Have you driven a Mercury lately? Neither has anybody else…

There have been many unfortunate casualties of the recent economic downturn. Companies have folded. People have lost their jobs and their homes in appalling numbers.

So in the midst of all that, it’s hard for me to be wistful about the demise of Mercury. For those of you who aren’t quite as attuned to all things automobile, Mercury is a not only a planet and an element, but also a brand of car under the umbrella of Ford Motor Company.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that because somewhere along the way, the Mercury brand became irrelevant to Ford in much the same way that Oldsmobile became irrelevant to General Motors and Plymouth became irrelevant to Chrysler.

Quite simply, a Mercury Milan is a Ford Fusion with a Mercury badge. A Mercury Sable is essentially a Ford Taurus. A Mercury Mariner is mechanically identical to a Ford Escape.

Mercury used to stand for something. It used to be Ford’s slightly more refined (but not pretentious) cousin. It used to be to Ford Motor Company what Buick was to General Motors…nicer than a Chevrolet but not quite a Cadillac. It had its place.

But then the weird economics of the automobile industry took over, and brands ceased to have meaning. Ford repackaged its Pinto as the Mercury Bobcat: an affront to the upmarket image Mercury was made to convey. Chrysler rebadged the low-rent Dodge Omni (I have firsthand experience with this horrible car) as the Plymouth Horizon. GM secretly swapped out the Oldsmobile engine for a Chevy power plant in the 1977 Delta 88 and ruffled the feathers of more than a few loyal Oldsmobile customers – after they had purchased the Delta 88.

The most egregious example I have seen in recent years is the Pontiac G3: a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo that offers not the tiniest shred of “driving excitement.” The only reason this car existed was so Pontiac dealers could have a “value leader” vehicle, regardless of how meaningless it made the Pontiac arrow.

For the nostalgic car people out there, the end of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury may be painful to watch, but the mourning should have started a few decades ago when their parent companies started committing slow brand suicide.

Not as cool as you might think

I am something of a geek. Now I know this will shock and confuse many of you who saw me as a James Dean, Rebel-Without-a-Cause type, but it’s true. Technology fascinates me.

So for a few years now I have had a techie fantasy of getting an HDTV and using it as a big computer monitor. After all, LCD projectors work very well for displaying PowerPoint presentations for a whole room. Of course, a nice TV like that costs money (and I could forget about the projector too), so my dream was deferred. That was, however, before, Craig’s List.

Over the weekend I found an ad for a 26-inch Samsung CRT (read: heavy, bulky tube, not flat screen) HDTV for $125. I contacted the seller, saw the TV and talked him down to $100. That’s a $100 HDTV, folks. And the widescreen picture looks fantastic. I throughly enjoyed watching the NBA Finals on it even for an over-the-air signal.

My laptop not only has all the regular connections but also an HDMI output designed for doing this very thing. So I bought an HDMI cable from Walmart and hooked it up. And that’s when my heart sank.

There’s nothing wrong with the TV or the computer at all. Everything displays properly. In fact, Windows Media Center does a fantastic job of bringing high-definition Internet content to my TV screen.

But then I tried to surf the Internet like I normally do on my laptop, and that’s where the laws of physics betrayed me. Major fail. Reading text on the “big screen” only works if the font size is bumped up to somewhere around 20 points. That is, of course, why PowerPoint works so well on a projector…because it uses text that’s already big and blows it up to a size much larger than a 26-inch TV screen.

If anybody has any ideas on how I can correct this text problem, please record a video of how to do it so I can actually see it. I wouldn’t be able to read an e-mail on the big screen anyway.

Check your ego at the office door

I’m going to start this off by acknowledging one of my more significant flaws. I am not particularly good at being “self aware.” That is, there are a lot of things I do that I don’t even realize I do.

Additionally, I often make decisions without regard for the specific people involved. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t have regard for others or I dislike the people involved…merely that I don’t differentiate much between one person and another when making decisions.) I’m going to go about my business and do what is right, regardless of what people will think.

