Thursday, March 31, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside, But Let's Play Ball

Baseball season officially started today and with it came the regrettable return of an annual staple of the national pasttime—articles about the cold conditions in ballparks in the northern portion of the country.

Why do ballplayers and sportswriters make a big deal about the weather at the start of the season? Yes, it’s cold and often damp. But is it any different than weather in the fall, and isn’t it the point of the first 162 games to determine who will play in chilly, windy October when the championship is on the line?

So please, spare us all those stories. The only people who have a right to complain are the fans in the stands who must endure pseudo-frostbite conditions in March and April (while players sit on heated benches and can retreat into heated locker rooms between innings) for what too often are casual games. The results may be just as important statistically as late September contests, but it’s hard to convince most people early season games are the same as pennant race games. Maybe it’s residual heat left over from the summer, but it just seems fans are warmer in October than they are in March/April, even if the temperature is the same.

Now to highlights of the Yankees-Tigers Game, a 6-3 New York victory:

Derek Jeter’s contribution to the dialogue (let’s not call it a debate) about his efficiency as a shortstop showed up in the second inning when he failed to corral a hot shot to his left by Victor Martinez. It was ruled a hit, but Jeter’s inability to snare the one hopper and turn a double play set up the Tigers for their first run. On the other hand, Jeter later made one of his signature plays to his right, going deep in the hole, jumping in the air while turning to throw a strike to Robinson Cano to force a runner at second;

The Yanks weren’t sure Curtis Granderson would be healthy enough to be on the opening day roster. They’re glad he was as he played an all-star caliber game. The center fielder made a diving catch in the first inning, an over-the-head grab in the ninth, and a game-winning, lead-off, second-deck home run in the seventh. It was Granderson’s third consecutive opening day homer, the last two with the Yanks, the first with the Tigers;

A perennial slow starter, Mark Teixeira hit a three-run home run. Yanks are hoping Tex will not go into his typical April-May slump;

Teixeira’s blast gave C.C. Sabathia a 2-run lead but twice he couldn’t shut down Detroit, allowing the Tigers to tie the score before he was forced to retire from the mound after the sixth inning because of a high pitch count. Last year C.C. had trouble protecting multiple-run leads;

Russell Martin made an auspicious start as the new Yankee catcher. He had a hit and showed speed on the base paths by stealing third base and in a later inning scoring his second run tagging up from third on a shallow line drive by Jeter;

Cano won a Gold Glove award last year but made a senseless error covering first base on a bunt attempt, the miscue eventually allowing the Tigers to score their third run that tied the score and denied Sabathia a shot at a win;

The Yankees bullpen may well determine how far the team goes this year. Today it was spotless. Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera pitched no-hit ball in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. It’s a long season. But today was exactly what the manager ordered;

Is baseball, or at least the Yankees, on an austerity program? In years’ past at the end of every half-inning the player catching the ball would throw it into the stands. But several times I thought I saw players bringing the ball back to the dugout.

(Editor's note: Don't worry. I won't be chronicling every Yankees game this year.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Connected Success

Howard Schultz has been on a media sprint. Celebrating the 40th anniversary today, March 30, of his company, Starbucks, Schultz in the last few days has been interviewed on 60 Minutes by Katie Couric, on NPR by Leonard Lopate, and even had a write-up in The Costco Connection, that retailer’s lifestyle magazine for its members. Aside from the anniversary to celebrate, there’s the performance and stock price rebound of the last two years, ever since he returned as CEO of the Seattle-based company. How better to spout his business philosophy and executive skills than to write a book about it, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.

That’s where my connection comes in. I’m not a coffee drinker, so my visits to Starbucks have been mostly to accompany java addicts on their habitual rounds. My connection goes deeper than a grande cup of Sumatra beans. Schultz’s co-author of Onward is Joanne Gordon. Joanne worked for me in 1998 fresh out of Northwestern University’s master’s program at the Medill School of Journalism.

Now, I can hardly take lots of credit for her success during her diverse writing career, including five other books. Joanne’s tenure at Chain Store Age lasted about a year, until she was able to secure what she really wanted, a position on Forbes. Still, there’s something to be said about vicariously enjoying the success of one’s former staffers, if for no other reason than a validation of your own keen eye for talent.

Over the years I prided myself in selecting not just good writers and salespeople, but more importantly, women and men who appreciated the value of teamwork over ego and who, when the opportunity arose, could lead their own staffs. I trained some 20 staff members to assume executive positions in the editorial and publishing sides of the business within my former company and even among our competitors. For the record, I never disparaged or resented any of the competitors I trained. I’d explain to any editorial source or advertising account that personally I always preferred dealing with originals, not carbon copies.

I’m proud my alumni include the deputy managing editor of Fortune, the former managing editor/executive editor of Crain’s New York Business, a former columnist for Seventeen magazine, the former publisher of Advertising Age, and editors or publishers of several retail industry publications.

I also take some pride in being part of a group of New Haven journalists of the early 1970s to make it big in the Big Apple. I followed Dan Collins as a beat reporter in Shelton, Conn., for The New Haven Register. Dan is a senior producer for Dan’s wife, Gail Collins, is a columnist for The New York Times. Back in our New Haven days, Gail ran her own news service covering state politics. Dan and Gail kept two pet guinea pigs named for the owner of The Register and his son, Lionel and Stewart (Jackson). While I worked on the afternoon paper, Trish Hall worked on The Journal-Courier, the morning paper. Trish is now Op-Ed editor for The New York Times.

It’s fulfilling, and somewhat humbling, to share these connections. And then there are the unusual associations with past staffers.

A few years ago while watching the news about a gas explosion at a house in New Jersey, I bolted up straight in my seat when the reporter named the homeowner. Jeff MacCallum had worked for me as an editor 10 years earlier. A former military man, Jeff and his bride walked down the aisle under crossed swords.

