Monday, April 30, 2012

Voices from above

The Religion page of has a piece by a woman who writes that, when God speaks to her, He sounds just like Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion.

Nothing like a voice from a place where the woman are strong, the men are good-looking and all the children are above average to get your attention.

There are lots of ways to hear God's voice. You can hear it in a newborn's cry. In the roar of a waterfall. In the sound of hymns wafting heavenward from a country church. In the voice of Garrison Keillor. Or James Earl Jones. Or, I suppose, Donald Duck. 

If you are one of those people who hears God speaking directly to you, do the rest of us a favor: Spare us the details. Like discussions between a lawyer and his client, those conversations between you and God are privileged and should be kept private. And please, don't tell us God told you to do something. People who go around announcing,"God told me to do this" or "God told me to do that" piss me off big-time.

They're saying God deems them extra special, that they have a closer relationship with Him than those who don't get voice messages, emails, Twitter feeds, Hebrew-inscribed tablets or whatever media God uses to provide them with His marching orders.  

What pisses me off most is that they are saying the rest of us have to accept and support whatever they do because, after all, God told them to do it. 

Such an order would enable a person to, say, steal a Ferrari and claim God wanted him to have it. I know many good folks who say God told them to go to Haiti or Africa or New Orleans to help the unfortunate. I know others who proclaim God ordered them to Hawaii or the Bahamas. A friend told me about a Mary Kay lady who claimed God ordered her to Dubai to teach Islamic women how to apply cosmetics. 

Rick Perry announced God told him to run for president. An endorsement from God is certainly more valuable than one from, say, the AFL-CIO.  Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire didn't buy it and sent his sanctimonious ass back to Texas. Good for them.

I once went to meet a prospective client who brought his mother, who was visiting from out of town, to the meeting. Before we started, she announced she wanted us to hear what God had told her to do that morning. She produced a diary in which she said she wrote down their daily conversations, and read from it. One thing God had told her to do was to ask her son for $5,000. He whipped out his checkbook and wrote her a check. God may have then told her to go to a soup kitchen to donate it. Or, perhaps, to Saks. I never found out because I never went back. 

I'm not saying God doesn't speak to His children. He hasn't spoken directly to me but that could change by the time I finish writing this sentence. 

What I am saying is this: If God speaks to you directly, great. And if He tells you to do something, by all means do it. Just don't tell me about it. I don't want to hear what God told you to do any more than I want to hear about your sex life because it's personal. And, frankly, because it may make me think less of you if I believe you're claiming God told you to do something you wanted to do all along.

Commanding Moses to lead His people out of slavery was one thing. Telling you to go to Disney World is something else. 

Thank you, and have a blessed day.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Coming soon on Mad Men

Can't wait for tonight's episode of Mad Men on AMC.

It's a show about folks who work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. The year is 1965.

I didn't work for a Madison Avenue agency but came close. I worked for one less than a block away.

Creator Matthew Weiner says he never worked in advertising. He must have lots of
former agency people as advisers, because his characters are spot on.
  • Protagonist Don Draper is a troubled creative genius with enough baggage to sink the Queen Mary. The actor who portrays him, Jon Hamm, attended my alma mater, the University of Missouri. But I'm much better looking.
  • The father of smarmy account guy, Pete Campbell, is killed in a plane crash early in one episode. By the end of the hour, Pete, a typical agency whore, is pitching the airline's account. 
  • Copywriter Peggy Olson has worked her way up from the secretarial pool. Since it is the mid-sixties and the women's liberation movement isn't yet underway, Peggy hasn't achieved the career status of the men she works for. But any viewer who ever worked for an agency recognizes that will soon change. Peggy's smart. Within a few years, she'll leave this group of losers to start her own shop.
  • Perpetually over-served agency partner Roger Sterling, though he doesn't yet know it, will someday be honored by Tanqueray, which will name its premium vodka, Tanqueray Sterling, after him. 
  • Voluptuous redhead Joan Holloway manages the office and for years has been having a torrid affair with a married partner. I worked in an office managed by a voluptuous redhead who for years carried on a torrid affair with one of the married partners.
Here, in case Weiner runs out of story lines, are some free ideas for future episodes, drawn from the 35 years I spent in the business. I'm not saying all these incidents happened to me per se.  But, like Forrest Gump, I was there for all of them.

