Sunday, August 29, 2010

Laptops and Coffee: Have Some Productivity with Your Latte

Yep, this has been going on for a while. But here it goes for those who have been distracted: coffee shops are becoming places to work and study as much as places to take a break. 

My daughter and I usually go to a Starbucks in the Kendall area of Greater Miami for an after-school snack.This particular Starbucks has three main areas, and at least one if not two or even all three of them used to be wide open, so we could choose which one we'd want to populate.

Lately, what we find is that territory has been marked before we get there. We'll see laptop users on both ends of the southern section, where most tables are concentrated. To seat in that section we have to negotiate territory in between. In the middle section are the comfy laid-back chairs grouped living-room style around smaller, knee-high coffee tables. More often than not, one of these has been staked by an open laptop, its owner training or selling something to another person in the adjoining chair. So most often we end up at the four-stool counter, which is usually clear as is the lone table by the north window.

When Starbucks is out of bagels, we go over to Panera Bread, in the same shopping center. A much larger place, we have greater choice of where to sit. But on last count on a recent weekday afternoon, laptop users accounted for nearly half the people in there. On weekend mornings I usually run into John, whose name I know after he once asked me to please watch his laptop while he went to get something in his car. John, I found out, is finishing a book on how he picked up the pieces and found inspiration after losing his business. Laptop at his fingers and cell phone on his ear, I'd say all the editorial changes in his book have been brewed at Panera.

For a while now urban planners have advocated for the creation of so-called "third places", meaning places that are neither home, which are "first places", or work, which are "second places". Third places are public places where people gather informally and voluntarily, interact at their volition, and experience the sharing of space with others in their community. (Google "third places" and you'll find all kinds of interesting analysis of their role in cities and non-cities.) With their welcoming designs, chains like Starbucks, Panera, Barnes & Noble as well as independent coffee bars have filled the void for such third places in many of our cities and suburbs. Not long ago at a different Starbucks, where I stopped for a coffee before a work-related meeting nearby, I ran into a three fellow high school alumni who had convened a meeting there to plan their next class reunion.

That the on-line community is now portable in the form of a laptop has added one more function to these third-place stand-ins. Originally conceived to foster relaxation so as to encourage consumption, they are now harboring a greater share of goal-directed activity as well. If Starbucks was once credited with giving people not only gourmet coffee but also 15 minutes of their own time in the form of a break, more people are choosing this relaxed atmosphere to pursue focused activity. (We'll we evern learn or want to just do nothing?)

Some say that what has followed the laptop-with-caffeine trend is a laptop backlash, meaning some coffee places are now frowing on or downright rejecting customers with laptops, especially those who camp for hours with a single $2 coffee cup. A recent New York Times article is all over this counter-trend:

But given that it was only last month (July) when Starbucks began offering free Wi-Fi in all its stores, I think we'll be sharing more coffee-break space with lighted screens before we start sharing less. And it's not only laptop users who are bringing work to the coffee shop. Not infrequently I'll see someone with a three-ring binder jotting down notes from a textbook.

For my part, when I go for a cup of coffee by myself at one of these places, I bring a book, which I usually don't read, instead staring out the window or looking around the place, just letting my mind wonder while inhaling the magical aroma of fresh coffee. I have no problem with doing nothing. Somebody has to.

Monday, August 23, 2010

India is Growing on Us

So there's Julia Roberts in the role of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of author of "Eat, Pray, Love", in the movie of the same name.  She journeys first to Italy and I am thinking "been there done that," somewhat, in some Mediterranean country anyway, and yes it was a wonderful out-of-country experience.  

Then she treks to India, where the bulk of her soul searching takes place and I, who ended up liking the movie more than I expected to, watched with something like fascination, thinking, "nope, haven't been there or done that." Not yet, anyway, but who knows...

Because we're sort of into India, which keeps showing up.

