a better spokesperson… like Phil the Pharmacist or Martha the Schoolteacher.
  • There is still racism in this country. Not just the black-white kind, but also based on religious beliefs. (Colin Powell said it best on Meet the Press: “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”) You’d think that by 2008, we would be better than this.
  • Democracy can sometimes be scary. They are predicting that McCain only has a 4.3% chance of winning, but I’m still scared about Y2K.

November 4th… VOTE! And even though this post is biased, you can vote however you like.

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Enlightenment from My Favorite Thinking Place

They always say that the best ideas come to you when you’re on the toilet. At the risk of offering TMI, I would tend to agree. In the bathroom, it often seems easier to reach that supernatural, cosmic state where ideas are free-flowing. Maybe it’s the feng shui of the nearby water, or the soothing smell of Pantene and cucumber melon body wash. Perhaps the taste of minty toothpaste triggers a Pavlovian response, telling our brains to fire on all cylinders. Whatever it is, time spent in the bathroom is always productive. Deciding what outfit to wear, how best to solve that work problem, or what arcane topic to blog about today? Take a trip to the bathroom. Revelation. Decision made. Done.

However, not all bathrooms can lead to the same result. We inevitably have an intimate relationship with our personal bathroom. We’ve picked out our own furry mats and bathroom literature. We’ve hugged our own toilet after an unfortunate night out. We are far more likely to come up with great ideas on the can at home than in the graffiti-lined cesspool that characterizes most public restrooms. Instead of serenely contemplating a solution to global warming, we are probably too busy hovering, or worrying that someone will tip over our porta-potty.

In fact, we can map out the hierarchy of good ideas per bathroom, like this:

Where good ideas come from: Your bathroom at home > Bathroom at work/school > Public restroom > Porta-potty > Airport bathroom

(Airport bathroom barely beats out porta-potty because of the many bad ideas that have occurred at 30,000 feet in our friendly skies. I’d argue that doing anything other than taking care of business in an airport bathroom is a bad idea… After all, it’s a 3×3 box that smells like sterility. Why risk the turbulence?)

In conclusion, I hope this post will start a weighty discussion about bathroom-generated innovation and the inequities of a toilet hierarchy. Do those who share a bathroom come up with fewer ideas than those who have their own? Are frequent users of porta-potties psychologically stunted? How should we best position our vanilla-scented Air Wick?

The ultimate moral of this story, though, is: when you need a good idea, take a trip to the bathroom first. If I had spent more time there tonight, perhaps this post would have been slightly more substantive… but just slightly. Because even though the bathroom may help generate ideas, it’s not a miracle maker.  In the end, you’re still stuck with your own BS.  Literally.

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Having a Career vs. Having a Life: Mission Impossible?

We’ve talked before about defining success… now that we have an idea of what success means to us, how do we go about achieving it? If we want to focus on our career, can we have a personal life too? If we want to focus on family, can we still succeed in our jobs? Is it possible to “have it all”?

No: Simple economics tells us that we can’t. Like the graph below shows, every hour spent working is one hour less at home. It can be reasonably assumed that achieving professional success requires an enormous investment in time: an article about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers describes his theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to succeed at a given skill. “The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists emerge only after spending at least three hours a day for a decade mastering their chosen field.” Within business, many varied skills are necessary in order to climb the corporate ladder. For all the hours we spend working, networking, and honing our communication skills, our lives can easily start to revolve solely around our jobs. Given that there are a finite 24 hours in a day, we must make sacrifices if we want to be a CEO, or a doctor, or secret agent Ethan Hunt. Whether that means spending less time with friends, cutting back dates with a significant other, or taking fewer vacation days to visit family, we face tradeoffs.

