Friday, December 28, 2018

Old Names in the News: Sears, Zakheim, Saporito

Did you get all the presents you wished for during this holiday season? I purposely chose the word “wish” as it conjures up the image of the Sears Wish Book, the once-giant retailer’s annual encyclopedia of gifts for all ages. “In 1968,” according to Sears Archives, “the Wish Book totaled 605 pages, with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages to gifts for adults.”

During this all important shopping season, when merchants often garner most of their sales and profits,  several articles have surfaced about the fall of Sears (and sister company, Kmart) from iconic to catatonic ( and 

Today, Friday, CNBC reported Sears will shutter 80 more Sears and Kmart stores on top of the 182 closings it announced after it filed for bankruptcy protection October 15 ( 

Amazon and other Internet retailers are being blamed for the truncation and potential demise of the once largest retailer in the world. Amazon et al might be hammering the nail into Sears’ coffin, but the truth is Sears was fading into obscurity years before Jeff Bezos conceptualized Amazon in 1994. 

Consider the January 1980 edition of Chain Store Age. The cover story: “Why America Is Not Shopping Sears.” In 15 pages backed by extensive consumer research, articles detailed the troubles Sears faced, some of its own making, some because of newer, more focused competition, some the result of new market conditions including the proliferation of large shopping centers and the elimination of retail price maintenance laws that allowed brand name goods to be sold at discount prices. Shoppers no longer had to wait for sales of major appliances, consumer electronics, sporting goods, tools and other desired merchandise. They were available every day at the discount store located closer to their homes. 

Though still the largest retailer in the world back in 1980, Sears could not maintain that position as more nimble, more focused retailers took bites out of its market share. Best Buy. Circuit City. Home Depot. Lowe’s. Toys “R” Us. Sports Authority. Target. Wal-Mart. Even Kmart snatched sales from Sears. 

Sears reacted by turning commissioned sales people into hourly workers. Bad decision. They lacked incentive to sell. 

Apparel never was a Sears strong point. Baby boomers wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Sears clothing, not when the mall had dozens, even a hundred, specialty stores offered fashion right styles. 

Besides, walking into most Sears stores was like entering a mausoleum. Whereas department store mannequins were freshly dressed and lifelike, Sears mannequins appeared lifeless. Store decor and lighting were old fashioned and stark. There was no drama inside. It was as if Sears executives had never heard of the concept of retailtainment. 

When Sears filed for bankruptcy protection I posed the following: “Will Sears and Kmart be salvaged or scuttled? Ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you shopped Sears or Kmart? If one or both stores disappeared, would you notice? Would you miss them?”

Nothing has transpired to make me change my opinion.

Designer Prices: I have always eschewed clothing that outwardly displays a designer’s name or brand logo. I am okay with wearing Adolpho blazers or Givenchy suits with the labels discreetly sewn onto inside breast pockets (though since my retirement I rarely wear suits). 

Outward chauvinism is not my style. In fact, I have long advocated a reversal of the standard bill of fare. Rather than charging more for a polo shirt or pair of jeans that shout out the designer’s or brand’s name, I believe such walking billboards should be sold at a discount as payment for the publicity they provide.   
Two of my cousins are optometrists. As their practices are in Philadelphia and Jacksonville it was not convenient for me to patronize them when I needed new eyeglasses. 

But I did pick their brains about the differences between designer and generic frames you might find in a mass market optical store such as Lenscrafters or Visionworks. 

Their responses: If you are concerned about the quality of a generic frame, don’t be. If you find a generic frame you like, buy it. Designer frames may provide a design that intrigues you, but the cost will be much higher. 

Their bottom line—find a lower priced generic frame. 

Which brings us to the recent scam Payless ShoeSource performed on fashionistas in Los Angeles. Payless tricked them into believing its $19.99 man-made women’s shoes were leather, designed by Bruno Palessi and worth hundreds of dollars. Here’s a Washington Post article to click on in case you missed the charade:

Degrees of Separation: Many of my blog postings are generated by current events that bring up incidents or people/companies from my past (the Sears piece above is an example). 

So I was doubly stimulated when reading The New York Times on line in the middle of the night earlier this week.

The first article, a profile of acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan, referenced “Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration” (

Dov and I were elementary school classmates at Yeshiva Rambam in Brooklyn some 60 years ago. He, and I, were considered Talmudic scholars by our teachers. Apart from his service in the Pentagon, Dov went on to become a rabbi. 

The second article was an Op-Ed piece entitled “Trump’s King Minus Touch,” by Bill Saporito, a contributor to The Times editorial board ( Bill and I worked together on Chain Store Age Supermarkets 40 years ago. He left to become a photographer for a Pittsburgh paper, if memory serves me right, and afterward began a long association with various Time Inc. magazines including Fortune and Time. 

Seeing their names in print is a nice way to keep up with old acquaintances. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Blogging as an Exercise in Writing

Non use of muscles impairs them. Causes them to atrophy. Singers who don’t practice their chords every day risk losing vocal strength. Professional athletes, be they baseball or basketball players or from any sport, rely on repetitive exercise to instill muscle memory so they can perform at a superior level even under extreme pressure. 

Writers—bloggers—are no different. Writing requires more than a haphazard dedication. I can’t believe it has been two weeks since my last posting. Lots of things have happened since then. I’ve started to write several blogs but laziness, sometimes abetted by real reasons, stifled my creative juices. So, here’s a jumble of thoughts on a variety of topics:

Evening News: Gilda and I eat most dinners while watching the evening news, usually recorded so we can fast forward through commercials. When Dan and Ellie were young we restricted their TV viewing to limit their exposure to violent shows. Yet we justified their watching the most violent broadcast of all, the evening news. 