The United States ranks as the No. 1 source country for foreign visitors to India, according to India's Ministry of Tourism, ahead of the United Kingdom, which not only ruled it once, but also is much closer. (Bangladesh and Canada rank 3rd and 4th if you must know. It's all here: 
It's true that the U.S. is much larger than the U.K., but even without comparisons, consider that arrivals from the United States to India totaled 329,147 in 2001. That number has increased every year, reaching 803,021 in 2009 and accounting for 18% of all foreign travelers to the mystical country. 

Apparently, one of the reasons Americans visit India is for health care. India has become one of the top five "medical tourism" destinations, according to reports in NuWire Investor, an online site about worlwide condominium investments. The site reports that "American patients have travelled to India for procedures such as Birmingham hip resurfacing, which was previously unavailable in the U.S., and has only recently been FDA approved. Medical tourists also journey to India for procedures that carry high costs in the U.S.; for example, Apollo Hospital in New Delhi charges $4,000 for cardiac surgery , while the same procedure would cost about $30,000 in the U.S." (

And this month, the NBA is all over India, with Orlando Magic's center Dwight Howard visiting the country to launch some sort of program designed to boost the country's interest in basketball.

None of which would have interested me if it weren't for "Eat Pray Love", in which one particular scene of India caught my attention.  There's Julia Roberts in the taxi ride from the airport, which virtually makes us hold on to our seats as the driver speeds through traffic congestion in a city seemingly without lanes or traffic lights. Along that ride we see India alright: chaotic, crowded, poor, intractable. India has been on the big screen before -- "Ghandi", "A Passage to India" -- but this kind of realistic visual is more of late, as in "The Namesake", and of course "Slumdog Millionaire." 

It's like we're really getting acquainted with India, beyond importing its food and outsourcing our jobs, and we no longer need a sanitized version of this country in order to relate to it. The mainstream has always embraced yoga, and even meditation to some extent.  If well India's problems seem enough to unnerve a sitting Buddha, it also seems to cradle a wonderful spirituality we've imported for a long time. But we're going further in now, contemplating the source and all its layers. We'll take the chaos along with the Ballywood channels, and some of its health care, and we want to do basketball with them.

Guess we're engaging more of our chakras with theirs. It'd be cool if it all made us here a little less chaotic inside, while India became a little less chaotic on the outside.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Formerlies, aka Cougars or MILFs

I had totally warmed up to Cougar, it carries a fun connotation that elicits my whatever. I never could put my arms around MILF, though, and seriously, could anybody of the female gender?

Now comes Formerly, as in "formerly hot", from the book by Stephanie Dolgoff, "My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young."

I haven't read the book -- it's not always necessary to go to the printed word in search of my everyday life -- but I gather from the reviews that it is about coming to terms with aging, and that a big thing about aging is how it springs on you, like that moment when you realize that men don't look at you as a hot, desirable item anymore.  Well, here's what I want to say: Speak for yourself, Stephanie!

Okay, that's what I want to say, but I can't really say that.  What she describes is something we all experience as we get older, except maybe Madonna, I guess. Plus, she is speaking for herself, as the book is a memoir.

But indeed, most of us in middle-age land used to elicit the look, a look, some kind of look, to some degree or another, and the dial on that degree has definitely moved counterclockwise. Something was that now isn't. Something formerly was: eye-candy us, head-turning me. So the newest entry in modern women-descriptive lingo is self-explanatory.

So how do I take to Formerly?

I kind of like that it is related to something so eternal, universal and indelible as the passage of time, one of the hardest concepts for any person to grasp, objectively or subjectively. If I'm going to get a label, might as well be from the realm of the ethereal. I'm also warm to the search itself for a term or phrase that can encapsulate a complex and common experience.

The problem is that even standing on just the other side of young, I am still me: formerly me, currently me.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hottest Writing Career Path: Sh*t My Dad Says

This book, Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern, is on fire. It is the No. 1 New York Times non-fiction bestseller. Its path to bookshelves, though, is far from a trend, and oh how many of us wish it were.

I wouldn't know about this book if it weren't for an all-things-media- attuned friend who brought it up recently during brunch. I think we were discussing get-rich-website ideas. "Have you heard of Sh*t My Dad Says?" she asked. She had to run the story by me twice before I fully comprehended. Luckily she has an iPhone, so she could do a show-and-tell right there, giving me the visual.

