Check-Out Champ

We had a good drop of snow the other night; the best we’ve had since the new year began. The flakes fell quickly, adding inches to the front porch and everything in the yard beyond. As I surveyed the vast, white blanket before me, my mind wandered to snow angels and snowmen, to pulling the sled out of the garage. I pictured wandering lines of deep footprints, far as the eye could see, or snowballs piled up and ready, waiting for a battle with the neighborhood kids. Without knowing it, I was effectively ticking the list of images from Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 children’s classic, “The Snowy Day”.

Confession time. I didn’t remember the story of “The Snowy Day” until I stopped by my local bookstore the other day for a copy (destined to my granddaughter’s bookshelf). It’s a simple book: the snow-filled adventures of a little boy on a winter’s day, captured in less than two hundred words. The images tell the story as well as the words, including the boy’s disappointment when he realizes a snowball carefully packed into his coat pocket melted moments after entering the warmth of his house.

Why all the fuss over a short children’s story, authored almost sixty years ago? Consider this: “The Snowy Day” is the most checked-out book in the 125-year history of the New York Public Library (NYPL). That’s 485,583 individual borrows, putting the book comfortably ahead of hundreds of thousands of others. (Safe to say the “Jeopardy” writers jotted down that bit of trivia for future use.)

You’d think I’d have checked out “The Snowy Day” when I was little. After all, the library was a weekly – if not bi-weekly destination as a kid. My older brothers took music lessons right across the street, leaving the library as a convenient “babysitter” while Mom went to the grocery store. I’ll always be grateful to her for that strategy, which generated countless check-outs and a lifetime love of reading.

I find it remarkable the NYPL maintains complete records – most of them on paper – backing up its check-out claim for “The Snowy Day”. The book topped several other bestsellers I would’ve chosen instead. Take “Fahrenheit 451” (#7 all-time checked-out), or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (#9). How about other children’s titles like “The Cat in the Hat” (#2) and “Where the Wild Things Are” (#4)? “The Snowy Day” sits atop the list with fewer words and fewer pages (except perhaps #10, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) Good on you, Ezra Jack Keats.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” seems out of place in the NYPL top-ten (#8) – the only non-fiction read on the list. I’ve never checked out a Carnegie self-help book, let alone bought one (not that I couldn’t use the help). For that matter, I’ve never checked out any of the NYPL top-ten. Maybe #6 Charlotte’s Web, but that was a long time ago.

“The Snowy Day” brought to mind storybooks from my own childhood, I took a few minutes to recall the following favorites (sans Google search):

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon
  • Clifford the Big Red Dog
  • The Red Balloon
  • Make Way for Ducklings
  • Blueberries for Sal
  • Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel
  • Are You My Mother?
  • Sparky’s Magic Piano
  • Caps for Sale

The brain is remarkable. I can give you a complete synopsis of each of the above stories, fifty years after I first read them. Furthermore, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and “The Red Balloon” manage to tell their stories without a single word. Nothing but photos and illustrations. They make “The Snowy Day” look like a novel.

I can’t tell you the last time I set foot in a library, but I know it’s been years. I’d say I’m “overdue” and should “check out” one of the nearby branches. After all, the stories of my childhood have endured the test of time, waiting patiently on the shelves; perfect reads for the next “snowy day”.

Some content sourced from the 1/13/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “These Are the Most Frequently Checked-Out Books in the History of the New York Public Library“.

When the World Stopped Turning

I was an infant when President Kennedy faced the threat of communism through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was a kid when the Vietnam conflict dominated newspaper headlines. I was a young adult during the Persian Gulf War, when my only memory was Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, the lyrics interspersed with tearful exclamations from family members. However, I was fully grown, married with children, alive and aware, on September 11, 2001. 9/11 stays with me; every anniversary observed with reverence.

Reminders weren’t necessary when Tuesday arrived this year (now dubbed Patriot Day), but I still got two. The first – from a fellow blogger – talked about Empty Sky, New Jersey’s memorial to its 700+ victims of the 9/11 attacks, in Liberty State Park directly across from Manhattan. The second – from my Windows lock screen – the day and date in a large font on my monitor: Tuesday, September 11. In 2001, September 11th also fell on a Tuesday.