  • Peggy is invited along to a dinner at The 21 Club for a liquor client, but only because Roger thinks the client's wife will need someone to talk to. At the bar, Roger orders eight rounds of martinis made with the client's brand. Peggy dutifully downs them all. During dinner, Peggy, who, is seeing double, projectile vomits all over the client and his wife.
  • Pete, who has been driving the creatives insane as they frantically prepare for a big pitch, insisting on stupid changes and proclaiming "they won't like that" even though he has no idea what the prospective client wants, flies to Chicago to make his pitch. Ten minutes before he is to stand in front of the client, he realizes he forgot the case containing the agency's layouts and storyboards. Fax machines and the Internet haven't yet been invented so he is screwed. When they hear the news, the creative department goes out to celebrate and signs Pete's name to the bar tab.
  • Roger charters a yacht to impress a big-spending client, and invites key agency members to join them for a weekend cruise. A few hours into it, a hopped up hooker, who has been flown in from Vegas because Roger knows she's the client's favorite, falls overboard. Joan jumps in and saves her but swallows so much water she has to be airlifted to the hospital.
  • During one of his dark moods, Don hops in his Caddy and takes off for California to visit the grave of the widow of the dead GI whose identity he assumed. Driving through Missouri, he hears on a small town radio station a spot for Dryden's General Store, which he decides is the best advertising he has ever heard. He drives to the store, learns the 13-year-old son of the owner wrote the commercial, and offers the boy a job at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, telling him, "You don't need a high school education to work in advertising." 
OK, I'll admit it. That last story isn't true.

But what Don said is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

It's the steal thing. That's why this Coke commercial sucks

My local Publix supermarket sells made-to-order sandwiches -- signature combinations of meats and cheeses served up on fresh baked bread -- that would make Dagwood drool.

I craved one yesterday so off I went. But it was noon and there was a long line at the sandwich counter so I decided to buy ingredients from the deli to make my own.

As the clerk was slicing my order of salami, bologna, beef and cheese, she asked, "So when are you making this sandwich?"

"Soon as I get home," I replied.

"That's a shame," she smiled. "I don't go on break until 1:45 or I'd come over and help you eat it."

"Well then," I joked. "You're just gonna have to sneak a slice or two."

"No way," she said, turning solemn. "That would be stealing."

Too bad the marketing geniuses at Coca-Cola don't share her sense of right and wrong.

Coke has a current :30 TV spot featuring a young man in a convenience store. He is standing at a Coca-Cola fountain dispenser, holding an empty cup. He might be a store employee. Or a customer. Doesn't really matter.

He fills the cup, casts a furtive glance around to be sure nobody is watching, and takes a sip. Then a longer sip. Then he tops off the cup.

As he walks away, presumably to pay for his drink, type supers over: "Sip Stealing. Not a felony in all 50 states."

I wonder if Coke ran that spot past any of the thousands of retailers who sell its products?

Coca-Cola doesn't care if people steal Coke, Sprite and its other brands from its fountain accounts. Retailers like 7-Eleven, Publix and McDonald's have to pay Coke for the syrup whether their customers or employees buy a soda or steal it. In fact, stolen sips increase the company's bottom line because retailers have to buy more than they otherwise would.

But retailers care. So should anyone with half a brain.

Impressionable young viewers may have troubling understanding that Coke isn't encouraging them to steal ... because, in fact, it is. Coke is saying not only is it perfectly acceptable, it's cute.

Well it isn't. It's tough enough raising kids. The last thing parents need is one of the world's largest companies, a company that sells a "happy" product, telling their children it's OK to steal. And if you agree, tell Coca-Cola to yank that spot. Here's the address:

If Coke doesn't pull the spot, I hope McDonald's or some other major account runs a commercial showing customers how to steal Coke concentrate from the truck that delivers it to their local bottler. The spot can feature teens hijacking the truck, tying up the driver, then driving off and holding a beach party, dousing each other with buckets of Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite and Fanta because, after all, it was free.