Remember the Dustin Hoffman movie Hero? Flanked by Dan and Ellie in a movie theater, I nearly jumped out of my seat when I spotted one of my Chicago salesmen at the focal point of the crowd scene where they are searching for the Cinderfella hero of the plane crash rescue to match the shoe he left behind. Larry Rivkin had answered a casting call for extras. Not only was Larry in the scene, but the camera actually zoomed in on him.

Cameras have repeatedly zoomed in on another ex-staffer, Brad Altman, from Los Angeles. And why not. Brad and actor George Takei were the first gay couple to receive a marriage license in the City of West Hollywood. They were married in 2008. For those not familiar with George Takei, he played Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Enough Already

I don’t mean to jinx everyone, but I’ve decided it’s time to store away the snow blower. Enough already.

Though there’s still a remnant of snow on the shaded part of my front lawn, and weather forecasts for later this week hint at possible flurries, I don’t care. It’s seven weeks since Groundhog Day, since Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck both were said to have failed to see their shadows, thus predicting an early spring.

Ha! Had they seen their shadows, it would have meant six more weeks of winter. Well, those six weeks expired last Wednesday, yet the water in the birdbath outside remains frozen. Enough already!

I ran the snow blower this afternoon until all the gas was used up. I rolled it into the shed on the side yard. I moved Gilda’s plant cart from the shed to the garage. I’m mentally prepared for spring. But just in case, I left the snow shovels in the garage for easy access.

Spring means the start of the baseball season. Of all the non-stories wafting their way up north from Florida, the one surrounding Derek Jeter’s spot in the NY Yankees batting order ranks as #1.

The Yanks have won championships with Jeter batting first or second. So why should we care where he hits? As long as he hits like his old self and not like last year. Just sit back, relax and if you really want to fret about anything (if you’re a Yankee fan), pray our pitching holds up.

For the record, in case you haven’t heard, Jeter will bat second this year behind Brett Gardner.

Draperless: More fretful is news that Don Draper and Mad Men company will not be seen this summer. Word today from AMC network that Mad Men will not air again until 2012.

Hard to say how people under 40 will respond. My cohorts, at least, can reflect back on life in the 1960s, though I must admit, I knew no one like red-headed office manager Joan Harris.

Not Since Taft: Is President Obama growing a mustache? Check out his upper lip in this interview Tuesday with CBS News’ Erica Hill:;featuredPost-PE. Though the rest of his face is clean-shaven there clearly is a shadow under his nose.

If he goes all the way and joins the facial hair crowd, Obama will be the first president since William Howard Taft 100 years ago to sport a mustache. It’s up to him, and no doubt Michelle, how he wants to look, but he should keep in mind that a president with the middle name of Hussein, who already is less than appealing to some 40% of the country, should be careful not to reinforce stereotypes. If there’s one region where despotic leaders, and everyday citizens, come attired with mustaches it is the Arabic Muslim world.

Would you spend $2 million to fight a $7,000 fine from OSHA? If you were Walmart you would because the retailer doesn’t want restrictions placed on how it conducts Black Friday and other massive sales events.

Some background: in 2008 a Walmart employee was trampled to death when crowds overwhelmed security and orderliness as doors opened at a Valley Stream, NY, store at 5 am on the day after Thanksgiving. Walmart appealed the $7,000 fine the Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied against it. OSHA also issued guidelines retailers should follow to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. Last week a judge ruled against Walmart ( Walmart is considering a further appeal.

Though Walmart has taken the lead, the retail industry, at least the big chain stores, are mostly behind its stand. And that is unfortunate. Unfortunate because it demonstrates a callousness toward both their employees and their customers.

I’ve said it before (even while head of a retail industry publication) and I’ll say it again—crack of dawn Black Friday sales are demeaning and unsafe. They represent the worst of a get-it-at-all-costs consumer mentality. Each year numerous people, customers and workers, are injured in melees that ensue when customers who’ve waited hours in the cold are unleashed to scramble for a few prized products at “door-busting” prices. Indeed, the doors busted when 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour was overrun in the Walmart store.

OSHA is proposing a more civilized way. Shame on Walmart and its supporters for caring more about their sales than the people who work and shop in their stores. How fitting the ruling against Walmart came down on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that ultimately led to OSHA’s creation to protect workers.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fantasy By the Numbers

Do you fantasize? No, I don’t mean about any longed-for sexual exploits. I mean, do you fantasize about winning a big lottery and how you would spend your newly attained wealth?

Friday night the Mega Millions jackpot hit $319 million. Saturday night’s Power Ball drawing was a comparatively paltry but still scintillating $125 million. New York State’s Lotto, also picked Saturday night, was an almost insignificant $14 million.

I’m not greedy. I’d be content if I just won Lotto.

When I remember, I usually buy tickets for each game. $1 per drawing. I cashed in my biggest winnings of the year last week, a cool $3 which I immediately reinvested in the next games.

So underconfident am I in winning the grand prize that I am happy when I see the lottery total increase after each drawing. I just assume I don’t have the winning ticket so I’m content to see the money grow. I’m disappointed when someone wins. Not really envious. Okay, a tad envious. But mostly disappointed that my fantasizing must come to an end as I await the next jumbo jackpot.

Weeks can go by without my purchasing a lottery ticket. It didn’t use to be that way. About 20 years ago, my work friends Milton and Stanley shared tickets each week. They’d invest $5 apiece and split any proceeds. I found out about their “retirement” scheme one day and demanded in. They agreed and also let Dominic join the pool. Soon, word spread through the company and before we knew it we had 20 partners. We figured we had a good chance of winning considering the diversity of our group. We had secretaries and salesmen, editors and maintenance crew. Old and young, men and women. Poor and relatively rich. A truly American tableau.

