Saturday, October 29, 2005

October 29, 2005--Saturday Story: "Henry Cross and My American Dilemma"

Henry Cross and My American Dilemma

I was an only son for some six years. Well, sort of. Because there was Henry Cross.

At the time, even what we now call the “working poor” were able to have help in the house--Cleaning Girls. My mother was no exception. It wasn’t that she was aspiring to being a fancy lady (some in the neighborhood were) it was more that she was an elementary school teacher and had a small child at home—me. Thus, because it was affordable and available, she hired help. Though there were a series of Cleaning Girls, none worked for her longer or more loyally than Bessie Cross.

Bessie (even I called her Bessie, while she called my mother Miss Ray and me Master Steven) was originally from South Carolina. Her parents had been slaves and as a little girl she had worked in the cotton fields. My favorite stories from her were about her days as a field hand and how she picked cotton and filled long, long bags, pulling them along between the rows of cotton plants. And how when a bag was full, she emptied it into a big container and received a quarter. This seemed like all the money in the world to me and picking cotton sounded like something that would be fun to do. While a lot of my friends on East 56th Street thought being a firemen would be fun, sliding down the brass pole, riding in the truck with the sirens going full blast, I hoped one day to be able to go to South Carolina with Bessie and pick cotton. That seemed like much more fun to me.

In retrospect, I now know that the look on Bessie’s face when I shared my dreams with her was of loving understanding. She loved me too much to want me to know much beyond my fantasies about slavery or sharecropping or picking cotton for a quarter a hundred-weight in a field in August in South Carolina. She knew that time itself would fill in those gaps in my awareness. And when that happened, it among other things, would signal the end to childhood.

Then one day her son Henry arrived. He had been living with Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer just a block or two away from our apartment. They were getting old and infirm and could no longer care for him. So my parents offered to have him move in with us, sleeping on a small bed beside mine. He was two years older than I and knew so much more, and most important was willing to share it, that I was happy to think about him as a version of a wiser older brother. Again, in retrospect, it was the 1940s and wasn’t it remarkable that my parents were willing to do this and consider him, so immediately, to be a member of our family?

They took special pleasure from the reaction of others when we would, on rare occasions, eat out. When someone at a nearby table would stare more than was acceptable, even during those less tolerant times, my father would say, in a voice that would fill the room, “This is Steven, my white son. And this is Henry, my black son.” That would quiet the place in a hurry and we could in peace eat our Chicken Chow Mein, Fried Rice, and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. These were the only times I ever saw Henry smile. His life had made him very, very serious. As it would mine.

We spent most of out time in the street since there was no TV or other such distractions. And since we didn’t have very much, street games required pretty much what we had—nothing. Maybe a broom handle for Stickball (the sewers in the street or the rear wheels of cars served as home plate and the bases. A Spaldeen was enough to get a day-long Punch Ball game going and Johnny On The Pony One, Two, Three required even less, just a wall to lean on and a fat kid (we hade many to choose from) to serve as The Pillow, to cushion us as we came crashing down in a pile on top of each other. A used rubber men’s shoe heel was a “Heel,” all one needed to play, what else, Heels. And if we managed to find some marbles, we would dig a small hole in the dirt for the shim and could spend hours then playing Pot. And so on. We were very inventive little devils. In school we learned that Ben Franklin said that Necessity Is the Mother of Invention. I suppose we were being trained to be entrepreneurs, or just poor.

In the street games that required real skill, Henry was an asset and highly sought after. As we choose up sides, he was always the first one selected. Especially for Punch or Stick Ball. Since he was my brother and I brought him skills. Henry, when he connected, could punch a ball nearly two sewers. My specialty to the block, my status rose beyond my years and well beyond my measurable, in contrast, was slapping sharp, less than half-sewer grounders that when guilefully executed eluded the fielders. This made us a good team, these complementary abilities, and a winning side usually included the two of us.

After a three-hour series of Punch Ball games all of us, sweaty as we were, would gather on the stoop of one of our families’ houses and the mothers would bring out quarts of cold milk and home baked cookies (or, to me, just as good, Lorna Doones). Or, if we were really lucky, there would be ice cold bottles of Coca Cola and glasses of black cherry soda made fresh and on the spot from thick pourings of Hoffman’s Syrup and Seltzer squirted from a bottle. Pretty dreamy days, particularly if a crinolined sister or two would join us.

These days and years rolled into one long memory. We were all growing fast. Very fast—another of America’s promises was that the sons and daughters would turn out to be much, much taller than their immigrant parents; and mostly all of us were fulfilling that promise. A few, Heshy Pearlmutter, especially, were not only growing taller by the hour but were even sprouting hair in unspeakable places and earning, as a result, intoxicating street names such as Big Dick.

By then I had a younger brother and that meant there was no room any longer for Henry and that he needed to live with Bessie. Which he did. But he visited regularly and stayed over night frequently, particularly if East 56th Street was scheduled to engage in inter-block Stickball competition on the weekend. Henry was our only hope of victory and thus was welcomed and secreted on our team as a Ringer.

And while with us, in addition to the Stickball, he and I would visit his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer, now quite ancient. In fact, they looked as old to me as those Armenians who were frequently being pictured in National Geographic as the earth’s oldest living humans. Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer could have given them a run for their money, though they never ate any yogurt. In fact, I don’t think they ever ate more than some rice wet with gravy. They were so poor that they lived in the basement bowels of the one apartment house in the neighborhood. Among the coal bin and hot water boilers. The walls of their “rooms” were made from the cardboard sides of discarded refrigerator cartons hung on clothes lines strung between the basement columns. In turn for not having to pay rent (it was hard to imagine anyone paying rent for where they lived), they were required to haul up the huge steel ash cans of cinders that were the residue from the building’s coal-fired burners. A job well beyond their capabilities, and thus Henry (with me as his assistant) did that for them. In turn, in what I now understand to be dialect, they would tell stories of their life in the rural South 50 years ago. Stories that began to make picking cotton sound like much less fun. I began to consider becoming a fireman.

Those afternoons with Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer were among the happiest of my life. It is not just a gauzy memory of a simpler reality when I was much younger and full of hope and optimism, when anything felt possible and my body always did what I wanted it to. They were amazing, generous, and loving. Wise with years. And in spite of what they had seen and experienced, they were without anger or a tinge of bitterness. They had become my aunt and uncle as much as Henry had become my parents’ son.

That Saturday, we managed to eek out a late-inning victory in the Stickball game with the hated team of Italians from around the corner. With Henry driving in the winning run with a two-and-a-half-sewer blast. We had never beaten them before so we were in the mood to celebrate back home.

It was a hot day and we looked forward to cooling off at Melvin Shapiro’s house. With arms around each other we returned to our street in triumph, receiving the cheers and congratulations of our families who were sitting out on their stoops seeking to catch a cooling breeze.

Melvin went ahead to make sure everything was ready for us. But before we got there he came running back to us and pulled me aside. He needed to tell me something.

His parents said it was OK for me to come over but because his 16 year old sister was at home, Henry couldn’t join us. I thought I misunderstood; but when he repeated what he had been instructed to say, I then understood. And so did Henry.

I did not need to tell him. He turned and left. Never to return.

Though I had thought about Henry and attempted to find him—Bessie had moved back to South Carolina—as the months and years passed, I got distracted by school and friends and plans and in truth he drifted away, even in my memory. Then one day, it was before Mothers Day, I was in another part of Brooklyn and stopped in a Barton’s Candy shop to buy her some chocolates. Behind the counter was a Negro who looked familiar. I now know it was undoubtedly Henry because when he looked up and saw me he disappeared into the back room and again never returned.

Friday, October 28, 2005

October 28, 2005--Fanaticisms VI--Let Your Fingers Do the Praying

Did you read about the Religious War that broke out in the Yellow Pages? Between the Jews and the Jews. Well, actually between the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and the Camden County, New Jersey Jews for Jesus.

I have a few questions before I fill you in about all of this. Or send in my dispatches from the battlefield since I have been embedded in wars of this kind my whole life.

First of all, why do things of this sort always seem to happen in New Jersey? Can’t they just get along and worry together about who their governor is sleeping with and the cost of car insurance?

And then, who are these Jews for Jesus anyway? Every time I run into one of them in the subway they somehow know I’m a Jew and want me to read all kinds of cheaply printed literature. After doing some research, I now know they are a messianic group of Jews who believe that Jesus was in fact the Messiah and should be accepted as such by all Jews so that the end of the world can happen already and we can all go up to heaven. Traditional Jews, so called, suspect they are actually a part of an Evangelical plot to bring about the Rapture, the Antichrist, the Millennium, the Final Days, and yes heaven for all true Christians. Just Christians, not Jews. But we will have a final chance to convert before you know what. That’s the assignment for the J’s for J--to convert us. Well enough. That is until the War of the Yellow Pages erupted.

Yes, churches and synagogues do advertise in the Yellow Pages. It got complicated in NJ when Rabbi Lubetkin of Temple Emanuel, when looking for his ad under the heading, “Temples & Synagogues--Judaic” noticed that the heading that preceded that one was “Temples & Synagogues—Jewish—Messianic” and there he found a listing for Jews for Jesus (see full NY Times story linked below). He was outraged. Like other non-Messianic Jews he believes that one cannot worship Jesus and still be a Jew. To him and others like him Jews for Jesus is an abominable, sacrilegious oxymoron.

