Monday, January 31, 2011

Current Events and Affairs

Land of the Pharaohs: It is a fascinating exercise watching the outpouring of emotions in Egypt. Some reporters and commentators have labeled the street protests as a “pro-democracy” movement.

Perhaps. But if history has taught us anything, it is with disappointingly few exceptions, mass rebellion against an authoritarian regime often leads to another repressive regime. It didn’t happen in the United States, though some newly liberated colonials wanted to anoint George Washington king. Thankfully, he declined, as well as deciding two terms were more than enough as president.

But Mexico, for years, replaced one dictator with another. Tsarist Russia is Exhibit A of what might happen when a leader is overthrown, ostensibly to hand power over to “the people.” Let’s count China and Cuba as Exhibits B and C. Going further down the alphabet we have Iran as Exhibit D, Pakistan as Exhibit E, and far too many African examples to know what letter at which to conclude.

The point is, I’d take my time before awarding the Egyptian insurgency the democratic seal of approval. Let’s hope when all the sand settles, there is more freedom for all, more tolerance of all religions, continued peace with its neighbors, especially Israel, no damage to any of the nation’s national treasures, and more economic opportunity for all.

More Powder: With a forecast of anywhere from 4 inches to 14 inches of additional snow in our area over the next two days, I did more strenuous snow removal today than during last week’s storm. I raked snow from a good portion of our roof.

Last week I had seen a report on the CBS Early Show about roof rakes and their usefulness in reducing the hazard of a cave-in from the weight of accumulated snow (long-time readers might remember my top floor apartment roof collapsed after a brutal snowstorm during my graduate school year in Syracuse, so I’m naturally cautious). Problem was no store had any roof rakes for sale, though the House Center True Value Hardware store in White Plains expected a shipment Monday morning. I waited till 9:30 to call and was lucky to snag the last one.

It is not easy work, made all the more arduous and perilous (to the windows below the roof line) by the need to stand in more than 3 feet of snow in my yard.

The snow has made the bird feeders a prime eating spot for a rich assortment of birds, and my kitchen window a prime bird watching venue. Bright crimson cardinals, six at a time. Blue Jays. Downy woodpeckers. Red-bellied woodpeckers. Nuthatches. Goldfinches. They’re pecking away at the seeds and suet hanging from the pine trees.

The squirrels are mostly content to scavenge the seeds that drop to the ground, though one reddish grey rodent has displayed more aggressive, intelligent behavior. He keeps climbing down the chains suspending the feeders, thwarted in the end by the squirrel baffles I’ve installed. Installed everywhere but on top of the suet cages. He’s discovered that unprotected bonanza and has enjoyed an uninterrupted banquet. Tomorrow he’ll discover I’ve hung a new baffle above the suet cage. No more free lunches for him.

Tripping Along: Did you hear about the alleged sex scandal involving Todd Palin and massage therapist/prostitute Shailey Tripp?

I’d rather not comment on the veracity of the claims by The National Enquirer, though the tabloid rag has some street cred given its exposure of John Edwards and Tiger Woods. But anyone who’s seen Shailey Tripp’s picture would find it pretty hard to believe Todd strayed from Sarah for Shailey.

I’m more interested in the delicious irony of Shailey’s last name. Tripp, you might recall, is the first name of Todd’s out of wedlock grandson by daughter Bristol and Levi Johnston.

Tripp. Now, where else have I heard that name linked to a sex scandal? Oh, yeah. Linda Tripp, the alleged friend of Monica Lewinsky. Linda Tripp, a key figure in the sex scandal that almost brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency.

First name. Last name. There’s no escaping the fact, Tripp is having one helluva ride for a name.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Snow Dog Memories

The almost never-ending snow and a recent article in the NY Times on the intelligence of border collies took me back 50 years to the year we had one of the breed as our pet (

Dusty was a handsome, golden-haired dog. Just a puppy when we brought him home in June, he grew to be around 70 pounds by the end of the year. His owner told us he was a border collie, though my siblings and I believe because of his size and color he probably had some golden retriever in his genes, as well.

I can’t say he was the most intelligent of four-footed friends, but he was among the most playful and fun dogs I’ve ever come across. In this winter of incessant snow, it’s enjoyable to recall the winter of 1960-61, when 54.7 inches of snow fell in New York City, the 7th snowiest before this season.

By winter, Dusty had grown to almost his full weight, and I, as stated in a previous blog, I was skin and bones growing up. Average weight for an 11-year-old boy is 77 pounds. I was lucky if I weighed 50. It was comforting and reassuring to have Dusty around. No one would bother me when I walked him. Or rather, when he walked me. He’d go into typical border collie mode, circling back and forth on the leash as he corralled me to walk where he wanted to go, just as his ancestors would do when herding sheep.

He never tugged on the leash, except in extreme conditions, like when he saw a squirrel across the street.

Our row house in Brooklyn had a front porch eight steps above the ground. After one deep snowfall, it was my turn to walk Dusty in the morning. We went out onto the porch and as I carefully prepared to negotiate the steps covered in about a foot of snow, Dusty spotted a squirrel across Avenue W. He leaped at the chance to make a new friend. I landed spread-eagled, face down at the base of the steps. I didn’t hold onto the leash. It was a good hour before Dusty harkened to my call to come back inside.

A few days later it was my sister Lee’s turn to walk Dusty. Lee always claimed Dusty was her dog, that we got him as an elementary school graduation present for her to make up for the absence of our father who was on a round-the-world trip at the time. This particular morning Lee had to be at school by 9 am to take a mid-term exam. Dusty was not informed, however. So when he slipped his leash from her wrist to romp in the snow, Lee was beside herself. No amount of entreaty could coax Dusty back home. Finally, Lee called out she was leaving four Oreos on the steps of the porch and that she’d come back for him after her test.

As should be obvious by now, Dusty loved frolicking in the snow. One evening during another blizzard we decided that rather than subject one of us to trying to walk him in the driving snow, we’d just let him loose on the street. When he got tired, hungry or cold, he’d come back home, bark loudly and we’d let him in. We didn’t think he’d bother anyone, nor would he be in danger from any passing car, as no one in their right mind would be outside in the middle of a blizzard.

We didn’t count, however, on “Uncle” Bernie and “Aunt” Ruth Schwartz showing up for an appointment to sell us on attending Camp Dellwood in Honesdale, Pa., that summer. As it was their first year operating the camp, they were eager to scrounge up as many campers as possible. For the past five summers we had attended Camp Massad Aleph, but Lee had so ingratiated herself with Massad’s owners that only my brother and I were invited back. Our parents, however, considered us a package deal; we had to find a new summer stomping ground. The prospect of signing up three campers in one sitting was too much for Uncle Bernie and Aunt Ruth to resist, blizzard be damned.

About an hour after letting Dusty patrol in front of our house we heard his barking. Not his usual barking, more a bark that signified danger, the type of bark a border collie would emit when he saw a wolf or fox near the sheep. As we approached the front door we noticed two figures on the porch, a man and a woman, shivering. They were not only wet and cold, they were downright petrified this huge dog was going to tear them to pieces.

We laughed apologetically as we let them inside, told them Dusty wouldn’t hurt a fly. After they thawed out, they showed us slides of the camp, told us their camping philosophy and pitched us on Dellwood.

We attended Dellwood the summer of 1961. During that summer our parents gave Dusty away. My brother, sister and I never got over it. We never went back to Dellwood.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No Sand in My Face

Jack LaLanne’s death at 96 is as good an occasion as any to take stock of my physical inventory and history.

I was a 98-lb. weakling. I didn’t get sand kicked in my face for the simple reason I stayed away from the beach because I was ashamed of my thin body. To this day I contend I never learned to swim, despite 14 years of summer camp, because I was embarrassed to be in a bathing suit. You could have played my visible ribs like a xylophone.

I’m still a skinny malink, at least in my own mind—I weigh just under 174 pounds narrowly sheathed over a six-foot frame. Muscles? Ha!

