Thursday, December 31, 2009

Final Thoughts for 2009

Passing the Blame: It’s almost a year into Barack Obama’s presidency, a little more than three months longer that the tenure enjoyed by George W. Bush before Al Qaeda forever changed airline travel here and abroad. It is eight years since shoe bomber Richard Reid failed in his mission to bring down an aircraft.

We’re hearing lots of righteous chest-thumping from Republicans, mostly, complaining about the Obama administration’s failure to protect our citizens. In Tuesday’s NY Times, Clark Kent Ervin (I’m sorry, but what were his parents thinking, naming him after a comic book character?) raised some thoughtful points about the lack of coordination between government agencies that enabled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane bound for the United States ( He criticized the same silo mentality that failed to link the clues left by the 9/11 conspirators.

But when you read “Superman” Ervin’s bona fides, you discover that far from being an unbiased, expert observer, he actually was part of the problem he decries. From 2001 to 2004 he was an important member of the Bush administration, serving as inspector general of the State Department from 2001 to 2003 and of the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2004. (Of course, I am assuming the job of inspector general is an important one and not some comic book position like the one lampooned by the old Danny Kaye film, The Inspector General.)

I don’t want to come off as an apologist for Team Obama, especially since they had their “Great job, Brownie” moment with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying the system worked. But have the Republicans no shame? They had seven years to destroy the silos. They didn’t and we’re all less safe because of their failure.

Jewish Blue Jays: I think the birds, at least the blue jays, in my yard are Jewish.

Rather than throw out some leftover challah from the weekend, I chopped it up into tiny morsels and put it out for the birds. Rarely have I seen such a feeding frenzy. Rarely have I seen so many blue jays at one time flock to the feeder.

It’s not so unusual to have Jewish-leaning animals. One of Beth and Lloyd’s dogs sings along with the Friday evening prayer. Linda and Jacob’s previous dog knew when Friday night candles were lit it meant challah was to be served. The dog had a hard time understanding why there was no bread, only matzoh, when the Passover candles were lit.

MASH 8666: When was the first time you heard about a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit? Probably when you either saw the Robert Altman film MASH (1970) or the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983).

You probably were as ignorant as I to a Humphrey Bogart-June Allyson movie originally titled MASH but changed to Battle Circus before its release in 1953. It’s a story of MASH Unit 8666 during the Korean War. Bogart plays a surgeon who, like Hawkeye Pierce, enjoys romancing nurses and is a whiz in the operating room.

The parallels to the MASH 4077 film and series are palpable. The anger at the futility of the war is there, as are the frustrations of never being able to get ahead of the casualty rate. Koreans, from the South and North, are treated with respect. Like the newer MASH versions, Battle Circus begins with a helicopter flying wounded into the temporary MASH location.

It’s not a great movie. Kind of sappy, actually. But it’s another example that there are few new stories, just newer treatments of the same material.

Party On, Dude: This is just the second year in the last 15 or more that Gilda and I did not host a holiday party for my staff and other work friends. The only other time we missed this December ritual was 2000 when my then-boss chose to host the party in his home to showcase his wife’s cooking. He left our company right after 9/11, so the rite of hospitality transferred back to us.

Of all the trappings of work left behind when I lost my job, giving up hosting the annual party, I think, has been the most painful. It’s validation I no longer am leader of a community. Sure, I could have prevailed upon Gilda to host an expatriate party and invite current and former company workers. But it would have been wrong to presume the prerogative of the current magazine leadership. Regrettably, no party was held this year.

As with many industries, publishing did not enjoy a favorable year financially. But even in tough times it is important to maintain symbols of continuity and appreciation. The annual party attracted associates and their significant others, about three dozen each year. Cooked by Gilda, the meal cost about $10 a head for hors d’oeuvres, a full buffet dinner, dessert and liquid refreshments. Surely, the state of publishing has not been so denigrated that $360 would break a company’s balance sheet.

Or the party could have been handled as a pot luck dinner, with each attendee bringing some food or drink. That would have reduced the corporate cost to chump change. Sadly, another signpost of better days, past and ahead, lost its place and meaning this year.

Last Call: This is the final posting for 2009. Here’s to a happier and healthier 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Big Zero?

The Big Zero was the headline of Paul Krugman’s Monday column in the NY Times ( The deck (journalism jargon for calling out in larger type an important part of the story) read, “The decade when nothing went right.”

With all due respect to the Nobel Prize winning economist, Princeton professor and author, there are many, including myself, who would argue that the first decade of the 21st century has been good to me and my family, financially yes, but, more importantly, as a time when many personal achievements transpired.

During this decade our son graduated from university, immediately got a job he is still in and enjoys, married a woman who also immediately got a job she enjoys. Together they bought a home. Six weeks ago they delivered their first child, our first grandchild.

During this decade our daughter graduated from college, spent an adventuresome half year in Hawaii by herself, and has had two jobs she wanted plus volunteer work. She has a wonderful boyfriend.

During this decade, Gilda has worked for arguably the best spine surgeons in the country, and has saved the lives, literally saved the lives, of at least three of our close friends and countless patients unrelated to their spine problems.

During nine and a half years of this decade I enjoyed the status of not just reporting on but also, to some degree, setting the agenda of what was important in the retail industry. My opinions were sought after and respected. I savored the fulfillment of building a team of professionals adept at working together to report on the retail industry, sell marketing programs and produce educational conferences.

During this decade my family enjoyed the fruits of Gilda’s and my labors. We traveled as a family overseas and domestically. We added on to our home. Our children received a gift that keeps on giving—debt-free college educations.

To be sure, there have been setbacks. My departure from full-time employment; my brother-in-law’s stroke; another brother-in-law’s cancer; my sister-in-law’s divorce; my mother-in-law’s death. But for the most part our family and friends have been spared trauma. No tornado or hurricane ripped through our communities. Death followed only after a full lifetime. With rare exception, we’ve been spared disabling injuries and disease.

Our friends and relatives live with us in a privileged enclave, regardless of our respective addresses. We’ve been blessed. Sure, we’d all like our net worth to be higher. We’d like our bodies to creak in fewer places. We’d like our children to be better paid and able to live more comfortably. But these are selfish wishes compared to what we’ve all attained.

My list of Forseter Family achievements is not unique among our cohorts. They could easily match our accomplishments. We’re not representative of the country at large, the country Paul Krugman describes.

But just as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say “all politics is local,” so too is an assessment of the “00” decade.

Ours was not in any way, shape or form a zero. I hope yours wasn’t either.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Birdman of White Plains, Part II

Now that it’s winter and for now snow covers the ground (this was written before the drenching rains of Saturday), the bird population is increasing around my four-course feeding station.

Blue Jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, finches and more, and, of course, squirrels, abound. The snow cover has restricted their food supply, so they patronize my aviary restaurant more often. The other day a neighbor’s black and white cat sat pensively on the snow underneath the main bird feeder. The birds just waited him out, returning to feed when the coast was clear.

The birdbath has frozen over, topped by a snow mound. It affects not just the birds but the squirrels as well. You see, though the water bowl is about 30 inches off the ground, the acrobatic squirrels figured out all it takes is a running leap and bound to jump up and perch on the rim to sip their fill of water.

With the water frozen, new tactics for liquid replenishment are required. The other day I spotted a squirrel in a tree nibbling away at something held by its front claws. Through binoculars I saw it was a chunk of ice. In short order the grey rodent had crunched its way through the little berg.

Like the Birdman of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud really was the Birdman of Leavenworth, but Birdman of Alcatraz was a far more exciting title for the book and subsequent movie starring Burt Lancaster), I did not plan a birdwatching avocation. Stroud was serving a life sentence of solitary confinement for murdering a prison guard. His ornithological career began when he came upon an injured bird in the prison’s exercise yard and his need for companionship drove his interest.

I’m no prisoner. Nor am I in solitary confinement. But I am often alone (not lonely). As I implied last September 27 (, there’s something comforting and fulfilling having other living creatures dependent on you.

Writing, even writing a blog like this one, is a lonely job. It takes discipline (something I often lack). It takes dedication (hopefully you’re not overwhelmed by the frequency of postings, and more hopefully, not underwhelmed by their content). It takes creativity and an ability to view simple things in complex or interesting ways (okay, I can do that). It takes a willingness to reveal things about yourself (up to a point, in my case). You have to accept that some of your work will not please everyone (sounds reasonable). It doesn’t take talent (there are lots of blogs out there to validate that notion; hopefully, my blog doesn’t fall into that pit). It takes lots more, but you get my drift.

The birds offer a momentary diversion, an opportunity to look outward instead of inward.

Ellie spent Christmas weekend with us and she too was captivated by the diversity and antics of the birds.

It’s not just an old guy’s fascination.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Crossing the Delaware

Conjure up the image of Washington Crossing the Delaware. There he is, standing in the bow of the longboat, a flag furled around the troops behind him that fateful Christmas night, 233 years ago, 1776.

Quick, in which direction was he sailing? East or west?

If you said west, you’d be...wrong, done in, as I am, by the illusory compass in our minds that identifies a left-faced portrait as facing west. The reality is that Washington’s assault squad crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. They went east, young man, east.