Rabbi Rosenberg, of the Camden County Jews for Jesus has his own problems with the Yellow Pages because in the 2005 SuperPages his synagogue is listed under the heading, “Clinics—Surgical.” I know, you are thinking this may be evidence of anti-Semitism—Verizon thinks all surgeons are Jews. But Rabbi Rosenberg has another thought—since the Methodist Church does not recognize or acknowledge the authenticity of Jews for Jesus he wants the Methodists listed under “Synagogues of Satan.” Trust me, I’m not making this up.

But I have one more question--why are all these synagogues and churches buying ads in the Yellow Pages?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

October 27, 2005--My Kind Of Town, Quebec Is

How many of you have been keeping track of the campaign for the leadership of Quebec's separatist party, Parti Quebecois? I'm not ashamed to admit that it has not been much on my screen lately. I've been more involved with Harriet Miers and the Court and Michael Jackson in Bahrain. But then there was this intriguing piece in the NY Times that jumped the situation in Quebec to the top of my list (see article linked below).

The leading candidate is Andre Boisclair, a 39 year old gay guy who is the odds on favorite to win. His open gayness is not that much of an issue. There is much more that is unusual about his candidacy. There was a widely published report about his “lively” night life that included excessive drinking and cocaine use—how he spent “wild weekends at the end of which you can’t recall where you left your rented car.” Though at first M. Boisclair refused to comment, he did quickly come around to acknowledging his cocaine use.

To Americans, where certain well-known candidates needed to claim that they never inhaled, it is remarkable that he not only did not need to beg tearfully for forgiveness or withdraw from the race, but actually saw his poll numbers soar—up to 70 percent saying his cocaine use was not an issue.

Contemplating the meaning of this phenomenon, a former Quebec cabinet member suggested that Quebecers like heroes who are “a little bit cheeky, defeatist, hesitant, unsure of themselves, alcoholic, a little bit fraudulent, or even a little drugged. We like to say they are like us.”

Boisclair’s opponents don’t quite know what to do. His closet rival, eager to gain the benefit that having a similar past might do for her, stepped forward to acknowledge that she smoked marijuana once--as a teenager, but didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps it was because it was only once and she didn’t like it that her poll numbers didn’t go up all that much!

I wonder about the direction in which leaders of this sort might lead us?

We already have leaders who are cheeky, alcoholic, and a little bit fraudulent. Some have even claimed that we have a President who appeared a little medicated recently, when the pressure on him was unusually intense.

But I could also go for an occasional feeling of hesitation--some times when our leaders would be a little unsure of themselves. Certainty and consistency are not always leadership virtues.

I could even go along with a little inhaling.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

October 26, 2005--Michael In Bahrain

Have you noticed the daily column, “Arts, Briefly” in the Arts section of the NY Times? I confess that I eagerly turn to it each day in the hope that it will prove to be the Times version of Page Six. In the guise of reporting about the Arts, it will be deliciously suffused with gossip.

But it always disappoints, while continuing to tease. (Sort of like the story of much of my earlier life.) The other day, however, was an exception, which I suppose is what keeps me coming back to it every day (see column linked below).

There was the usual who-cares item about how the popular ABC series “Lost” was surrounded in prime time on Wednesdays by weaker shows such as “George Lopez (8.07 million viewers) and “Freddie” (8.17 million) and “Invasion” (11.52 million tuned in) and this means that ABC’s Wednesday night lineup is “vulnerable to another network’s success.” [As a footnote--I not only felt badly about ABC’s vulnerability but more about the lives of those 8.07 to 11.52 million fellow citizens who tuned in.]

Another more intriguing brief listing was about the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater’s plans to revive its 1980’s hit, “On Second Avenue.” Though good news for Folksbiene, this was potentially bad news for the producers of “Freddie” because this means some of their 8.17 will have something else to do on Wednesdays.

But then I got to the good stuff—a report about Michael Jackson. I had been wondering what happened to him after you know what. Well, now I know. He is alive and (sort of) well and living in Bahrain. Get out your globe. I did and also checked the official Bahrain website to see what could possible be going on there to lure Michael away from Neverland.

Well it is a Kingdom (that’s good) on an archipelago located in the Arabian Gulf right adjacent to Saudi Arabia (less good). It is frequently called the Pearl of the Arabian Gulf and is full of Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian archeological sites. It also has roads, airports, telecommunications, medical facilities, and a university that are “all recognized as being among the world’s finest.”

I didn’t know that Michael had so much interest in Sumerian archeology (life is so full of surprises) though I certainly know from the look of him that having world-class medical facilities nearby would be important.

But somehow, this didn’t seem enough. So I looked further within the website and found a tab to click on that took me to a calendar of events—“Bahrain This Month.” It was remarkably empty except for the listings for every Sunday—“Basic first aid, Mozart by Manam Singers.” Sunday after Sunday, month after month the same two (related?) activities. Nothing else.

The next link, “” helped me figure out the attraction—Check for yourself, but be careful what you then click on. I would suggest avoiding “Free Sex Movies” or “Free Sxsy” or, maybe closer to home, “Xmen.” There was though one link available that I did explore—“Jewish Singles.” And so I discovered Bahrain isn’t such a bad place after all. For me or Michael.

But back to the Paper of Record—what in fact was the story? It seems that Michael was located in Bahrain because he was summoned for jury duty in the same county, Santa Barbara, where he was tried for child molestation. His lawyer reported it was unlikely he would show up (on time or late) because “he is permanently living outside the United States.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

October 25, 2005--The Real "Cabale"

Tucked away, and I mean tucked away well below the fold on a very interior page, there was a piece recently in the NY Times about former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff’s claim that US foreign policy has been usurped by a “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” (see link below for the scant six inches of column space devoted to this astonishing story).

Lawrence Wilkerson, retired Colonel Wilkerson is not exactly a stealth liberal who was planted in the State Department by Powell to run their version of an accomodationist cabal. Before becoming Powell’s Chief of Staff, Col Wilkerson, unlike the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense, served in Vietnam War and Korea and then went on to stints in the Pentagon and at the Naval War College. He holds two advanced degrees and has written extensively on National Security Studies.

And so when he made his assertion the other day about the cabal, more ears should have pricked up. Including at the NY Times.

Since I suspect you may have missed the piece, here’s a little more about what he had to say:

In a long, somewhat scholarly address at the New America Foundation (full text available on their website), Wilkerson traced the history of foreign policy decision making from FDR through the current Bush administration, including how all administrations frequently and legitimately found it essential to do much of their national security thinking and planning far from public scrutiny. But when he looked back over the four years that he spent as part of the current administration, to quote him:

I have never seen [an equivalent case] in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, and changes in the national security decision-making process. What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United Sates, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. And then when the bureaucracy was presented with the decision to carry them out, it was presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn’t know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.

“Aberrations,” “perturbations,” and “bastardizations.” Not the usual language of diplomacy. And “cabal.” Isn’t that from the French “cabale”? I think so, and how ironically appropriate.

But there was a little more. Colonel Wilkerson concluded with this ominous thought—“If something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in an American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence.”

Did he mean—“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which connect them with another . . . ?

Monday, October 24, 2005

October 24, 2005--I've Not Been Paying Attention. You?

If you’ve been reading these postings, you know that I use an article from the NY Times as a sort of jumping off point for my own daily commentary and musings. If I may, today I want to offer just quotes from a story by Sabrina Tavernise that appeared over the weekend, about attempts by US forces to take control of the insurgency in Ramadi, Iraq, the place all agree where the fight is fiercest. (Link below.)

As we quickly close in on 2,000 American fatalities and the media frenzy that will result, as well as the paroxysms of protest that will commemorate and take advantage of the event, I thought it might be timely to have some of the troops speak in their own words. And for me to shamefully acknowledge I have not been paying sufficient attention to the situation. And thus have been passive and thereby accepting of this tragic reality.

The Bradley fighting vehicles moved slowly down this city’s main boulevard. Suddenly, a homemade bomb exploded, punching into one vehicle. The other explosion hit, briefly lifting a second vehicle up onto its side before it dropped back down again.

Two American soldiers climbed out of a hatch, the first with his pant leg on fire, and the other completely in flames. The first rolled over to help the other man, but when they touched, the first man also burst into flames. Insurgent gunfire began to pop.

Several blocks away, Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Rosener, 20, from Minneapolis, watched the two men die from a lookout post at a Marine encampment. His heart reached out to them, but he could not. In Ramadi, Iraq’s most violent city, two blocks may as well be 10 miles.

“I couldn’t do anything,” he said of the incident, which he saw on Oct. 10. He spoke quietly, sitting in the post and looking straight ahead. “It’s bad down there. You hear all the rumors. We didn’t know it was going to be like this.”

“We fight it one day at a time,” said Capt. Phillip Ash, who commands Company K in the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, which patrols Ramadi.

“Some days you’re the windshield,” he said, “some days you’re the bug.”

Saturday, October 22, 2005

October 22, 2005--Saturday Story: "A Tale of Two Cemeteries"

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Between two cemeteries--that is the way I experienced much of my early life. As if enclosed by parentheses: one was my father’s family cemetery, Mount Hebron; the other, my mother’s family plot at Mount Lebanon. Just three miles apart, though they could have been located on different planets. I suppose I could have thought of this more expansively as a tale of two Mounts, but in truth it felt more like being pressed between the pincers of two parentheses.