Perhaps as a carryover from my parents’ home, CBS News was our preferred outlet. From anchors Walter Cronkite through Dan Rather, Connie Chung, Bob Schieffer, Katie Couric, Scott Pelley and Jeff Glor we remained loyal to the Tiffany Network’s newscast. Until recently. I like the CBS correspondents, but Jeff Glor as an anchor just does not measure up. So we switched, mostly to ABC World News with David Muir. 

After several months of viewing I noticed that compared to CBS and NBC, ABC has a different way of presenting female correspondents when they appear in conversation with the anchor at his glass desk. They sit across from him, closer to the camera, wearing short skirts with their legs crossed to the right, directly at the camera. Am I suggesting this is a woke moment during this #MeToo time? You betcha!

Another Genocide in the Making? Its denials of an Armenian genocide 100 years ago notwithstanding, Turkey seems poised to undertake another fateful exercise in ethnic eradication. Emboldened by Donald Trump’s capricious decision to withdraw 2,000 American troops from Syrian territory near the Turkish border where Kurdish forces have been fighting ISIS, Turkey has signaled it will launch an assault against the Kurds ( 

It is to the everlasting embarrassment, shame and dysfunction of America’s political standing in the world that Trump cares more about the wishes of foreign tyrants than the counsel of American politicians and experts. Trump ordered the troop withdrawal after conversation with Turkey’s despotic leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan despite his own advisors’ strong recommendation to maintain a military presence in Syria.

Vigilance for the Truth: I was reminded again of the need to be forever vigilant in pursuit of the truth during this era of instant mass communications. A friend sent an email suggesting the alleged disrespect for the American flag and the national anthem can be traced to Barack Obama. So I checked its veracity by googling “Snopes: Obama Explains National Anthem Stance?” Of course the claim proved to be false.

“Disinformation campaigns, whether inspired by Russia or any extremist entity, succeed only when recipients of such emails fail to research their authenticity. Any democracy demands vigilance and a healthy skepticism. John McCain provided the best (now viral) demonstration of what we all must do when confronted with salacious untruths. During a campaign town hall meeting in 2008 he respectfully disagreed with a woman who claimed Obama was a Muslim and unAmerican. He corrected her misinformation. Maybe it cost him some votes. But he stood up for the truth,” I wrote my friend.  

Is It Christmas Yet? CBS Sunday Morning reported a survey that found 51% of Americans said they have sent a letter to Santa Claus. I chuckled when I saw that, but truly snorted when I read a Facebook post shared by my sister Lee: “Before you mock children who believe in Santa Claus, remember that there are still adults who believe in Donald Trump.”

Over a picture of takeout Chinese food, my cousin Stan posted on Facebook: “Ok......Hanukkah is over, time to start planning a traditional Jewish Christmas Eve !!!!”

Why do many Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve? Here’s a defining reason from an article in Tablet:

“Whether they have fully thought it through or not, Jews who eat Chinese food on Christmas are proclaiming that, for them, Jewishness is what philosophers call a second-order value. In contrast to valuing Judaism on the first order—enjoying the rituals themselves, sincerely adhering to the tenets themselves—they value the fact of their Jewishness. They go out of their way to do it. They may or may not enjoy General Tso’s Chicken, but if they are eating it on Christmas, their prime motivation is not the general’s sweet, spicy deliciousness, but rather the knowledge that they are doing something that in some adapted way reinforces their Jewishness. They are moved by their hearts, not their tastebuds.” (

Gilda and I will be eating Chinese food Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Want To Get People Talking? Ask Them for Their Opinion on Joe Biden for President

The conversation during Friday night’s dinner started to take on an edge when the discussion turned to potential Democratic presidential candidates. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick just dropped out, someone lamented, adding that former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu also withdrew his hat from the ring. As should Senator Elizabeth Warren, a third voice chimed in.   

At the mention of Joe Biden a chorus of “god forbids” or words to that effect cascaded across the room. I disagreed. Loudly (I was, after all, the host, so raising my voice was within the bounds of master of the house). 

While I have not jumped on the Biden bandwagon I reject arguments that he is too old or that his admittedly lapsed leadership as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation during the former’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing utterly disqualified him from seeking the presidency. These were among the arguments Frank Bruni laid out in The New York Times the next day ( 

God has yet to create the perfect candidate. All politicians make compromises. All have skeletons, some visible, some not, that inhabit their closets. Has Biden atoned through his work over the last quarter century for his failure to believe and protect Anita Hill in 1991? I’d like to think so. 

As for the age factor, absent examples of dementia, Biden’s age should not disqualify him. As a society we have come a long way in recognizing the contributions senior citizens can make. Keep in mind, Biden’s learning curve for what a president has to master would be much lower than any other candidate, including the current occupant of the White House.  

The main obstacle Biden must overcome to secure his party’s nomination is the primary and caucus system. He doesn’t generate rabid enthusiasm, the type of momentum needed, especially now that the power of superdelegates has been diminished. Primary/caucus voters often are looking for a fresh face. 

Short of nominating a total disaster, however, Democrats should be able to count on winning at least the same states Hillary Clinton did in 2016, I believe. To garner at least 270 Electoral College votes the nominee needs to win some combination of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. 

Those are older, working class population states with voters who align well with Biden’s core constituencies. Biden might not carry those or any state in a primary where young zealous advocates often opt for the fresh face, but against Trump in a national election he would present solid Democratic values. 

On the other hand, most of the other possible nominees lack the working class credibility Middle Western voters seek. And Biden exudes an aura of accessibility, even a vulnerability given the tragedies that have befallen his family. Down on their luck voters may find it easier to identify with him. 

