“Tell Her You Live in the House Above Dickie’s Old Place”

April 25, 2010:

On our way to dinner tonight we passed by a cute little beagle running down the road.  We didn't think anything of it, since we regularly see dogs from the neighborhood running free (the culture of freedom in Vermont extends to dogs apparently).  When we returned from dinner, we found him sitting on our porch steps.  Meghan saw him first, and I hadn't even seen him yet, so I just heard her say "hey little, guy, what you doing here?" and I thought she was talking about our cat.  I quickly realized she wasn't when the dog started barking and growling. 

I figured I would start by calling our landlord, John, to see if he knew whose dog it was.  It seemed like a good bet since he knows everyone in the neighborhood, all 10 houses on the 2 mile road.  I gave him a description and he thought it belonged to his other tenant.  He came up to check it out and found that it wasn't his dog. 

John came into the house to discuss the situation and asked if we had a local phone book to look up the number for animal control.  Here's where it gets very "Vermonty." 

My wife and I looked at each other and said "phone book?" then remembered that we did indeed receive a few copies of the slim tome a few months ago.  Since it was so thin, it was useless as a door stop – the only use for it we ever had back in Massachusetts – so we threw them out.  I quickly looked up the town's web site (yep, Moretown has a web site, found right here) and found the number for animal control.

I was impressed that there was a web presence at all, but it is also kept pretty much up to date.  Apparently the guy who used to be the animal control officer is now the town constable, so John's connections went out the window.  He mumbled something about someone else he knew that he would have called but "they moved off to Rivers Four Corners" or somewhere else folksy-sounding like that. 

On the Moretown web site there were two people listed under animal control. TWO.   That means that a full 0.12% of the Moretown population is involved with animal control.  That may not sound like much, but way of comparison, there would have to be nearly 10,000 people involved with animal control in NYC to have the save ratio.  I'm guessing it is because of the potential for massive cow rampages.  

Anyway, John knew one of them, and said to "call Paula and tell her that you live in the house above Dickie's old place, and she'll know where you're talking about."  He basically decided that his involvement with the situation was done and excused himself.  Vermonters are a no-nonsense type of people.

After multiple phone calls to both of the animal control people (come to think of it, one of them never called me back), since one went right to voice mail and the other was busy, I finally got a call back and I relayed the information about where we lived.  It worked.

I swear, I can not make this shit up.  I don't think I even gave a house number – just "we're in the log cabin up above Dickie's old place" and she said "OK, I'll be right there after I borrow a dog carrier from the neighbor."   I'm thinking that the town couldn't afford their own carrier since they spent all that money on the web site.

Paula did arrive a short while later and we were able to get the dog to come to us with the benefit of some dog treats and saw that the dog had a tussle with a local porcupine.  The poor thing had quills in its snout and in its paws.  I actually don't know what happened to the dog, but at least the shelter has a "no-kill" policy for stray animals, so it couldn't have ended too gruesomely.

SIX Seasons?

The first thing you learn when you move to Vermont – and I do mean the first thing; they may as well hand out pamphlets at the state line to anyone with a U-Haul in tow – is that there are six seasons in Vermont, not four.

Before jumping into them, let me clarify something: weather is both the biggest obsession and least concerning things of all Vermonters at the same time.  There is always discussion and debate about the weather, but the local television stations spend no extra time on it and don't even attempt to explain it, mainly because it is impossible.  I've sat in my house, watching them predict "no more than ten inches of snow in the highest elevations" while I look outside at our thousand-foot-elevation yard to see about eighteen inches of the white stuff. 

Snow is the weather event most easily identified with Vermont, but you can't forget about rain, fog, freezing fog, freezing rain, and something called rime which is just horrible sounding.   Oh, and my favorite: clouds.  Clouds stop being something that you look up at when you live in Vermont.  They are something that you look sideways at, drive through, and on a surprisingly large number of occasions, actually look DOWN at. 

So yes, winter is THE season of choice in Vermont.  Skiing is popular because of snow, but also because the people of Vermont are a little crazy, and it seems like a really good idea to go outside when the weather is really shitty and cold out.  More on skiing later.