The Indian newsstand operator in the lobby of our building held our tickets. We played the same numbers each week. I was in charge of placing our bets and checking the results. When large lottery prizes were up for grabs in California, Illinois or Florida, states where we had satellite offices, we’d prevail on colleagues there to buy tickets for us. The most we ever won any week was $96, not a very favorable return on our weekly $100 investment.

How frustrating it was to read about workers in a sheet metal shop or some other plant who won and divided up millions. (How interesting that seven New York State workers from the Albany area share the winning ticket for Friday’s $319 million Mega Millions drawing. No one won Power Ball or the NY Lotto.) My partners and I languished in self-pity for about five years before disbanding our pool.

Now that I’m semi-retired I figure I more fully match the profile of many lottery winners who no longer work. Of course, there are a lot more people without jobs now than before, many of whom are victims of the recession, so their human interest stories might be more touching than mine. Still, I can dream on.

As to what I’d do with any bonanza that might come my way, you’ll just have to pray along with me to find out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Place

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. One hundred forty-six workers, almost all young Italian and Jewish seamstresses, perished after fire broke out on the eighth floor of a 10-story building near Washington Square in Manhattan. The scene of the tragedy, the Asch Building (how achingly onomatopoetic was its name), still stands. Now part of New York University, it has been renamed the Brown Building of Science.

You don’t need me to tell you the story of that fateful, horrific day a century ago and how the nation responded with a more vibrant labor movement and safety laws to protect workers. Over the last week there have been quite a few newspaper articles and TV memorials (among the best:

My brother, sister and I grew up immersed in the community of small apparel factories in the neighborhood of the Triangle along Broadway north of Houston Street. Among our earliest memories are our father’s Manhattan factories, beginning in the early 1950s with the one at 718 Broadway near 8th Street and ending almost 30 years later at 611 Broadway at the corner of Houston, with stops along the way at 683 and 692 Broadway (for reference points, 692 Broadway is the building that housed Tower Records; 611 is where Crate & Barrel has a store).

At its zenith, our father’s business of making half slips and panties, and later knit shirts, employed 60, all but two—James and Ricky—Afro-American or Puerto Rican women. He ran a non-union shop, never, to my knowledge, challenged by the ILGWU (the International Ladies Garment Workers Union). The union knew our father—and mother— ran an honest, fair firm. His workers stayed with him for decades.

Lucy. Salita. Eloise. Big Mary. I can still see them vividly in my mind, each one standing or sitting at her station. Lucy was the floor foreman. Salita affixed labels. Eloise sat at the end of the line, sewing lace to the half slips. Big Mary sat at the other end of the line stitching fronts and backs together. The factory would open around 8:30 am, the workers would leave at 4:30. Our parents would finally depart for home around 6. Little Mary would saunter in around 11:30, after sending her kids off to school, and maybe after taking a snort or two. She sat two tables down from Big Mary. She’d often take a break from her Merro sewing machine to rest her head on folded arms. I once asked my father why he tolerated her lax behavior. Because, he replied, she was the fastest sewer he had. She turned out more in the short time she worked than any of the “full-time” operators.

Operators. That’s what the women were called. The sewers got paid by piece work. The more tickets of each batch they collected the more they made each week. Our mother handled payroll. Payday was Wednesday, in cash, in small manila money envelopes, the type that opened from the top.

The factory, or as our family called it, “The Place,” was a bee hive of noise with sewing machines buzzing out bursts of stitches, tall upright industrial fans beating the stagnant air, street noises filtering in through open windows, and our father screaming to be heard above the machinery. He was always screaming, never really in anger, just screaming as part of his perpetual motion. And yet, in the late afternoon hours, when the activity started to die down, as he’d be hunched over a Merro machine trying to coax it back into life, he’d start singing a song. No song in particular, just a melody of contentment. More often than not he’d open up the old Coca-Cola machine and pass out drinks.

I have fond memories of visiting The Place. Though he offered three times my 1972 starting salary of $7,800 as a newspaper reporter to join him (equal to roughly $125,000 in today’s dollars), I couldn’t work for, not with, my father. Chalk it up to the age-old conflict between fathers and sons. Let’s leave it at that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name

I woke up in the middle of the night, turned on my iTouch to read The New York Times and was confronted with a conundrum—just how do you spell the name of the hated Libyan dictator we are so desperate to depose?

In my last blog, I spelled his name Muammar Gaddafi. But that wasn’t the way I saw it through bleary eyes in The Times. Our most trusted newspaper spelled it Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Since I’d taken my computer downstairs to do our taxes, it wasn’t closely available to immediately revise my blog. But as I sat at the keyboard Wednesday afternoon ready to conform to The Times, I thought it might be interesting to see how other journalists publish his name:

Moammar Gadhafi is preferred by The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, the web site for NPR and the German publication Der Spiegel;
Muammar Gaddafi is the choice of Newsweek, The Jerusalem Post, Time, The Financial Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, The BBC and, perhaps most critically, Al Jazeera English;
Moammar Gaddafi says The Washington Post;
Muammar al-Qaddafi is the spelling favored by the Council on Foreign Relations;
Mouammar Kadhafi, according to the French paper Le Monde.

If I thought I could get through to him I’d ask you-know-who for the correct spelling of his name. I’m sure I’d have other questions, as well. Perhaps he’d respond with a quote attributed to P.T. Barnum: “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.”

It’s Transparently Obvious: Listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on NPR as I was driving around today delivering Meals on Wheels, I realized the most overused word in government today is “transparency”

Rima Cohen, counselor to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, must have used the word half a dozen times, at least, in one answer to describe the guidelines behind the health care law celebrating its first anniversary today. If they were so transparent, why are so many people confused?

Even for those who favor universal health care coverage, it’s transparently obvious the plan must be simplified. Make it more like Medicare, but instead of being just for seniors, make it for everyone.

