Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Chain of One-Person Events

I don’t usually engage in the practice of blowing my own horn. These blog postings from my life are mostly casual musings and remembrances, points of poignancy, interest, sometimes humor, that hopefully evoke in you similar memories and feelings from your earlier days.

But an Op-Ed piece in Friday’s NY Times, titled “Out of Auschwitz” (, stirred me to recall one of my most cherished accomplishments—I prevented the new Giants-Jets Meadowlands football stadium from being named after the company that insured Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

Two summers ago my family traveled to Central Europe, visiting Vienna, Budapest, Krakow and Prague. In Krakow, we hired a local guide, a young man who, by coincidence, had grown up in the village of Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, some 30 miles outside the main city.

There are two parts to the concentration camp. Auschwitz I sits on the site of a former military base. Its buildings are mostly brick. But as sturdy as its structures were, Auschwitz I did not provide the Nazis with sufficient scope to expeditiously carry out their mass murders. So they built Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. Jews and other undesirables were contained in wooden barracks. Beyond the far end of a long train depot, the Nazis built gas chambers and crematoria.

On a hot, sunny, late July afternoon as we walked in an open field towards the memorial near the ruins of the killing machines, we came across a small pool of water. I asked our guide what purpose it served. Holocaust deniers would tell you, he replied, that these and others like it were swimming pools the prisoners enjoyed, as if Auschwitz were just a little rougher than a regular summer camp. In truth, the water pools were part of a fire response system mandated by the camp’s insurance carrier because of the extensive wooden buildings. He identified the insurer as Allianz. I was incredulous, but given German fascination with efficiency, not too surprised they would go to the extreme of insuring their extermination property.

Fast forward one month, to Labor Day. On the back page of SportsMonday in The Times I read a short marketing article by Richard Sandomir that the Giants and Jets were close to signing a naming rights deal with a German “financial services company,” Allianz.

Whoa! I raced to the computer, checked it was indeed the same Allianz (on its Web site Allianz acknowledges its Nazi links), and sent off letters to The Times, the Giants and the Jets, informing them that far from being just a “financial services company,” Allianz had been the Nazi insurance company. “Surely the Giants and Jets,” I wrote in part, “in their ignoble pursuit of every last marketing dollar, do not need to affront their fans, many of whom lost family in the Holocaust, by placing the Allianz name on their stadium.”

Not a word back. The Times says it won’t print a letter to the editor without first contacting the writer, so I was caught off-guard the following Sunday, September 7, when awakened by a caller saying he agreed with my letter. I rushed downstairs to find the paper but could not locate the letter in the Week in Review section. The caller, a Scarsdale doctor, said it was in the Sports section. There it was, under the headline, “Checkered History of Allianz.” A few friends called to congratulate me on getting published, but I was not prepared for the next chapter of the story.

Three days later, Sandomir followed up with a long article, titled “Naming Rights and Historical Wrongs” ( and another one the next day ( Talk radio picked up the story, as did other newspapers. One tabloid ran a drawing of the new stadium topped with a swastika. By Friday, pressure had grown intense enough for the naming rights bid to be abandoned.

Near the beginning of this piece I wrote I prevented the Allianz naming rights plan. In truth, two others played important roles, as well. First, the unknown editor who chose to print my letter to the editor. Second, Richard Sandomir, who, mutual friends have told me, learned of Allianz’s past from my letter and pursued the story. Of course, thousands more sent in their denouncements once the story became mainstream news.

Aside from stopping what would have been an affront to decency, my Allianz story demonstrates that one person can make a difference, can start a chain of one-person events that builds on the enlightenment of those before, to right, or prevent, a wrong.

Auschwitz was liberated 65 years ago, on January 27. Let’s never forget to speak out and act so that it is always remembered and never allowed to happen again. To any people. Anywhere.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Night Court

Went to downtown Brooklyn early Wednesday morning, to the MTA’s Transit Adjudication Bureau. Ellie was disputing a ticket she wrongly received for walking through a subway gate allegedly without paying. Being the good father that I am, and with nothing better to do that morning than sleep, I ventured forth to offer aid and comfort, and to possibly come up with another blog subject. Mission accomplished on all fronts, though Ellie has to go back to the Bureau in about two months for the actual “trial.”

Ellie’s predicament reminded me of a stop sign violation the local constabulary tried to tack onto my good driving record some 32 years ago in the upstate hamlet of Pine Bush, outside Middletown. Gilda and I were returning from an evening auction (we bought an oak chair, just recently relegated to our attic) when I noticed an active bubble gum machine atop the car in the rear view mirror. I pulled over to let the police car pass, but to my surprise it pulled in right behind me. I had rolled through a stop sign, the patrolman said. Nonsense, said I, vowing to fight the unjustified accusation. In that case, you’ll have to return to Pine Bush in about six weeks for night court, he countered.

Not wanting points on my record, or to pay the fine, Gilda and I left work early on the appointed day, traveled the 60 or so miles up north and arrived...24 hours too early! I had confused the dates. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper. Needless to say, my disgust was negligible compared to my bunkmate’s. I reeeeally had to do some major groveling to get Gilda to go back to Pine Bush with me the next night.