Back to the six seasons thing: as I mentioned, one of the first things you learn when you move to Vermont is that there are six seasons, not four.  Yes, there are the traditional Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, but in Vermont, there are two additional seasons: Twig and Mud. 

Twig season isn't universally recognized by all Vermonters, though I've found most of them do.   The concept is simple: it is the season between fall and winter. 

Fall in Vermont is beautiful, as the mountains explode with the beautiful colors of autumn.  Lush carpets of orange, amber, brown, red and yellow cover hills and valleys and attract vast amounts of tourists who spend amazing amounts of money to watch leaves die. 

Winter, of course, is characterized by snow and other forms of frozen precipitation and attracts winter sports enthusiasts as the insane asylums decide to let them get out and stretch their legs for a few months.  The snow can be beautiful as it coats the mountains in powder sugar-like patterns. 

In between those two beautiful seasons is a gap.  A gap filled by… twig season.  The leaves have fallen, but there's no snow hanging around except maybe in the mountains.  Thus, you have twig season, and it is pretty much as ugly as you're thinking it is.

The other season unique to Vermont (and probably any other state that has rural areas which receive a lot of snow) is MUD SEASON.  The caps are intentional, since the second thing you learn upon moving to Vermont is this: if you think the winter is bad, wait 'till mud season.  In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that you will hear that line, verbatim, at least five times within your first two weeks of living in Vermont, and that is a conservative measure.  They may actually teach it in schools up here.  I'm anticipating that if our children go to school in Vermont, sometime in late October or early November of their first year they will come home with some sort of copied worksheet or coloring page that explains about mud season, along with a box full of brown crayons. 

Our first mud season was a mild one: only about five or six inches of thick, soul-sucking mud on our dirt road which resulted in only about a half inch of dried mud building up on the lower half of my car.  By the second week of March, my car looked like it had been extracted from the Le Brea tar pits. 

However, I think that mud season is still mis-named, since it isn't the mud that is the problem when it comes to driving.  I mean, it is mud.  Yes, it can result in large, car-swallowing chasms in the roads (I'm sure there is a road somewhere in Vermont with a '76 pinto buried under it, complete with a man struggling to get the attention of other drivers), but it is the ruts that cause the most issues.  It shouldn't be called "mud season" it should be called "rut season." 

If you have ever been on "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at Disneyworld, then you know what mud/rut season is like: you think you're going to be going in one direction, but then the car takes on a life of its own and goes in whatever direction the ruts takes it in.  The best you can do is just maintain some semblance of control that at least makes you feel better and hopefully prevents your spouse from screaming "WE'RE GONNA DIE!"  Add in the prospect of going tumbling off a side of a mountain of getting stuck on a road with no cell phone service, and mud season really is the most interesting of all the seasons in Vermont.  You haven't lived in Vermont until you've lived through your first mud season.

New Beginnings – Starting to Look Back

On August 30th, 2009, I found myself driving north on Route
91 from Connecticut, heading towards Vermont.  I was about to start a new job the next day and all I had was a car full of clothes and a few basic things to get me trough
the week until I headed back home to Massachusetts to be with my wife for the


I had left her wife behind in Connecticut after attending an
event and we parted ways in New Haven after saying good bye to her sister who
attends University of New Haven.  She’ll
be glad that she gets a mention this early in this narrative.  She’s like that.  And if you know her, you’ll get exactly what
I mean.

Now, seven months later, my better half and I have been enjoying trying to figure out the only state that may be even quirkier than my home state of Rhode Island.  We've experienced quite a bit; just the weather could take up an entire book; snow on October 13th and April 10th and 80 degree weather in late March.  A snow storm in February that dropped about three feet of snow in our yard and resulted in lost power, which resulted in us eating cold pizza and waking up to a 50 degree house.  