As a youngster, I saw all those Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books. They had no effect on me. Neither did the raw egg-packed milk shakes my sister prepared for me as a youth. My parents threatened to send me to a reverse fat farm instead of normal summer camp, a place where they would stuff me with enough food to bulk me up. My mother said my lousy eating habits propelled her back to full-time work in my father’s business.

But I got the last laugh. I’m your faithful correspondent these days because I beat the military draft in 1970, the height of the Vietnam War. I beat the draft because I was underweight!

When my draft notice came, I took defensive action. The military has a height/weight standard. Minimum weight for six feet is 131 pounds. As I then weighed 134, I had 10 days to lose enough “fat” to get under the minimum. I immediately started the Stillman Water Diet, eating only proteins and drinking 80 ounces of water a day. No carbs, no fruit, no vegetables, just meat, fish, eggs and water.

My mother did a 180—instead of kvetching I was eating too little, she wondered if I was eating too much.

The fateful day at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, I tipped the scales at 124. Low enough with sufficient cushion (pun intended) in case they kept me for three days of observation and stick-to-the-ribs army food. Not to worry. I was 1-Y deferred for a year, never to be called back for another physical.

Over the ensuing 40 years I’ve added 50 pounds but despite being athletically minded I can’t get my body to tone up any muscle. Every so often I initiated a workout regimen, but I quickly lost motivation and commitment.

Gilda religiously goes to the gym. I’ve joined gyms at work and at home, but after an initial flurry of activity—preceded, I might add, by buying more than enough gym shorts and workout shirts to clothe a platoon of Arnold Schwarzeneggers—I lost interest. I think it’s that old body-shame thing, minus the water. Gilda tells me it’s all in my head, that no one is looking at me, that they’re all into their exercise routines. But if I’m looking at them, how could they not be looking at me?

Same thing applies these days to going to the beach, one of Gilda’s favorite excursions. Aside from not enjoying sitting under a broiling sun, I’m very self-conscious about my shape. The beach, after all, is a place people go to see and be seen. It is just not my scene.

It’s funny. When I played a team sport, I had no issue stripping down to the bare essentials. All the time I resisted swimming instruction during camp, I’d be playing basketball, soccer, volleyball, softball in shorts, often with no shirt on. No one ever made fun of my physique. When I pitched in a softball league for 25 years until two years ago, I wore shorts while other players wore pants. The opposing squad, even my own teammates, poked fun at my “chicken legs.” I teased back if they were distracting the batter it was to my advantage.

For all his dedication to creating muscles, Jack LaLanne said he disliked workouts. I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Cold Was It?

Cold enough to freeze two of our water pipes. Fortunately, it hit the mid 30’s today, warm enough to thaw the pipes out before they burst.

Prior to remodeling the kitchen in early 2001, the hot water pipe serving our sink would freeze up several times each winter if we forgot to let it drip overnight. The original builder put it too close to the outer wall with insufficient insulation protection. Better insulation installed during the renovation generally took care of the problem, but just to be on the safe side, before going to bed Sunday I set the drip again. To no avail. Our hot water pipe froze up from the single digit overnight temperatures and even lower wind chill reading.

More surprising was the cold water pipe freeze-up in the master bedroom bathroom. Again, the culprit was proximity to an outer wall. This time a renovation in 2005 did us in, as we moved some pipes from an interior to an exterior wall.

Generational Divide: Watching Diane Sawyer’s Monday evening newscast on ABC, I was bemused by artwork she used to illustrate a story on rising employment prospects. She showed a made-up screen shot of a Help Wanted page.

It got me wondering, how soon before the future generation of job seekers has no visual context for a newspaper’s Help Wanted section? Given the use of job sites like CareerBuilder and Monster Board, and community sites like LinkedIn, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of them would be perplexed by what Diane Sawyer displayed. Of course, that’s assuming they watch the national news on ABC, or NBC, CBS, CNN or FOX, for that matter. They generally don’t. Surveys show they get more news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart than from the heritage newscasts on broadcast and cable networks.

Stumped: During a recent family get-together, my grandnephew Harrison asked Ellie and me a question: “Is it weird being an adult?”

Twenty-nine-year-old Ellie and I looked at each other dumbfounded. Seven-year-old Harrison is very bright. That question is one for the ages.

Happy Birthday: It’s my sister Lee’s birthday today. I won’t say how old she is, but I am the baby of the family.

Gimme Some R-e-s-p-e-c-t: I’m beginning to think I get no respect. Or, am at the very least, underappreciated. Maybe just undiscovered.

The NY Times did an article a few days ago on ideas to rejuvenate suburbia. One suggestion was to transform “dead” malls into downtown areas that could be enjoyed by an increasingly aging society (

It’s a laudable proposal, but one I basically postulated 15 and a half years ago in my monthly Chain Store Age editorial. I opined several alternate uses for lapsed retail space including turning the square footage into senior citizens apartments, low or moderate income housing, community centers, and my personal favorite, low-risk detention centers.

Maybe I need a better PR agent?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Parenting Skills

Becoming a grandparent revives long dormant parenting skills, but there’s nothing like tending to your grown-up child to truly bring out paternal instincts.

Ellie had minor foot surgery Monday (almost all surgery on someone else is “minor,” whereas even an ingrown toenail cleaning is major if it’s your big toe being rooted around by the doctor. It’s like the often-used line about the economy—it’s a recession if your neighbor loses his job, it’s a depression if you do).

While in college, Ellie hurt her left foot rock climbing. Ten years later the pain and discomfort reached an intolerable level, so with Gilda’s able parenting and medical expertise, Ellie scheduled surgery first thing Monday morning. She stayed with us Sunday night, which meant we had to wake up at 4 am to prepare and get to Beth Israel’s outpatient facility on Union Square (where Gilda conveniently works) by 5:45. She was the first surgery on the docket, yet that still meant a two and a half hour wait until they took her. An hour later we stood by her bed waiting for the anesthesia to fully wear off.

While Gilda went to work on the floor above the surgical unit, Ellie and I made our way back home around noon where my caring manner was put to the test. Every hour I changed the ice pack on her foot. I set up her room with pillows to elevate her foot, an extra blanket nearby in case she needed it, her phone charger plugged into the wall socket next to the bed. I tiptoed around the house, lest my stomping annoy her. For good measure, I also tried to repair two recalcitrant toilets, both of which went on the fritz shortly after Ellie came home Sunday (I couldn’t help but notice the coincidence).

By 5 pm Ellie seemed well on the road to recovery, inconvenience her only issue. She has to wear a short walking boot, even in bed; she has to use crutches to get around, even to the bathroom; she has to keep her foot elevated; there was nothing enticing to watch on TV.

I, on the other hand, am waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Will I be confronted with an issue I can’t handle? Will I fumble my chance to be helpful—already on the ride home I bumped into her foot while it was extended on the armrest between the two front seats. Wait, I hear her water glass clinking from the other room. Is that her way of subtly calling me? Well, it’s time to change the ice pack again...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Parental Reflections

Millions of Africans and Southeast Asians believe the Buffalo Bills are one of the most successful National Football League teams in history. How could they not think so, when they are clothed in T-shirts from 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 proclaiming the Bills Super Bowl champions of those respective years?

Of course, Buffalo lost the penultimate game in each of those years, but by a long-standing practice of the novelty souvenir business, manufacturers produce “winning” merchandise for both teams prior to each championship game. To the victors go the spoils, the saying goes, meaning merchandise with the winning team’s logos sells like hotcakes. Meanwhile, merchandise proclaiming the losing team as champion quickly is bundled up and shipped overseas for distribution by charity and relief organizations.

