Sunday, May 31, 2015

I'm Ready for My Close-up, CB

My brother’s son, Eric, made it onto NBC’s national newscast last Wednesday night. Alas, he was one of the victims of the data hacking of Anthem Inc.’s health insurance files. A face was needed to personalize the tens of millions affected consumers. Eric became everyman.

Still, it was a thrill to be interviewed for about 30 minutes, of which perhaps five seconds of Eric appeared on air. Such is the life of an everyman consumer. 

This wasn’t the first time Eric scored media news coverage. Back in 1998 The Washington Post featured his exploits at the Winter Olympics in Japan (as a spectator, not as an athlete). More on that later.

No matter how many times it happens, even if you are an every day bylined reporter, there’s never anything dull about seeing your name in print, or seeing and hearing yourself on air, TV or radio. I always turned to my editorial column whenever a new edition of Chain Store Age reached my desk. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they are indifferent to the experience. They’re deluding themselves and lying to you. It’s equally stimulating when others notice your work and bring it to your attention.

About 25 years ago I secured MasterCard as a sponsor for a Retail Credit Trends report my magazine published. A few months later American Airlines signed MasterCard to sponsor a business segment for its in-flight programming. MasterCard asked me to be part of the telecast. I was flattered but the thrill became palpable when a friend mentioned that while flying to California he happened to look up from his work at the very moment my face appeared on a big screen before him. He didn’t have his headphones on, but he said I looked authoritative.

Some 12 years later NPR invited me to its New York studio for a live afternoon broadcast (I think it was for All Things Considered) on the retail scene in Maryland, specifically why large chains, especially The Home Depot, were not placing stores in a predominantly Afro-American community. As people rarely recored radio broadcasts it was not unexpected when few of my family and friends listened to the 15-minute interview live or on tape. 

So it was that much more exhilarating when I learned one of Ellie’s friends in Hawaii called her to say he heard her dad being interviewed on NPR. That made me smile almost as wide as the time an advertising client related how a salesman started dancing around an office waiting room holding a copy of Chain Store Age open to my editorial page while screaming, “He was a camper of mine.” 

Seeing one’s name in print is not always an occasion to relish. Among my editorial job tasks was talking to the press, which I did about twice a month. I’m a journalist, so I can say this: Be wary when talking to a reporter. Measure all your words carefully. Think how they might sound or appear in print. They don’t mean to, but reporters may place your words out of context. Until I saw or heard the finished article I always worried the reporter might distort a comment made in context into a sensational quote I would need to explain to a bent-out-shape retail executive.

As long as I’m updating you on my media history, I saw the other day that HBO will air the mini-series Show Me a Hero beginning August 16. The producers filmed it without my debut as a film extra last fall; I could not make the first casting call and they didn’t bother to get in touch with me again. Ah, well …

Getting back to my nephew Eric, here’s how Washington Post reporter Kevin Sullivan chronicled his exploits at the Nagano Olympics in 1998: 

After portraying how the rich and famous enjoyed the Olympics, Sullivan wrote, “For those without royal blood or imperial purses, there’s always the Eric Plan. 

“Eric Forseter, 22, from Rockville, (MD), is spending a year bumming around Australia as he prepares for law school next year. He bought a cheap plane ticket from Sydney to Tokyo plus a Japanese rail pass, and made his way to Nagano with about $400 in his pocket. 

“Forseter found lodging at a hostel, where he spends about $30 a night to sleep on a tatami mat on the floor in a room with 10 strangers. He had to go out and buy a towel, and he's living on orange juice and croissants from the convenience store. He said his accommodations are relatively spacious, though, compared with the 15 or 20 George Washington University students crammed into another room. 

“On his first day in town, Forseter met another young man who had bummed two tickets to the high-profile Canada-Sweden men’s hockey game from one of the players. They sat in great seats right behind the goal, then moved to seats directly behind the team benches. They collected a couple of stray pucks and even a broken stick from the Swedish team. 