Add to that wild turkeys, friendly people, curmudgeonly neighbors, and a game of beer pong in the snow outside on New Year's eve, you have the making of our first year – all six seasons (more on that later) – in Vermont.  There have been so many funny stories and interesting interactions with people and nature here in Vermont that I feel the need to capture it all.  While my motives are selfish, I hope to entertain some people while doing it

Use Your Marbles: Buy a Beer Company and Learn to Ride a Bike

Normally I would share web sites via Twitter, but I have three to share – totally unrelated to each other except for mangled headline that I just came up with and didn't feel like cobbling together three Tweets.

First of all, if you happen to be looking to own a beer company – or at least part of one – here you go: http://www.buyabeercompany.com/  Please take note all you Pabst Blue Ribbon fans out there!

I love really clever uses of technology, and this is one of the neatest uses I've seen in a while.  A very simple concept being put to good use to teach kids how to ride bikes: Gyrobike

Last but not least, is this cool new store that is based out of Chicago but that I can see going national very easily, called Marbles.  Keeping an aging population's brain well-tuned is going to be a continuing theme for business everywhere,  and this addresses is directly. 

First Cornhole… Maybe Featherbowling Is Next?

Back in 2007, I wrote about the game "Cornhole"which I had just heard about.  Since then, it has become an ingrained part of our social life – thanks to my discovery, friends of ours created boards that have been used at numerous parties and traveled to several states.   We even had them at our wedding reception!   In addition, I've seen it show up in a lot of other places, not the least of which was seeing some pre-fab boards in the seasonal aisle of Target and Walmart this past summer.  Clearly I was onto something.

Tonight, I was sitting here watching the "Rust Belt" episode of Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations.  During the course of the show, he visited Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo.  While in Detroit, he visited the Cadieux Cafe, where he participated in a game of Feather Bowling

Could this be the next Cornhole?  It requires a bit more work and isn't as portable as Cornhole, but it looks like a blast.  Let me describe it: there is a what looks like a bowling alley in the floor that isn't flat, but rather is rounded, like a half pipe.  At one end is a feather sticking out of the floor – yes, a feather.  At the other end are people holding "balls" that look like squat rounds of cheese – they are rounded, but flat on each end.   Kinda like an over sized Gouda or mini Parmesan cheese wheel.

The object of the game is a bit like bocce or horseshoes: roll the ball towards the feather, and try to be the closest to the feather after all the balls have been thrown.  Like any great, addictive game, it is incredibly simple, easy to understand, but difficult to master.  I now want to travel to Detroit just to give this game a try.  If anyone has ever played it, please let me know if it is as much fun as it looks!  

Is Sweet Tea the Next Hot New Flavor?

I was never a big tea fan – I just didn't care for the taste of it.  Then several years ago, I had the first of several tea-related revelations. 

First, my girlfriend (who would later become my wife) convinced me to have some tea to help clear out a head cold.  I tried it under protest, but to my chagrin, it worked. So I kept drinking it.  Next thing I knew, I found I liked the taste of hot tea.

Next, I tried Swiss Premium's "Southern Brew" sweet tea (now simply called "Sweet Tea" with a little banner that says "Southern Style) while on a business trip.  I suddenly understood why people practically worshiped this beverage.  I've been hooked since.

Now that I had experienced sweet tea, I was on the look out for it, and on another business trip to Birmingham, Alabama I found myself at a local barbecue joint (surprise, surprise) and had some of their freshly brewed sweet tea.  Now, here I was, in the deep south, eating BBQ and drinking sweet tea.  A light shone upon me and there were small angels around me, blowing their little trumpets, announcing the complete and total conversion of me from tea hater to tea lover.

Since then, a little restaurant chain you may have heard of – I believe they are called McDonald's – has introduced their own "sweet tea" available in 32 ounce cups (they use the word "cup" loosely – more like "vat").   You're also seeing sweet tea crop up in more supermarkets, and Arizona's own Southern Style sweet tea show up in more and more convenience stores.   I've even seen a gallon of Arizona's sweet tea on local (New England) Walmart shelves.