I bring this to your attention because of the dominance of news reports these last few days about the sell-through of NY Jets merchandise at New York area sporting goods shops. It seems retailers couldn’t get enough green and white jerseys in the run-up to this evening’s American Football Conference title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thirty years ago my father got caught up in the frenzy of sports memorabilia. Football was never part of his Americanization. He could barely master the intricacies of baseball. But, as my brother Bernie recalled, in late December 1979, Dad, an independent apparel manufacturer, surprised him by saying he was rooting for Philadelphia to win its next game. Bernie asked if he knew whether the team was playing football, basketball or hockey. “I don’t know, or care,” he replied. “I only know that if Philadelphia wins and plays next week, then I have an order for 10,000 green T-shirts with white sleeves!”

It was the Philadelphia Eagles football team. They played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a divisional playoff game. Philadelphia lost, 24-17. More importantly for Jets fans, the eventual winner of the Super Bowl that season was the Pittsburgh Steelers!

Zsa Zsa Gabor is back home after having her right leg amputated on January 14. For those not familiar with the 93-year-old Hungarian-born celebrity, Zsa Zsa and her sisters Magda and Eva, along with her mother Jolie, were the Kardashians of the post-World War II era. Zsa Zsa was an actress of questionable talent, but she and the other Gabors were always in the gossip pages—Zsa Zsa, alone, has had nine husbands. Eva wound up outshining her in front of the cameras when she starred with Eddie Albert in the CBS situation comedy Green Acres in the late 1960s.

Zsa Zsa Gabor makes me think of my mother. Like Zsa Zsa, she was born in Easter Europe in 1917. Like Zsa Zsa, my mother had her lower leg amputated. Already frail from smoking too much and diabetic, Mom’s life became even more sedentary. My parents had to give up their homes in Brooklyn and Miami Beach as they weren’t wheelchair compatible. They moved into an independent care facility near Bernie, in Rockville, MD.

As her blood circulation deteriorated even more, she was scheduled for an operation to amputate her other leg when she died of a heart attack. One week from tonight I’ll light a memorial candle to commemorate her passing in 1996.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mommy Dearest

Unless you’ve been “media dark” for the last two weeks you’ve no doubt heard or read about “Tiger Mothers,” the not so complimentary term associated with first and second generation Chinese-Americans. Their drill sergeant dictates for child-rearing, brought to public attention and notoriety by Amy Chua in her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” have fueled many a dinner party conversation (as well as the blogosphere, assorted publications and talk shows).

For those not familiar with the debate, Chua’s best-selling memoir described how she raised two now-teenage daughters. She demanded perfection in everything, from school grades to music lessons, even to home-made birthday cards. They could not go on sleepovers, have a play date, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games. Nor could they complain about it. In other words, they were raised far differently than their peers in traditional American households.

The flare-up over Tiger Mom methods began with a January 8th book excerpt in The Wall Street Journal, so here’s a link: (You can explore other articles on your own, but here are two links, one from The Jewish Week:, the other from David Brooks of The NY Times:

Technically, my mother was not a first-generation Jewish mom. As she came to America from Lodz, Poland, in 1921 when she was almost four, I think that pretty much qualifies her for first-generation status. Like many a Jewish mother, Sylvia Forseter cultivated a rich vein of loving guilt that she shoveled on her children. When any of us would bring home a 95 on a test, she’d always ask what happened to the other 5 points.

Her modus operandi was not to hover over us to monitor attention and progress. Rather, she instilled in her three children responsibility to perform independently and be held accountable for our actions.

We had house chores and school work. It was easy for her to note when the dishes weren’t done. But as long as report card results met her high standards, she didn’t interfere with our means. I must have done some homework, though to be honest I can’t really recall hitting the books too hard. I maintained an A average through high school. It must have been from natural intelligence, because I hit the wall in college. Good thing Brooklyn College’s tuition back in the late 1960s was just $50 a semester (fyi, Brooklyn was considered one of the better liberal arts colleges in the country at the time) or my parents would have been more upset than they were when I brought home D’s in chemistry, biology and math. Well, so much for any thoughts of a career in science, medicine or dentistry.

Which brings me back to Amy Chua. Tiger Moms want their kids to be math whizzes and music (violin and piano) prodigies. When I was growing up it was almost universally understood and accepted that every Jewish household would produce at least one lawyer, doctor or scientist (my brother’s the lawyer of the brood). Our parents pointed to heroes like Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein, Louis Nizer, Arthur Goldberg, Albert Sabin, J. Robert Oppenheimer. If you couldn’t attain prominence in those fields, perhaps you’d excel at the violin or the piano, like Isaac Stern or Arthur Rubinstein.

But Jewish creativity was not limited to the high-brow arts. How else to explain the diversity of Jewish talent in popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, from Milton Berle to William Shatner, from Bob Dylan to Leon Uris, from Neil Sedaka (my friend Richie’s cousin) to Victor Borge. Rather than restrict development, Jewish parents encouraged exploration. They didn’t always understand a performance, but they exulted in the dynamic, in the energy their children generated. They didn’t, however, give up guilt-transmission, no matter how successful their offspring became.

I usually don’t include a joke with my blog, but this one strikes a chord, given its topic and the name of the principal character, Sylvia:

And it came to pass that an openly Jewish man was elected to be President of the United States of America. So he calls his mother in Queens and invites her to come down to Washington, DC, to share the Passover holiday. She says, “I'd like to, but it's so much trouble...I mean, I have to get a cab to the airport, and I hate waiting on Queens Blvd...”

He replies, “Mom! I'm the President! You won't need a cab; I'll send a limo for you!” To which his mother replies, “I know, but then I'll have to get my ticket at the airport, and try to get a seat on the plane, and I hate to sit in the's just too much trouble.”

He replies, “Mom! I'm the President of the United States! I'll send Air Force One or another of my private jets for you.” To which she replies, “Oh, well, but then when we land, I'll have to carry my luggage through the airport, and try to get a's really too much trouble.”

He replies, “Mom!! I'm the President! I'll send a helicopter for you! You won't have to lift a finger.” She answers, “Yes, that's nice...but, you know, I still need a hotel room, and the rooms are so expensive, and I really don't like the rooms...”

He answers, “Mom! I'm the President! You'll stay at the White House!” She responds, “Well...all right... I guess I'll come.”

The next day, she's on the phone with her friend Betty.

Betty: “Hello, Sylvia . . . so what's new?”

Sylvia: “I'm visiting my son for Passover!”

Betty: “The doctor?”

Sylvia: “No . . . the other one.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shopping Around

I love Costco, but as a senior citizen I have to wonder what type of message the wholesale club is sending to the 60-plus crowd.

Why do Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand Mature Multi-Vitamins come in 400-tablet bottles, while regular daily multi-vitamins are packed 500 to the bottle?

Does Costco think we seniors aren’t going to live long enough to finish off a 500-count bottle? Or is this a subtle ploy to keep us active and get us out of the house more often to replenish our stock?

Either way, I don’t like it. Nor do I like the fact that the senior formula costs more per pill.

It’s getting harder and harder to hate the company people love to hate. I’m referring, of course, to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retail company by a factor of, oh, five times its closest American competitor, Kroger (for the record, Wal-Mart annual sales exceed $405 billion).

But enough dumping on a company just because it is B-I-G. Wal-Mart keeps doing warm and fuzzy stuff, trying to cuddle up its image. The latest soft-sell idea is a plan to make its food offerings more healthy by reducing their fat, sugar and salt contents. Wal-Mart will transition the program for its private label products over five-years while encouraging brand name suppliers to follow its lead. When you have as big an order-writing pencil as Wal-Mart, that usually guarantees attention if not compliance (

Wal-Mart’s also pushing for positive traction in efforts to penetrate cities like New York, citing what it calls “food deserts” as a reason urban areas should allow the non-union company to open stores. It’s true—too many inner cities lack large-scale supermarkets, requiring shoppers to either travel out of their neighborhoods or pay higher prices at bodegas, convenience stores or superettes.

Of course, one argument against Wal-Mart is once its tentacles latch onto a location they reach out to squeeze the lifeblood out of nearby stores, and not just grocers (which are mostly unionized).