After the Fall: Tom Stoppard was a guest of Leonard Lopate of NPR shortly thereafter, as his play Arcadia is currently in revival on Broadway. I haven’t seen it, but I did score a front row center seat back in the summer of 1968 to his first smash hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Rosencrantz, or was it Guildenstern?, fell into my lap during the performance. They were standing near the edge of the stage apron bantering their Stoppard lines when all of a sudden Rosencrantz, or was it Guildenstern?, lost his footing and tumbled towards me. My reflexes were only 19-years-old at the time so I managed to thrust out my arms to cushion his fall, and save myself from agony. I quickly pushed him back on stage, without so much as a thank you from Rosencrantz, or was it Guildenstern?

Writer’s Block: As you might have figured out by now, I like writing. I’ll let you be the judge of my talent. Doesn’t matter what your verdict is, I’m going to continue.

Of course, I don’t get paid for this exercise, so recently I thought I might try my hand at freelancing for some local newspapers, maybe do a business article or two. One of the editors I queried said she might have some work, some short 300-word profiles of local businesses. Would I be interested, and oh, by the way, the fee is $60 per article, no mileage, non-negotiable.

$60!!! I used to pay freelancers $300 for a one-page article of about 400 words. And I thought my payouts were meager! Yikes, no wonder the average freelance writer says they make less than they did as a full-time employee. It’s a good thing I don’t need the money, otherwise I’d be really depressed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tidbits of News

Driving to Brooklyn and back to White Plains Sunday night I passed four Target stores within New York City: one off the Van Wyck Expressway near LaGuardia airport, a second on Flatbush Avenue at Atlantic Avenue, a third along the FDR Highway around 116th Street in Manhattan, and a fourth just west of the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx.

I could have driven all night within the five boroughs and not come across a single Walmart store. Unions and politicians have succeeded in keeping Walmart out of the city.

That might all change in the near future as Walmart pushes to secure smaller locations that don’t need zoning variances. In addition, a new poll by Quinnipiac University found that while nearly 7 out of 10 New York City residents feel Walmart would hurt small businesses, they’d nevertheless shop there (

Union opposition to Walmart doesn’t really make sense when you realize Target and other big box chain stores like Home Depot do not favor unions, either. And they are just as aggressive on pricing. With public sentiment starting to swing in Walmart’s favor, especially in low income areas underserved by supermarkets and large discount stores, politicians might be less inclined to thwart Walmart’s plans to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Harbinger of Spring? I don’t mean to complain. Correction. Of course I mean to complain. That’s my nature. But wasn’t yesterday the day spring arrived? Didn’t a harbinger of spring, a robin, bob along my yard Sunday? So what was all that white stuff falling from the sky Monday? By the time I got up enough energy to retrieve the newspapers from the driveway the plastic wrapping was coated in a glaze of slush. The news is bad enough without being all wet.

Who’s Next? Few people would say Muammar Gaddafi is a nice guy, the sort of head of state we find warm and cuddly. So it shouldn’t be too upsetting to hear the desire of our government is his departure as ruler of Libya.

Only problem is, we have no idea who would be the next leader, whether he (probably not going to be a she) would be more or less friendly to western values. That shouldn’t be a reason to tolerate Gaddafi’s hold on power, but it does recall one of our more serious foreign affairs miscues, our initial support of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, only to have him turn into a half-century thorn 90 miles from our Florida coastline.

No doubt many a State Department analyst is burning the midnight oil (or should be) checking up on the background of the members of the so-called Libyan democratic movement.

There’s a World Out There: If there’s any silver lining to the unrelenting tragedies and conflicts in Japan and the Middle East, it is that our news outlets have focused less on the banalities of our domestic political discourse.

Yes, we have a budget crisis, at national, state and local levels. Yes, we have oodles of conservative Republicans who think they can do better than President Obama. Yes, there’s a debate about healthcare coverage. And support for National Public Radio. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

We’re finding out there’s a whole world out there beyond our borders, a world that is important to track, understand and engage. Heck, even Sarah Palin is in the middle of a foreign tour. Let’s hope she takes lots of notes on her hand.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Amalekites Among Us

Though posted today, I was inspired to write this blog entry while attending Sabbath services yesterday, the day before the Jewish holiday of Purim which commemorates victory over Haman, an evil minister of ancient Persia who sought to annihilate the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. Haman is thought to have descended from the nomadic tribe of Amalek, a people reviled for their unprovoked attack on the vulnerable rear phalanx of the Israelites as they made their way through the desert to the promised land after the exodus from Egypt.

Each year, the Saturday before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. Congregations read a Torah portion commanding Jews to remember Amalek’s treachery: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.” (Exodus 25: 17-19)

Listening to one of our temple members expound on the need to safeguard the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society against both outside attackers and complacency from the more strong and fortunate, I couldn’t help but think we have in our country present-day Amalekites. They’re people who would turn their backs on the infirm, the uninsured, the jobless, the dispossessed, the homeless, the hungry, the needy, in short, the less fortunate. My first instinct was to label all of them Republicans. But that would be too easy, and, in truth, not inclusive enough.

Disregard for one’s fellow human knows no ideological bound. No religious border. No political persuasion.

Who has not been rightly moved by the tragic pictures from Japan, or from Haiti, or New Zealand? In an instant, the forces of nature overturned societies. Americans opened their hearts and wallets to the victims.

But why does it take a natural disaster to make us emote and care for the downtrodden, either here or abroad? How is it the citizens of the richest country on earth tolerate poverty in our midst? How is it some don’t accept it is not Christian charity to deny anyone a living wage, that it is within our depths of compassion and resources to provide sustenance and shelter for the needy? I’m not advocating a welfare state of handouts. Anyone receiving public assistance should be required to compensate the government for it by working on community projects or the like.

