Tre, Three, Thrice

I’m not Carnac the Magnificent, so I can’t predict important events. I do know that 2017 contained three major life events for me: I changed jobs, I got married and my mom died.

I also know Terrie and I will attend three concerts in 2018: Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, James Taylor/Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel. (Come to think of it, last year, we also attended three concerts: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, John Mayer and the Eagles.) And to those of you loyal readers who said, “Hey, you said you were going to see Springsteen on Broadway, so that’s four,” my answer, because it’s my blog, is the Bruce event is a show, not a concert.

So let’s see. In the first three paragraphs, I talked about three major life events last year, three “starts” this year and three concerts. Sounds like three is a trend.3 art

As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. It’s the Rule of Three, which says things work better in threes for effect, whether it’s writing, speaking or doing. Just think of our grand, old flag. Or red, white and blue. Or U.S. of A.

Sometimes, it’s just how things work out in general, for no known reason other than coincidence. Except, of course, I don’t believe in coincidences.

Which is why I am absolutely not shocked that I will be flying three times this year (to Florida, California and New York).

I learned the Rule of Three so long ago that I can’t even credit who passed it along. But the concept has worked its way into my subconscious so that I am frequently aware of it.

And so I pass it along to whoever reads this blog. You, you and you. Did I get everyone?

My First Non-Family Mentor

I read a story about mentors back in January, which was National Mentoring Month. It gave me pause to think about the mentors in my life. I’ve had many, even if I didn’t realize that’s what they were at the time. I’m going to occasionally write about them.

Other than my dad, the first person I now recognize as a mentor in my life was Mr. Dorson, my English teacher in ninth grade at Newtown High School. Lawrence Dorson was not a blazing personality. Nor was he a particularly engaging teacher. Some would call him dull.

What Mr. Dorson provided me with was insight into the structure of writing. And even back in ninth grade, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Mr. DorsonEach test Mr. Dorson gave was a one-question essay based on a book we were assigned, and he required the essay to be written using the inductive style. Inductive style requires a general statement, followed by facts; you only merge the general statement with your facts to reach a conclusion about the subject at essay’s end.

Use of the inductive style was worth 25 points on every one of Mr. Dorson’s tests, so it was possible (and this did happen) that a student could score a 75, which meant they perfectly answered the essay question but didn’t use inductive style. You could also get a 25 by following inductive style but not answering the question correctly.

Mr. Dorson, a notoriously tough grader (my older sister, Andrea, had him for 12th grade World Lit years earlier), gave me a 100 on his first test—the book was Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. That early result in high school gave me the confidence to know I could write, confidence I have carried with me ever since.

Beyond confidence, Mr. Dorson made me aware, as good teachers do, of the importance of structure. Even though journalism, my chosen field for many years, does not use inductive style, I learned that structure is the key to success in any type of writing—understand it and you can write cogently.

When I decided to share about Mr. Dorson, a quick Google search of his name and my alma mater took me to Newtown High School’s Facebook page. There, I learned that Mr. Dorson died in December 2013 at age 88.

I regret that I never had the chance to thank Mr. Dorson for what he did for me. I believe that from our interactions—and my sense of his disappointment when I told him I was taking Shakespeare rather than his 12th grade World Lit class—he knew.

Mentors understand. Thank you, Mr. Dorson.


Asking why, on a Monday in 2018

The other day I was printing a memo at work that filled about two-thirds of a page. I needed two copies. I got back the two copies, plus two additional blank pages.

It made me wonder why, in 2018, copy machine manufacturers, paper companies, or both, are still allowing printers to spit out blank pages or pages with one minor line of copy rather than offering the option to spare that wasted page. Most people don’t have the time or savvy to go into their print drive to make adjustments that might prevent this paper waste. Nor should they have to.