Yes, and no. If you’ve ever visited a Wal-Mart you might notice there are lots of stores operating in its shadow. Retailers tend to flock around an anchor that attracts shoppers, and Wal-Mart sure brings ‘em in. Those stores that thrive in Wal-Mart’s back yard generally offer lower priced goods (like dollar stores), or higher priced, specialty products (such as found in electronics stores). Or they offer great service. Or better apparel. Or provide a service, such as dry cleaning. Retailers that try to compete on price tend to go out of business. As do the ones that try to be what Wal-Mart is, only smaller. Wal-Mart also is the undertaker for any retailer who has been lax in being efficient.

Speaking of efficiency, here’s another warm & fuzzy Wal-Mart initiative—a $2 million grant from The Walmart Foundation to help 16 regional food banks save money on energy bills. Lower utility bills translate into more dollars to buy food for the needy. The company estimates that simple, low-cost energy upgrades could save the food banks more than $625,000 a year, enough to buy more than 390,000 pounds of food for 300,000 meals (

Wal-Mart also financially supports organic farmers, and regular farmers. Since it’s the largest food retailer in the country, it’s not all altruism. Wal-Mart has a selfish interest in making sure it has sufficient product to sell.

But even with all the good the company does, not everyone will shop its stores. They just don’t “feel” right. It’s hard, however, to turn one’s back on the prices. As I reported 10 days ago, national brand products cost less at Wal-Mart ( When I stopped by today, a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, already the lowest price in the area at $1.64, had an everyday “rollback” price of $1.30. Bananas were selling at 53 cents a pound, compared to 79 cents at A&P, 69 cents at Stop & Shop and ShopRite.

It’s hard to pass up those savings.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Baby Doc and the Bible

After 25 years in exile, “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti to expected jeers and some unexpected cheers. Look no further than the Bible to explain why a ruthless dictator might be more acceptable to some than the current tenuous conditions on the Caribbean island.

“Haiti has never had the perfect leader,” said Bernadette Brudet. “Many of them were corrupt. Many of them have blood on their hands. But with Duvalier, we were safe, and our stomachs were full.”

Compare those comments from an ordinary citizen of Haiti in a NY Times story ( to Exodus 16, verse 3, when food is scarce in the Sinai desert: “The Israelites said to them (Moses and Aaron), ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread.’”

Just weeks earlier, days after witnessing the Ten Plagues wrought upon the Egyptians and their escape from bondage, the Israelites questioned the wisdom of their predicament. Camped by the Sea of Reeds, with Pharaoh’s army approaching, the former slaves complained to Moses, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exodus 14:11-12). As seen from the prior quote, even the subsequent parting of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army could not alter their mental attachment to a life of servitude and obedience.

Whether you believe the Bible is divinely written or inspired, there’s no disputing it is magnificent literature with unequalled narratives of human drama, frailty, emotions and conflict.

Let’s face it. When confronted with challenges of the moment, it’s human nature to pine for a past perceived to be more benevolent, more passive, more orderly. It’s human nature to long for the “good old days.” Many Russians fondly recall life under communism. Iraqis reminisce about the “tranquility” and economic vibrancy of the Saddam years.

In America, there’s always a fringe who wish for the nostalgic days of the past. Which time do they want to go back to? The 1930s and the Depression? The 1940s and World War II? The 1950s with the Cold War and thoughts of nuclear destruction? The 1960s with battles over desegregation, Vietnam and awakening social and sexual revolutions?

Haitians truly have little to make today’s existence feel like a blessing. Perhaps, in some small way, it can be understood why some would look to Baby Doc for a return to “normalcy.” A quarter of a century has passed without him, yet their country is no better. Even before last year’s earthquake, Haiti was the poorest of nations.

It’s harder to understand why anyone would want to return to the past in the United States. We have a social network system that tries to provide for the needy; a health care system that tries to comfort and heal the fallen; an infrastructure that, though in need of repair, still is the envy of most of the world; a system of government that permits dissent without fear and accommodates orderly transitions of power; an education system, also in need of repair, but still first class for those who desire to use it to full advantage; more food and consumer goods than most of the rest of the world, combined.

The reverse time-travelers would like to go back to an era of less government regulation and involvement in everyday life. But even in the Bible, freedom from slavery came with acceptance of a code of laws that restricted behavior and imposed communal obligations, including wealth (land) redistribution every 50 years.

Baby Doc. Pharaoh. Saddam. Stalin. Tyrants come and go. Human nature stays the same.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Mix of Messages

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For most of my professional life I worked this day. It was not included in the 10 authorized holidays my employer observed. It did not share the status of Memorial Day, or the Fourth of July, or even the day after Thanksgiving.

Until, that is, a new vice president of human resources joined our company from Time Warner. She revised the holiday schedule to include MLK Day (unfortunately, the National Retail Federation annual convention usually fell on that day so I had to work, anyhow). As soon as she left the company, MLK Day reverted to its prior status as an official day of work.

Who says one person can’t make a difference? If you haven’t figured it out by now, the VP HR was Afro-American.

Revised Opinion: One month ago I labeled the Boston Red Sox as the team to beat in the American League East. That was even if the NY Yankees could sign Cliff Lee. Of course, they didn’t, so the outlook appeared even bleaker for the boys in pinstripes.

But I’m revising my sense of doom and gloom in light of the Yankees signing of Rafael Soriano, the relief pitching specialist. There’ve been reports he could cause some locker room problems, but his former pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays discounts them ( ). I’m also hoping that under the soothing influence of Mariano Rivera, Soriano will find a kindred soul (both are very religious) and contribute mightily to making the Yankee bullpen the best in the business.

Last year, Soriano recorded 45 saves in 48 attempts. The Yankees plan to pitch him in the eighth inning and leave the ninth to Rivera. Rivera had 33 saves in 38 opportunities last season. In effect, the tandem make a typical nine inning game into a seven inning contest, assuming the Yankees are ahead. Last year the Bronx Bombers led the major leagues in runs scored, so there’s every confidence they can place many a game in the capable hands of the bullpen masters to protect a lead and win.

Naysayers may point to the Achilles Heel of the ball club, the starting pitching. To get to Soriano-Rivera, the starters and middle relievers will have to limit scoring by the opposition. I’m hopeful they’ll be able to do that.

What else am I going to say?

Nature or Nurture: 14-month-old Finley’s been taking advantage of his mobility on two legs, enjoying walking around children’s museums, especially those with a play kitchen set-up. His mom has told us to keep a sharp eye out for kiddie stoves. As a tag sale devotee, I couldn’t wait for Spring.

Lo and behold, while replacing batteries in the smoke detectors in the attic this morning, I found a Care Bears stove/top burner/sink with lots of dishes and utensils. After more than 20 years of accumulated dust from the last time Ellie played with it is cleaned off, the toy kitchen will be ready for Finley. Of course, there are some who might cringe at this less than manly interest by the young fellow, Iron Chefs notwithstanding. But it made Gilda recall a lesson she learned about what’s more dominant in raising a child, nature vs. nurture.

Not wanting to typecast our daughter with just girlie interests, Gilda decided Ellie would play with generic toys as a toddler. Blocks. Legos. Balls. Cars and trucks. Stuffed animals. Nothing feminine. No dolls.

Ellie was a contented child, but not very enthusiastic. Finally, for Ellie’s third birthday, Gilda’s friends could take it no more. They gave Ellie several dolls and other “gender appropriate” gifts, including a baby doll stroller and the aforementioned Care Bears kitchen set. She immediately radiated excitement, took the presents to her room and played with them for hours.

So much for trying to control development. No one who knows Ellie today would suggest she is anything but feminine. She’s not into organized sports, though she enjoys camping, hiking, mountain climbing, canoeing and other “manly” activities. For Ellie, nature most assuredly won out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

American Exceptionalism

It’s a measure of our society that we grieve as a nation when just six people are murdered and 14 others are injured on an otherwise normal Saturday morning.

