Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hey there-- I moved

I have moved my blog to WordPress.  I'm still Standing can be found at
See you there!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Deja Vu All over Again--The Fall of My Discontent

     Like mother like son . .  the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. . .  he comes by it honestly . . a chip off the old block . . .
    I haven’t mentioned how my son is doing at college.  That’s because—he’s not.  
    Let me back up to 1978.   I went to high school in a small town in Maryland.  Purportedly, less than 10% of the students went to college.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but it felt like it at the time.
    As you can imagine, I was a square peg in a round hole.   I found myself plopped down in a new school at the beginning of 10th grade.  The first day of school, I dropped my purse getting out of the bus, and the contents spilled out onto the curb.  Not an auspicious beginning. 
    Back then, I don’t think parents chose their homes based on the school district—at least mine didn’t.  My dad bought the house because it was big enough to blend two families—ours and my stepmother’s.  She brought along two college age kids and her mother—Elsa (more on this train wreck later).
    When it came time to pick a college, my guidance counselor (bless his heart) presented me with two choices—UMBC and College Park.  I told him I wanted to go to school out of state and he told me I would never get out of the state of Maryland.  That was the wrong thing to say to me. 
    As a result, however, I had no idea where to apply. 
    My father was a first generation American on his father’s side and the first member of his family to go to college, thanks to the GI Bill after World War II.  He had grown up in Hartford, Connecticut, so he steered me toward Ivy League colleges. 
    Ignorance is bliss—I set my sights high.  I applied to Yale (my first choice), Cornell, Barnard (Columbia) and Georgetown. 
    I was heartbroken when I got waitlisted at Yale.  In hindsight, it was a blessing.  When I went to visit it later on, I hated it.  It was cold and dark and foreboding.  And the kids weren’t at all congenial.  I’m sorry, but Yankees just aren’t as friendly as Southerners.   
    I was accepted at Barnard and Georgetown, both city schools—what was I thinking?  I should have applied to a school like Princeton, or UVA or Duke, but as I said, I didn’t get any guidance counseling in high school.   I assumed UVA was like Maryland, just farther south.  To be fair, the University of Maryland has come a long way since the 1970’s.   But back then, when my stepsister attended, she stopped going to classes mid-semester and still passed most of them.
     I chose Barnard.  Barnard is a renown Seven Sisters School (like Vassar) that is part of Columbia University.  Margaret Mead graduated from Barnard.  So did Martha Stewart, Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying.  If you don't know who Erica Jong is, you need to Google her.  And Joan Rivers went there too.  With such distinguished alumni, how could I go wrong?
      I had been admitted to an Ivy League school!  My dream had come true, or so I thought.  
Barnard College-- not like I remember it.

    Barnard is located smack dab in the middle of NYC.  Not only that, but it’s situated on the edge of Harlem.  In the late 1970’s, New York was dirty and unsafe.  Although there were two parks on either side of the University, students were cautioned to stay out of them.  My only reprieves from concrete were off limits.
    I thought I would love living in New York—the museums, the theatre, the shopping—but wait—these things all require one thing—money, which of course, I did not have.
    My dorm was located on the corner of 116th and Broadway.  Six floors up with a great view of the subway stop.  I could see guys peeing against the building across the street at night.  It was a prison.  I hated it almost from the first day. 
New York City Subway during the 1970s. 
Even my fearless big brother wouldn't ride it.
    What I didn’t realize at the time was that Barnard was pretty much a commuter school.  Many of the students lived on Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.  They went home for the weekend.  In fact, the cafeterias on campus closed for the entire weekend. 
    There was very little social life on campus.  I don’t remember many parties.  Fraternities and sororities were not popular there.  Most students took advantage of being in the city, and so the social life on campus was nil.  Studio 54 was in its heyday then, but I never saw it.
    My first roommate was a party girl from Massapequa on Long Island.  She had many friends at Barnard; my role was to serve as her social secretary, taking phone messages.  One of her friends, what we now call a friend “with benefits”, was an ex-boyfriend who was “pre-engaged” to someone else.  That someone else went to another school, so the two of them enjoyed frequent booty calls in our room.  Talk about awkward.  That meant the only place for me to hang out was either the empty lounge or the library. 
    I got sick of answering the phone for her, so I moved down the hall to a room with a pre-med student.  That was almost worse.  She studied all night, making sleep almost impossible for me, even with a mask and ear plugs.
    The girls on my hall were not exactly pleasant.  One told me to “go back to Peoria.”  Really?  That’s how you greet newcomers?  Where was Joan Rivers when I needed her?
      Many of the students were religious, so their social life revolved around their temple.  Not being Jewish myself, I didn’t get invited to share Shabbat with them.
    Once it got cold, things got even worse. The cold was a biting, seep into the bones kind of cold.  Everything around me turned gray—the sky, the buildings, the sidewalks, the streets.  I missed seeing the color green.  I missed being able to take long walks.  Well, I could have, of course, but I didn’t relish the thought of getting mugged along the way.