To me, flavors don't start crossing over into the mainstream though until you see other categories pick them up.  Example: the only place you ever saw "Pomegranate" was in POM Wonderful's obscenely expensive juices.  Once people caught wind of the health benefits and started to enjoy the flavor, it cropped up everywhere – you can now get gum, vodka, popsicles and candles all with the taste and/or aroma of Pomegranate. 

So it was with great interest that I've seen the introduction of sweet tea-flavored vodkas in the last year or so.   In my book, when you see a flavor of vodka hitting the shelf of your liquor store, it means that flavor is getting big. 

I can see why people enjoy sweet tea: it is probably the closest thing to a sugary soft drink that you can drink and not feel overly guilty about it.  Yes, it has sugar in it, but it is usually made with real sugar (not high fructose corn syrup) and has the benefits of antioxidants from the tea, and no carbonation.  It is sweet, but light and refreshing as well. 

It would seem to be well within the realm of possibility that it is only a matter of months before sweet tea breaks out into the culinary mainstream, similar to how martinis, cupcakes, and whoopie pies have gotten press at various times over the last few years as the "hot new trend."  Just remember that you read it here first!

Cultural Shifts Among Coffee Shops, Newspapers and Shoppers

A few articles related to our everyday culture caught my eye today:

First, a very short article about the widening generation gap when it comes to "buying American."  I will admit that the idea of "Buy American" is a bit foreign (interesting choice of words) to me.  I didn't grow up in a household that was "always buy American" (we usually had a Honda or something in the family to go along with our GM or Ford), so I didn't have that influence growing up.  I remember when Walmart first started to expand nationally and started to come into the Northeast, their big thing was "American-Made Goods."  As that positioning fell away in favor of "always low prices," it is ironic that Walmart's push for lower cost goods is part of what has driven so many companies to switch to overseas manufacturing.  

However, separate fromthat influence, sales of foreign-made goods have obviously been growing for years, to the point where I think those of "generation y" and younger don't really think twice about buying something made in another country.   We don't remember a time when goods made in an Asian country meant something that would fall apart.  In many cases, we now equate it with a higher level of quality than many American-made products.  And when it isn't, we equate it with being cheap enough to just throw out and get a replacement.  When all of the Star Wars toys you played with growing are stamped with "Made in China" on their little plastic feet, you don't really think twice about buying a radio, TV, or car made in Asia. 

In addition, we live in a more globally connected world, one where you can easily speak with someone in China, India or Japan - not just over the phone, but via video conference, Skype, IM, or email.  Someone who is over 55 may remember when the only way of getting to the Far East involved slow moving ocean liners.  Now we can get there in under 24 hours on high speed jets that fly several times a day.  When you can overcome the geographic distance between people so easily, the thought of holding a physical object in your hand from that same country isn't as bewildering.  You don't question the technology that allows you to communicate or visit with them, so why question the fact that you're using a product made in that country? 

The second article is about the banning of laptop computers in coffee shops.  What struck me most about this article is not about the controversy over whether or not these cafes are doing the right thing for their business, but rather the fact that the articles refers to out-of-work professionals shacking up in these cafes so that they can use the wi-fi connections for the things they need to do: look for a job, pay bills, etc.  We've become so strongly connected to the Internetthat we simply can't operate without it.  What do you do when you do all of your on line "life management" using your work's internet connection, and then you suddenly don't have a job?  You're sitting there in limbo with no connection at home and unable to afford one, and in the meantime you've gone "paperless" with every company you do business with.  Where do you go? 

We may be creating a new type of homeless – those who have someplace to live, but no place to connect.  The "wandering netless" we could call them.  Forget tent cities and a 55-gallon drum filled with scrap wood for warmth under the overpass; we may see former professionals huddling around a router, vying for a sliver of bandwidth.   How long until the stories of widespread "hi-jacked WiFi signals" start to appear?  Perhaps it is just a matter of time until the local soup kitchen offers food, winter coats and free WiFi.  I don't mean to sound flip, but rather pose a serious question – as we become more connected (which most would say is a good thing, unless you want to buy American) how do we survive when we can no longer connect?