Even so, her demeanor was not friendly. She had the comportment of a hostile witness, but she was all I had. Without her it would be my word against the cop’s. Even though I extracted from him an admission that he was stationed 300 yards, three football fields!, away from the stop sign I allegedly “rolled through,” it was still just the two of us squaring off, and in most jurisdictions that’s bad news for a defendant.

After Gilda testified (thankfully corroborating my testimony), the judge asked if the policeman had a witness. He did. It was the chief of police, who was riding with him that night. Gulp.

OK, where was he?, the judge asked. On patrol, came the reply, followed swiftly by good, old-fashioned country justice—two against one, case dismissed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of Disunion

Politics is a nasty business.

You can get elected by trying to make everyone like you. But you can’t govern that way. To be effective, you have to embrace a take-no-prisoners attitude.

I wasn’t a George Bush fan. But like most Republicans, he grasped that power resided in the ability to stay focused on a mission, a mission of his choosing, not someone else’s.

Barack Obama has vision, but has shown little if any wherewithal to complete his mission.

It’s philosophically laudatory that Obama ceded power back to Congress. But it resulted in anarchy and failed healthcare reform. Obama has ignored at least three decades of executive branch ascendancy over the legislature. Instead of Obama being the fulcrum of progress, self-centered opportunists like Lieberman, Baucus, Nelson and Landrieu commandeered healthcare reform by exposing the manipulations of backroom deals. It’s analogous to peering inside a restaurant kitchen—you wouldn’t want to eat after seeing how food is prepared, even in the best of establishments. After being exposed to the cooking chicanery of Democratic politicians, it’s no wonder the public is turned off.

Hate the Republicans, or love, them, but at the very least be respectful that they stay focused, on message, even if the message is not agreeable to you.

I blame Obama for failing to comprehend that a president leads, not follows. He’s like the quarterback of a football team. In the huddle, the QB calls the play, not a lineman or a halfback. Healthcare reform was his issue. He should have been driving the bus, not sitting wherever he pleased. (I know I’m mixing metaphors, but he gets me so frustrated!)

As we await tonight’s State of Disunion speech, the calendar shows Obama has three years remaining in his first term. The reality is that he has less than 10 months of effective leadership time to turn his presidency around. After the mid-term elections next November, Obama either will be in command of the political stage again or he will most surely, prematurely and involuntarily join the no socks needed anymore brigade.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spousal Infidelities, Part II

Gilda usually scrunches up her face when I tell people I like watching old movies, especially movies from the 1930’s. Though she too can be fascinated by some of the theatrical treatments of history, or some of the libertine values depicted in early 1930’s movies, before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, she mostly leaves me to enjoy these cinematic treats by myself.

I was feeling just a little self-conscious about this disposition for old movies when I heard an excerpt from a Barbara Walters interview of a few years ago with Don Hewitt, aired last night on 60 Minutes as part of a tribute to the deceased creator of that iconic television news program. Hewitt admitted to being uncomfortable with the 21st century, that he was “still living Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.” But, Walters countered, “You produce a news magazine that has to be up to date?”, to which Hewitt replied, “Maybe having a foot in the past helps you deal with the present better.”

I couldn’t agree more. Here’s an example:

With all the news (do we really have to dignify it by calling it “news”?) about the philandering ways of Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Alex Rodriguez...oh, the list can go on and on, it was fascinating to watch the 1939 film, The Women.

The Women tells the story of how infidelity by the husband of socialite Mary Haines impacts the lives of their family, friends and household staff. Keep in mind that with the exception of director George Cukor, all the main contributors to The Women were female. Originally a stage play written by Clare Boothe (Luce, though the title credits did not note her married name), the script was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. All the actors were women. Not one man was seen or even heard.

The story is a snapshot of the mores and lifestyles of the 1930s, at least those of the privileged class, many surprisingly similar to those of today. You’ll find the scenes at the health spa particularly current.

You might think that 70-80 years ago was an ancient and prim time, but consider this bit of dialog by the aggrieved Mary and her mother, who confides that she too had to deal with a wayward husband 20 years earlier:

Mother: This story isn’t new. It comes to most wives. Stephen is a man. He’s been married 10 years.

Mary: You mean he’s tired of me?

Mother: He’s tired of himself. Tired of feeling the same thing in himself. He’s got to feel something new. He’s got to feel young again.

Unlike a woman who can redo her wardrobe, hair style or redecorate her home to reinvigorate her life, says Mary’s mother, “a man’s got only one escape from his old self, to see a different self in the mirror of some woman’s eyes.”

While worrying about their continued employment, Maggie, the cook, and Jane, the maid, reflected on the state of matrimony:

“You know,” said Maggie, “the first man that can think up a good explanation how he can be in love with his wife and another woman is going to win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden.”

Asked if she believed in marriage, Maggie snipped, “Sure I do, for women; but it’s the sons of Adam they got to marry.”

After Jane related that during a bedroom argument she overheard Stephen Haines telling his wife to think about their nine-year-old daughter, Maggie observed, “No woman wants to be told she’s being kept on just to run a kindergarten.”

Throughout the film the repartee is snappy, perhaps too witty for real-life conversations, but the context and appeal of The Women are timeless.