The Delaware enjoys favored status among some of my close friends, for it is on that river we celebrated the end of each school year for our then teenage children with a canoe trip beginning in Milford, Pa.

Not being a swimmer, I was naturally reluctant to engage in this annual paddle of passage, even with the relative safety of wearing a life preserver jacket and knowing that when my son Dan was in the canoe I had brought along a Red Cross certified lifeguard (Ellie was a good swimmer as well, but not a lifeguard). I wasn’t overly fearful of the Delaware. The river was pretty tame, with few big rapids.

The challenge to keep in mind, and fear, was the combat mentality of the other boaters. Admiral Farragut’s admonition, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” into the sides of the other canoes, seemed to be the mantra of the day. Water cannon and assorted water toys were good for wetting an opponent, but a complete dousing could not be accomplished without a dunk in the drink.

Fortunately I am here to relate the mercy of my friends. They graciously avoided dumping our canoe and its precious cargo.

We haven’t canoed down the Delaware in about 10 years, but there are plans to do so again in late spring in honor of the high school graduation of the last of the group’s children.

Canoeing with my friends wasn’t the only time I risked my life on the water. Twice before, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was forced, make that shamed, into canoeing by the richest man in the world, Sam Walton. Each time it happened during Wal-Mart’s annual meeting weekend in early June when journalists and stock analysts would travel to Bentonville in the northwest corner of Arkansas.

The first time, following the company’s weekly Saturday morning meeting, the guests had their choice of leisure activity, including tennis, golf or canoe trip. I was all set for tennis when Sam casually asked if I was going canoeing.

No, I prefer not to risk my life as I don’t swim, I told him.

Nonsense, he replied. You’re going canoeing! Just wear a life jacket.

There was no denying him. Along with about 40 other New York-types and an equal number of Wal-Mart regulars (that means, outdoors-types), I boarded one of two yellow school buses for an hour’s ride up into southwest Missouri. We paddled down a river for about three hours to a camp where Sam’s daughter, Alice, was cooking Mulligan Stew for dinner.

The next year Sam didn’t have to ask. I knew in advance I’d be canoeing so I brought along to Bentonville one of my staff editors who was a good canoer. But I still wore that life jacket.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stories of The Times

Shortly after my tenure as a full-time employee ended, I compiled a to-do list. Among the half dozen or more projects I mapped out were starting a blog (done) and reading a book a week. Sadly, I have been excessively negligent in fulfilling the book-reading objective. I’ve started several books, and I’m just a few pages short of completing a book I should have read years ago. It’s Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America.

I’m reminded of her book, and shamed into reporting my literary failing, by an article in the SundayBusiness section of the NY Times. Entitled “My Initiation At Store 5476,” the article detailed reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom’s experience working in a Wal-Mart supercenter in Deptford, NJ. It’s an interesting peek into the culture of Wal-Mart and some of the logistics behind running the largest retail enterprise in the world (

But like most reporting, Rosenbloom’s depiction only touched on reality. Perhaps we can’t expect more from most journalism as practiced by newspaper, magazine, TV/radio, and Internet reporters. They usually have only limited exposure to their subjects and often are steered by PR pros to focus on what the subject wants, not necessarily what the public needs to know. I’ve been victim of the same scam. It’s rare reportage that reveals more than a skin deep look at politics, business, sports, you name it.

Written in 2001, Ehrenreich’s 230-page book is advocacy journalism. Unlike Rosenbloom whose assignment was approved by Wal-Mart and whose identity was known to store associates, Ehrenreich went undercover to reveal how workers on the lowest rung of our economic system, those working minimum wage, often without health care or any other type of benefits, manage to survive. She didn’t just work at Wal-Mart. She also toiled as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner and nursing home aide. She investigated conditions in three states: Minnesota, Florida and Maine. To create even a meager lifestyle from her working-class wages, a true paycheck to paycheck existence, she often had to hold down multiple jobs at the same time.

To read Nickel and Dimed is to be reminded that most people reading this blog are years removed from making a decision on what’s more important, buying food or medicine. Most probably never had to make that choice. One of the saddest stories I can relate occurred about six years ago, when the economy was vibrant. During a cocktail party I listened to friends complain about having to juggle their lifestyles on their middle-class incomes. They lived paycheck to paycheck, they lamented. When I pointed out that middle-class income usually topped off at $80,000 to $100,000 and that they were earning multiples of that yardstick, they shrugged and kept on complaining.

Yes, they probably did live paycheck to paycheck, but only because they created a lifestyle that required a new luxury car every two to three years, multiple exotic vacations every year, and other perks of the wealthy. I don’t begrudge them their choices, just their insensitivity to the realities of those whose lives truly are dependent on this week’s paycheck.

The Big Little Book: Also in this week’s SundayBusiness section was a report on efforts to resurrect the bankrupt Reader’s Digest Association (

When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, my home was a repository for Reader’s Digest. Not only did the diminutive, perfect-bound magazine arrive each month, but my parents also indulged in buying the magazine company’s condensed books three or four times a year. I enjoyed reading jokes in the Life in These United States, Humor in Uniform, and Laughter pages and other short features inside Reader’s Digest. These was pre-People days, and the Digest served its purpose, if you get my Big Chill drift.

I never considered the Reader’s Digest anything more than a condenser and regurgitater of other publication’s prose until I went off to journalism graduate school at Syracuse University. One of my professors had been an editor at the Digest. He told a remarkable story I haven’t been able to independently verify but worth telling, nonetheless, though I will leave out some of the identifying details to protect potential innocents.

He said sometime in the 1950s he was assigned to report on the increasing popularity of trading stamps given out by supermarkets to shoppers. His investigation uncovered massive fraud at one trading stamp company. Prior to running the article he confronted the chief executive of the company who asked him not to print the expose. He refused. The executive subsequently committed suicide.

He related this story in soft, hushed tones, meant to convey the power of the press and the heavy burden every reporter has in balancing the public trust and right to know with the private lives of those illuminated in black and white newsprint. He left the Digest shortly after that incident to become a journalism professor.

True or not, the story obviously left a lasting impression with me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spousal Infidelities

My wife done me wrong.

Ten days ago when I reported Gilda had been inside the hall where the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama, I was misinformed and in turn misinformed. Gilda’s trip, she later recalled, had been to Stockholm, where she did indeed visit the site of the Nobel Prize ceremonies. All Nobel Prizes are given out in the Stockholm Concert Hall, all, that is, save the Peace Prize which is awarded in Oslo.

Since I’m writing again about her trip, I might as well provide more details about her experience as a pseudo-terrorist.

Gilda traveled to Sweden several weeks after our family vacation in Israel in 1990. Her flight to Stockholm included a stopover and plane change in Amsterdam where airport security reviewed her passport with its Israeli stamps.

With apparent thoughts of the book and movie The Little Drummer Girl in mind, they took her into a separate room and interrogated her about her visit to Israel. They searched her from top to bottom and examined every piece of clothing in her suitcase. They even took apart her hair dryer. Eventually, they decided she was not a Palestinian terrorist and let her board the flight to Stockholm.

Mantle of Fidelity: Back in September, I wrote about meeting Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods at the opening of Nike Town in Manhattan some 10 years ago.

Now that both Jordan and Woods have fallen off the fidelity mantle (whoa, was using that descriptor, “mantle,” a subconscious knock on The Mick, whose infidelities were widely known but not reported by a more compliant press, but later acknowledged by him?), does that leave us with Jeter alone as an icon we can trust?

I don’t follow Jeter’s love life, but at least he has had the decency (or smarts) to stay single during his career. He can’t be accused of turning his back on marriage vows, of cheating, except for the occasional phantom touch or tag at second base (and I’m talking baseball here, not some make-out move).

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Politics of Shopping

Political satire has been part of our national fabric from the start. Among its prime practitioners have been Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Nowadays, anyone who watches a late night talk show is fed a diet of political humor. Even the NY Times recognizes the mass appeal of these comedic forays by highlighting several jibes on page 2 of its Sunday Week in Review section. But these humorous darts mostly come in the form of one-liners.

Saturday Night Live engages in sketches with dead-on skits and caricatures, from Bush 1 and 2 to Sarah Palin and Hillary. Its send-up of the “accomplishments” to date of the Obama administration has done more to signal the ineptitude and disappointment of the current regime than any Republican attack.

Two of the more frequent and noteworthy satirists are Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Having covered retailing for more than three decades, I was particularly fascinated by a segment of Colbert’s interview Wednesday night with retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw. Talking about the state of civility in our national discourse, the two had the following exchange:

Brokaw: The fact is we can’t get through the profound changes we have over the short term or (on) the long term basis if everything becomes a food fight of some kind.

Colbert: We’re divided everywhere, sir. We’re divided along liberal and conservative, gay and straight. There’s conservative and liberal bulk shopping. Sam’s Club is conservative and Costco is liberal. That’s a wonderful country when we can divide ourselves along our shopping habits. (To see the full interview, link to

Colbert’s right. Costco is viewed as more liberal than Sam’s. Management, specifically Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, repeatedly has resisted Wall Street’s exhortations to reduce salaries and benefits to make them more in line with the rest of the retail industry. Wal-Mart, corporate parent of Sam’s Club, has become more worker-friendly over the last half-dozen years. But it will never be mistaken as a benefactor of labor, even with its recent advocacy of mandatory health care insurance for all.