My mother’s family, the Munes, arrived in the US in about 1912 from a shtetal town in central Poland, Tulowice. Her father, Laibusya Mune, was a paymaster in a forest. This was a job for Jews—they were trusted with the money, not the physical labor of cutting down trees. That was for the goyim! Grandpa Laibusya went into Warsaw each week to pick up the Zloties and brought them back to the forest to pay the men who cut down the trees and schlepped the logs to the river. With his wife, Frimet, he lived in a log house with his six children, including my infant mother. When the pogroms began in earnest, he began to make plans to leave. As with so many before him, he went on his own, established himself on the Lower Eastside, and then sent for the rest of the family. They settled within a community of other Polish Jews, most of whom came from the same part of the Pale of Settlement.

When in America, first they found a place to live, a store where to buy groceries, a butcher, and next, of equal importance, formed a burial society—a Landsmanshaftn, or a home town association. There was no time to waste—one never knew when it would come in handy. And indeed handy, so handy the cemetery has become through the years.

Even before finding suitable burial plots, the members of the Landsmanshaftn elected officers—a president, vice president, secretary, and especially a treasurer. Especially, since money would be involved—money to buy the plot and to pay for the “perpetual care” for the grounds beneath which the members would eventually reside. Also, the treasurer, because he had this great fiduciary responsibility, was paid. Perhaps as much as five dollars a year. And thus it was coveted and fought over fiercely, particularly as time went by and the annual fee was increased to 25 dollars (that was in 1978 dollars!).

The Tulowice Landsmanshaftn managed to strike a pretty good cemetery deal. Jews were arriving in New York in such numbers during the first two decades of the 20th Century, and dying at such a rate thanks to 1918 flu, that more and more farms in Queens were being converted into cemeteries. Mt. Lebanon, getting closer to the point, was founded in 1919. Perfect timing for the Tulowicians who got in on the ground floor. Actually, they managed to buy a reasonably contiguous cluster of 30 or so plots in a very desirable, hilly corner of Mt. Lebanon. Even with a pine tree nearby and a view of the new Interboro Parkway. To give you an idea of how desirable a spot, eventually Richard Tucker, the famous cantor turned Metropolitan Opera star came to occupy a nearby residence of his own as did Nathan Handworker, founder of Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. So my family was in very good company. Exactly what they came to America for!

My father’s family, on the other hand, claimed they came to America from Austria, not from the Pale (although there are in fact no extant papers to prove this assertion). Of course from Vienna and well before those Eastern European shtetal Jews arrived with their cardboard suitcases. In fact, unlike the Munes, who had the good fortune to have an Irish immigration officer at Ellis Island convert “Mune” to “Mooney,” the Zwerlings needed no such transmutation—the German Jewish “Zwerling” was fine just as it was, thank you very much. Though hardly of the Our Crowd crowd, the Zwerlings prided themselves on the fact that they were born in America, owned their own house, and didn’t even understand Yiddish, much less speak it. So when it came to death and dying, they had a very different approach than the Munes.

The cemetery they selected and in which they bought real estate (and that is how they saw it—in real estate terms), Mt. Hebron, was formed by assimilated German Jews in the late 1880s. In contrast to the other Mount, where all the engravings on the original tombstones were in Hebrew, everything in Mt. Hebron was aggressively in English. The roads weaving among the graves were wider (Mt. Hebron families had cars), there were abundant parking places, the mausoleums were more elaborate and spacious, and they even had clearly marked and maintained bathrooms (I won’t begin to tell you about this situation at Mt. Lebanon).

However, though in all other ways they were such different kinds of families, they did share one thing in common—an absolute obsession with illness, dying, death, and above all their final arrangements. No one more obsessed than my father.

More about that in a moment—let me first tell you about how the Mooneys obsessed about their plot. During the spring and summer growing season, it felt as if we visited Mt. Lebanon almost every week. That qualifies for obsessive, particularly since at the time only Grandpa and Grandma Mooney were in permanent residence. You might well wonder why we went there so regularly. Simple-- to care for the grounds. True, there was “Perpetual Care” available, but neither the family nor the Landsmanschaftn as yet had the hundred dollars necessary to arrange for it. That would come later when Uncle Jake did well enough so that he could afford to underwrite it for all 30 plots. Even then, because of our shtetal-brains and experiences with pogroms and subsequently the Holocaust, we Mooneys were suspicious of institutions, including cemeteries (after all they too were businesses) and thus were congenitally incapable of trusting them to provide care perpetually (enough of us by then knew sufficient English to understand how long perpetual in truth was) much less trust the cemetery owners not to run off with the hundred dollars before the clock on perpetual ran out.

So that meant we had to care for the grave site ourselves. That actually meant I had to do it myself because I was the only male cousin lithe enough to work at ground level and handy enough to be trusted with the scissors and shears. In fact, I had a further credential—I was experienced in working the land, having arguably the most successful Victory Garden in East Flatbush.

In truth I loved this most important, first adult responsibility. And since none of us had the wherewithal to ever get to the Mountains during the hot weather, going to Mt. Lebanon was our version of a trip to the country. While I scooted among the tombstones, snipping away at the grass and weeds, my aunts (plural) and the uncle (singular) who drove us to the cemetery would sit on the bench nearby (that too took up a plot of its own and was thus a splurge for the family to pay for) and talked to Momma and Papa, telling them about what had transpired during the week. And there was a lot to tell since the family apartment was the site of a constant shuffle of relatives and friends from the Camps in Europe, the far country of New Jersey, and even the occasional refugee on the way to Palestine. For the latter, Aunt Tanna was always collecting money for their passage or to help them buy an ice box. All that was duly recounted. But since it all was in Yiddish (Mamma and Papa never learned more than a few words of English), I could gather only the gist of what they reported. My ears perking up, however, and my nearly non-existent Yiddish actually improving, when they talked about “That Rifka.” Not quite a relative, Rifka was something they referred to as a tramp. I was not at the time sure what that meant, but I did know it was not a good thing to be (until much later when I learned that it was in fact a very excellent thing to be!). This also represented my first delicious taste of schadenfreude.

My father’s obsession with his family’s cemetery was of quite a different sort. First of all, among the Zwerlings, he was in fact the only one fully preoccupied with the cemetery and related matters. To the others it was just “that place over there in Queens” where they might have to go, eventually. But to him it represented a very different order of reality. Again, in Zwerling tradition, it was more about real estate than visiting with the departed, reporting life’s quotidian events to their blessed souls. But real estate with a different twist. To him it was simply a matter of making sure there was a physical place for everyone entitled to be in the plot (him and my mother above all others—though he had no intentions of ever making use of his spot since he planned to live indefinitely). And that the arrangement of those places (read individual grave sites) were appropriately hierarchical. Proximity to the sire, Louis, his father, my grandfather, was, as it should be, where the hierarchy began, with the sons and their wives and the sisters and their husbands arranged in descending birth-order tiers. As the oldest, this of course meant my father would reside right next to his father, and so on.

If I could draw you a diagram of the full Zwerling Family Plot you would immediately see that the task my father set for himself was not so easily accomplished. If they had bought a plot with hierarchy and primogeniture in mind, they would have purchased something more in the shape of a pyramid. In the gridded-out reality of Mt Herron, purchasing a family plot in this anthropological configuration was impossible. So he had to work with what he was given, or was bequeathed by Grandfather Louis.

(In contrast, the grave-by-grave layout at the Mooney’s Mt. Lebanon plot was more vernacular, using some of today’s cityscape/landsite language, the eventual tombstones of the Mooneys, as more came to rest in peace there, were scattering among those of their landsman and thus represented quite faithfully how they lived their lives. And now how they would spend eternity--commingled together as well.)

Thus my father spent endless hours with the full plot outline inscribed on a large sheet of oak tag, and on it he drew a series of perfectly scaled grave-shaped rectangles, in various combinations and permutations until he had it as right as he could, considering the restraints imposed on his grand design by the unyielding parameters of the overall layout of the plot. (Thankfully, he had acquired the considerable skills required to do this as a former student at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute!) And when he had his plan worked out as appropriately as possible (appropriateness continued to be his goal), he made a final rendering, using a Tee Square, triangle, and draftsman’s indelible ink, and at a series of meetings with his brothers and sisters and their spouses, he got each to sign the rectangle assigned to them until all were duly filled in and signed off on.

And thus his work was done. . . . That is until his sister Madeline began to upset the scheme by marrying, killing off, and, most critically, burying her husbands in turn, one by one by one, in the Zwerling plot.

By the time Husband Number Three was interred, my father began to worry. Of course, as you would expect, knowing him as you do by now, he worried not so much about the perfection of his carefully crafted plan, but, in frankness, more about his own eventual fate. If Madeline kept up her current pace, by the actuarial time my father would need the full services of Mt. Hebron, if you get my meaning, there would no longer be room for him.

Thus, he convened a Zwerling full-family emergency meeting and laid out the issue squarely and frankly. Madeline was understandable distraught, having lost Murray just the previous week (he had jumped off the roof of their apartment building) and after all the shiva period had just ended (not that anyone observed it). But still my father was able to forge ahead and succeeded in mobilizing a majority of sibling and spouse votes to let Madeline know there were no more places for husbands. That is unless she was willing to relinquish her own plot. Or, perhaps she would prefer to have my father arrange to move one or two of her husbands to a different part of the cemetery. Considering her options, Madeline consented to no more husbands—more husbands to be sure, but no more burial places for dead husbands.

That should be the end of this story. I feel certain you will not be surprised to learn--not by a long shot.

As it turns out there was room for two more husbands and Madeline herself because my father, when his fateful time arrived, did not need his place in Mt. Hebron after all.

