Holiday Remembrances

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

I find holidays are an important time to pause and remember things. These days I’m getting older so I do the pause quite well, but the remember part… well… I’ve decided to keep notes.

Thanksgiving is a time to remember how much less I weighed November a year ago. Now that our son goes to McGill in Montreal, it is also a time to remember that they celebrate their Thanksgiving in October and they celebrate mid-term exams at the end of November.

Christmas is a time to remember who sent us holiday cards last year. It is also a time to remember that a bunch of Christians got all whacked about calling them “holiday cards” instead of Christmas cards. Maybe I don’t need to send cards to everyone this year.

Chanukah is a time when I remember that I took an accounting course at Baruch before transferring to New York University.

Easter is a time when I remember that, as pre-teens my sister and I were given two rabbits named Bach and Beethoven. Beethoven turned out to be a girl. Within two years we were feeding more than one hundred rabbits every day after school. I never once saw a single one lay an egg.

On July fourth I remember how much fun an M-80 can be in a trash can.

On secretary’s Day I remember when there were secretaries. 1990 was the first year I noticed there were no secretaries in sight on site, so I sent cards to every generic secretary I could think of, along with a few bucks and a suggestion they buy themselves a small present or a drink. After all, if I had a secretary, I would have sent them out to buy something. It’s part of the job description

Only two replied. They were:

Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of Labor, and,

Edward Derwinski, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

I think they must be really decent people.

Holidays can be stressful. Humor helps.

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Tricky Economics

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

We once attended a “Tricky Tray” fundraiser. It offered some excellent economics lessons. If you haven’t experienced one of these is, I’ll explain.

“Tricky” means what you expect and “Tray” comes from both the French word “très”, which means “very”, and the Spanish “tres” which means “three”.

A Tricky Tray is a very tricky device for separating you from your money three ways.

1) You pay $40 for a meal worth about $7.49.

2) You donate a prize that is supposed to cost about $20 but since it will bear you name, and since you don’t want to appear cheap, you will spend about twice this amount.

3) You must buy at least 10 tickets for $1 apiece that you will use to bid on the prizes. However, everyone else buys five times this number to increase their likelihood of winning something, so you will too just to stay even.

If everyone spends more to increase their chances, then everyone is worse off. The cost to achieve the same chance of winning goes up. This nicely illustrates the relationship between inflation and money supply.

If everyone has the same chance of winning a prize as everyone else, and if the number of prizes exactly equals the number of attendees, and if the average value of a prize is $40, then each participant should expect to win something worth about $40. This nicely illustrates the concept of expected value. As everyone contributes a $40 gift to join the game, they should all break even.

People then spend money for the tickets to underwrite a process that simply keeps people from going home with what they came with; sort of like the way Wall Street charges you a fee to sell one stock and buy another.

The average person paid $40 for their meal, $40 for the gift that they brought, $50 for the tickets with which to win other people’s tickets. Therefore, the average person received $7.49 in certain value and an average expected value of $40 in prizes, but with a large variance in outcomes. You can see how this could lead into a discussion of risk/reward ratios and breakeven analysis. It could lead to that discussion, but it won’t. Not now.

Anyway, it was all for a good cause. At least we assumed that it was.

In our case, we came with prizes that cost us $20 each (though not evidently so). We followed instructions precisely, and did not care who thinks we are cheap.

We bought the minimum number of tickets because: 1) we are not gamblers, 2) since we already had everything that we needed, we did not need anything else, 3) we already had a house stuffed with things we did not need, the only thing that this might suggest is that we could use a bigger house – however we didn’t expect to find a house among the donated gifts), and 4) we had no desire to collect other people’s ideas of things we did not need.

Eve and I separated upon arrival.

With my ten tickets I proceeded to win five prizes. This was more than nearly everyone else. Let me explain how I did it

A ballroom had dozens of tables holding hundreds of gifts. Next to each was a brown paper bag of the size that typically holds a flattened PBJ sandwich under an apple and a milk carton. You were to inspect each prize and decide if you wanted a chance at winning it. If it interested you, you’d drop half of your numbered ticket into the bag. During dinner, each bag would be shaken and winners called out.

Those are the physical and mechanical aspects of the Tricky Tray.

It was worth observing the behavior of participants.

The whole endeavor was clearly a female thing. Men were in tow, but they weren’t digging it. Of a few hundred items, less than a dozen might possibly appeal to someone with a Y chromosome. Even then, they were a woman’s concept of what a man might want.

A typical exchange in front of a variable speed drill:

She (all a titter): “Oh honey, I’m putting a ticket in this bag just for you. You could use it.” It was hard to force the slip into the bag since every woman in the room had used a few percent of her tickets on one of the man-prizes as a gesture of fairness.

He: “I don’t want another drill. I already have one.”

She: “But you can always use another drill.”

He: “How?”

She: “What if the one you have breaks?”

He: “Then I will buy another one.”