By virtue of luck, we were either born or emigrated here. We enjoy a standard of living married to institutional values second to none. Judeo-Christian precepts underpin our national psyche. Those precepts are imbued with concern and care for the poor and disadvantaged. They cherish learning and tolerance. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Bible knows it is not a libertarian treatise. There are codes of law that define proper personal and public behavior, by the individual and state.

Yet, while so many of our citizens espouse religious values, they fail to live by them. We have allowed our educational system to backslide. Infant mortality has risen. Some promote the right to life for the unborn but turn their backs on public support of the young once they breathe their first. Health care increasingly is reserved for the elite, and the battle is joined when proponents advance the idea of coverage for all. Driven by the pursuit of profits, corporations shut down domestic employment in favor of foreign workers, leaving individuals and communities forsaken.

Through the centuries Jews cast anyone who sought their destruction as an Amalekite. Today, an Amalekite has a more universal inhumanity. Our hope, as one biblical commentator put it, “is to blot out from the human heart the cruel Amalek spirit.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Marching for Peace and Jobs

Some people grouse at the news of wars and national debt. Some listen to old protest songs. Sixty-three-year-old Alan Gilbert decided a more public demonstration was in order.

Late last fall he turned to his wife Barbara and said the only way to solve the mounting debt and budget crisis was to end U.S. involvement in the interminable double wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would organize a march and rally in their home town of Tucson to call attention to a plan to shift the dollars we spend in Iraq and Afghanistan to more fully fund American jobs, education, health care, environmental protection and other human needs. Both wars have cost more than a trillion dollars since their inception.

There have been public protests before in Tucson over Iraq and Afghanistan, but no one had taken the initiative to organize anything for 2011. Alan assumed the role. So on the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq—Saturday, March 19—Alan will lead a march and rally from Armory Park to DeAnza Park. Thousands are expected to follow his footsteps. Twenty community organizations have signed on as sponsors. The Tucson march will be one of more than 200 planned across the country to commemorate the date.

Hardly a rabble-rouser, Alan is a military veteran. In planning the demonstration, Alan appealed to the common sense of an informed public. “Remember that the true security of our country depends on well- funded education for our children, good health care, decent paying jobs, and a healthy environment. We must insist that our government fund human needs instead of death and destruction,” he said in an e-mail soliciting support from ordinary citizens.

I hope many will heed his clarion call.

Alan’s our brother-in-law. He’s married to Gilda’s sister, Barbara.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

All Aboard the Bullet Train

Perhaps no iconic aspect of Japanese life has been more shaken by last week’s earthquake and tsunami than the nation’s reliance on a timetable-pure railroad network of local subway service and intra-city bullet trains. As precise as a fine Swiss watch, rail service epitomized the country’s dedication to fine workmanship, reliability and modernity.

During our family visit to Japan in 1991, we traveled several times on the Tokyo subway, but not during rush hour so we avoided being pushed and scrunched by huge paddles into train cars like human sardines. The rides were efficiently comfortable, though at the time we had to count stops as there were no English subtitles identifying any of the stations.

More exciting was our venture on a bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, some 300 miles, just 2 hours 30 minutes in transit. By comparison, Amtrak’s high speed Acela train traverses the 225 mile Washington to New York run in 2 hours 48 minutes.

As we were traveling on a busy national holiday, we couldn’t secure first class tickets. Second class meant we wouldn’t have reserved seats. No problem. We couldn’t imagine it would pose a challenge to seasoned New York commuters. As you can suspect, we were dearly wrong.

Our mistake was anticipating the patient Japanese waiting on line would remain calm and orderly once a train pulled next to the platform. We were about 15 people from the front of the line. As soon as the doors at either end of the cars opened bedlam ensued. We were easily pushed aside in the wild dash for seats. We didn’t even make it into the car before the doors shut in our faces. As bullet trains left for Kyoto every 15 minutes, we weren’t too worried about having our timetable messed up. Until it happened a second, and then a third time. Clearly we needed to adopt a more Japanese mentality. Or maybe we just had to show the locals how New Yorkers respond to adversity. We regrouped and planned strategy for the next train.

This time we were stationed closer to the front of the line. Gilda and I locked arms to block the entry, allowing Dan and Ellie (13 and 10, respectively, at the time) to scoot in and secure seats four seats. It worked, to a point.

We found Dan and Ellie in a verbal tug of war over two bench seats with two teenagers acting as an advance party for their family. They didn’t speak any English. We didn’t speak any Japanese. But New York sign language clearly conveyed our message that we were there first to claim the prize. It didn’t hurt our chances that I was bigger than either of the teenagers.

We settled in and waited for the inevitable arrival of their family. To say the parents were disappointed and angry with their scouts would be an understatement. The boys obviously lost face with their parents who rode atop their suitcases in the aisle the whole way to Kyoto.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rich People Scrimmage

In the labor dispute between millionaires and billionaires, otherwise known as the scrimmage between professional football players and the National Football League over who will win the right to be richer, it’s hard for some to figure out where to place one’s sympathies.

It might help to keep several points in mind:

To my knowledge, no owner has a physical limitation on how many years he or she can possess a team. Nor has any owner ever risked his livelihood every time he steps out onto the playing field. Players, on the other hand, are like Roman gladiators—sooner, more often than later, their careers on the gridiron (and earnings power) come to an ignoble end.

To my knowledge, no owner ever suffered lifelong chronic body pain from their association with football. No owner ever experienced dementia, or became suicidal, because of repeated hits to the head.

To my knowledge, no owner has ever been dropped by his team because he didn't produce a winning season.

To my knowledge, no player ever uprooted (or threatened to uproot) a team from one city because another municipality promised him the world.

