My Article on Email Triggers

August 8th, 2015

My ECommerceBytes article on e-mail triggers is up at It’s based on a workshop at IRCE in Chicago last June.

What’s an email “trigger?” It’s an event that causes your email marketing system to send a message to certain individuals who have been visiting or shopping on your e-commerce website. The whole system depends on people logging in the moment they visit, so you can identify them and contact them later. Nathan Decker at, a sports equipment seller, explained how he and a programmer worked up a system that automatically approached people even if they were simply looking on the site–not even if they had gotten to the point of an abandoned cart. It seemed a tiny bit intrusive to me. If you are just casually looking on a site and don’t buy anything, would you respond positively to a marketing email encouraging you to buy something similar? I would not. But that’s just me. Some less-automated and less-expensive version can certainly be worked up by e-commerce sellers on a budget.

Sacred Music Sacred Dance
One good thing about working at the University of Chicago was the number and range of cultural events that took place on campus and in the neighborhood. I was in a Javanese gamelan group for a while. There were classes in Ikebana flower arranging, choral concerts, poetry readings. And on this day, a concert by Tibetan monks. I stayed after work and went to it.

Perhaps I went because they were to be introduced by the actor Richard Gere. Perhaps that’s why the hall was absolutely packed. I wrote:

“A suitably gray, introspective type of day. Tremendous overflow crowd snaking through hall. Guy behind me talking about home renovation. Richard Gere has perfectly gray hair. Have all these people come to hear the music of the unconscious?

“Although I went to this thinking that I would test my theory about the unconscious, I was more interested in the large crowd and the feeling I got from being with them–an indescribable good feeling that thee were all good people, interesting people, and that this was the right place for me to be. ‘It’s something different,’ the girl in front of us said. That was true; it was something away from everyday life, a break from the mundane, a time to pause and connect with ‘god’ in the sense of universal bliss or self-awareness or whatever–which has nothing to do with everyday life. That is what church never did for me, yet should have been. It started out as something mysterious and foreign but became less and less so. Doing the mass in English was the first big change. Then turning the altar to the front. Then guitar music, deacons, shaking hands–god knows what they have now. They probably have group discussions and hug-fests in the middle of the service. That’s why it became dead for me.

“That shivering, resonating shiver when something is really right, when I am learning something. I got it quite often that night.

“As to whether Western music is music of the ego and the chanting of Tibetan monks is music of the unconscious, I’m not sure. It feels that way, but I have no way to test it. I suspect that many of the people who went to the concert felt better for it but could not tell you exactly why–because it did not reach them on a conscious, verbal level. If that was the way they looked at it, they would say, ‘That’s weird,’ or ‘I can’t follow it.’ But if they forgot that barrier of consciousness, and let it speak to their unconscious, I think it does touch us there, and that is why we feel better about it. Because, for a change, our conscious set o ‘ears’ has been entertained, not the conscious set.

“It demonstrated the value of mass ritual–the energy and excitement gained from the group, with it loss of emphasis on individual concerns. so that one is open to more universal things–and the escape from the transitory world of everyday pain and suffering; the opening out into the wider sphere of the collective unconscious. Mad me realize how far away from that I had come, how I never got that sense in all the Catholic masses I had gone to.

“The popularity of this is hard to explain except to say that it touches something universal that we long for and that is connoted by the words ‘lama’, ‘Tibet,’ ‘mystical,’ etc.–that turning to the East that we are slowly doing in our culture. Not revealing something to people but touching something that is already there inside–people who know nothing of this would be unlikely to spend $10 to come to it.”

I am sure when I got home I told my wife very little of this. She was a Lutheran and didn’t want images of Buddha put up around the house.

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “Well, it’s the first day of fall, I think my life will change today.” We never have advance knowledge of when our lives will change. Something significant happens, and you go from one part of your life to another. Only when everything is different do you realize something important happened. That’s what happened this day in 1989. The 21st has always been an important day for me. I was born on the 21st. And 21 of anything is important in Buddhism. Though I didn’t know that at the time.

