Saturday, November 28, 2020

53 Days to A Fresh Start: The Loss of a Retail Entrepreneur, Tony Hsieh of Zappos

 Sometimes news of the day jumps right off the page or screen and stops you in your tracks.


I was cleaning up some emails Saturday when an item from our neighborhood news service froze me—“Tech Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, 46, Dies From Injuries In CT Mansion Fire.” 


Thirteen years ago Hsieh (pronounced shay) graced the cover of Chain Store Age’s December issue dedicated to Retail Entrepreneurs of the Year. Hsieh was the primary force behind Zappos.com, a revolutionary online shoe and apparel retailer founded in 1999. He retired as CEO of Zappos in August. Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009. 


When Hsieh took control of the company in 2000, it had sales of $1.6 million. By 2006 sales hit $597 million. Sales today exceed $1 billion. 


Hsieh made online shoe buying a no-risk endeavor. Shipping to and from Zappos was free. To insure fit, customers could get without fear multiple sizes of the shoe they sought and simply return the unwanted ones.


As I leaf through pages of bound volumes of Chain Store Age when researching stories on the retail industry I come across many companies that, sadly, have succumbed to competition or, this year, the malignant forces of COVID-19. The loss of Hsieh, however, struck a more personal note.


The New York Times obituary provided a flavorful review of Hsieh’s management style (https://nyti.ms/2Jo2hoW). Not surprisingly, I prefer the profile senior editor Connie Robbins Gentry wrote. Here are some excerpts:


“If you visit the Zappos headquarters in Henderson, Nev., chances are you wouldn’t find Hsieh sitting behind a desk in the corner office. More likely, he would be at the karaoke machine in the cafeteria participating in a Zappos Idol moment … Performing is not a prerequisite for employment, but a passion for having fun is the unwritten requirement in everyone’s job description … ‘We actually want people who like to have fun and be a little weird at times.’” 


“In the world of e-commerce, the next step for customer service, suggested Hsieh, is for the retailers to help its customers feel a personal, emotional connection with the company.


“‘That connection is hard to make when it’s next to impossible to find a phone number on most Web sites,’ he added.


“The Zappos phone number is on the top left corner of every page on its Web site, because Hsieh explained, ‘We don’t view the contact as an expense, we view it as an investment. It’s a branding opportunity for us and gives us the opportunity to deliver great customer service in a very personal way.’”


Thirteen years later the Zappos phone number is still at the top of every Web page. Go ahead, try to find it at any of the Internet retailers you patronize. Of 10 companies Gilda and I buy from—Target, L.L. Bean, Burpee, DHC, Walmart, Plow & Hearth, Wayfair, J. Jill, Lands’ End and Amazon—only Lands’ End posted its customer service number at the top of each page. Keep in mind that even Amazon, Zappos’ parent company, does not. 


Though not an active retailer since August, Hsieh’s passion to make life’s everyday activities better for everyone, as exemplified by his commitment to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, will be missed.   

Friday, November 27, 2020

54 Days to a Fresh Start: Time's Person of the Year

 In two weeks, on December 10, Time magazine will announce its selection for Person of the Year. Some people to consider:


Had he not blown the response to COVID-19 and thereby his chances for re-election Donald Trump might well have earned designation as Time’s Person of the Year. He would have been lauded for brokering tension-alleviating deals between Israel and several Moslem countries, for reshaping the Supreme Court, for overseeing a robust economy and for transforming the communications link between a president and the electorate. Like him or not, Trump monopolized our thoughts 24/7/365 or, in the case of 2020, 24/7/366.


Alas for him, the pandemic exposed his frailties. He is an incompetent manager who embraces vindictive revenge when confronted with dissent or realities that don’t align with his views. He dances separately  from the truth. He grifts in a homemade way of obtaining gratitude for his actions.


If you believe in science then Dr. Anthony Fauci is your candidate for Person of the Year. His decades-long dedication to helping humankind overcome the scourge of  disease became top of mind in our fight to contain COVID-19. He became America’s doctor, a reassuring if not persistent voice of common sense precautions tempered by realistic warnings of dire consequences if the public failed to heed his distress signals.