The paper problem made me realize I’ve been irked lately by more than just paper. In fact, let me channel a little George Carlin today:

  • Waiting at a stop light behind a string of cars, the light turns green but the line doesn’t move because someone in that string is on their cell phone. And they wake up in time to make the light, but you miss it. With the number of distracted driver accidents nowadays, it’s crazy that, in 2018, state legislatures or the federal government are not mandating hands-free-only cell phone use in vehicles. And don’t tell me I’m talking apples and oranges. I know it already, OK?
  • Why, in 2018, has no company figured out making plastic wrap easier to use? We have the same sharp serrated edge on the same shaped box with the same plastic-wrap-garbagecardboard pull tab (that inevitably tears open the side of the box when the wrap is halfway used, making things exponentially more difficult than they already are) since forever. Said plastic wrap in said box does one of two things when you try to tear off a piece: 1. Immediately folds into itself, thus initiating the always lengthy and rarely successful pull-apart process, or 2. You pull too much plastic out and as soon as you go to cut it off on the serrated edge you receive a painful cut, curse and return to outcome #1.
  • Walking into a market with cart, you are jammed at the door by another shopper with cart who decided upon entering to immediately stop and get their bearings. Why, in 2018, is the only store that has figured out proper cart flow Walmart, which sets its carts well off to the right after you enter the store? Which helps, by the way, but does not necessarily cure the problem of people paying no mind of courtesy.

It’s a Monday, in 2018, as I write this blog entry. It’s not rainy and I’m not down. Just annoyed.

Big Box Breakdown

One of the best laughs my wife and I had recently came one morning when we were discussing replacing our refrigerator. Terrie suggested we should go to Sears to check out the slightly damaged room. I piped up: “Sears? Are they still in business?”

For some reason, we both burst into laughter. After our hysterics died down—and it took far longer than you would imagine, but Terrie and I can get pretty silly—I got to thinking about Sears and other big box stores.180311152622-toys-r-us-closing-5-780x439

How many chains have come and gone over the decades, even as we keep building more? Circuit City and H.H. Gregg. Sports Authority and Herman’s. Woolworth and Gemco. Border’s Books, Crown Books, Waldenbooks. Child World. Kaybee Toys. Toys R Us, for god’s sake! Older or newer, the list of bankrupt big boxes is endless.

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “big box.” It was because of a guy named Eddie Antar and a chain of electronics stores that sprung up in the New York City area beginning in the early ‘70s. You remember him, right?

Crazy Eddie was everywhere: TV, radio, newspapers. Subway posters. Billboards. You couldn’t escape Crazy Eddie and his siren song of savings. Until he was indicted for securities fraud. The chain shut down in 1989.

What’s interesting is how many entrepreneurs keep trying to make big boxes work. Gander Mountain recently became Gander Outdoors when another sucker, I mean business, decided it could work. Maybe it wants to capture the market Dick’s is abandoning.

The problem, of course, is that businesspeople either don’t understand a sea change or believe they can survive anyway. It’s familiar and a little sad to me.

I worked in the newspaper business for 30 years. Just as the business side in journalism didn’t recognize the potential impact of the web on advertising revenue and determine a smart strategy early, retailers didn’t recognize the potential impact of the web on shopping patterns.

Today, I don’t read the newspaper and I’ll bet Terrie and I do half or more of our non-grocery shopping online. But I do feel for nostalgia’s sake and I have an errand to run this weekend. I want to hit Sears while it’s still around (“Hey Terrie, it hasn’t closed since we had that conversation, has it?”) and pick up some Toughskins. It was my go-to jeans as a kid.



Where There’s a Will

It’s not often you go 30 years or more between activities.

Last month, Terrie and I put the finishing touches on the legal documents that will ensure our final wishes are carried out. Last will and testament, health care power of attorney, financial power of attorney, living will, advance directives, do not resuscitate. You name it, we signed it.

We made the requisite morbid jokes as things were explained, but to be honest, this is sobering stuff. The first time I made a will I was 27; I had recently bought a house with my first wife and it seemed the “adult” thing to do. It wasn’t real.

This time around, of course, it was six months after my mom’s death and I’ve lost not just relatives in recent years, but friends. Oh, it’s real.

Coincidentally, in 2016 and 2017, I did a fair amount of writing at my previous job about advance care directives and the importance of having them. What it comes down to is being able to dictate how you leave and not leaving the burden of decision-making to others. If I wind up in a coma, I would not want to put pressure on my wife or children to make any decisions. These advance care directives lay out your wishes very clearly.

So my advice is take care of business now. Was it unsettling in the moment to deal with? Sure. Did I squirrel them them away and hope to not see them again for years if at all? Yup. Am I glad they’re done? Let’s just say I’m glad I had the will.