And in one of the more startling lines of the script, Mary’s mother comforted her now divorced daughter by saying, “Living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”

I had to remind myself that this script was written in the mid-1930s, that the swastika symbol had been around for some 3,000 years before its usurpation by the Nazis. Until roughly 20 years ago it was a widely used term for retail apparel displays, now called four-ways.

The Women has been reprised several times, most recently in 2008. If you’re at all interested in good cinema, do yourself a favor and opt for the 1939 version.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What's for Dinner?

Jacob asked me today if I was doing any cooking. After all, Gilda is in the city working all week, I have the time. But did I have the inclination?

Depending on your bias, I, a) sadly said, “No,” or b) happily said, “No.”

Either way, the answer was no. And with good reason, I explained.

First, I’m not a cook, especially compared to the excellent meals Gilda makes. Trust me, as much as she’d like a home-cooked meal waiting for her return from work, she is discriminating enough to know that her taste buds would suffer almost irreversible harm if left in my care. I help out, I truly do, by being as close to a sous chef as possible, shopping, making salads, preparing products for Gilda’s delicate touch, setting the table, cleaning up after meals.

Second, almost half the time Gilda does not eat what I consider a full dinner. Take Thursday night, for example. After work she went to the gym, arriving home about 8 pm. Her dinner? Frozen yogurt. Now, how would that make me feel if I sweated all day preparing a meat loaf?

Seriously, my cooking is not the answer. But, you might be wondering, what did I do for dinner? Thanks for asking, but don’t fret—I had a very filling and fulfilling meal of meatballs and pasta with a large salad. I made the pasta and salad, but the meatballs are part of my “strategic plan for eating contentment and satisfaction,” SPECS, for short (readers from my former life as a magazine publisher and conference producer will note my infatuation with the SPECS anagram. For those not privy to that life, SPECS also stands for Store Planning, Equipment and Construction Services Seminar, an annual conference I chaired that attracted some 1,200 attendees).

Getting back to the food, the meatballs come from the prepared meals section I discovered at our kosher butcher. Divided up into appropriately sized single portions (I’ve become sort of a Tupperware, or in my case, Gladware and Ziploc, maniac), the meatballs are part of a variety of entrees, including goulash and lamb stew, I buy. In addition, Costco recently started carrying kosher stuffed cabbage and chicken meatballs. Indeed, many supermarkets across the country have increased kosher food selections. It seems just 15% of consumers buy kosher food for religious purposes. Merchants are boring into a previously untapped market. Here’s some background from Columbus, Ohio:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Gilda also contributes by making meat loaves plus beef and veal stews specifically for me. I also get the benefit of leftovers from dinner parties at our home. I’m a lucky man.

I’m also quite obsessive about my SPECS. I’ve co-opted three shelves in the main refrigerator’s freezer. On papers attached to each shelf I’ve listed their contents, diligently marking off which entrees have been consumed.

Laugh all you want, and I have no doubt you are at least shaking your head, but I am happy and hardly ever go to bed hungry.

It’s Cold Inside: More fallout from my recent post about being a prisoner of the second floor. Seems I might be part of a new wave of chilly living. Check out this article from Thursday’s NY Times Home section:

For the record, I think those people are crazy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hail to the Party

The news came in around 9:40 tonight. The liberal, Democratic U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for more than four decades, and by his brother, John, before him, is going to a conservative Republican who believes in, according to the NY Times, “waterboarding as an interrogation technique for terrorism suspects; opposes a federal cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions; and opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants unless they leave the country.”

I’ll leave it to the pundits to dissect the story behind the story. I don’t know about you, but I get pretty nauseated hearing all this political carping day after day, night after night. I’m a pretty political person, but enough already.

Scott Brown’s upset victory reminds me of the first political campaign I covered for The New Haven Register. It was 1972. Conservative Republican state legislator Ronald Sarasin was waging an uphill battle to unseat seven-term Congressman John Monaghan. Sarasin was from Beacon Falls, a mill town south of Waterbury along the Naugatuck River. The Fifth Congressional District includes Waterbury, Meriden, Danbury, plus factory towns and elite communities in Fairfield County.

Sarasin had two things in his favor. One was the Nixon coattails. McGovern had no hope to unseat a sitting president not yet soiled by Watergate. In some ways, Scott Brown’s victory is a mirror image of presidential influence. A vote for Brown today was a message of displeasure with Obama.

Sarasin’s second advantage was his outsider status. Monaghan was portrayed as an incumbent more concerned with his cushy Washington seat than the problems confronting his district. A glib, handsome, prematurely grey Sarasin (my bureau chief boss often referred to him as “Razor Cut Ronnie”) energized voters with his enthusiasm. He crisscrossed the 41 towns of the district in an old school bus painted red, white and blue. He stressed he would be a responsible representative. Indeed, after he won election, Sarasin kept riding his bus every weekend, making sure his constituents could personally deliver to him their requests for road repairs, job programs and lower taxes. Had he not opted to run for governor in 1978 (he lost), he might well still be representing the district. Instead he became a lobbyist, and is now married to the the head of the Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry trade association.