Jeff Bezos might top the list of some people. By founding Amazon he has reformatted the way we shop, not just in the United States but the world over. His ownership of The Washington Post has reignited the paper’s crusading spirit. And his investment in the Blue Origin space program has energized that sector of discovery and exploration.


SpaceX, the brainchild of entrepreneur Elon Musk, has reconstituted America-based space travel. His advocacy of battery powered Tesla automobiles has supercharged the shift away from fossil fuel travel. Tesla also is pushing solar systems for home and commercial energy needs. Musk’s multi-pronged businesses have catapulted him into wealth stardom, landing his as the second richest person in the world, behind only Bezos, according to Forbes.


George Floyd. In death Floyd became the standard bearer of targeted oppression. His was the face that launched a thousand street protests. A movement, Black Lives Matter, that already existed, was galvanized by the very public images of him losing his life under the knee of a policeman who resisted entreaties to let him breathe. Surely other black men and women have starred in cell phone videos of their deaths or disabling shootings or extreme beatings by police. But Floyd’s pointless death stirred the nation out of complacency. Blacks were joined in the street by people of all color, of all ethnicities, of all religions.


For Joe Biden the third time was a charm. Twice denied in his bid to become president, the comeback kid started off slow this time as well but thanks to Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina he mixed a coalition of Black voters with an appeal to voters of all stripes who simply wanted an end to daily agitation from their president. 


Biden’s progressive agenda was not as important as what his candidacy promised—a return to normalcy, to civility, to empathy, to  truth-telling.


As Trump fulminates and tries to overturn an election he lost in landslide proportion—based on his own analysis of the 2016 Electoral College results, which Biden matched—Biden has displayed calm efficiency and concern for Americans as they impatiently wait for pandemic relief both physical and emotional.


In a normal year perhaps Uncle Joe might be Time’s chosen cover shot. Instead the recognition should most deservedly go to all COVID-19 front line and essential workers, from healthcare professionals and support staff, to foodservice, grocery, food processing and agricultural workers who risked exposure to keep food on our tables, to scientists and biotechnicians tasked with developing an effective response to the coronavirus catastrophe that has engulfed the globe, to teachers who have had to reorient all levels of the educational system from kindergarten through graduate school.   


Considering the sacrifices many of these heroes have performed on our behalf it would be inexcusable if they are not recognized for their dedication to making our lives return to normalcy. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

56 Days to Fresh Start: Saved by the Bell, Going Home, Reasons to be Thankful

 I think, perhaps, I’ve seen one episode of “Saved by the Bell,” the sitcom that in various iterations was televised from 1989 through 2000. My kids, or at least Ellie for sure, liked it. I scored some significant Brownie points when I told them my best friend from graduate school, Steve Kreinberg, was one of the writers of the show’s “College Years” sequel. Steve burnished my upgraded image by giving me a signed poster of the cast that Ellie hung in her room.


If you’re wondering why I relate this, you no doubt have not heard a new version of “Saved by the Bell” is debuting Wednesday on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service (https://nyti.ms/39fQ3tw). Can’t say I will be watching. I don’t think Ellie will, either. 


Though “The College Years” version lasted but one season, Steve forged a career writing for several shows. Beginning with his stint as a question writer for “Hollywood Squares,” Steve was a staff writer on “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “Herman’s Head,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Head of the Class,” “Nine to Five” and “Mork & Mindy.”


If you’re wondering why none of his shows are of recent vintage, it’s because Steve was successful enough to retire early, moving from the Hollywood scene to Asheville, NC, before that city became a trendy retreat. 



Home for the Holidays: I am intrigued by reports that masses are traveling “home for the holiday.” They may be going to their parents’ abodes for Thanksgiving, but they are definitely not going “home.” Home is where they are traveling from!


Am I being picky? For sure. But isn’t that what honest reporting is meant to be? Unless they are college or boarding school students or servicemen and women returning to their parents, no one is going home. They already have a home.