Coca-Cola executives wouldn't find that so cute, would they?

Friday, April 27, 2012

"Nutty" neighbor has it made in the shade

In any given week, our next door neighbors here in Florida, Bob and Marie, spend more on their pug, HazelNut, than we spent to send two kids to college and graduate school.

"Nutty" has outfits for every occasion, a golf cart Bob bought to take her for a drive every afternoon, and was honored on her birthday at a poolside party that made a White House State Dinner look like lunch at White Castle.

A few weeks ago Nutty was rushed to the emergency room when Marie spotted what she feared was a hemorrhoid. Turns out the groomer had nicked Nutty's assshole during her weekly spa session.

Here she is modeling her latest accessory - a pair of custom doggie goggles Marie ordered after a veterinary opthamalogist told her HazelNut had a scratch on her cornea. Nutty doesn't much like them - it's difficult wearing glasses when you barely have a nose in the first place - but Marie says she plans to introduce the concept gradually, requiring her to wear her new shades for increasingly longer periods every day.

By 2050, Nutty should be able to keep them on for at least an hour!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It's a sure bet you'll love this STD

I'm a stock trader. Have been for for years and years.

Sometimes I make money. Sometimes I lose it. That's the way it goes.

I'm sure you're saying to yourself, "I wish Tom would tell me the stocks he's trading right now so that I, too, can be a successful trader."

My pleasure. Below is a list of the stocks I'm playing around with these days, along with one of two recommendations for each: LONG or SHORT.

If you are unfamiliar with the terms we Wall Street insiders use, here's all you need to know.

When I say go LONG, I am recommending you buy the company's stock, secure in the knowledge its price will go up.

When I say go SHORT, I'm recommending you sell the company's stock in lieu of buying it, because its price is going to decline.

"How," you ask, "Can I do that?"

By borrowing shares from the rightful owner (without telling him - your broker will handle the messy details), then selling those shares to some schmuck who is under the impression you own them. Once the price declines, you'll then buy from someone else the same number of shares you sold and pocket the difference between the higher price you sold them for (even though you never owned them) and the lower price you bought them for, at which point the shares you sold (but never owned) will somehow be placed back into the account of the person from whom you borrowed them in the first place. What could be easier?

Banco Santander

Not only is this Spanish bank plagued by a ticker symbol many investors find off-putting, it has the bad luck to be the largest bank in a nation with a 26 percent unemployment rate - a country with a national debt of approximately 850 quadrillion Euros. STD's stock has plummeted in recent months from $11 a share to just over $6 but, importantly, the bank hasn't reduced its dividend. At this point, it's paying an annualized dividend just north of 17 percent - more than than the conservative "safe" rate of return Madoff promised his investors - so if you're looking for income, STD is a good play. And here's what the dopes on Wall Street, who've been so busy spending their bonuses from last year, have failed to realize. Though it's headquartered in Spain, most of STD's revenues come from Brazil, an economy that's booming. Earlier this week Goldman Sachs added STD to its "conviction buy" list and everyone on the Street knows the folks at Goldman never lie. My recommendation: BUY.

The Talbot's
For years, this women's clothing retailer watched helplessly as its sales declined due to the death and/or incapacitation of its aging customer base. Concerned, the board of directors brought in a new CEO. Her strategy - offering hipper, more revealing clothes that would appeal to younger "working" women - backfired badly when shoppers realized her definition of "working women," driving away the few remaining customers the company had. Several months ago the board announced the CEO's "retirement" but - get this - she's still on the job because no CEO in his or her right mind would want to take over this train wreck of a company. Thanks to my wife for telling me about this one! Tom's recommendation: SHORT. 