Here’s an excerpt on Costco from a US News & World Report article from October:

Pushing low prices, though, isn't what really sets Sinegal apart. He also has a habit, which sometimes irks stockholders and almost certainly annoys his competitors, of taking excellent care of his employees. Eighty-six percent of them get healthcare and benefits, even though half are part-timers, and the average wage is $19 an hour. And Costco hasn't had any layoffs in the recession. Why such generosity?

"It's really pretty simple. It's good business. When you hire good people, and you provide good jobs and good wages and a career, good things are going to happen," Sinegal says. "We try to give a message of quality in everything that we do, and we think that that starts with the people. It doesn't do much good to have a quality image, whether it's with the facility or whether it's with the merchandise, if you don't have real quality people taking care of your customers." (The full, short profile, part of the magazine’s feature on America’s Best Leaders 2009, can be accessed at

He might have been going for the laugh line, but Colbert was right. Costco and Sam’s are different.

“Many a truth said in jest,” it has often been stated. Words the political satirist lives by. Or possibly by those of George Bernard Shaw: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tripping Up North

Door to door it’s 187.04 miles from our house in White Plains, NY, to Finley’s in Arlington, MA. I’ve solo-visited our grandson twice in eight days. The latest one day trip ended Wednesday morning, with another scheduled for Friday through Sunday when his working grandmother will be able to accompany me.

I’ve become pretty proficient making the drive. I don’t mean to imply the route is difficult to navigate. Rather, I’m noting my proficiency in capturing the signal of sports talk radio shows from New York and Boston that beam in and out during the three-hour ride.

Here’s my listening itinerary: As I drive up the Merritt Parkway in lower Connecticut, I listen to ESPN, 1050 AM. When the signal fades out around New Haven, I switch over to the FAN, 66 AM. Along Route 84, around Sturbridge, near the Connecticut-Massachusetts state lines, the Boston signals start piping in, and I switch between EEI 850 AM or BZ 98.5 FM. The ride home I reverse the order.

Of course, when Gilda is with me this well thought-out listening schedule is out the window. No way she will listen to sports talk radio.

My travels this week and last revealed sharp contrast among the talk shows as they discussed the most important sports news. No, not Tiger Woods’ designation as the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade (given to the player who can sustain double-digit trysts while knocking in more birdies than anyone else without knocking anyone up, at least as far as we currently know).

No, the most important sports story, now and forever, in Bean Town and the Big Apple, is the fluctuating state of the baseball rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, with a little Mets commentary thrown into the mix. There was plenty to talk about—the Yanks trading for centerfielder Curtis Granderson, making Red Sox Nation hysterical that next season already is lost; New Englanders’ still unresolved disappointment at not re-signing Johnny Damon five years ago, made all the more bitter by the belief that Jason Bay should be resigned so that, God forbid, he should not wind up a Yankee, as Damon did (they have no fear he will be secured by the Mets); euphoria in Boston that the Sox signed pitcher John Lackey, but puzzlement about getting centerfielder Mike Cameron since they already have a good, young CF in Jacoby Ellsbury, unless the team is ready to ship Ellsbury out to San Diego with pitcher Clay Buchholz in a trade for Adrian Gonzalez to fill the first base hole they did not plug up last year when management let Mark Teixeira slip through their fingers and into the hated and dreaded Yankees gilded glove.

Whew. Did you follow all of that? Hard enough to do sitting at a computer, but try doing that at 65 mph. Good thing the road is relatively straight.

Highway observations: Boston radio hosts are more entertaining. They’re not only funnier than their New York counterparts, they also engage their callers in more conversation. They actually dialog with them. Surprisingly, very few New England accents among the hosts or callers. New York radio is replete with stereotypical speech patterns.

Cheapest gas I saw along the route was $2.49 a gallon for regular at the Pilot station at exit 1 in Sturbridge. But you had to drive off the highway to fill up. On the highway, gas got cheaper as you made your way north. Regular started out at $3.05 in New York, dropped to $2.75 in Orange, Conn., and $2.65 at the Charlton service plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

No More Cuts: My most recent trip to Boston was to witness Finley’s Pityon Haben, an ancient Jewish ritual that literally means redemption of the son, in this case, the first-born son (let’s not forget that from biblical times even unto today, sons in most societies merited more rights and rites than daughters). The Torah commands that all first-born males, from beast or man, delivered through the womb were to be consecrated to God’s service.

Naturally, there would be too many officiants if all first-born males were conscripted into service, especially once the Levites were assigned the task of being priests (kohens) and assistants in the Tabernacle and Temple. So the Torah prescribed a common sense solution—first-born sons would be redeemed from a kohen at a cost of five silver shekels, the custom now being to exchange five silver dollars for the infant.

On my previous visit I had brought along the five coins we used to redeem Dan when he was 31 days old (for those wondering, it’s commonplace for the kohen to give the coins back to the parents after the ceremony in return for paper money).

Finley turned 31 Wednesday, so Dan and Allison bundled him up for the ceremony at the close-by Temple Emunah in Lexington. The redemption would take place directly after morning prayer service. Finley behaved admirably. Hardly a peep out of him. Perhaps he knew that unlike his last exposure to religious practice three weeks earlier, there’d be no cutting at this ritual rite of passage.

Changing Times: Wednesday also marked the 28th birthday of our daughter, Ellie. And the first time in 26-1/2 years I changed a diaper!

Ellie toilet-trained at the remarkable age of 17 months. Thus I was, to say the least, out of practice. But with Dan now at work and Allison on a quick trip to the cleaners while Finley slept in my arms once we were back home in Arlington, there was little reason to suspect my changing time had come.

Until I heard that telltale explosive sound burst forth from Finley’s tush. Once he started crying there was no denying he’d placed grandpa in a compromised position—wait till Allison returned and claim ignorance as to why Finley was crying uncontrollably, or take a stab at changing him and hope that, like bicycle riding (which I only learned to do when I was 40!), the skill comes back to you.

I retreated to Finley’s room, placed him on the changing table and assembled the necessary equipment. I won’t bore you with the dirty details, but he came through smelling like a champ. I thought he’d stop crying but he didn’t, forcing me to sing songs from Guys and Dolls. He actually smiled during I Love You a Bushel and a Peck, but after I exhausted the show's score, he was not content with songs from Camelot. Fortunately Allison came home (a jackknifed tractor-trailer had delayed her) and calm was restored. And I was back in the car, listening to sports talk radio for the next three hours.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Price Club Aptly Named

Word came yesterday of the death of Sol Price, one of the titans of the retail industry. The 93-year-old genius was the originator of the warehouse wholesale club concept and an able practitioner of the supercenter format that combined a full-line discount store with a full-line supermarket.

Along with James Cash Penney, perhaps no executive enjoyed a name better suited to retailing.

Price was part of a team that founded FedMart in 1953 in San Diego. California had a history of membership-only retail stores. In its early life, FedMart adhered to that policy, but its more lasting claim to fame was incorporation of a discount store and supermarket under one roof. Today’s supercenters are outgrowths of FedMart.

Of course, having an idea is no guarantee of continued success. FedMart was successful under Price’s leadership, so much so that it attracted an international suitor. But shortly after Price and his cohorts sold FedMart to German retailer Hugo Mann in 1975, Price was dumped by the company. FedMart then started a slide that could not be reversed.

Though he was near 60 years old when fired, Price plunged back into retailing. In June 1976, he opened the first Price Club, known now after a series of mergers as Costco. Price’s original idea was to make his club a resource for small businessmen, providing them products at prices below those charged by larger wholesalers. He’d sell to them at discounts big companies could demand and command from suppliers. It was only after one of his customers suggested that he open his club up to the customer’s employees (they’re checks were as good as his, he was said to have told Price), that Price Club exchanged red ink for black and forever changed retail history.

I never had the opportunity to meet Sol Price, but I did sneak into that first club on Morena Boulevard in San Diego at the suggestion of Sam Walton. Sam and I had been talking at the end of a cocktail reception at the Town & Country Resort in San Diego where the discount store association was holding its 1981 annual convention. Sam asked me what I thought of Price Club. I shamefully had to admit I had not seen it. He said it was one of the more intriguing retail ideas he had ever seen.

So the next day I “attached” myself to a family as they entered the membership-only warehouse club. I was, to say the least, overwhelmed. I wanted one of these playgrounds in my back yard, but had to wait until 1992 for the Nanuet, NY, unit to open. I’ve been a devoted Price Club-Costco shopper ever since, patronizing a club once or twice a month. Thankfully, Costco has opened three units in Westchester more easily accessible than Nanuet.

Sam Walton didn’t stand still, either. Within two years he opened his version, Sam’s Club. There’s a Sam’s Club in Elmsford. For a time I was a member there, as well. But I let the membership lapse after a year.

