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.

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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.

Les

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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.”

Les

 

 

Boss Times

I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen 16 times, which is a lot for one artist unless you’re a groupie. I mean, I’m close to being a Southside Johnny groupie, having seen him about 30 times over the years, but Southside is more of a low-cost, great bar band kind of show. Sixteen times with an arena-filling artist? That’s a different kind of commitment.

When Springsteen announced his Broadway show last year, I was excited. My buddy Steve Q. had loaned me the Boss’ bio on CD and I enjoyed it during the daily work commute. I really wanted to see him back home where I grew up.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of luck (and some street smarts) in acquiring (non-scalped, other than one show) tickets to shows. For Springsteen on Broadway, bruce-springsteenthough, I found myself wait-listed from the get-go. I’ve watched at least a dozen of my Facebook friends gleefully post pictures of them heading to the show, at the show, posing under the theater marquee, posting reviews of the show, sharing pictures of the Boss on stage. Eating NYC deli after the show, for crying out loud.

OK, yeah, I’m jealous, and I’ve taken to  quickly closing Facebook when those get posted.

For me, Bruce live hits so many themes. From his storytelling to his reworking his own songs with new melodies to the joyous connection with his audience, he is one of a kind in our lifetime. I can think of at least three friends who thought Springsteen was all hype until they saw him live.

My Springsteen live experience began with a December 1980 show at the Nassau Coliseum for “The River” tour. After that, there was Summer 1981 in Los Angeles, Fall 1984 in Hartford for “Born in the USA” tour, two at the Summer 1985 Meadowlands Stadium shows, and in 1987 back in Hartford for a “Tunnel of Love” concert.

As I recall, I missed the fake band tour shows of 1992-93 and the 1995 “Ghost of Tom Joad” tour, but I was gleefully in attendance (the scalped ticket show; we traded tickets for a show a few days later to get in the first night) at the initial E Street reunion show at the old Continental Arena in the Meadowlands in 1999 when for the first time he performed (among many others, of course) “In Freehold.” From seats in the very top row with my friend Gary Libow, rest in peace, we roared at those lyrics.

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I was in the fifth row (phone ordering skills), closest I have ever been, for a reunion show the next year in Hartford, where I was able to see for the first time just how hard the man works and just how much of a bond he has with his band. My best memory from that night is that when Bruce finished “Promised Land,” he reached out toward a kid, maybe 8 or 9, in the third row riding his father’s shoulders and gently tossed him his harmonica.

More Bruce? I moved to North Carolina in 2002 and there was a “Rising” tour show that year in Greensboro; I saw Bruce on consecutive nights for his 2005 acoustic “Devils and Dust” tour in Charlotte and Greensboro. There were 2008 concerts in Charlotte and Greensboro for “Magic” tour, 2009 in Greensboro for the “Working on a Dream” tour where he consecutively covered audience requests “Seventh Son” and “Hang On, Sloopy,” and later the same year in Charlotte (“Born to Run” complete album within the show). My last Springsteen show was a magnificent 2014 “High Hopes” tour performance in Charlotte where (among many others, of course), he covered “Louie, Louie” and “Mustang Sally.”

Sadly, there was the 2016 show that never was in Greensboro (for which I had primo seats, in the second row of lower deck mid-arena) thanks to the boneheads who call themselves North Carolina state legislators.

When Springsteen on Broadway was extended for the final time late last month, I finally caught a surprise—my ticket access code. I’m coming home to NYC for Bruce show #17 on Dec. 12.

Les

 

A Gura By Any Other Name (aka Pete, aka Pee Wee, aka Bernard, aka Seymour)

It wasn’t until my father showed up for first grade (they didn’t have kindergarten back in the 1920s) that he discovered his name. Not that his parents hadn’t bothered to give him one, mind you.

It’s just that, in our nation of immigrants, accents have a way of perhaps not being paid attention to so much by the bureaucrats (something that is, unfortunately, still true nearly a century later).Pete Gura in the Peewee Days

Anyway, they went around my father’s classroom that first day calling out names one by one for attendance and at the end, my father was the only one who hadn’t dutifully raised his hand. His name hadn’t been called.

“What’s your name, son?” the teacher asked him.

“Seymour Gura.”

“Well, we have a Bernard Gura. We don’t have a Seymour Gura.”