Coupled with a qualified ticket-balancing vice presidential candidate, someone like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Biden could defeat Trump and restore dignity to the Oval Office and our standing in the world. 

I am not endorsing Biden. I just do not believe he should be dismissed out of hand. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Facing Up to Mistakes

Have you ever made a mistake at work? Perhaps you are an accountant and you put an extra zero at the end of a number or placed a decimal point one column to the right. Or maybe you are an attorney and failed to file a motion in a timely manner. Or you are a shipping clerk who sent a package to London, England, instead of London, Ontario (that last one is a homage to All in the Family and the reason Archie Bunker did not get a Christmas bonus one year and thus could not buy Edith the vacuum cleaner she desired). 

The point is, people make mistakes, and so do computers if they are programmed incorrectly by humans, of course. No matter how many levels of review an organization has, human error cannot be totally eliminated. 

Try talking out loud for several straight hours a day without fumbling your words. Naturally, you will mispronounce some words. But when I refer to fumbling I mean something far more sinister, far more detrimental, to your societal position and ambition. 

In the age of instant mass communication any gaffe, any untoward remark, may be blown up out of proportion to your intent. The tragedy, the threat to our civil and political comity, and potentially our democracy, is that it usually is. 

Did Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment cost her the election? Didn’t help. Howard Dean’s outburst of enthusiasm after the Iowa caucus in 2004 surely blew up his presidential hopes. In 2006, George Allen got caught on a cell phone camera calling one of his opponent’s campaign trackers a “macaca” (monkey). It submarined his re-election bid as a U.S. senator from Virginia. 

Which brings us to a recent brouhaha over an erroneous news report. I classify it as a “brouhaha” not to discount the culpability of the media, in this case, NPR, but rather because when journalists make mistakes they are held to a higher standard than politicians who regularly and deliberatively lie. 

NPR screwed up in a report linking Trump ex-attorney Michael Cohen’s plea deal confession to testimony Donald Trump Jr. provided to the Senate in 2017. NPR alleged Trump lied to the Senate about the family’s business plans in Russia. NPR issued a correction shortly thereafter.

But admitting its mistake did not stop right wing journalists and Web sites from excoriating NPR. Indeed, a Google check of “NPR Donald Trump Jr.” finds that the top sites covering this faux pas were Sputnik News, The Daily Wire, The Daily Caller, Breitbart,, National Review and The Federalist. It is a conservative onslaught when the most objective site I could cite was Fox News.

Only Trump Sr. seems immune from fallout from vocal flatulence. Indeed, his base laps up his lies and libertine lewdness. Of course, foreign governments and independent entities such as the stock market are not necessarily impassive to Trump’s discordant trumpet. Here’s an article from The Washington Post highlighting the chaos from Trump’s erraticism:

The PC police long ago lost the war with Trump. But the PC police remain vigilantly active when it comes to Trump’s detractors. Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton are held to a higher standard. As is The New York Times. 

Back in September The Times published an erroneous report that U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley had spent lavishly on draperies for her official residence in a high rise building near the U.N. The Times apologized for the error and issued a correction stating it was the Obama administration that authorized the purchase. 

In no other profession are mistakes as publicly acknowledged as they are in legitimate journalism. 

I made my fair share of mistakes as a reporter and editor. My most egregious mistake was not one of fact but of judgment. After a particularly negative experience trying to buy an electric snow shovel at a now defunct local home center chain, I avenged my treatment by recounting the details in the editor’s column of the next issue of Chain Store Age. I not only named the chain but also the store manager. I overstepped the bounds of civil criticism. In the next issue I apologized.

My most amusing mistake was printed on the cover of a December 1992 issue profiling retail industry entrepreneurs of the year. Chain Store Age partnered with Ernst & Young as part of the latter’s national all-industry program to recognize corporate leaders.

From the 29 retailers selected as winners that year, we chose to put Randy Acton, president of U.S. Cavalry, on the cover. U.S. Cavalry, now part of Galls LLC, sold military and law enforcement apparel and accessories. 

For the cover shoot Acton dressed in a military camouflage outfit, helmet and all. The headline read, “Soldier of Fortune,” under which we printed, “Randy Acton, president U.S. Calvary.”

Did you catch the mistake? I didn’t, until I received a thank you note from Randy. He gently pointed out his company was U.S. Cavalry, not U.S. Calvary.

Jesus, what a mistake that was!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Convenience vs. Affordability, The Ethical Dilemmas of the World We Live In

“Time and again, when confronted with the choice between convenience and affordability and the less tangible benefits of emotional intimacy, humans have opted for the former.”

Let’s face it. Aside from living in a material world, we have succumbed to a life of leisure in lieu of exertion. We no longer get up to change the TV channel. We don’t manually roll down car windows anymore. We don’t open the freezer door to get ice. We live in a push button world. 

Mattresses no longer have to be turned every month. For most products we don’t have to trek to the store. Our exercise, instead, is to pick up the Internet or mail order package from the front porch or apartment lobby. 

The premise having been set, if not accepted, please contemplate the shared meaning of three articles I pass along for your edification. The first is from a philosopher, S. Matthew Liao. Writing an Op-Ed in The New York Times, Liao wondered aloud (if you can do so in print) if one has a moral duty to jettison one’s relationship with Facebook given its unconscionable and inexcusable behavior in the 2016 presidential elections and in other activities that have undermined democracy in America and abroad ( 

Aside from posting my blogs to Facebook, I have a financial interest in professor Liao’s opinion. My broker talked me into buying some Facebook stock shortly after it went public. Am I a silent sinner in the debasement of democratic values? 