(Full disclosure: In 1976 I left The Register to serve as press secretary to a Democratic candidate trying to replace Sarasin. Sarasin trounced him, as I knew he would. He was, as I implied, a responsive, well-liked congressman.)

Scott Brown’s victory, to me, runs parallel to Sarasin’s. He touched a nerve with the electorate. He didn’t take voters for granted. He did his homework. He benefited from running against a vulnerable candidate.

I’m not happy the GOP won in Massachusetts. I really don’t want to hear the spin from both parties. We’re now going to see if Obama is as good a politician as Clinton became after Republicans won big in 1994. For the sake of the country, I hope he is.

Monday, January 18, 2010

GG and Some Gaps

The great grandparents naming game is half complete.

Finley & Co. made their way down to White Plains from the Boston area over the weekend, allowing his proud paternal grandparents to show him off. He cooperated by mostly sleeping or looking around interested. We didn’t hear a peep from him all night after he went to bed, though his parents assured us he did wake up several times. But we and our friends and relatives experienced no tantrums or uncontrollable crying spells during his two days in New York. The few times he did cry he was comforted by the sounds of Broadway musicals sung by those who held him. He finds Guys and Dolls particularly engaging, especially the A Bushel and a Peck song.

For more details on Finley’s maiden trip to New York, visit

During Finley’s too-short time spent with us, we seemed to have reached a consensus on what he will call his grandmother—it will be GG, pronounced Gee-Gee, not the French way, Gigi. In case you haven’t figured it out, GG stands for Grandma Gilda. Since my nephew-in-law Matt once worked for Ford, I told him I’ll pass on being called GM. So I’m still without a grandparent name.

The car reference is a good transition to the subject of baby conveyances. It’s been 31 years since GG and I had to buy a stroller. Sticker shock! “Acceptable” strollers seem to begin at the $250 price point and can zoom up to $1,000, if you get the model that automatically wipes the kid’s tush if he has an accident (just kidding, about the cleaning feature, not the price).

When we were new parents in 1978, the Cadillac of strollers came from Perego. I can’t recall what it cost, but it was way beyond our budget. We opted for the Model T version—a basic umbrella stroller. It was lightweight, folded easily and for $14.99 could not be beat for practicality, price and convenience. Some of our friends cautioned that if Danny, as he was known back then, fell asleep in the stroller his spine would be ruined for life by being bent over for too long a period. We threw caution to the wind. Doesn’t seem to have affected Dan or Ellie.

Dan and Allison haven’t finalized their stroller choice, though it’s sure to be a vehicle more suitable to off the road and jogging routines.

Generation Gap: If you’ve taken the opportunity to link to the Finding Finley blog mentioned above, you’ll have come across the following sentence near the bottom of the post:

"He looked pretty dope in his grizzly bear hoodie, don't you think?"

As a former editor I thought I caught a mistake in the copy. After all, what mother would suggest that her son looked like a “dope?” And if she was making that suggestion, the correct usage would be “dopey.”

Turns out I was out of touch with modern expressions. “DOPE is hip terminology for great, sweet etc.,” Allison advised.

Who knew? I’m so embarrassed!

Global Warming Gap: “Why don’t you just raise the heat if you’re cold,” Gilda admonished me last week after I wrote about being a prisoner of the second floor (

Projecting an image of being too destitute, or cheap, to heat the house sufficiently to be comfortable didn’t sit too well with my wife.

But that’s only part of the problem last week’s post uncovered. Now I’m beginning to wonder if during our forthcoming trip to Los Angeles it will be a warm haven. Sure, unless the earth shifts its axis, LA should be warmer than New York in February. But comfort and warmth are also psychological effects. If it’s not as warm as expected, chills might tingle down my spine.

What makes me start to quake in wonder? This note from my sister:

“Your blog was very reassuring we do heat the house.......however, even though the system is new, 6 years old, LA homes are poorly ventilated and the heat escapes and the cold lingers. It is hard to find a warm, yummy place to sit and read, except the bathroom where you can put on the electric heater and then it is toasty warm. People do wonder about your absence,, bring lots of layers. We in LA think layers are the “in” thing. We all suffer from the same lousy insulation and ventilation issues regardless of the size of your paycheck.”

Bring lots of layers!!!!!! That’s what I’m supposed to be escaping. Now I don’t know whether I should pack socks or not!?!

Lee wasn’t the only one who responded to the cold. A friend, who shall remain nameless so I don’t embarrass her, said, “Murray, I too am imprisoned by the thermostat. I set it at 65 for the days whether I'm here or not! I like to keep the heating bills (ridiculously high despite my efforts) low. We bought a wood burning stove 15 years ago and if the outside temp dips below 25 I use it. I've found a wonderful use for the blankets my mother knit years ago!”

In our first house we used to heat a good 70% of the time with a wood burning stove inserted into the living room fireplace. At least half of the six cords of wood burned every winter I would gather and cut myself. I was a real lumberjack in those days, riding around in my Vega keeping one eye on the road and the other on the roadside looking for downed tree limbs. If I saw one of sufficient size, I’d pull over, take out my chain saw and lickety-split cut the pieces into 20-inch sections just right for our stove. Pieces too wide to easily catch fire I’d chop in the back yard. It was year-round work.