How quaint. How extraordinary. How exceptional, when across the world life seemingly goes easily on when dozens, even hundreds, are killed daily in barbaric ways. Mass deaths have become matter of fact in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and places we couldn’t find on a map if we were given their exact longitudes and latitudes.

Just six people died in Tucson. Not a famous person among them, though federal judge John M. Roll did have an important job, albeit no longer as full of potential as the life that Christine Taylor Green had ahead of her.

Of course, it is not the deaths but the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that has transformed evil into an act of domestic terrorism, an assault on our national image as a country that settles disputes at the ballot box and not on the firing range.

But it was the random, senseless death of Christina that wrenched our emotions. It would take a heartless person indeed not to mist up at the thought of a life snuffed out so prematurely after just nine years. You would have to be an automaton not to choke up, as President Obama did, when recalling her accomplishments and joy in participating in the everyday cycle of activities that compose a child’s existence—school, Little League, climbing a tree, playing make believe. It was only when she stepped across the threshold into the adult world that she became a victim of our demons.

Americans like to think we are better than the rest of the world, that we place a higher value on life than other cultures. Each soul is more worthy of grace here in the U.S. than in countries that glorify suicide bombers with sex-laden trips to heaven.

In truth, we respect our fellow man, woman and child only in the aftermath of tragedy. We cut corners to make a profit. Mine safety, for example, is too often overlooked until miners are trapped or entombed underground; food processing workers toil in unsanitary conditions, their hazardous output shipped to an unsuspecting consuming public; oil platforms are planted in waters without adequate safeguards for the crews who work them, the sea life surrounding them and the millions who live and work on the shores nearby.

Americans care more for spectacle than prevention. A symbolic funeral, a national catharsis, then back to normalcy.

How is it that a person kicked out of community college for aberrant behavior, a person rejected by the military, a person with known anti-social tendencies, can easily and legally purchase a gun? How is it that we allow any person to legally buy large capacity bullet clips that have no real purpose other than to mutate ordinary guns into killing machines? Can we honestly say we value life more than other nations when some 30,000 Americans every year are killed by guns and thousands more are wounded?

Our gun-loving ethos surely is a dark side of American exceptionalism.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Day for Republicans

I watched Tim Pawlenty, the former two-term Republican governor of Minnesota on The Daily Show Wednesday night. Talking with Jon Stewart increasingly has become a de rigueur baptism under fire for politicians. Pawlenty’s performance impressed me enough to suggest he might well grasp the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. He’s articulate. Youngish-looking (he’s 50). Pleasing to look at. He’s tall (he towered over Stewart). Not incendiary, like Sarah Palin, et al. Seemingly willing to not be locked into conservative dogma (though that might hurt his chances in the primaries).

As a foil to Barack Obama, Pawlenty would be a formidable opponent. Dare I say it?—the Great White Hope. Unlike Palin, or for that matter Newt Gringrich, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, Pawlenty is not a divisive national force. He doesn’t start the campaign with sizable portions of the population questioning his intellect, his mean-spiritness, his religion or his capacity to project an image of service—unlike the rest of the current field, he doesn’t look like he’d do anything to secure the nomination. He doesn’t look desperate.

Nobody gets to be a governor without having sharp fangs or teeth. Pawlenty, to be sure, has them. But keeping them out of sight, for now, has made him attractive, as far as the Republican competition goes, to Independents and disenchanted Democrats. As the campaign progresses, it will be interesting to observe how he changes, if at all.

I noted with amusement last night Pawlenty tucked the tail of his suit jacket under his tush so the collar wouldn’t ride up as he was sitting, a homage to William Hurt in Broadcast News. Hurt, you might remember, played the fatuous though telegenically pleasing news anchorman in the movie, while the more erudite Albert Brooks had to content himself being an off-camera presence. One on-air trick Hurt tried to teach Brooks was the jacket-tail-tuck. It didn’t work for Brooks, but Pawlenty’s jacket collar was a model of comportment. By the way, so was Stewart’s, and he didn’t do the tail-tuck (for a full view of the extended 20 minute interview, here’s a link:

Native son politics might also play a part in Pawlenty’s possibilities. Electoral map arithmetic favors choosing him as the GOP standard bearer. To unseat Obama, Republicans need to shift just one or two states from Blue to Red status. Minnesota has not given its electoral votes a red tinge since 1972. Pawlenty might provide added incentive Gopher State voters need to send one of their own to the White House. Of course, had Al Gore secured his home state of Tennessee’s support in 2000, he, not George W. Bush, would have won that election. So, let’s not count any electoral votes just yet.

It’s impossible to ignore Sarah Palin. Try as I might, she’s an immovable force from my keyboard. Yes, I was offended she used the term “blood libel” when criticizing those who criticized her for incendiary remarks they (and I) say created a climate conducive to physical attacks on elected officials that culminated in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six and the wounding of 13 others last Saturday in Tucson.

In her seven-plus minute video released Wednesday (, she shows no apparent regret or shame. She lacks the intellect to understand the nuance of her actions. Perhaps she should read Goebbels. Then she might come to understand how repeatedly attacking, dehumanizing, a foe with suggestive images and language, eventually leads to a society that permits despicable acts. Palin ignores—or just doesn’t get—how her own actions impact others. Instead, she wraps her political dissent in patriotic imagery.

Equally galling is that it took Palin four days!!! to condemn the shooting.

Candor. It’s a trait we don’t often get from our politicos. One of the the more refreshing remarks of the last few years was the way Obama categorized the November election results. He called it a “shellacking.” Few would argue with his wording, yet fewer elected, and non-elected, officials would dare utter such a realistic appraisal. I don’t mean to suggest we should vote for someone because they express themselves coherently and accurately. But I am sensitive to the hypocrisies that sometimes surface.

Consider that for many years conservatives have lambasted the entertainment media for being too permissive, for extolling violence and sex. Yet conservatives time and again refuse to place limits on the sale of assault weapons. They remonstrated against the fictitious Murphy Brown when she had a baby out of wedlock, yet issued nary a word of condemnation when Bristol Palin became an unwed teenage mom. They rallied behind her grit and advanced her as a paragon of virtue, endorsing her role as an apostle of abstinence.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Voices of Reason

The Tucson massacre has discharged a mass of commentary, my own included. Here are two of my favorites, the first, by Matt Bai of the NY Times, written just hours after the tragedy:

This second piece is an example of why Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has catapulted into one of the nation’s most thoughtful, believable and influential “newsmen” of today. As he did with end of year broadcasts credited with enhancing the chances for passage of the health benefits bill for Sept. 11 first responders, as he did with his Rally to Restore Sanity, the Comedy Central comedian/host tamped down the rhetoric and provided leadership and direction all too often missing from elected and self-appointed leaders. View the opening of last night’s show. It’ll be among the most rewarding nine minutes you’ll spend today:

I don’t want you to leave depressed or too morose, so here’s one of those Internet comical pieces one of my friends sent me, sure to make you laugh several times out loud and smile throughout as you’re reading it:

A paraprosdokian (from Greek "παρα-", meaning "beyond" and "προσδοκία", meaning "expectation") is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.

Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but also play on the double meaning of a particular word, creating a syllepsis.

* I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

* Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

* I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

* Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

* The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on the list.

* Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

* If I agreed with you we'd both be wrong.

* We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

* War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

* Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

* The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

* Evening news is where they begin with 'Good evening', and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.

* To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

* A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

* How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?

* Some people are like Slinkies ... not really good for anything, but you can't help smiling when you see one tumble down the stairs.

* Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.

* I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted paychecks.

* Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says "If an emergency, notify:" I put "DOCTOR".

* I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

* I saw a woman wearing a sweat shirt with "Guess" on I said "Implants?"

* Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?

* Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

* Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America ?

* Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

* A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

* You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

* The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!

* Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won't expect it back.

* A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.