“Empty Sky” – Liberty State Park, NJ

Lyric: “Where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?” Alan Jackson

Anyone twenty or older in 2001 should remember exactly where they were “that September day”. I think a book of such accounts would lend meaningful perspective. Me, I was in Texas for a week at my company’s Houston offices. That Tuesday morning, I was listening mindlessly to the radio as I navigated my rental car from hotel to office. The local news was laughing about “some nut-job crashing his single-engine plane into one of New York’s World Trade Center towers”. By the time I got to work, there was no more laughing.

The rest of that week in Houston was a blur. Work pretty much came to a halt as people processed the horrific aftermath of the attacks. That Friday, it was apparent my return flight to Colorado wasn’t going to happen. With the blessing of my rental car agency, I pointed my car to the northwest and faced 1,000 miles of highway. Midway through my journey, in the middle of the West Texas desert, I picked up the broadcast of the memorial service from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I’ll never forget the words of President Bush (“We are here in the middle hour of our grief…”), and the choir’s rendition of “America the Beautiful”, bringing uncontrollable tears.

Fact: 25% of Americans living today were born after September 11, 2001.

Add in Americans who were ten or younger back then (including two of my children), and four in ten Americans have no real memory of 9/11. Thus, we have the memorials, which laud and honor the departed. On Tuesday, President Trump spoke from Shanksville, PA, site of one of the plane crashes. The Flight 93 National Memorial includes a visitor’s center, a white marble “wall of names”, and a “Tower of Voices” – dedicated just this week – with 40 chimes; one for each man and woman killed in the crash.

Flight 93 National Memorial (photo courtesy of C-SPAN)

In Washington D.C., those 184 victims are commemorated with the Pentagon Memorial, outdoors and just southwest of the massive building. The memorial is park-like: an illuminated bench for each victim, arranged in a grid according to age (the youngest was 3, the oldest 71), and interspersed with trees. When you’re reading the name of a victim from the Pentagon, the bench is oriented so you face the south facade of the building. For a victim of the airplane crash itself, the bench is oriented so you face the flight path.

Pentagon Memorial

Question: Why did fate place me in our Houston offices that day, instead of high up in the World Trade Center alongside co-workers from my company?

Finally, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened ten years to the day after the attacks, on the site of the former World Trade Center towers. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “finally”. At last count, there were 700 9/11 memorials across the United States.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Tuesday night, my daughter and I took in a Colorado Rockies game in downtown Denver. The baseball was exciting, but the pregame ceremony took my breath away. 1) A color guard in a slow, solemn march, the flags borne by representatives of each military branch. 2) A trio of elementary-school choirs singing the national anthem. 3) The Stars-and-Stripes, gracefully unfurled by firefighters from across the state; a flag seemingly larger than the stadium itself. 4) The scoreboard, with it’s red-white-and-blue message of affirmation: “WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Education Opulence

At New York City’s exclusive Trinity School on the Upper West Side, kindergartners look forward to a year of “…building self-confidence, independence, and responsibility”, coupled with “forming friendships, dealing with a variety of social situations, and discovering the joy and excitement of learning…” Sounds like a solid choice for early schooling, until you consider the daunting application process and the need for financial aid. Your child’s chances of acceptance are only 1 in 5, and a year of Trinity grade-school will cost you $50,000.

Trinity isn’t in a class(room) of its own with its hefty private-school tuition.  At least forty-five other independents in Manhattan carry a similar price tag, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.  Perhaps Trinity boasts of its 300-year history, evolving from noble roots “providing free education for the poor in the New Colony”.  Certainly, Trinity basks in its high enrollment of graduates into Ivy League-caliber universities.  But history and performance are not prerequisites for the high costs.  The Upper East Side’s Wetherby-Pembridge School opened just two weeks ago with no tangible credentials.  The cost of a year at W-P for a three-year old?  $45,500.

Remarkably, fifty grand in tuition doesn’t even cover the full cost of a year of education.  Many of NYC’s independent schools fund-raise and conduct aggressive capital campaigns.  Without state-of-the-art facilities and salaries befitting doctorate-level educators, private schools risk losing students to the more “affordable” options in town.

Elite K-12 academies also find themselves in a moral dilemma.  While their tuition costs rise faster than the rate of inflation (23% in just the last five years), their enrollment becomes inevitably less reflective of the society around them.  The Bank Street School for Children “views diversity as essential to its academic program”, but struggles to deliver on that value when virtually all its students come from the top 1% of incomes.  Even the rich are forced to compromise to keep up with tuition payments.  Many forego vacations, club memberships, and expensive hobbies for the sake of their child’s top-dollar education.