“That night they rolled into the Pink Elephant bar and had beers with NHL stars Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, who play for the U.S. team. The next day, Forseter bagged tickets for the Finland-Russia hockey game. Scalpers wanted more than $400, but a nice man invited Forseter to sit with him for free. Turns out the man is the father of NHL star Teemu Selanne, who plays for Finland. Forseter sat at center ice and chatted with Pat LaFontaine of the U.S. men's hockey team and the parents of NHL’ers Pavel Bure and Chris Chelios, who were sitting nearby. 

“Sunday night, with somebody’s extra ticket, Forseter saw figure skating, one of the Games’ premier events, for $4 — the cost of a shuttle bus. In total, Forseter figures he’s spent about $300 and had about $3,000 worth of fun. 

“‘I’m on a roll,’ he said.”

Monday, May 25, 2015

Fiorina Matters Only in the Bizarro World of GOP Politics

In the bizarro world of Republican politics, a candidate who almost destroyed an iconic American company and was forced out (albeit with a $20 million golden parachute severance package) can be considered a presidential hopeful because she has a tart tongue. Carly Fiorina left Hewlett-Packard tarred and feathered for multiple sins, yet she dazzles on the GOP hustings because she has the wit to voice critical, funny soundbites about Democrats, mostly Hillary Rodham Clinton ( 

My guess is she’s likely to gain traction as a vice presidential standard bearer, a woman much smarter than Sarah Palin. She doesn’t need to see Russia from her house (a phrase Palin never actually said). She’s been there and has even met Vladimir Putin.

But while too many Americans have short memories or are too young to have experienced history (or didn’t learn it in school), it is incumbent upon journalists to enlighten them (sadly, the soon to be departing Jon Stewart of The Daily Show was among the only mass market political watchers who resurrected a pol’s previous utterances and actions. Who will emerge as his truth-be-told successor?).

For those who merely hear that Fiorina was the head of HP, once considered the most powerful woman in business, the first female CEO of a top 20 U.S. company, it would be instructive to also hear that, according to Wikipedia, “CBS News, USA Today and have ranked Fiorina as one of the worst American (or tech) CEOs of all time. In 2008, InfoWorld grouped her with a list of products and ideas as flops, declaring her tenure as CEO of HP to be the sixth worst tech flop of all-time and characterizing her as the ‘anti-Steve Jobs’ for reversing the goodwill of American engineers and alienating existing customers.”

Sure she has her supporters, which means she is a divisive, not an inclusive, personage. It doesn’t help that she laid off 30,000 HP workers during her five and a half year tenure as CEO. 

Also according to Wikipedia, “Fiorina frequently clashed with HPs board of directors, and she faced backlash among HP employees and the tech community for her leading role in the demise of HPs egalitarian ‘The HP Way’ work culture and guiding philosophy, which she felt hindered innovation. Because of changes to HP’s culture, and requests for voluntary pay cuts to prevent layoffs (subsequently followed by the largest layoffs in HP’s history), employee satisfaction surveys at HP—previously among the highest in America—revealed ‘widespread unhappiness’ and distrust, and Fiorina was sometimes booed at company meetings and attacked on HP’s electronic bulletin board.” Hardly a ringing endorsement when running for an office that is supposed to bring all the people together.

Fiorina is not the only Republican who seems to be hiding something. None of the announced and soon-to-announce candidates appears able or willing to articulate what they would do differently in the Middle East. They criticize President Obama but are short on specifics they would embrace to thwart ISIS and stabilize the region.

It reminds me of 1968. Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, so secret that it cost the U.S. another 21,195 deaths during the next five years that American combat troops served in Vietnam. 