I’m not alone in support of Costco vs. Sam’s Club. The average Sam’s Club reels in $79 million in sales every year. By comparison, Costco’s average unit sales are $142 million.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Thoughts

Sing a Song of Christmas: Watching CBS Sunday Morning earlier today, I was confronted by the usual mix of Christmas advertising, particularly for holiday song albums. There was a new one from Andrea Bocelli. And in a twist to creeping commercialism, one of the icons of individualism, Bob Dylan, has a Christmas album with a purpose—royalties will be donated to various charities.

It always intrigues me that Jewish singers like Dylan turn out Christmas albums. Barbra Streisand did. Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, as well. And let’s not forget that the songwriter of White Christmas (and Easter Parade) was none other than Israel Baline, known universally as Irving Berlin.

What I’m really waiting for is a Christmas album from Matisyahu. The reggae Jewish rapper—who grew up in White Plains as Matt Miller, was in my son’s high school class, hung out with my daughter, and was a H.S. math student of my niece—could cement his crossover appeal with a Christmas album. Just a thought...

Light the Way: Hannukah is the Festival of Lights. But let’s be honest—Hannukah’s candle power, even when enhanced by electric menorahs, is no match for a good Christmas light display.

For years residents of White Plains didn’t have to travel far for a breathtaking exhibition of holiday cheer and excess. The homeowners on Briga Lane and Rose Way vied for most elaborate Christmas light display. House after house electrified the season. Traffic snarled each night as cars snailed by at 5 mph, along the cul-de-sac of Briga Lane and down both sides of Rose Way.

All but one house was illuminated. That house belonged to the Hauptman family, one of the original homeowners on Briga Lane and a member of Temple Israel Center. As each new neighbor put up Christmas lights more elaborate than the house next door, the Hauptman residence took on an even darker countenance.

A few years ago Briga Lane started getting darker. Perhaps some owners moved away, replaced by new residents who either did not go in for ostentatious displays or simply did not share the motivation behind public symbols underpinning Christmas. Or maybe the economy zapped their participation. It is, after all, a burden on one’s Con Ed bill to light up each night from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

Our family for many years enjoyed the ritual of searching for the best lights on Christmas Eve. We’d traverse lower Westchester County. One home, along California Road in Eastchester, always drew our attention until its ownership, too, changed hands and the lights went dark.

It wasn’t until Ellie moved to Brooklyn a few years ago that we have been able to indulge again in a feast of lights. In the Dyker Heights section, street after street is festooned and lit up in dazzling display ( If you like Christmas lights, go there. You’ll soon find out there is more to see and entertain your eyes than time will permit, even at 5 mph.

Troubled Times: Gilda talked me into shopping for some Hannukah presents over the weekend. I’m not against shopping. It’s just that I prefer doing it when few people are around, and this being the next to last weekend before Christmas, expectations were that stores would be mobbed. So much for expectations. We zipped right through. Good for us. Bad for the economy.

Despite their best promotions, retailers are again suffering through a paltry holiday selling season. They’ve trained customers to wait, and wait, and wait for bigger and bigger sales. It’s going to take several seasons of re-education for retailers to change this dynamic. They have to cut back on inventory and actually disappoint lots of customers with out of stocks.

Normally a retailer will go to great lengths to make sure there is sufficient inventory to meet demand. But that led to extreme discounts in recent years when consumers reduced spending and merchants didn’t want to get stuck with excessive inventory.

Now each retailer has to educate its best customers that if they see an item they like in the size they require, they should buy it ASAP or run the risk of missing out. It will take one or two seasons of missed opportunities for this new reality to sink in, on both sides of the buying equation. But without this re-education process, many firms in the retail industry (retailers, suppliers, wholesalers and landlords) will teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.

No one wants to pay higher prices, but the consequences of a struggling retail industry are higher unemployment (retail stores are the number one private sector employer, on top of which you can add the various service and manufacturing jobs associated with retailing) and a less robust economy for all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Putting on the Socks

I wore socks yesterday. I wasn’t at synagogue. I wasn’t attending a wedding or bar mitzvah. It was chilly outside, around 46 degrees, no colder than other sockless days.

I was in Boston, a panelist in a small, financial community roundtable luncheon, discussing retail trends and the current holiday season. (I also took the opportunity to visit Finley and his parents, an added bonus to the trip.)

It felt good wearing socks. It felt good having people take notes on what I said. It felt good jousting with other panelists, juxtaposing my thoughts with theirs.

I’m not ready to tap into the sock drawer every day again. But I’m exhilarated that I can still be meaningful and relevant to a universe beyond the nosocksneededanymore community.

See This Play: Saw an interesting Off-Broadway play last night after returning from Boston. Titled This, it’s a well-written, well-acted black comedy about early middle-age relationships. It’s part of this season’s offerings from Playwright Horizons, a theater dedicated to the development of new productions from contemporary artists. This will be performed through January 3 at the West 42nd Street theater.

Along with Jane and Ken Gould, Gilda and I have bought season subscriptions for half a dozen or more years. We’ve seen some fascinating works through Playwrights Horizons, including Grey Gardens and I Am My Own Wife prior to their reaching Broadway.

Blog of Norway: After we returned home, as we watched excerpts of President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo’s City Hall, Gilda remarked, “I was there, in that hall.”

Indeed, she had been, back in 1990 when she attended an infectious disease conference during her time as an ID researcher at Westchester County Medical Center (unlike many of my business jaunts that Gilda tagged along on, I could not hitch onto her trip to Scandinavia as I’d exhausted my vacation time several weeks earlier for a family trip to Israel).

I teased her last night that if she had a blog of her own she could tell everyone about the experience. That wasn’t very nice of me. So here’s a public apology to Gilda. And if you desire details of her Oslo memory, please ask her the next time you see her.

DEFCON 4: It’s cold outside. 27 degrees at 10:30 am. Cold inside as well. Hovering around 64. It’s polartec sheet time (much warmer than flannel). I’ve raised the heat to a constant 67 degrees. And I think, anytime it’s below freezing outside, it’s time to wear socks. Even inside.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nuclear Family

I am constantly amazed how my life has intersected with national and world events. (I suspect many of you could say the same thing, but this is my blog so you’re stuck with my amazements, unless you care to share yours by hitting the “comment” button at the bottom of this post.)

Let me illustrate. As I slowly made my way through the Peter, Paul and Mary retrospective I wrote about the other day (, one segment of the PBS documentary recounted how the trio had gone their separate ways for almost eight years in the 1970s until Peter Yarrow called them back together in 1978 to appear at a giant anti-nuclear reactor plant rally he was helping organize in California.

That rally, in San Luis Obispo, provided Gilda and me one of the most enduring memories of our first trip to California.

Gilda was seven months pregnant with Dan. We had visited my sister in Los Angeles and ventured north along the Pacific Coast Highway on our way to San Francisco. We didn’t have any reservations. We’d sightsee and drive until Gilda was too uncomfortable to go further, then find a local motel.

We reached San Luis Obispo late in the afternoon. It was hot, temperature in the 90s. We started stopping at motels. Each, in turn, had no vacancy. We couldn’t imagine why, until one friendly innkeeper advised there were no rooms for 50 miles in every direction because of a huge anti-nuke rally.

Gilda was in no mood to ride 50 more miles on the hope of finding a room. Start dialing hotels and motels, she demanded. I called and called. No luck. Desperate, I appealed to the benevolence of the woman who answered my next call. My wife was seven months pregnant, I pleaded. Don’t you have any room, even a closet, we could use for the night?

She had been a war bride (WWII vintage) in New York City, she recalled, when she, too, couldn’t secure a room. She, too, had been pregnant. The kindness of a stranger provided her a room that night, and now she was serendipitously going to return the favor by converting an attic storeroom into a bedroom for us. It would be hot, no air conditioning or fan, but it would be an indoor bed.

We took it, thankful that fortune had smiled upon our nuclear family-in-the-making by appealing to the right woman at our most desperate hour.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Program of Note

For those in the New York area, and possibly the rest of the country as well, PBS (channel 13 in NY) is showing The Rape of Europa tonight at 8. It’s an extremely powerful and informative documentary, depicting the brutish way the Nazis looted and destroyed art during their conquest of Europe, along with the painstaking, dangerous and risk-filled tactics Allied, mostly U.S., forces fashioned to save these treasures of the ages. It’s an often unknown chapter of the humanity we brought to the battle to free the bodies and culture of Europe. It will make you proud of our values as a country. On this day, December 7, it’s a delicate counterpoint to the typical Pearl Harbor Day war movies that clog the airwaves.

Central to the documentary is the story surrounding Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and its return to its rightful owners. That picture now hangs in New York City’s Neue Galerie, dedicated to German and Austrian art. The picture’s cultural cousins, including The Kiss, from Klimt’s “golden period,” hang in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, which our family visited in July 2007. It was there I had one of my most unfortunate museum experiences.

I wanted to point out to Gilda a detail on The Kiss. My enthusiasm carried my index finger a little too close for comfort. Actually, too close is an understatement. I touched the protective glass shield. Alarm bells trumpeted. I jumped back, aghast at my mistake. Our daughter Ellie, who works for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was mortified. My embarrassment was only slightly assuaged by the alarm bells set off a few minutes later by another unfortunate, uncoordinated visitor to the museum.

