Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sense of Retailing

During my high school freshman year, our general science teacher conducted an experiment to demonstrate the link of the sense of smell to the sense of taste. He blindfolded several students and attached clips to their noses before giving them a deep orange-red liquid to drink. Not one of them could identify the mixture as tomato juice. At the same time, another group of blindfolded students without clips on their noses uniformly recognized the fluid as tomato juice.

(By the way, two other life-lessons from that general science class: To reduce the risk of botulism, never buy a dented can of any food product as even a microscopic hole can let air inside the vacuum seal; to avoid ringworm, make sure your haircutter/stylist uses a new comb straight from a sealed wrapper or one soaked in that omnipresent Barbicide blue solution.)

Getting back to your nose, no doubt you’ve experienced the displeasure of barely tasting a good meal when your nose was stuffed. And we’ve all, for sure, been seduced by the aroma of freshly baked bread, or steaming coffee, or, for those with a sweet tooth, the enticingly sinful scent of Cinnabons wafting through a mall or food court.

Whether it be aromatherapy for a more balanced and harmonious life, or fragrances sprayed throughout stores as part of their atmospherics, like lighting and music to stimulate you to spend more time inside their walls and hopefully spend money, our sense of smell is the target of savvy marketers.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about scents, imagine how you’d react to a second-hand store. You’d probably think in terms of dank, musty odors. Maybe even a little bit of death-warmed-over.

Your olfactory thoughts wouldn’t be too far off; many second-hand store operators think so, as well. That’s behind a decision by Goodwill Industries to incorporate fragrance technology into 44 stores in southeastern Wisconsin and metropolitan Chicago. “Scent is a big part of the store environment and the overall shopping experience, but creating a pleasant scent experience in thrift stores can be a bit more challenging than the norm,” Billie Torrentt, VP stores at Goodwill, said in a story posted on the Chain Store Age Website.

Hints of sweet orange and honeysuckle blended into a signature scent will romance shoppers while they browse the clothing and home goods seeking a second, or greater, chance at utility.

Express Lines: Standing sixth in line at Costco recently with just three items, I thought to myself what the person behind me voiced. “Why doesn’t Costco have an express line for customers with just a handful of products to buy?”

Though I surely sympathized and empathized with her, I couldn’t resist imparting a bit of retailing lore garnered over 30 years. In truth, stores should be catering to those with carts chock full of merchandise rather than those who buy one, two or three items. Those customers are commonly called “cherry-pickers” for their tendency to buy just items on sale while purchasing the bulk of their goods at other stores.

Of course, Costco members pay for the privilege of shopping at the clubs, so they can’t really be called cherry-pickers. But the concept is the same: ‘Tis better to treat your high volume customers royally so your coffers will swell.

Sadly, too many grocers and discount stores put more emphasis on customers with few items than on those with full shopping carts. Sadly, unless you’re among those who have but a few items to buy.

The World Is Changing: Here’s another sign the retailing world, nay, society overall, is changing—Dollar General, a chain that previously targeted few households with incomes beyond the working poor, next month will begin selling merchandise over the Internet.

A company with more than 9,500 stores in 35 states, Dollar General says households making $70,000 or more are its fastest-growing customer segment, according to Internet Retailer.

The action conveys several points about societal changes: Internet access and purchasing have become mainstream, across all income levels. In addition, the stigma of shopping in a Dollar General store is rapidly disappearing for upper middle class families, a trend bound to accelerate given the anonymity of Internet buying from the privacy of your home or office computer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Inspired by The Times

You’re perhaps tired of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene stories, but indulge me this one personal note.

Gilda, Ellie, Donny and I were traveling in upstate New York, in the area around Lake Placid, Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day, with temperatures approaching 80 degrees. Had it not been for the impending landfall of Irene, we would have stayed overnight instead of driving back down to White Plains and arriving home well before the full force of the deluge hit.

It’s a good thing we didn’t sojourn upstate. Torrential rains whacked northern communities. One of the towns we drove through on Route 73, Keene, was particularly devastated. “While the damage was widespread, (Essex) County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said Keene and Keene Valley were hit the hardest. The Keene fire station was swept away by the floodwaters,” North Country Public Radio reported.

There truly is no escaping the wrath of Mother Nature, should she ever wish to single you out for misery.

Time to Reorder: In case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m an old-fashioned type of guy. I’m not an early technology adopter. To a fault I often resist adapting my ways to new-fangled means.

Which explains why I just turned the page in my At-A-Glance weekly pocket calendar and came across the friendly reminder it’s time to reorder for 2012. My iTouch has an electronic calendar. I just find it more comforting, convenient and calculating to use an old-fashioned paper calendar to keep track of appointments and significant dates.

I’m not alone in this allegiance to past practices. Last month The NY Times ran an article, “A Paper Calendar? It’s 2011,” that lauded the now-seeming eccentricity of non electronic record keeping (

I also walk around with a notepad in my back pocket just in case the muse descends upon me and I’m inspired to write a blog. Though I readily compose at my laptop, a goodly number of blog entries are first written in longhand. This practice presents the challenge of reading my scribble, often aided by a magnifying glass to help deduce and discern my scrawls. So if something you read doesn’t make sense, my defense is that I didn’t transcribe it correctly.

Though recently I’ve taken to keeping an electronic to-do list, I find it not as fulfilling as a paper memorandum. Either way, if a task doesn’t get on one of my lists, fuggetaboutit, it won’t get done.

Roomies: I went to a commuter college, Brooklyn College, so I never had the dorm experience of living with one or two classmates (even in graduate school the “pleasure” escaped me as I lived off-campus in a studio apartment). But I was intrigued nevertheless by an Op-Ed piece in today’s NY Times suggesting the random assignment of college dorm roommates was better than allowing freshmen to choose like-minded individuals they screened through Facebook and other social media interfaces (

A sociologist and dean of social sciences at New York University, Dalton Conley asserts living with someone from a different background and culture is far more developmental than sharing a 10-foot-by-10-foot space for nine months with a clone of your beliefs and biases.

When Dan and Ellie went off to college, their roomies could not have been more different than them.

Though Dan’s best friend also was going to Tufts, they chose to accept the university’s pairings. Dan was into sports, both as a participant and a fan. He was really into The Simpsons. His roommate was Chinese, from a family that ran a restaurant in a nearby town. He’d go home weekends to help out. His physical activity consisted of drawing a bow across a violin. He’d never heard of The Simpsons. Indeed, he never watched TV.

By the end of freshman year, Dan’s roommate still played violin, still went home every weekend, but had become a Simpsons’ convert. Dan, meanwhile, had not adopted any of his mannerisms. Dan resolved to room with best friend, Eric, for the rest of college and beyond.