Before Prozac, we had Stella Doro
     Predictably, I got depressed.  Even Elton John failed to provide solace. On the weekends, I lived on Stella Doro Swiss Fudge Cookies, a popular treat among the Jewish girls because they were Kosher.  Depressed and pudgy, my dream of college turned into a living nightmare.
    If there was one silver lining in all this, it was that the depression made me confront lingering issues from my childhood, namely my convoluted relationship with my mother.  I finally began to see a therapist, who helped me immensely.  Thank God for therapists.
    As I mentioned in a previous post (Christmas 1971), my mother left us right before Christmas when I was 11 and went back to Nova Scotia.  We did not hear from her for six years.  During that time, my father married a teacher named Doris, and my dad bought the house on Elmhurst Road in Severn.   
     Then, unexpectedly in 1977, my father kicked Doris out, took me to lunch, and told me he was getting back with my mother.  I was so stunned I lost my appetite—something that rarely happens to me! 
     Naturally, my father expected us all to take the change in stride and roll with it.  “Getting in touch with one’s feelings” was a concept lost on my dad.  In his universe, he was the sun and his children were but satellites revolving around him.    
     So my mother moved back in when I was 17.   I was glad to have her back, but at the same time I was conflicted because she had abandoned me, and it hurt.  I spent many nights during my teens sobbing at night, wondering how she could have left us with no explanation. 
     We never talked about what had happened or why.  It was as if it had not happened—sort of like the ending of the second Bob Newhart show when Bob wakes up with Suzanne Pleshette, his TV wife from the first show, and discovers the second show was all just a dream.
Waking up from a dream
     My life, however, was far from a sitcom.
     The therapist advised me to ask my mom why she left us, so I called her one day and asked her.  She told me she was so worn down by my father’s emotional abuse that she felt she could not take care of us.  She said she chose what she thought was the best course of action for us.  She was probably right.  She had moved back in with her parents, and bringing four young children along would not have worked.  Her parents old then, and were weird.  Just plain weird.  Again, that’s another story.
     So all of this was swirling around in my head during the fall of 1978—loneliness, depression, weight gain and emotional turmoil.
     Nevertheless, I went back after Christmas break, which was called “intercession” because of the large Jewish population at the school.  That was another thing—no Christmas on campus.  Why didn’t I go to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza?  I don’t know. I guess I was too miserable by then.  Besides, who would I have gone with? 
     After the second day back at school in January, I knew I was not going to make it.  I called home and asked them to come and get me. 
     Ironically, while I was waiting for my dad to drive to New York, I had the best time.  I stopped going to classes, so I visited museums and saw a Broadway show (Chapter Two by Neil Simon).  If only that could have been my life in New York all the time.   Dam classes and poverty got in the way.  It never occurred to me to skip classes and have some fun.
     I can’t begin to describe my disappointment in having to drop out of college.  College had been my dream since I was a small child. I studied by butt off so I could go to college.
      All four of us children were expected to go to college, and I couldn’t wait.  I loved school.  Most kids hate it, but for me, it was a refuge from my home life.  I was good at school.  At school I received all the positive reinforcement that I never got at home.  At home I was never quite good enough.  At school, I was a star.  Of course, like the guys in the Big Bang Theory I was a nerd and got made fun of, but I didn’t care.   I knew wasn’t going to peak in high school. I knew that my day was coming.  And that day would take place at college.

