Saturday, December 31, 2005

December 31, 2005--Saturday Story: "Treyf House"

Treyf House
For boys who wanted to be bad, opportunities to transgress sadly came in just a few muted forms. Stealing a smoke or something from Woolworths, catching a feel in the coat closet in school or catching a kitten and then drowning it, sneaking a look at a Nudie magazine at the corner candy Store or sneaking up to the balcony in the Rugby Movie Theater because it was reserved for adult couples who needed a place to neck. But from this pathetic list of how to be bad none proved more deeply satisfying than ordering and devouring Roast Pork Fried Rice or, better, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce at, forgive me, the neighborhood Chinks.

We Jews took pride in the empirical observation that Gin Mills were to be found in just the rough Irish neighborhoods of Brooklyn. True, we might take three glasses of Shapiro’s Cut-It-Wit-A-Knife kosher wine at Passover, only because we were required to, or an occasional gulp of schnapps or, the women, some Cherry Herring, but only during the winter to warm up. The real drinking was for the goyim.

What we had, what was for us, however, what characterized every Jewish neighborhood, were Chinese restaurants, where transgression itself was on the menu. On Column “A” there were Pork Spareribs, Fried Pork Dumplings, Shrimp Toast, and Barbequed Roast Pork; and on Column “B” you could find Shrimp With Broccoli, Pork with Black Bean Sauce, Shrimp with Water Chestnuts, and the double-treyf ultimate Shrimp (not kosher) with Lobster Sauce (also not kosher.

It didn’t get much better than that in East Flatbush! At least not until 1957 when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series. Actually, that night, after the celebrations subsided, the Jews slipped off to their favorite Chinese restaurants where Shrimp with Lobster Sauce ran out before 8:00 p.m. And the word on the street the next day was that it never tasted better. Among the Jews, even better than the Dodger’s miracle.

Being bad in these ways was a necessary antidote to the feeling of being smothered, even oppressed by too much caring (“My little kinderlakh, is that a sneeze I’m hearing?”), too much sheltering (“It will be cold out so be sure to take along a sweater. The brown one.”), and having too many vicarious aspirations loaded on our already slumping shoulders—to be tall, have straight teeth (not to mention the nose—both of which could be corrected), nothing but A’s from school, no notes send home from teachers, so we would thereby find ourselves on track to medical/law/dental school and eventually a big house on Long Island. On the North Shore of course.

Why the most alluring ways to transgress so often involved food is not difficult to understand. First, among the many promises of America was its seemingly limitless bounty. For shtetl Jewish mothers new to America to be able to put brisket on the table, enough even for the children to have second helpings, was a form of deliverance, a fulfillment of millennia of imagining. For the fathers who could earn enough to provide meat five days a week, it was a measure of success.

Second, while being bad we were in truth still being good—Mama’s Little Angel didn’t stray too far while seeking distance. To suck on a Pork Sparerib involved considerably less family opprobrium then, say, serving as lookout for Hymie the Bookie who had set up his phones in the back of Auggie’s Barbershop. Or worse. After all, on Sunday evenings, eating Chinese, we bad boys sat surrounded by quivering parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, all attempting to pick up their Shrimp Dumplings with chopsticks. Who ever heard of chopsticks in Poland?

And third, just savoring a rasher of extra-crisp bacon at the Scobee Diner or a plate of clams on the half shell, nested in chipped ice, at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay, got us into deeper, Old-Testament trouble. Both were treyf. Most forbidden. And thus exquisite. To die for. Though not just yet.

Note that treyf was available at Lundy’s, the Scobee, and Lum Fong’s, because everyone in the family kept kosher homes. We had to eat out to get our hands on that succulent, greasy treyf. Some kept kosher homes out of belief; most because Grandpa and Grandma wouldn’t come for a visit to anyone who wasn’t kosher. OK, semi-kosher if you ate shrimp “out.” That was your business, but keeping a kosher kitchen was a prerequisite for their visiting. Unless you had two sets of dishes, one for meat (fleyshedik) and another for dairy (milkhedik), no Grandma, no Grandpa. That’s it. Simple. So we kept a foot in two culinary countries, which in truth was a metaphor for our lives in America—between two worlds.

Grandma and Grandpa were my real grandparents. My father’s parents hardly qualified. His father, Louis, didn’t even manage to live long enough to be at my bris, dying of “indigestion” (read heart attack) before he was fifty. As I grew older, I came to realize that this probably had less to do with his opting out of grandparenting but more with wanting to opt out of his life with Annie. To me a grandmother not even in name or through food since she insisted on my calling her “Annie”; and because on those rare occasions when we visited, she never served anything else but black coffee, which my mother forbid me even to sip though I was desperate to do so and in that way participate in the tummling that took place around her table.

