Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Our own little slice of Rockefeller Center

I love ice skating at Red Arrow Park here in Milwaukee. Its not a huge outdoor rink, let's call it cozy, but its our little slice of Rockefeller Center. Like that New York landmark, it's smack dab between the financial and entertainment district (in the shadow of three office buildings and the Performing Arts Center). Its only about 4500 square feet, with the cutest little Zamboni you ever saw to match -- I didn't know they made them as small as a Toyota pickup truck. The "park" itself looks more like a building's plaza in the summertime. It's named for an army infantry division that was comprised of a large percentage of Wisconsinites -- there's a giant symbol of that division standing there in lovely red granite. In the summer, it plays host to an arts and crafts festival, and is a generally good outdoor meeting place. Otherwise, it’s a space for the accompanying Starbucks to put out some tables. But in the winter, it comes truly alive, resembling a mise-en-scene out of a Woody Allen film. There's your standard rink hits music playing (with some dug-out-of-the-vault moldy gems like Shirley & Company's '75 hit "Shame Shame Shame") on overdriven woofers. There's the skate rental booth crammed into the back of the Starbucks, staffed by cute teenage boys and girls whose flirtation skills indicate they probably work the county pools as lifeguards during the summer. And of course, there's the Starbucks itself, with a fireplace to drink your hot chocolate by. I tell you, they probably don't sell this much hot chocolate at all its other metro locations combined. I didn't see one cup of Grande Latte or hear the espresso machine steaming like a locomotive the whole time I was there.

Its just such a wonderful cosmopolitan feel that you don't get at any of the indoor rinks. Outside of skate rental (and the price one pays for that requisite hot chocolate) it's free, and that might be a factor. The rink is so small that only on days where there are few skaters (and the school's-out week between Christmas and New Year's contain none of these) does anybody whizz by so fast you wipe out simply because you were caught off guard. Rather, on packed days like this, you glide along slowly, smiling at and laughing with the little (and big!) kids on one of their wipeouts, gasping at the guy who can effortlessly swoop by you backwards as though he were Elvis (Stoyko, that is!) and marvel at the diversity of people, skill level, coat colors, and hat and mitten styles. At night, the Performing Arts Center across the street glitters as its patrons empty out from yet another showing of The Nutcracker (and the view of the rink from inside the Performing Arts Center -- where Stella and I were indeed catching Michael Pink's annual run through of that Christmas ballet the other night -- gave me that "The New Yorker Is Practically My Bible" feeling, what with us in our "Going to the Ballet" finery, and Stella looking longingly at the seemingly silent skaters in the night lights.) I shouldn't have to even mention all the downtown city trees festooned with white Christmas lights, but Kilbourn Avenue, just south of the rink, had these really really blue lights on its boulevard trees, a blue so dark I had to remind myself they were really lights and not just exceptionally shiny blue tinsel. During the daytime, you see the city's business district workers walk and drive by, probably wishing they had taken an extra day off over the holidays, because since you (and the other 79% of the workforce) took the day off, absolutely nothing of consequence is getting accomplished in the office.

Stella and I have been here four times this season already, so today she was already broken into that 1st-day-of-the-ice-skating-season soreness in your calves and shins (and that tight around your ankles that ice skates require), and was able to resassure her girlfriends who joined us today that "oh, that hurting feeling will go away after about an hour…". And, since we'd already been used to hitting the ice as soon as the Zamboni driver shoveled off the grit from his work, we were puzzled that today, when the Zamboni-ist finished (and let me tell you, that ice was way overdue for a Zamboni-ing) nobody stepped onto the freshly cleaned ice. Normally, on a weekday, the ice is cleaned and you can't hold the kids back. Today, what? -- were we all awestruck admiring the sheen? I decided to be the obnoxious New Yorker and step out onto the ice. "What are we waiting for?" I asked the people behind the barriers throwing my arms up in frustration. A old guy said: "You have to wait for the ice to freeze up again" as I sashayed by. Ridiculous -- and by the time I'd made it around a full lap, the rink was already filling up. Kids told me later that the old guy was the Zamboni driver, who "likes to make us mad by making us wait." Great, a Zamboni driver who can't stand the fact that the bed he's made is just going to get instantly messed up again. What a perfect character! At first, Stella was humiliated at my performance, but then she realized I'd become a hero to the other kids for my personification of our collective impatience. Plus, for once in my life I was going to know what pseudo-virgin ice felt like, and honeys, it feels great!