You may know that when a Jewish person dies, it is considered desirable that the person be buried as immediately as possible. The dust-to-dust imperative is very strong and thus the sooner the better. My father to be sure had arranged for a prepaid funeral, for him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during which he had the pleasure of shopping for his own casket and arranging for both the limos and the services (he wanted nothing involving a rabbi or anything whatsoever in Hebrew). But he hadn’t said anything prescriptive about Mt. Hebron—after all that was all taken care of: it was down on paper (or oak tag) in indelible black and white.

He hadn’t considered that my mother might have a very different plan in mind—something even more indelible: During their entire 60 years together she had participated in literally hundreds of endless sessions about their plans for Mt. Hebron (or to put it another way, Mt. Hebron’s plans for them). She had only hinted to my father how much she hated the idea of spending the rest of eternity with THE ZWERLINGS. She dreaded the idea that she would not be near her own parents and her real family. She also dreaded the idea that she would have to spend all her perpetual time listening to THE ZWERLINGS arguing, all talking/shouting at the same time, forever. Literally, forever.

And so she told her sons, and then the funeral director, “Let’s put him in Mt. Lebanon.” Luckily there was still room. Again, in the informal shtetal ways of the Tulowice Landsmanscahftn, without an oak tag notarized plan, she was able to get her own remaining siblings to agree to find a space for him and one beside him for herself.

The only thing she felt at all guilty about was that this new arrangement placed him right next to his hated brother- in-law, Harry. (Actually, all things considered, maybe she didn’t really feel guilty about this either.) She knew, as a result, that there would be an eternal fight right there. But she also knew she would be in the warm vicinity of Mamma and Papa. And, being one place away from Harry, who cares, let them fight.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

October 21, 2005--Fanaticisms V: Leave My Lulavim Alone!

I have always thought of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot as a simple, happy holiday. One to really look forward to since so many of the others involve fasting and praying and atonement. Let the kids have some fun already. It’s America.

But then, yet again, the NY Times managed to get in the way of the fun. But before turning to that, a word about Sukkot itself, since I assume not all of you are up to speed about what we Jews do from the 15th of Tishri to the 21st or 22nd of Tishri. Please no questions about the Jewish calendar or why Sukkot can run until either the 21st or 22nd. Blogs are supposed to be brief and pithy and to deal with either of these two matters would take at least 16 volumes. And all in Hebrew.

Historically Sukkot commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and ending 40 years later at Mount Sinai (and everyone knows what happened there). The way the holiday came to be celebrated in non-biblical times was quite quaint, especially for someone like me who grew up in Brooklyn where the only nearby sand was at Coney Island.

One was expected to construct a little hut, or sukkah (we called it a sukkie), a temporary structure outside on a balcony, rooftop, or vacant lot. Most important, it was required that the roof be made of tree branches, which proved to non-observant skeptics that sukkot was really a harvest festival derived from, yes, pagan times and rituals, since it was quite a stretch to think about gathering tree branches in the Negev Desert. And it was in the sukkah that the family was to eat dinner from the 15th to the 21st or 22nd. Whatever.

Which brings me back to the NY Times where there was a story about the shortage of Egyptian lulavim (see story linked below). The lulav is one of four plants that Jews wave during each day of Sukkot while reciting a prayer. Normally the lulav palm fronds are in plentiful supply, but for some mysterious reason (Egyptian environmentalists claim harvesting lulavim harms the trees on which they grow) they were quite scarce this year.

Why not then just use some other frond, from say the Date Palm? Doesn’t that also grow in the Holy Land? Well to the Hassids, the luvlamin must be of a type so that the leaves cleave to each other. Even more exacting laws (we’re talking laws here) relate to the center leaf that extends uppermost along the lulav’s spine; ideally this leaf should not be split, and if it is, one should ask a Rabbinic authority about it. (What that authority might say would take at least another blog’s worth of speculation.) And there’s yet more, but I should stop since I know your eyes are glazing over and my fingers are getting numb.

But please, one more thing--because of the supply and demand curve, the price per lulav in Brooklyn this year was $15 apiece as contrasted with last year when it was just two dollars. So not only do we have a spike in the price of Middle Eastern oil, but now we also an even steeper one in lulavim. What next?

October 20, 2005--Boys Will Be Boys

A relatively benign, hidden-away article in yesterday’s NY Times (on page A5) deserved both better placement and at least some measure of outrage. The Times piece is about a recent report by Refugees International that was commissioned to investigate how UN peacekeeping troops and personnel have been sexually abusing the very populations to which they are assigned to bring peace.

Though the Times article does include brief mention of how UN peacekeepers and civilian staff members had forced sex with women and girls in the Congo in exchange for food and money, it does not even cast a superficial analytical glance at the report itself nor delineate why in its shortcomings it will ultimately join so many other UN reports that have been doomed to uselessness.

The RI report begins with a chapter on the “Culture of Gender-Based Violence in West Africa and Haiti,” concluding that viscious forms of rape and other kinds of violence against women, girls, boys, and men existed, to quote the report, “long before the peacekeepers arrived.” Historically, armed forces there used sexual abuse to brutalize army recruits and to break the binds within families: “Conscripts (often children combatants) were forced to rape their mothers and sisters.” That’s’ the context—what existed, again, “before the UN peacekeepers arrived.”

The next chapter of the report provides more context—how we must understand how “most militaries around the world have to address the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse” that is endemic to “even the best trained militaries.” Again, to quote the Refugees International Report—“Since UN peacekeeping missions are made up of troops contributed from militaries around the world, they are subject to the same problems as the individual militaries that contribute troops to them” [my emphasis]. Problems indeed.

In other words, boys are just boys and thus what can we expect of the U.N. peacekeeping troops, who after all are not even necessarily from among “the best trained militaries.” Those, presumably, have more important assignments in places such as, say, Iraq.

The report does manage to show some understanding for the larger situation. It quotes one worker from Atlas, the NGO in charge of a UN camp in Congo, who said, “Yes, we know that girls go and visit the UN soldiers every night. There is nothing to stop them, and the girls need food. One girl said, ‘Going over to the camp is OK because the soldiers are kind to me and don’t point their guns like the other soldiers did.’”

I couldn’t help but wonder why the Atlas folks hadn't been able to figure out a different system for getting food to the girls, maybe even some place away from the troops? But then again, look how nice the peacekeepers were being to the girls, taking such care not to frighten them with their guns.

And thus, who even needs to read the Recommendations chapter—If boys will be boys I suppose reports will be reports

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

October 19, 2005--Cold Turkey

Do you recall the story from eleven months ago about a teenager who threw a 20-pound frozen turkey onto the Long Island Expressway from an overpass and how it almost killed Victoria Ruvolo when the turkey crashed through the windshield of her car? Though it was a terrible and tragic story, I must confess that I joined in the laughter evoked by the anti-Thanksgiving jokes about it that were told by Jay Leno and others. A frozen turkey! Really, very funny.

So much humor is about just such sad and tragic things. We even make jokes about the Second World War and the Nazis—Hogan’s Heroes and The Producers are just two examples. Laughter helps get us through the day. Especially dark days.

But then this story about the frozen turkey took a sudden, very different turn. Earlier this week, as reported in the NY Times (see full story linked below), Ryan Cushing, the teenager responsible received a very light, six-month sentence because the victim asked the judge to be lenient. This occurs occasionally when the victim of a crime is unusually compassionate and forgiving. In this case Ms. Ruvolo certainly was, in spite of the extent of the injuries to her head and face and the many, many months of coma, surgery, and rehabilitation. And the lingering effects and impairments.

At the sentencing hearing, Ryan Cushing acknowledged that her ability to forgive has had “a profound effect on me. It has already made a positive change in my life.” This had been on stark display last August when Ms. Ruvolo stroked Cushing’s head while he repeatedly apologized and sobbed.

She forgave him in spite of what he did and in spite of the fact that neither he nor the four other teens with him, to quote her, “had the guts or decency” to even call 911 to seek help for her as she lay near death, alone and untended.

This week, in court, she went on to say, “There is no room for vengeance in my life. . . . I stubbornly rejected the notion that you should be treated more harshly. I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency, I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life . . . . Ryan, prove me right.”

What if we could extrapolate into the larger world Victoria Ruvolo’s inspiring compassion and sense of forgiveness. To where it is so desperately needed. I try to keep track of the nature of human nature and opine here and elsewhere about its malevolent and predatory side and how that has gotten us and our planet into such a deplorable state. But this is the other side of our nature and does offer some hope. Thanks for that Victoria!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

October 18, 2005--Holy Toledo!

Admit it, when was the last time you asked, “I wonder what’s happening these days in Toledo?” It hasn’t been on my screen, at least not since MASH ended and Corporal Klinger presumably returned to Toledo, his home town, and resumed his interest in the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team.

That is, until the other day when there were endlessly repeated, disturbing images on all the cable news channels of street riots sparked by a white supremacist march. The images, it is sad to acknowledge, were all of black people, mainly young boys, running in packs through the streets, attacking neighborhood buildings and allegedly looting some.

So when a piece about this appeared in the NY Times (see story below), I hoped to find there not only a balanced report about the events but beyond that, and much more significant, some sense of the meaning of the situation on the ground. For example, a bit of background about the historical treatment of blacks in central Ohio (not good at all), the dramatic decline in the economies of that region (our quintessential Rust Belt), and the total disintegration of the public schools (Ohio includes more cities than any other state in the US and all of their school districts, literally all of them have been deemed to be “low-performing” by state and federal standards).