At Skidmore, Ellie got paired with the daughter of a minister of an independent denomination. She was not a shining disciple of his ministry. She left school before the academic year concluded. From sophomore through senior year, Ellie chose her own roomies.

Ecstasy Above: Two weeks ago Gilda and I returned for a second walk of the High Line, now that the northern part of the elevated urban park on the west side of Manhattan has opened for people gazing and perambulating. The High Line, for those not familiar with it, used to be a railroad spur along the city’s lower industrial corridor running from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. Abandoned for many years, it has been transformed into an aerie filled with wild flowers, benches, fountains, and bonhomie heard in the many languages that inhabit New York City.

It is hard not to smile when on the High Line. Just as hard when just thinking about it. Since its opening a year ago, it’s become a quintessential New York experience. In case you missed it, here’s a reflection on it from Sunday’s NY Times Style section:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Modern Orthodoxy

After the 2012 election, orthodoxy, actually the lack of orthodoxy, will prevent Democrats from either enacting or stopping Republicans from trying to repeal progressive legislation.

As the last two years have shown, who is president can have little effect on passage or repeal of laws (with the notable exception of presidential signing statements or executive orders that often circumvent the legislative process).

A successful legislative agenda is determined by a handful of elected officials, usually senators who can freeze government action through whim or conviction. While for centuries much of the world, civilized and not, went to war over real or imagined slights to kings, tribal chiefs or their emissaries, American democracy shielded us from these petty but mortal combustions. We are now engaged, however, in the political equivalent of a bloody battle for control of the state wherein one side gives no quarter and the other must fend off defections to a united front.

With the near total disappearance of a moderate wing of the Republican party, we have on one side of the battlefield an army of representatives rigid in their orthodoxy to an ideology demanding lower taxes, less government, fewer safety net provisions, and more freedom to act as one pleases unless those actions conflict with religious, mostly fundamentalist Christian, beliefs. In other words, no abortions, no same sex marriages, no gay rights, more Creationism classes.

Democrats, on the other hand, are splintered. Some resist abortion rights. Some favor gun rights. Some battle immigration reform. Some question universal health care. Unlike the GOP, Democratic leaders command little party discipline.

Which brings me back to my starting point. Republicans practice orthodox politics. You’re either a hard line conservative (becoming harder every day) or you’d better find a new line of work. They have shown a willingness to shut down the government, or at least limit its effectiveness by holding up key confirmations or stripping necessary funding from departments in disfavor. It takes just one senator, often done anonymously, to derail legislation or scuttle a presidential appointment.

And when legislation does get discussed in the Senate, it takes a super-majority of 60 to end debate, not a simple majority.

All this means that barring an unexpected Democratic tsunami victory in 2012, the Dems will be hard-pressed to advance their agenda in 2013 and beyond. Even when they had a super-majority in 2009-2010 the lack of orthodoxy revealed how disjointed Democrats are, how even one of their own could challenge party leadership and the president.

If Republicans gain control of the Senate, but not a super-majority, they won’t be as powerless because there always seem to be a few Democrats willing to cozy up to the GOP in the hope of notching a conservative record that could be defended back home come the next election.

Politics used to be known as the art of compromise. Now it is strict orthodoxy to dogma, no matter how damaging it might be to the welfare of the nation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shaken, Not Stirred

I didn’t feel a thing.

Just minutes after I entered the theater in Greenburgh at 1:49 pm for the free Tuesday movie, an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale made its way up the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia passed Westchester on its way to Boston and beyond. No one in the theater twitched a muscle.

I didn’t know what hit me, or rather what I missed, until Ellie called a few minutes later. Then my sister-in-law Annette chimed in from Maryland to say they were all right. Then Dan called from Boston. Good thing I keep my phone on vibrate or I would have annoyed my fellow viewers, one of whom fell asleep and was snoring next to me (that’s what happens when the audience is mostly senior citizens and the movie, The Guard, has lots of heavy Irish accents).

I asked Ellie if the quake had damaged any of the exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To her knowledge it hadn’t.

Amid first reports that some thought the earthquake was another terrorist attack, I couldn’t help but wonder if people thought back to another pristine day 10 years ago...

Service With a Smile: Southwest Airlines has a reputation for cheeky, funny customer service. Among its hall of fame pranks is hiding a flight steward in an overhead luggage bin for an unsuspecting passenger to discover.

Clearview Cinemas is on a customer service campaign. Before every feature, one of the staff greets seated patrons, advising if any assistance is required one merely has to seek out an associate.

Today’s staffer clearly has a future in true customer service. With refreshing honesty he admonished all, tongue firmly stuck in his cheek, not to bring any problems to his attention because he just doesn’t care.

I’m walking around naked. Now, before you get disgusted, or excited, let me assure you I’m not ambulating sans clothing. My nakedness is restricted to my ring fingers which are sadly unadorned for the first time in more than 28 years as I had to take off my wedding bands (that’s plural) because of a skin affliction.

For the first 10 years of our marriage I didn’t wear a wedding ring as the one Gilda and I picked out from my aunt and uncle’s jewelry store was too tight. Since it has a gold braid around it, my Aunt Vicki cautioned trying to stretch it might snap the braid. During one of my trips to Los Angeles 10 years into our marriage, I decided it was worth the gamble. I handed the ring over to Uncle Harry and told him of Aunt Vicki’s fears. He scoffed at the suggestion, stepped away for a few minutes and returned with the ring I have worn continuously day and night, in the shower, in the pool, while asleep or playing sports, for the last 28 years. Thirteen years ago, to commemorate our 25th anniversary, I bought a silver ring at the Camden Town open air market in London.

My hands feels naked. They look naked. I sure hope this skin condition clears up soon.

Follow the Link: The other day I wrote how difficult it is to edit your own copy. It’s unsettling when a computer does it for you, and I’m not talking about spellcheck.

Sunday night a one line note I was sending to a friend included the following: “see the attached file.” Only thing is, I had inserted a link to a Web site instead of attaching a file, a matter of no import to me, but to my computer it was a major transgression. As soon as I hit the Send button, up popped a window admonishing me I had not included an attachment! Did I want to send the email anyway?

Zounds! We live in a truly extraordinary, scary and infuriating age when machines have the capacity to challenge your every move.

I sent the note as written. Another victory for man vs. machine.

Speaking of attachments, I call again on the NY Yankees to sever their link to A.J. Burnett. This past weekend displayed in microcosm the reality facing the boys from the Bronx. Against the Minnesota Twins, a struggling ball club this year, Phil Hughes pitched a two-hitter, Ivan Nova pitched seven shutout innings and Burnett imploded after less than two innings, being debited for giving up seven earned runs! What’s he going to do against a team that hits well?

Don’t read anything into manager Joe Girardi’s strong defense of Burnett’s inept pitching and rude behavior when taken out of the game Saturday. Girardi did what any good executive is supposed to do. Publicly he stood by his man. Privately he must be seething.