Of course, it wouldn't be a near-NYC experience without an exchange of rudeness, now, would it? Actually it wasn't an exchange, I just held in what I wanted to say while returning Stella's rental skates, which was "Lady, when you decide to unlace and take off your skates in a less STOOPID place besides holding up the skate return line, in a less STOOPID way besides thinking you can do so standing up, while everybody else had the consideration of removing their skates on the aptly-provided benches, then I'll apologize more than gratuitously for my genuinely innocently bumping into you as I make my way to the front of the line in this cramped area so that the frustrated clerk there can take my rentals, give me my kid's shoes, send me on my way and keep the ever-growing line moving. These are figure skates I'm using, else next time my innocent bump would have more quickly morphed into a full-blown hockey-style check." But I didn't say it. That wouldn't have been very Milwaukee of me.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Eating my socks

Well, I've not written of the past couple of Bucks games because it's been Christmas and all. Christmas Eve Eve (that's the 23rd) husband and I went to see Bucks v Miami. Good tight game. Both teams wearing crisp white socks, so that explains it. Bango the Mascot still has his arm in a sling, which is a darn shame because he's the only one with anything of an arm to throw out freebies to the fans. This means that only the fans in the $$$$ seats are getting freebies, the last people who really NEED freebies. Anthem given to us by a saxophonist by the name of Jeremy Scott, who blew the thing like he was Bleeding Gums Murphy. For a moment there, during "the rockets' red glare" he was in danger of slipping into Kenny G, but he came back and held the high "land of the freeeeeeeeeeeeee" rather long, which eliminated any thoughts of Mr G. Oh, the game! They're back on track. They're not relying on those threes, (but they were hitting the ones they were taking), and they're getting their pretty passing game back. One day they'll be able to combine their pretty passing with shooting and they'll be contenders.

However, tonight, my husband calls me into the living room during a televised away game. "Hon," he says, "looks like the Bucks' away socks are black."

"Yeah, looks like they're losing, too," I said. Admittedly, I have to remember that the Bucks are doing rather well on the road. I'm going to need to get out an excel spreadsheet, and crunch some numbers, and see if there really is anything to my theory about black socks and winning. And if there isn't, well they still look ridiculous. The Bucks have NO black in their uniforms. They may not wear black socks. They do not have my permission. So there.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Princess Non-Sequiter, I

Stella and I are driving on the freeway, listening to the radio, when some "rock and roll quiz" comes on and I correctly get the answer: "Oh, that's the Allman Brothers." I've been on a huge Allman Brothers kick lately (which is rather out of character for me) so Stella knows who the Allman Brothers are. But what she didn't know was:

"Why are they called the Allman Brothers?"

"Because there were two brothers, Gregg and Duane Allman, and this is their band."

"Were everybody in the band brothers?" Stella asked.

"No, they weren't. Actually, technically, the name of the band is The Allman Brothers' Band," I said, pronouncing 'brothers' as 'brothers-es' to get the possessive right verbally, "But when most people just say 'Allman Brothers' they mean the whole band, even the guys who weren't brothers."

"OK, mom?"

"Yeah?"

"What's that song by the Allman Brothers that I like?"

"Mountain Jam," I told her, reaching for my Ipod, anticipating her next question, knowing she's going to want to hear it.

"Mom?" she began to ask, here it comes....

"Yeah?"

"Can I go scuba diving some day?"

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hoops: Knowing your sock and shooting limitations

Bucks v. Miami, at the game with Stella. I don't even want to talk about the game, but here's the rundown. Bucks come out strong in the 1st quarter by sticking to the basics. Miami realizes they're in trouble, and by halftime the score is close. Bucks seem to think that even though they haven't hit a 3 all night, they can suddenly catch up the 10-20 points they're down by hitting 3s (which they CAN'T tonight, can they not read their own stats?) and instead of going back to the basics -- which their first quarter performance told them was the way to go, they keep hoping for miracles. So instead of good old layups (which helped them dominate 1Q) they forget that all their 3 point power guys are out with injuries/sick. They end up losing 100-83.