Obama has not been the greatest commander-in-chief. But let’s not forget that it was George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors, led by Vp Richard Cheney, who bungled the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Let’s also remember that it was under the Republican watch that our economy tanked. Under Obama the country has enjoyed prosperity, though too disproportionally tilted toward the wealthy, which makes it rather amusing that so many of the one percenters favor Republicans. But then again, Republicans live in a bizarro world.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Living With Tension Along a Troubled Border

They are flying Sunday night back to their homes 6,000 miles away, both literally and figuratively, home from the two-week respite they have enjoyed in America to their tension-filled existence living next to people who would like nothing better than to see them and their families breathe no more.

They will be returning to Israel, to kibbutzim and moshavim in the Eshkol region adjacent to the Gaza Strip where every day includes the unknown. Will a rocket be fired at them? Will terrorists emerge from an as yet undiscovered tunnel? And, the newest concern, will a sniper snuff out a life from a distant, camouflaged perch?

Each year for the past six, Westchester-based Shalom Yisrael has brought to America eight women engaged in first responder trauma care activities from the settlements near Gaza (for 23 prior years wounded veterans of the Israeli Defense Force and injured civilians were guests of the program). As with the previous five groups, this year’s crop of valiant women possess no extraordinary powers. Except, maybe, a determination to withstand the pressure and tension of living in a free-fire war zone simply because…it is their home. They are no more stoic about it than the residents of the canyons around Los Angeles who endure mudslides and fires only to rebuild. Or those along our shorelines who clean up after hurricanes ravage the coastlines they love. Or the hearty Plains people of tornado alley who emerge from underground shelters to resurrect their lives. It is their homes, and though Mother Nature might be the bane of most American disasters, fellow human beings traumatize the Israelis.

A two-year-old study on post traumatic stress disorder, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that Israelis, in general, recover from catastrophic events much quicker and easier than other nationalities, most likely because every day they are confronted by terror, or, at the very least, the thought of terror. If so, then the Shalom Yisrael guests would be at the top of the charts.

Fifteen seconds. If they are fortunate that is how long they have to seek shelter once an alarm sounds, if it sounds at all, before a deadly rocket lands. Some can run to government-funded safe rooms in their homes. Others, those living more than four and a half kilometers from Gaza, have safe rooms only if they paid for them on their own, at a cost of roughly $10,000. In those areas, the only government-provided security is a shelter for kindergarten children.

The Eshkol district, home to some 14,000 residents in 32 communities, important to Israel as the provider of 60% of the country’s produce, has suffered more rocket attacks than any other region. The vaunted Iron Dome defense system cannot protect them. They are too close to Gaza. Eshkol shares a 24-mile border with the Gaza Strip and a seven-mile border with Egypt.

And yet, like those before them, this year’s Shalom Yisrael guests would welcome a return to the pre-Hamas status of Gaza, a time when commerce and people flowed more freely across the border, when Palestinians worked in their fields, when they visited the beaches along the Mediterranean. They are less strident than the Israeli government and its leadership. 

It’s warm in the Middle East. As the climate heats up so often do cross-border tensions. Shortly after the 2014 Israeli women returned to their communities along the Gaza Strip all hell broke loose. Missiles and rockets dropped from the sky. From beneath the dirt of their farmlands terrorists emerged from tunnels. Among the visitors from Eshkol this year was the widow of one of the last two Israelis to die in the 2014 conflict, casualties of a rocket barrage one hour before the cease fire was to go into effect. Pain is still evident within her. But she perseveres. As does Israel. 

The links below are to previous posts about visits sponsored by Shalom Yisrael and Gilda’s and my visit in 2011 to the Sha’ar Hanegev region along the northern edge of the Gaza Strip:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Solar Power Lowers Electric Bill

Perhaps you haven’t been waiting for this news, but I’m pretty excited about our first ConEd bill since we went solar.

Last year our electric utility bill for April was $209.33. This year’s ConEd bill—$25.01!!!

Now, we had to pay SolarCity a $92.97 monthly rental fee for the solar panels, but that still means our combined electric bill was just $117.98, a savings of $91.35!