It’s not every day, but hardly a week goes by that a box with a smiley face on the cardboard exterior doesn’t land on our front porch. I spent almost all of my journalism career in support of physical retail stores. Chain Store Age, by its very name, heralded my bias. Though the magazine covered mail order and Internet retailers, our first allegiance was to brick and mortar stores. 

When Amazon erupted on the scene, it was as an attack on book stores, most prominently exemplified by Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton Booksellers, Borders, Books-a-Million, Crown Books, to name but a handful.

Now, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is ranked the wealthiest man in the world as his creation sells virtually all types of merchandise. And through Amazon Prime I download programs not available on cable or basic television stations.

With bigness comes inevitable vilification. From the Web news site Vox, here’s an article suggesting the time is ripe to cancel one’s Amazon Prime subscription (

Could I really give up watching the upcoming second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? Or pay for shipping on all those purchases? And what would become of all those UPS and FedEx, not to mention USPS, delivery men and women who rely on Amazon to keep them on the road? 

On the one hand, the Vox article correctly notes Amazon’s history of “monopolistic practices to tax avoidance, poor treatment of both white- and blue-collar workers, union-busting, environmental damage, and most recently, the year-long publicity stunt of HQ2, a bad-faith ploy to extract private data from US cities that ended with Amazon plopping its supposedly economy-boosting offices into the two most established markets on the East Coast.”

On the other hand, the history of retailing, and for that matter almost every industry, is that market leaders are attacked. As Sears in its heyday was, and then Walmart was and still is, Amazon is scrutinized for practices that virtually all other retailers undertake in their own spheres. Target might emit a nicer aura in which to shop, but it treats its workers no better than Walmart, or Amazon. 

So I swallow any bile I might have toward Amazon and continue to log on. As long as I’m getting value for my dollar, I will continue to do so.

The third article presents in stark terms perhaps the penultimate consequence of society’s acceptance of the depreciating value of human labor. From Vox, here’s an article that asks, “Sex doll brothels are now a thing. What will happen to real-life sex workers?” (*13fjbq5*)

Returning to the opening quote taken from the sex doll article, here’s an added line to it: “Time and again, when confronted with the choice between convenience and affordability and the less tangible benefits of emotional intimacy, humans have opted for the former. There’s no reason to think that the sex industry will prove the exception to the rule.”

And to think, just a few short paragraphs ago I was worried about the future of truck drivers!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Broadway Experience A Child Would Remember

About a month ago Ellie took three-and-a-half-year-old CJ to her first live play, a local Omaha production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Like many young girls CJ is enraptured by stories of princesses. So Ellie was not too surprised that CJ sat intently absorbing the three hour production (her equally young friend bailed out at intermission). 

Experiencing live theater at any level is a treat best appreciated at the youngest age possible. Ellie, for example, tasted live theater when she was barely five years old. It was  a staging of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck. She and eight-year-old Dan squealed loudly when they recognized the actor playing an Elvis-inspired pharaoh was a counselor from their summer camp. (Eight years later Ellie’s first dramatic roles in “real” Broadway plays came in two productions of Joseph, the first as the vampy wife of Potiphar in her eighth grade play, and then as one of Joseph’s brothers in the first Play Group Theatre rendition in Westchester. 

For the next four years PGT and Ellie were almost inseparable. After Joseph, Ellie took on leading roles as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, the baker’s wife in Into the Woods, Wendy in Peter Pan and Ti-Moune in Once on This Island. (In non PGT productions she was Rizzo in Grease and split the role of the Leading Player in Pippin.)

Ask most adults who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s about the shows they remember seeing and they invariably will call out names like Howdy Doody or Leave It to Beaver, Winky Dink, Captain Kangaroo or The Lone Ranger

I, too, watched those television shows. I have fond memories of them and enjoy the nostalgic times friends reminisce about them. But the shows that made the biggest impression on me, the ones I most recall from that golden time, were Broadway shows. 

In the short span of five years, from the time I was nine to 14 years old, I saw at least six Broadway shows and two operas (Tosca and La Traviata) at the Metropolitan Opera House. 

My earliest Broadway memory—seeing Sam Levene in the comedy Make a Million. For the record, I cannot recall any of the plot. But I do remember sitting with my siblings in the balcony while my parents sat in the orchestra. (An interesting footnote: Make a Million was co-written by Norman Barasch. For those not aware, Gilda’s maiden name is Barasch. She is unaware of any family connection to Norman.)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Levene, let me assure you he was a bonafide star of the theater and movies. Google his name if you don’t believe me. 

My Broadway experience was heightened by the renowned original casts I witnessed. In 1961, Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. Later that year Camelot featured Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. 1961 was a stellar theater-going year for me. I also saw Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell and Molly Picon in Milk and Honey. The next year, Alfred Drake in Kean, followed in 1964 by Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova in Fiddler on the Roof.   

The inspiration for this whole story is to tell you Ellie and Gilda took CJ to a Sunday matinee of a Broadway revival of Once on This Island. Yes, it could be argued that CJ is a tad young for the play’s message. But Ellie has been showing CJ a video of her performance 20 years ago as Ti-Moune. CJ is familiar with the plot and the songs. 

Ellie and Gilda reported she sat on the edge of her seat, enthralled, throughout the performance. She had a day to remember: a subway ride, a walk through Times Square after dark, dinner out in a restaurant, and her first Broadway play. It’s hard to imagine it could have been any better.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Thanksgiving Breeds Some Food for Thought

As is her wont, Gilda crafted a most delicious Thanksgiving meal: turkey, of course, accompanied by stuffing, mashed potatoes, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts. She even baked a pumpkin pie. 