But not a word about any of this was to be found in the tiny article buried on page 16. In fact, one would have had to read very much between the lines to even know that there were any black folks living in Toledo much less participating in the wilding. The issue of race was totally missing.

Thus, I was left to think about the further meaning of the events from what was available on TV. The Liberal in me was more than sympathetic to how a march by Nazis through the black sections of town would have been incendiary. I could even somehow deal with, if not quite accept, the idea that in ghetto situations rage against the basic conditions and realities of life is often turned against things close at hand, including shops and bars and restaurants that are of and serve the community. But as I grow older, it is more of a push to understand these matters. Also I suspect, as part of the aging process, feeling less secure in the world, it grieves me to see this stark evidence how thin, how very thin the veneer of social restraint is and how easily it is shattered. How easy it is to touch that part of people that is frustrated and angry and powerless. How both the reality and fiction of the Social Contract fails.

Those sad and terrifying images continue to haunt me. In the world gone wild, I’m tempted to increase my diversions and entertainments. But even while refilling my glass, I can’t stop thinking about those children, our children, and the promises betrayed.

Monday, October 17, 2005

October 17, 2005--Bowling for President

As difficult as it has been, I have more or less managed to restrain myself from joining all the mean spirited commentary about Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Thinking it would be more responsible to wait until she has had a chance to present herself to the American public when she appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senators Biden and Schumer have had a go at her. (Though I must confess that I slipped a little and did some blogging about her after reading the NY Times story about her “Girls Nights Out” with Condi Rice and other female Washington power players. I do, however, feel a little guilt about that.)

My carefully nurtured restraint cracked after reading a piece about her in Sunday’s Times, an article in which Todd Purdum managed to penetrate the veil of anonymity that has surrounded her and perhaps, to the Administration, made her an attractive nominee (see link below). Purdum was able to get a number of White House staffers to go on record about her. For example, Joshua Bolten, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, whom Ms. Miers succeeded as Deputy Chief of Staff, said, “She’s a very gracious and funny person. I was racking my brain trying to think of something specific.” Then, recalling those relaxing days together at Camp David, he reported, “She’s a very good bowler. For someone her size, she actually gets a lot of action out of the pins.”

In Washington metaphorical terms, getting this kind of action is critical to success. For those of you who haven’t been bowling recently, getting action out of pins means that if your ball strikes a little off center, off target, by generating so much action, the pins you missed spin in a way that they in turn knock down others nearby. And thus your score goes up. So I got it—spinning effectively is the most highly sought after skill these days, and little Harriet has it down to a science.

Thus I was motivated to read deeper into the article, and was rewarded for my efforts. Ms. Miers’s first job at the White House was as Staff Secretary. In that role, she was the last person to see every scrap of paper headed for the President. According to David Leitch, a former White House Deputy Legal Counsel, “You might think anybody who was preparing something to go to the President would already have taken care to see that it was perfect. . . . But Harriet always scrubbed it one more time, and managed to come up with things that people hadn’t seen, from the broad wording to errors in punctuation.”

I now realize that it is because of Harriet Miers that everything within this White House has been so consistently perfect. It is comforting to know that during her tenure there that not only did she ferret out misplaced modifiers and split infinitives, but scrubbed all daily briefing memos so thoroughly that the warning about Al Qaeda’s pre 9/11 threats to the US, for example, made it into that infamous August 9th briefing paper that the President was then able to pour over so thoughtfully while chopping brush in Crawford. And also because of Harriet’s commitment to perfection, I feel better about the fact that she was able to vet the President’s 2003 State of the Union so carefully that he was able not to forget to include those most important 16 words about the Yellow Cakes of uranium that Saddam got “from Africa.”

So rack up the pins again fellas, we’ve got a lot of action and spin heading our way!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

October 15, 2005--Saturday Story: "Uncle Ben's Infected Books"

Uncle Ben's Infected Books

A Battle of the Books raged in my part of Brooklyn. Not Ancients versus Moderns as in Jonathan Swift’s version, but over sexual orientation. This occurred during the 1950s and in truth these matters were not seen in “orientation” terms but rather, in the language of the streets, as the Fags Versus the Real Men. Or at least those whom we thought might be “Real Men.”

To be specific, closer to home, a Battle of this kind was being waged in my Grandmother’s house on Bedford Avenue, though as a participant it felt more like a War than a Battle. On one side was Uncle Ben and perhaps Aunt Madeline; on the other, everyone else. I was up for grabs.

Grandma Zwerling was not much of a stereotypically nurturing Granny type (for example, the only thing I ever recall eating at her house was some lukewarm Campbell’s Tomato Soup) and as a result we visited only occasionally—no food, no visits. Our infrequent visits were more out of obligation than desire. If you have been keeping track of these stories you might correctly assume that I would have been a minority of one in being perversely fascinated by her and her life and in fact took considerable transgressive pleasure visiting Annie (she preferred that we leave the “Grandma” off). That in itself was reason number one why I looked forward to seeing her—she insisted on being Annie not Granny. Number two, she was better known for her prowess in poker than in the kitchen, chain-smoked Camels, cursed like a sailor, and had a voice that could peel paint. And, three, best of all, were the things that came out of her mouth! She must have been in her 60s and was the only adult I knew who talked openly and enthusiastically about sex (more about that in a moment). Up to that time all I knew about sex was what I gathered from stolen glances in The Stork Didn’t Bring You, an unfortunately unillustrated book hidden among a shelf full of Sam Levinson’s books of Yiddish stories in Aunt Tanna’s house.

An additional delicious pleasure for me was to be invisibly situated in the middle of what we today would refer to as a dysfunctional family dynamic. I was so used to seeing family as loving, caring, responsible, self-denying, and morally and ethically conforming, that an hour at Annie’s was a lasting antidote to all the pressure that being a part of such an exemplary version of family required.

And there was one more attractive feature—on the other side of the family, my mother’s side, it was all about the children. To fulfill the promise of America, it was up to the children (my cousins and me) to excel. We represented hope and possibility in this, still for them, inhospitable land. For them, nothing was too much to do for us, to sacrifice for us. Especially to sacrifice, which carried with it nothing less than biblical endorsement (Freud of course would have a different view). But Annie, it was liberating to know, not only didn’t care at all about her own children, she had even less use for her grandchildren. In fact, the only thing she appeared to ever want from me was to keep her coffee cup filled and her ashtray empty. Which I did with assiduous, gleeful abandon.

My father of course was one of Annie’s children as were Aunt Madeline and Uncle Ben. Well into their 40s, they remained unmarried and lived at home with her. Madeline had a version of the same voice. (Actually hers could do more than peel paint—even wood paneling did not stand a chance.)

I was too young and truly innocent to think much about the implications of Ben and Madeline’s unmarried status, even though they were the only adults I knew who remained single. It was represented to me by the non-Zwerling members of the family as evidence of what good children they were (in spite of Annie’s lack of interest in even the concept of children). And of course as an example for me of what it meant to be a good son, even a version of how my own future role would look—not unmarried of course, but as a potential producer of grandchildren and as a devoted son who would make an equivalent kind of sacrifice when my own parents required it.

Uncle Ben was a school teacher at a time when virtually all school teachers were women, but in my obliviousness that didn’t seem worth noting. And the fact that Madeline had a sort of a moustache and bigger biceps than mine didn’t register either.

A typical visit went something like this—

We would avoid arriving at a time when food might be an issue—not at either lunch or dinner time. Though the house had a perfectly respectable front entrance on Bedford Avenue, there was a side door we always used that led from the alleyway directly to the breakfast room off the kitchen. Again, not that there would be any eating, but it was at the head of that table that Annie was rooted, seemingly to me forever, never having seen her anywhere else (she alone among us never once got up to go to the bathroom or for any other purpose).

Whenever we arrived she and Madeline would be engaged in a simultaneous discussion about any number of familiar topics—and by simultaneous I meant that they talked continually and simultaneously. In other words, there was no listening whatsoever going on. Topics included—

Why Ben never spent money on anything except his summer trips to Mexico; why Ben refused to go to “real” doctors, insisting instead on using the HIP HMO which employed doctors from India and the Philippines, none of whom understood or spoke English; why Ben wasted so much time with his friend Mary Brady, who was at least two hundred pounds overweight, had nothing to say, and was, if you can believe it, Catholic; why Ben couldn’t ever seem to discipline his junior high school students who allegedly spent every classroom hour making fun of him (in ways that were only hinted at); why Ben wouldn’t buy a new car, one with automatic transmission so that Madeline could use it whenever she wanted; why Ben insisted, when painting the kitchen cabinets, on giving them 15 coats of Dutch Boy paint when everyone who knew anything at all about paint knew that just three coats would work perfectly well; why Ben spent all his time when at home in the “sun room” at the front of the house, always with his nose in a book or Consumers Report magazine, wasting his money on a CR subscription even though he never bought anything; and why Ben never said a word, literally not one single word ever.

I didn’t have an opinion about the cabinet painting or Mary Brady or his Pilipino doctors, but I sure had a view about why he might not attempt to say even one word. In fact, during at least a dozen years of visits (before Annie died of a sudden heart attack at 3:00 in the morning at a poker game in Flatbush) I think I too never uttered one word while there. Though I did do a lot of listening!

Especially for the umpteenth time breathing in some of Annie’s stories about her brothers Herman and Louie, particularly those tales about their annual escapades up at Saratoga, how after raising money from family members to “invest” in betting on the races held there every August, accompanied by women other than their wives, they would disappear from sight for a few weeks and return under cover of darkness, penniless and bereft of female companionship, seeking shelter and a place to hide in Annie’s attic since some of the “boys” who loaned them money upstate were looking to be repaid, right now, with interest of course.