Do you want to know what I looked like in high school?
Picture Amy Farrah Fowler with short hair-- and no tiara either
    To finally arrive at college and find that it was not what I was expecting and hoping for was the worst kind of disappointment.  Moreover, I was back living in the house of horrors.  My parent’s second marriage was disintegrating, and the fights and screaming and emotional abuse had returned.   It was déjà vu all over again.
     Next, Part Two:  The apple falls right under the tree 




Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That's just Me

I don’t fit
on a velvet cushion
That’s not me
I’d rather sit
on a big old pumpkin
That’s just me

If you need a shirt
I’ll give you mine
That’s just me
If you have a melody
That needs a rhyme
Call on me

When I look around
I see a world
that’s full of love
That’s just me
I know there’s evil
But I won’t succumb
That’s just me

When I feel like a square bolt
Trying to squeeze into a round hole
The awkward fit will take its toll
So I have to say
That I have to stay
True to myself
That’s just me

(c) 2014 Renata Manzo


Thursday, December 4, 2014

I'd Rather be hiking, said Boogie Pilgrim

       When the weather gets cold, my thoughts turn to . . . hiking and camping deep in the woods.  How I love to snuggle up in my Mont Bell 0 degree sleeping bag.  I love to walk along the trail in the cold, because the walking keeps me warm.  Then, when I get to the shelter for the night, someone (not me) builds a big fire.  After I've fired up my JetBoil stove and eaten my oh so yummy dehydrated meal, I munch on Oreos and watch the fire.   Hiking burns a lot of calories, so high calorie foods like Oreos are a must.
The "Freezeree" at the Paul Wolfe Shelter
January 2012
The temperature got down to 17 degrees
     Because I backpack, I can get pretty far away from civilization. There may be other people at the shelter, but other than that, I have the entire forest to myself when I hike alone, which I sometimes do.  Most times, however, I hike with Buck Wild, Grass and Snow Cone. 
       Now, Billy and I are not on the same page when it comes to hiking and camping.  He likes to hike, but his idea of roughing it is a Motel 6 without cable.  So, we are planning to buy a pop up camper.  It's the perfect compromise between Billy's need for a warm comfortable bed at night and a home-cooked meal that is not dehydrated, and my need to get outdoors and sleep in a tent.  Plus pop ups are inexpensive and we can tow it with our van.  
Our next home
     I'm doing some research on them now, so I joined "Pop Up Portal", an online community of pop up camper owners.  It has so much useful information, and unlike a certain other website for AT hikers, the folks there are nice, not snarky.  They don't complain about stupid questions or tell people to "do a search before asking a question".  Yes, the same questions are going to be asked over and over again by newbies; get over yourself.  But that's not what Pop Up Portal is like.
      The other day I was reading about campsites.  Oh boy, here's the downside of car and RV camping.  The campsites seem to be crowded and noisy.  A lot of them don't have any kind of barrier between the sites.  How is a person supposed to "get a way from it all" in an environment like that?  With electricity, water, sewage and even WIFI, why bother to leave home?  A lot of RV's even carry antennas so the "camper" can watch TV.   If you are going to bring your home with you, why not just stay home?
     According to the forum, campsites are plagued with raging drunks, pothead teens, rednecks having marital disputes, and worse yet, jerks who cut down live trees for firewood.

The Paul Wolfe Shelter
      No thank you, give me the Paul Wolfe Shelter any time.  It doesn't have electricity or indoor plumbing, but it is several miles from the nearest road.  The only way to get there is by walking.  Instead of a heated bathroom, there's a privy up the hill that Mike S. from ODATC keeps in pristine condition.  The shelter is located on a gorgeous stream with several small waterfalls, at least during the wet weather months. 

Mill Stream next to the Paul Wolfe Shelter
Mike's pristine privy
      ODATC stands for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, which is one of the many volunteer clubs that maintain the Appalachian Trail.  The AT, all 2180 miles of it, is maintained entirely by volunteers.  
         Anyway, if pop up camping is going to involve camping in a forest of Winnebagos, I think I will pass.  I'd prefer to "boondock", which is to camp in places without hook ups or heated bathrooms, usually in national forests.  I'm hoping that as we explore the U.S. and Canada over the next few years, we will be able to camp in places like this the majority of the time. 
      Nothing will bring our adventure to a halt faster than a night or two next to drunks whooping and hollering until 4 a.m.  On the Pop Up Portal forum, the members described campers firing up their ATVs in the middle of the night to drive to the bathrooms.  And setting off fireworks for hours on end, night after night.
        If I don't get a good night's sleep I'm crankier than usual.  And my filter, which has worn thin over the years, will disappear altogether if I have to deal with a-holes.  I'm likely to get myself shot by some banjo-toting hillbilly. I'm not exaggerating; some of the stories on the forum made Deliverance look like a Disney movie. 
Lead me to the Long Green Tunnel, otherwise known as the AT
         So, with that in mind, I wrote a little ditty about the AT.  It goes to the tune of "Boogie Pilgrim" by Elton John.  Boogie Pilgrim is my trail name.  AT thru-hikers usually have trail names, which are either chosen by the hiker, or given to the hiker by other hikers in honor of something stupid the hiker did or some attribute of the hiker.  Wrong Way,  Lightfoot,  Buck Wild and AWOL are a few examples.  One guy I met was called Medicine Man because his mother, a nurse, packed him an 8 pound first aid kit.  Another guy I met in the Smokies, who was from Tasmania, was called Vegamite.  Then there was Snoring Sarge, whose name is self-explanatory.  Nice guy, though.