By now you might know the story: Halpern was a 28-year-old Californian who decided to move back home to save money while trying to lift his fledgling comedy writing career to more solid ground. His retired dad hung around the house all day, and Halpern started tweeting the comments his dad threw at him, comments which, as it turns out, were pretty funny. The tweets became popular with his friends, then some more followers, and then went viral.

According to Halpern's website,, the turning point was when comedian Rob Corddry tweeted about Halpern's tweet, launching the tweet collection into the stratosphere. Subsequently it all got bound into a book (the aforementioned bestseller). A CBS sitcom now is in the works, starring William Shatner as the dad.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Flavor Revolution and the Lychee Martini

So I'm out on happy hour in South Miami with two friends, one a school teacher, the other a human resources manager, and the teacher, after perusing the drink menu, orders a lychee martini. The cone-shaped glass comes topped with two pieces of the white lychee pulp impaled by a toothpick. Now there's a fruit you don't see everyday. And come to think of it, isn't it usually two olives on that toothpick? If I were a martini, I'd sure be having an identity crisis.

I remember first seeing the lychee fruit years ago on the exotic fruits stand at a farmers market. Lychee is a fruit that comes from China. It is round, about the size of a large red grape, but with a red, textured grind that covers its white, slippery, fleshy pulp. It is rich in vitamin C and flavonoids, providing the health benefits of those two nutrients. And it is a lot more mainstream now than when I first saw it in that farmers market.

Just like mango some years back, lychee seems to be the flavor du jour in frozen yogurt, ice cream and apparently, martinis. The idea might be that the super fruit cancels any ravages from the alcohol -- a toast to health.

But I think the lychee martini is more about an explosion of novelty flavors in all kinds of foods and drinks than about the health craze. Flavors have gone mad. It's as if every food and drink manufacturer now has a flavor wizard dedicated to concocting the next new flavor, one off the beaten path.

Some years ago I started seeing dulce de leche in ice creams and yogurts in the supermarket. Until then, dulce de leche had been this devilishly sweet, homemade cream, widely used by Argentinians, but scarcely used by anybody else. It consists of condensed milk that has been caramelized by heating it up in a bain-marie or double boiler. Argentinians use dulce de leche to accompany every desert. As such, dulce de leche in my mind belonged in the category of unique flavors you encounter in some homemade deserts. Becoming a Haagen-Dasz flavor took it out of that category forever.

And since then no flavor has been sacred anymore. All flavors are fair game for all kinds of foods and drinks. Within the past six months I've had blueberry beer and pear beer -- I thought it would be hard to improve on the flavor of beer but I was mistaken --  and I wrote a press release about a frozen yogurt store featuring green tea-flavored yogurt.

I once listened to a consumer expert predict that people would seek adventure and exotic experiences but within the safety and comfort of home -- something like a taste of the bold without the risks of the bold. I think the flavor explosion is tapping into that inclination. These new flavors can turn a bite, sip or slurp into a mini thrill.

Most recently I saw an announcement from Baskin Robbins saying the chain will reitre five existing flavors to make room for new ones. The five retiring flavors are french vanilla, caramel praline cheesecake, campfire s'mores, apple pie a la mode and superfudge truffle. The chain didn't say which new flavors will be substituting these, but I wouldn't be surprised if lychee and green tea are among them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dainty Is Gone From Women's Wristwaches

I first noticed it some months ago on my niece's arm. Her wristwatch looked like a man's, its metallic band wide, thick, bulky. The clock face itself was big and round and bold, like a wall clock for the arm. No straining to read it.

My niece is nothing if not a fashion plate, so the style of this accessory was either an incident involving her having to borrow her husband's watch, or a deliberate choice. We talked about all kinds of topics in this family gathering and time ran out before I got to the matter of her watch, so I left it alone, happily living with the ambiguity.