The single most memorable moment from these stories, which she told between bursts of laughter, was when she reached behind her to open the server drawer to show us Herman’s pistol. Unfortunately, unlike in a well constructed play by Chekhov, it never went off in my presence.

After a Herman-Louie story or two and a dose of Ben complaints (why did he buy auto insurance from Allstate; doesn’t he know they’re anti-Semites?), I would slip away (as if anyone would notice) to join Ben in the sun room. I would find him there, yes, with his nose buried in a book or the latest CR (he had at least a three-foot stack of them piled immaculately on a table beside the two-seat sofa on which he sat). And across from where he sat were his books. Like the stack of CRs, his books were also perfectly arrayed and alphabetically preserved.

I would sit with him, on a chair near the small sofa, afraid to touch a book or magazine; even more afraid to utter a word. He never looked up much less at me, never acknowledged my presence, never offered a word of his own. This went on for years. I’m not sure to this day what I was doing there, what I wanted, how I endured that immobile silence. The only sound was when he turned a page.

I had and have very good long range eyesight and during one visit, from across the room, began to notice and read the book titles—Guadalcanal Diary, Three Years Before the Mast, Robinson Caruso, The Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

Uncle Ben must have sensed this because for the first time in my 12 years he spoke some words to me. Just two. He said, “It’s OK.” More remarkably, I understood.

Under their spell, I got up and approached the books, drawn to them as in a rite. Then touched one, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. And my life changed with that touch.

It was OK I could remove it from the shelf. It was OK I could take it to my chair. It was OK I could open it. It was OK I could begin to read it. And it was OK I could take it home with me.

Later, when we left Annie’s, I hide it in the folds of my winter coat to get it into my bedroom at home without it being noticed. How I knew I needed to steal it into my life that way is something I did not understand at the time but became clear to me very soon. After my father “caught” me reading it. It was so absorbing, the story of Jimmy Doolittle and his boys as they managed to bomb Tokyo very early in the War, at great peril to themselves, having had just enough fuel to fly over the target and to crash land in Burma, it was so engrossing that I didn’t notice my father when he came home one day early from work. I was so lost in the pages that didn’t have time to hide it from him.

He bellowed, “What’s that and where did you get it?” It’s not that I was illiterate or never read books, but all the books I had had access to were books my mother provided or I took out of the library. What was different for him about this one (and for me), and I knew it, was that this was a book from Ben. Therefore, a very different kind of book.

My father saw it to be infected. Infected because it was Ben’s.

A number of un-understood things rushed together in that moment. Ben’s passivity; his gentleness; his sensitivity; his being a school teacher; ah, his singleness; and his love of books. And if his books were infected with Ben-ness it meant that was potentially catching. My father wanted to prevent me from catching Ben’s infection from his books, just as he sent the family upstate during Polio Season to avoid that virus.

Even later, my father attempted to protect me from all books of the kind that Ben treasured; they too might be infected and thus needed to be banned. But my father was too late; that deep look into Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the world that it and others like it opened to me was an infection I eagerly breathed in. Books had become my life.

So I lived but Annie died.

Within weeks of her death Danny appeared from Mexico and became Ben’s “housemate” for the rest of Ben’s life. He had his own bedroom, Annie’s (!) and slowly became a de facto part of the family. Within a few weeks of that Madeline married the first in a series of husbands, most of whom committed suicide after a year or so of living with her. Thus, the family cemetery plot was getting filled up at such a rate that my father became concerned there wouldn’t be a space left for him. But that’s another story that you might enjoy so I’ll hold it for another Saturday.

Friday, October 14, 2005

October 14, 2005--Friday Feature: Fanaticisms IV

I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble thinking about myself as a bionic consumer. For certain, I’m dating myself again, but I left off with the Bionic Man and Bionic Woman. But according to the NY Times, though (pathetically, my source for keeping up with trends), the bionic consumer is now the most sought after. The BC is someone who has “access to all information at any place” (see link below for the full article). I suppose especially through all the most ubiquitous media, especially those that are bionic.

Here’s an example—say you are the Grand Marnier company and you want to introduce a new liqueur and sell it for $225 a bottle. How would you go about getting it into the high-end bionic consumer bloodstream? First, come up with a name for it that’s unpronounceable. How about Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire? That sort of works—I was a mediocre language student and I don’t have a clue as to how to say it. Second, if you want to charge $225 a bottle, make sure it's French and that, in the words of one creative ad exec, “The more obscure and more expensive, the harder it is to find, the better it is.” Check. We have the French name, it’s unpronounceable and it’s expensive. But hard to find? That I don’t get—how can you make money with this if you can’t pronounce or find it?

Not to worry, reach out to the bionic consumer as she/he, say, is walking by the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, seeking information with every step. Advertise the stuff on telephone kiosks near the library, to quote again, “in an effort to encourage passers-by to visit the library, expand their use of language, and learn to pronounce the words.” If I had figured out earlier in life that that was all I needed to do, I could have passed high school French.

But what about the French Problem? Where are we now with that? It wasn’t so long ago that we were so pissed (forgive my French) with them that we were pouring fine Bordeaux down the drain and rechristening our favorite fries Freedom Fries. Shouldn’t the Grand Marnier folks be thinking about hustling bionic consumers on their own side of the Atlantic? Not according to Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a brand and customer loyalty firm, “A lot of names that were country-based, especially from France, have now become accepted and pronounced correctly.” Here we go with the pronouncing again.

On the other hand, just to give you a sense of how complicated it is to sell a bottle of booze for $225, another marketing guru says, “If you’re going to be prohibitively expensive, you just need to be prohibitively expensive and not talk about it."

Though the last time anyone spoke that way in my presence I was in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, as long as it gets people into the library I’m cool.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

October 13, 2005--No Blame, No Pain

I’m into the Blame Game. And I’m not talking here about Katrina and Brownie or FEMA or the President. I’m into fixing blame for another national tragedy—9/11.

The NY Times reported (see full article below) that those officials who were singled out for “poor performance” by the U.S. Inspector General will not be disciplined by Porter Goss, the current Director of the CIA. Even though his predecessor, George Tenet, was among those cited for “serious shortcomings.” Director Goss has decided--never mind.

Mr. Goss said he has concluded that identifying anyone for disciplinary action “would send the wrong message to our junior officers about taking risks.” Though I personally do not think of the CIA Director as a “junior officer.”

James Pavitt, the CIA’s former Deputy Director for Operations is quoted as saying, “There has been a great deal of accountability; how many times can we go through it again.... We’ve said, yes, mistakes were made, but there was an awful lot that was done that was good.” Indeed, enough already. Can’t we just get over 9/11 and move on?

But why not make a distinction between what was “good” and what were “mistakes” and reward those who did well and hold responsible those who made mistakes that led to 9/11? I would think that the current administration, with its focus on individual responsibility (including for raising oneself from poverty) would be vigorous in its pursuit of holding people to task for even such minor matters as “connecting the dots” that might have prevented September 11th.

This brings me to another situation about which some responsibility might be assigned—both for the good and the mistakes—the War Against Terrorism.

A second report in the Times (also linked below) about the recent Bali suicide bombers is less about them as it is about how the global terrorist threat has morphed into something new. Something that feels quite Republican to me. Terrorism experts are seeing a very different approach to the business of insurgents and suicide bombers. Earlier, much of this was coordinated and financed centrally by Al Qaeda. More recently, such bloody work has become “less sophisticated,” decentralized, and carried out by small ad hoc groups of “jihadists” without previous involvement in organized terrorist groups. Sort of the way most successful new enterprises emerge in so-called free markets.

These new terrorists also tend to be better educated and more “integrated” into the societies in which they live, including one bomber, Azhari Husin, who earned a doctorate from Reading University in England before returning to Malaysia where he became a university professor! Next, he converted to fundamentalist Islam and was among the bombers in the first Bali attack. (We need to check—perhaps he was denied tenure.)

And how does this connect back to my point about responsibility? Simply that most experts on the subject claim that this new approach to terrorism has been catalyzed by America’s involvement in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world. We are incubating a growing pool of men to recruit from, and the better educated among them are spawning this market economy in terrorism.

And who might be responsible for this? I leave it to you to decide. Certainly Porter Goss and his kind are not searching for that answer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

October 12, 2005--The Poverty Two-Step

Remember all the hopeful talk about poverty and race that was a byproduct of the Katrina-Rita tragedies? How President Bush began to sound a little like LBJ Redux? After rousing from his biking and brush cutting vacation in Crawford, the President said, “All of us saw on television [let’s for the moment forget that he has repeatedly claimed that he does not watch TV but gets his news summarized for him by staffers], all of us saw there is some deep, persistent poverty in this region . . . with roots in a history of racial discrimination.” Following that revelation, there was a rash or poverty-alleviation proposals from the President and other Republicans for new federal programs that echoed the best days of the Great Society. Programs that would cost hundreds of billions. Those of us old enough to remember those good-old-days (forgetting for the moment that we were at the same time sinking deeper and deeper into the Vietnam quagmire) could almost sense the faint strains of kumbaya rising from the White House.

