Monday, August 22, 2005

Seem to Be Repeating Myself

In Missoula, MT since late Saturday night. Yesterday we did quite a bit of picture taking. While browsing the pictures on the laptop this morning, I noticed something a little odd.

Here's one I took yesterday from a little lookout point on the Clark Fork river:
Other Direction on Clark Fork

Here's one I took when we were here last November:
Other Direction last November

Even the angle is eerily the same. Apparently, I just like that shot.

I also did the same facing the other direction from the same spot. Again, yesterday:
Clark Fork River

And last November:
Clark Fork River Last November

I need to get moving here so we can go get breakfast and decide whether to buy a not-yet-built house. Much more to come, later.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Defending Starbucks

I've recently taken to listening to a couple podcasts. One of them is the Feast of Fools, a humorous (often hysterical) show by a Chicago gay couple.

Anyway, this episode brought up the topic of Starbucks (as in the coffee place). Apparently, the Concerned Women of America wants to boycott Starbucks because of a gay-positive quote from the author Armistad Maupin on the side of some of the coffee cups.

Anyway, this post isn't really about that part. The boycott is silly, and is unlikely to make a difference to Starbucks. In my mind, of course, that is a good thing.

During the conversation, one of them -- maybe Fausto, I'm not sure -- commented that this was funny because it now both the right and the left hate Starbucks -- the right because of this silly coffee cup issue, and the left because they are a huge, horrible corporation. Or something like that. I have heard this bit about the left "hating Starbucks" and frankly, I've never understood it.

If you don't like the taste of the coffee ("burnt" or just too strong), then fine, that is a valid reason to dislike Starbucks. All their coffee is dark roast, so you gotta like dark roast to like it. I admit I've become a coffee snob and I only like sufficiently strong coffee. I remember last November we drove out to Montana and drank hardly any coffee in the entire state of North Dakota. At all the places we stopped, it was so weak it tasted like brown-colored water. Fortunately, Montana has excellent coffee (and most of it is not Starbucks, incidentally)

But I don't understand why generally "progressive" people would dislike Starbucks. Full disclosure: Laura worked for Starbucks in Chicago (at various stores) for about 3-4 years as a low-level Barista. That's the person behind the counter who slings the coffee at you, then mops the floors and cleans the espresso machine during the slow times. She did become a supervisor for a short time before leaving, but lets be clear here -- she was not any sort of executive here.

Starbucks does all the things that I would think progressive people would like. They may be large, like Walmart, but their corporate philosophy and behavior are nothing like Walmart's:
  • Starbucks entry-level wages usually start well above minimum wage. No, they don't pay baristas huge salaries. But they do pay better wages than other comparable food service and retail jobs. I am taking Laura's word on this, as she worked at a number of retail jobs before Starbucks.

  • Health benefits. Starbucks provides full health benefits for part-time employees, not just full-time people. I believe this was the first job Laura ever had that paid health benefits. While she was working there, I left a Large Accounting Firm and went to a Small Software Company where we had benefits, but not as comprehensive as Laura's Starbucks benefits. Incidentally, Laura's pseudotumor episode happened while she worked there, and if it wasn't for those benefits, we'd probably still be in debt due to the hospital stays, MRIs, and spinal taps.

  • Domestic partner benefits. Starbucks has provided benefits to partners of gay employees for a very long time. Laura started working there in, I believe, 1996 and this benefit was fairly well-entrenched. I realize this has become much more common in recent years (thankfully!), but Starbucks was there early on. For a few years there, I was on Laura's dental insurance until my company got around to adding those benefits as well. My own cool, small software company didn't get around to adding domestic partner benefits until around 2001.

  • They support progressive causes. Hence, the gripes from the Concerned Women of America.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Starbucks does make an effort to treat the coffee farmers well and pay them fairly for their beans. Go take a look at the Corporate Social Responsibility Annual Report. Incidentally, do all corporations produce such reports? I've never heard of such a thing.
Does Starbucks make a ton of money selling you overpriced coffee? Yes, they make a profit. But they could probably make much more profit if they shafted the coffee growers and paid employees minimum wage and reserved health benefits for the upper echelons of management. If anyone has any evidence of Starbucks doing such things, please let me know, because all the info I'm finding online suggests that Starbucks is operating exactly the way a progressive person would want them to.