To be sure, players are not saints (even if they play for New Orleans). They can be abusive. Infantile. Spoiled. Selfish. Demented. Petty. Perverted. Predatory. Stupid. Plus more negative traits than I care to list. But they are the “show.” They are the reason fans pack stadiums, gather at bars and make TV ratings soar every weekend.

Owners treat them like interchangeable parts. In many cases they are (even Tom Brady was competently replaced two years ago after he was injured), so there’s all the more reason for the players to try to squeeze out as large a pay and benefit package as they can during their careers.

In a previous blog I related my outlook is generally pro-union. I see no reason to shift that position when it comes to football.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan Through a Long Lens

The unfolding catastrophe in Japan has me thinking about our family trip there in October 1991 when Dan was 13 and Ellie 10. We turned one of my business trips into a lifelong memory, made all the more vibrant by the tragedy of recent days.

While I interviewed executives of Ito-Yokado, one of the country’s largest diversified retailers whose holdings include 7-Eleven, Gilda and the kids toured Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Disney World Japan, and other areas around Tokyo.

It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed. No doubt much has changed in Japan, but here are some reflections that are still relevant, or at least, interesting from a historical perspective:

Twenty years ago, if not still today, the sight of Western children captivated Japanese, especially Japanese children. They’d often approach dirty-blonde-haired Ellie to touch her head and giggle.

Tokyo addresses are randomly numbered—4 could be next to 160 next to 89. I can’t remember why, just that it was confusing. Only by associating a location with a distinctive landmark could you find a destination. You couldn’t rely on signs, unless you read Japanese. Shortly after our visit, English was added to some subway stop signs. Nor could you rely on taxi drivers. If you handed one a piece of paper with your destination written in Japanese, there was a strong possibility you’d still be stalemated because the driver was illiterate.

Crossing a street on foot was a challenge. With red lights stopping traffic in all directions, pedestrians crossed in traditional fashion and diagonally as well. It doesn’t sound imposing until you realize that at major intersections thousands of pedestrians crossed at the same time. Only a firm grasp on Ellie’s hand prevented her from being swept away by the surge.

Back then, only the finest restaurants or those in hotels had English menus. In most places you more or less knew what you were ordering by pointing to either a picture or a plastic representation of a prepared meal. A favorite bagged snack food, comparable to our potato chips, was dried squid. Married women and children ate a mostly fish and rice diet at home, while businessmen feasted on Western-style food for lunch and dinner, usually purchased on expense accounts equal to their salaries.

Japanese women craved more fulfillment and independence. They deferred marriage for careers and, frankly, because the men were immature. The men had four passions: sumo wrestling, playing pachinko (a vertical pinball game), reading comic books and drinking. Delaying marriage contributed to the country’s negative birth rate.

Women’s status was so stunted that even if the highest executive at a meeting was female she was still expected to serve tea to all the men. Men did not defer to women, or children, when entering an elevator. They would push Gilda, Dan and Ellie aside to scramble in first.

Japanese are prodigious smokers. Yet you rarely saw butts on the street. Instead, they crushed their discarded cigarettes in vertical ashtrays hung every few yards along the sidewalk. Their fastidiousness extended as well to graffiti. Over two weeks’ time we saw just one graffiti display, inside a lighthouse stairwell outside Osaka.

Back in 1991 Japan was a full employment economy. That meant department stores hired women to stand in front of elevators to bow to customers when the doors opened. It also meant distribution of labor at the cash register. One person rung up your purchase, another wrapped it, a third took your payment and returned any change, and a fourth handed you your purchase and bowed in appreciation. Full employment also meant no one could be laid off. Our joint-venture publishing company, for example, could not dismiss an incompetent editor. We simply moved him to a non-editorial position, such as circulation manager.

During Japan’s supercharged economic era, continuing even to today, overworking was a danger, so much so that people literally used to die in their tracks, while walking. An article in a paper at the time of our visit explained how other pedestrians would pass a stricken victim and whisper, “ ah, karoshi.” The word means “exhaustion death.” According to the Associated Press, “In the fiscal year ending in March 2010, the Japanese government found about 100 karoshi deaths (caused by a heart attack or stroke). It also ruled that 63 suicides were caused by overwork.” Last month, AP reported, Mazda was ordered by a court to pay $770,000 in damages to the parents of an employee ruled to have committed suicide over depression from being overworked.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Yogi Said It Best

It shpritzed in White Plains this Thursday morning, a prelude to this evening’s downpours expected to produce flooding in many areas. For me it will be a form of, as Yogi would say, déjà vu all over again.

Let me set the stage for you: Thursday, March 1, 2007. A full day’s rain washed away several inches of snow from our lawn. Normally, water that seeped under our house would be channeled by French drains into a basement sump. It was then pumped outside to buried pipes leading to the street. Such a system had kept the basement dry for nearly a decade. The intermittent discharge of the sump pump motor was a comforting sound throughout any storm.

Friday, March 2. 7:30 am. Gilda and I finished packing for a six-day trip to Orlando for my magazine’s annual SPECS conference that attracted some 1,200 attendees. As we waited for the limousine driver to appear, Gilda remarked she had not heard the sump pump motor in a little while. When I opened the basement door I was astounded to see four inches of water lapping against the stairs.

It turned out water in the outside pipes had frozen. Instead of water being pumped out of the basement, it was surging back in. Within a few minutes’ time of my discovery, water had risen to a foot deep. Our basement is essentially a utility and storage room. We weren’t going to lose any furniture, but in jeopardy were the oil burner, hot water tank, and lots of stuff stored down below. More critical, the water was about to overwhelm an electrical socket.

I called the fire department. Thankfully, when the water was more than two feet deep, two firemen with a portable pump came to our rescue. I wound up catching a later flight to Orlando. Gilda flew down the next day after making sure no more rain was forecast.