Our Home: Kitchen with enlarged eating area. TV room. Home office. Laundry room. Master Bedroom. Child (now an adult) bedroom turned into Gilda’s workout room.


Those are the rooms she and I use. In our pandemic partitioned world you might have noticed I did not list a dining room nor living room. Since February we have set the dining room table just two times, first for one other couple and another time when joined by a third couple-of-our-pandemic-free-protective-pod. Every time I walk up or down the stairs I pass the living room. We’ve used it once since sequestering at home.


It was to be our turn to host Thanksgiving dinner this year. Our children, their spouses, our grandchildren, a brother, a sister and her boyfriend, a niece’s family. An “intimate” group of 17, intimate considering the 36 Gilda cooks for Rosh Hashanah eve. Nineteen years ago we enlarged our dining room to accommodate such gatherings. This year it was empty writ large.


We are not the only family separated by COVID-19. Ours is not any more depressing a condition than anyone else’s who is following CDC guidelines to forgo large family celebrations, especially if distant travel is required.


I cannot imagine anyone loves their family more than Gilda and I love ours. Or misses them more. We haven’t been able to hug them in more than half a year. FaceTime is no substitute for skin to skin contact. I get it. Yet, why are so many risking exposure, risking death, to attend a meal that, if popular culture is accurate in its depiction, is among the most stressful family encounters every year?


COVID fatigue is cited as a reason. We are tired of being cooped up. Tired of seeing the same faces. Tired of wearing a mask. Tired of constantly washing our hands. 


Yes, it’s been nine months. Time enough to have created a baby. Even with cheerful news about at least three vaccines, it will be some six more months before the true efficacy of the inoculations will be known. During my annual physical Tuesday my internist advised waiting till late spring before taking the shots. Dr. Fauci, he told me, reportedly said he would wait until April before getting vaccinated. 


We Americans are a cushioned society. Have we ever been tested in the extreme? Sure we had a Depression as did the rest of the world. We had rationing during World War II. But we didn’t endure daily bombings the way Britons did during the Blitz in 1940 and the remainder of the war. The way Syrians have during their nine year civil war. 


Our soil has been spared extensive conflict since the Civil War. Why is it that we cannot summon the fortitude to suppress our selfish desires? Why can’t we be gracious and mask up to protect ourselves and our fellow Americans? Why have we turned public health into a political football? 


Trumpism is merely the most visible manifestation of these deficiencies. Let’s be thankful that we have the potential to embark on a more conciliatory, benevolent, science-based, genteel period of national unity. Remember we are in a war against COVID-19. Our #1 job is to avoid superspreader events. Wear a mask whenever in public. It's not too much to ask. Be thankful for that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

57 Days to a Fresh Start: Time for a Toast

Joe Biden won the presidency, leaving Donald Trump to mope around the White House angry and humiliated that he lost “to the worst candidate in history.” His words, not mine. 


Of course Biden isn’t, but Trump has to keep telling himself so. His ego demands it. His ego demands an explanation. Fraud. That’s it. Biden stole the election. “Dumb” Joe beat a “genius” by being part of an international cabal. George Soros was behind it. Ya gotta include George Soros in any conspiracy theory or the rubes won’t buy into it. 


Trump is a teetotaler, but I wonder if in the middle of the night he’s wandering White House halls in a stupor like Richard Nixon did in the last days of his ignoble presidency? Is he talking to portraits of past presidents, as Nixon did? Commiserating with other one-term wonders, Carter, Bush I, Hoover, all victims of economic disasters? At least Trump wouldn’t have to face Barack Obama. He probably is glad he kept Obama’s portrait out of the White House. 


Trump pulled in nearly 11 million more votes than he did in 2016. How could he lose if 73.8 million bought his deceits, his lies, his ineptitude, his comic strip incompetence, his grifting, his devaluation of American institutions, his overt and covert racism? Surely, he is telling himself, I am the most successful incumbent vote getter of all time. How could I lose? 