Actually, they did have a Seymour Gura, except someone at the hospital where my father was delivered had somehow interpreted my grandfather’s Polish-accented “Seymour” as Bernard. Or maybe someone’s handwriting was off. But my grandparents never knew what the people at the hospital had written down, and in those days, you stuck to your own neighborhood, kept your nose down and no one got Social Security cards at birth.

So my dad lived his first six years as Seymour.

Thereafter, his teachers and school chums called him Bernard and his relatives knew him as Seymour, the latter of which went on well into adulthood.

Except for the Pete part. Somewhere around the time he was 10, my father, playing the street sports common in New York City, picked up the tag Pee Wee, because, well, he was short. And then, between his teen years and military years, Pee Wee morphed into Pete.dad-cleaners

Which is how my father was known as an adult. Unless you happened to remember him as Bernard. Or Seymour. Or Pee Wee.

Today would have been his 98th. Happy birthday, Dad!

Les

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At the Dinner Table

It’s not a new concept that one of the things families have lost the past few decades is the dinner table.

With both parents working in the majority of U.S. households, the explosion of afterschool and weekend activities, and the dominance of TV and video games in peoples’ lives, the art of dinner table conversation has waned.Dinner Table art

I was fortunate to live in a household where the dinner table was lively, engaging and even occasionally profane. My two sisters and I were empowered to speak up (other than complaining about the canned vegetables). Conversation could range from school to politics, music to sports, family to friends.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to believe the “loss” of the dinner table idea is a myth. Because how much of it was real to begin with?

The sad fact is that in too many households I was invited into or have learned about, the dinner table was a mostly silent place where children’s only acceptable activity was to eat quietly. A close friend told me her recollection upon saying anything at the dinner table was the withering response, “Who rattled your cage?”

Indeed, in my own household, I’m not sure my two older sisters have the same fond memory of our dinner table. I was the beneficiary of a more “open” dinner table because by the time I was old enough to remember dinner, our family circumstances had changed to be more free-flowing.

So to those families fortunate enough to have a secure, confident parent or parents who fostered and welcomed the kind of growth children should have, “Bravo!” To those who lived in fear of disturbing the peace, I’m so sorry.

One can only hope in the 21st century household—whether one parent or two, working parent(s) or not—kids find opportunity to discover their voice. It is one of the most critical developmental things we’re supposed to provide to our children. And it doesn’t have to be at the dinner table. Our future demands it.

Les

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Coincidentally, I Don’t Believe in Coincidences

It’s been 15 years since I let go of brushing off unusual occurrences or good fortune as coincidence and instead came to believe things happen for a reason.

All it took was the collision of a marital crisis and the bit role I played as a journalist in helping bring about freedom for Darryl Hunt, a man falsely imprisoned for more than 18 years for murder. 00 hunt pic2

In 2003, I was metro editor of the Winston-Salem Journal for less than a year when a minor court hearing popped up about Hunt. It was my first exposure to the case, and when I questioned the reporter writing it because I didn’t understand some aspects, he referred me to the newspaper’s “library.” That afternoon, coincidentally, I had time and spent hours pouring through seven folders worth of material.

  • Coincidentally, I had written a lengthy investigative story for my former newspaper in Connecticut (533 van de velde) of a man falsely accused (though never arrested, much less imprisoned) of murder.
  • Coincidentally, the executive editor of the Journal at the time had been hoping for years that someone would champion a new look at Hunt’s case.
  • Coincidentally, the reporter, Phoebe Zerwick, who wound up being assigned to write what became an eight-part narrative series had been my classmate at Columbia University 17 years earlier and we had a great rapport for working together.
  • Coincidentally, one of the readers of Day One of the series was the mother of a woman who had been similarly victimized (but who had managed to escape her attacker) six months after Hunt had been arrested.
  • Coincidentally, we had time to include that shocking news in Day Eight of our series.
  • Coincidentally, a judge read the stories and ordered the state lab, which had been sitting on a court order to study new potential DNA matches, to get cracking.
  • Coincidentally, a potential match was made to a new suspect, the same guy the reader who called in had told us about, and that guy made a spontaneous confession that he had done it, alone.

In a matter of weeks, Darryl Hunt was freed (Unfortunately, Darryl’s life was never easy, as Phoebe wrote after his 2016 death).