Well, as they used to say, a funny thing happened on the way to Great Society II. As reported in yesterday’s NY Times, hopes are fading fast that there will be any credible, systemic effort to take on the entwined evils of poverty and race (see full article below). In fact, Congressional conservatives are already calling for cuts in Medicaid and Food Stamps, arguably programs most immediately essential to the victims of the twin hurricanes. And don’t even begin to ask what these same Congress folks are saying about the kinds of programs that might provide opportunities for people to actually emerge from poverty.

Voices on the Right see some logic in this larger situation, saying that if the storm revealed the true nature and extent of poverty in America, the hurricanes exposed that the programs that have historically been funded to alleviate poverty have failed. If they had been working, poverty by now would have been eliminated. QED.

To be fair, Republican conservatives do have a bushel of programs to recommend. Allow me to enumerate them—In order to assure that low-skill, low-income local people will be hired to help rebuild the Gulf Region, they are calling for the suspension of the requirements that compel federal contractors (Halliburton and others) to pay “locally prevailing wages” (read minimum wage) or act affirmatively (read, hire women and minorities). Also, as part of the larger agenda to continue to cut taxes, some have suggested tax reductions beyond those already on the table. In a particularly brilliant slight of hands, key Congressional leaders are calling for tax cuts targeted for the rebuilding effort itself—setting up tax-free zones in the Gulf States for businesses and of course school vouchers for students impacted by the storms.

Do I hear echoes of Trickle Down? I think so. For example, Representative Mike Price the other day recalled a favorite story of Ronald Reagan’s, about a pipe fitter who told that President, “I’ve never been hired by a poor man.”

To be dispassionate for a moment, let’s take a glance at the record. During the Clinton administration, tax rates for upper income families were raised and by anyone’s measure the economy boomed and the poverty rate fell for 7 of his 8 years in office. Since the massive tax cuts for the wealth passed during the first Bush years, the poverty rate has risen every year. We now have 12.7 percent of the total population living in poverty—24.7 percent of blacks and 21.9 percent of Hispanics.

Just yesterday, during his eighth trip to the Gulf, the President and his wife actually rolled up their sleeves and got to work, helping to build a house. They spend at least a half hour at the site, banging in a few nails for the good of the cause and the cameras. Sort of a Mission Accomplished moment as much as inspiration for the rest of us.

I must admit I couldn’t help wondering if they too were being paid at less than the “locally prevailing wages” and if they had somehow gotten their jobs through any affirmative action programs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

October 11, 2005--Harriet Miers' G.N.O.

I have been wondering how long it would take before someone whispered about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Meirs’ “private life.” You can imagine my surprise that the Gray Lady NY Times beat the bloggers at their own game.

When she was first nominated, in addition to the scant background available about her time as head of the Texas State Lottery (thankfully, no Arabian horses in her background) there was an item that indicated that at 60 she had never been married. Though the Times frequently mentions her being squired about by “longtime friend,” Texas Judge Nathan Hecht (read “beard”??), they also have referred to her in a few pieces as a “bachelorette.” (And not the sort we used to see on The Dating Game--I’m not talking here about Bachelorette Number One, Two, or Three.) Bachelorette has slipped out of common use, having been the female equivalent some years ago of “confirmed bachelor.” Both code, before out and out outing, for you know what.

So there it stood. Until yesterday when a strange, ambiguous article appeared in the Times—“A Place at the Table for Miers and High-Level Friends” (see link below for the full story and pictures). It is about Harriet and Condi and former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman who would find time after a hard 16 hour workday for what the Times calls, “girls’ nights out” (G.N.O.) This threesome soon became a foursome with the addition of Anna Perez, Ms. Rice’s former spokeswoman. The Times, in the spirit of fair and balanced, was quick to note that other high-level “girls” from the Clinton administration also had their nights out.

In my best PC mode, I first thought isn’t it good that the “girls” are doing the same thing in DC as the “boys,” who for decades have had many, many legendary nights out of their own. Some even winding up in the Tidal Basin with hookers (remember Wilber Mills??). Gender equity is breaking out in Washington where cigars are still in fashion (or use, as the case may be). But then there is that picture of Condi above the story in her three inch pumps and mid-thigh skirt and PC went out the window.

I flashed back to those stories about her from February on her first trip to Europe as Secretary of State. And, especially and, those pictures of her in her military style jacket dress, unbuttoned to the thigh, and those stiletto mid-calf boots. In Wiesbaden Germany no less! The Washington Post, on top of that story (sorry about that), remarked how her coat and boots “speak of sex and power.” Some of the websites at the time went a little further, talking about her “dominatrix look” and “vaguely masculine attire.” (I do remember Henry Kissinger saying, when Nixon’s National Security Advisor, that power is a “great aphrodisiac” and that the sex appear accruing to him was the reason he was able to “date” so many “starlets.”)

Back to Harriet. Here’s what I think: She may be Karl Rove’s last Trojan Horse (again, sorry). As he is about to be sent to the slammer he has pulled off (opps) his final act of political jujitsu. He got Bush to nominate someone he, Karl, in his heart knows believes that life begins before conception (and thus will find even sexual intercourse to be unconstitutional), someone with such a blank record that the Evangelical Right will rise (I can’t stop) against her and as a result the Liberals will vote for her, thinking she will turn out to be another Judge Souter as soon as she withdraws (somebody slap me) from her President. Then when she gets to the Court she will reveal what Rove knew all along that she will join Scalia and Thomas to form a Supreme ménage a trios.

Monday, October 10, 2005

October 10, 2005--#x@%&~x%^!!!

I grew up thinking of the NY Times as the Newspaper of Record. Even during the 1950s when the printers union shut the presses for weeks, when the Times returned they included a supplement in which they presented summaries of the major events that occurred while they were not publishing. Loud and clear, they were making a statement—"We are the paper of historical record; we keep reporting and writing even when the unions are on strike."

So when I saw the piece in the Times the other day about the women who was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight because the T-shirt she was wearing included an obscene word, in the spirit of investigative reporting, I forced myself to keep on reading.

There was more to the story than just “the word”—the T-shirt also included pictures of President Bush and Vice President Chaney. This was clearly taking shape as a free speech story. The wearer, Lorrie Heasley, was on a flight from Reno to Portland to visit her parents who are Democrats and she wanted them to see the shirt. Ms. Heasley reported that she thought the shirt was “hilarious.” “I have cousins in Iraq and other relatives going to war. Here we are trying to free another country and I have to get off an airplane over a T-shirt.” As you might imagine the A.C.L.U. is now involved.

Freedom of Speech issues aside, I must confess that I was equally interested in “the word.” I came to the bottom of the column and felt a little betrayed by my Newspaper of Record. Not only didn’t they include the obscene phrase they didn’t even allude to it in a way that would enable me to figure it out.

I know the Times is a G-Rated paper (maybe that’s one of the reasons it is losing readership), but if we are dealing here with Free Speech, at least give me a clue! I was left only with my perverse imagination. I ran through the list of George Carlins’ famous Seven Words and had quite a bit of fun. But for the Historical Record, the NY Times betrayed me.

Actually, it turns out there was an easy solution for the Times, if they really took their role seriously and wanted to avoid unleashing the prurient imaginations of people like me. CNN on its website figured it out. They reported the same story and mentioned that, in addition to the picture of our Leaders, the phrase on the shirt was a pun on the title of a recent popular movie—Meet the Fockers. Get it?? Bush and Chaney-- “Meet the F_ _ _ers.” (Forgive me for the blanks but this blog is also G-Rated—my 97-year old mother reads it!).

Glad I could clear that up for you. But how sad and disillusioned I now feel with my more nuanced understanding of what the Times means when it says that it is about "All the News That’s Fit to Print". Of course, as with so much else, it depends on what your definition of “fit” is.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

October 8, 2005--Saturday Story: "Chuck's Punching Bag"

Chuck’s Punching Bag

Tomorrow, October 9th, would be Chuck’s 71st birthday. Except that he died this past February. Though he was my cousin, I lost my older brother that day.

I began life as his punching bag and wound up as one of his eulogizers. I much preferred the former role, in spite of all the bloody noses and loose teeth. Actually I began life as one of his tormentors. Basically we all lived together, the extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted refugees from concentration camps. Not a pet was in sight—we neither had the room for any nor the money to feed them. Living together meant eating together. Actually, in shifts—those who worked at night ate during the day; those who worked during the day, eat at night. Beds were also used in shifts. The children ate all the time and as much as possible. There was a lot of competition for food—eating fast was a survival skill. It was crowded at the table but also delicious. You could smell Aunt Gussie’s ruglah from half a block away. It made getting out of school for the day even sweeter.

It was during the eating together that I first got under Chuck’s skin. He was always very, very serious about eating and it showed—he was in truth a little plump. When I arrived, I sat next to him at the children’s end of the table. And through no fault of my own would periodically spit up on him, or worse. Though I didn’t understand English at the time, or any other language for that matter, I did intuit his meaning when he would bellow, “Get that pig away from me!” Pig of course was traif, not Kosher, but it captured his feelings about me quite well.

A few years later, he did find his first in a series of uses for me. Chuck was if anything prone to obsessions. Stamp collecting, bike riding, FDR, sports statistics, school yard gambling, and boxing, especially boxing. It was an era when, trust me, there were many successful Jewish fighters—Al “Bummy” Davis, “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Barnie Ross, Max Baer, and “Battling” Levinson among many other colorful characters.

When Chuck developed a serious obsession about boxing, going so far as to buy two pair of boxing gloves, the family was not entirely happy—it was one thing to admire and root for Slapsie Maxie, it was quite another to have one of their own developing an interest in the Sweet Science. Aftre all, those were potential surgeon’s hands that Chuck had, and to risk them on the heavy bag, or someone’s head, was not considered to be a good thing.