Yes: While people do face tradeoffs, “having it all” is not a simple matter of time. Just as extra hours spent at work may not increase our productivity, extra hours spent at home may not improve our relationships. Economics only goes so far: we do have to make concessions with our time, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that success in our career and our personal life is mutually exclusive. Working fifteen hour days may leave us only with a few hours to ourselves, but we can accomplish a lot in a few hours. The quality of our time is far more important than simply having the time itself. Although we may need to put in extra effort to ensure that we are making the most of our spare moments with friends and family, this must be expected with the life we wish to lead. And in the beginning stages of our careers, true friends will understand that perhaps our jobs may come first.

In the end, I think the second graph is probably most accurate, as it is possible to fall along any area on this spectrum. While all of us would like to be in the first quadrant, it does take work and sacrifice. This sacrifice, however, is not choosing between your personal life and your job. Instead, it relates to prioritizing within our professional and personal lives: “having it all” is not the same as “doing it all.” With limits on our time, we may not always be able to do everything we want to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our work/relationships will suffer as a result.

Lastly, this past week on Grey’s Anatomy, we saw the overworked Dr. McDreamy land on the cover of a medical journal while keeping his romance alive with kidney-dropping Meredith. We also saw Michael and Holly consummate their relationship on The Office, bringing workplace romance back to Scranton. Thus, from the annals of fake hospitals and fake paper companies, these are just a few examples of intersecting professional and personal success stories. Given that I take all my cues from Thursday night TV, is it possible then to “have it all”? Clearly, yes.

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Random Thoughts on… Writing

I started writing at age six, with my short story “The Chilly Penguin”. My mother tacked it up on the refrigerator, with my drawing of a penguin, and dreams of a writing career took off. In elementary school, I wrote such masterpieces as “Ananse the Spider-Dog” and “Life or Death”. In those pieces, I admit the punctuation was a little hazy, the adjectives were limited to “scary” and “happy,” and the text suffered from phrases like “his eyes literally popped out of his head” (from “Life or Death,” age 12). But I kept on going.

In middle school, writing was just venting in the form of prose. While cleaning out my room a few years ago, I found a journal that I don’t remember keeping. On the cover, it said: “Keep Out. You are invading my privacy.” I felt like I was actually invading my own privacy when I started reading it, because my voice sounded so unfamiliar. Staying true to my OCD-ness, apparently I used to rate days on a graded scale (some things never change). I also kept my journal entries in sections. For example, every day I had the following sections to write about: events, guys, news, rating, crisis, quote to remember, reminders. I only kept the journal for 6 days though, because there were no entries after Tuesday, November 3: “Events/crisis: Mike asked me out online. Rating: 92.5 A.” A note from my friend Maura was also attached, folded into a paper football:

“Hey, what’s up? N2MH. I’m in History now and I just finished my test. I’m sure that u care!? I didn’t know what #16 or 17 (one of those) was. It was easy though. So whats happenin? anything new? Who do u like? Or is it still Sean…or who? U know the 2 people I like right? don’t tell anyone though cuz not a lot of people know. Only like u, Laurie, Danielle, Shauna, Steph, and Devon know…”

The note was signed: “WB, LYLAS, 26611” …I have no idea what 26611 means, but I’m glad that I left “LYLAS” behind in the ’90s.

Even though my unintelligible notes from middle school may have had something to do with it, the ultimate downfall in my writing ambition began in high school, with my ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Bailey. A large and commanding woman, Ms. Bailey instilled upon us the impervious system of punctuation and grammar. We studied only examples of flawless writing, where a ‘who’ was different from a ‘whom’ and abbreviations such as “they’re” and “it’s” were always written out in their long form: they are, it is. I could no longer end a sentence with a preposition. I could no longer put in dashes without counting the words in between the dashes (they must not exceed eight).

“You are high school writers now,” Ms. Bailey would say. “You are adults, and you are writing for adults. Where is your topic sentence!”