Heck, if you don't believe what Starbucks says about themselves, then take a look at this list of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, complied by Business Ethics. Yes, Starbucks is on it, and has been all five years the list has been in existence. Here is how Business Ethics explains what they're looking for in their list:
"While traditional measures of success focus on stockholder return, this list defines success more broadly. Using social ratings compiled by KLD Research & Analytics of Boston -- plus total return to shareholders -- our list ranks companies according to service to seven stakeholder groups: stockholders, community, minorities and women, employees, environment, non-U.S. stakeholders, and customers. Good corporate citizens serve all constituencies well. That’s the emerging definition of corporate success."
Sounds like a progressive's dream come true to me. Big business with a conscience!

Employee relations and coffee growers aside, the other big complaint against Starbucks is that they drive out more interesting local coffee shops. There is some truth to this, although again the complaint does not quite make sense.

When Walmart comes into a town, they can offer the same goods as local businesses at significantly lower prices. Hence, the local shops lose customers.

When Starbucks comes into a town, do they undercut existing businesses in the same way? Given that everyone complains about the high price of Starbucks coffee, I think the answer here is no. They don't necessarily charge less than the local coffee shops. Most likely they charge more. So how exactly do they drive out the local places?

The only answer I can find is that people start going to Starbucks anyway. And then they complain about it.

I recall a conversation with a co-worker a few years ago. She liked the Starbucks in Naperville because the baristas recognized her and remembered her preferences each day. When Laura worked at Starbucks, she worked in a very fast-paced store in downtown Chicago that was frequented by hyped-up stock traders and others on their way to high-pressure jobs. Many of these customers were regulars and Laura or one of the other employees would recognize the regulars and start making their drinks when they walked in the door. Sounds more like a friendly local place than the soulless, faceless, fast-food corporate hell critics like to describe!

Well, enough defense of Starbucks -- I need to get ready for my Missoula trip! I plan on drinking lots of great coffee while I'm there, most likely from local, downtown coffee shops.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Missoula, Montana II

If you read Laura's blog, you may already know that she has fallen in love with a not-yet-built townhouse in Missoula.

So far, I like what I've read about the builder, the neighborhood, and the remaining houses available. The overall design of the neighborhood sounds much like my current one -- mixed use, a variety of different types of houses, pedestrian friendly, etc. The advantage is, unlike my current neighborhood, you could actually walk to places like Barnes and Noble (among others). Walking distance to a that is a huge plus!

Ever since we started planning this move I've been looking forward to drastically slashing my car use. Telecommuting is a huge part of that of course -- losing the 50 mile-round-trip drive five days a week is going to free up a fair amount of cash I currently pump into the Civic's gas tank. Being able to walk or bicycle for other errands would also be a huge help, especially since Laura might need to drive to work, leaving me stranded at home. It would be nice to be able to run out for a sandwich at lunch without needing a car.

On the other hand, I also really like the idea of a house with mature trees, which we certainly won't get for many, many years if we build new. Alas, the pros and cons.

Anyway, since I hesitate to buy something I haven't seen, we've planned a very short visit. Laura spent God-knows how much time on her parents' computer (dialup!) and the phone rearranging her flight and arranging a flight for me so that I can fly out there and take a look.

If we do go for it, our housing situation could get very strange in the next few months. If someone buys our house soon, we would end up homeless until the townhouse is done. We'd have to get a short-term rental, or move in with family members--now that is a frightening idea! On the other hand, we could continue to wait and wait for a buyer and end up owning both houses at once. The very thing I have been striving to avoid.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Missoula, Montana

For anyone who doesn't know, Laura and I are planning in moving to Missoula, Montana just at soon as we manage to sell our house. I plan to continue working for my current company by telecommuting.

Laura is currently in Montana visiting her family. She spent Thursday and Friday in Missoula looking at houses with our realtor out there, trying to get a better idea of how much house you can get for the money in the various neighborhoods. She's going back again next week for another day or too. We're currently weighing some of our options -- new construction or existing? Which neighborhood? Etc. Laura is driving me a little nuts because she calls me and gushes about a house, then the next day calls and disses the same house. Make up your mind! I think part of the problem is that she doesn't want to get too attached to anything right now, since we don't know when our house is going to sell, so we don't know when we'll actually get to move. Many of the houses she's looking at now will probably be sold by the time we're ready to buy. I'm too chicken to put down an offer now and risk owning two homes!

