Sears: the End of an Era

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“The end of an era” is an overused expression. You hear it when a ball player retires, a long-running TV show is canceled, a public figure passes away or — as was the case this week –an iconic brand calls it quits.

While I don’t believe Sears, Roebuck and Company’s 132-year run fits the definition of an “era” – the store has been in decline for years — its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing this week left me feeling a little bereft, and awfully sentimental.

Sears loomed large in my childhood. I grew up in rural Northeast Ohio, a stone’s throw from cornfields and Amish farms. In my early years, our road wasn’t even paved, and there were no sidewalks in my hometown. A trip to the mall – about 30 minutes, in each direction – was an exciting excursion.

I loved going to Sears with my mom when I was little. I’d throw a fit any time she tried to sneak there on her own. (The poor woman never got a moment of “me” time.)

Mom did much of her shopping from the Sear catalog — and instead of receiving her merchandise by mail, she’d often pick it up in the customer service department. That’s also where she’d return something that didn’t work out.

I remember walking through the side door to pick up/return items – skipping alongside Mom, clinging to her hand — like it was yesterday. I’ll bet we did that walk a hundred times.

Related imageThroughout elementary school, most of my clothes came from Sears. When I was very young, I wore the “Winnie the Pooh” brand. I’m almost certain I owned this dress – now sold out on eBay. It was my favorite.

I bought my first bra at Sears. It’s also where my brother got his “Toughskins” jeans, with reinforced knees so thick, it looked like he was trying out for Roller Derby.

Image result for toughskin jeans vintageMy biggest Sears milestone – in my young mind, anyway – was when I hit size 6x. Anytime we stopped by the children’s department, I would check my height on a cardboard measuring chart – like the ones at amusement parks, that say when you’re tall enough to ride a roller coaster.

I can’t recall why 6x was so important. I don’t even remember hitting the milestone. But I am positive it was the first — and last — time I was happy to be told I’d need to “go up a size” in a dress.

For a child, the very BEST thing Sears had to offer was its Christmas catalog – better known as the “Wish Book”. I was more anxious for that catalog to arrive in the mail than I was my SAT scores, years later. It was magic.

Year after year, my strategy never changed: I’d hole myself up with that book the moment it arrived, and dream big, turning down the corners of pages featuring any toys or clothing I wanted. Pass One was no holds barred.

Image result for sears christmas catalogRealism crept in with Pass Two. Santa Claus didn’t reward greedy, spoiled children, and there was no way he’d deliver all that loot to one house. I cut back with the precision of a surgeon, moping a little with each page corner I turned back up. There’s always next year, kid.

After Pass Three, I generally had a Christmas list – reasonable, if slightly aspirational – that my parents could pass on to Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

No joke, this is the same process I use today when a Nordstrom catalog arrives… minus the list for Santa.

I’ve been reading a lot about Sears’s historical significance. Its kit houses were an affordable route to home ownership in early 20th Century America. These days, neighborhoods where the houses still stand are tourist attractions – reminders of a simpler time, before McMansions.

Image result for sears kit housesAlso noteworthy: The Sears catalogue offered freedom and choice to black consumers in the Jim Crow South. I had no idea, prior to reading this article.

Business publications and bloggers have focused on management’s lack of vision, and its failure to innovate and pivot to eCommerce in the face of disruption by Amazon and Walmart. It’s true, of course. But there is plenty of time to absorb lessons from the possible demise of the Sears brand.

Right now, my heart is breaking a little for the thousands of employees who will find themselves jobless, and the already-struggling American shopping malls that will lose an anchor store.

Most of all, though, I mourn the loss of a thread that ties together so many childhood memories of me and my mom.

Amazon Prime can do a lot, but it can’t do that.

1971 Sears Catalog | by SA_Steve

Roseanne Barr, and the case for being “pro stuff”

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As I type, fallout has begun from a racist tweet by actress/comedienne Roseanne Barr. By the time you read this, there will be no one in America who hasn’t heard that ABC has canceled her much-buzzed-about reboot series, in response.

In just over 50 characters, Barr managed to offend her target (Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett), Jarrett’s friends and family, African Americans, Muslims, Iranians… and anyone (liberal or conservative) with a shred of tolerance, class or conscience.

Cast member Wanda Sykes beat ABC to the punch – she quit the show when the tweet went viral. And Barr’s talent agency ICM Partners dropped her as a client.

I’m not sure why the tweet surprises anyone. In 2013, Roseanne shared something similar about then National Security Advisor Susan Rice – and was shamed into walking it back. All that was missing this time was a #sorrynotsorry.

A #boycottABC movement is well underway. The show’s supporters are accusing the network of political correctness run amuck, and “liberals” of being snowflakes with ZERO sense of humor.