I also learned that in high school, there were many more rules for writing that weren’t written in The Elements of Style. Just like our dress code, which stipulated a no-jeans policy, the social code stipulated a no-emotional-crap policy about writing. People didn’t like reading about “my best friend” dogs or “and now she’s dead” grandmothers. The awkward silences during class made it evident that no one quite knew how to respond to Brian’s essay on his uncle’s debilitating illness. It felt wildly inappropriate to point out that he needed a better transition from his third paragraph to his fourth. After that, everyone wrote about happy things, like baseball games and carnivals. Like Ms. Bailey said, in high school, the adult audience was very particular.

It seemed that as I got older, writing became less about what I wanted, and more about what everyone else wanted. Frivolous days of writing about spider-dogs and cold, tuxedoed fowl were way in the past. Instead, the audience became the ultimate judge. “Serious” work was shunned in high school, then embraced in college. As a person first and a writer second, I could not help but be influenced by my readers’ expectations. I learned this the hard way when I passed in my first essay in college, which I titled “Shit Happens”. I felt that the title was rather meaningful, as I was analyzing Tim O’Brien’s experiences in the mud fields from The Things They Carried. However, the title was not so received well by the expository writing professor.

Rejected. Bad grade. Humiliation.

Ouch.

Throughout college, the inner writer in me died a bit. I forgot all the reasons why I started writing, and I went on to study economics and go into corporate finance instead. I’d like to think that my entrance into the finance world has singlehandedly ushered in the recent crisis, but I am probably giving myself too much credit (if only the markets could pick up some of this credit… Ha. Ha.).

In September, I started this blog with the intention of getting back into writing. Through the past few weeks, I’ve been going back and reading some of the writing I did when I was young, from old stories like “Life or Death,” to my middle school notes adorned with doodles of flowers. There is something about the pure, unadulterated voice that makes these pieces fun to read–it’s the knowledge that my writing then had been true, natural, and unfazed by matters of practicality and rules in writing and life in general. I wrote then simply to tell a story that I wanted to tell.

Today, the punctuation has become routine and easy, and the writing has become hard. I guess if you’re solely writing for the approbation of critics and professors then you forget why you started writing in the first place. So now, I’ve tried to take a different approach. I no longer worry about whether I used too many parentheses (though arguably, yes, I could cut down), or whether I threw in the litter too many clichés (is it a cliché to use a cliché to discourage clichés? Or is that irony?). I no longer worry about adhering to writing rules and expectations. I’ve learned from my ongoing, love-hate relationship with writing that I’d rather share with others those issues that matter most to me. I’d rather write for fun, for the pure enjoyment of telling a story I care about, because I want to.

I want to write about the smog in LA, the nightlife in New York, and my great, great hometown sports teams in Boston. I want to write about how strange I think parents are when they name their children after fruits. I want to write about chilly penguins, sweaty ostriches, uncensored mud fields, middle school dramas, and the achingly mundane world of accounting. I want to write about rising ambitions, falling stocks, my wavering opinions, my undetermined priorities, tacking stories up on the refrigerator, love, true love, ironic love, clichéd, sentimental love, love for people with good intentions, love for loving what you do, writing, imagining, constructing, creating, how I enjoy it all, and how much fun I have with all of it… this is what I want to write about, and this is why I started writing.

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Pretty Soon, Today’s ‘Stupid’ Will Be Tomorrow’s ‘Smart’

Last week, both presidential candidates acknowledged that we had to reform our education system. Like most everything else, Obama and McCain naturally disagreed on how to solve this issue. Perhaps we need to pay teachers more and get the best-qualified educators to head our classrooms. Perhaps we need to have more vouchers/charter schools to foster competition. Maybe we just need parents to get more involved in building shoebox dioramas and helping their kids with algebra problems.

Or, perhaps we’re just getting dumber. (After all, we elected George W. Bush twice. Enough said).