When we moved to our current home 26 years ago, we inherited a smaller wood burning stove in the den, a location not conducive to heating the whole house. Even though we replaced it with a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing stove, I lost interest in logging. The stove has been useful during the occasional oil burner failure, but for the most part it sits like most home exercise equipment, a visual reminder of activity long discontinued.

Gender Gap: Historically, men and women who live together have an ongoing battle. It’s a delicate subject, so I won’t spell it out in detail here. But those savvy enough to know what I’m referring to will understand. It’s a question of “up or down.”

For all of our married life, Gilda and I have lived in a “down” environment. A few weeks ago we suddenly and inexplicably started to experience a few “up” moments. No matter how often a return to the down cycle is requested, up times keep intruding on our tranquility.

Perhaps this public disclosure will prod us back into normalcy.

Fan Gap: Now I know how Mets fans feel. They couldn’t stand it when the Yankees won the World Series. It hasn’t happened yet, but the prospect of a Jets Super Bowl victory has this Giants fan cringing. I do admire the grit displayed by the Jets. It’s like old time Giants football—a staunch defense backing up a power running game and an opportunistic offense. But I’m too selfish a fan to see any joy in the Jets advancing while memories linger of the Giants discombobulating over the last 10 weeks of the season.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Game Change in Context

I’ve written before about the obligation of journalists to place stories in context ( The latest affirmation of that necessity is the dust-up surrounding comments attributed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the book Game Change.

Reid is reported to have said that he “believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama - a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one ....’ ”

Reid doesn’t deny saying it. He apologized to Obama and other Afro-American leaders for his poor choice of words.

Nonetheless, Republicans have stoked up the fire, hoping to have the tar warm enough to hold the feathers they’d like to affix to Reid’s body as they ride him on a rail out of town.

At first, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Reid said what lots of people, including yours truly, felt. Anyone who didn’t notice Obama’s accent changed when he addressed a Black audience was either tone deaf or a survivor of a Jim Jones Kool Aid party willing to believe anything.

Talking reality is another victim of today’s political atmosphere.

What angers me at least as much is the apparent lack of context most journalists have taken in the Reid affair. It took an interview by co-author John Heilemann with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report Wednesday night to open my eyes (

Asked if he thought the big story from the book would be Reid’s comments on Obama, Heilemann said, no, he thought the major revelation was Reid’s advocacy of Obama as presidential timbre in the summer of 2006 when almost all the Democratic establishment was thought to be solidly behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In effect, Reid was a hero of the Obama election, not a villain.

What this episode reveals is that politicians can hijack a debate by selectively usurping parts of a story, and that most journalists will play along rather than provide the context that would deflate a controversy. Ratings, or newsstand sales, after all, usually don’t go up when partisanship is tamped down.

You really do have to read the book to get the full story. I’ve yet to read Game Change, so even my rant is probably a little out of context.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Prisoner of the Second Floor

Almost 40 years ago Neil Simon’s black comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue brought laughter and fear to audiences. The play (and movie adaptation) dealt as much with a crumbling New York City as it did with the slumping fortunes of an Upper East Side, middle-aged couple. They confronted the husband’s recent loss of a job and a heat wave made all the more ironically intolerable by a malfunctioning air conditioner that turned their apartment into an ice chest.

Despite sharing the same employment status as the main character, Mel Edison, I am in no way paranoid like him. But I do share one circumstance with Mel and his wife Edna—I’m a prisoner of the cold, as well. I’m a prisoner of the second floor.

We have two-zone heating in our home. When both Gilda and I worked, we’d set back each thermostat to conserve energy while we were in the city. Now that I work from home (hah!), it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let me freeze all day. So I’ve taken to adjusting the upstairs thermostat to 67 degrees during the daytime. Shortly after Gilda goes off to work each morning, the first floor stays set at what penguins might consider a tolerable 60 degrees but, not being of Scandinavian or Inuit extraction, I find unbearable.

I’m usually able to finish breakfast before it gets too chilly downstairs. The rest of the day, when I’m not running errands or attending meetings as I did earlier this week, I cocoon upstairs, warmed by the computer, the occasional glow from the TV screen, and, as we have often been told, a layered ensemble that GQ would surely opine is either trendsetting or déclassé. I even bought a pair of gloves with the fingertips exposed, but they were woolen, or bad polyester, and itched too much to wear.

I remain a prisoner of the second floor (except for lunch, during which I add another fleece layer) until the heat goes back on downstairs late in the day. For those who may be wondering, I do not wear or want to wear a Snugglie or Snuggie, though I will tell you that when watching TV, Gilda and I often will wrap ourselves in matching super-comfy and warm Polartec throw blankets made by our daughter-in-law Allison.

Of course, this is my wintertime routine. During the summer I sojourned on the first floor (for those who have forgotten their elementary school science lessons, heat rises in the winter, cooler air stays low to the ground in summer). Being upstairs limits my birdwatching to mealtimes, but even the birds are staying mostly sheltered during this cold snap.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reflections on 5 Miles a Day

I’m out of practice.