I had been enthusiastically exploring C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and at least the idea of Buddhism. This was consuming more and more of my psychic energy. But much of my physical energy was still spent with a group of friends in Logan Square. I met Gary (I will call him Gary) in English class in college. He had been my best friend for ten years. In 1982, he was best man at my wedding. We had traveled to Spain together. He was very smart, opinionated, and a born leader and teacher. I am a born follower, so I fit well into a circle of followers. We went through the punk music revolution together, and endured nearly a decade of Ronald Reagan. Our times were spent going to basketball games, drinking, arguing about left politics, going to art shows, drinking, occasionally dancing, drinking… you get the idea. Anything left-wing and not of this country was to be discussed and admired. In These Times was a favorite publication. All our talk and activity was of the outer world. Politics, culture, sports–we lived there at the top of current events, we listened as Gary held forth and extolled the virtues of this or that revolution, and put down Reagan, Bush, Ollie North, Nancy Reagan.

I was no great lover of Republicans, but I was interested in exploring my inner life, a subject that never came up in our group of friends. On this night I went to Gary’s and had a few beers an ventured to bring up my growing interest in Jung. I wrote:

“Tonight I blew up at Gary when he put down Jung and said how stupid he was. I couldn’t stand it. It hurt me so badly to see ideas that were precious to me and that were changing my life get trashed by someone who wouldn’t listen to me and didn’t see to have any interest in what I was saying. I told myself, fight back. Try to explain yourself. Argue with him. But I couldn’t stand it for very long. In this kind of situation I just want to leave. I thinking deep down what bothered me was the possibility that he was right and I was wrong. What if it was true? Then I would be lost again–at sea–uncertain–defeated by my futile efforts. I couldn’t stand that possibility.

“I didn’t have the patience, the maturity to just sit there and reason with him. I couldn’t do it. Something in my just erupted and too that away. I was hurt, hurt like someone was making fun of me personally and saying ‘You’re stupid.’

“I just started to blubber like a little kid. ‘Can’t talk to you about anything you’re not interested in,’” I said. So I left. And didn’t come back. And didn’t speak to him for twenty years. I wanted this to be the dramatic end of our friendship, and that is what it was. Our weekends became much quieter. I cut my wife off from her friends as well. I was free to go on meditation weekends in Ann Arbor and leave her behind. I left all of my old friends behind. I moved to a new part of my life without them.

Just a week later, I went to a Tibetan sacred music concert. I started to read Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa. And then I met Rimpoche and Jewel Heart.

I think everyone in my family would admit that I’m different than they are. I did things they wouldn’t do. I ran off to Europe by myself and hitchhiked around France. I got an apartment a few blocks from Wrigley Field. Just last fall, I drove by myself to North Carolina to stay on an organic farm, in a tent, and learn about Chinese herbs. I love these people, but they don’t totally get me.

Buddhism has a concept called sangha: a group of spiritual practitioners who are supposed to help and support one another and discuss things so they can learn. Truth is, this group can be as dysfunctional as any blood relations. But at this time (1990) I felt I had found a sort of family–or at least, people who “got” me. These were the days when we had regular visits from Rimpoche, who would teach the Lam Rim (Stages on the Path). I wrote:

“Last night was a wonderful night. I felt right at home in the circle of friends at Rochelle’s house. You could feel the energy change as the senior people came in. You could feel the energy get stronger. And then the voices got stronger. And then Rimpoche being there on the couch was like a great anchor, a great source of strength, over there to the side.

“To feel that you were on the same wavelength with everyone in the room, and not only that, but that people liked you and admired you and appreciated your work and your efforts–oh, that was wonderful. A warm green feeling.