Now, over to Shaq. "I like Shaq," Stella says "I don't even care if we lose because I like Shaq." Everybody likes Shaq, and I like Shaq, too, not the least reason being that even though his team's uniform would justify it, he has the fashion sense not to wear those hideous black socks so many NBA players seem to think is cool. No, Shaq is looking cool and sports-like with crisp white athletic socks. His team is one of the few whose away uniforms (and home ones, too) could do black socks: the Miami Heat sports a black uniform, with white numerals, and a snappy touch of red trim. A few of the Heat did indeed wear black socks, and it wasn't godawful, but it still proves my point about maybe. Maybe you could do black socks if your uniform had enough black in it to work, but the white socks simply look better.

You can count on a stylish man like Shaq to realize this. He knows that nobody with any panache would be caught dead with black socks with shorts and gym shoes. That's something maybe his tacky biological would do (you know, the one who didn't bother). No, Shaq bothers to look in the mirror and say to himself, "No, I could do this because my uniform has lots of black in it. I could do this simply because I'm Shaq. But I know my limitations." Knowing one's limitations is why Shaq dominated last night. Not knowing one's limitations, whether its dressing in stupid looking socks or not having a good night with the three-pointers, is why the Bucks lost.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Where are you, Ello? Too smart for your own good?

Well doesn't it just figure that if a toy company came up with something cool and neat that actually required a child to think and use their imagination, it would be given up on in the market after only two years? Simply pushed aside, even if in those two years, the product "just flew off the shelves" and won just about every award out there from parent and child educational and development journals and websites?

Stella and I went to Toys R Us to get a gift for her friend's birthday, and Stella already knew what she wanted to get her friend. "An Ello set," she said. Stella loves Ello: a "creation system" -as toymaker Mattel calls it- and that description isn't just PR. It's accurate. It includes a variety of pieces, balls, sticks, panels and "people" parts so that a child can build a house, people in that house, jewelry for themselves, or whatever. It was the most open-ended imagination toy I'd ever seen marketed for girls. I've yet to meet a parent who didn't love it, and every kid I know who has it (and Stella has seen to it that any friend who invites her to a party gets a set) loves it too. As a parent, there's a certain smug joy out of seeing your kid holed up for hours in her room, putting together her "Ello city" and coming up with new ways to put these parts together, rather than zombie out in front of the TV or some stupid video game. It's getting her to think outside the box.

Stella was disappointed, not only because she had to get further out of that box and think up something else to get her friend, but that seemingly her favorite toy was nowhere. We asked a tired holiday-time employee at the Toys R Us front desk where they moved Ello, and she said "If we even still have it, its would be [where we'd already looked]." We found a manager-type person and complained, and the manager said "Yeah, we're not getting these anymore. It’s a shame too, I really liked it. I used to love doing product demos, but it just didn't catch on."

Not catch on?

The story behind Ello's creation is a meta-story of encouragement of creativity in and of itself. Mattel's then-Senior VP of Worldwide Girls Design, Ivy Ross (who has since been snapped up by the Gap and is working for Old Navy) was profiled in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company, where she discussed the program that developed Ello. According the the Fast Company story, Ross assembled a cross-disciplinary team of designers, child development specialists and others, dubbed it Project Platypus, (aptly after that hybrid mammal that looks like an birdlike amphibian) and gave them the task (and the freedom) to come up with something new for girls. The team emerged with Ello, and it was a hit, even in pre-release focus groups. Ross gushed to Kidscreen.com in March of 2003 about the beta market testing: "The response was excellent. People couldn't find it and they were writing letters and e-mails wanting to know where they could get it...If we do the dollars that we're expected to do, and early indications are positive, then this will be an extremely profitable line...People are amazed at what we got done in three months. We basically delivered a brand that had all the research done, the merchandising was thought-out, and the product was ready to be manufactured." A great story: a toy that fostered creativity for girls, delivered by a business management style that fostered creativity.

According to the Fast Company piece, it was test marketed at FAO Schwartz, where it "flew off the shelves." Later, apparently, the numbers delivered. According to Mattel's 2003 Annual Report, Ello was one of the company's feature sellers, leading its "Other Girls Brands" division: "Increases in gross sales of Other Girls Brands was driven by solid performances by Polly Pocket™ and ello™." The 2004 report says much the same: In the domestic segment, "..lower sales of Barbie™, Diva Starz™, What's Her Face!™, Wheels and Harry Potter™ products were partially offset by gains in Polly Pocket™ and ello™." It was a triumph not only for young girls, who finally had a construction set marketed to them, but for the power of thinking outside the box in a business environment. At Today'sParent.Com, it made the Top Toy list with a telling comment from a 6-year-old-girl named Rebecca: "You can look through the idea booklet, but they don’t tell you exactly what to do, so you have to use your imagination.”