* Hospitality: making your guests feel like they're at home, even if you wish they were.

* Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

* Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they leave.

* There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.

* I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not sure.

* I always take life with a grain of salt, plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.

* When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

* You're never too old to learn something stupid.

* To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

* Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

* Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.

* A bus is a vehicle that runs twice as fast when you are after it as when you are in it.

* If you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, why do some people have more than one child?

* Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shopping Right

(Editor's Note: Industry leaders are meeting this week at the National Retail Federation annual convention in New York City, a conference I attended for more than 30 years. Though predominantly a department store and specialty store group of executives, attendees also come from supermarkets, drug stores, home centers and non store retailers such as mail order and Internet companies. For old times' sake, here’s an abridged example of what I used to do for 32 years, an analysis of the entry of a new store, in this case a supermarket, to a market.)

The opening of a new 78,000 sq. ft. ShopRite in downtown White Plains last week provides a textbook example of the dilemma supermarket operators have faced—who, exactly, is their competition? Is it merely other dedicated food stores, or do Wal-Mart and Target qualify as more than just nuisances poaching sales from periphery customers?

Across the country, Wal-Mart and Target superstores (units that combine full-line grocery stores with full-line discount stores) are competition, for sure. But here in White Plains, Wal-Mart and Target have limited food departments. Yet, to ignore them—as both ShopRite and the older Stop & Shop have seemingly done—means the supermarkets are losing sales opportunities they can ill-afford to give away.

Grocery retailing is a business of pennies. The average supermarket, according to the Food Marketing Institute, the industry association, turned a profit of just 1.22 cents for every dollar of sales in 2009. The business model is built on volume, achieved by bringing the customer back as often as possible to fill up shopping carts as high as possible. In 2009, The FMI says the average customer visited a supermarket 2.1 times per week, spending an average $29.24 per transaction.

Over the last 30 years Wal-Mart grew faster and bigger than any other store because it geared its prices and assortments to the type of staple merchandise consumers needed and bought every day—paper goods, health and beauty aids, candy, stationery, and consumables. The result—shoppers visited Wal-Mart as often as they frequented supermarkets. Good news for Wal-Mart. Bad news for supermarkets, because sales of the items grocers lost to Wal-Mart came from products that generally had higher margins than regular foodstuffs.

To attract customers, ShopRite and Stop & Shop have vastly more product lines in packaged food areas than either of the discounters. Plus, they have specialty departments such as deli, bakery, prepared foods and extensive produce, meat, frozen and refrigerated selections. But Wal-Mart and Target are sizing up their everyday food assortments, at sharper prices. A market basket of 21 national brands stocked by all four stores revealed the following: Wal-Mart and Target came in virtually the same, $72.35 for Wal-Mart, $73.13 for Target. Stop & Shop priced out at $87.17, while the new kid on the block, ShopRite, checked out at $89.80 (all prices included in the January 6 survey were regular prices, not sales prices).

A penny here, a penny there doesn’t sound like much, but $14 to $16 is a big difference. A ShopRite executive said the company used its Westchester zone to set prices. But White Plains is different than most other locations. For one, there’s the cost of parking at the City Center (which Target customers also have to pay; Wal-Mart issues parking vouchers at its garage. Stop & Shop parking is free). Second, unlike most ShopRite locations, competitors are cheek to jowl in White Plains—Target is two floors below, Wal-Mart across the street, Stop & Shop a few blocks away.

It is apparent ShopRite set its prices against other supermarkets, giving little thought to non-traditional competitors.

If Wal-Mart or Target siphons off any store visits and purchases from ShopRite it will find it harder to turn a profit. And that would be unfortunate for White Plains residents. Just a few years ago, despite being a mecca of retailing in the county, the city had no supermarkets. Now it has the two traditional grocers, a specialty format (Whole Foods Market), along with Wal-Mart and Target. To maintain those shopping options, ShopRite and Stop & Shop must sharpen their pencils on brand name goods, while fattening their margins on private label products and specialty food departments where Wal-Mart and Target cannot compete.

Regular Price Comparisons January 6, 2011
Product Wal-Mart Target ShopRite Stop & Shop
Jif Creamy PB 18 oz. $2.22 $2.24 $2.99 $2.99
Coca-Cola 2 liter 1.64 1.79 1.79 1.89
Tropicana OJ w/Calcium 59 oz. 3.18 3.19 3.99 3.79
Edy’s Ice Cream 1.5 qt. 3.98 3.54 4.49 4.99
Original Cheerios 18 oz. 3.50 3.54 4.99 4.69
Cambell’s Healthy Request Tomato Soup 1.32 1.27 1.89 1.50
Fiber 1 bars 10-pack 4.50 3.99 5.99 4.99
Thomas’ Orignal English Muffins 6-pack 2.07 2.54 3.69 3.69
Tide 150 oz. 19.97 19.99 23.99 19.99
Goya Black Beans 15.05 oz. 0.92 1.09 0.99 0.89
Ziploc Sandwich Bags, 120 count 2.67 2.69 3.49 3.99
Classic Lays Potato Chips, 11 oz. 3.78 3.59 3.99 3.99
Domino Sugar, 5 lbs. 3.64 3.64 3.99 3.99
Select Harvest Italian Wedding Soup 1.50 1.52 2.50 2.50
Special K, 12 oz. 2.92 2.94 2.77 3 .99
Entemann’s Pound Cake 3.32 3.29 4.29 4.39
Cool Whip, 8 oz. 1.48 0.99 2.29 2.19
Gatorade, 32 oz. 1.00 1.02 1.00 1.25
Lean Cuisine Cheese Ravioli 1.98 1.99 2.00 3.49
Folgers Classic Roast, 11.3 oz. 3.98 5.49 4.29 3.99
Cheez-It, 13.7 oz. 2.78 2.79 4.39 3.99
TOTAL 21 Items 1/6/11 $72.35 $73.13 $89.80 $87.17

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragedy Close to Home

I don’t know Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but her critical shooting Saturday outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson provided a sort of Six Degrees of Separation moment. I know the location of the tragedy, having passed it two dozen or more times in the last few years on my way to Gilda’s sister’s home. But it was several hours after news of the shooting that I found out the deeper extent of my connection to the legislator. Giffords is a close friend of our nephew Andrew and his family. He and wife Val attended her marriage to astronaut Mark Kelly in 2007 shortly after she entered Congress. A picture of Andy and Val's two daughters can be found on the front of Giffords’ refrigerator.

Gilda’s sister, Barbara, has lived in Tucson for nearly 20 years. Andrew, her oldest child, moved to Tucson a few years later. He and Val became involved in local politics, managing the successful mayoral campaign of Robert Walkup. Andrew has been Walkup’s chief of staff during his three terms in office. Public safety is one of the areas under his responsibility.

Ever since JFK was shot it has been accepted dogma that a lone gunman could attempt an assassination without being stopped. Guns are just too easily available, legally, in this country; it’s almost impossible to put an impenetrable security shield around any figure. Yet it would be disingenuous to simply ignore the climate of hate and violence that permeates our political discourse these days, creating an atmosphere that inflames, if not condones, acts of violence.

Pima County, Ariz., Sherrif Clarence Dupnik was right when he said Saturday, “No doubt in my mind that when a number of people night and day try to inflame the public, that there’s going to be some consequences from doing that and I think it’s irresponsible to do that.” (This is not a phenomenon exclusive to the U.S. A similar condition led to the murder of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 15 years ago at, of all things, a peace rally, while Muslim terrorists seemingly daily find new and cruel ways to torment and kill their foes, all under the guise of religious approval.)