To paraphrase: First they’ll come for “Last Man Standing”, then for “Roseanne”… then for your liberty.

I won’t add to the raging debate on freedom of speech vs. political correctness. It’s a useful discussion, but so polarizing I fear nothing will come of it. Roseanne is (rightfully, IMO) taking a hit where it hurts most – her ego and her wallet. But hardworking actors and crew members – most of whom probably don’t share her intolerant views – are now also unemployed. Well done, Roseanne.

I also won’t lecture on racism. It exists in abundance and it’s appropriate to call it out when we see it. Done.

I’m not astounded that a comedienne is a bigot. Or that someone has tweeted something nasty and dumb that landed them into hot water.

I AM amazed that humans are supposedly evolved beings, yet most NEVER LEARN from past mistakes.  So, I have a few suggestions:

  • Do you want to avoid slipping up, and – totally innocently, of course – appearing racist by mocking the appearance of someone of color? Solution: Do not tweet or post unkind things about anyone’s appearance… period. Just don’t — even if you think your bon mot is a hoot, or your Uber driver laughed out loud at it, or your racist Uncle Bob suggests, “You should tweet that!”

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  • If you simply cannot control yourself, and must mock someone, do not compare him/her to a monkey, an ape, a chimp or any other primate. It literally NEVER, EVER ends well. (Also, shame on you for your cruelty.) Comparisons to an elephant, dog or pig are also off limits, for reasons that should be obvious.
  • If you are a comedian (professional or wanna be) who requires constant validation, resist the temptation to pander for laughs in social media. There’s a sub species on Twitter that hides behind fake bios, and spews hateful stuff under the guise of “humor”. Do not try to compete. Trolls have no reputation to besmirch, you (probably) do.
  • Your boss is on Twitter. So are members of your HR department, and your customers and clients. Even potential future employers. When in social, behave as if your career is on the line because… well, it kind of is.

There’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek decision tree floating around the internet, to help us determine whether to speak in a meeting. Is your comment on topic? Is it helpful? Has someone already raised the point? (Let me hear an “Amen” to #3, ladies!)

A decision tree on whether to post in social media could be much simpler. When hovering above the “tweet”, “share” or “post” button, consider whether your content is helpful to your audience, or kind and uplifting. If not, keep it to yourself.

Image result for tim minchin imagesI recently re-watched a fantastic commencement speech by Tim Minchin who warned graduates against defining themselves by what they are “against”, instead of what they are “for”.  He encouraged everyone to be “pro stuff”. Check it out.

Being pro stuff is more fun. Just ask Roseanne.

Google Duplex: To err is human

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In early May, Google’s “Duplex” dominated the news (in addition to preparations for a certain UK wedding). Demos of the robo-caller, sounding disarmingly alive while scheduling haircut appointments and dinner reservations, had us humans talking.

Its authenticity was bolstered by a smattering of ums and uhs. All that was missing were a few “likes”, and an upward inflection at the end of sentences — as in, “I want to um, like, make a reservation for Saturday night?” The initial creep out factor for many was high.

Duplex raises a number of ethical questions, because it’s so lifelike. Among them: Should a bot be obligated to identify itself as such, when there’s a human on the other end of the line – especially if the call is being recorded?

A pre-recorded telemarketing message doesn’t necessarily start out with, “This is a recording…”, but then again it’s pretty easy to spot after a few seconds. If the first few sentences don’t tip us off, we realize we’ve been duped once we try asking a question.

Then, we usually hang up.

Duplex is interactive. It can pivot, for example, if the flesh-and-blood hostess replies that there are no tables available at 6:30. It will then inquire about a table for two at 7 p.m.

I’m not a product visionary. I don’t see a two-inch wire and think, “If I bend this a few times, I could use it to clip loose papers together and call it a ‘paper clip’.” But it’s easy to see the utility of a robo-caller that gets mundane tasks done, while sounding authentically human.

So, what if the task isn’t mundane, at least to some of the humans involved?

As I watched the Duplex demos, I flashed back to a job interview from a few years ago. It was a first-round screener — an exercise that doesn’t usually require much prep, but is a way for company and candidate to size each other up. Mostly it’s a forum to assess whether the candidate is fundamentally under/over qualified.

It’s also an opportunity for a candidate to get a first read on cultural fit. Occasionally, companies – especially the “hot” ones – forget this.

Overcoming Your Fear Of The Phone

The aforementioned interview involved a recorded phone screener. I had never heard of such a thing. I went through a 20-minute online “training” to learn how the tool worked, and how the interview would go.