But let’s get back to the side dishes served with the main course, specifically, the Brussels sprouts. The fact that I eat and enjoy Brussels sprouts is quite amazing given my antipathy (a mild word) towards them while growing up. 

As my father was a basic meat and potatoes with a side of rye bread kind of guy, my mother didn’t serve too many green vegetables. Those she did try to slip onto our dinner plates were often overcooked. Her asparagus, for example, came out limper than a deflated balloon. 

Not that I was a gourmand growing up (nor now).  My poor eating habits drove my mother back to full time work, she used to say. I rejected green peas as an infant, using them as projectiles cast far away from my high chair.

Today, peas are among my favorite vegetables. 

I overcame my distaste for asparagus quite by accident.  During a TWA flight to Los Angeles in first class, thanks to a frequent flyer upgrade some 30 plus years ago, the flight attendant didn’t ask. She simply placed an appetizer dish of cold asparagus before me. Like Mikey in the Life cereal TV commercial of yore, I tried them and liked them. 

On a trip to Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1990 I tried for the first time thick white asparagus, said to be a specialty of the region. They were right. They were extraordinary, a taste I have never had duplicated in America. 

At one of my favorite New York City restaurants, Chez Josephine, I am partial to the sautéed liver. Liver was to be avoided at all costs as a child. 

Gilda and I often eat sardines. My father enjoyed brisling sardines. I thought they were revolting. 

No doubt, each of you today consume foods you ran away from as children. Not to leave you wondering if there were any foods I actually liked back then, let me assure you I have retained an appreciation for stuffed cabbage, sautéed sweetbreads, homemade gefilte fish and matzo ball soup. And chocolate pudding topped off with a hefty dollop or two or three of whipped cream. My mother used to make My*T-*Fine pudding on the stove. As an added treat she would let me savor what was left inside the pot by sweeping my index finger on the streaked remains. I’m okay with today’s off-the-shelf, ready-to-eat version. As long as I have plenty of whipped cream. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Plummeting Elevator Sticks in My Mind

For seven years, from 1978 through 1986, I took the express elevator to the 95th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. From high above North Michigan Avenue on a clear night one could see for miles the straight as an arrow grid street pattern of the Second City laid out below. It was an exhilarating venue for a cocktail reception sponsored by my magazine, Chain Store Age, during the annual National Housewares Show in January. 

It was an express elevator in that very building (no longer called the John Hancock) that plummeted some 84 floors early Monday morning after two cables broke. Six passengers were traumatized by their near death experience before the elevator came to rest. As it was an express elevator there was no door in the shaft near the 11th floor where the car finally stopped its dramatic descent. 

Normally, when an elevator gets stuck between openings, rescuers align another car next to it, then unscrew the adjacent panels of the two cars to allow passengers to gingerly walk across the void to the safety of the functioning elevator. 

That’s what I had to do when an elevator I was riding in got stuck between the 13th and 14th floors of 425 Park Avenue. 

About 30 years ago, on a rainy work day, I decided not to venture outside to secure my lunch. Instead, as I had done on numerous occasions, I chose to fop my way off as one of the lawyers of Finley Kumble, a large legal firm with multiple floors in the building with a short-order staff cafeteria on the 14th floor. I descended from my sixth floor office to the lobby and entered the elevator bank that would take me to the 14th floor. Sandwich and soda in bag in hand, I re-entered the elevator with two Finley Kumble associates, one man, one woman, no wiser to their fellow traveler’s interloper status.

The doors closed. We started our controlled descent. Suddenly, we stopped. Between floors. No panic. Building security quickly contacted us through the elevator telephone. They’d have us out in no time, they said.

“No time” dragged on for more than half an hour. It was now close to 1 pm. I was hungry. I had my lunch with me, but reasoned if I broke out the goodies I’d be obligated to share with my elevator companions. I’m embarrassed to say I was not in favor of that option, at least not then. Perhaps if hours went by and everyone had expressed hunger pains I’d be more forthcoming with my food. I opted to hold out. 

Almost an hour after our interrupted journey, building security advised the elevator could not be restarted. To extract us from our vertical shell, they would have to line up another elevator next to ours, remove the side panels of both transports and have us walk across the exposed elevator shafts to the working elevator. 

Trepidation, not yet panic, set in. We joked it would be like walking across a log over a stream. Of course, the stream would be about 10 or more stories below. When the technicians entered our car, they cautioned us not to look down, to just walk naturally across the chasm into the adjacent elevator. 

In truth, the distance was probably no wider than two feet, a regular stride, for me, at least. Still, I was sufficiently repentant to believe someone was sending me a message my not-so-legal use of the Finley Kumble cafeteria was not kosher, if you get my drift. I never returned to the Finley Kumble cafeteria.

Returning to the present elevator mishap, extracting the passengers was not as easy. Rescuers had to cut a hole through the concrete wall of the shaft to pull the passengers out.  

Will those six passengers ever again be able to comfortably ride in a high rise elevator? Perhaps. Keep in mind, survivors of airplane crashes fly again. Car crashes don’t stop people from motoring again. Train wrecks don’t keep survivors off the rails. Still, I just wonder …

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Passing of a Corporate Gadfly

Among the tasks I assigned my staff and myself as editor and publisher of Chain Store Age was attending annual shareholders meetings of public retail companies. We would travel all over the country. To Minneapolis for Target, or as it was formerly known, Dayton Hudson. To Cincinnati for Federated Department Stores. To Bentonville, Ark., for Walmart. To Toronto for Campeau Corp., the real estate company that bought Federated and Allied Stores in an ill-fated attempt to marry shopping center ownership with department store companies. To Troy, Mich., for Kmart. Some retailers, like Woolworth and Sears, held meetings in different cities each year. So did J.C. Penney. 