Boogie Pilgrim on the AT

I’m on the trail
I hiking from south to north in a season
Up each hill and down each hill
I’m either too hot or cold or I’m freezing
Feels like I’m gonna make it, gonna make it
I’m gonna hike like Boogie Pilgrim

Boogie Pilgrim
Hiking the AT
All kinds of weather
Down on the mail drops
Down on the side trails
Boogie Pilgrim
It never gets easy
No it never gets easy

My hike’s complete
I hiked the trail the way I wanted
Walking on the AT every day
Sometimes I pooped and sometimes I peed
And I took a shower when I needed
But my hair got dirty, dirty, so dirty
And the hiker funk always stayed with me
Just like Boogie Pilgrim

(c) 2014 Renata Manzo

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Christmas Morning before the Age of Affluence

Renata on Santa's lap circa 1960's
     Remember Christmas in the 1960's?  Back when most people had real Christmas trees (or those aluminum ones) and decorated them with colored lights and lots of tinsel?   I used to sit in front of the tree at night, in my little white rocking chair, and stare up at the lights, thinking about Christmas morning.  Santa usually brought what I had asked for (up until 1971, that is), and then he would add a surprise or too.  My favorite Christmas present of all time was my Easy Bake Oven. 

The original oven
 For those unfamiliar with this, it used a light bulb to bake the cake!
      Back in the day (I can't believe I'm old enough to say this), back when most moms did not work and most families only had one car, we got presents twice a year:  on our birthdays and at Christmas.  There was a third occasion that was especially wonderful, and that was when our Aunt Cecelia would visit from California.  She always brought us presents wrapped in colored tissue paper and several boxes of See's Candy!
      But other than that, if we wanted something special, like a bicycle or an Easy Bake Oven, we had to wait for Christmas or our birthday.  Once I had given my letter to Santa to my mom so she could post it to the North Pole, I would think about Christmas morning constantly.  I could not wait to receive whatever I coveted that particular year.  I think this longing made the presents extra special, don't you? 
      When my children were young, I tried to do the same thing, but I never quite managed to surprise them as I hoped. The problem was, I believe, that presents are no longer special.  If kids want something these days, they get it immediately.
     My kids were never made to wait until Christmas, in spite of my lobbying.  Every year around October, it would seem that Guido would want something, and I would say "you have to wait until Christmas!"  But Billy, being the softy that he was, would buy it early and call it a Christmas present.
    I don't think that counts at all.  There was something about opening the gift on Christmas morning that made it special.  Once or twice I even took the item and wrapped it up after it was received so that it could be opened again on  Christmas.  But of course, without the suspense and longing, it just wasn't the same.  
     This is not intended to be a rant on how our society is going to hell in a handbasket.  I'm sure my children will have fond memories of their childhood Christmases.  I took great pains to ensure that they never had to endure a Christmas morning like mine in 1971.  (See previous blog entry on this topic.)
     It's just that Christmas has lost its magic for me.  My sister made a gorgeous advent calendar that I hang every year.  When the kids were young, they loved to put the ornaments on the advent tree.  Now they can't be bothered.
 Forelorn Advent Calendar
      I guess that's what grandkids are for!  Right, Joy T. and Kathy F.?  I can't wait!  Then, hopefully Christmas will be special again.