Last, but not least, and probably not completely unrelated to the above, is this analysis on what is killing the newspaper industry.  I admit that as net-centric as I am, I still love the traditional newspaper, especially the Sunday paper.  I like the tactile sensory experience of it, and the intellectual nature of paging through, browsing the news and feature articles.  With all the newsletters and web sites I read through during the course of a week, I still find new and interesting information in the newspaper whenever I pick it up. 

So basically, I have a soft spot for the traditional newspaper, and it makes me sad to think of it dying the slow, painful death that it is going through right now.   I agree with the analysis, even if I never thought about it in the way it is described: newspapers weren't in the business of delivering news – they were in the business of delivering ads right to the doorsteps and into the living rooms of their customers. 

As time and technology marched on, far more efficient and specialized ways have replaced that expertise, and in response, newspapers dug in their heels, and shed off some of the thing that made them unique in the first place.   They were able to keep making money by cutting costs and consolidating, but didn't keep their eye on the long game. 

I don't think the analysis offers up a lot of useful advice on turning things around, but I hope that someone out there reads it and figure out a way to save an industry that can be important… especially when you are carrying around your Japanese-manufactured laptop and can't find a place to get on the internet for the latest news!

Marketing and Music

For a long time, I wanted to work in the music industry, but as I networked my way closer to it, I quickly realized – and several people told me straight out – that if you're really passionate about music, the music industry isn't necessarily the best place to be.   Let's be honest – it is called the music "business" or "industry" for good reason.   So I've kept my interest in music personal – just being a fan – while turning marketing into my profession.  Considering the condition of the music business right now, it was probably a smart choice.

However, this means that I still find it interesting to learn about what is going on in the music industry and how music gets marketed.   This morning, a few good articles came across my inbox and thought I'd share and comment on them.

First is one called "The Art of the Gimmick" that is about the successful marketing that the band KISS has done over the years.   I really don't agree with her view that rock n' roll had become like a "pair of old shoes" in the late 60's.  Considering that the late 60's and early 70's is a period of robust creativity – The Who came out with "Tommy" in 1968 and "Who's Next" in 1971.   Rolling Stones had "Let it Bleed" in 1969 and "Sticky Fingers" in 1971.  There were also seminal albums from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and on and on.  In fact, now that I really think about it, this blogger isn't even thinking right – the "old comfortable shoes" statement is just downright WRONG. 

But I understand what she was trying to set-up: how successful KISS was at creating a "hook" (probably a better name than "gimmick") and parlaying that into commercial success over four decades now.  I think you could easily make the argument that KISS has simply become a merchandise machine, really not focusing on the music at all.

But that was then, and this is now, and the music world has changed, especially on the business side of things.  Record store chains have closed, and sales are way down.  Things have moved online and music has become so easy to get that it has arguably lost some of its value.  But there are people out there trying to be creative in getting music into the hands of fans. 

First is this list of "10 Weird Ways to Distribute Music" from Wired magazine.  I haven't personally obtained any music in any of these interesting manners, but I'm sure it is just a matter of time.

Second is this very interesting article about Radiohead's manager working with two other partners to create a venture that is designed to help develop artists and bands by investing in them and guiding them to success.  Smart, I think – it gives the artist the capital they need to perform the functions that a traditional record label would have done if they could get signed, but can't because labels are only looking to work with the biggest sellers.  

The most intriguing part to me was the last sentence: "Meanwhile, EMI, a major label, is unbundling music services such as touring and merchandise and making them available to bands that are not signed to their label."  I did a visible double take after reading it.  This is a major label rethinking how it goes to market and realizing that the old model doesn't work, but there is still a demand for its services.  It is something to keep an eye on to see if it is successful or not.

Reflections on the Passing of Pop Royalty

I felt compelled to write something about the passing of Michael Jackson – after all, the name of this blog is "Pop Culture Gangster" and Michael was the "King of Pop."  However, since there has been about ten million articles and blogs already written on the topic, I knew I couldn't add much to the stories written about his accomplishments, his contributions to music and dance, and the tragic figure that he had become in what turned out to be the last years of his career and life.