Anyway, since I will eventually live in Montana (and I currently live with a Montanan in Exile), I regularly read the various Montana bloggers. Sharon at Watermark did this week's Rascal Fair, a roundup of Montana blog posts. Aside from a great list of posts, I discovered something else there -- a Flickr group devoted specifically to Missoula! There is also a Big Sky group for Montana pictures in general.

I may need join the Missoula group. I have a ton of Missoula pictures from our visit last November (a few of them are already on my flickr account, but not many...yet). And I definitely need to tell Laura about this. I think she'll enjoy looking at these pictures once she comes back, when she gets homesick for Montana and impatient for our move. I don't want to link to other people's pictures without their permission, so go to the group pool at Flickr to see them.

RIP Nicky

This is a little overdue -- I haven't been in a blogging mood lately. Laura is off in Montana visiting her family and looking at houses in Missoula. I'm here working like normal and trying to keep the house ready for showings.

Anyway, on Monday, my parents' dog Nicky died. He was an adorable shih'tzu that they've got as a puppy, along with his litter mate Alex. At the time, my mom was reading various histories and decided to name the new puppies Nicholas and Alexandra. Nicky would have been 13 years old this October.

This is a picture of him I took last December, when we went to my parents' house to celebrate Christmas. He's in his favorite spot at the end of the sofa:

I suppose there is never really a "good time" for something like this, but it seems to me that the timing here was awful. Nicky had been having trouble with one foot for a while. They went to the vet and it was just an infection, so they started giving him antibiotics. Last week, my sister and her family came to visit, so the house was full of chaos for days. Neither Nicky or Alex are used to children, so they spent most of the time trying to stay out of the way.

Anyway, a few days into the visit my parents became very worried about Nicky and took him back to the vet. He had lost a significant amount of weight, too much to chalk it up to anxiety over the kids visiting (my theory). X-rays showed he had a tumor in his lungs and the bones in his foot were damaged due to bone cancer. It is unclear whether the cancer started in his lungs and spread to the bones or vice versa.

My parents tried to keep him comfortable and encourage him to eat. They mixed Ensure into water, but he would not drink it. Sometimes he seemed alert, but most of the time he was having trouble breathing. So, on Monday, the day after my sister's family left, they took him to the vet and had him put down.

Nicky's sister Alex still seems to be healthy, although she has started to mope. She's been with Nicky her whole life, so I'm sure his disappearance has affected her. This picture is from last Thanksgiving, the two of them together on the sofa:
Nicky and Alex

This seems to be a bad year for dogs that I know. My good friend Jane lost her beautiful border collie Bandit in March. This is Bandit and Nicky together in my house. We dog-sat for Nicky, Alex, and Bandit last January/February.

Bandit and Nicky

They are all just really sweet, wonderful dogs. I have missed Bandit since she died; I know I'm going to miss Nicky as well.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Just Call Me Aunt Sara

My sister's family came to visit this past week, and now I am exhausted. Her family includes two girls, ages 5 and 7. Well, technically they are 4 and 6, but their birthdays are at the end of August and early September, so it is close enough.

Anyhow, I am wiped out. I took off Wed-Friday to spend time with them. They were all staying at my parents' house, which is about 30 minutes from where I live.

On Wednesday we (me, Laura, my sister, and my mother) took them to downtown Chicago to the American Girl Place store. Laura wrote about that here (complete with links). It was a bit overwhelming. At the risk of caving into stereotypes, I really wasn't into dolls much as a kid, so I really didn't expect to enjoy this particular excursion. It was actually quite fun, much to my surprise. I suspect much of the fun came from watching the delight of my nieces. There was no doubt that they were having a great time, even though Grandma (my mom) made them dress in matching pink dresses and hats. Well, maybe they liked the pink dresses. I would post a picture (they were quite adorable), but I think my sister would not appreciate pictures of her kids circulating on the Internet.