During one of Penney’s meetings in New York in the late 1980s, attended by more than 500 shareholders, the highlight, or lowlight, depending on your point of view, was the shareholder question and answer period. 

(Now, if you never experienced an annual stockholders meeting, let me advise you they are mostly dry affairs. Corporate recitations of sales and earnings with a few pronouncements of new strategic initiatives. Sounds boring, and they are. My staff attended them because they often were the only time we had access to top executives as they usually held press conferences before or after the meeting). 

Most of the shareholders in the audience were current or retired company employees concerned their retirement pensions and benefits were not being jeopardized by mismanagement or profligate management.  

And then there were the corporate gadflies who challenged companies to be more transparent and democratic. Gadflies held stock in dozens if not hundreds of companies. They would criss-cross the country to pester executives with arcane, sometimes inane, inquiries. 

The most prominent of these stockholder gadflies were the Gilbert brothers and Evelyn Y. Davis. They did not like each other. At times they quarreled openly during meetings, the chairmen being unable to referee their repartee. 

I bring all this to your attention because Evelyn Y. Davis died Sunday. She was 89 ( She was unmistakeable. The New York Times obituary commented on her notable apparel. But it was her sharp Dutch-accented voice that impressed her presence on me, so much so that some 20 years later, while listening to but not watching a White House press conference, I was instantly drawn to the television when I heard her distinctive voice. 

Evelyn always got the microphone at corporate meetings. At the aforementioned Penney meeting she asked then chairman and CEO William Howell if the company was a fashion retailer. For sure, Howell replied. To which Evelyn wanted to know, why then did the wife of the vice president of merchandising wear a naugahyde dress to a recent fashion event? After the audience stopped laughing, Howell said he could offer no explanation. 

I haven’t been to an annual shareholders meeting in more than a dozen years. I am not aware if gadflies still exist to torment current chairmen. The Gilbert brothers are long gone as now so too is Evelyn Y. Davis. I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness them at the peak of their dedication to enlightened corporate governance. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Election Fallout Could Include a Mueller Move

When you poured yourself a drink after Tuesday’s election results came in, was the glass half full or half empty? It was that type of election. Or, to use a sports metaphor, it was like kissing your sister.

The spin doctors were out in force putting lipstick on their respective piggy campaigns. Depending on who parsed the results, Republicans had a good day fending off what turned out to be a blue splash by padding their control of the Senate, or Democrats enjoyed a blue wave in taking back control of the House of Representatives. 

The egoist-in-chief trumpeted his active campaigning in pushing several Republicans to victory while singling out in a press conference Wednesday those GOP House candidates who chose not to embrace him and subsequently lost. 

Republicans gloated about winning high profile governor races in Georgia and Florida; Democrats took solace that their margins of defeat were within a hair breadth of winning. Democrats captured seven governorships and labeled victories in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as harbingers of success in the 2020 presidential election. 

The evils of one party rule in Washington were universally decried by Democrats as they campaigned this fall. They exulted in taking back the House, giving them the opportunity come January to provide a constitutional check and balance to Trump initiatives. 

But even as Democrats reveled in that prospect, New York State Democrats basked in the prospective glow of one party rule now that majorities in the state senate and assembly, and governor, belong to the same party. 

Florida proved to be enigmatic. I heard that a reported 19% of black women rejected Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee seeking to become the state’s first African-American governor. Hard to believe. Gillum apparently lost by some 50,000 votes, about 0.6 percentage points. 

Some attribute the loss to latent racial bias. Yet, 64% of voters approved a voter reform amendment to the state constitution that reinstated voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentence. The measure has the potential to re-enfranchise some 1.4 million men and women, one-third of whom are people of color and expected to be Democratic leaning. 

Approving that referendum doesn’t equate with rejecting Gillum. 

The impact of those potential voters has national implications given Florida’s importance in presidential elections. 

Don’t count those voter chickens too soon, however. As civil rights attorneys Danielle Lang and Thea Sebastian noted in a Nov. 1 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Those who have completed their sentences are all too often prevented from casting ballots simply because they have unpaid court fines and fees” ( Florida and six other states have laws that deny the vote to people who owe court debt, sums that often are beyond the means of felons.     

Trump’s press conference Wednesday displayed the contentious spirit that has settled on his relationship with the media. Neither side came off as a winner. Trump sounded conciliatory toward the press and toward Democrats, but said a less combative tone going forward would be contingent on their pleasing him. In other words, no negative stories and no congressional investigations. My way, or war would be waged.

The first salvo in that new “charm” offensive came shortly after the press conference ended when it was announced Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned under pressure and been replaced by his chief of staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, as acting attorney general. Whitaker is on record as not being a fan of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and other questionable activities by Trump and his associates. 

If the Mueller probe is compromised by Whitaker, keep in mind that Mueller is a former Marine. Marines don’t back down and are committed to completing their mission. It would be within the realm of expectation that Mueller might associate with another more friendly investigative body, namely the House Judiciary Committee under the chairmanship of Democrat Adam Schiff come January. Schiff already is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration and its possible ties to Russia. 

Friday, November 2, 2018

Tuesday's Vote: A Choice Between Democracy and Greed

The latest employment numbers show a vibrant economy, a continuation of the return from recession inherited from the Republicans initiated by Barack Obama. Jobs increased by 250,000 last month. 

So, as we approach midterm election day Tuesday, what will it be people: Your wallet or your way of life? Your 401k or your democracy? Your bank account or your country?