Bob Schieffer of CBS’ Face the Nation wondered this morning if “what happened in Tucson is the result of the mean and hateful tone that marks our modern politics?” Tea Party apologists are quick to deny their rhetoric has any connection. They note extremists exist on the Left and Right. True. Violence has been part of the extreme Left’s baggage. The Weather Underground, for example, blew up people and places. But, to my memory, not one liberal politician ever suggested violence against a Republican politician.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, last fall targeted 20 Democratic congressmen, including Giffords, for their votes on the health care bill. On her political action committee Website, each congressional district was placed in cross-hairs associated with gun scopes, an impression that Giffords spoke out against. “When people do that they have to realize there are consequences to that action.”

On her Facebook page, Palin posted “sincere condolences” to Gifford and the other victims of the shooting (6 dead, 13 wounded), but as of 7 pm Sunday issued no immediate condemnation of the assault or any commitment to ratchet down the vitriol of her rhetoric.

Palin’s actions were no different than those of Pro-Life activists who issue “Wanted” posters with the names and pictures of doctors who perform legal abortions. When doctors are murdered, or their clinics bombed, the Pro-Lifers distance themselves from responsibility. All the while, our country suffers further erosion of the principles upon which it was founded—the rule of law, of equality, of tolerance.

Voice of Love: During intermission of A Little Night Music Saturday night, I literally ran into Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary fame. I thanked him for being one of my cultural heroes and told him of the time I sat in the first row of their concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1968 and distracted bass player, Dick Kniss, into missing a beat in one of their songs.

Peter was most gracious, seemingly pleased to be recognized but not revealed to the throngs surrounding him. Ten minutes later, as he passed us on the way back to his seat, he said hello to Gilda and our friends and remembered my name. What more can a hero-worshipper ask?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Anger Management

My Anger Exploded: Driving around town earlier today I listened to the noon radio broadcast of the news from CBS. The anchor matter-of-factly recounted how two sisters were released from prison in Mississippi on the condition Gladys Scott would donate a kidney to Jamie Scott. The anchor finished the story by noting the women were in prison for 16 years on an armed robbery conviction.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was so angered I almost slammed on the brakes. Yes, everything reported was true. But soooooo incomplete.

Did you know the sisters, 21 and 19 at the time of the robbery, were each given consecutive life sentences? Must have been a big haul, you’d think. Not quite. Just $11 (though some reports say as much as $200 was taken). Did you know three boys, ages 14-18 were also charged and convicted, that they served their time and were long ago released? Did you know the sisters denied involvement in the crime? Did you know the sisters are Afro-American?

Did you know the only reason Gov. Haley Barbour suspended their double life sentences was to avoid the $200,000 a year medical bills the state incurred from providing kidney dialysis treatment to Jamie? And that the sisters now wonder where they will get the money to pay for the transplant operation?

I like being updated by the news, hearing headlines. But it is so infuriating when the story is incomplete. Had I not known the background I could easily have been led to believe these sisters were beneficiaries of a benevolent governor rather than victims of heinous injustice, for even if they were indeed guilty of the $11-$200 armed robbery, how is a double life sentence warranted? (

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s too exploitive, all the hullabaloo surrounding Ted Williams, the homeless man-cum-radio/TV announcer who has become an Internet sensation. I’m happy for him, but did the reunion with his 90-year-old mother have to be televised? Couldn’t they get together off-camera after 20 years instead being a cause bellum for the CBS Early Show and NBC Today Show (which, thankfully, the networks worked out)?

Why must everything be a media event? Why must we see everything. Can’t our culture accept private moments in people’s lives? Yes, it’s wonderful to celebrate human achievement, second chances in life, whether it be Williams (who seems to have more than just one second chance) or the miners in Chile. At some point in time, though, we need to rebalance our priorities and distance ourselves from an all-consuming desire to know. Facebook and Twitter may be worth mega-billions, but good old fashioned privacy—maybe modesty would be a better word—is slated for a comeback. I hope it happens soon.

Until that happens, no doubt we will see a film in a year or less on Ted Williams, one like The Soloist which celebrated a street musician “discovered” by a Los Angeles reporter.

No Honor: He might have been a heckuva pilot, and a good seaman, but film is what done-in the promising career of Capt. Owen Honors who was relieved of his command of the USS Enterprise for inappropriate behavior while he was the ship’s executive officer.

Honors produced and starred in videos intended to boost morale aboard the aircraft carrier. But the films contained scenes and comments that were sexually explicit and also offensive to gays and lesbians. Bottom line—if ever there was a person unworthy of his name, Honors is it.

Statesmanship vs. Brinksmanship: Here’s why the U.S. Senate filibuster cloture rule might get changed—Republicans will deem it in their long term interest even if they suffer some short term setbacks.

Currently, it requires 60 votes to stifle debate. To get it down to a simple 51-vote majority, the GOP must agree to a change of rules. They’ll do so because they believe the 2012 election will give them control of the Senate, though probably not by 60 or more votes. To forestall Democrats using the same stalling tactics they have used, the GOP will accept a rule change now. Since Republicans control the House, their downside risk is limited to actions the Senate alone has the power to control, namely treaty and cabinet/executive appointment approvals.

By agreeing to the rules change, the Republicans could spin the action favorably as an example of their putting country first. Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion Democrats will go along with the idea. If they, too, believe the GOP will gain majority status after the next election, they won’t be able to stymie the right-wing agenda if they amend the cloture rule.

Harry Reid and his dragoons, along with President Obama, have a lot of strategic soul-searching to do before they put statesmanship ahead of brinksmanship.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guilt Trips

The NY Times ran an article Tuesday on the psychology of buying a gift for a child while on a business trip. The sub headline said it all—”For a Traveling Parent, Beware of Acting Out of Guilt” (

Other than acknowledge I was guilty of the practice when our children were young (I used to say I came home from trips laden down with 5 lbs. of die cast cars and plastic My Little Ponies), I won’t comment on the merits of my actions. Staff members who traveled with me knew at some point during our trip I would abandon our primary mission and wind up in the toy section of a store looking for bring-me-homes. It didn’t hurt, of course, that our job took us into retail stores throughout the day, so we really weren’t deviating too much from our assignment.

I will admit I sometimes went slightly overboard. Like the time in Torrance, Calif., I deviated from our route to the Del Amo Fashion Center to stop at a yard sale. Fortunately, Debbi Kent had a young brother, so she didn’t mind pawing over toy discards in the driveway.

My best score came during a solo trip to Detroit when Dan was about 3 years old. I was driving along the service road next to one of the freeways on my way to the airport for the return flight to New York. It was garbage collection day; refuse cans stood sentry at the edges of each home’s driveway. Motoring along at 40 mph, I caught a glimpse of some bright construction yellow paint jutting out of one garbage can. I circled around and, just as I thought, discovered the yellow belonged to a vintage Tonka metal dump truck which, I could not believe, was sitting on top of two other earth movers, a back hoe loader and a bulldozer. Each truck was roughly a foot and a half in length. No doubt, the trucks had outlasted their useful life as playthings of the boy inside the home. I quickly liberated them, stuffed them into a paper shopping bag I picked up at a nearby grocery store and headed to the airport.

As I carried them on board, one of the stewardesses teased me about traveling everywhere with my Tonka trucks. I sheepishly laughed along with her, but got the more satisfying last laugh when I presented them to Dan later that evening. He enjoyed those trucks for several years until he, too, outgrew his interest in toys (as a construction company executive Dan now gets to “play” with real equipment). We didn’t throw out those Tonka trucks. They’re idling in our attic until Finley is old enough to rev them up again to push some dirt around.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Inside Job, Twerp Alert, Happy Birthday

Gollum Crazy: I try to avoid depressing movies, excellent reviews notwithstanding.

Inside Job received excellent reviews. It is a documentary about the financial meltdown crisis. I went to see it yesterday while Gilda was at work. I am now depressed.

I’m not depressed because my savings were ravaged in the stock market fallout (they weren’t). I’m not depressed because my mortgage is higher than the value of my home (the mortgage was already paid off). I’m not depressed I lost my job because of the lousy economy (actually, the economy was a contributing factor to my “retirement,” but I’m happy to be retired).