Frozen Water: The cold has definitely settled into White Plains. The water in the backyard birdbath froze last night. I had to chip away at the ice to extricate the agitator in the middle of the dish. The gentle ripples it made were not enough to keep the water from solidifying. Brrr....

Our Small Society

About 25-30 years ago a journalist acquaintance revealed to me that for a short period of time he worked as a writer for The National Enquirer in Florida. He did so under a pseudonym. He didn’t want to tarnish his professional image. The work, he related, paid well but was super-pressurized. If he didn’t come up with several “exclusives” every week, he’d be sent packing. This was at the time the Enquirer featured stories about aliens siring three-eyed children mixed in with the inside scoop on some celebrity’s plastic surgery makeover or their encampment in a drug or alcohol rehab.

Today’s tabloid press is multi-media. The Enquirer et al compete with People, Us Weekly, countless web sites too numerous to list, TV and cable shows also too numerous to list and even the major network news divisions. “Legitimate” newspapers and evening news broadcasts have turned their shrinking news holds into cesspools of gossip. It’s apparently more important for news organizations to spend resources to track down Tiger Woods’ alleged mistresses than to have news bureaus across the country to research serious news.

Titillation is in. Sound bites trump (now there’s a real tabloid word—it can be a verb, a noun or a proper name) reasoned discourse about national and international issues.

Is this what journalism schools are teaching these days? I went to J-school in the year of Watergate. After that watershed event, everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter, exposing political wrongdoing. Now the expose being sought has a seamier side. I hope this is not just the ranting of a sixty-year-old. Maybe I’m disillusioned because half the people reported on are unknown to me.

But I’d like to think my rant is more weighty, a disappointment in the quality of reporting, a belief that most reports lack context. Among other things, context is knowing what happened or what was said before the story of the moment. It involves research. Intelligence. Curiosity. More research. Innate skepticism. Even more research.

The recent brouhaha over new guidelines for mammograms, suggested by a presidential commission, is a prime example. Though the Obama administration is being excoriated by Republicans over the recommendations, few reporters have noted that the panel that proposed the new guidelines was not appointed by Obama. It was chosen by a Republican president, George W. Bush.

Good reporting also demands accountability. Why is Jon Stewart of the Daily Show (and the late Tim Russert) almost the only one who exposes the past? Politicians live in the moment. Their positions shift, like sails in the wind. They expect no one to remember what they said years, months, even weeks ago. They backpedal when caught, claiming to be quoted out of context.

For many years I carried a “Small Society” cartoon in my wallet. The one frame cartoon depicted a political aide telling his irate boss, “Senator, it’s not that you were misquoted. It’s that they reported word for word what you shouldn’t have said in the first place.”

TV news depends on conflict, drama, confrontation. It’s a lot easier to air a political attack than do all the research necessary to show the accuser held the now-discredited view when his or her party was in power. Why do reporters let them get away with it? Because they’re lazy. Or no good. Or pressured by management to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Why does the public reward political blowhards with support and votes? Sadly, because most Americans are just uninformed. We’re forgetful. We lack context. We’ve come to rely on our newscasts to keep them honest. But the media is as complicit as the politicians in keeping America in the dark.

Whose Sari Now: Perhaps it’s been reported already, but I’d be curious to know how many red saris similar to the one worn by Michaele Salahi have been sold since she partied at the state dinner at the White House. If you know, please email me.

Birthright: My “younger” sister Lee who is older than I am by two years (she has a biblical complex—she thinks she sold me her middle-child birthright, whatever that is) is displaying maternal instincts towards me. She worries about my venturing out sockless in the cold.

“The head and the toes are the first to feel cold and to allow body warmth to seep out. Given your diminishing hair amount I’d think again of no socks policy...just a helpful sister’s advice...not that you ever take my advice...,” she wrote in a recent email.

Didn’t realize I was losing my hair, at least in any noticeable fashion. She has peculiar eyesight for someone nearly 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. But she’s right about it getting colder. It was 38 degrees when I went outside early Sunday afternoon, sockless. Wasn’t bad at all.

But Lee did have an interesting suggestion: “I suggest that you give in to Mother Nature and start wearing socks. To distinguish business dress from free man's dress, wear only funky, silly socks.....there are many on the market.”

Not a bad idea, but as she suggested in her motherly tone, when did I ever take her advice? I’m just not ready to give in. My “public” keeps demanding to see me sockless. Last week I didn’t disappoint four separate inquirers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Larger than Life Journalist

At first I thought my friend Dave Banks was spoofing me. But as I looked closer at the URL he sent, it was not a copy of my own blog‘s, but rather the URL for one that he had just started,

Don’t worry. It’s not some X-rated Web site. It’s just Dave’s ramblings about life in the northern hinterlands of England, hard by the Scottish border.

I could fill up more bytes than my computer has in memory with stories about Dave, but some background is in order to appreciate the totality of this larger than life English journalist. Dave is indeed larger than most people I know. He’s 6’6”, give or take an inch or two, and, depending on the efficacy of his diet, about 280 pounds. He always tells me his weight in stones, but as best I can figure it, it’s about 280 pounds.

Gilda and I met Dave and his diminutive wife Gemma (maybe 5’3”, 115 pounds) when our son was about 12 months old. Their daughter Natasha, (Tash or Tasha as she usually is called), was about six weeks younger. Though our back yards abutted, we were oblivious to each other until a neighbor, reasoning that two journalists might have something in common, introduced us at her daughter’s third birthday party. The party was a real bore, but the friendship she originated has lasted for 30 years across three continents.

Dave was one of Rupert Murdoch’s imports, brought to the States to spunk up the New York Post with tabloid tastes that now seem ordinary but back in 1979-80 were viewed as racy and sensational. Sitting in his living room drinking wine that first day after the party was over, I remember Gilda bemoaning the vulgarity of the Post headlines. I commented that the one I liked best for its temerity and rakishness was, “Ted Campaigns Near Mary Jo’s Grave.” Still, I cautioned Gilda that we shouldn’t criticize the Post until we found out in more detail what Dave did for the paper. Without missing a beat Dave informed us that though he did not write my favorite headline, it was his job to compose, or approve, the headlines for the first six pages of each day’s paper! Ooooops!

What followed was a three decades-long discussion of the merits of popular vs. elitist journalism and a friendship, a love, between two couples that has survived the Banks’ meanderings back to England, several years in Australia, a return to London, another stay in White Plains to help run the Daily News, a final return to London for a multi-media career in print, radio and cable television, and now semi-retirement in the little hamlet of Crookham, not far from where Dave grew up.

My mind is racing with stories about Dave’s exploits, both practical jokes and tabloid journalism exclusives. Dave’s claim to fame, or infamy, includes running pictures of a pregnant Princess Diana at the beach, for which his British paper had to apologize and did so by running the offending pictures again, and his authorizing the placement of a camera that captured photos of Princess Diana working out inside a London gym, a deed that led other news outlets to stake out his home with round-the-clock cameras. Gemma was not a happy camper after that turn of the camera lens.

Perhaps in future posts I’ll recount more of his escapades. In the interim, I commend his blog about semi-retired life in Crookham, Northumberland, England, to you. And since he posts only once per week, sometimes even less often, you won’t be overwhelmed. You’ll have plenty time to keep reading my musings.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Health Care Battle on Two Fronts and More

I’m not sure if this is considered progress or a regression—our military exploits abroad no longer are cast in the context of preventing falling dominos. Now, It’s cancer that we must contain.

“We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country,” said President Obama Tuesday night. “But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.”

So we are now fighting for universal health care at home and abroad.

I am loathe to give odds on the successful outcome of either battle this embattled president has joined.

A clarification: My suggestion the other day to donate food for the hungry brought an immediate response from my accountant, Roch. He cautioned it is important to receive written acknowledgment from the food bank. I thought I had covered myself with the taxman by getting separate receipts from Costco for my personal purchases and those made for the food bank, but Roch said, “If you were audited your receipt would not suffice. I suggest at a minimum you receive an acknowledgement from the food bank on their letterhead with a description and date of the donation. They do not have to assign a value to the donation; you would just attach your receipt to their acknowledgement.”

Maimonedes, the 12th century Jewish scholar and physician, articulated eight levels of charity. The second highest level is when the donor and recipient are unknown to each other. I guess now that I've at least partially blown my cover I should ask for a letter, but I still like my idea and anonymity better.

Sports Note: Now that Tiger Woods has shown he’s mortal and susceptible to the enticements of flesh not worn by his wife, the question remains how golf fans will react.

Unruly, disgraceful, vulgar fans make sitting in ballparks uncomfortable for many, particularly those with children in tow. Epithets shouted at players like Alex Rodriguez for his womanizing and steroid use would blanche even a sailor’s face.

Golf is different, some say. Fans are deferential. As in tennis when a player is about to toss a ball for a serve, they quiet down when a shot is to be made.

But all it takes is one shrill outcry released during a backswing for decorum to be smashed. Whose to say that one of Lefty’s (that’s Phil Mickelson) ardent fans is not savoring this moment when the Tiger is at last vulnerable, that he or she is not waiting to unleash a verbal missile that breaks Tiger’s concentration during the arc of contact?