So why is it déjà vu all over again for me? Well, it’s a Thursday, it’s raining hard, the ground is still somewhat frozen and recovering from the snowcap that just this last week blanketed our lawn. Plus, this is the day before I would be traveling to SPECS (outside Dallas this year) if I were still publisher. I’m not going anywhere Friday, so hopefully our basement will remain dry.

It didn’t remain dry for long in March 2007. Three weeks after returning from SPECS, Gilda and I prepared to travel to Barcelona for the first World Retail Congress. The day before that trip a fresh rainstorm re-flooded the basement. This time I was prepared. With three extra sump pumps and hoses I was able to stay ahead of the tide. However, we did lose the hot water tank and lots of low-lying stuff around the basement.

We upgraded our protection system a couple of years ago: A new sump pump with emergency battery backup and new pipes buried deeper underground, pitched to prevent freezing. The pipes are connected to a storm sewer line the city extended down our cul de sac upon our request (ah, the joy of our tax dollars at work).

Of course, the upgrade did not go off without a hitch. The new piping went near our underground oil tank. The contractors discovered it was leaking, which meant EPA notification. Nothing like finding out your property is a hazardous environmental site.

It’s all cleaned up now, we’ve got a new above ground oil tank, and, hopefully, tomorrow I’ll wake up to another dry basement.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Observations While Sitting Around

Sitting Observation: A few years ago Charmin brand toilet tissue came out with a jumbo roll, so big it didn’t fit in standard-issue bathroom holders. Not to be deterred, Charmin overcame the operational problem by distributing free adaptors to extend the depth of the tissue holder. A thoughtful marketing solution.

Except, no one had the foresight to ask, what happens if we subsequently downsize our toilet tissue rolls? What happens when the adaptors are constant reminders we’re providing less product per roll but charging the same (or more)? (Indeed, at Costco the jumbo Ultra Soft roll is now just 173.2 sq. ft. long, down 7.6% from its previous real jumbo size 187.5 sq. ft. Of course, the price has gone up, 2.6%.)

It’s the type of business problem one ponders while just, er, sitting around...

Bernie Madoff has been getting lots of ink and air time lately (e.g, this profile in New York magazine: Which prompted two questions in my mind:

First, are the Feds monitoring the stock trades of Bernie’s fellow inmates?

Second, which video clip has been shown more often during the last two years—Osama bin Laden crouching while shooting a Kalashnikov rifle, or Madoff in baseball cap shoving a cameraman while walking in New York?...

Baby Blues: Mike Huckabee recently criticized Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, saying she was a poor role model because she will have a child out of wedlock. Shades of Vice President Dan Quayle attacking Murphy Brown 20 years ago (for those too young to know, or too old to remember, Murphy Brown was a fictional TV newscaster portrayed by Candace Bergen. In the TV sitcom, the unwed Murphy Brown had a baby, prompting Quayle’s admonishment).

Huckabee is entitled to his value system but wouldn't a more appropriate example of adolescent misbehavior be Bristol Palin’s baby-making fling with Levi Johnston? Bristol and Levi were high school students, with no visible sources of income (though she now is a money-machine, and dancer, thanks to our country’s warped reward system. Levi, as well, has cashed in on his notoriety). Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is 29 with a successful career forged while earning a BA degree in psychology from Harvard; her fiancé and father of her future child is a professional dancer. Not exactly the PWT model Bristol and Levi project. But then, Huckabee might be reluctant to call out the daughter of Grizzly Bear mom Sarah Palin...

Speaking of Huckabee, he's either very dumb or very sly like a fox. In erroneously saying President Obama grew up in Kenya near madrasas, Huckabee showed ignorance of his opponent.

Or, as I heard the other day, he pulled a cagey lawyer’s trick by purposely planting misinformation in his audience’s mind. He knew he'd be corrected, but just as a lawyer asks a question he knows will be objected to, Huckabee aired the false information to further the campaign to de-legitimize Obama’s presidential qualifications.

Me? I don't think Huckabee possesses such guile. I think he's just dumb and biased against anyone with a cultural background different than his Arkansasian narrow-mindedness. He can't relate to an Obama. Or Portman. Or to a Bill Clinton who went to Yale and became a Rhodes scholar. It's amazing how many Republicans want to be the leader of the most important country on earth but have almost no exposure to the rest of the world. At least Sarah Palin can see Russia from her front door...

Blow Up Debate: Or, my terrorist is better than yours. At least that’s what one must assume, given U.S. Rep. Peter King’s intention to hold hearings beginning Thursday on home-grown Islamic terrorists, despite his personal support for Irish Republican Army bombers back in the 1980s.

The GOP congressman believes the IRA was not a terrorist organization. It never attacked the U.S., as have Islamic terrorists. But anyone killed by an IRA bomb is just as dead as someone killed by an Islamic terrorist. It really is irrelevant who they were or where they were killed. Dead is dead, in any language or country.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Return from the Land of Az

Just back from the Land of Az, otherwise known as Arizonastan, the Land that Progressive Thinking Mostly Forgot.

I found it amusing one of the main roadways from Mexico, I-19, was the only route I saw with posted distance markers in kilometers, not miles. How civil of the authorities to make illegal immigrants feel right at home...

Tucson is an oasis of progressive thought in an otherwise state of repression. Over Saturday breakfast with a dozen men 50 to mid-80s, the conversation rarely veered away from their anathema of the politics of the ruling Republicans and Tea Partyers. They were embarrassed their governor had no more than a GED diploma. They were shocked their state legislators allowed guns to be carried anywhere except inside the state capitol where they might do some good...

Visiting Tombstone, “the town that wouldn’t die,” I encountered my first, and thankfully only, packing pedestrian. He had a Glock strapped tightly to his right hip. Gilda wanted to take his picture. Not knowing how receptive he’d be, I suggested it was not a good idea. She insisted. I bravely walked away from his line of vision. She shot him. He didn’t know what hit him...