I was issued an applicant ID, and could call at any time within a date range. A series of pre-recorded questions would be put to me, and when I was ready to answer each one I was to press a button and begin speaking at the beep. When I stopped speaking after each answer, the tool would take my silence as a sign I was finished, and move on to the next question.

It wasn’t like a voicemail message that could be re-recorded if I wasn’t happy. I had one shot.

I am not sure why I went through with the interview. I have no clue who, if anyone, even listened to my recorded responses. Because I spent that interview essentially talking to myself, I never got a sense of how it had gone. What’s more, I learned absolutely nothing about the role. There was no way to ask questions.

Here’s what I did learn about the company and its culture:

The company was more interested in checking boxes – “Did she confirm she has 5+ years of experience doing XYZ?” – than in interacting to assess personality and cultural fit.

The corporate culture was not for me. Whether I was, as I suspected, overqualified for the role, the company had demonstrated that employees were just numbers. Widgets.

The company misjudged the balance of power between us. I was interviewing them too, and they bombed.

I can easily imagine Duplex serving as a more sophisticated version of the unfortunate interview tool I experienced. It could certainly help move widgets along the assembly line faster, and at lower cost. But, does it stand to reason that a bot will be as effective at screening out the “bad” fits?

And what if the strongest candidates remove themselves from consideration, because they believe they deserve a flesh-and-blood partner for the interview dance?

I hope companies that ultimately gain access to Duplex technology use it appropriately. Booking a table for Saturday night dinner is a mundane task. The two-sided evaluation of a human being’s fit for a role is not.

This is not to say that a non-bot interviewer cures all ills. I also recall a phone screener where the interviewer – who sounded like a summer intern – read verbatim from a script.

But that’s a story for another post…

Rock’em Sock’em Robots

LeBron James: He Likes Us! He Really Likes Us!

LeBron James Nike "We Are All Witnesses" billboard hanging from a building in Cleveland, Ohio

Four years ago
We were sucker punched, so
You can understand why I’ve been skeptical.
My hometown was spurned
Our allegiances turned
And our hero was yanked from his pedestal.

His burning ambition
Lay behind “The Decision”
To join forces with Bosh, and with Wade.
Fans shouted obscenities
And burned him in effigy
Any time the Cavs and Heat played.

But feelings evolved
And Cleveland resolved
To lure King James back in free agency.
They flattered, they fawned
They slept on his lawn
Would he come home, or turn us down gracefully?

Never say never
Knock me down with a feather
The optimists were not mistaken.
Chock full of forgiveness
And ready to WITNESS
This time fans have not been forsaken.

A conclusion forgone:
We’ll win with LeBron
And great things are going to happen!
The Q will sell out
And there’s really no doubt
That the Cavs will be NBA champions.

Come home LeBron billboard in NorthEast Ohio, 2014.

Mindy’s Law

Mindy Kaling is the bomb. No wait, she’s the BOMBDIGGITY. I watch her show The Mindy Project on Fox every week. I read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) on my daily commute and laughed out loud, to the point where other San Francisco MUNI passengers inched away from me and fumbled furtively for their pepper spray. She is smart, witty and self-deprecating. She is also, apparently, semi-stalking Harvard professor Noah Feldman, who bears a striking resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch, from the BBC series Sherlock. (Mazal tov, Mindy!)

Kaling’s — er, I mean Miss Kaling’s — speech at Harvard Law School’s Class Day on May 28 was so funny, I watched it twice. Then I remembered…

I have a blog, and I know how to embed YouTube links. If you haven’t yet watched the speech, enjoy!

A Poem For Donald Sterling

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (R) puts his hand over his face as he sits courtside with his wife Shelly (L) while the Clippers trail the Chicago Bulls in the second half of their NBA basketball game in Los Angeles December 30, 2011.
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

If you live in L.A.
And play ball on parquet
While inhabiting skin that is brownish

You could be a victim
Of Don’s racist dictums
Defense of which makes him look clownish

He and his missus
Got most of their riches
From selectively renting out housing

To Caucasians and Asians
All other persuasions
Were discouraged from so much as browsing

Not much of a husband
He’d long been accustomed
To openly flaunting his honeys

So how apropos
To see him brought low
By a “girl” he called his “funny bunny”

To her friends he objected
But he never detected
That his views were being recorded

He bought her a Ferrari
This V. Mata Hari
And this is how he was rewarded?

His allies soon vanished
From the league he was banished
And forced to pay a large penalty

It was no time for glibness
He begged for forgiveness
And appealed to America’s empathy

But dollars and cents
Haven’t bought Sterling sense
By speaking, he only seemed meaner

With absence of caution
He dissed Magic Johnson
And dug himself in even deeper

For the good of us all
And to spare basketball
May his 15 minutes soon expire

Leave him his money
And his gold digging bunnies
But force that old man to retire

Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Stirling in an updated photo.