     In the meantime, I find Christmas magic in the Nutcracker ballet and my brother-in-law's world-famous (they really are) Christmas lights.  You can view them here (Collingwood Lights), but better yet, you should see them in person.  He lives at 1801 Collingwood Road in south Alexandria, Virginia.  You can visit his website, Collingwood Lights, for directions and links to more pictures and videos. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Moral Bottom Line: What Happens when a Private Equity Firm Buys a Company

But you'll never get to pick and choose
She's bought you and sold you
There ain't no shoestrings on Louise
  No Shoestrings on Louise
Lyrics by Bernie Taupin
(c) 1969 Dick James Music Ltd.
    Once again, corporate America treats people like chess pieces.  When I got to work on the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I was greeted with the following headline:  "Buyout Firms Said [to] Vie for World's Largest Cigar Company."  World's largest cigar company; gee, I wonder which company that is?  Yup, it's mine.  We  knew this was coming, but now it has hit the street in a big way.
    According to Rueters UK edition:
"Nov 28 (Reuters) - Swedish Match AB and Skandinavisk Holding, the owners of Scandinavian Tobacco Group (STG), are in talks with private equity firms about a possible sale of the cigar maker, two sources familiar with the matter said on Friday.
First round bids are due on Dec. 18, the sources said.
Bloomberg reported earlier on Friday that CVC Capital Partners Ltd, Rhone Capital LLC and Pamplona Capital Management LLP were bidding for STG, and that the company could fetch about $2 billion."
Is that money or pot? 
I thought it was ground up bills at first, but now I'm not so sure.
      Being the research geek that I am, my first thought was to do some research on what happens to employees like me when a company is bought by a private equity firm.  The results of my research were unsettling, to say the least.  For example, I found a blog entry by an engineer who worked for Silver Lake, which was bought from eBay by a private equity firm.  The title of  his blog entry:
"How employees get screwed in private equity deals".  Oh, goody, something to look forward to.  The heart of the article describes how the employee got screwed out of vested stock options when he left the company, all because he did not understand the following provision of the stock option agreement: 
“If, in connection with the termination of a Participant’s Employment, the Ordinary Shares issued to such Participant pursuant to the exercise of the Option or issuable to such Participant pursuant to any portion of the Option that is then vested are to be repurchased, the Participant shall be required to exercise his or her vested Option and any Ordinary Shares issued in connection with such exercise shall be subject to the repurchase and other provisions in the Management Partnership agreement.”
     I've been practicing law for almost 30 years, and I can't make heads or tails out of this sentence.  Yes, this is all in one sentence.   To make matters worse for this poor schmuck, he didn't have access to the Management Partnership agreement, so even if he could understand the legal mumbo jumbo, he could not have read the other agreement to fully understand what was going on. 
     What is going on?  The same thing as always-- some people are making money off of other people's misery.  Once again, "the rich man can ride, and the hobo, he can drown."
     As usual, the comments are more enlightening than the article itself, as the comments address both sides of the issue.  One commenter noted:
"You should look at it from the investors’ point of view too. If there are people willing to work under such terms, then why should they give more generous benefits to employees, especially for the ones who are not fully dedicated to the company? I understand you are angry because you left before the MSFT deal and lost all your options, but investors didn’t screw anyone. All this information was communicated clearly and employees knew that they will lose the options if they leave earlier. You should read the terms carefully."
     Really?  As the blogger points out, the information was NOT "communicated clearly."   This employee certainly did not know that he would lose his VESTED options if he left or was fired. 
     Moreover, even if what happened was entirely legal, that does not make it ethical or moral.  Father Michael Crosby is a Capuchin Fransiscan monk who owns stock in the major tobacco companies so he can attend their annual meetings and lecture the Board of Directors on their lack of morals.  He once said to the Board of PMI: 
"The bottom line may be profit, but there is a deeper bottom line, and that's the moral bottom line . . .  so I would respectfully ask you to examine your consciences along with your pocketbook."
     Yeah, right.  As if that's going to happen at any company, let alone a tobacco company.
     Yet, there is a bright side of the article (for me at least).  The blogger's first bit of advice is to "lawyer up." 

    This doesn't help me much, however, since I can't understand the option agreement either.  That's not my forte. 
     The bottom line for me is that this is now a waiting game.  One thing I do know for sure at this point:  when the new owner arrives, whoever it is, they will be cleaning house.   It's likely that my job will be on the cutting block.  But that's ok.  I've got a plan . . .
And I won't break and I won't bend
But someday soon we'll sail away
To innocence and the bitter end
And I won't break and I won't bend
And with the last breath we ever take
We're gonna get back to the simple life again
Simple Life, Lyrics by Bernie Taupin
(c)  1992 Big Pig Music Ltd.