I thought I’d be asleep by the time the train reached Crestwood Monday morning on my way into the city, but I was still awake, thanks in no small degree to two phone calls from Marty who wanted to know, one, if I had made the 8:01 (I had), and, two, if I were asleep (not if I keep getting buzzed by your calls, Marty).

Actually, even without Marty’s devoted (or should that be demented) interest in my comings and goings, I would not have been asleep. I failed to take into account that without a monthly commuter ticket to hold in my hand, I had to stay awake for the conductor to punch my return-trip ticket, and he never made it to my seat until after we passed Crestwood.

I was determined to get some winks in, but try as I might to enter deep sleep, I could only drift in and out of a foggy haze.

Once at Javits Center, I embarked on a routine only slightly different than the one I practiced 30 other times at the annual convention of the National Retail Federation. I walked around, showing the flag, that is, my face, to any and all who would recognize me or I would recognize. In the past, I was drumming up business and editorial contacts for my magazine. Once found, I would pass on the information to the appropriate staff member. These last two days I was keeping my personal heritage alive, just in case someone saw value in me. I’m happy to report, some actually did express interest. Perhaps Gilda will get her wish and I’ll start contributing positively again to our household.

Monday and Tuesday, I walked five miles each day, traversing round and round the convention center. Those who have worked trade shows know that it is a truism that no matter how many people are in attendance—and the NRF show attracted some 18,500—you always seem to see the same people again and again. Unless, of course, you’re looking for that one person whom you can never bump into.

To physically survive a large trade show, you have to act like a shark. You must keep moving or you’ll quickly realize your back, legs and feet are killing you.

Without specific appointments, I meandered the 30 aisles of the show at random, weaving in and out, serendipitously meeting old friends. For the first time ever, actually it happened three times over the two days, total strangers told me my name was misspelled on my show badge. They assumed I was from Forester Research, a well known technology consultancy. They were disappointed to find out I was with (rather, I was) The Forseter Group, a newly organized communications consulting organization.

Several times I was asked if I was wearing socks. Slowly but surely word of my sartorial freedom is getting around. Universally, everyone who asked what I was doing these days reacted with envy when told, “I do what I want to, not what I have to.”

On a positive note, the convention exuded signs of pending economic recovery. Retail company attendance was up 27% from a year ago, the NRF said. Overall attendance had rebounded to 2008 levels. Traffic on the convention floor was strong and steady. The buzz was positive. Retailers seemed poised to spend money.

On a negative note, the show again confirmed the sorry state of executive diversity among retailers and suppliers. In two days I observed fewer than a score of Afro-American executives, about the same number of Hispanics, slightly more Asian. This is an appalling record for an industry dependent on these ethnic groups for labor and customer bases.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hi-ho, Hi-ho...

It’s off to work I’ll go, Monday morning. Argh!

No, I haven’t taken up full-time employment again. I am going to the National Retail Federation’s annual convention to scope things out. I’ve attended that show for 30 years. It would seem strange not to show up this year. Javits Center, here I come.

I’ll probably catch the 8:01 from White Plains. 8:01. Most days I’m still lying in bed at 8:01. Once seated on the western side of the train, I’ll start reading the newspaper and probably be asleep by the time we pass through Crestwood, around 8:10. Since I’m not taking my briefcase with me on this trip, the briefcase where I stored my mouth guard, I’ll have to subconsciously remember not to grind my teeth as I sleep on the way in and on the return trip.

Sleeping on the train comes quite easily to me (I also fall asleep quickly on airplanes, usually before we’ve taken off). I never missed my station because I was asleep. I once had to be awakened at Grand Central Terminal and told to get off, and another time I actually worked, yes, worked, through the White Plains station and didn’t realize it until we reached Valhalla. The only other mishap I’ve had on the ride home was awakening with a start from a deep sleep when the train stopped. I rushed to gather my belongings, only to realize, rather sheepishly, that we had traveled only as far as the 125th Street-Harlem station and still had 20 minutes to go before reaching White Plains. That awkward experience happened numerous times, I’m embarrassed to report.

I never really minded commuting, until Gilda started working in the city. Twenty years of routine were tossed out the window during the six months of our joint travels. Let’s start with the window. Gilda prefers to sit on the sunny side of the train; I don’t. Gilda likes to sit in seats that face each other; I don’t. When she started commuting 14 years ago, Gilda enjoyed the bonhomie of talking with friends on the train; as already noted, I preferred sleeping (now she’s absorbed reading from her iTouch). Gilda likes to get to the station five or more minutes before the train arrives; I’m content with walking onto the platform as the train is pulling in. Because her patient appointments started early, Gilda needed a train almost an hour earlier than the one I required. The end of her day was never certain, so the ride home was dependent on her schedule, not mine.

Months ago I reported an automatic dishwasher saved our marriage some 35 years ago. An equal savior was getting Gilda her own commuter parking sticker. Fourteen years ago it took just six months. Today it would take years. That’s one reason I have not given up my sticker, even though I stopped working just weeks after the current annual parking pass took effect. It cost about $800 a year, but it’s the best insurance policy I ever bought in what will be, in almost three weeks, 37 years of marriage.