Trump will never understand why and how he lost. Forget all the high-priced analysis of Biden’s targeted appeals to different interest groups—blacks, Latinos, seniors, union workers, suburban moms, disaffected Republicans, college graduates. 


Trump lost because it turns out there are more Americans who share real American values—honesty, decency, respect, empathy, compassion and Superman’s trinity of “truth, justice and the American way”—than those who would accept their demise. 


Trump won’t join us, but don’t you think America’s return to a path of normalcy is worth celebrating with a real stiff drink? L’chaim! Skoal! Salute! Cheers! Gan bay! Prost! Santé! Salud! Sei gesund! 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

59 Days to A Fresh Start: The Ultimate Humiliation

 The headline above the Daily Mail article read, in part, “Trump campaign THANKS Obama-appointed judge who rejected their bid to overturn Pennsylvania’s result …  because he ‘helped get their case to the Supreme Court’” (https://mol.im/a/8973941).


Disregard for a moment the fact that U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann was a Republican when  he was appointed.  To me, the ultimate humiliation for Donald Trump’s pathetic attempt to wrest an election victory from Joe Biden, and in so doing destroy our democracy, would be a unanimous rejection by the U.S. Supreme Court.


A swift 9-0 dismissal of his claims of voter fraud and other chicanery would help restore faith in the independence of the judiciary and in the belief that truth is the foundation for the trust the American people place in their elected leaders.


Am I whistling in the wind hoping for such an outcome? I think not. Even conservative justices, including those appointed by Trump, should be intelligent and nonpartisan enough to see through the implausible conspiracy theories Trump has spouted in his attempt to disenfranchise mostly minority voters in states across the country.


A unanimous rejection would parallel the 8-0 decision by the Burger Court in 1974 commanding President Richard Nixon to turn over the Oval Office tapes that proved his part in the Watergate coverup conspiracy that led to his resignation.


Will it come to pass? Will the court tell the baby-in-chief to “man up, you lost fair and square, your lease expires soon so pack up your tanning machine, facial creams and hair dyes and be outta the White House by noon, January 20?”


Will it happen? I can hope, can’t I?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

62 Days to Fresh Start: Doomscrolling Election Results

 I learned a new word recently—Doomscrolling. 


It’s the Internet grazing equivalent of not being able to eat just one potato chip. Doomscrolling in bed. When you go to sleep. When you wake up middle of the night to pee and you glance at your phone’s screen when you get back into bed and it turns into an hour’s long journey into hell. It’s when you wake up in the morning and reach for the phone to check emails and news which these days is mostly sad and depressing so you start the day in a funk that lasts through the night.


Doomscrolling is not a new word, apparently. The New York Times reported on it several months ago (https://nyti.ms/3j0HMfH). It is not a healthy activity. Experts, according to The Times, say it could “make us angry, anxious, depressed, unproductive and less connected with our loved ones and ourselves.”


I practice a medically unrecognized form of self-diagnosis. Recently, I developed an arrhythmia, a condition associated with the periodic skipping of a heartbeat, often caused by excess stress. Generally not life threatening, my cardiologist assured me. I suspect my arrhythmia came from election anxiety.


I wake up most nights, for I am a 71-year-old man. I sometimes have trouble falling back to sleep and read for an hour on my iPhone, as I did last night. But ever since November 7, the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election by everyone except a deluded Donald Trump and his enthusiasts, my arrhythmia seems to have disappeared. 


Coincidence? Hardly. 


Given Trump’s never give up mentality, and the complicity of lawyers and politicos who expect to gain from his continued tenure in the White House, I worry my arrhythmia might return. 



Same Evidence, Different Interpretations: Here’s the evidence—Biden easily won election but Democrats running for Senate and House seats and state legislatures  underachieved.


Though unfortunate overall for Democrats, Dems see this as obvious evidence that no chicanery occurred, for if they had manipulated ballots they would have cast winning tabulations for more under-ticket races. 