This is far less impressive than it first sounds. After all, most of our decisions are not big moral judgments but small, mundane tasks. For example, today I sent what I thought was a perfectly polite e-mail full of pleases and thank-yous asking for feedback from a manager of a different department (his name is Mark). I was on a tight deadline, so I added, “please respond ASAP.” It seemed reasonable enough to me, especially for a simple request. This was related to a conversation I had just had with my manager Cathy (who actually sits at the opposite end of the building from me), so I copied her on the message.

Within one minute, my phone rang. It was Cathy. Now Cathy is very polite and easygoing, but she was calling in a less-than-giddy tone to tell me that my message had the tendency to go over like a lead balloon. I must admit, I was puzzled.

Apparently, the request to “please respond ASAP” made the message sound like the recipient worked for me when really the relationship is the other way around and I was asking for a favor. He could have sent me that message in perfect decorum, but not the other way around.

I don’t have any evidence that Mark was actually offended, but Cathy said that I needed to be more careful for the future because I could have unintentionally damaged the relationship between our two departments. I don’t think this was a major problem, but I would like to avoid even the minor ones if I can…they add up.

I must admit this is not the first time I have been caught making this type of faux pas, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. I can’t imagine myself being offended if the roles were reversed, but I am not Mark. I cannot project myself because I am not like a lot of people in the business world. For one thing, you have to try pretty hard to bruise my ego. I don’t know of anyone who has offended me by accident. I plan to get a Ph.D. some day, but I refuse to be one of those people who gets angry when someone calls him “mister” instead of “doctor.”

That makes it all the more critical that I make every word I communicate at work as deliberate and careful as possible. Life can be a minefield that way.

If the Gores can’t make it work, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and his wife Mary Elizabeth (you know her as Tipper) are separating after 40 years of marriage. This from the couple who exchanged one of the most public and memorable kisses in American history.

I haven’t really seen any information as to what prompted the couple to split up, but I can’t imagine that after 40 years they suddenly came to the realization that they didn’t realize what they had gotten into. This marriage survived a long political career and even a heartbreakingly narrow defeat for the presidency. That amount of pressure and pain would weigh heavily on even the best of marriages.

It had to be something else.

I doubt it was because the Gores were broke either – in 2007, Al’s net worth was valued in excess of $100 million. (He was “only” worth $2 million at best in 2000 so he has made most of the money since leaving Washington.) I mean if the Gores were just having a marital spat they could just flee on private jets to their separate mansions until things cooled off.

So that leaves us to speculate about other factors. Did they simply grow apart? Was there an extramarital affair a la John Edwards? (Side note: Many marriages survive affairs…just ask the Clintons.) Did one of them meet someone else to grow old with? Did one of them change so radically that the other couldn’t live with it anymore?

Marriages are not easy things to preserve. I recently experienced a divorce after six years of marriage. There were warning signs early on in my case, even before the wedding that I stubbornly ignored, so you can chalk that one up to hubris and holding on too long.

Yet I recently saw an old friend and met his second wife – since I had seen him last, he and his first wife of 31 years had been divorced. They were able to keep it together for decades, so you would imagine they learned how to resolve disputes at some point. I can’t imagine what the breaking point was, but it must have been really painful.

Maybe it’s the whole concept of marriage that isn’t working. I’m not saying it never works…my parents are still married after 31 years. But it fails often enough that we should question it. Is any of us really prepared to look into a crystal ball and make that kind of lifelong commitment (particularly when we are just starting out in life)? Are humans really built to be monogamous for life when our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are quite promiscuous?

P.S. Note to Tipper: your husband is not only fabulously wealthy and politically influential, but he has also won an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize…all without a hint of scandal. He was a two-term Vice President and a few hundred Floridian votes away from being the President of the United States – he actually won the popular vote. Do you honestly think you can do better?