So what happened in 2005? Stella hit some birthday parties earlier this year and there was still plenty of Ello to be had. Now, there's only a few "Shopopolis" sets left on Amazon, Toys R Us has given up on it, and this mom and her daughter walked to another department disgusted, as we mused to the Toys R Us manager-type person: "Oh, figures. This toy forced kids to think and use their imaginations. We can't have that, can we? Everything's got to be force-fed video games." The manager-type person sadly agreed. One of the few negative reviewers of Ello on Amazon.com probably sums this effect up succinctly and sadly: "My daughter likes polly pockets so I thought should would like this but it was just a bunch of junk with lots of pieces." (sic) That's right lady, this is a product that requires a bit of thought, to actually put the pieces together and create something. This concept is probably, sadly, beyond many parents/kids today, who are wowed by Amazing Amanda and her ability to urinate on cue, or by those --as another Amazon reviewer who gave Ello 5 stars said-- "sleazy Bratz dolls" and their tacky pimpmobile.

Mattel's customer service department says they haven't stopped making Ello. "As far as I know," the friendly girl who answered my call said, "We haven't discontinued them." I heard her tap out a database, as she assured me that the People Places and Things, the Starter Set and a "Design A Watch With Ellos" set is still being made. But she couldn't say much about availability. Is it that you're just relaxing for this season, and perhaps come back next year stronger?" I asked. "That's a possibility," she said, but didn't seem to know more. In the meantime, you can still get Shopopolis from places with names like "Mastermind toys" --and other places that appeal to parents who want to subversively encourage their kids to exercise their brains while playing (god forbid the kids ever find out a toy has our approval because its good for them!).

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Singin' in the cold

I promised I'd not be so negative all the time, and its as though I was sent this wonderful lady at the bus stop this morning just so I could write about her. Car's in the shop, so I'm taking the bus before the sun comes up. Its 1 degreee above zero and I'm just accepting that I'm going to freeze when this lady walks up and says "OK, I need the right attitude" and she start to belt out "Let it Snow." By the second line I was contributing the alto part. The other people at the bus stop were smiling, and it took our mind off this fridgid cold. Then she went into good ol' "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" (I think the correct title is "The Christmas Song" but "Chestnuts..." is not only the way I know the song, but also pretty much the only words I know.) We let her do that as a solo (big of us, eh?) and she got halfway through when the bus arrived. Those of us at the stop talked her into finishing the song. It was a wonderfully cynicism-free moment. Not one person at the stop or on the bus rolled their eyes in annoyance, everybody smiled, a few joined in and helped her remember some of the more obscure words.

Turns out she was practicing for a company talent show this weekend. She was good. Not only vocally, but she was just a good thing to start off this otherwise cold, cold morning.

LA, you can't do the black socks, either

What is up with this? Have I been in the dark all this time? Is this some horrible trend that I'm just catching on to? I feel like Lynda Barry: "What if this is cool and I just can't tell?" Except that Lynda Barry was referring to a lime green knitted midi-skirt her character Arna made at the Sears Knitting School, circa 1967. No, that lime green knitted midi-skirt was not cool ever, and it never will be and neither will black socks.

LA Lakers v. Bucks. The Lakers were on, the Bucks were probably cocky from Saturday's game because tonight they just didn't have it going. We left, down by 20, three minutes to go. But those Lakers and the black socks -- FEH! And their away uniforms are PURPLE. Uh guys, if you want to go with dark socks, get some purple ones. It's not hard. If you can afford sparkly purple patent leather shoes (which some of you have) you can find yourself some purple socks. Or else, whatever happened to good ol' white socks with three stripes at the top in your dominant team color? Those black socks look like "Well, I just couldn't find my purple ones, so hopefully people won't notice these are really black." That excuse only works if you're getting ready for work in the morning, and the closet light isn't that bright, and you confuse black with navy or purple. No, there's no excuse in an NBA locker room, where the lights are so bright you could perform surgery.

Ugh, the game was so pathetic that all I can blog on were those terrible black socks. Please, for the love of God, when I go see Miami next Wednesday, please, wear some decent socks.