Republicans, on the other hand, dismiss Biden’s voter appeal, saying it is incredulous to believe that without underhanded activity there is no way he could have amassed 10 million more votes than Barack Obama did while underperforming among minority voters and while Democrats failed in almost all other key races. 


Trumpsters bemoan that if Biden is declared the winner 73.7 million would be disconsolate. Do they not recognize that if Trump wins 79.6 million who voted for Biden would be  enraged?  


As a nation we surely are screwed.


Trump’s pre- and post-election assault on the veracity of the election, including his firing of the head of the watchdog agency overseeing the honesty of the vote who reported it was conducted without taint, has had an impact on voters. 


More than three-quarters of Trump voters say Biden’s victory was due to fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll (https://mol.im/a/8961477).


Given almost universal condemnation concerning the validity of political polls, however, how much credence should we ascribe to the Monmouth survey? Even if the numbers are not absolutely accurate, though, it’s an example writ large of the theory that a lie told often and loud enough can convince enough people to believe it is true. Trump has always touted his salesmanship. In this case his power of persuasion about a “rigged” election has corrupted and polluted our democracy.



Litmus Test: Going forward, the litmus test for anyone considering a run for president against Biden in 2024, indeed for anyone seeking election from now on, is how they behaved during the post 2020 election denial orchestrated by Trump.


Will they be seeking office as a Republican or as a Trumpian? Will they express confidence in our electoral system or will they have been party to its denigration as the gold standard of all democracies?


Fist bumps of Kamala Harris on the Senate floor do not qualify as an endorsement of election results. Full throated public congratulations are the minimum acceptable protocol.


So far, with painfully few exceptions, fear of Trump has constrained recognition of Biden as the president-elect. The most potential contenders for the presidential nomination in 2024 or beyond—people like Nikki Haley, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton—have to say is that Trump has the right to explore all legal avenues to verify the vote. 


Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Trumpian sycophancy among elected officials who have toed Trump’s line is that they believe they could control him during a second term.


How else to explain their almost unanimous rejection of Biden’s more than 5 million vote plurality nationwide and his accumulation of more than 300 electoral votes?


They apparently are not revolted by his firing the secretary of defense and his expected axing of the heads of the FBI and the CIA because they did not display sufficient fealty to him. Nor by his failure to produce a coherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor by his haranguing state election officials who say fraud did not mar election results. Nor by his cozying up to white supremacists at home and autocrats abroad.


As irresponsible as Trump was during his first term, repeatedly ignoring civic and constitutional norms, he would be more untethered during a second term. His vindictiveness would know no bounds. He already has broadcast his intention to withhold COVID-19 vaccines from municipalities such as New York that oppose his despotic rule. 


Democrats, alone, should not be expected to man the resistance. As Tom Friedman opined in The New York Times Wednesday, “Democrats can’t summon a principled conservative party. That requires courageous conservatives” (https://nyti.ms/3kJoGKq).

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

64 Days to Fresh Start: Is There a Doctor in the Family?

 It occurred to me the other day, or is it weeks or maybe even months—who knows, time distinctions seem to have evaporated in my pandemic-addled mind—that my friends and family of mostly Jewish men and women generally failed to live up to their parents’ expectations. 


Not a single medical doctor among them. Except for my cousin Michael, a neurologist, and a pediatrician. Some dentists and psychiatrists, a couple of optometrists, but no internists or specialists. And, of course, my wife is a nurse practitioner which in many respects is the equivalent of the Norman Rockwell-type general practitioner doctor of yore. Lots of lawyers, several accountants (it used to be said lawyers and accountants were the ones who would faint at the “sight “of blood), and a few who would make my father proud—they are or were in “business.” 


(Here’s a digression—It would have been just as “insightful” if I had written the lawyers and accountants would faint at the “site” of blood. A vivid example of why homonyms make English one of the more difficult languages to master. Here’s also hoping this blog post is not “inciteful” and cause any rifts in friendship. Ah, English, the language that keeps on giving.)


Come to think of it, the failings of my cohort to appropriately populate the medical field could also be applied to our children, the next generation.