Apple Computer
Having read Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, who, year after year, pissed away tens of millions of dollars by insisting on picayune design changes customers could neither see nor appreciate, such as "pretty" circuit boards, I'm convinced that, now that he's out of the picture, APPL will be more profitable than ever. While Apple's upside prospects in the U.S. are limited - the last American who didn't have an iPhone, Myrtle J. Stuckenschneider of Ada, Okla., took delivery of hers last month - Chinese consumers are so crazed to own Apple gadgets that fake Apple stores have been popping up all over the country selling "fake" Apple products. Though its stock has doubled in 12 months, billions of upwardly mobile Chinese, who are anxiously awaiting the next iteration of the iPad and iPhone, can't be wong. There's nothing "fake" about the money you'll earn with AAPL! Tom's recommendation: BUY. 

Delta Air Lines
DAL failed to meet analyst earnings expectations for the quarter ended March 31, blaming the shortfall on rising fuel costs. What management has refused to acknowledge for years is that the real reason Delta has high fuel costs is that virtually all its flights - even flights from Boston to Hartford - are routed through Atlanta. The fuel savings that would result from eliminating this unnecessary stop would go a long way toward restoring investor confidence. DAL's reputation for treating customers like turds in a punch bowl has also suppressed growth. Friends arrived in Sydney on a Delta flight, only to learn their luggage had been sent to Lyons, France. They were handed a card with the number of the company's "lost baggage" department in Atlanta. When they called, they were placed on hold for more than an hour and forced to listen to "Where Have You Gone Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" over and over until, at long last, someone picked up and said she had no idea where their bags were and advised the frustrated travelers not to call again because it was a holiday weekend and the desk was short-staffed. Speaking of "short," Tom recommends you SHORT this pig.

On a recent trip I rented a diesel version of VW's all-new Passat and was impressed not only by the mileage (600 miles per tank) but by the styling and handling. So impressed that, when I got home, I rushed to my local VW dealer and took one for a test drive, then spent two hours choosing colors and options. Then I remembered I had a perfectly good car, apologized to the salesman for wasting his time, and drove home. But (and this is important) lots of people do need cars and, because it was recently named Motor Trend's Car of the Year, the Passat is the one they'll be buying. VW's sporty Jetta, elegant CC and spiffy new Beetle ain't too shoddy either. Tom's recommendation: BUY.

Want more investment tips? Check back with often. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just like a tattoo, I'll always have you

I don't get tattoos.

According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have one or more.

Twenty nine percent of inked people say tattoos make them feel more rebellious.

Thirty one percent say they feel sexier and - this speaks volumes about our educational system - five percent claim their tattoos make them feel more intelligent.

When I was growing up in Auxvasse, Mo., the only tattoos I ever saw were the ones on the carnies who showed up every July to install the tilt-a-whirl at the county fair.

Nowadays, thanks to celebrities like soccer star David Beckham, the entire NFL, singer Pink and actress Angelina Jolie, everyone seems to have them.

On NBC's The Voice, a show in which amateur vocalists compete for a recording contract, all four celebrity coaches - Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton and Christina Aguilera - sport tattoos. So do many of the contestants.

Most of the members of the gym I belong to (notice I said "belong to" as opposed to "go to" regularly) are young professionals. I see them walking in wearing suits. Moments later they emerge from locker rooms in skimpy outfits revealing body art that, a generation ago, would have enabled them to earn livings as sideshow attractions.

Some claim their tattoos are expressions of their individuality or reminders of special persons or events. Beckham and Jolie, for instance, have the names and birth dates of their children engraved on their backs.

Seems to me it would be easier, cheaper and less painful to write them down on a calendar. If you're so stupid you can't remember your childrens' birthdays, perhaps you shouldn't be having so many in the first place.

Tattoos might conceivably make sense for people my age who want to deflect attention from their crows' feet, bald heads and flab. "Gee, that tattoo is so fascinating I almost forgot you're old, ugly and fat."

But I can't understand why anyone with an otherwise presentable body - a body that still responds to sit ups and Nautilus machines - would want one.