I suspect the commuters on the Metra train did not really appreciate the very loud singing on the way there and back that day. To anyone who rode the 10:05 AM Metra Union Pacific West line train from Geneva to Chicago last Wednesday morning -- you have my apologies for the noise. Ditto for those on the 5:32 PM train from Chicago to Geneva.

We spent a little time with them on Thursday, then all day on Friday while my sister and her husband got a full kid-free day. We watched videos (I've think I've had enough Peter Rabbit for a while. My mom started decorating the house with Peter Rabbit stuff when the older girl was born, and she has had nearly seven years to collect the stuff. The kids decided to create a "made up" uncle called "Uncle Peter Rabbit." I think that demonstrates the overabundance of Beatrix Potter stuff in my parents' house).

Anyway, we also played outside, where the older girl was fascinated by bugs, particularly this one on a tree leaf:
A Bug on a Tree

She kept calling it a ladybug, and I kept correcting her. Then it changed color and she decided it had made a cocoon:
The Bug Has Changed Color

She would not believe me when I said it was still a bug. Finally she ran and got Grandpa and he managed to convince her that it was still just a bug. I think Laura is appalled by this fascination with insects.

After lunch we walked the girls to a nearby park. We stupidly forgot to bring water, so we couldn't stay very long before heading back. Cricket came along on the walk, and was so exhausted that she took over the kids' doll bed:
Cricket Claiming the Doll Bed

Hey, it was the perfect size! She was rather traumatized by the small people running around shouting "Cricky!" and wanting to pick her up, so she deserved a good nap:
Even on a Doll Bed, she has to have the Pillow!

Saturday the kids came to my house briefly so that they could see where "Aunt Sara" lives. I think they found my house dull, because unlike Grandma's, it does not have toys hidden in every corner. We all went back to Grandma's for dinner.

It was great to see the kids. They currently live on an Air Force base in Oklahoma (my brother-in-law is in the Air Force, but no, he does not fly planes). Before that they were in Okinawa, and before that they were in New Mexico. There is a good chance that they will be sent off somewhere again, possibly overseas, or maybe to Alaska. So there is no guarantee how often they get to visit.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Catching Up

So much going much NOT going on. I don't know. I see haven't posted since July 14. I have no excuses other than it is summer, I am feeling lazy, and I don't have a coterie of guest bloggers on hand to fill in for me. Anyway, a bunch of utterly unrelated thoughts...

We're still waiting for someone to buy the house. Laura decided to order a St. Joseph statue. Supposedly burying this upside down will help sell the house. I think this sounds bizarre, but who am I to argue? I am anxious to sell the house and get on with this move. It feels like we've had our lives on hold forever. Laura's place has many more posts about our impatience.

Several of the Montana Bloggers are protesting a Las Vegas businessman’s attempt to trademark the phrase “The Last, Best Place.” This is the phrase used as the title of William Kittredge's anthology about Montana. I think we own a copy of that book, actually. Anyway, to protest this, the bloggers are temporarily changing the titles of their blogs to "The Last, Best Place." It looks like Watermark has a pretty good list of participants so far.

This is a terrific post that nearly made me cry. I will only quote this tiny bit, because you really must read the whole thing:
At two years old, Christopher has the angry fuck-you attitude I still don't have, a willingness to suffer a broken nose from getting smacked with the back of a shovel if it means not losing face. I can't think of a single incident in my early childhood when I had that raw anger necessary to protect myself. Instead, I mistakenly believed if I was nice, and fair, and showed a willingness to get along, bullies would leave me alone. And if worst came to worst, I'd follow the popular advice of teachers and parents and just ignore them.

I have no idea why this advice is so popular. As adults, haven't they figured out that the joy of bullying is bullying itself? Ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. What makes it go away is that willingness to step up to the edge and jump, even if it means getting hurt.
During the month of July, John Scalzi took a break. He DID have a coterie of guest bloggers to fill in for them, and they were all very entertaining. Which reminds me, I've added mythago to my list of links over there on the right.

Finally, there is this post from Jason at Positive Liberty (which, incidentally, has recently become a group blog). I really don't have much to add. The pictures do a terrific job of rebutting the utterly nasty e-mail Jason is recounting. I've noticed that the "ex-gay" people tend to focus mostly on men, not women, so I've never been the target of this sort of thing. Jason did a terrific job. The post has lots of great comments, too.