A cartoonist and columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, David Fitzsimmons, captured some of the zaniness of life and politics in Arizona with his entry last Saturday. Among his dead-on missives describing state lawmakers: “Most of them think a Rhodes scholar is an asphalt expert and PBS is something that happens to the wife to ‘make her edgy.’”...

Saturday night Gilda and I had a delicious dinner with friends Steve and Judy at a trendy Tucson restaurant. Both couples live roughly two miles apart in White Plains, NY. So we traveled a combined 8,000-plus miles, each way, to break bread together. Only in America.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On This day

It's my birthday today. Please, no cards or presents. No Twitter or Facebook shout-outs. (Some of you got up earlier than I did so you already sent me birthday greetings. Thank you. It really is appreciated.) I bring up my birthday because for years I would tell people my birth date was significant because it coincided with the fall of the Alamo.

Now, however, I can relate another momentous occurrence—March 6, 1944, was the first successful daylight bombing attack on Berlin by the 8th Air Force.

The other day Gilda and I, with Gilda's sister Barbara and her husband Alan, visited the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, AZ. It's a fabulous museum, rivaling if not exceeding the new Smithsonian Air & Space Museum outside Washington, DC. What distinguishes the PASM, beyond its diversity of aircraft, are the knowledgeable and personable docents.

As we walked into Hanger #5, known as the 390th Memorial Museum, we were greeted by Richard Bushong. It was March 3. Richard told us 67 years ago to the day he was co-piloting a B-17 bomber on the first attempt by the 8th Air Force to penetrate Berlin's defenses. Bad weather scrapped the mission that day, and the next. But on March 6, the then 20-year-old Bushong and his crew of nine other airmen bombed Berlin. Eight hundred and twenty-one B-17 and B-24 bombers took off from England. Sixty-nine planes never made it back across the Channel. The 390th Bomb Group lost just one bomber while shooting down 27 German fighters.

A lanky Ohioan even at his advanced age of 87, Bushong served in the air force into 1971, flying F-4 Phantom jets in Vietnam. He retired as a colonel.

It is a remarkable experience to listen to history from someone who lived it first-hand. If you've ever seen a war movie of WWII bomber missions (films like Catch-22 or Twelve O'Clock High), you know the side gunners on the planes stood at open cutouts so their guns could swivel easily. With winds whipping by at 190-210 miles per hour, Bushong related, temperatures inside the plane plummeted to 30 to 50 degrees below zero. The crew wore electric suits under their sheepskin jackets and pants to keep from freezing. Just hearing about the cold made me shiver in the warm Arizona climate.

Aside from my birthday link to his historic exploits with the 390th Bomb Group, we share another common date, sad for him, happy for me. While laid up in hospital (a reaction to some bad food), Bushong's plane and crew were shot down. It happened December 16. That's a happy day for my family, the day Ellie was born.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Charlie Sheen Isn't the Only One Who Can Rant

Am I the only one who thinks Charlie Sheen is auditioning to be Hugh Hefner's replacement when the dirty old man passes on? All Charlie needs is a pair of black silk pajamas. He already has an ex-porn star and a model as live-in bunk mates.

I try to avoid Charlie-Sheen-all-news-all-the-time coverage, but it's hard to avoid it when every TV newscast, except CBS, has fashioned this story as the second coming of OJ Simpson coverage, albeit without the blood and gore, though Charlie reportedly has threatened violence against his ex-wife and mother of his twin boys.

Sheen's breakdown is like a train wreck. You're almost compelled to watch it unfold in front of your eyes. The other day a friend sent me a YouTube of cars crashing as they sped through red lights. I wound up watching the full video. I couldn't take my eyes away from it. Sheen's meltdown is the same. Though most everyone is counseling him to stay silent, he keeps ignoring the red lights and plows ahead with rants that make Qaddafi seem almost sane.

Cry Babies: The other day I compared the GOP to bullies. Today I think they're also cry babies. Here's why:

In their attempt to beat back opposition to the draconian measures they have proposed in state and federal budgets, Republicans argue they are merely following through on what they told the voeters they would do if elected. Since they shellacked the Democrats last November, they should be entitled to enact their campaign promises, they say. Therefore, Democrats should just get out of the way and stop whining.

Sounds like a plausible argument. Until one remembers that in 2008 Democrats won a convincing national election on a platform that included passage of universal health care. We know, of course, Republicans fought to forestall passage of health care reform and continue to battle its implementation in the courts and in Congress. So much for accepting the will of the people when it doesn't agree with their view.

Disrespect for reality and the will of the people can also be seen in continuing efforts to deny Barack Obama's legitimacy as president. Georgia has before it a proposal to challenge the native born citizenship of the president unless he produces a birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii. Without it, the proposed legislation would not allow his name to appear on Peach State ballots. Of course, Georgia is ignoring documentation already released by Hawaii affirming Obama's birth status. But the Georgia GOP keeps crying foul.

Shades of the 50's and 60's: State and local budgets are being cut to the bone with school districts across the nation suffering major funding cutbacks forcing teacher layoffs that will result in more children per classroom per teacher.

What's the big deal? Back in the 1950s, my elementary school packed 35 per classroom taught by one teacher. A private Hebrew school, our school day ran from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Gilda's high school in the 1960s, Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall, was so overcrowded it required three different shifts to accommodate its 8,000 students. That's not a typo—8,000 students. There weren't enough desks and chairs for everyone in her class, so kids sat on the floor and the radiators.

We learned. We achieved. We had good teachers, we had bad teachers. Two critical factors helped us succeed—we were motivated and supported by parents who believed education was critical to upward mobility.

Until parents accept their responsibility, teachers will unfairly be cast as the villains for low tests scores and underachieving students.