Once Freddy Garcia returns from the disabled list and the Yankees no longer need a sixth starter, the only common sense solution is to remove Burnett from the pitching rotation and even give him his walking papers. Yes, it will cost them money, but keeping Burnett could jeopardize their chances of making the post-season. Burnett is a cancer on the team, depleting the relief corps in games he pitches and subsequent contests, plus he puts more pressure on everyone in the field and at bat to be perfect to make up for his imperfections.

Zipping Along: If it happens once it happens several times each day, almost every time I proffer a credit card. The clerk or the machine asks for my ZIP code. It’s a low-tech security control, as if someone who stole my card wouldn’t be able to discover my ZIP code. Some might tell you it’s a marketing tool for the retailer, but the truth is once your card is swiped your address and a whole lot more become bytes in the merchant’s data base.

In California, the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled asking for a Zip code is a violation of state consumer privacy statutes. Retailers who persist in asking for Zip codes could face civil penalties of up to $1,000 per request.

The restriction, for now, applies only in California, but the Golden State often is a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dollar Daze, Made in China

Dollar Daze: Perhaps you saw the article in today’s NY Times magazine section, “The Buck Shops Here.”A well-written piece, the basic premise was more middle class and even affluent people buy goods at dollar stores, examples of which it noted were Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree, each with thousands of links in their chains (

They may all have the word “dollar” in their names, but only Dollar Tree is a true dollar emporium, a store that prices everything at a dollar or less. Dollar General and Family Dollar long ago abandoned any pretense they sell stuff for 100 pennies. Dollar General and Family Dollar, along with other companies such as Big Lots and National Wholesale Liquidators, are part of the extreme-value retailing segment of the industry catering to those who increasingly live paycheck to paycheck, or government assistance check to government assistance check.

Most Dollar General and Family Dollar stores blossomed in the southeast, though they’ve now sprouted up in more than half of the country, usually in small towns where rents are low and the needy are many. About 30 years ago I sent one of my writers to a Family Dollar store in Kentucky to outfit himself with clothing from head to toe, inside and outside, for less than $10. He easily fulfilled his assignment. It would be harder today, given the higher prices Family Dollar now charges.

But the strategy remains the same—provide basic affordable goods in small, low-rent, off-the-beaten-track stores customers can get into and out of in a hurry. The dollar and extreme-value stores are one reason Wal-Mart has not done as well lately. Customers view them as easier, less expensive outlets to shop.

If you do visit one of those stores, keep in mind you must check a package’s volume. That $1 bottle of shampoo might actually not be such a bargain. These stores are not above having suppliers put 8 ounces of product inside what appears to be a standard 11 oz. bottle. Check the label. Caveat Emptor!

Made in China: Here’s another retailing story that didn’t sit right with me. A recent Los Angeles Times article, citing a federal study, provided what I thought was a misleading impression (,0,2746654.story).

No doubt you’ve looked at the country of origin of products you’ve bought and came to the conclusion everything was “made in China.” According to the government study, in the words of the LA Times, you’d have “Sticker shock: ‘Made in China’ ranks only 2.7% of U.S. spending.”

How could that be? Simple, if you include all services, groceries and gasoline purchased by Americans, none of which come from China. The economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve say in 2010 about 88.5% of U.S. spending was on American-made products and services. Services, such as dry cleaners or plumbers or auto repair shops, are the key to this analysis, since services make up two-thirds of all spending.

Hard to argue with those facts, but easy to dissent from the intended conclusion. Of course services, groceries and gasoline are not Chinese imports. Duh!

A better study might have been, what percent of the remaining 11.5% of consumer spending came from China. Perhaps my math is wrong, but my calculation (2.7% of 11.5%) puts that at 23.5%, meaning roughly one out of every four consumer products bought in the United States was made in China. According to the LA Times, 12% of all durable goods (furniture, appliances, automobiles) purchased here last year were produced in China. In other categories, such as toys and apparel, the percentage would be even greater, I believe. I'm also quite sure you'd find a high percentage of made in China goods in dollar stores and other extreme-value retailers.

Bottom line—we’re awash in Chinese goods and the tide is rising. Until more American firms choose to manufacture domestically rather than in the cheaper labor markets of China and other developing countries, we’ll continue to be plagued by high unemployment, a generation or more of skilled workers not able to find new, comparable jobs lost to overseas production, a growing trade imbalance, and our national status as a producer country will be imperiled.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Little Elephants and a Little More Baseball

In the reporting business, you’re only as good as your editor.

Case in point: Last Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll in Ames revealed a practice all too common in journalism, namely, writing a story before it happened, leaving space, or more accurately XXXs, where names or numbers are to be filled in after the event actually transpires.

The initial Associated Press article transmitted across the wire to news outlets contained the following paragraphs:

“Saturday’s outcome suggests that XXX has a certain level of support and, perhaps even more important, the strongest get-out-the-vote operation and widest volunteer base in a state whose caucuses require those elements.”[...]

“Despite Perry’s best efforts to overshadow the day, the epicenter of the presidential contest was in this Midwestern town, where XXXX Iowans cast ballots during a daylong political festival, a late-summer ritual held every four years.”

Obviously someone was asleep at the copy desk when the first draft sailed through. It reminded me of an incident in Shelton, Conn., back in the early 1970s when a colleague at the New Haven Register covered one of the city’s political meetings.

Shelton’s Republican Party had a boisterous offshoot known as the Little Elephants Republican Club. He attended one of its contentious night meetings and included a quote from its leader in a story transmitted by Scan-a-Tron machine from our Ansonia bureau to the copy desk in New Haven. The quote did not make any sense to the reporter, but it was colorful and conveyed the political sophistication, or lack thereof, of the speaker.

To be on the safe side, the reporter chose to alert the night editor to the wackiness of the remark by adding the following in parenthesis after the quote: “I don’t know what the f*** it means, but that’s what he said.” (For the record, he did not use f***, preferring the common spelling of the expletive.)

No doubt you’ve guessed what happened. The night editor never saw the parenthetical note, until it was in print. Like I said, you’re only as good as your editor.

P.S. This being a one-person operation, I edit my own writing. Not the best arrangement for error-free copy, but considering what you're all paying for these missives, you're getting a real steal.

Unhappy Birthday: Jorge Posada did not take my advice and retire after his gonzo day Saturday when he batted in six runs highlighted by a grand slam home run.

For an encore, against the Kansas City Royals last night, Posada came to bat in the ninth inning with the bases loaded, two outs, the Yankees trailing by one run. The karma was positively electric. It was, after all, the night of Posada’s fortieth birthday, an opportunity to demonstratively show the world he is on the sunnier, not the darker, side of 40.