When our kids were born in the San Francisco Bay Area almost thirty years ago, my wife and I had differing opinions on the best options for K-12 education.  My wife graduated from a private Catholic high school in Chicago, while I graduated from public schools in Los Angeles.  We had good reason to consider either option with our own kids.  Our research included several independent schools, including the prestigious Menlo School in Atherton, and the (Catholic) Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley.  Even then private-school tuition was beyond our reach, not to mention the implied commitments (tithing, volunteering).  We moved to Colorado before we gave Bay Area schools a chance (and our kids graduated from Colorado’s public schools), but it’s safe to say they would’ve gone to public schools no matter where we lived.  Today, Menlo and Priory cost $45,000/year.

With another nod to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, our daughter recently talked us into watching the television series “Gossip Girl”, which ran from 2007-2012 on The CW network.  Gossip Girl explores the lives of New York’s upper-class adolescents, with most of the drama taking place in and around the “Constance Billard School for Girls” and “St. Jude’s School for Boys”.  Gossip Girl’s story lines are hit or miss, but the characters’ appetites for the uber-wealthy lifestyle are on full display.  Stretch limousines, lavish parties, jet-set European vacations, and top-dollar wardrobes would imply $50,000 for a year of K-12 tuition is a drop in the bucket.  Gossip Girl may be a fictional world, but opulent education is real, and a gold ring lying beyond most of our grasps.

Manhattan’s private-school world is a little too ostentatious for my tastes.  I received a perfectly good education in public schools, after all.  Trinity School’s website includes a welcome from the “Head of School” who proudly claims, “students and teachers work together to create a dazzlingly dynamic mosaic of human excellence”.  With that glittering generality, no wonder the five-figure price tag.

All That Glitters

Audrey Hepburn will always be one of my favorite actresses.  Her grace, beauty, and acting – especially her comedic roles – combined for an enchanting big-screen presence.  I’ve only seen a handful of her movies but it didn’t take many to fall in love with Audrey’s delightful characters.  Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (which premiered shortly after I was born).  Sabrina Fairchild in Sabrina.  Hap in Always (her final film).  And perhaps my favorite role, the quirky Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly gazes into the New York City Fifth Avenue store window and famously observes, “Nothing very bad could happen to you there.”  Holly’s probably right, but that’s not to say something very bad couldn’t happen to Tiffany’s itself.  Sales and profits are down significantly over the last two years.  Cartier and David Yurman steal market share from the ultra-wealthy.  As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Tiffany & Company is resorting to pedestrian strategies to restore its cachet.  And those strategies are so not Tiffany’s.

The first sign of Tiffany’s troubles might have surfaced last February, when the company debuted its first-ever Super Bowl ad.  I’m not sure what tarnished the Tiffany’s image more: a television commercial stuffed between plugs for beer and tortilla chips, or Lady Gaga as its newest sponsor.  Apparently, that’s an appeal to the Millennial generation (as if young people shop at Tiffany).  No offense, but Ms. Gaga is no Audrey Hepburn, as Zales is no Tiffany.  There’s a bit of a stain on the robin’s-egg blue.

The one and only time I visited Tiffany’s New York City location was two years ago with my family.  Despite our touristy dress we were greeted warmly by the security guard as we passed through the grand polished brass-and-glass doors.  Once inside, after a nervous glance at the showcases of diamonds (as if we could afford anything whatsoever), we were politely redirected to the fifth floor to “more affordable offerings”.  I took no offense, as I was only hoping my daughter could snag one of the famous blue boxes as a souvenir.  Turns out she purchased a Tiffany’s gold ring for several hundred dollars while my wife and I settled for a set of Tiffany’s ceramic mugs.

As satisfied as we were with our purchases, I have to admit gold rings and ceramic mugs removed a bit of the Tiffany prestige.  I more associate Tiffany’s with priceless diamonds and silver – befitting royalty.  In fact, that’s where Tiffany’s got its start: almost two hundred years ago as a purveyor to the Russian imperial family.  Tiffany’s also brings to mind its trademark advertisement, showcasing a single piece of jewelry against the silhouette of a couple embracing – a refined, iconic portrait of elegance.  Audrey Hepburn, not Lady Gaga.