That’s where I came in—my head to be specific became his first punching bag. In a manner of speaking, he sparred with me in his mother’s living room, with me standing on the sofa to equalize our heights. The sofa surface, plastic covered, was not by any means the best, most secure of surfaces so it was impossible for me to gain good footing and therefore dodge his blows, which were frequent and on target. Typically he would jab away for awhile, and then clobber me with a left hook or the newly invented bolo punch, imported from the Philippines via Kid Bolo. When one of these would connect, I would be slammed back against the wall behind the couch and typically have another hole opened in my head.

My crying and streaming blood would bring Uncle Harry scurrying. He would proceed to shave the hair away from the wound and apply a plaster patch. Chuck would watch the whole thing, continuing to bounce on his toes, circling to his left to avoid my non-existent left hook. After finishing on me, Harry would assume the role of referee and order us to resume fighting. I had no corner man or manager who could throw in the towel so we continued until my nose began to bleed. Then Uncle Harry would declare a TKO and I would slink off whimpering, in search of ruglah. (Harry of course had finished them off before he arrived with his razor and plasters.)

I did get my revenge, however, when some years later Chuck needed to have his Wisdom Teeth extracted. No one was available to drive him to the dentist and so it was left to me to get him there and back. Though I was only 14 at the time, I was a big 14 and knew how to drive. Illegally of course. But my father encouraged me to abscond with the car as yet another way to display my emerging manhood. (Trust me, though I was a big 14, that did not apply to anything below my waist except my shoe size—size 13.) And since Chuck was the most adventurous person I ever knew, then and later, he too encouraged me to take chances of this kind and saw the drive part as the highlight of the day. And how right he turned out to be.

Dr. Samson (yes, that was his real name) had an office in the Williamsburg Savings Bank, about a 20 minute drive. I got us there without incident, parked the car, and followed Chuck up to the office. I then sat in the waiting room while the excavations took place. They were just that as attested to by the sounds that permeated the walls—mostly hammer and chisel sounds. Chuck emerged about an hour later. His face swollen on both sides with rolled cotton sponges. The Doctor told me that he needed to extract all four (!) and that Chuck would therefore be “a little uncomfortable after the Novocain wore off.”

We got to the car and with Chuck slouched in the passenger seat proceeded back home down Flatbush Avenue. Traffic was heavy and we seemed to get stopped at every light. And pretty much at every corner there were police serving as crossing guards as schools were letting out for the day. I began to notice that we were being starred at by the cops and this made that 14 year-old illegal driver quite nervous. It frightened me to think that I was perhaps not passing for a legal driver. But they actually seemed to be starring at Chuck, not me. I stole a glace to my right and realized why—not only were his cheeks distorted by the packing but blood was seeping out of his mouth, down his chin, and onto his formerly white shirt and car seat (though it too thankfully was plastic covered). It was a gruesome sight. But we did manage to get back to East 54th Street without a detour to the police precinct house.

Chuck was set up in the sun room in the front of the apartment. Away from the temptations in the ice box (he was not supposed to eat for 24 hours) and far away enough from Uncle Harry who was not interested in Chuck in this condition. My father on the other hand was quiet fascinated by Chuck’s circumstances. You see, after the packing was removed, not only didn’t the swelling go down it continued to the point where his face came to be about the size of a basketball. My father was so fascinated by the fact that a face could get to be that large that he spread the word throughout the neighborhood that Chuck was a sight to behold, and that if they wanted to see it they had better come quickly before the swelling reversed itself. (Though I suspect he secretly hoped it would turn out to be a permanent condition—not out of malice but in the interest of science.)

I on the other hand did see this as payback for my years as his punching bag and also as an entrepreneurial opportunity. I too spread the word about Chuck’s basketball face. Among the other kids. And charged them a nickel to see him and it. Sort of like the sideshows in Coney Island where it cost a quarter to see the Tattooed Lady or the 500 pound man. Chuck was thus quite a bargain, and the kids didn’t even have to spend another nickel on the subway.

Still years later, after, he stopped beating on me and I ceased looking for chances to get even with him, we discovered that we loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. However, he didn’t keep up his end of that bargain and so I was left with what to say about him in February. I hope he won’t mind my sharing that with you:

Among the many, many things that filled his life, Chuck was a reader—a wide and voracious reader. A little surprising to me, he recently bought a copy of the complete works of Emily Dickenson, as it turns out both his and my favorite poet. He slowly read his way through all of her poems. One of our shared favorites is “Death Has No Dominion.” For Dickenson this meant there was something beyond death which robbed death of its triumph, of its dominion.

Because he and I had a lot of Eastern European blood rushing about in our systems, we both thought often about death. It perversely was one of our favorite subjects. Thinking, I’m sure, that if we talked so casually and openly about it, death would pass us by. Well here is the evidence that we were wrong. But what about death’s dominion? I’ll return to this.

The easy part when thinking about what to remember about Chuck are THE STORIES. The literally hundreds, maybe thousands of stories he would tell about his life. But perhaps a better way to reflect on his life is not to think about the telling of stories but rather the experience of living them. His life was a series of lived narratives, each a metaphor of what he believed, what he valued, what he stubbornly insisted life should be about. I always thought he would have been a great teacher, and as I look back over more than 60 years together I realize that is exactly what he was—a teacher, my teacher, teaching through complex examples, teaching through the narratives of his life.

What did it mean that he was a Yankee fan in Brooklyn? A schoolyard bookie? A bull fight apprentice in Mexico? A laborer in a dye factory? A meatpacker? The anchor of the Columbia University crew’s Pickle Boat? The inveterate long distance swimmer in the Rose Garden pool up in the Catskills? The ping pong fanatic? The soccer fanatic? The chess fanatic? And recently the workout fanatic?

About that, who of us isn’t angry about that final workout that seemingly took him from us? If only he had taken the day off. If only he had stopped after just 40 minutes of working out. He would still be with us. There would be another brunch at the Polo Club. There would be more Chuck.

But as I am recovering from my anger about this I am realizing that if he had stayed home, if he had stopped after 40 minutes, he would not have been Chuck. He would have left us bereft in other ways. His story would be very different, incomplete. This was of course too soon, much too soon; but it was appropriate, as he might put it, even destined.

He was a living metaphor of defying the odds, living without a net. I think he felt that if he could beat the odds in Las Vegas it would translate into beating the odds in the really BIG CASIO called LIFE. But all luck runs out, right, the odds are rigged to beat us, right?

Yes and no. It depends entirely on how you keep score. It depends on the life that you live. Depending on that life your luck can endure, you might in fact even be able to beat the odds. Reflecting on Chuck’s life, or any life, how might this work?

I think you endure through the richness and depth of your life’s memories, the traces found in the tracks of your stories, the marks of life left behind. Their legacies. Can we agree then that in Chuck’s case his luck did not run out, that he may have beaten the odds and that here death has no dominion?

There is further evidence—I knew him every day of my life, everything from that schoolyard to his dreams to his, at times, thwarted aspirations. I can report with certainty that he was never happier, never more fulfilled than during his recent years.

But ultimately for death to have no dominion, no triumph it is also important to say that Chuck, very much like the rest of us, was far from perfect. Inevitably that means there are some harbored hurts here. Can some of those now begin to be over? Can some of those begin to be healed? That too would rob death of some of its sting.

Finally, for his recent 70th birthday I attempted to sum up what I cherished about him in a small poem that somehow now seems more appropriate than when I wrote it. Please allow me to read it:

You led me into lies
And fornication
Where secrets lie
And boys become men

Lost in iterations
Nearly forgotten
I will find you

And tell you
There is nothing
To fear
Not even the end

Friday, October 07, 2005

October 7, 2005--Friday Feature: Fanaticisms III

I am sad to report that the Central Park Zoo penguins Silo and Roy are no longer togother after a seven year love affair. This report from Sodom On the Hudson (read New York City) has been widely reported upon, including of course in the NY Times (see “Original Article” below). Widely not because penguins are so cut, but because the incredibly popular documentary, March of the Penguins (nearing $100 million in box office) has been required viewing for evangelicals and other conservatives who see the penguins portrayed there as evidence that our Intelligent Designer (whomever she is) created an animal kingdom in which even penguins are compassionate, monogamous, and, most important, heterosexual.

But then there have been Silo and Roy, the best known gay penguins in the world. Offering evidence that Nature does not abhor such a “lifestyle.” That is until recently when they broke up, with Silo taking up with Scrappy, a hotty from Sea World in California. The blogs and right wing talk shows were aflutter at this welcome news. Radio host James C. Dobson gloated, “For those who have pointed to Roy and Silo as models for us all [emphasis added], those developments must be disappointing. Some gay activists might actually be angry.”

Well some are and some aren’t, claiming, among other things that looking at penguins in captivity is not a way to answer the question—is sexual orientation genetic or the result of choice.

This situation in Central Park has had a ripple effect around the world. A German zoo, for example, abandoned plans to force homosexual penguins there to pair with females (not that this was working very well—the male penguins were not chasing after females imported from Sweden. Sweden!)

But I think there is a larger question here—it sounds as if Silo is OK, but what about Roy? How is he doing? Zoo keepers have been a little concerned about him. Since Silo split, they have observed Roy all alone, in a corner, staring at a wall.

Just another Sex In the City story I suppose, but can’t we get Roy out to the Stonewall or something? It’s cold in this town.