Without taking the bat off his shoulder—shades of Carlos Beltran (sorry, couldn’t resist, Mets fans)—Posada ended the game by striking out looking.

Baseball and Felafel? "Baseball and Ballantine" was a memorable slogan of my childhood allegiance to the NY Yankees. Knowing my interest in baseball, my friend Milton sent along links to Israel’s participation in the European Championship tournament. The articles featured the exploits of his cousin Shlomo, a 32-year-old Israeli who currently lives in New York but traveled back to his native land for the just concluded regional playoffs.

Those interested in the development of baseball in Israel may find the articles entertaining:

First article:

Last game:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Do Nothing Congress II

The parallels to events of our time are eerily similar.

In the third and fourth years of a Democrat’s initial term as president of the United States, a Republican-controlled Congress repeatedly and stubbornly undermined his agenda. The GOP favored pro-business bills. The president advocated for civil rights, more unemployment compensation, universal health care. As the election campaign heated up, the president wound up maligning the Congress for thwarting his proposals as much as he ran against his opponent.

That 1948 campaign is perhaps best known for the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” Chicago Daily Tribune headline mockingly raised up for the cameras by the real winner, President Harry S. Truman. But to election buffs, Truman’s labeling of the legislature as the “Do Nothing Congress” is perhaps a more telling perspective on how events will unfold in the 15 months before the 2012 elections.

To secure a second term, to secure the type of support required for his progressive plans, Barack Obama will have to champion not only his credentials but he also will have to convince voters of their need for a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. One without the other will result in continued stalemate at the federal level. Truman’s Do Nothing Congress attack worked. It can work again, but only if Obama vigorously stumps for Democrats across the land.

Unless he’s a very good actor, Obama does not have the same feistiness Truman possessed. He does have a temper, but he’s cool, too cool, in public. After nearly three years in office, after three years of trying to portray a presidential-above-the-fray demeanor, Obama has left too many of his supporters wondering about his commitment to Democratic, progressive principles. Plus, they wonder how good a poker player he is (Truman, fyi, loved playing poker), considering his failed attempts to roll back the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and the lack of any revenue enhancement provisions in the recent debt ceiling deal. When your opponent (John Boehner) boasts he got 98% of what he wanted, it’s hard to find backers for a stake in the game.

Yet that is what Obama must do. He must re-invigorate the coalition of voters who elected him in 2008. He must campaign in lock-step with congressional candidates. He must convince the disenchanted that sitting out the election, abstaining, is not really an opt-out choice. Not voting for the lesser of two evils, or as a protest against his performance, is, in fact, support for the worst candidate. People in opposition usually are more passionate than those content with the status quo, so they’ll turn out to the polls in droves.

Obama and the Democrats also have to contend with the misguided suggestion by Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz for a boycott of campaign contributions to all incumbents until they act more responsibly and compromise their rigid positions. Was he not listening to Boehner’s remarks? Did he not hear or read how Democrats caved so a debt ceiling deal could be reached? Withholding funds from Democratic incumbents would only exacerbate Washington’s problems, unless Schultz seeks a Republican/Tea Party mandate, a result seemingly incompatible to his previous socially progressive positions.

Obama must define for those on the fence what a Republican/Tea Party win would mean: a more conservative-leaning Supreme Court; an anti-labor, anti-working class White House and Congress; less enforcement of civil rights; attacks on the separation of church and state; tax policies more favorable to the wealthy; fewer consumer protections; less environmental regulation; weakened food and product safety laws; less emphasis on education and the introduction of questionable science; restrictions on medical research; elimination of universal health care. The list could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Yankee Decision Time

Barring a physical setback, Alex Rodriguez probably will return to the NY Yankees’ active 25-man roster this week. Aside from giving the Bronx Bombers a hoped-for power surge, A-Rod’s return will give the team a major migraine as it tries to figure out a new batting order and, more sensitively, who will be demoted to make room for the slugger.

The decisions could mean the immediate end of 39-year-old Jorge Posada’s career as a Yankee, even after his career-day Saturday when he hit a grand slam and knocked in a total of six runs. Or the team could finagle the roster to reward Posada for his 16 years of service by keeping him active and sending down to the minors, or to the 15-day disabled list, a pitcher until baseball rosters can be expanded to 40 on September 1. Either way, based on his .237 batting average this year, which follows a .248 mark a year ago, it seems all but certain this is Jorge’s last year as a player in Yankee pinstripes.

Without Rodriguez in the lineup the Yanks have fared well. Their revamped batting order featuring Curtis Granderson in the three hole, followed by Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, has proven quite potent. With A-Rod expected to return to the cleanup spot, the question becomes, where to put Granderson who is having an MVP-type year. He is tied for the major league lead in home runs, is first in runs scored and is second in runs batted in. He has shown he can hit lefties this season, thus negating a reason to have the switch-hitting Teixeira bat third.

Earlier this year manager Joe Girardi had to contend with questions about Derek Jeter’s spot in the batting order. Lucky for him (and the team), Jeter emerged from his funk when he returned from the DL, so leading off or batting second behind Brett Gardner is not a question anymore for the team captain.

Girardi has to deal with sensitive egos. In my mind he has two options. First, assuming he can talk A-Rod into it, he should bat him sixth against right-handed pitchers until he has proven his swing is back. Once that happens, Rodriguez and Teixeira should flip-flop. In other words, the batting order at the outset against righties should be: Gardner, Jeter, Granderson, Teixeira, Cano, Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, Russell Martin. (Against lefties it would always be Jeter, Granderson, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Cano, Swisher, Martin, Eduardo Nunez or Andruw Jones, Gardner.)

That’s the easy part of the A-Rod is back equation. Who gets jettisoned is much harder. I have a soft spot for Posada. I know baseball is a what-have-you-done-lately-for-me business. For the season, Posada has been mostly missing in action. But I’m not ready to discard one-third of the remaining core three players from the last five Yankee championships. Girardi stuck with Jeter during the first half and he’s supporting Mariano Rivera during his recent hiccups. My heart wants the Yanks not to disrespect Posada by releasing him.

That leaves a pitching reduction as the more probable option. I’m already on record as wanting to get rid of A.J. Burnett, but that’s not happening, unless they can convince him to go on the DL. As much as I have no confidence in him, Burnett is insurance should one of the other starting pitchers suffer a physical setback, as Freddy Garcia just did by cutting a finger and being unable to pitch his next start. Most probably management will return Hector Noesi to the minors until the September call-up. That could mean Hughes pitches out of the bullpen, reprising the Joba Chamberlain he’s-a-reliever-no-he’s-a-starter-no-he’s-a-reliever scenario that benefited no one. It’s not optimal, but it’s only a short-term assignment.

Yogi Berra once said, "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical." Now that the Yanks are more physically fit with A-Rod’s pending return, their season will depend on how well they handle the mental part of the game.