Fewer and fewer unblemished icons—in sports, politics, entertainment, business, you name it—remain.

Nation Building: Ours, not theirs. Tom Friedman explained his dissent from President Obama’s decision to expand the war effort in Afghanistan, even at the risk of “a little less security” at home ( Here’s my way of looking at it, actually written before the speech, but not posted:

“Here’s an outlandish thought, something akin to how actuaries help companies decide if it’s worth, say, fixing a small part on an automobile or risk paying out millions in insurance claims when the inevitable crashes and losses of life occur:

“Why not simply accept that some terrorist activity will happen here over the next five to ten years, but instead of sending billions to Iraq and Afghanistan, spend those dollars in the U.S. to help our countrymen live better lives. Would it be worth providing everyone true universal health care to save tens of thousands of lives a year? Would it be worth improving our educational system so we can graduate workers who can compete for 21st century jobs? Would it be worth subsidizing a transportation industry so we can have more efficient rail, highway and air traffic systems? Would it be worth jumpstarting energy independence initiatives?”

We will never, never be able to stamp out terrorism. Determined men and women, much like a lone assassin willing to die in an attempt, can penetrate almost any defense. Our strongest defense against outside and home-grown terrorism will be a strong USA, not as a crumbling superpower. We cannot afford to disillusion our citizens. They need jobs. They need health care. They need to feel good about their prospects. Demagoguery flourishes during periods of economic stagnation. Our values and way of life are at risk here, not in some remote cave in the mountains of Whatever-stan.

Subject Matter: A few weeks ago my son Dan cautioned that if I kept posting blogs every day I’d run out of material. I assured him writers need to write, as often as possible, to keep in practice. Besides, there is an ample supply of memories and current events to fuel my 10-finger exercise. So reader, be forewarned, I will try to keep up with the news, placed in context both personal and professional. Hopefully, you’ll tolerate my passion. I’ve already lost one follower because of my political views. Or perhaps better stated, his. C’est la vie. Vive la diffĂ©rence.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let It Snow

Not really. I hate the snow. Never really liked it as a kid, and as several car accidents many years ago happened after it snowed, I loathe the little white flakes. But since I cleared out Gilda’s gardening stuff in the garage today to make room for the snowblower, which actually started on the first try, I’m ready for what Mother Nature hurls our way.

Impetus for my wintry preparations came from weather reports of snow making its way into upstate New York. The forecasts were a reminder of the long winter I spent in Syracuse earning my master’s degree in journalism at Syracuse University back in 1971-72. Syracuse’s nickname is Salt City. Until my last week there I assumed the nickname came from the liberal spreading of salt on city streets to clear the average 115.6 inches of snow every year. (The year I was there it snowed 133.7 inches.) The nickname actually derived from the nearby salt mines, to which I was oblivious.

Over Thanksgiving weekend 1971, a pounding snowstorm struck New York State, shutting down all highway traffic, forcing me to wait until Monday to return to school from my parents’ home in Brooklyn. Roads were still barely plowed in New York City, but as I got closer to Syracuse the highways were almost totally clear. Even city streets were passable. I remarked to myself that Syracuse sure knew how to handle snow. I further wondered what all the fuss was about, why travel had been restricted on Sunday.

I parked in front of the gingerbread-style, three-story house on East Genesee Street where my studio apartment, with shared bathroom, occupied part of the top floor. As soon as I stepped out of the car the extent of the snowfall became apparent. Snow engulfed my legs up to my hips. I struggled to reach the front stairs, then made my way up to the third floor.

I opened the door to find half my apartment half covered in snow. The roof had caved in under the weight of the snow. It took several days for the landlord to repair the roof.

The rest of the winter passed without incident, though I was nervous each time I ventured out driving in the snow. My Buick Skylark, red with black vinyl top, weathered the winter with no dents, no fender bender, no scratches.

On a bright, warm early June day, diploma in hand, I packed the Buick up in the driveway shared with the house next door. The getaway was a few moments away. As I bent into the car to reposition my stereo, I looked out the passenger side window and saw another student’s car backing up, slowly, inexorably, toward me. I screamed, “Stop!” I waved my hands. To no avail.

Thunk! Broadsided in broad, summer daylight in my passenger side door. I shook my head in disgust. So close to escaping Syracuse.

I hate snow. I hate Syracuse.

Objects of Affection

Gilda was busy making Pillow for Finley last night.

Most every baby becomes attached to some object—a stuffed toy, a blanket, a piece of cloth. For our son Dan it turned out to be a stuffed gingham pillow in the shape of a lion’s face with a fringed white mane all around. A friend had given it to Dan along with a matching blanket. Gilda tethered the pillow to his crib so it wouldn’t topple over on him as a newborn. After he became mobile and the threat of being buried by it subsided, Gilda released the pillow from the side of the crib. A few days later she discovered him sleeping on top of the pillow. Since that day some 31 years ago, Dan and Pillow, as the object of his affection came to be called, have been inseparable, through summer camp, college dormitory, shared apartments and now his married family home. Dan could sit for hours stroking the mane across his cheek, watching TV, reading a book, listening to music, dreaming, or just simply vegging out.

When we realized his early devotion to Pillow, we projected out a real fear. What if Pillow were lost? Or just left behind at someone’s house? Dan would be inconsolable. So Gilda secretly made a second Pillow. Every few weeks or so we’d switch them out and wash the used one. In between assignments, the second Pillow would await its turn on a top shelf in Dan’s closet. Dan was none the wiser for our deception.

As I stood at the bathroom sink shaving one morning when Dan was about 3, I was startled into action. Gilda was yelling to quickly come downstairs. I had reached the landing at the top of the stairs when I saw Dan standing at the bottom, holding Pillow and his twin, one in each hand. He was screaming, “Two. Two.” His joy was unbounded. His pleasure doubled. He understood and accepted completely the duality of Pillow’s existence. He loved both Pillows, though he probably favored the original.

Now that he’s a father, Dan’s trying to replicate his attachment to Pillow, hoping that Finley will bond with Gilda’s new creation. We, mostly Gilda with her sewing, are willing accomplices. But the track record of transmitting a favored object from one generation to the next is spotty. At least in our family.

When my brother, sister and I grew up, we each in turn latched onto a stuffed animal we called Bow-Wow. In truth, Bow-Wow was a lamb. Blame my brother for the zoological confusion. He named Bow-Wow. Bow-Wow remained a member of my childhood associations even after he was disposed of by our mother.

When Gilda was pregnant with Dan, we visited Carmel, Calif. In one of the town’s curio shops I saw a stuffed lamb. It was much smaller than Bow-Wow, but the attraction was magnetic. Surely Dan would bond with my version of Bow-Wow. We forced him into newborn pictures, first with Dan, then with Ellie.

Nothing. Nada. No chemistry at all. Today, as he has for more than 25 years, Bow-Wow Jr. rests stoically on a shelf in Ellie’s room. After 31 years in our household, he still has his eyes and nose, sure signs of childhood neglect, or more precisely, displacement by objects of affection chosen not by parents but by innocent young lives not tied to preconceptions or family history.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Let's Get Physical

I’m no saint. But one of the good deeds I do every month, usually, like today, on the first Wednesday of the month, is go to Costco, not just to shop for myself but also to buy $100 worth of groceries for the local food bank. There is intense satisfaction the next day when I drop off the two or three boxes of canned, packaged or bottled food (the food bank doesn’t accept perishables) at the collection point. Donations are accepted Thursday and Friday mornings.

I’m not seeking accolades by telling you this. I would have preferred my gifts to remain anonymous, as I remain when I deliver each monthly donation despite requests that I sign in. I’m telling you this because I hope to inspire you to do more than simply write a check. Keep writing those checks, but add on some personal, physical involvement. Once a month, at least, buy some extra food for the food bank. You’re already in the store. It won’t be too great a sacrifice to drop the food off at your local food bank.

Last week most Americans sat down at tables groaning under excessive food. We gave thanks, ate and then sat down to watch football or plan an assault on a retail store.

But in our nation of 300-plus million, 49 million go hungry every day. One in three of the hungry are children. Every society is judged by how it treats its less fortunate. Government programs such as food stamps are not enough to relieve the need. Individual action may not be enough either, but your personal involvement will not only nourish the needy, it also will nourish your soul if you do something concrete and physical to help those who don’t enjoy all the material wealth you do.

Physical action, not just checkbook charity.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time for Updates

Time for some updates of past blogs:

Afghanistan (9/22/09 Tonight, as President Obama explains his new Afghanistan strategy, it’s important to remember the lessons of history—guns and butter didn’t work for LBJ. It won’t work for Obama. Nixon promised a plan to get us out of Vietnam with honor. He sent more youth to their death than LBJ. Tens of thousands were killed and more were maimed, physically and emotionally. We won’t lose as many bodies and minds in Afghanistan, but the soul of our nation will be ripped apart again at a time when we must invest more in our own country and its people. We cannot win in Afghanistan. We cannot achieve anything close to our goals. Politically, Obama will never do enough to appease the war hawks.