I’m depressed because in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the vultures on Wall Street continue to believe they did no wrong and are just as powerful as before to screw our country and the rest of the world. I wonder how these people can sleep at night. Then I realize it must be easy to nod off into dreamland on a mattress stuffed with our dollar bills, make that our thousand dollar bills. Our system of finance rewards incompetence and chicanery. We have a system wherein credit rating companies (e.g., Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poors) are not accountable, hiding behind the argument their work is just “opinion,” therefore should not be construed as an endorsement of a company’s solvency. In other words, investor beware. Days before Lehman Brothers imploded, they still were issuing AAA ratings for its bonds.

Deregulation opened the gateway for financial excess and distress. Yet Wall Street and the banking community resist oversight. Republicans as well as Democrats share the guilt of blind acquiescence. Economists at prestigious universities have been co-opted by the lure of big bucks from financial institutions. Deregulation intensified a culture of greed and envy. Gross compensation (reportedly a record $144 billion in 2010) turned everyone into crazed Gollums, whose only thoughts are for “precious” bonuses to buy more, more, more that are “mine, mine, mine.”

It’s too painful to recount all the details. Go see Inside Job. You won’t be happy when you exit the theater, but you’ll be more informed.

Twerp Alert: Gilda is on a crusade, a jihad against twerps, who she defines as short, inconsiderate, measly-faced, well-tailored commuters who refuse to clean up after themselves.

On Metro North Tuesday morning she encountered a twerp who threw his discarded newspaper on the floor and refused to pick it up when the train reached Grand Central Terminal even after she and others admonished him and advised a newspaper receptacle stood right outside the door on the platform. Once before Gilda had remonstrated against this twerp, telling him it was not the conductor’s job to clean up after him. He’s apparently a slow learner, someone who believes he’s above participating in train car housekeeping, though he no doubt wants a clean environment during his commute.

Sounds to me like another one of those “entitlement” guys who got us into the financial mess we’re still in.

Happy Birthday: My father was a successful businessman. He sent his children to private schools, graduate schools, sleep-away summer camps, trips abroad. His one vice was buying a new car every five years. He bought Buicks all but the one time our mother talked him into a Cadillac. He was not stingy, not profligate. He provided for his family, friends and workers. He was charitable with his time and money for causes he believed in. He would have turned 100 today.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Before Water for Elephants

If you’ve been to the movies recently you might have seen a coming attraction for Water for Elephants, the film adaptation of the book of the same name by Sara Gruen.

It’s a beautiful, evocative book. I won’t give away any important plot details for those who might not have read the book, but I do need to bring to your attention some basic parts of the story:

The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, runs away to join a traveling circus in the 1930s. He falls in love with a bareback equestrian rider. The circus, Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, is far from an elite organization. It hovers on the brink of financial ruin. Benzini Brothers is always battling competitors. Rosie the elephant saves it from financial distress after the star animal attraction, a horse, dies. Rosie never before performed in a circus.

I’m always fascinated by the creative process. In interviews, Gruen claims to have been inspired to write her 2006 novel by pictures of old time circuses she saw in a newspaper.

Sounds plausible, but several months ago I saw Chad Hanna, a 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda. The protagonist, Chad Hanna, runs away to join a traveling circus in the mid-1800s. He falls in love with a bareback equestrian rider. The circus, Huguenine’s Great and Only International Circus, is far from an elite organization. It hovers on the brink of financial ruin. Huguenine’s is always battling competitors. Van Buren the elephant saves it from financial distress after the star animal attraction, a lion, dies. Van Buren never before performed in a circus.

There are, of course, differences in the full plot line, in the love story, in the depiction of life within the circus coterie of characters. The circus owners in both stories couldn’t be more diametrically opposite.

My friend and former art director Milton says there are no new story lines, just different treatments of the same themes. I wouldn’t argue with that.

(PS—Chad Hanna is based on a series of articles in The Saturday Evening Post entitled Red Wheels Rolling by Walter D. Edmonds. Edmonds also wrote Drums Along the Mohawk, another book made into a movie starring Henry Fonda.)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Curb the Enthusiasm

Cool, Calm, Collected: Our local newspaper published an article today from the Associated Press about two new books chronicling Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s near two-decades-long career as a book editor, for Viking Press and Doubleday ( Several times during those years I saw Jackie, getting into an out of cabs on Park Avenue. My most memorable sighting was in a restaurant with two of my colleagues from Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication I joined in 1977.

One of the perks of the job was being able to dine at some of the classier eating spots in town. One day, I found myself with Liz and Peggy having lunch in an expensive, over the top restaurant off Park Avenue in the mid-East 60s. The décor was gaudy—lots of mirrors and gold accents. As it had recently made its debut, the restaurant had yet to be discovered by the lunchtime crowd of power elites. It was, to be honest, rather thinly patronized that day. Aside from we three, only one other table was occupied. As I looked around I saw two people sitting at the table, a professorial-type man with unruly grey hair and a strikingly composed, thin, raven-haired woman with big glasses, eating a salad.

As Peggy’s back was to the other table, I whispered to her to glance in the mirror to see the reflection of what I thought was Jackie O. Instead, she twisted her body for a full frontal look and then, in no resemblance to a stage whisper, blurted out, “It’s Jackie Kennedy!” I shrank in my seat, but Jackie didn’t bat an eyelash. A perfect example of being cool, calm and collected to what must have been a common occurrence in her lifetime.

Curb the Enthusiasm: Analysts were mostly euphoric about the level of 2010 retail holiday sales. “Americans are splurging as though it’s 2007 again”, the NY Times reported. Sales exceeded $584.3 billion, a 5.5% improvement over the prior year and well above the previous high water mark of $566.3 billion of 2007.

Happy days are here again, for retailers, especially when you consider they tightened their inventory levels. When earnings results start coming in a few weeks from now, there truly will be bells ringing happily along the corridors of commerce.

Except when one thinks longer term. The price of gasoline keeps rising. It has long been thought that for each penny gas rises in price, $1 billion is sucked out of consumer spending on non-fuel purchases. Particularly vulnerable is discretionary spending. Consumers spent lots of money self-gifting in 2010. How long they will continue to do so is linked to the price of gas and, in the Northeast, to the cost of home heating oil.

Futility Bowl: NY Football Giants fans are hoping by the end of today’s games their team will wind up in the playoffs that are the run-up to the Super Bowl. All it will take is a win over the more hapless Washington Redskins and a loss by the Green Bay Packers to the Chicago Bears.

In truth, the Giants have been engaged in playoff-type games for the last two weeks and have been found lacking. So today’s battle with the Skins has all the trimmings of a Futility Bowl. It’s a toss-up as to which team is more undeserving.

Giants fans, among whom I count myself, don’t know which team will show up today. Will it be the team that two weeks ago whipped the Philadelphia Eagles for 52 minutes, or the team that imploded during the game’s last eight minutes, allowing the Eagles to overcome a 21-point deficit and win by seven?

There’s a time-honored saying that on any given Sunday any team, even one with inferior players and coaches, can win a football game. But most respectful fans will privately admit that a Super Bowl winner should be a team that consistently achieves greatness each week. Though the occasional lapse might show up over the course of a 16-game season, consistency speaks volumes. The New Orleans Saints demonstrated that last season. Sadly, the Giants have not shown that this year, one week crushing their opponents, the next week showing devastating vulnerability. Against the Eagles the Giants showed they could play Jekyll and Hyde within the same game. The result has been a 9-6 record going into today’s regular season finale.

They don’t deserve to make the playoffs, but, like I said, I’m a Giants fan, so I’m hoping for the best. My brother Bernie, on the other hand, started out as an avid Giants fan, but in the 41 years he has lived in the Washington, DC, area, he has changed his allegiance. He’ll be at today’s game rooting for the home town Redskins. His team is mired in a decades-long slump and franchise turmoil. Here’s how the NY Times described it a few days ago:

So let the better team win today. Here’s hoping that means the Giants.