Today you can purchase Tiffany ceramics, as well as Tiffany leather goods, paper products, watches, fragrances, and even a limited-edition cell phone.  You can find over 300 Tiffany shops in 22 countries around the world.  I thought Tiffany was more of the “Rome-Paris-London-New York City” kind of retailer, complete with stern, immobile security guard at each front door.

Admittedly, some of my first associations with “Tiffany” were far removed from diamonds and gemstones.  Tiffany Darwish was a flash-in-the-pan American singer in my late teens (her only real hit: a retread of Tommy James and the Shondells’ I Think We’re Alone Now).  I developed an affection for Tiffany lamps  – the stained leaded-glass variety – when I studied the Craftsman style of architecture in college.  And it’s hard to get the lyrics to Big Blue Something’s singular hit out of my head; especially the lines: “And I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’  She said, ‘I think I remember the film.’  And as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it.”

Tiffany & Co. recently ousted its Chief Executive in search of a new one, with hopes of improving both sales and image.  To the new leader in search of new answers, I say look back to the Golden Age of Hollywood for guidance, when the Tiffany blue was truly iconic.  As Holly Golightly would say, nothing very bad will ever happen to you there.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

gratuity

Last week as I was buying lottery tickets, it occurred to me that very few transactions require payment by cash these days. Perhaps you still buy your newspaper at the street corner box.  Or you feed the parking meter with coins, even though most meters now take credit.  Maybe you still throw coins into the bridge toll basket just because it’s fun.

My family and I were in New York City this past weekend and I was quickly reminded that cash is a necessity in the big city.  Specifically, I’m talking about tips.  “Tip” is a word that supposedly originated in the 17th century, and somewhere along the way it was more elegantly referred to as a gratuity.  But sometimes I question how elegant the practice of tipping really is.

26 - gratuity

When my family and I arrived at our mid-town Manhattan hotel last Friday, I found myself tipping three people inside of fifteen minutes.  The cabbie, the curbside bellman, and the valet (who helped us with our bags and refused to step aside until I “greased his palm”).  In my book, a gratuity is a gesture of recognition for a job well done; a service that went above and beyond what you had in mind.  Nowadays however, tipping has reduced itself to more of an expectation.

Case in point.  That New York City cab ride was nothing more than a lift from Point A (airport) to Point B (hotel).  The cabbie did not say a word the entire time, when in fact he could’ve joined in the family conversation or at least pointed out the city sights as we passed them.  When we arrived at the hotel, the cab’s credit card machine allowed me the gratuity options of 20%, 25%, and 30% (nothing lower), and the cabbie actually complained about my choice of 20% for a large party.  I suppose you could decline all of those options and hand over less cash instead (which is what the cabbie’s sour attitude deserved).  Regardless I felt manipulated, as if the tip was mandatory instead of voluntary.

Americans would be surprised to learn that tipping is not a common practice outside of this country.  Canada and a few locales in Europe promote the practice, but otherwise the world’s countries don’t expect tipping and in some cases discourage it.  I find it interesting that tipping in the U.S. supposedly started in the Prohibition Era, when business owners reluctantly promoted tipping as a means of supplementing their employees’ wages at a time of lost revenue.  But again, the spirit of tipping in those days was for recognition; not as an expectation.

When I was in sixth grade, gratuity showed up on the weekly list of spelling words.  A few days after, a friend and I found ourselves at a local snack bar; the kind where you order at the counter and take your tray to a dining area.  After finishing our food we realized we could be “cool” and use one of our spelling words.  We left a $10 gratuity (virtually the same amount we spent on our snacks), then went to the corner of the dining area where we could watch the person who clears the trays.  I remember that person looking around as if someone had forgotten their cash.  I also remember the lecture from my friend’s mother a few hours later.  That verbal smack-down – fully deserved – included something along the lines of not understanding the meaning of our spelling words, and clearly not understanding how long it took our fathers to earn $10.  Whoops.

Here’s a little tip for you – ha.  The next time you dine at a restaurant or have your hair done, or receive some other service that asks for a little recognition, ask yourself the following:  Was the experience beyond expectation?  Did the person go out of their way to make the meal or the service a little more meaningful?  If yes, then the inevitable gratuity will be given in the spirit it was intended for all those years ago.