“[My problems] were off in the background for a while, and they were now a manageable size. I am trying to flow with the world and make everything a single lowing process of meditation from one thing to another all moving together, all one great exchange, one great meditation, one great source of learning and wisdom, one great opportunity to help others and teach others and also to sing the praises of God or Buddha or whatever. All one flowing process. It is so wonderful how it has worked, and how I am beginning to realize consciously what I seem to have known all along intuitively.”

That last point is critical: I was able to live out things I had known all along. I wasn’t learning them for the first time. I have been here before. That’s what has kept me with this for so long.

IMG_20150220_092612-1Allen Ginsberg met my Buddhist lama. Gelek Rimpoche, through the composer Philip Glass. They both  became members of Jewel Heart. We would see him at occasional teachings at our center on Ann Street in Ann Arbor. He and Philip Glass would regularly attend our retreats, even the “miserable” winter retreats with leaky roofs, illnesses, etc.

Ginsberg and Glass helped Jewel Heart with fundraisers. I helped set up this poetry reading in Evanston. Ginsberg had a quiet speaking voice. But when he read poetry he yelled, he waved his arms, he became someone bigger and greater, like Lord Vishnu showing his true magnificence.

That weekend Ginsberg and Rimpoche and a few others from the Chicago sangha met at my house. Before, there were plumbing issues. The toilets backed up and there was water all over the floor in the first-floor bathroom. I prayed that they would last through this visit. They did.

Ginsberg was tired and wanted to take a nap; I tucked him into my bed. So I can say Allen Ginsberg slept in my bed. I recall that he liked my house and the little yard in the back. It’s one of those things where you think afterward, did that really happen?

In his poem “Friday the Thirteenth” he described the area near O’Hare Airport where I grew up:

Samsara tears itself apart–Dusk over Chicago, light-glitter along boulevards
insect-eyed autos moving slow under blue streetlamps,
plane motor buzz in eardrum, city cloud roof filling with gray gas on up into
clear heaven–planet horizon auroral twilight-streaked,
blue space above human truck-moil, Empty sky
Empty mind overhangs Chicago, the universe suspended entire overhanging



September 9, 1990 · Long View

February 19th, 2015

How did I get here?

We grow from rupture. Something happens to shake up our world and remove the solid ground from beneath our feet. In the scary in-between space we float, we grieve, and if we are lucky, we move forward.

My grandmother died earlier this month (1990). I was already a member of my Buddhist sangha and we had had a summer retreat which I attended without my wife. On Sept. 9, I recorded this dream in my journal:

“The Buddhists were meditating. We were in a long black room. There were low squat objects at regular intervals spaced throughout the room. They were like little islands of coral in the ocean. They were all made up of twisted knots. These were symbols of our problems. We were sitting and we were visualizing our problems as objects out there separate from us. So we were in empty blank flat space and our problems were separate from us and we were at peace.”

My grandmother wanted to die. My uncle and I were in her hospital room. We pulled her up by her big knobby-knuckled hands and pulled her up in the bed so she could gulp down, with great difficulty, a glass of water–more like she was swallowing a golf ball than water. “Let’s put an end to this…this is terrible…I’ve had enough…” I knew she meant it.

Tibetan Alliance

October 12th, 2013


Hello to my new young friends at the Tibetan Alliance, where I’m volunteering every Saturday. The Tibetans have a hard working, close-knit community in Evanston, just north of Chicago.

eBay and Collectibles

August 8th, 2013

Montblanc fountain pen

This is the first item I ever purchased on eBay, a Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen. I purchased it in the mid-1990s, after I first discovered the site. I bought the pen from a seller in Germany. I was amazed that it arrived in one piece, packed in a little plastic pen container like a test tube. That’s when I was hooked. Over the years I not only bought on the site, but I sold as well. I briefly became a PowerSeller. I also wrote five books about eBay. eBay was a big part of my life until the mid-2000s.