If it were necessary to call out in our pre-pandemic synagogue days, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, embarrassed silence generally would be the response. Attorneys might squirm in their seats as they considered their doctorates of jurisprudence, and a few dentists might raise their hands, but for the preponderance of congregants a medical degree is as foreign to them as a vacation trip to Lake of the Ozarks. Or Branson, MO. 


For the most part that antipathy toward blood has prevailed in my friends’ and extended family’s children as well, unless you consider lawyers and investment bankers blood suckers.


Yes, one couple’s youngest child is a pulmonary critical care fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Another couple’s son is a fellow at a California hospital, while two others have children engaged in biomedical research. 


Oh, and then there is the daughter of a dear friend married to a doctor who specializes, shall we say, in alternative treatments. He is a  witch doctor. No kidding. He earned his shaman degree in South Africa, but since they are currently living in Europe I doubt he is practicing much these days.


My brother, sister and I have nine first cousins. Of the 12 of us, one became a neurologist, two optometrists, one lawyer, one psychiatric social worker/teacher, one technology salesperson, one technology technician, one musician, one journalist, and three who followed in their fathers’ footsteps and became jewelers, though one of those at first was a policeman. Aside from Gilda’s degree and another wife who became a nurse, our spousal collection has no medical representation. 


None of our 16 collective children have entered the medical field, not to become doctors, nurses, dentists or eye care specialists. I am in no way disparaging any of their professions, or those of my generation, but clearly there has been a shift in cultural priorities. None of their spouses are medical professionals, either.


When my brother Bernie advised our father he would major in political science on his way to becoming a lawyer, Dad’s response was not a rousing endorsement. Though in Poland he never attended school past sixth grade, and earned a General Education Diploma after coming to New York in 1939, Dad considered himself the equal of any lawyer, probably because he didn’t have a high opinion of most lawyers. 


The consequence of Bernie’s choice of profession was that I became the object of my parents’ hopes. A second lawyer in the family was not to be countenanced. (Here’s another aside—in case you’re wondering about our sister, Lee, there was never any significant consideration of her professional future. Her degree, the reasoning went, was to be consummated with a Mrs. before her name. She had to fight for their financial support to become a psychiatric social worker.)


Back to my future, circa 1966, the year I graduated from high school. Why not become a rabbi, my parents proposed. My being less than religiously observant didn’t phase them. As for having to write weekly sermons, they said there were plenty of books available from which I could pinch a homily. 


If leading a congregation didn’t appeal to me, how about being a dentist? D’s in freshmen and sophomore biology and chemistry quickly disabused them of that possibility. 


Time was running out to pick a major by my junior year at Brooklyn College. I started taking accounting courses en route to a degree in economics. But the thought of all day putting numbers into little boxes on accounting paper was even more revolting than my antipathy toward blood. 


Fortunately, when I wasn’t wasting time with my house plan (it’s like a fraternity) buddies in the school cafeteria I became the editor of a college newspaper. My parents humored my desire to be a journalist. They even paid my tuition to obtain a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. 


Apart from choosing a life partner, perhaps the most difficult decision one encounters is picking a profession, a calling. As a society we have largely evolved from the practice of parents projecting their desires onto their children. Still, I can’t help but wonder if our society has lost some of its altruism, the idea that a vocation has more to it than merely the accumulation of wealth, that part of any job choice should include an appreciation of what that employment can give back to society. 


I didn’t choose any of the paths my parents wanted for me, even when they suggested I join their small apparel manufacturing business for $25,000 a year compared to the $7,800 The New Haven Register offered to be a reporter. 


It worked out for me and my family. After earning a political science degree, Gilda achieved one of her life goals by becoming a nurse, then a nurse practitioner. Our son and daughter pursued careers they chose not because the professions promised the best financial return but rather because the work would be the most emotionally rewarding.


Not everyone can be as fortunate as Gilda and I have been. There is no denying the mesmerizing power of dollar signs have altered the priorities of more than one generation. You can choose to say if that is good or bad, but you cannot ignore the reality.