It's disturbing to contemplate what these tattoos are going to look like in 50 years, once the firm young flesh to which they were applied becomes wrinkled, translucent and saggy.

Can your imagine your grandma with tattoos? Me neither. But millions of kids from future generations won't have to imagine. They'll see granny's Popeye-like tattooed forearms every Thanksgiving as she serves up the turkey. It's enough to make Norman Rockwell weep.

And by then - you read it here first - tattoos will be as passe as the Chevy Volt.

Some of my best friends' children have tattoos. These are good kids. Highly educated kids. Accomplished kids who make the world a better place.

I just happen to believe they'll have buyer's remorse someday.

Since they were little, I've told my sons that they can murder someone and I'll still love them but that, if either gets a tattoo, he's out of the will. So far, so good. No tattoos. At least none that I can see.

My granddog, Topanga, has one, but it was inscribed on her belly for identification purposes at the Humane Society from whence she was adopted.

Sadly, many of the people who spend the most on tattoos would be better off spending their limited funds on necessities like food, shelter and Powerball tickets.

Several years ago I hired an agency to provide a series of home health aides for my mother, who had been in the hospital.

The agency representative warned that we might be shocked by the first attendant's appearance. "Charity is only 30 but she doesn't have any teeth," she told us.

"You're sending a meth head to help my mother?" I asked.

"No," the representative said. "Charity wasn't raised by a family that encouraged her to brush or floss. She's had a hard life."

That night, I saw in the newspaper an ad from a dentist, advertising a complete set of dentures for $299.

"Wow," I thought. "Charity must really be poor if she can't come up with $299."

When Charity arrived the next morning, my mother was asleep so I invited her to sit down in front of the TV.

She opened her purse, removed a bottle of baby oil, dabbed the oil onto a cotton ball, then rolled up her pant leg, revealing a brightly colored parrot tattoo from her ankle to her knee.

"I just got this yesterday," she announced. "I'm supposed to keep it moist."

"Do you mind if I ask how much that cost?" I asked.

"Three hundred dollars," she replied proudly.

I rest my case.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The family marches on

At 9 p.m. Sunday, the phone rang. Son Ben. He's a busy D.C. attorney. So busy we only talk once a week - on Sunday mornings before he goes into the office for the day. We had already had our weekly chat. Something was up.

"Ask mom to get on the other line," he said.

Once his mother picked up, he cut straight to the chase.

"I asked Heidi to marry me and she said yes."

Ben told us how, as they were watching TV, he pushed aside the coffee table, got down on one knee, popped the question and presented a ring.

He put Heidi on the phone. We told her we were thrilled. That we're looking forward to welcoming her to our family. That she'll be the daughter we never had.

Ben came back on the line while she texted a photo of the ring. We agreed it was a beauty, that Ben had done a great job.

He said he had carried it around for a month, waiting for the right moment.

We asked if they had set a date and they said no, they hadn't had time to think about it but we'd be the first to know.

We hung up feeling happy. And strange.

Ben's old enough - 29. And Heidi, as we have observed, is good for him.  She's a nice girl from Iowa. She's level-headed, industrious (she works for a congressman on Capitol Hill), and smart.  Most important, she genuinely loves our red-headed boy. They're an excellent match.

But, at the same time, it's a bit disconcerting.

One moment, you're the nucleus of your family. Then you pick up the phone and learn you've been kicked down a notch on the generational ladder as a new family is formed - one in which you're no longer the sun but one of several planets orbiting around it. You'll continue to host Thanksgiving dinner for the foreseeable future but, eventually, you'll be a guest at the table.

I called my 99-year-old mother to share the news. "The family marches on," she said with a tinge of sadness. "How's Judy taking this?"

"Judy's delighted," I told her.

"Well," she said. "It's hard for the mother of sons. You know what they say, 'A son is a son 'till he takes a wife ...'"

"Heidi's a good girl," Judy said as we were preparing for bed.

"Absolutely," I replied. "Anyone who loves Ben, I love already."

"And she'll pick out our nursing home someday," Judy said.

We turned out the lights, but neither of us slept.