Consider this theory: over the past few decades, we have seen significant declines in the birth rates across the country. As more and more young people started going to college, and women became more prevalent in the workplace, births in the U.S. have naturally declined:

“Fertility tends to decline as education level increases. Women may put off marriage and children to further their education, then to get established in the labor force. Women age 40 to 44 with no high school education had about 2.5 children in 2004, compared with 1.6 children among women with a graduate or professional degree.” – Mary Kent, Population Reference Bureau

So keeping this in mind, let’s look at the following charts from the National Center for Health Statistics, which show the birth rates by state in 1990. The chart on the top shows the birth rate, while the chart on the bottom shows the growth in births from 1990 to 2002. The state with the highest birth rate was Utah (20.9 for every 1,000 people), far surpassing Texas as the place where the most babies are made (or at least birthed). (Go to full report)

The states with the highest birth rates are typically in the Midwest and South, whereas East Coasters and Californians are apparently too busy to procreate. Unsurprisingly, these are the same areas where birth rates have declined the most in the past ten years, whereas states like Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina have stepped up their baby-making game.

Now here is a graph from a U.S. Census report, on the percentage of college graduates by state:

So, the states with the most college grads are also the states which tend to have the lowest birth rates.

Hmm…

Consider if this trend continues: the least-educated areas of the country are popping out babies like hotcakes, while the sterile Ivy Leaguers in the Northeast are busy trading mortgage-backed securities on Wall Street. Thus, the composition of the American population is skewed towards those with parents who are less educated. One may argue about the degree to which parents’ educational attainment affects their children’s test scores, but there is undoubtedly a correlation between the two. And while Texans and Idahoans may rightly argue that causality cannot be determined by a few colorful graphs, the data is in line with what we know: women who attain less education have more babies. There is a greater likelihood then that their kids will get less education than children born to snooty PhD candidates in Washington. And their kids will have more kids and more kids, while the slice of snooty intellectuals gets smaller and smaller.

So what can turn this around? In the end, we need to build a universal culture that values learning, instead of a culture that values moose huntin’ and a self-righteous idiocracy. We need to get students excited about education, and close the achievement gap that too often divides along racial and socioeconomic lines. We may need to rehaul our schools, implement student incentive programs, or pay our teachers more…

And we could also start encouraging smart people to make some babies, too.

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Anger Management With a Side of French Fries

I’m in a fighting mood today. As we have already determined, Tuesdays suck, and I’m barely treading above 40%. So, what to do with all this anger?

Some may suggest such therapeutic activities as punching a pillow, going to the driving range, or letting it all out with an Alanis Morissette CD. Others may just sit around and mope, or vent to anyone who will listen. Still others may decide to go hunting and kick puppies.

My anger management technique of choice? I’m going for the food. I’m thinking fajitas, guacamole, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes. Cornbread and apple crisp, topped off with Cool Whip. Hot fudge sundaes. Bacon. Cookie dough. Pie. You can sit there with your stress ball, yoga mat, and meditation exercises, and I will eat my strawberry shortcake.

The sage Elle Woods once told us that, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands.” This might seem contradictory to using food as a stress reliever, but, isn’t eating just an exercise for our gastrointestinal tract? Aren’t we working our kidneys and jawbones? Isn’t the act of deciding what to eat (Taco Bell or Wendy’s?) an exercise of the mind? If so, I am raking in the endorphins.

Yes, over time, consumption of copious amounts of mac and cheese may harden my arteries, enlarge my love handles, and hasten my path towards obesity. I could end up bed-ridden and immobile at old age, a beached whale pining for the days of my limber youth. In the short term, however, a little bit of Velveeta may save me from belting out “Ironic” and letting cocker spaniels fly. So, there is a tradeoff.

There may come the day when, in fact, I have developed a surplus of chins, and the whale analogy has become less and less funny. Perhaps then I’ll stop depending on cupcakes and fries to broker my inner peace treaty. But right now, I’m still young, limber, sole-chinned, and more dolphin than whale. So, if I’m mad, I’m getting out the frying pan… to make pancakes, not to kill my husband.

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