There is one other option in the Posada predicament. A proud man, he could decide there’s no better way to end his Yankee career than with Saturday’s mega-day. After reliving it in his mind for more than 36 hours, he could choose to retire in dignity rather than the ignominy that surely will be attached to the rest of this season should he continue to play, or more probably, sit most days on the bench. Why not go out on top of the world, just like Ted Williams did by smashing a home run in his last time up?

Sure, Posada’s bat probably has more hits left in it. But it has far too many outs as well. Let Yankee fans remember the Posada of Saturday when they gave him a standing ovation curtain call following his bases-clearing blast. Let him announce his retirement prior to tonight’s game. It will show him to be the ultimate team player. In return, the Yankees could show their class by immediately naming him a coach for the rest of the season.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mythbusters Edition

Davy Crockett, Illegal Immigrant? Disney’s “king of the wild frontier,” who preferred to be called David Crockett, and who, in the words of new biographer Chris Wallis, was “the lion of the west,” actually was an illegal immigrant to Texas who wound up at the Alamo not by choice but through assignment by those fomenting rebellion against Mexico, the rightful owner of Texas.

Speaking on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Thursday night (, Wallis punctured some long-held myths about the folk hero. He was, for example, born in the State of Franklin, not Tennessee. At one time Franklin hoped to become a state of the Union, but was later absorbed mostly into eastern Tennessee.

Crockett was a not above self-promotion, even attending a play about his exploits. An Indian fighter, he served two terms in the U.S. Congress, only to be swept out of office after he broke with President Andrew Jackson for the latter’s treatment of the Cherokee Nation and their forced removal from Tennessee land granted them by treaty.

While the Cherokee were moved to Oklahoma, Crockett made his way down to Texas where American settlers sought to build plantations worked by slaves in a land where slavery was outlawed by Mexico. To be part of this illegal migration, Crockett had to join the local militia and was assigned to the mission in San Antonio where he died at the age of 49.

The American Dream: “Nobody understands the American dream today better than an Indian, a Chinese or a Mexican,” said Anthony Bourdain on last week’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

The chef and host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations said there’s a “failure of will” in our society today, “we’ve become a lazy and entitled population.” He said in 20 years of running a kitchen he never once had an American-born kid ask him for a job as a dishwasher, cleanup person or even an entry-level prep cook.

“There’s a whole strata of jobs Americans don’t want, frankly haven’t wanted for a while, don’t think they should do and think they’re too good for,” said Bourdain.

His thoughts were echoed by Stephen K. Bannon, a Tea Party activist and filmmaker of the Sarah Palin bio-pic The Undefeated. Young Americans, he said, are competing with the upwardly mobile in China and India, (metaphorically) “their parents and grandparents.”

Corporation Are People: In defending his no new taxes position while in Iowa Thursday, Mitt Romney said corporations are people, too, as their profits go to shareholders and employees.

You can’t argue with that reasoning, but it does make one wonder if we should stop and do a quick asset check on anyone we might consider friending. You wouldn’t, for example, want to be BFF with someone responsible for, say, the housing debacle of the last few years. So ignore anyone who worked for Countrywide or any other mortgage lender. While you’re at it, strike off your friendship list anyone who works for Standard & Poors, Fitch or Moody’s, as those companies gave high ratings to all those mortgage-backed securities that got us all in trouble with our investments.

Don’t like paying high gas and oil prices? Then cross off anyone from any energy company. Angry at rising food costs? Look again at your LinkedIn and Facebook contacts and delete those who work for agri-businesses or any the processed food makers.

Under Romney’s rules, the rich and powerful, and that includes corporations, shouldn’t be taxed more. It won’t matter to them that you’ve dropped them from your social circle. They’ll be quite content to mingle with their own behind the gated walls of their communities that keep the rest of the world, like us, away from them.

You Read It First: While the rest of the world waited until Thursday to read a front-page NY Times article on a European test that charges drivers based on the miles they travel (, No Socks Needed Anymore readers were treated to my pay-as-you-go formula four days earlier (

My idea incorporated passenger fees as well, including fares for fetuses (applicable only to right-to-life supporters).

It’s reassuring to know even in retirement I’ve not lost my ability to be on top of the news.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sugar Daddies, Trust in God, The Summer Camp Experience

Sugar Daddies: Or perhaps I should have titled this segment Sugar Babies. Either way, we’re dealing with the same phenomenon, albeit in different cultures.

Seems young women in America and China are turning to the oldest profession in the world after finding careers in modern walks of life not forthcoming. Recent articles portray college coeds and graduates as independent contractors plying the sex trade for profit.

In the case of U.S. practitioners (let’s not call them prostitutes for now), the thrust of this new-found interest is to find someone(s) to pay off their mounting college tuition bills (

In China, a land of increasingly stiff competition to supplant the U.S. as the world’s dominant economic power, young nubile women are status symbols sought by the wealthy and powerful, not all of whom are eligible bachelors. Indeed, having a mistress is the modern day version of keeping a concubine (

It’s hard not to smile when reading these stories, though I must admit they portray rather discouraging states of the mores and fiscal conditions of the two largest economies in the world.

In God We Trust? Not so fast. Though our paper money extols trust in the Almighty, a survey by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina, a Democratic-leaning firm, found barely half of all Americans believe God is doing a good job.

As reported on Wednesday’s The Colbert Report, in response to the question, “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of God’s performance,” just 52% of the 928 Americans polled in mid July answered in the affirmative. Nine percent disapproved, while 40% were “not sure” (those numbers add up to 101%, but don’t worry—some angel must have been sitting on the head of a poll taker’s pen causing the lapse in math).

Hard to say why God was having almost as much trouble as President Obama, whose approval ratings in another recent PPP survey hit just 46%. But Stephen Colbert had as logical a reason as any for God’s less than inspiring numbers: “The public is always tough on a prominent figure who had a child out of wedlock.”

Jewish Indians? I am familiar with Iroquois Indians. I am familiar with Camp Ramah, a chain of Jewish overnight and day camps throughout the United States, Canada and Israel. But I was caught off guard by a mini-bus scurrying around Yonkers the other day sporting the Camp Ramaquois name tag. Had I run across proof the 10 lost tribes of Israel had evolved into Native Americans? (That gag is one of the funnier bits of dialogue in the now classic western Cat Ballou.) Was Camp Ramaquois melding Jewish and Native American heritages?

Anyway, I googled Camp Ramaquois and found it to be a day camp in Pomona, NY. From everything I saw on the Web site, it appears to be a wonderful place to spend a summer. But it surely was not the type of summer camping experience I had. Nor did it reflect positively, in my mind, on the toughness of our youth to endure a summer in the great outdoors.