Last year we purchased 939 kilowatt hours (kWh) from ConEd. This year just 35. The sun provided the overwhelming bulk of our electric needs. 

I must admit, it’s a giddy feeling looking at the ConEd meter and seeing the kWh usage decrease day to day. When ConEd read the meter on May 1 it read 1,594 kWh. On May 6 the meter showed 1,548 kWh. 

Oh, happy day and let the sun shine. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

It's May Day, Time to Celebrate Unions

The closest person I had to a grandmother was a widowed Russian immigrant who, when her husband was alive, took my father in as a boarder shortly after he arrived in New York in early 1939. My father’s parents perished in Poland during World War II. My maternal grandfather passed away when I was around two years old. The only lasting memory I have of my maternal grandmother is visiting her in the hospital. She was resting inside an oxygen tent. She must have died shortly thereafter. I was about five.

Bessie Trachtenberg filled the void. She looked like a Jewish grandmother. She had grey hair pulled back in a bun. She was heavy set, with an equally heavy accent. She was a good cook. Like many mothers-in-law, even a pseudo mother-in-law, she waged culinary combat for the title of better cook. The battle with my mother raged over breaded veal chops. The victor—I, along with my brother and sister. We loved breaded veal chops.

My mother and Bessie would argue about all manner of food preparation, particularly when it involved Eastern European Jewish cuisine. The most vocal arguments, however, transpired between Bessie and my father. You see, Bessie was a card-carrying member of the ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (you know, the group that sang “Look for the union label”). She was a staunch union advocate, an organizer. My father, on the other hand, was an entrepreneur, an apparel factory owner who employed dozens of Blacks and Hispanics. To my knowledge, he treated them fairly, thus avoiding any unionization drives.

When Bessie would visit they invariably bickered about the treatment of workers in general. Bessie would justify the need for unions. Dad would call her a Trotskyite. Bessie’s blood would start to boil. She would threaten never to visit again. All the while I could sense my father was merely teasing her.

I am reminded of these mock fights by the celebration today of May Day, the international workers’ day, and the recent bill passed and signed in Wisconsin by the Republican-controlled legislature and the GOP governor and would-be president Scott Walker. Wisconsin, once a bastion of the labor movement, has become a Right to Work state under the new law. Union power will be diminished.

I know some unions and their leadership have stifled corporate growth. Some have abused their powers. Others have been corrupt. Whatever the crime you can probably find a union or a union officer who has perpetrated it.

But the true and honest bottom line is that without unions the lives of most workers and their families would be sorrier, with fewer benefits and lower wages. Moreover, as union member income rose, so did the wealth of non-union workers and exempt employees. Unions helped build the middle class. It can appropriately be argued that the comforts of middle class life, and the number of households that can claim middle income status, have eroded since union power and membership have declined over the last 30-plus years. 

When I worked at The New Haven Register I earned $200 a week in 1974. I was one of six bureau chiefs, one of the better paid on a staff of 100. We voted in a union, the Newspaper Guild. The Register immediately froze our salaries. It took more than two years to negotiate a contract. I left The Register before an agreement was reached. Had I stayed, my salary would have jumped to more than $350 a week. Without the aid of a union The Register would have had to bump my salary 10% a year for six years to reach the Guild-achieved level. Doubtful that would have happened.

Unlike my father’s playful goading of Bessie, the decades-long attack by Republicans to weaken and eliminate unions has profoundly impacted the vitality of the U.S. economy to the point where even some members of the Grand Old Party are recognizing the perils of the resulting income inequality and may be willing to do something about it. 

It might well be too late for unions to be resurrected as a driving force of financial growth for the family unit and the national economy. But let’s not forget to acknowledge the contributions unions have made in our lives, from safer working conditions, to retirement benefits, to limits on child labor and the number of hours individuals may work without receiving overtime, to the election of progressive, mostly Democratic, politicians who have enacted legislation that has expanded the opportunities, freedoms and rights of all, union and non-union members.