Mary Travers (9/17/09 How poignant that the day before Obama formally announces his war strategy, our local PBS station, Channel 13, aired a 2003 retrospective on Peter, Paul and Mary as part of its fundraising drive. It displayed the powerful force music possesses to shape and expand the national, and international, dialogue on the important issues of our time. Peter, Paul and Mary were troubadours for justice, equality, peace, freedom, love. The program was called, “Peter, Paul and Mary, Carry It On, A Musical Legacy.” Catch it as a rerun or when it’s broadcast on your local PBS affiliate (next time on Channel 13 is 1 am, Wednesday, 12/2). It will, to paraphrase a Pete Seeger lyric popularized by the trio, leave you wondering,
Where have all the singers gone?
Long time passing,
Where have all the singers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the singers gone?
Become bankers everyone
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Derek Jeter (9/12/09 In the year in which he surpassed Lou Gehrig as the most prolific hitter in Yankees history, my favorite Yankee earned his fifth World Series ring, his fourth Gold Glove, his second Hank Aaron award as the top hitter of the American League, and his fourth Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive shortstop in the American League. He was the recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award for excellence on and off the field, and yesterday was named Sports Illustrated's sportsman of the year, becoming the first member of the New York Yankees to win the award. All that is worthy of a Jeter fist pump!

Staff cutbacks (11/2/09 They continue at my former employer. Yesterday someone I thought was among the most secure because of his technical skills in producing print publications was let go. Publishing is rapidly becoming a form of communication I do not recognize. I’m not alone. Here’s David Carr’s take from the NY Times,

Cleveland (10/2/09 Never heard back from them. Oh well, their football team is doing worse than the Giants, which is depressing in its own right.

Housewife’s Hand (9/10/09 Still a problem, but not as bad as before.

Free Tuesday movies (9/8/09 I don’t see too many free movies on Tuesdays anymore. The Clearview Cinemas cut back on matinees after kids went back to school in September. And frankly, there haven’t been too many films worth seeing, even if they’re free. I’d rather watch old movies DVR’ed from Turner Classic Movies. Yesterday I watched a taut film noir from 1951, Fourteen Hours, starring Paul Douglas and a young Richard Basehart. After you’ve seen the movie, check out the Wikipedia entry for some interesting background details,

My grandfather name (11/20/09 No word on what Finley will call me. I’ll let you know when the now two-week-old makes up his mind.

Finally, and I’m sure you’re grateful for that, though it’s getting chillier, I’m still going sockless. I hate not wearing socks. But it remains a life statement, an attitude that validates my freedom from the pressures so many of you are under. I wish you all the opportunity, of your own choosing, to go sockless.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rites of the First Born

I find myself staring at Finley’s picture for minutes on end. Perhaps all first-time grandparents do the same, caught up in the thrill of looking at their line extension, at the blissful beauty of an innocent face sleeping peacefully. I just turned the desktop screensaver of my computer into a Finley picture frame, first time I ever put a picture on it. But I wonder—will I do the same for the next grandchild? For my daughter’s first child when he or she arrives?

When my parents’ first grandchild, my brother’s son, showed up, they were still relatively young and vibrant. Dad was 64, Mom 58 (Gilda and I are 60—don’t worry, she has no problem revealing her age). They cradled Eric in their arms. Bounced him on their knees. Mom tried to stuff him with chicken noodle soup. When Eric was old enough to hang on, his grandfather turned into a bucking bronco. All those westerns Dad watched proved to be invaluable training.

Three years later Dan was born. He was their second grandchild, followed within the next nine months by my sister’s first child, Ari, and Eric’s sister, Karen. Mom and Dad tried to be as excited, but the novelty and age with its creeping infirmities made these family additions a little less dramatic. I can’t recall Dad ever dropping down on all fours and giving Dan a ride on his back.

It’s only natural that the first born, child or grandchild, is showered with the most attention, but the desire to “not behave like our parents” is deeply rooted. Only time will tell if I am successful. I didn’t always succeed when raising Dan and Ellie. My inner ear caught me repeating phrases my parents hurled at me when growing up, phrases I had vowed never to say to my children.

Perhaps with more diligence and awareness, and with better health, I will do better when the next grandchild, and the next one after that...arrives.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Roads Not Traveled

During the last 32 years my work provided one of the all-time great benefits. I was able to travel extensively throughout the United States and abroad, often with my wife, sometimes even with our children. Because of my work we’ve visited England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Germany, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Spain and Gibraltar. My travels transported me to all but five states—Alaska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

Through these trips I managed to see some of the wonders of the world and America. One Sunday before a new Montgomery Ward store opened in Colorado Springs, I drove up nearby Pikes Peak. I observed alligators and crocodiles in the Everglades, walked the Alamo (much smaller in real life than in the movies), hiked among the redwoods of Muir Woods outside San Francisco and down part of the path of the Grand Canyon, visited the Emperor’s Palace Gardens in Tokyo, the spas of Carlsbad inside the Czech Republic, The Tower of London, The Berlin Wall and East Berlin, to name just a few.

I don’t want to give the impression that these business trips were all play. Indeed, I regret not doing more. For instance, a business friend of mine took advantage of his trips to watch a baseball game in almost all of the major league ballparks. I should have done that. And I didn’t visit some of the great museums in cities like Chicago, or Los Angeles.

But the most disappointing aspect of my travels only recently came to light with the airing of The National Parks, America’s Best Idea, a PBS documentary. Hour after hour Gilda and I sat spellbound by not only the natural beauty of our land but also by the stories of individuals, private citizens and civil servants, who exulted in and shaped our national treasures. I’ve been to California at least 30 times, but never visited Yosemite. Not tragic, but truly disappointing.

Our children, Dan and Ellie, have traveled cross country by car. The only family picture in our bedroom is a black and white print of them sitting atop a crest overlooking a mountain range in Zion National Park in southwest Utah.

I never fully appreciated Dan’s passion for the parks, his desire to get married under one of the arches in Utah’s Arches National Park. He settled for getting married overlooking the Hudson River, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary, I understand, a little better, his rapture with the parks.

When Gilda eventually retires, we’ll be taking a long trip out West, discovering all that we missed along roads not traveled in states we think we already experienced.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rodents and Other Must-Have Toys

It’s been 20 years or so since I’ve looked through a Toys “R” Us circular in earnest. But grandparenthood has a way of pulling you back to earlier, more simple times.

Hold it. I’m not sure of that last thought about simpler times, how accurate it is.

The other day I saw a piece on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric that examined the inventory shortage of the hottest toy of the year. What toy is driving kids crazy? It’s a furry hamster on wheels! A rodent! Kids want to play with rodents! Check it out, on kGbEGKL

For those who couldn’t load the video clip, here’s a link to a story from Saturday’s NY Times,

Now, before you go saying that Mickey Mouse is a rodent, as is Mighty Mouse, and Rocky is a squirrel, and Chip and Dale are chipmunks, let me point out that all these furry hamsters do is move in the direction you point them, or in the (curved) tracks you lay in front of them.

Sure they’re cute. But if this is what it will mean to be a grandparent, finding the must-have toy for my grandchildren, I have a lot of re-education to go through.

When our daughter Ellie was almost three years old, her favorite doll was a big, hard plastic-faced one she called Sally. Sally looked really ratty. Her blonde hair was a mess. Her clothing was Salvation Army salvage. Ellie loved Sally, but her parents had a hard time allowing her to take Sally out in public. They thought it would look more appropriate to their station in life if Ellie was seen hugging a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Trouble was, CPK’s were in short supply. You couldn’t find them anywhere. Parents were desperate, willing to pay as much as 10 times the regular price.

In October of that year Gilda and I attended a retail conference. During dinner one night we sat with Burt Adelman, the head of Lamston’s, a NY-based variety store chain, and his wife, Bunny. Bunny and Gilda, along with my boss’s wife Trudy, schemed up a plan to trick Burt into securing a Cabbage Patch Kid for Ellie’s upcoming birthday in December. To Bunny’s question of what Ellie wanted, Gilda replied a Cabbage Patch Kid, but none could be found anywhere. Burt took the bait and, sure enough, within a week’s time a box appeared on our doorstep.

But that’s not the end of the story. No sooner had we put away the doll than an invitation arrived at my office from Coleco, the licensee of the CPK franchise. For the first time ever it was sponsoring a CPK float in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. My family and another of my choosing were invited to view the parade from the balcony of the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel. My brother’s family came with us.

It was an exciting day. The huge parade balloons were at eye level. Though it was bitter cold outside, we were toasty warm inside, eating a sumptuous brunch. As a token of their appreciation for our attendance, Coleco gave the four youngsters in our group their own CPK dolls, plus assorted CPK merchandise such as lunchboxes, earmuffs and records. For good measure we also took home two dolls that were table centerpieces. Ellie now had more CPK dolls waiting for her attention than almost any other kid alive.

You’ve probably guessed by now...Ellie couldn’t care less for any of them. All she wanted was Sally. We wound up giving away all but one CPK. Of course, several years later Ellie did develop a love of Cabbage Patch Kids and we had to go out and buy a whole new family of dolls for her.