Oh, and note to Kobe Bryant fan sitting next to my husband and screaming "Kobe! I LOOOOOOOVE YOU!" Girlfriend, at best, he cheats on his wife. At worst, well, he was acquitted so I can't really say more without getting sued. And now that I've seen him in person, he's just not that good looking.

I promise, this won't be such a bitchy blog in the future. Especially if Miami turns up in better color coordination.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Introducing the Mrs. Bill Veeck Uniform design award

... an honor I plan to bestow on sports team uniforms at intervals at my discretion. The award is given to team uniforms which inspire the phrase "What were they thinking?!?!?" Tonight's award goes to NBA stars the Orlando Magic.

I took my daughter to Milwaukee Bucks v. Orlando Magic this evening. Our family has a pair of seats to a Bucks 24 game package, so my husband and I take turns going together, or with the kid, or with a friend or whatever. Tonight was girls' night out, just me and my 7 year old, Stella. We both love a good hoops game, but we're both fashionistas.

Yeah, I could comment on the game itself, which the Bucks won handily. Former Marquette star Travis Diener saw a bit more action on the floor for the Magic, probably because the Magic weren't supposed to win this game anyway, so why not give the hometown boy some glory? And Diener delivered, giving all his fans plenty of reason to shout "Tra-vis.... Die-ner" with the same cadence you normally hear for "Dee-fence.... Dee-fence..."

Big deal. The game wasn't exciting, there was only one point where Orlando even gave us a scare, that was early in the third quarter and the Bucks quickly took care of that. So there was only one thing I could say to my little girl:

"Who told the Orlando Magic that black socks thing looks at all good? These guys look like my grampa, wearing his black knee socks in the summertime with his plaid shorts!"

And its not like the Orlando Magic's uniforms justify those horrid black socks. Their away uniforms are a columbian blue, with white numbers and trim. If there's any black in those uniforms, its so minimal that wearing black socks and shoes with them is NOT picking out the color. Maybe the Chicago Bulls, with their orangish/red and black uniforms, could get away with it. Maybe the Oakland Raiders. Not the Orlando Magic.

So, you ask, who is Mrs. Bill Veeck and what does she have to do with this award? Back in the late 70s, when her husband owned the Chicago White Sox, she was given the task of redesigning the team's uniforms. What she came up with is the ugliest team uniform ever: the male equavalent of those horrid gym uniforms I was forced to wear in the early 70s. Mrs. Veeck's design was basically an oversized giant top, the kind 45 year old men wear to play 16-inch softball, over some shorter-than-usual semi-fitted pants. They were hideous. If you wanted to market baseball to more women in the late 70s, Mrs. Veeck, this was NOT the way to do it. The mom in me understands her thinking, though. They looked comfortable, you'd be able to move easily in them. But there were hideous.

The whole thing brings to mind a quote I read many, many years ago, in Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." He's talking about how vain some baseball players got, and liked their unforms tight, and one player, whose name escapes me, says "I add 20 points to my average if I know I look bitchin' out there," and I don't doubt the effect for a minute. Hey, Orlando, did you really expect to win a basketball game when you're looking like somebody's grampa, ready to change into some brown plastic sandals to go with those black socks after the game?

Friday, December 02, 2005

One More for the Road

OK, among my demons is my weight. I've lost 50 pounds before, but I'm stuck. So a month ago I went to the doctor and we ran some blood tests and ruled out anything like a messed up thyroid or anything like that. No, my metabolism isn't messed up. Darn it. Would've been nice to get some drug and let my thyroid do all the work. Naahh. It's probably better, because even if I had a crappy thyroid, I still have horrible eating habits that I would not have corrected.

So tomorrow I have an appointment with a nutritionist. Its coming up on Christmas season, what a wonderful time to begin a new eating program. (You learn in Weight Watchers its not a diet, its an eating program. It’s a behavior. Its ….. Its…. Oh nuts, it’s a diet.) We'll talk, and then I'll remind this person I've heard this before and at this point, I don't know where to go with this, but I've got to do something. Its out of control.

So, before I leave the office today, I bought a final fundraising sized Butterfinger, and snarfed it
down, the way an alcoholic gets wasted the night before they hit their first AA meeting. I didn’t even crave the sugar or chocolate. I just did it because this is going to be the last time that I could. The last time I will eat something just because it is there.