Despicable He… and She: Donald Sterling, V. Stiviano and the Color of Money

LA Clippers owners Donald and Rochelle Sterling
Donald and Rochelle Sterling

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, you are familiar with the imploding universe of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Most of the voices raised on the subject in social and traditional media have condemned Sterling for his racist views, and his spooky, self-involved, rich white guy perspective on the world. Nobody is really arguing that the man is anything except a blight on society. That’s a good thing. Phew.

Coverage around the recordings of a conversation between the 81-year-old Sterling and 31-year-old V. Stiviano, in which he admonishes her for posting photos of herself with African-Americans on social media, were fascinating. For starters, there was the news media’s classification of Stiviano as Sterling’s girlfriend, without even a touch of irony. I guess once the wife finds out about you, and sues you for fraud, your status is automatically upgraded from mistress to girlfriend.

Also interesting: When the story broke, I immediately wondered… Isn’t recording someone without his/her consent illegal in California? Granted I wasn’t particularly concerned about Donald Sterling getting duped right about then, but I did find it curious that this wasn’t discussed until DAYS afterward. Also no one in the media seemed too interested in speculating about who might have leaked the tapes. Would establishing that context simply have taken too long given our 24-hour news cycle?  Or was the story just too juicy to waste time questioning the motives of a potentially vengeful woman?

Sterling is a reprehensible bigot who deserves the shit storm raining down on him — that’s not the issue — but some bloggers and pundits wisely wonder about the slippery slope of personal thoughts, expressed privately and taped surreptitiously, bringing about personal ruin. It’s a fair question. It’s easy to support free speech when you agree with what the other guy is saying, but in our increasingly religiously and politically polarized society, can anyone be so certain he or she will never hold a view that’s considered repugnant by someone with power? Where does the right to privacy fit in here?

It’s always intriguing (in a train wreck kind of way) when someone educated, powerful and professionally successful has a view of the world that makes you wonder how he has managed to function in normal, polite society – let alone strike it rich. For example: Sterling’s narcissistic contention that he provides “food, and clothes, and cars, and houses” to his players.

“Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”

Um, actually no one GIVES players those things. They hone their elite athletic talent over many years until they enter the NBA, where they receive huge flipping contracts dictated by the MARKET — not Donald Sterling. Then, they buy their own stuff with the money they’ve earned.

Isn’t it more accurate to say that thanks to their hard work and skills on the court, LA Clippers players have attracted fan dollars, which paid for the Bentleys, Rolls Royces and pricey condos that made it possible for Sterling to land the trophy girlfriend who ultimately brought him down?

You’re welcome.

One of the biggest head-scratchers in the Sterling fiasco is a Huffingtonpost.com blog post, About a “Girl” Who Refused to Just Shut up and Take Orders, by Dr. Peggy Drexler, described as an author, research psychologist and gender scholar.

(In the Sterling recordings, V. Stiviano wonders how a “scholar” like him can hold such narrow, prejudiced views. Sterling and Drexler are both scholars, huh? I’m thinking maybe there’s a new definition of “scholar” floating around I’m not familiar with…)

V. Stiviano
These glasses make me look smart, right?

Drexler seeks to paint Stiviano as part victim, part Norma Rae-style feminist. She is extremely generous in giving V.’s intentions the benefit of the doubt. When considering whether she’s a gold-digger, and/or a vindictive ex, Drexler’s message is, don’t judge! What’s more, given Sterling’s bullying (“I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl”), she positions Stiviano’s alleged decision to record the conversation, then leak it to the press, as brave and powerful because she refused to “just shut up and take orders”.

“She used her voice and her power to shine a light on abhorrent behavior… Her actions have resulted in real change… What’s more, you could argue that the woman on the recording didn’t really set up the man on the recording; instead, she let events play out in a way that seemed quite characteristic for the Clippers owner.”

Well technically, I think she used STERLING’s voice to shed that light — but why quibble?

I agree, Donald Sterling made his bed and should have to lie in it — but to suggest that Stiviano is some sort of modern-day Robin Hood for racial equality is laughable, since she took her stand only AFTER accepting a bigot’s $1.8 million condo near Beverly Hills, and several luxury cars.

I am reminded of the old saying about clocks: even broken ones are right twice a day.

Let’s all be glad that Donald Sterling has been exposed as the racist jerk he is, and hope he’s bounced from the NBA as soon as possible. The league, and the nation, will be better for it. But let’s also not celebrate V. Stiviano as the next Rosa Parks.

Instead, let’s just hope her 15 minutes of fame are nearly up. Unfortunately, I’m already getting a faint whiff of (*groan*) reality TV in her future.