A few days later, I got together with some women friends for dinner. One of them was sporting a similar kind of masculine wristwatch. Too much coincidence, I thought, plus my friend didn't have a husband or boyfriend at this point, so it was unlikely this was a loan. And then I started noticing them on every other woman who by look and style could credibly claim to have an interest in fashion. It seemed that if a woman had acquired a watch recently, it was in this hefty style.

I checked several web sites for watches and found that the variety is endless, not surprisingly. But, it seemed that all brands are displaying their wide-band big-face styles first. Then I found this headline in one of the websites: Chopard Happy Sport Chrono Women's Watch Gets a Masculine Face LiftRugged stainless steel mixed with diamonds.

That would explain it. If a leading brand goes for a certain style, the others follow. What possessed Chopard? Can't say that I know, but it probably is a good move. A watch is supposed to enhance its wearer's confidence and status, and those are two accessories women can certainly use.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cupcakes Going Out of the Box

As writer and researcher for a commercial real estate company, I was asked to write a press release for a new shopping center tenant, a cupcake place in Miami called Cupcakes Nouveau. This is a small business run by two women who turn out some magnificent-looking cupcakes, the kind with fondant topping sculpted into unbelievable shapes, almost too pretty to eat. 

As happens when you buy a car and then you start noticing how many people out on the street are driving your new car’s make and model, I started seeing cupcakes everywhere. In Miami,the most visible competitor of Cupcakes Nouveau is Misha’s Cupcakes, also beautiful and delicious.

Then I started seeing trays of fancy mini cupcakes in every coffee bar, and it wasn’t long until cupcakes became highlighted offerings in my neighborhood’s Starbucks. On TV, I just noticed, the Food channel premiered the “Cupcake Wars” program on June 15. Most recently, during a weekend trip to New York, I saw a cupcake truck, similar to the ice cream truck of my childhood, but dishing out cupcakes.

So what is it with cupcakes? Are they more profitable than a full-size cake? They wouldn’t be profitable if people weren’t buying then, so why are people buying them?

I think it's about fun food. Cupcakes bring fun food within easier reach. For a cake, you kind of need a special occasion. And say you’re by yourself at the bakery or coffee shop, getting a cup of coffee. You order a slice of cake, and you feel kind of incomplete, like you’re missing the party where the rest of the cake will be eaten, along with the aforementioned occasion that is lacking. Plus you tore this one lone piece from a once-beautiful whole. Really, you’re a taker, biting off pieces of the whole.

A cupcake, by contrast, has its entire decoration contained over its you-sized top. It is a whole all by itself. Self-contained yet part of a group, it stands on its own yet has peers. You may not be aware of it, but when you eat a cupcake, you celebrate yourself.

And at $2 to $3 a cupcake, you might be talking $30 for the same amount of batter that it took to make a $20 cake. But here I’m getting out of my league, as I really don’t know the economics of cupcake production.

I read somewhere that the cupcake trend is waning. Some people even want it to, like this writer for Huffington Post:

But if you ask me, we can keep this one for a while and watch out for its next level.


Trends are fun to notice.

To me something is trendy when it becomes more visible or ubiquitous or in use to a degree greater than that in a not-too-distant past. Some trends carry interesting stories behind them, some don’t. But they all say something about how we live our lives, about what’s happening to our tastes and styles, to our economies, about what we need and what we crave. At the very least, they say something about the creative power of the people behind them.

Even more fun would be to spot trends before everyone becomes aware of them, and there are businesses and websites dedicated to that endeavor. I don’t have all that much forecasting ability, so I’m gearing this blog to a more modest goal of commenting on things that are trending currently, about trends or fads I’ve noticed or learned about. And by things that are trending I mean anything, whether a kind of food or a book or an activity or fashion  or even a person.
Being that this is a blog, the reporting on it will be personal, which is to say, based on what I observe and learn while going about my daily life. I write with no authority other than that of a middle-aged professional with training and experience in journalism, working and living in Miami, FL. I have a pre-teen daugther through whom I absorb a whole different world of music, fashion, gadgets and entertainment.
I may end up missing the forest for the trees or simply lost in the woods. But I’ll record what I saw along the way. And I’ll be wondering if you’ve noticed the same things.