Stupidest Question of the Year, Any Year: When I was a reporter for The New Haven Register, one of the most difficult assignments any of us could get was to ask a family for a picture of a loved one killed in a crash, fire or murder. No one wanted to intrude on a family’s grief. It took a special psyche to call up, cold, and ask for a photo. Yet it’s done all the time, and since many families provide photos, perhaps it’s a facet of their grieving process to show the rest of society the beautiful person that so suddenly left the world. Still, I never could muster the courage to invade their privacy, to ask for a photo.

I was reminded of my rectitude and reticence by a paragraph in today’s NY Times coverage of the Jets playoff victory over Cincinnati. Here’s the paragraph:

“Eventually, attention turned to Woody Johnson, the Jets’ owner, whose daughter Casey died earlier this week. Johnson accepted the game ball with red eyes, overcome with emotion. When a reporter asked if victory had eased the pain, he answered quickly, ‘No, nothing helps,’ and he walked into the night.”

How dumb could that reporter be? Who in their right mind would equate winning a football game with the loss of a daughter? Reporters are paid to ask questions, but sometimes you earn your money by saying nothing, by being an observer, not by displaying a cold-hearted “professionalism.”

News photographers, both still and video, are trained to focus on the action and not let their emotions intrude on their assignment. Even when they see grotesque images, as in war, or at the scene of a fire or accident, they keep shooting, creating a public record. I am amazed, as most of you probably are, by the dispassionate dedication photographers bring to the task, even at the risk of their own lives. With bullets flying all around me, I’m not sure I would keep the camera rolling. But they do.

But print journalists, especially sports reporters, are not under the same pressure. Yes, it was an emotional win for the Jets. Nonetheless, the reporter who asked that question clearly has to get his priorities reordered.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Errand Boy

Six months into my retirement from everyday contributions to society’s welfare (at least the society of my staff and magazine readers), I’m finally doing something good for my fellow human being. Not in an impersonal way, such as buying and bringing food to the local food bank each month, or donating funds to other worthwhile causes.

No, this new phase of my post-work life has me running errands for a woman (she’ll remain nameless) who thinks I am quite young. I asked her over the phone how old she thought I was. Seventy, she replied. Told I was nearly 61, she said I was truly young. I guess when you’re 90, being 60 can be considered young.

So Wednesday I went grocery shopping for my “young” friend. I say young because she’s quite an active lady. Just out of the hospital (they found no reason why her electrolytes were off kilter), she invited me to accompany her to a movie at one of the local temples next Tuesday evening. Alas, it’s poker night. She understood, she being a card player in charge of the senior citizen bridge game.

Lest you think I’ve been overly selfish with my time, I have previously offered my services to friends and family who might need emergency coverage for their parents or grandchildren. So far, no emergency takers, though I was on call a few weeks ago if the need arose to assist an elderly parent while friends were vacationing in Las Vegas. But helping a casual acquaintance is a new venture for me. Perhaps it will finally inspire me to read through those Meals on Wheels recruitment brochures that have been sitting on my desk for six weeks or more.

I’ve also arranged to house-sit for my sister in Los Angeles next month while she vacations for almost two weeks in Europe with her daughter who is studying in London this academic year. Her husband won’t be accompanying her, so I’ll be keeping him company as well. Once Gilda saw that Los Angeles average temperature is around 70 degrees in February, it was a no brainer that she’d use part of her carryover vacation time to fly out west, too, for nearly a week.

We’re both looking forward to warmer weather. For me, it will mean a return to no socks regimen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Roads Don't Know Me

My father would have been 99 years old today. He died in 1998, nine days shy of his 88th birthday. One of the challenges of aging, for ourselves and especially for our parents, is confronting the decreasing mobility of advanced years. Though state governments place restrictions on teenage drivers, most fail to impose equally important safeguards on the elderly whose motoring skills, though honed through decades, diminish rapidly with deteriorating eyesight, slower reaction times and even forgetfulness bordering on dementia.

Just as attaining a license and a first set of wheels are rites of passage for young people, the loss of a driver’s license or a car is a sign of dependence, of frailty, of the inevitability of the end of days, for senior citizens. A semi-recent essay in the NY Times magazine section portrayed the poignancy of this increasingly common dilemma facing Baby Boomers with aging parents,

My father was a good driver. I can’t recall him ever being in an accident, though I will admit he had what might be called a heavy foot, meaning, he braked hard. You could get real nauseous in city traffic if you were sitting in the back. It wasn’t as bad in the front passenger seat, though the floor carpet tended to be worn out where you’d be pressing down ahead of his braking.

I always admired Dad’s knowledge of New York City thoroughfares. He drove the streets, not the highways, to and from his factory in Lower Manhattan every day during rush hour for 40 years. The trip took about an hour each way. He was intimate with all the shortcuts and side streets along the way. As I drive around New York City today, I am familiar with many off-the-beaten-track byways because of the detours I watched my father make through the years.

When he was 83-years-old, he deviated from his loyalty to Buicks. He bought a late model used car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, dark blue, four doors with a front row bench seat. A real old man’s car. He drove it for several months, but then my mother had a leg amputated below the knee because of diabetes, and they could no longer live either in their Brooklyn home or their Miami Beach condominium. They moved near my brother, to Rockville, Md., into what is called an independent living facility. The reality of advancing years, however, belied that descriptor.