I don’t have anything to do with eBay any more other than write articles about the site occasionally. I probably don’t have to explain why. You know why. The things that made eBay fun aren’t there any more:

The sense of competition from auctions is gone, mostly.
The ease with which you could buy and sell is gone. Fees are up, and requirements have grown complex and intimidating for all but professional sellers.

You don’t have to take my word for it. I interviewed three experts in the antiques and collectibles field: Harry Rinker, Terry Kovel, and Bruce Hershenson. They said the same thing. I previewed the first of two articles based on their interviews on ECommerceBytes this week. This “teaser” provoked a lot of comments both pro and con about eBay.

Collectibles used to be the centerpiece of eBay’s business. Now, they’re just a small part of it. Fixed-price sales are the norm, and product lines offered by large sellers and well-known businesses proliferate on the site. Why, after an initial innovation, do corporations feel that bigger is better? Why do they feel like they have to keep making bigger and bigger profits? Is it all about the shareholders at that point? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But people at eBay ought to look at their current decline in popularity and think about the bigger-is-better approach to business.

Harry Rinker says that when eBay abandoned collectibles in the mid-2000s that part of the company was still generating billions of dollars in revenue. Why did eBay consider this to be insufficient? He suggested that they spin off their auction operation and make that a separate company. Seems to me like this would still be a good idea: spin off, or sell off, that part of eBay and create an easier-to-use collectibles market like the one we all remember.

Harry Rinker

July 18th, 2013

I had a nice talk with antiques and collectibles veteran Harry Rinker yesterday. Harry is 72 and lives in Michigan. He has been in the business 35 years. He is still having fun because of the changes in the industry thanks to the Internet. Here are some takeaways:

1. eBay has moved away from auctions, unfortunately, which has taken much of the fun out of shopping for antiques and collectibles online. But be careful with the Buy It Now prices. They are hardly accurate. They vary widely and you have to scroll extensively to find bargains.

2. Marketplaces like GoAntiques,, and Ruby Lane are doing well and have taken much of the business that eBay gave up when it abandoned the collectibles field.

3. Only a quarter to a third of antiques and collectibles sold online go to collectors. Most buy for decorative purposes. Many repurpose items and re-use them in their households.

I felt an affinity with Harry because he is making a living as a freeance writer thanks to the Internet. Our words don’t appear in print (for the most part) and it’s OK. “It’s a damn fine time to be around this business,” he said.

7th edition is out!

July 9th, 2013

The first edition of Starting an Online Business for Dummies came out in 1999. Those were heady days for e-commerce. In just a few months the bubble burst. But this book has gone on through the ups and downs in the economy. The 7th edition is out this month. I really made an effort to build in new content and new profiles. Here is a quick roundup of what’s new:

  • The rise of mobile commerce. It’s now a given that you have to have a mobile version of your website in addition to your desktop version.
  • Raising money. Venture capital has gone mainstream with sites like Kickstarter that help anyone get off the ground.
  • The rise of local commerce. There is a whole chapter in the book on location-based marketing–taking advantage of your store’s physical location to attract customers.
  • Apps. You can make money by creating and selling your own app. You can either hire a programmer or use one of several innovative websites that lead you through the process of designing your own app interface.
  • The preeminence of WordPress. A blog used to be a supplement to your website or business. Now it’s the centerpiece of many business and personal websites. WordPress has become the de facto standard application for creating websites, even though it’s still primarily a blogging program.
  • Curation. Content sells; in chapter 1, I profile Dean Pettit of Space Coast Outdoors, who has arranged tourist information about the space coast in Florida and is making some extra bucks by attracting visitors and selling ads.

Another change is in the amount of hardware and software you need to create an online business. Chapter 3 of Starting an Online Business used to be a rundown of all the hardware you used to have to buy. I sort of tore up that chapter because devices like smartphones and tablets make a lot of that hardware unnecessary. You can focus more on envisioning the kind of business you want and planning your business rather than investing in so much pricey stuff.

I’m very happy with this book and am glad to respon to questions about it. So ask away!