She: “But you could have this one.”

He: “If the one I have breaks, then I will want to chose the one I buy to replace it.”

Dinner began at 8:00 P.M. by which time the inspection of the prizes was to be completed.

By 7:45 the room had emptied, but for me.

On a first pass I inspected each bag. Some of the bags were overflowing, many had dozens of tickets, some had fewer than five; a few were empty.

On a second pass, each empty bag got one of my tickets. The remaining tickets went into bags with little competition.

Of course I won lots of prizes. Some folk with over 100 tickets won nothing.

During dinner, half my numbers were called. The women at my dinner table became upset with me. (The men couldn’t care less.)

Was I cheating? Several people suspected as much, until they began to inspect my winnings.

She: “No wonder you won so much; you bid on the stuff nobody wants.”

Me: “I want these things.”

She: “What on earth are you going to do with a shelf of children’s books?”

Me: “I have children.”

She: “Or those reference books?”

Me: “I can use the atlas, the dictionary, the pocket encyclopedia and the almanac. The only thing I have already is the thesaurus and so I’ll give that away.”

She: “OK, but a basket of pet toys? What are you going to do with them? You don’t have any pets.”

Me: “Yes, but I have friends who do. These will make fine presents.”

Priscilla put her finger on it. “None of the things you’ve won are any fun. I saw your bucket with the mop and the cleaning supplies. Are you crazy?”

“I saw that one too.” Suzanne laughed, “Who on earth would donate such crap? There was a really cute pair of earrings nearby. I wanted them so bad. Brooke, why didn’t you try to win those?”

I blushed, “I don’t wear earrings. Besides, that bag was full.”

She: “You could give them away. They would make a better gift than pet toys.” There was obvious contempt in her voice.

Me: “So, if you won those earrings, would you wear them or give them away as a gift?”

A pause.

She: “Well, actually I probably would pawn them off on somebody. They aren’t exactly my style.”

Me: “Good. This will illustrate the point. Let’s look into my cleaning bucket. How much would you normally pay for all this stuff? Bucket, mop, spare mop head, brush, floor cleaner, tile cleaner, window cleaner, pot scrubbers, pumice, natural sponge… the bucket was brimming.”

She: “More than $30.” There was lots of nodding indicated consensus. “But I could buy that stuff any time.”

Me: “Exactly. You have and you will again as you use it up and so will I. So this prize, that not one other person wanted, will save me at least $30.”

She: “Soooo…What’s the point?”

Me: “How much do those earrings cost? They look like costume jewelry.”

She: “I know exactly. I’ve seen them at the drugstore for $19.95. They have a hundreds on display.”

Me: “Now, if I wanted to give you a pair of earrings, I could take you to the store and let you pick exactly the ones you want. If I did this with the money I saved from taking the cleaning supplies that nobody wanted, I’d still have $10 left over.”

Everyone agreed that the real point of the evening was to enjoy oneself. Somehow, for them, my approach didn’t cut it.

Funny, I was having a blast.

The laugher, shaking of heads, and derisive comments lead me to believe I had not trained any competitors for next time.

You need not have fun nor make economic decisions the same way as everyone else.

How to Complain to the Government

OPD 08/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

I once had a run-in with a shopkeeper in New York City so I wrote down his license number and began calling the consumer affairs hotline.

The line was busy.

I put the number on speed-dial.

The number was busy for months.

Since their office was only a few blocks away from mine, I decided to pop by. Four employees sat in a room with all the phones off the hook.

I decided to complain about them to their boss. Using a penname, I wrote the following letter:

August 14, 1989

Ed Koch, Mayor

Mayor’s Palace

City Hall, New York, 10007

Dear Ed,

Recently I have begun considering establishing a branch of my business within the New York City limits. I am writing to you to get your assurances that if re-elected, you will continue to provide the same positive environment for business growth that has persisted for the last few years.

A business like ours is sensitive to consumer perceptions. Frankly, our main concern about past expansions in your direction has been your reputation for tough consumer protection laws and a complaint enforcement system rigged in the consumer’s favor.

However, on the suggestion of a friend, four months ago I began calling your consumer complaint number (212-577-0111) three to five times a day. I got busy signals every time I called except for twice when the phone was picked up and then disconnected immediately.

During a business trip, I actually stopped by to observe the operation. I was told that there were 10 lines, but the room I was shown only had four people in it. One was on a telephone and the other three were reading magazines, filing nails, and chatting. I called the hot line number from a nearby desk and got a busy signal!

Excellent! This is the kind of environment in which I can thrive. I see the wisdom of your plan. Provide tough laws since this keeps the public off the law-makers’ backs. Establish a hot-line to appease the cranks and complainers. And then don’t answer the phone.

I tried calling your office to congratulate you and ask my question directly, but a secretary told me there was no one who could answer my call. (Of course! I should have thought of that myself!)

I anxiously await your assurances. We are ready to begin our business expansion immediately.

