Brushing off the dust

This blog has been in mothballs for a few years, partly because I was writing a bit more memoir style in another blog (Music Sense Memory) and partly because I just wasn’t inspired to write much.

But I’m brushing the dust off and will be using this space to scratch out some thoughts.

I probably have fewer readers than fingers, but in the end, this space is for me.

Time to wash off that dust and grime! 




When Chicago gets it right

If you live in Chicago, you have at least one obligation: you must complain about the city whenever possible.

And most of the time, the city deserves it. Layers of bureaucracy, stupid decisions, bad ideas (hello, Block 37!) and tons of traffic, which is usually made worse when “traffic experts” try to direct it.

But every once in a while, the city gets it right.

They did with a new city park that just opened in the West Loop. It’s a great use of space, and it was incredibly well designed with the needs of the whole community in mind.

It's not the Bean, but there's some interesting public art in the park.

The park is an entire city block, bordered by Monroe, Adams, Peoria and Sangamon streets.

It’s got several areas where people can sit and relax, a public art installation and several prairie gardens.

There’s also a leash-free dog run and a leash-free child run playground for the kids.

What was the space before? I’m not 100% sure, but I believe it was either a parking lot or an old warehouse (the West Loop is filled with warehouses).

It’s such an amazing use of space – the design, the landscaping. It feels wonderful to be there.

So….um, yeah. As much as I hate to say it? The city got this right. Very, very right.

Follow the red brick road......

One of the prairie gardens

Pay cut – or job cut?

When I was laid off during those dark days at the end of 2008, there were a half-dozen people in the same conference room as me, getting the same pink slip and feeling the brunt of the same bloody axe.

But after a few peeks at social media profiles, I’m shocked to learn that at least one employee that was laid off with me is still working at that same company.

What happened? I’m not sure, but I believe he approached the management team, asked them to reconsider – and most importantly, offered to take a pay cut.

And that’s a big come-to-Jesus question that anyone whose job might be in jeopardy should ask themselves beforehand: how much less would you be willing to work for to keep your job?

Yes, it sucks to work for less money at a job you probably already thought you needed a raise for. But to have 75% of something is a whole lot better than 100% of nothing.

And you can’t assume you’ll bounce back right away into a new job. I’d like to think I had some advantages – I was, after all, a writer in the career field, writing about the very process of getting a job every day – and yet it took me nearly a year to find a job.

Unemployment benefits are often temporary and usually only about a third of what you made before. Would you rather have a consistent job with benefits – or rely on unemployment insurance, from which you have to pay several hundred dollars to continue your medical coverage via COBRA?

It’s why I’ve been telling people that one of the most important things you can do in this economy is to decide what your bottom line is with salary. Yank out those W2’s and bankbooks and crunch the numbers.

If there’s any chance of your company keeping you on, it has to be a big chunk – probably at least 20 to 25 percent – but that might be enough to move you into the “stay” column.

Yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s by no means an ideal situation. But it may buy you time and keep you above water.

And in any case, everyone should know to at least ASK this question. I didn’t know, and would have been willing to bite the bullet (at least temporarily).

Predictably irrational

It’s been a few years since I read Predictably Irrational, a really interesting book that’s written by Dan Ariely. But I was living the concept today.

If you’re not familiar with the book, Ariely discusses a lot of fascinating patterns that happen in our decision making processes, and what drives us as consumers.

I had to fight my own irrational instincts today. You see, I have an utterly Pavlovian response to the word “sale.”

It’s forty years of hard wiring, after all. My father was very frugal and eventually, I became frugal too. Living in those post-college years meant stretching a buck as far as it could go – lots of ramen noodle soup on the menu.

I was a big fan of outlet malls, floor models and clearance racks. And those things can all be great – if you need the item and if it’s still a valuable item to buy.

It took me a long time to learn that sometimes, for some goods, you have to invest money in a sensibly priced item that will last much longer than a cheaply made version. (Anyone who’s ever had an Old Navy t-shirt turn into a ball of string after 3 washings knows what I mean.)

And today’s lesson? Well, we live next door to a warehouse for a major retail chain that sells bath and shower accessories. I’m all about shower gel and about product (yes, I’m trying to save the remaining 38 strands of hair on my head). But I didn’t care for their products when I’d tried them before.

Yet they had a big warehouse sale today, and I kept looking out the window, fighting the urge to go over and spend money on items I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like simply because they were on SALE.

I was successful at avoiding the sale, so maybe my rewiring attempts are paying off!

If you haven’t checked out Predictably Irrational, it’s well worth a look. The famous “jam” study is discussed – some years back, a grocery store chain did an experiment with varieties of jam.