Our son Dan had just turned 16 and passed his driving test. He wanted a car, bad. He never petitioned his grandfather, but Dad came to me one day while I visited him in Rockville and offered to give Dan his car, to give up driving, with the most achingly revealing words I ever heard him say.

“The roads don’t know me here,” he said.

Sometimes, when I’m driving to the train station to pick up Gilda or our daughter Ellie, a trip I made for more than 25 years from our current address as part of my daily commute, my mind wanders and yet I never fail to make the proper turns to get there safely. The car seems to have a mind of its own. Or maybe it’s the roads that know me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Firmly on the Ground

First post of 2010. Happy New Year!

Saw several good movies during the holiday season including The Hurt Locker, An Education and The Young Victoria. But the one that resonated most with me on several levels was Up in the Air.

Easy enough to understand why—the film dealt with business air travel, something I did for 32 years. And it involved personnel layoffs, something I participated in as a practitioner (much better word than executioner) and as a victim.

Business travel can be very lonely (especially if you don’t share the good looks and charm of a George Clooney, and the willingness to use them). As a manager I could generally schedule my trips to coincide with other staffers, assuring me of lunch and dinner partners. It was after we retreated to our respective rooms that the travel gremlins materialized. I hardly ever enjoyed a good night’s sleep on the road. Either the pillows were not to my liking, or the room air was stagnant (hotels always seem to shut the ventilation off at 3 am), or my internal clock went off kilter and I’d wake up around 2 am and not be able to fall back to sleep for several hours. Invariably, the alarm clock rang during my period of deepest sleep.

All in all, however, traveling throughout the country, to major cities and rural hamlets, was a positive experience, both for me and for Gilda, even when she did not accompany me. There’s a truth to the saying, absence (or is it abstinence) makes the heart grow fonder.

The most I ever flew in one year, I believe, was around 65,000 miles, so hearing Clooney’s character say he flew 300,000 miles last year was impressive. But his elevation to the ten million mile club was not believable. He appeared to be 45 years old in the movie. If we assume he started flying right after college, that’s 24 years of flying. He’d have had to average 416,666 miles a year. To me, that’s not believable. Or else he’d have to be a lot older than 45.

Watching Up in the Air with Gilda and Ellie, I think they were a little concerned how I’d react to the layoff theme. I can’t report I was enamored with it. Even when you understand the reason behind it and can accept the action, as I did, it is hardly reassuring to one’s psyche to be sent home. The movie portrayed some real world pain from those discharged.

Unlike those depicted in the movie, all the layoffs at my former company were handled in-house, and mostly all in-person, regardless of where the associate worked. Managers would travel to deliver the news face to face. Rarely did I encounter anger or disbelief from an associate we had to let go. Probably because we hired intelligent staffers, they knew when either business dictated a cutback or their own work output forced us into a reduction.

Over the years I’ve traveled to California and Texas to deliver bad tidings. The Texas layoff was particularly difficult as it was one time the associate had no inkling it was coming. Working in a single-person bureau, she had little day to day contact with the main office and rumor mill. Because her car was being repaired, she could meet me only at her home. Twenty minutes into the meeting she still had not grasped why I was sitting in her dining room. Awkward doesn’t begin to convey how I was feeling. Finally, she understood.

Unless you’re really prepared for the ax, it is difficult to focus on what is being said. As in the movie, we handed out individual dossiers to each employee. Usually, we gave them as much time as needed to clear their cubicle. We did, in the interest of corporate protection, cut off email and Internet access on the spot. Fortunately, I never had to ask personnel to escort someone immediately out of the building. But it did happen to other business units. It wasn’t pretty.

As I repeatedly read and edited what I’ve already written I am cognizant that I have not really tapped into my deep emotions. Perhaps because my financial position was better than those laid off in the movie, and better than most others laid off in real life, I didn’t feel the economic hurt and anxiety generally associated with a loss of a job. Whatever the reason, I’m not ready, I guess, for a public analysis.

I will say that another movie I recently saw, Looking Forward, affected me more. Set in London, Looking Forward was released in 1933. It followed the hardship of Tim Benton, laid off after 40 years in the accounting unit of Service, a department store, and the challenges Gabriel Service had in trying to keep his family’s two hundred year old enterprise afloat and independent.

Perhaps because retailing was the milieu, perhaps because I too worked decades for a family owned company forced by an economic maelstrom to sever many, including long-term employees, as it fights for survival, I related viscerally to the movie, especially to the scene where Service (played by Lewis Stone) informed Benton (Lionel Barrymore) of his release.

The movie lapsed into rank sentimentality in the end, but that’s understandable. The producers wanted to pump up the audience. Even the name of the movie was changed to Looking Forward to piggyback on a newly released book of the same name by President Roosevelt.

Looking Forward...Up in the Air...timeless themes of personal tragedies. It ended happily in Looking Forward. Not so wonderfully in Up in the Air. As for me, I'm happy, looking back and forward, firmly on the ground.