Think carefully. Think long term. Just as tigers don’t lose their stripes, leopards retain their spots, Republicans stay true to their core beliefs: In their hearts they oppose Social Security, any form of welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act (especially its pre-existing condition coverage benefit), civil rights, worker rights, unions, voting rights, public housing programs and an assortment of other programs that provide comfort to average Americans and the land, sea and air we inhabit. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has evil intentions for social service programs. He is not shy about stating his plan, should Republicans maintain their majorities in the Senate and House, to strip away some Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid benefits. Why? To pay for the GOP tax plan that has skyrocketed the national debt while lavishing huge savings on the rich but providing paltry amounts to the middle class and working class. It has been such a disaster that Donald Trump has been forced to promise a 10% middle class tax cut.

Of course, Trump also acknowledged that he often does not tell the truth. He lies, in other words, to push his plans forward, to gain an advantage from a gullible public. For anyone who heard or read his admission, the operative question is, how could you trust him? Even when promising the tax relief Trump undercut his truth by saying Congress would act on the proposal in early November, never realizing that Congress would be on recess until after November 6. Only a fool would believe Republicans would follow through on Trump’s middle class handout. 

Surprise, surprise, surprise. No, this is not a paean to Gomer Pyle. Rather it is a sarcastic commentary on a recent report asserting the Trump tax reform bill benefitted White people more than Blacks and Hispanics. Of course, some might denigrate the report since it came from a liberal think tank. 

But seriously, even conservatives should not be surprised by the elemental truth that tax relief has been more lopsided for rich white Americans than for lower and middle class minorities.

Nobody relishes paying taxes, though my father used to say he wouldn’t mind if he owed the IRS $100,000 as that would mean he earned a heck of a lot of money that year. 

We need some perspective when it comes to taxes. Without them, roads wouldn’t be built or maintained. Public water systems and waste treatment plants would not function. Food and medicine safety would not be monitored. Public safety and our military would disappear. Ah, socialism at its best. 

The grand experiment of doing away with many taxes and government services proved to be a disaster in Kansas. Striking the right balance of taxes and services is the holy grail of politics. 

Which brings us to the elections Tuesday.  

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton of Britain had it right when he coined the phrase in the late 1800s. Republicans currently have near absolute power in Washington. Rather than draining the swamp, as he promised, Trump has installed acolytes who are corrupting the government, even as he and his family milk  their tenure for undisclosed profits. 

The Founders of our country foresaw the need for checks and balances so that absolute power could be restrained. It is in our electoral power to install a check on Trumpism. 

Positive economic news is a powerful incentive to vote Republican. But that is a short term view. A true patriot considers the health and welfare of his/her country and all its citizens and residents, not their personal bank roll, before casting a vote. A deliberate voter discounts the fear-mongering spouted by those who seek to retain their absolute power.  

It is imperative that everyone vote like your future depended on it, vote like your children’s future depended on it, vote like your grandchildren’s future depended on it. 

With that in mind, here’s a word from our guiding mantra:

Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 

Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 

Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 
Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 

Vote VOTE vote vOte voTe votE 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Trump the Nationalist Opts to be the Provocateur-in-Chief, not the Comforter-in-Chief

Over the last 40 years I’ve been to Pittsburgh numerous times, mostly for work to meet retailers and walk their stores, but also for pleasure. Our family checked out Carnegie Mellon University before Dan chose Tufts. We returned to Carnegie Mellon a few years later when Ellie participated in a summer theater program for high schoolers. Our niece Julie and fiancé Matt attended graduate schools in Pittsburgh and opted to marry there. During those non business trips, visiting Squirrel Hill was invariably a part of our Steel City itinerary. 

Unless you are a devotee of everything modern with sharp edges and crisp lines, you would fall in love with Squirrel Hill. Every home is unique. Each residence conveys the theme that families live in distinctly individual homes in concert with their neighbors. Naturally, it was the neighborhood Fred Rogers chose to live in. 

The Tree of Life Synagogue is an imposing structure near one fringe of Squirrel Hill. 

Tree of Life. In Hebrew it is Etz Hayim. The first reference in the Bible to the phrase “tree of life” comes in Genesis 2, verse 9: “And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.”

When Jews refer to Etz Hayim it is not meant as a symbol of eternal life. Rather, it conveys their dedication to the precepts embodied in the Torah. When the Torah scroll is returned to the ark after it is read during services the prayer chanted concludes with the following affirmation: “I have given you a precious inheritance. Do not forsake my teaching. It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed. Its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”

How cruel that a horrific death, not a peaceful end of life, visited the Tree of Life sanctuary in Pittsburgh Saturday morning. How grotesquely ironic that it was the morning when a brit milah, a ritual circumcision, was to be held welcoming a newborn male into the Jewish faith and its covenant with God.

It is irrefutable, demons affected Robert Bowers. His hatred of Jews, the social programs they support and the presence of immigrants simmered into a boiling point that drove him to kill 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue and to spout to police his desire to kill all Jews. 

Considered as a lone act of anti-Semitism, xenophobia  and religious intolerance, one could dismiss Bowers as a societal aberrant. But the number of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and religious bigotry incidents has multiplied in the last two years. Coincidence that those years coincide with Donald Trump’s campaign and election? Hardly.

Those who don’t see a direct correlation between Trump’s divisive rhetoric and the increase in hate crimes are deluding themselves and enabling miscreants among us to step out of the shadows, march openly and, in the most extreme circumstances, act out their lethal, bigoted manifesto. 

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s rhetoric by saying his intent was to vocalize differences in “policy” as a lead up to the election and beyond. But how is name calling a “policy?” How is demeaning women, or Mexicans, or Moslems a “policy?” Is it an appropriate “policy” to suggest that neo Nazis shouting anti-Semitic tropes are good people, comparable to those who protest their freedom to march? 