I find this the most interesting aspect: the more choices that a consumer was given, the more reluctant they were to make ANY choice. There were far more sales of jam when there was a choice of 6 varieties than when there were 24 types to choose from.

I especially find this interesting because we’re seeing more of this in stores. I don’t know whether it’s a result of this research, or whether it’s a way to manage inventory and control costs in this recession, but where you used to have six, maybe eight choices of an item, we’re seeing more twos and threes.

A different kind of Christmas list

I have a few shiny, cool things to share, Oprah-style, in a post of my “favorite things to buy for Christmas” this year.

But before I do that, I wanted to share another kind of Christmas list. All of us get very stressed out at this time of year, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s happening in your world.

But it’s important to remember that other people need our help – whether it’s money, time or just to hear from us and stay connected. And I don’t know about you, but I love to give gifts. The old saying that it’s better to give than to receive is very true – it’s a great feeling to share and it’s even better to surprise someone!

  • Staying in touch is what the program Let’s Say Thanks offers. It’s a program coordinated by Xerox, and it allows the user to send a greeting card to active duty troops that are stationed overseas. Regardless of your opinion of our military actions or your political convictions, we can all agree that these people do great work and make great sacrifices, and a simple thank you that takes only a few minutes to create is a great way to do it.
  • Here in Chicago, we’re seeing the ripple effect of our economic crisis hit the suburbs. The Chicago Tribune reported on how homelessness is impacting the suburbs in a way it rarely has before. There’s an organization, Journey from PADS to HOPE, that’s providing assistance for suburban Cook County. Check out their site, including ways to donate, here.
  • In the city, there’s an organization, 2 Li’l Fishes, that provides meals for the Uptown neighborhood. Uptown is a neighborhood that’s been struggling for years, with intense joblessness and a lack of affordable housing. These folks do great work and I’m happy to support them. For more information, click here.
  • And sometimes, it’s the smallest among us who need help. There are millions of homeless cats and dogs and hundreds of great organizations that help them find new homes. Here in Chicago, I support the Anti-Cruelty Society. There’s also the Humane Society of the United States.

Where do you share your gifts of time, talent or money? Any suggestions or additions to the list?

Music Monday: The eighties are back (sort of)

I may be a hundred years old, but I still have an open ear for new music. It’s important to keep up with the young whippersnappers.

And anyone who’s been listening to alternative/pop music over the last few years knows that the synth-pop of the 80s is showing up in threads of new songs by new, current artists.

Here’s a few songs I’ve been listening to that I love – and that shamelessly rob from that era.


Do what you love, be who you are

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been a year since I had the rug pulled out from under me professionally. It’s been a year since I was laid off. (Happy Holidays and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!)

I was one of thousands – hundreds of thousands – that lost their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2008, so my story is hardly a unique one. And the loss of that job was driven first and foremost by financial concerns and needs.

Being laid off challenged me and made me re-examine my goals, so perhaps I should say “thank you” to my former employer (instead of the other two words I’ve been muttering) for this learning experience. But it’s hard not to absorb the initial shock of such an event – and it’s even harder not to take it personally.

For me, that process was compounded by the fact that, after a lot of work and a great deal of time and effort, I’d finally landed in a professional arena (writing/media/marketing) that I’d been working to get to for over a decade. Losing that job made me question my professional identity. It also brought on an onslaught of feelings: I was hurt. I was sad.

And for a long, long time, I was pissed. Really, really pissed.


Turn the page

_barnes___noble__b_I love words.

I was reading the back of cereal boxes at 18 months, and practicing Spanish with my sister at 3. I’ve been reading a newspaper every day for the last 35 years from cover to cover. I love to read all kinds of books, and I’m sure my love of reading goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing.

About 15 years ago, I started a job with Barnes & Noble. After an endless array of soul-sucking minimum wage jobs at restaurants and convenience stores, I finally landed a “real” job. And it was a great job.

At that time, B&N had just started to expand into the area (Pittsburgh) and big bookstores were in ascendance, with B&N and Borders replacing their smaller mall counterparts, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. (In case you didn’t know, B&N owns B. Dalton, while a few mergers eventually led to Borders Group owning Waldenbooks.)

For a while, it was a great job to have. I’ve talked before about creating the experience, and B&N and Borders were certainly at the forefront of the experience model at that time. It was a new, novel idea (at least for me) for people to come in to a bookstore and really experience it library-style. The idea, of course, was to allow that slow-paced, comfortable guest experience in the  hopes that it would encourage the browser to buy.

I think for a long time that B&N encouraged a reading community in the cities it settled in. We felt like booksellers. I loved it so much that I worked for the company in several stores; three of them in Pittsburgh and one in Chicago. Four stores, four distinctly different demographics, and four memorable experiences.