Are You a Giver or Receiver?

In the past few years, I’ve begun to think of people being, in broad terms, on a spectrum of either giver or receiver.Me Generation image

I’ve also begun to understand that relationships of any sort (family, friendship, business) often hinge on the push and pull of that spectrum.

Does a person lean more toward caretaker, wanting to help others (giver)? Or does a person put themself first (receiver)?

As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in a time often referred to as the Me Generation. It’s a term also often applied now, to Millennials.

Just because two people in a relationship may be at different ends of that spectrum doesn’t doom the relationship. Though the extreme ends are not pretty.

The receiver extreme is the narcissist, always putting themselves first (I’d give an example, but I’m determined not to let politics enter the realm of this blog. Oops.). The giver extreme is the control freak people pleaser, also known as enabler (that is the end I tilt to when I was get out of whack).

It’s the extent that we manage our impulses along the spectrum of giving and receiving that allows us to have successful relationships.

Here are two keys I’ve come to believe in and understand through difficult times: 1. Know the place of the other person in your relationship on the spectrum and accept them unconditionally for who they are. 2. Understand your own place on the spectrum and be willing to occasionally adjust your default mode of thinking.

The most important factor, though? Dropping any expectation you have for your loved one to likewise occasionally adjust his or her thinking.

The dynamic of the expectation of tit-for-tat—if I give something up, I should get something back—is a relationship wrecker. A group I belong to has a saying that expectations are nothing but premeditated resentments.

When expectations are not met, we frequently find ourselves “spinning,” which is chewing an issue over relentlessly to figure out if you’ve handled something correctly. Except that every angle tends to end up with justifying how you handled it when you know damn well if you had handled it well, you wouldn’t be spinning.

Naturally, it’s easy to talk about trying to break that spin cycle. Figuring out how to live it is a lot harder.

One classic coping mechanism I’ve used is to change scenery. Stop whatever you’re doing mid-spin. Call a relative or friend. Turn on music. Take a drive. Browse the internet. Mindfulness is a more structured approach and it can be really short. Start by taking deep, mindful breaths.

If there is anything to like about the new information age in which we live, it’s that our brains have been trained to be easily distracted. So the quicker and more you do to distract the blame, the more likely you will break the spin cycle.

Try it sometime. Just don’t lay an expectation on me for suggesting it.



Grief and Dreams

My friend and former boss Ken Otterbourg recently wrote a remarkable piece on grief, baring his soul about his wife, JoAnne, who lost her fight with cancer last year.

I discussed the piece over dinner recently with Ken, and that night, I had a strange dream. As someone who rarely recalls his dreams, this one was startling:

I was visiting my old newspaper, The Hartford Courant, in Connecticut with a cousin (I have no idea why he was in this dream), which was having an all-staff reunion on the building’s rooftop and giving away old photos and mementoes of a bygone era in another room.800px-The_Hartford_Courant_building,_seen_from_the_highway

While at the rooftop party, I ran into a childhood friend (not a journalist; I have no idea how that person popped up in this dream) in the other room, who in turn told me of the death of another childhood friend.

I then returned to the roof, where it had gotten extremely dark and windy, a brewing nor’easter. I ran to the door, scrambling with my cousin to get downstairs, into our car and away. That’s when I woke up.

Even though I lost my father unexpectedly when I was just 22, in the scheme of life, my father’s death occurred in the “correct” order. I’m now 58, however, and with that age come two related truths: 1. I’m a lot closer to being the oldest generation, and 2. People in my generation and age range are going to die. My former colleague at The Courant, the brilliant journalist Lisa Chedekel, lost a fight to cancer in January. She was 57. Ken’s wife, JoAnne, was 60.

All of which is to say I can’t help but think the dream held a message for me.

Since 2016, I’ve been working toward my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. The dream was affirmation of that life choice—I need to stop worrying about what was (my journalism past, which dominated my discussion with Ken that night), what is (people of my generation are and will continue to die) and instead look forward to what will be (a future in counseling).

The final coincidence in this story is that my daughter is in a master’s degree program studying dream psychology. I might inquire what she thinks of the dream’s meaning. But I’m going with my own interpretation. As the publisher at my first newspaper, George Riggs, used to say, “onward and upward.”