Trump says he is a “nationalist.” How much clearer could Trump be to the white nationalists who profess the same extreme bile Bowers digested and spewed forth. Almost everything Trump says and does, including retweeting white nationalist code words, reinforces his antipathy toward ethnic groups. 

The latest example is his desire to circumvent a key portion of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. He wants to do away with birthright citizenship, the right of anyone born in the United States to claim citizenship even if their mother came to our country illegally. 

One can argue the legitimacy of the need for such a position as a means to control illegal immigration, but Trump elevated the discussion to the level of autocrat versus (small d) democrat. 

I can’t fault Trump for wanting to alter the consequences of the 14th Amendment. After all, he doesn’t like the law.

But a president cannot unilaterally change the Constitution. Amendments to the Constitution cannot be tossed aside by executive order as Trump has posited. Amendments must be repealed. It’s a complex process. Not even Congress has the exclusive power to change the Constitution. One way is for Congress and three-quarters of the states do pass a repeal or further amendment. 

Trump and his reactionary advisors might believe the presidency imbues imperialistic, autocratic powers, but a precise reading of the amendment’s wording is clear: 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Trump hangs his argument on the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” asserting that illegal aliens are not under U.S. jurisdiction. Clearly, Trump would prosecute any illegal immigrant charged with committing a murder, thus implying that the accused indeed was under U.S. jurisdiction. (For a more lawyerly analysis why Trump’s plan is faulty, click

Still, Trump’s advisors, presumably constitutional mavens, are advising he pursue the action, which raises troubling issues: Are these the people who are suggesting nominations to the federal judiciary? And, now that Trump has packed the Supreme Court with two hard-right justices, will they be part of a majority opinion that validates his power grab? 

Just as Bowers has a “loose screw” to have perpetrated despicable murders, Trump, as well, lacks a full set of emotional genes. His near first reaction to the shooting was to blame the victims and their fellow congregants for not employing an armed guard. Never mind that four heavily armed policemen were shot while trying to subdue the assailant. 

For Trump the massacre in Pittsburgh was business as usual. Presented with an opportunity to be the comforter-in-chief to a community and nation shocked with grief, he chose instead to again play the provocateur-in-chief, as he did after the white nationalist march on Charlottesville.

He will not change. We should stop wishing he would. We can only hope enough voters comprehend the dangerous precipice on which our republic now rests. Tuesday we will find out if they do. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Future Hinges on Voters of Suspect Intellect

Less than two weeks until the fate of the country is decided. Not specifically on the ballot are the futures of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Obamacare, civil rights, voting rights, gender rights, labor rights, nuclear arms control, environmental laws and a host of other issues that will directly affect the lives of most Americans, even if they don’t realize it (for example, those who complain about socialism overtaking our daily existence do not comprehend that Social Security and Medicaid are forms of socialism, as are public schools and public police forces and fire departments).

Let’s be honest. You’re probably as sick and tired of election coverage as I am. That goes doubly for having to see and listen to Donald Trump at rally after rally as he foments crowds into raw meat delirium. How hypocritical of him to blame the media for inciting incendiary behavior.

Now let’s be really honest. You’re probably melancholy, perhaps more than a bit disappointed, maybe even angry that Barack Obama didn’t fire up his faithful in 2010 and 2014 to defend his progressive platform, as the provocateur-in-chief is doing almost every day with his rabble of a following. Had he done so maybe we wouldn’t have so many Republicans currently in office on the national and state levels.  

For now, I am beyond soaking up all the minutia of 435 House races, 35 Senate square offs and countless state house and gubernatorial contests. I just want it to be over, like I wanted the Mega Millions lottery to finally find a winner (I am really disappointed my five tickets contained no more than one of the picked numbers; I didn’t fare any better with Wednesday’s Powerball drawing). I’m even too exhausted to watch Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers skewer Trump, or listen to Brian Lehrer on WNYC public radio impart more reasoned analysis of our disastrous political state. 

That could be the Trumpster’s plan all along. To rope-a-dope us all into submission. 

I wonder how many people under 45 would get that rope-a-dope reference. Muhammed Ali used that strategy on October 30, 1974, in the Rumble in the Jungle fight to tire out George Foreman. Ali allowed Foreman, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, to barrage him with punches through seven rounds while he nestled on the ring’s ropes, a tactic that allowed Ali to dissipate much of the impact of each punch. His energy spent from swinging lefts and rights to little effect, Foreman succumbed to Ali’s assault before the bell rang to end round eight. 

Why did I pick 45 as the age factor? Because a recent national survey found that just 19% of those 45 and younger could pass a citizenship test if it were required of Americans born in the United States. 

“With voters heading to the polls next month, an informed and engaged citizenry is essential,” Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which conducted the study, said in a statement. 

“Unfortunately, this study found the average American to be woefully uninformed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test. It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”

Citizens 65 and older fared much better, scoring passing grades 74% of the time, the highest mark for any age cohort. (An actual citizenship test is just 10 questions, six of which must be answered correctly. Take a longer—96 question—test by clicking on the “select all questions” button in the link:

According to the foundation’s press release, “The survey also found that:
  • 72% of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the 13 original states;
  • Only 24% could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37% believing he invented the lightbulb;
  • Only 24% knew the correct answer as to why the colonists fought the British;
  • 12% incorrectly thought WWII General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6% thought he was a Vietnam War general; and
  • While most knew the cause of the Cold War, 2% said climate change.

Simply put, too many of our electorate are dumb. Without basic knowledge of our history, our founding principles and values, it is no wonder that a lying, uninformed autocratic bigot can manipulate the truth and lead a throng of morons to repudiate what this country has stood for domestically and internationally for more than eight decades.