Now, Gilda would tell you the sleepaway camps I attended for 15 years were cushy. After all, their bunks had indoor plumbing and we barely ever hiked or camped out in the woods. She’d go positively bonkers if she knew the conveniences today’s campers enjoy at Ramaquois, as described by its Web site (italics added for emphasis):

* Over 50 fixed buildings, including air-conditioned facilities such as the gymnasium, movie theater, work shops, craft areas, computer lab and dining room;
* Spring-fed, natural five acre lake encompassing 2 "bongo" water trampolines, bumper boats, water bikes, paddle boards, inner tubes, "water-duckies", fountain sprays, kayaks and a professional team of lifeguards;
* 9 softball fields, 6 tennis courts, 3 basketball courts, 2 hockey rinks, 1 indoor and 3 grass volleyball courts, 3 soccer fields, 2 wiffle ball courts, 2 Bonzo Ball walls, 2 Ga-Ga courts and 6 pickle ball courts;
* 8 pools, all with a water temperature of 84 degrees;
* Air-conditioned health center with five registered nurses and an EMT;
* Separate Junior Camp facilities including air-conditioned bunks, climbing wall and challenge course and hockey rink:
* A state-of-the-art archery range;
* Athletics Pavilion and gymnastics equipment including pommel horses, uneven bars and a tumble track;
* Vertical reality climbing tower and element park;
* Zip line over Rama Lake;
* Nature science center, including a petting zoo and fishing dock;
* Water Works spray park.

I don’t know about you, but I totally want to go there! A/C in the bunks and dining room! 84 degrees in the pool! Sign me up. I might even learn to swim there!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Economic Futures

Twice in the last week friends asked me if I were optimistic about the economy. Do they think my degree in economics and a career as a business journalist qualifies me to know more than, say, the pinheads at Standard & Poors who made a $2 trillion mistake when calculating their assessment of the credit worthiness of the United States? Do they think I know more than the complicit bean counters at S&P who valued Lehman Bros. AAA worthy even as it imploded and who gave favorable reviews to toxic mortgage-backed securities at the heart of the financial freefall of the last few years?

I’d like to say I responded with a positive take on the economy. But I would be as guilty as those fabricators at S&P who have done more to ruin our economy than a dozen Bernie Madoffs could. Yet even in their obfuscations there is a kernel of truth—there is little to be confident about the will or power of our elected officials to bring a sane, rational approach to a resolution of our financial crisis.

I’m perplexed about several parts of this unfolding story.

First, does S&P believe we need a balanced approach to setting a national budget? Does it believe only more program cuts are required, or are higher taxes on the rich and closing corporate and personal loopholes necessary as well?

Second, several interviews portrayed ordinary citizens understandably lamenting the debt ceiling deal. But in the same breadth they said they wouldn’t favor higher taxes, as desired by President Obama and the Democratic leadership. Do they not understand taxes would have gone up just for those households making more than $250,000? Have Republicans so brainwashed the common folk they believe their taxes would go up?

Third, given we live in a global economy where it is generally cheaper to manufacture in Third World countries than here in America, how long will it take for our citizenry to comprehend we are not going back to the time when the United States was the foundry of the universe. Think of most consumer products, from iPhones to digital cameras, from Christian Louboutin shoes to Nike cross trainers—they’re not made in America. During the last century we shifted from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy. Now we’re a service and information economy. Yes, there are remnants of our production prowess. But most new jobs will require the ability to say “would you like fries with that” or will rely on one’s skill to create platforms that aggregate consumers into marketable segments (at least those who retain enough money to spend on discretionary items). Or you will need to be part of the financial community that doesn’t produce an ounce of goods but earns dollars by the pound based on an ability to jimmy-up trades and market fluctuations (case in point: oil speculators with no tangible assets in the energy business who have driven up the price of gasoline and home heating oil).

Fourth, if Republicans are interested in putting Americans back to work, why don’t they push for legislation to benefit companies that hire more U.S. workers and tax those that outsource jobs?

Fifth, how can anyone see value in a bifurcated society? It wasn’t good when we discriminated based on color, or ethnicity, or sex. Yet our leaders are letting us devolve into a nation of haves and have-nots. Riots like in London, as well as the Arab Spring revolts, are demonstrations of the hopeless and destitute seeking relief against the accumulation of wealth in an elite. Verizon land-line workers are on strike. Even if you believe the company that the average Verizon workers makes $150,000 in salary and benefits, it is 120 times less than the $18.1 million compensation of the company’s CEO last year. It’s an obscene differential. Ivan Seidenberg makes $50,000 a day, every day of the year. Is his three-day compensation equal to an average worker’s full year? It’s not as if he invented a new form of communication, or discovered the cure for cancer, or helped solve world hunger. His job is to run a profitable company, even if it means squeezing his employees to pay more for health care coverage and their retirement plans. I’m not advocating wealth redistribution, but there really should be a limit on corporate compensation.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


With the debt ceiling crisis behind us, at least for now, perhaps it is time to consider a really radical idea to set the nation’s budget—pay-as-you-go government. You’d be taxed (sorry, I couldn’t avoid the word) only for those programs you want or use.

For sure there would have to be some universally subsidized programs. Everyone would have to pay for national defense. But only so far as our national borders go. Any troops sent overseas would be paid for just by those willing to shell out for shells on the front lines of our war on terror.

You might think the Federal Highway System is another universal program, but you’d be only partially right. Since so much of our food is trucked on our interstate highways, you’d have to pay your fair share for their upkeep. Perhaps those in the Government Accounting Office can come up with a more equitable plan, but for now I would assess people based on their weight. For those hefty souls who would pay more than us skinny folks there’s added incentive to lose those pounds.

The rest of the cost of building and maintaining roads would come from fees based on usage. All vehicles would be equipped with E-Z Pass-type tags to monitor road use and charge accordingly. Since not everyone has a vehicle, small chips would be implanted under our skins to process passengers—even babies— who otherwise would be freeloading rides (to prevent scofflaws from purposely and knowingly covering their chips as they pass through sensors, chips would be randomly implanted in our bodies. You’d pay a premium to have this done while under anesthesia. Right-to-lifers would agree to have chips implanted in their fetuses).

If you haven’t been mugged lately, not had a fire in your home, or didn’t need emergency medical care, perhaps you’d be willing to cut back on these essential services. No problem. Your ID would be on record so police, fire and EMT personnel would know there’s no rush should you ever call.

If you’re a couch potato with no intention of ever visiting a national park, maybe you’d prefer to skip a tax to upkeep Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, the Everglades, and the Statue of Liberty, et al. Of course, you couldn’t deduct the full cost of the Parks Department as you do derive some benefit from trees that regenerate the air we all breathe. I’m sure scientists can compute how much new oxygen is placed back in the atmosphere by public trees. From there it’s simple arithmetic to figure out each person’s share.