(signed)

P. S. I enclose $2.00 to help pay the return postage and to help with your campaign. If all is okay, there’s more where that came from.

Somehow, just by sending this letter to the mayor, I began to feel much better.

When complaining, your goal is to make yourself feel better, not to make the other person feel worse. Humor helps.

How to Respond to a Citizen

OPD 08/01/2006

brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

After sending the mayor the letter, I felt so much better. The consumer affairs hotline still didn’t pick up their phone but that no longer mattered. I had so much fun thinking up the letter and I was proud of myself.

A few months after I wrote the letter, Ed Koch lost his re-election bid. I hadn’t voted for him. I hadn’t voted for his opponent either. I went into the voting booth, pulled the curtain, and did nothing. I took the time to vote my abstention.

Unexpectedly, at the end of December I received a most lovely belated Christmas present in the form of a letter that I will cherish forever.

City of New York

Office of the Mayor

December 28, 1989

Your letter of August 18 was misplaced and only recently made its way to my desk. I was very troubled by what you had to say and apologize for the delay in responding to you.

The consumer hotline was not established as a public gesture with the intention that, in reality, it would not serve the public or investigate its complaints. Though my administration is about to end, I have asked Consumer Affairs Commissioner Angelo Aponte to look into the charges that you raise. I have asked him to take immediate action, where necessary, to make sure that the hotline is fully staffed and responds expeditiously to all complaints. Moreover, I have asked him to make sure that the next administration is aware of any problems with the hotline.

Further, I am returning the two dollars that you sent to me. I am disappointed by your insinuation that personal financial gain would be a motivation for helping you.

If you are sincere in your interest to establish a branch of your business in New York City, our Office of Economic Development (212-NY-MAGIC) and the Office for Business Development (212-513-6400) may be able to assist you, and I encourage you to contact them.

My administration has sought to create a climate in the City where businesses can flourish and at the same time one where the interests of the City’s consumers and residents will be safeguarded. Arbitrating these interests is no simple or enviable task — but I, and members of my staff, have done that on every day of our watch — and in as just and far-sighted a manner as possible.

All the best.

Sincerely,

Edward I. Koch

M A Y O R

Wow!

As soon as I received the letter, I called the hotline. They picked up on the first ring. I couldn’t remember what had been my complaint the prior summer so I said, “Just checking,” and hung up. From then on the line was answered immediately every time I called.

When responding to a complaint, think WWED.[1]

[1] “What Would Ed Do”. Ed Koch published a collection of his letters in a book called All the Best: Letters from a Feisty Mayor. The man could write.

How I Learned to Wiggle My Ears

OPD 07/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.net www.BrookeAllen.net
Originally published in International Family Magazine

You might be amazed to know that you have muscles that don’t get wired up to your brain unless you work at it.

When I was nine we moved to a new house that had a large field that had been used by a farmer to grow hay. Because we wanted to convert it to a lawn we had to remove many large rocks. We piled them behind the barn.

Ah hah,” my dad said one day, “We can paint the stones white and use them to line the driveway.”

He gave me a can of white paint, a brush, and the mission.

I began by painting one stone behind the barn. Then I carried it to the edge of the driveway. I did this a few times. It was a cumbersome process because the stones were quite heavy. And, it was annoying because the paintbrush kept drying between each use. And, it was messy because I wanted to get done that day so I didn’t wait for the paint to dry before moving each stone. A good deal of paint made its way from the stones to my hands and clothes.

After observing my efforts, my dad took one stone and the can of paint from behind the barn. He placed the unpainted stone beside the driveway and place the can of paint next to it.

I hadn’t seen him do that and it took me quite a while to discover what he had done. Who asked him to do that? Sometimes my dad would play cruel tricks.

After bringing the can and the stone back to the barn I continued to paint the stones and carry them to the driveway Then, for no apparent reason, my dad took a wheelbarrow out of the barn and parked it squarely on the path between the stones to the driveway. Navigating my way around an obstacle placed in my way was even more annoying.

Finally he put the wheelbarrow, inverted, over my pile of stones. I became infuriated. I angrily grabbed it by both handles and flung it a few yards out to the side. What was he trying to do to me?

It was back breaking work and I was exhausted by the time I was finished.

That afternoon my parents had a guest who stayed for dinner. The guest congratulated me on how hard he saw me work. He said I must be very strong.

My dad said, “He was working a lot harder than he needed to. He’s got to learn to use the muscle between his ears.”

That angered me. I wouldn’t have had to do any of it if he hadn’t made me do it.

As I went to sleep I thought about his comment about the muscle between my ears. I knew some of the kids in the school could wiggle their ears. Perhaps that is the muscle he was talking about. It took me a very long time to find that muscle, but eventually I did.

I was so excited and could hardly wait till morning when I would wiggle my ears and tell my dad that I finally figured out what he was talking about.

My dad had a really good laugh.

Years later so did I.