I might be a little rusty, but I’m definitely experienced at this must-have toy mania.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Special Person's Day

I could tell from Maggie’s expression that she couldn’t see me among the hundreds of adults amassed before her. I was sitting way in the back for her third grade Special Person’s Day assembly. In retrospect, I would have been easier to spot had I been standing, but I didn’t think of it soon enough. At first, I had a hard time finding my eight-year-old grand-niece as well, but it turned out I was directly in front of her, 30 long yards away as she stood with her classmates on the stage at the front of the large hall, a red bandana atop her hair. I repeatedly waved, but she didn’t see me.

The singing began, patriotic songs in honor of Veterans' Day. Between the first and second songs I read Maggie’s lips as she whispered to Sam standing next to her, “I think my uncle is not here.”

She kept scanning the audience. She was going through the motions singing the songs, visibly sad thinking I wasn’t there. I ached to call out. I sat up as straight as I could, hoping she’d pick me out. And then, during the next to last song that thanked the special persons for coming to school today, she saw me. Her eyes twinkled. She smiled, and for the rest of the song her right sleeve brushed her eyes several times. I misted up as well, relieved, and I projected out that in a few years my grandson will experience similar days at school with his special persons, a different one every year.

Once you’ve given your commitment to attend, you can’t expect a child to understand why you didn’t make it to school that day, on time. Traffic, work, petty illness—nothing can get in your way. Nothing can top that moment of recognition when you lock eyes and the child knows you cared enough to be there, that he or she mattered more than anything else in your life.

Special Person’s Day started out many years ago as Grandparent’s Day. Someone figured out that death and distance precluded some children from having a loved one in attendance, so the event was changed to Special Person’s Day. At our children’s elementary school, Gilda pushed through the changeover while she was PTA president. She’d gotten the idea from my brother’s wife, Annette. Their children’s school in Rockville, Md., had made the transition.

I wasn’t the first Special Person Maggie had invited. Her father and our daughter Ellie secured the honor in prior years. But it’s good to know that, no matter what year, being a special person provides lasting enjoyment for both the child and the adult.

A Name for the Ages

The coincidental timing of current events with the biblical narrative as it plays out in the weekly readings of the Torah can be eerily comforting.

Last week my grandson, Finley Hawthorne Forseter, was born (follow his blog at As is the custom in Jewish families, Finley’s Hebrew name was given to him at his Bris, his ritual circumcision, which occurred yesterday. He was given the name Yakov (Jacob) in honor of my deceased father and his mother’s paternal grandfather who passed away a year ago. My dad’s Hebrew name was Yakov. James Mixter Sr. was not Jewish, but James usually is translated as Yakov.

Each week in synagogue, Jews read a portion of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). The full portion, referred to as a parsha, is read on Saturday morning. But on Monday and Thursday mornings the first 12 or so sentences of the longer portion are read. Sort of like a preview of what is to come on Saturday.

During the fall, the readings comes from the Book of Genesis. Last week’s Torah portion was titled Toledot, (Generations, in English). It begins at Chapter 25, verse 19 of Genesis, with the birth of twins to Rebecca and Isaac. Yakov was one of those twins, Esau the other. Finley was born at 7:01 am, right around the time last Monday morning when Yakov’s birth would have been read in synagogue.

This was not the first time the story of the patriarch Yakov impressed itself on the narrative of my family. The week my father died in 1998, the parsha of the week recounted the last days of Yakov’s life in Egypt. I was struck at the time by the commonalities Yakov and my father shared. Yakov died in a land not his own, a land he traveled to when adversity, a famine, struck his homeland, Canaan. My father, too, fled his native land, Poland, right before the outbreak of World War II. Like Yakov, my father and his family prospered in a new world.

Like Yakov, my father was a patriarch. He was a leader not only to his family but also to many of his business associates, the synagogue in Brooklyn he served as president for many years, and to the many refugees from the little village of Ottynier who left to find a better life. For many, many years he was president of the First Ottynier Young Men’s Benevolent Association.

I met James Mixter Sr. just two or three times, but it was obvious he was a man of warmth and uncompromising integrity. He was a leader in his own right. Prior to last year’s New Hampshire presidential primary, John McCain personally called James Sr. to discuss what needed to be done to secure his support. You don’t have to agree with a man’s politics to appreciate the values and standing he brings to a community.

Finley Hawthorne Forseter, Yakov Forseter, sockless for now, has some mighty big shoes to fill.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah Packs It In

Oprah Winfrey will end her syndicated broadcast talk show in September 2011. 9/11. Funny how some dates forever are associated with significant events.

Oprah’s decision to abdicate network television in favor of cable for her own channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, will have financial repercussions throughout the media industry, including for Oprah herself. At this time there are no plans to shift the Oprah Winfrey Show, network television’s top-rated talk show, onto her cable network. No matter how it affects others, I’m betting on Oprah to come out on top. To be sure, she’s had setbacks. Everyone does, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, and anyone else who takes risks. As the first Afro-American billionaire, she’s proven she’s a savvy businessperson.

Though her gabfest has aired for 23 years, Oprah’s one hour presence on my TV screen through the years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Oh sure, I’ve seen clips of some of her famous interviews rebroadcast on TV news reports and YouTube, but I’ve sat through an entire show less than a handful of times. I do recognize that she has entertained, informed and influenced our society for nearly a quarter of a century by advancing our national dialogue on a wide range of issues. I’m not trying to be elitist or snobbish with my diffidence toward her show. It’s just that her show is not really my cup of tea.

For that matter, I’m not a Judge Judy or an Ellen or a Jerry Springer type of guy, either. Nor do I like to listen to Entertainment Tonight or the Insider, especially lately now that they’ve stopped pure “reporting” and gone into a more confrontational format of bickering panelists. Is anyone out there listening to the volume of distaste and diatribe our society is spewing out there every day, be it from The View or from Fox “News” Network or CNBC?

We have totally abandoned civility. How can individual acts of kindness compete with terabytes of tantrums?

I am aware of no instance where Oprah Winfrey degraded a guest. Yes, she took some to task, like the author whose book she touted who turned out to be a fake. But her reputation as a cultural icon stemmed from her treatment of others with respect. By others I mean not only her guests in the studio and on stage, but also the seven million guests who tuned in almost daily to be enlightened and uplifted.

September 9, 2011, will be her last network broadcast. I might tune in that day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black Friday Madness

We are a few days away from one of the consumer- and media-frenzy days of the year. Perhaps second only to election day, Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving when most retailers launch massive early morning sales promotions—is an occasion for the media to trot out their vast resources to cover the story. Helicopters hover over crowded shopping centers, reporters wade into throngs of shoppers, cameramen angle for the best shot of the hordes galloping into and thrashing about, and sometimes trashing, stores in search of loss-leader bargains galore. At the end of the day, reporters opine on the meaning behind Black Friday as a portend of full holiday season sales, even though the history of retailing during the last decade or longer reveals that Black Friday no longer carries such importance. Rather, the weekend before Christmas and the week after have eclipsed it, while the Internet has intermediated it as well.

But the public needs its images, so Black Friday has turned into a circus, promoted by a willing combination of media and retail companies, each group with its own economic wish list it wants fulfilled.

For the record, Black Friday refers to the day when, in the past, retailers finally saw their balance sheets for the year turn profitable because of all the post-Thanksgiving sales rung up. True or not, the day after Thanksgiving has come to enjoy notoriety beyond its real importance.

This year’s Black Friday also will commemorate the senseless death of a Wal-Mart temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour , trampled last year by unruly crowds in a Valley Stream, N.Y., store. The incident gave an unfortunate true meaning to the term “door buster” sales.

For more than 30 years I observed retail companies plan the hype for Black Friday, with little regard to customer or worker safety. Last year’s tragedy, not the first time life and limb sustained damage, prompted renewed emphasis on security. The NY Times recently detailed some of the precautions Wal-Mart and other retailers will employ. Tactics will include opening Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m. and remaining open through Friday evening, as well as patrolling entrances and supervising lines near most-wanted merchandise that will go on sale at 5 a.m. Friday. Here’s a link to the article,

But lost amid the rush to buy and sell is the loss of dignity foisted on our consumer society. Why do retailers create the conditions that turn customers into desperadoes? Why do retailers turn their workers into hall monitors at best, untrained policemen at worst? Why will they now steal from them one of the few days, Thanksgiving, when they could be home with their families? These are not life’s necessities being promoted. Customers could wait another day to buy, and workers another day to sell, flat screen televisions or digital cameras.

With an unforgiving economy making shoppers more eager than ever to secure the lowest price possible, I fear for the safety of anyone who is foolish or desperate enough to shop early, or unfortunate enough to have to work those pre-dawn hours. Last November in my retail industry magazine, I editorialized that “the frenzy of early-morning specials demeans shoppers and workers and puts them at physical risk. I fear that this year’s economic condition will supercharge Black Friday madness. Any store that does not safeguard shoppers and staff with adequate security will be negligent, morally if not criminally.”

Let’s hope that sanity and security abound this Black Friday and that we have no more economic casualties like Jdimytai Damour.