Maybe you’d like to stop funding stem cell research? Okay, but be prepared to forgo any benefits or treatments for yourself and three generations of your immediate family that may result from scientific breakthroughs.

Not happy with Medicare? Opt out. Just be sure you’ve socked away enough money to pay for medical bills in your old age.

Perhaps you think social security is a socialist scheme? Drop out, but don’t expect the government to support you in retirement.

Government is just too involved in people’s lives, in telling business how to run companies, some believe. Who needs OSHA if you don’t work in a mine or a chemical treatment or meat processing plant, or a data processing center where repetitive motions result in carpal tunnel syndrome? Big Business wouldn’t hurt its workers, would it?

Do we really need a Product Safety Commission looking over every manufacturer’s shoulders? What’s a few baby heads stuck between slats of a crib in a nation of 300-million, anyway? Do we really believe suppliers would harm their customers, just to earn a few more dollars of profit?

With some old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity we can devise a federalist system that goes beyond returning power to the states. It will give power back to the people, just as the Framers of the Constitution envisioned. Have faith in the people. They are, after all, the ones who elected our current Congress. And see what a good job it already has done.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Still Here, In Business

I miscalculated.

I miscalculated the depth of the water at the spot I stopped swimming.

Easing off from the deep end of Ken’s pool, I swam on one breadth toward the shallow end, having not yet learned to breathe in the water while swimming. I thought I had reached the safety of five feet, but hadn’t, so when I sank my feet to touch the bottom, my whole body sank as well. Oh, I should mention I still haven’t mastered treading water. I swallowed a little bit of H2O as I went under the first time.

I’d been in such predicaments before, saving myself from drowning by floating on my back. With Ken treading water nearby, holding a foam kickboard for me to grasp, it was unclear who was more concerned as the situation developed—would I be able to gain control of my equilibrium and float to safety, or would Ken have to go into emergency rescue mode?

A little bit of both, it turned out.

We called it a day after that, but not before Ken complimented me on my swimming form, such that it is. Sooner, rather than later, I hope and Ken assures me, I’ll master breathing and treading water. Until then, Ken is now much more aware of my limitations.

Back to School Business: Lots of articles these days about back to school. From my daily PR inbox here’s a not-so-startling newsflash: Most tweens, 87% according to a Unilever sponsored survey, say they are stressed about going back to school. Tweens (generally defined as children ages 8 to 12) are uptight about “issues ranging from new teachers and classes to forming friendships to keeping up with the latest fashion trends.”

Unilever’s solution is for these sweaty kids to use deodorant, preferably its brands, but let’s not go there for now. I’m more focused on what’s causing the anxiety, that squeamish feeling in the pit of their kishkes.

For me it was that part of the first day of school when everyone introduced themselves and stated what their parents did. We hardly ever had any new kids in our class, so it was superfluous to have to identify oneself to classmates who had already matriculated with you from first to fourth grade (fyi, I skipped kindergarten). What never changed was the angst I felt when I had to explain my parents’ occupations.

At first, I would say they made lingerie, until one year I had to explain lingerie meant half-slips and panties. Tee-hees from the rest of the students embarrassed me into demanding a different vocation from my parents. Instead, they told me to just say they were “in business.”

It must have been a magical solution because no one ever questioned what “in business” meant. They could have been part of a holdover of Murder, Inc. for all the kids knew, Murder, Inc. having been a thriving Jewish-Italian Brooklyn enterprise of the 1920s-1940s.

Whatever. “Business” continued to be my parents’ occupations on all official forms for the rest of their working lives.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Playing Catch-up

Turns out my personal swimming instructor/friend Ken (aka Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) actually was a swimming instructor at a summer camp in his youth. Since he’s older than I, take it from me it was a loooong time ago. But we got through the first lesson without either us losing anything, Ken his cool, me my life. Weather permitting, we’re scheduled for another frolic in his pool on Friday.

Gee-Ka: That’s the way grandson Finley pronounces grandpa, so I guess Gee-Ka will be my nickname going forward. Finley had it much easier saying Gee-Gee for Grandma Gilda.

Finley & Co. (Allison and Dan) visited last weekend so his parents could attend their first game at the new Yankee Stadium on his mother’s birthday (Yanks won). Hard to find a better age to babysit than a 20-month-old who eats well, lays down to nap without fuss, laughs a lot, doesn’t poop too much, always startles you with new words he can vocalize, and pretty much understands everything you say to him. Even when I mistakenly shortened his nap time it afforded us one of the more pleasurable experiences of the weekend—cuddling in our bed with him for about 20 minutes.

Credit Rating Fake-out? The NY Times implied Wednesday it would be no big deal if the credit rating of the United States dipped from AAA to AA, or even lower. Noting that most corporations long ago abandoned the quest for triple-A ratings with hardly a misstep, the article suggested only national pride and a possible blow to consumer confidence would be at risk (

So was this whole debt ceiling pas-de-deux debate (okay, a pas-de-trois, if you count the Tea Party) really a sham, just political posturing? Could be, except the deal struck is not good news for those in need of government support, people like the long-term unemployed.

What’s also exasperating in this whole scenario is the three major credit rating agencies—Fitch, Standard & Poors and Moody’s—are the very same organizations that green-lighted all those hazardous derivative bonds that contributed to the financial failures of the last few years, precipitating the recession which shuttered businesses, reduced employment and cut tax revenues causing our national debt to skyrocket. These rating agencies did not suffer. How ironic that today they pass judgment on U.S. credit worthiness.

Jewish Humor: We might not be exposed to it frequently, but Arabs have a keen sense of humor, I’ve heard. They’re even developing stand-up comedians, according to a recent NPR segment.

Strangely, some of the comedians choose to compare themselves to American comics. One calls himself the Jon Stewart of the Middle East. Another refers to himself as the Jerry Seinfeld of the Middle East.

How comforting to know the Arab world appreciates American humorists. But do they also realize these comedians are Jewish?

Burned by Burnett: The NY Yankees should end the charade of contemplating a six-man pitching rotation by dumping A.J. Burnett. Add him to the scrapheap of failed free agent pitcher signings. He’ll fit snugly alongside Kevin Brown, Kenny Rogers, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Javier Vazquez, Ed Whitson, Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa.

Time to concentrate on developing Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes and other prospects. After last night’s outing in Chicago against the light-hitting White Sox, when the Yanks scored 13 runs in the first four innings, only to see him give up seven before being relieved with one out in the fourth, Burnett continues to show he is unreliable.

Though his stuff (for those non baseball-literate readers, “stuff” is a term used to connote the quality of a pitcher’s pitches) can be electric, more often than not since becoming a Yankee he has shocked his team and its fan base with inconsistency and disappointment. He hasn’t won a game since June 29.