What did intrigue me was the sheer volume of articles, stories, and overall outpouring of feelings about Michael Jackson as both an artist and a cultural icon.  I don't personally remember the passing away of John Lennon or Elvis Presley, so I really don't have a reference point for something like this – an artist who has global appeal and influence being taken away from their fans earlier than anyone would have thought. 

It made me wonder who else in the world of music might have such a big cultural impact with their passing – who else might get a slew of schedule-shifting television specials put together and broadcast within 48 hours of their death? 

As I developed a list in my head, I realized that most of the artists who come to mind were… well, older.  Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and/or Keith Richards all immediately come to mind.  Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys may also make the cut (or at least he should).

What's interesting about that list is that none of them had a debut album that came out after the 1975.  It is difficult to think of an artist whose initial recording was released in the last 30 years, endeared themselves to many millions of fans crossing over generations, and have maintained their cultural and artistic relevance.  The only artists that come to mind are Madonna, Prince and U2. 

One could argue that the lack of those major, global arena-packing stars is a sign that popular music's quality peaked sometime in the late 60's – early 70's and has declined since then.   It would make sense that in our hyper-connected world it would be easier for pop stars to become global megastars.  However, I don't think the quality of music has declined and believe that our connected age has ironically made it more difficult for a star to obtain that critical mass for "global domination." 

These two issues are actually intrinsically linked.  There is plenty of good music still being made out there – in fact, in the coming weeks, I hope to share my thoughts on a few artists that I"ve recently discovered which I think are making original, high quality music.  They are also artists who can easily make a respectable living monetarily while staying true to their artistic goals thanks to the new global village.  Big contracts with big record labels selling big numbers of albums isn't the only measure of success any more. 

With all the options available to both artists and fans to distribute and obtain music, it is easier to follow more bands – especially more obscure bands in small genres – that there isn't a need for people to gravitate towards a single band.  That diversity of music is good for music and art – but bad for mega-global superstars. 

The music industry is well aware that every time they lose an artist like Michael Jackson, they not only lose a great musician but a rare breed in today's world: an artist that can move millions of units quickly and easily, and reach across generations and demographics.  It is a great irony that as music has become more liberated, it also means that more people who are interested in the music have access to it, but it results in less people are interested in a singular sound or artist. 

That brings us back to Michael Jackson - an example of pure showmanship and talent that can impress anyone with ears and eyes willing to listen and look.  There is no doubt that he had both – in case you didn't know, he wrote some of his biggest hits himself, including "Bad," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Smooth Criminal" all great pop classics.  He had an ear for an infectious hook, but he also often wrote surprisingly personal lyrics, not just light fluff. 

His influence is so far-reaching, it is difficult to gauge what would happen to him in today's age – would he reach the same levels of fame?  Would he be able to break through the cacophony of artists and genres available in stores and on line? 

The days of the global mega-star are probably numbered – as I said, most of the artists on that list are getting on in years.  Perhaps they will live well into their old age and when they pass there will be much mourning but not shock.  If they are taken away earlier than that, perhaps the world will stand in the solidarity that only comes from the horror of losing someone too soon.

Either way, the passing of Michael Jackson isn't just a loss of a great artist and performer, but is a step closer towards the end of an era in popular music that has existed since the first time Elvis Presley shook his hips on TV, one that could be replaced by a world where artists perform for smaller, more devout audiences.  We may not see a day again anytime soon when we all gather around the TV for a performance like Michael's on the Motown's 25th Anniversary Special, but hopefully we'll be able to gather around the iPod and hear his influence among many artists for many years to come.  

For the Howard Roarks Out There

I'm a bit of an architecture and civil engineering geek.  I can't pass by an article in a magazine or newspaper that is about a cool new building, a major construction project, or a proposed new development.  It doesn't get much more modern and non-traditionalist than this…  Top 10: Architecture of Star Wars.  While the article itself is pretty interesting, I would encourage you to follow some of the links they provide throughout the article, especially if you are a design/architecture geek like me.