Coincidentally, I was in a marital crisis throughout the time of the Hunt series and aftermath, struggling to control an outcome I wanted. Seeing and understanding all of the quirks and details that had to go right to earn Hunt’s freedom (and I am only dealing with the coincidences from my point of view; Hunt himself, and his longtime attorney Mark Rabil had their own remarkable list of coincidences) provided new insight into my personal struggle.

The upshot was changing my reference point for life to understanding that things happen for a reason. And accepting that it is not for me to know why.

Put another way, in 2003 I accepted the concept of a higher power. I know that since doing so, navigating personal and professional issues has been easier. I certainly don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Les

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Wireless Stress Mess

Last June, my wireless plan included myself as well as my daughter and my mother. A nice family plan that cost me $157 a month with a provider that shall remain nameless.

To my delight, my daughter told me she didn’t need me to pay for her any more and extracted herself from my plan. When my mom died last August, I was left a “solo” practitioner. The bottom line became $116 a month. wireless phone

It seemed the perfect time to add my wife to my plan. After all, she was herself paying $111 a month with the same provider. Why should we each pay the same price when family plans are available? Off we went to the wireless store on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Do I really need to say how it went?

After an hour of discussion (following a 30-minute wait) in which the store rep got on the phone at length with the company—something I could have done myself from home—I got the bottom line.

It turns out that when I had been persuaded after my mom’s death to get a cheaper, all-access monthly plan rather than the family plan it seemed I no longer needed, the new cost of adding an additional line became $65, rather than $20.

Of course, none of that was explained at the time, and the “cheaper” monthly cost of the all-access plan was as savings of $10, apparently.

As a result, my plan requires me to pay $90 a month as a base price. Adding my wife’s line would be $65. Adding our two monthly phone payments another $54. Insurance, taxes, fees. The bottom line was $220 to $230. Just like what we’re currently paying separately.

The real kicker, though? When we told the store representative “thanks, but we’ll stick with what we have,” he apologized profusely—to the company person who was on the phone! What we got was an annoyed look.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. In dealing with utilities—there is no such thing as loyalty. I’ve switched car insurance companies twice in the past 10 years when costs rose for no apparent reason. I went from cable to satellite and back, and now I’m with streaming TV, in search of more reasonable cost.

So when my phone is paid off next year, I’m hitting free agency.

Les  

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Narrative in My Life

I try to live by the golden rule because it’s a simple philosophy and it leaves out the trappings of big religion.

That being the case, in this fledgling blog, I want to avoid where I’ve gone so frequently on Facebook since 2016.

I don’t want to rail against the latest insults to humanity, intelligence and the future of the planet foisted upon us by the pathological narcissist/liar who, thanks to our Electoral College and Russian interference, leads our nation despite earning 4 million fewer votes than his opponent. Nor do I desire to castrate (figuratively) the elected or appointed minion/sycophants who assist the would-be king in those endeavors.

Sorry to say I’ve probably just established a narrative: another bleeding heart lefty.

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Actually, I prefer to think of my philosophy as a golden rule-influenced narrative based on fact and logic, and influenced by growing up in a lower middle-class household with parents dedicated to the principles of hard work, compassion for others and commitment to lifelong learning.

But I’ll accept bleeding heart lefty if that makes you happy.

What I really want to say is how life tends to follow figurative narratives, but mine has come to include literal. As a journalist, I fell in love with a storytelling style. I studied narrative writing and through many mentors (I’m talking about you, Bruce DeSilva, and you, rest in peace, Osborn Elliott) and a lot of bumps, have deployed it myself and hopefully instilled a good sense of it in journalists and writers I’ve coached over the years (I’m talking about you, Matt Ham, and you, Arminda Lindsay).

Coincidentally (except I don’t believe in coincidences and, as promised in my first blog, that’s a topic for a different blog and will be soon. Along with blogs on run-on sentences and digressing.), what I hope to be the final part of my working life will also revolve around narrative.

In this case, the last part will be as a clinical mental health counselor, I’ve found myself, no surprise, drawn to a theoretical orientation known as narrative therapy. Through this, counselors help clients identify and name the dominant (problem-saturated) stories in their lives. And then collaboratively work on finding alternative stories.

With all my heart, I hope that our nation’s alternative narrative will be finding ways to talk through partisanship to find compromise on the problem-saturated stories currently defining our national discourse.

Now that’s a narrative I’d yield bleeding heart lefty for.

Les  

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