Better to admit Burnett can’t pitch for New York and work a deal to dispatch him to another team, even if the Yankees have to pay his bloated salary.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Traveling Together

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz caught flak, and a $20,000 fine from New York City’s Conflicts of Interest Board, for taking his wife, Jamie, on three overseas trips paid for by outside entities. Though it appears he technically violated the law, Markowitz’s argument that his wife was an asset on two trips to Turkey and one to The Netherlands resonates with me, and not just because I, too, am a Brooklyn native.

From my very first year as a business journalist I took Gilda (and subsequently our young children) along on as many multi-day conference trips as possible. Building rapport with customers, clients and sources is among the most important part of any relationship. A spouse is an invaluable asset in forging those ties.

Gilda’s first trip with me was to New Orleans for a restaurant conference produced by the trade newspaper I worked on. She wound up seeing more of the Big Easy than I did, visiting a plantation outside the city as well as the Garden District and a warehouse where the floats used in the Mardi Gras parade were stored. The pattern of her seeing the sights, or just lounging by the pool, while I worked the conference sessions repeated itself on subsequent convention visits. More importantly, the contacts she made with the spouses of retailers and suppliers turned into introductions to company executives during cocktail receptions and dinners I would have had difficulty making.

We started taking our children with us when Dan was just two. At the Del Coronado Hotel outside San Diego, he learned to say “croissant,” as every morning he and Gilda would breakfast on the French pastry while dining on the balcony outside our room. One of my favorite pictures has me wearing a straw cowboy hat, plaid shirt and jeans while carrying Ellie, her head in a bandana, asleep on my shoulder during a cocktail reception during a conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix when she was barely one.

The kids traveled with us through elementary school. Most of these excursions were during the school year. Gilda and I earned a deserved reputation as parents who blithely took their children on trips without caring what classes they missed. Guilty, with the explanation that our credo was they would learn long division two weeks later, but the educational experience of seeing different parts of our country, and one time even Japan, far outweighed any classroom instruction they might have received.

I was fortunate to work for a company that appreciated the value a spouse brings to the business environment. After I became a chief editor, my employer footed the bill for Gilda’s presence at many of the conferences I attended. Perhaps business has become less intimate (though I doubt successful people would say that), but I never understood why more executives didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to bond in a more personal way with their contacts at other companies. Yes, more spouses had jobs of their own and perhaps could not get away; not everyone could be as cavalier as we were about their kids missing school.

The bottom line for me, however, was the chance to share with Gilda the thrill of seeing a new environment—San Antonio, Marco Island, Tokyo, New Orleans, Oakland, Nashville, Dallas, Kyoto, Maui, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Stratford-on-Avon, Brussels, Boca Raton, Palm Beach, Paris, Prague, Phoenix, Scottsdale—venues we might never have experienced together.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

It’s Barack Obama’s 50th birthday Thursday. I can’t think of too many cheerful Democrats eager to wish him many happy returns.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to rationalize reasons to support his re-election. He’s forsaken much of his 2008 platform and progressive positions.

It will be hard to show up at the polls in November 2012. That is, until one contemplates the gang of right-wing politicians who not only want to reside in the White House but also want to take the country back to a time when we cared more about individual selves than our fellow citizens, when private business could run roughshod over workers, when it took muckrakers like Upton Sinclair to shame government into regulating industries, when our country threw up an almost impenetrable wall against foreign involvement, when bankers and Wall Street moguls could play with America’s solvency without fear of being held to account.

Yes, Barack Obama will be the lesser of two evils. But that is no way to fire up the troops for what will be a grueling campaign.

I get sick thinking of the prospects of Democrats and rational independents sitting out the election, thereby allowing the country to enter a dark age when our next leader might be someone who does not believe in evolution, who does not recognize the threat of global warming, who does not see the value of stem cell research, who does not respect the rights of all Americans, who does not understand the banner of states rights is shorthand for discrimination, who does not appreciate inequality is bred when 25% of our households possess 87% of the nation’s wealth, who does not comprehend that without compassionate reform to social security and Medicare our aging population will not live golden years but rather rust-filled ones, who doesn’t accept that the Christian thing for the richest country on Earth is to provide affordable universal health care.

Barack Obama today called once more for tax increases on the rich and industry so we don’t just “balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the brunt of the recession.”

It all sounds so righteous. So good. If only he followed through. If only he drew a line in the sand that wouldn’t be washed away by the next wave of Republican and Tea Party demands.

Okay. Enough wishing. The next election for president and control of Congress and the Senate will be a referendum on which way the country wants to go—toward a tough, but enlightened future, or toward a dark passage back in time. Sitting out the election is not an option.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Catch-22 and its protagonist Yossarian are among my favorite, perhaps even my most favorite, books and heroes. Not that I’ve ever been to war or been shot at like Yossarian. But when I read Catch-22 during a spring break vacation in San Juan during my sophomore college year in 1968, anti-war sentiment coursed through my blood. Joseph Heller’s madcap anti-war treatise, with its Mediterranean Sea island World War II air base absurdly populated by the likes of Doc Daneeka, Orr, Milo Minderbinder, and Major Major and the not really off-kilter bombardier Yossarian who-couldn’t-get-discharged-for-being-crazy-because-you-couldn’t-be-considered-crazy-if-you-wanted-to-be-discharged-for-being-crazy-because-people-were-shooting-at-you-because-you-were-bombing-them were a story and cast unlike any I’d encountered in literature.

So was Heller’s plot construction, repetitively returning to the same narrative of Yossarian’s penultimate bombing mission, filling in more details of the cold encasing the young tail gunner Snowden, of Yossarian’s flight from the terror of a war seemingly without personal end.

I’m not what you would call an educated reader. I don’t analyze plot construction, or character development. I’d never qualify as a good book reviewer. Instead of mining the deeper meanings of an author, his or her history and subtextual context, I’d merely state I liked or disliked a book, that it held my interest or didn’t. Same thing for movies. Sorry, but allegory a là Ingmar Bergman is not my cup of tea.

I read most of Catch-22 on the beach of the La Concha Hotel, with strong sea breezes occasionally blowing pages across the sand from my beat up, spineless paperback copy. It didn’t matter. Catch-22 is the type of book you can pick up and start reading anywhere and immediately become part of its tension and pathos.

I’m nostalgic about Catch-22 because of an article in last Thursday’s NY Times concerning two biographies of Joseph Heller (

A resident of East Hampton, NY, Heller frequently spent time in Barristers, a Southampton restaurant managed by the wife of one of my publishing colleagues. When Lucia heard how much I liked Catch-22 she asked Heller for a signed copy.

I never met Heller, but I proudly display on my living room bookshelf a hardbound special edition of Catch-22 with the following inscription:

For Murray Forester (sic)--
With sincere good wishes to a fellow who finds this among the best novels he’s read. It’s certainly about the best I’ve written.
Joseph Heller
April 23, 1997
Southampton, N.Y.