Grandfather Louis was reputed to be a gentle man, not able or wanting to keep up with Annie’s rough and tumble ways—out all night playing Gin Rummy, smoking one cigarette after another, having a few “belts” (decidedly not for medicinal purposes or to keep her warm), and it was suspected doing a little fooling around on the side. Therefore, for him it was the right decision to opt for indigestion, which he certainly didn’t get from her cooking.

So, for the sake of the children, so we could have access to real kvelling grandparents, my mother kept a kosher home. This meant that we had two sets of dishes—of identical color and design as it was more practical to buy service for 12, divide them in half, and keep them neatly segregated in adjacent cabinets. That was enough to make us kosher in the eyes of her parents and thus they duly visited twice a year—which in their very infrequency honored our home and thus became laced into the round of family rituals. Virtually as sacred to us as Passovers at their apartment.

How then did my mother’s get to be the Treyf House? To be etymological—the house where things were “torn to pieces.”

Through an act of assimilationist striving and domestic violence.

My parents were a family anomaly—my mother was born in Tulowice Poland and came to America with her family when she was just five. The youngest of six children, arriving here at an age when it was possible to learn English quickly and, of considerable significance to immigrants, without an accent. The only one in her family to achieve that and thus, with the added advantage of having “Mooney” for a last name was able to “pass” for native born. (She was born a Munya but with considerable good fortune in those anti-Semitic times, it was changed at Ellis Island, presumably by an Irish Immigration Officer to whom Mooney was more familiar than Munya.) At the time this gave her a leg up in life. She also was the only one among her siblings and cousins to become a professional—while her sisters worked in Sweatshops, fabricating shirtwaists and being paid by the piece, she trained to be a public school teacher. For this, she became her family’s best hope to become fully American.

And since that leg up on life of hers was also famous for its shape, as was the rest of her, she had many beaus coming by—some from very wealthy families (these her parents encouraged), others merely very handsome (of these there were very different opinions). My dashing father, with his Clark Gable moustache, fit that latter category and so, in spite of the conflicting family encouragements and opinions, my mother-to-be was hopelessly smitten. Though his family was Jewish they were not observant and that in itself could have been an insurmountable problem for my mother’s very orthodox parents, and thus for my mother. But the fact that he was born in America was a form of mitigation. Thus they didn’t press their opinions all that vigorously or attempt to interfere, suspecting it would have been futile and likely would have driven my mother to elope (he was that handsome and some dresser) and with that potentially out of the family. They might have lost her, their precious Sheyner. This was a real worry since they had an example from right across the hall where a neighbor’s daughter, Malkie Berman, ran off with Herman Schwartz and never returned. And he didn’t even have a moustache or a decent suit!

Thus my parents were duly married, and in order to enable my mother’s parents to pay their ceremonial visits my father consented, as the price for peace, to having a kosher home, though in truth it was more about having the two sets of dishes in their separate cabinets than in the cuts of meat my mother learned to buy—have you ever tried to cut and chew a piece of broiled kosher chuck?

He was, however, less than comfortably compromising when it came to Hebrew lessons for me, to prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah. My mother contended that for me the haftorah classes needed to commence when I was just ten, three years in advance, because I was so inept at anything having to do with language. I didn’t speak a word in any language until I was fully two; and though my mother was quick to point out that Winston Churchill didn’t utter a coherent word until he was three, in my case it was clear that I was to be no Churchill. In fact, in public school, this ineptitude was publicly magnified. No more evident than during the daily Spelling Bees—the boys against the girls. We would stand arrayed against each other on opposite sides of the classroom and the teacher would in turn pepper us with words to spell, in ascending order of difficulty, banishing us in public humiliation at the slightest hesitation or stammer. I was always the first to be dismissed, always during the first round, stumbling on words such as “separate,” “calendar,” or “pursue.” (To this day I still do and would have here if it weren’t for the blessing of Spell Check.)

So my mother enrolled me at the East Flatbush Yeshiva over my father’s limp objections. If he wasn’t going to fight over dishes, this too could be tolerated. That is until basketball season.

To compensate for my verbal incompetence, God, or whatever, gave me the tall genes—I shot up to almost six feet during the summer after 4th grade. And thus when I showed up in Mr. Ludwig’s 5th grade class, this put a gleam in his eye since he was also the PS 244 basketball coach. Previously, his tallest player had been barely five-six. Our team, the Rugby Rockets, was a legend throughout Brooklyn, famous for having the worst won-lost record in New York City sports history. You can then only imagine how Mr. Ludwig felt when I became his student already six feet tall, already with the requisite crew cut and an emerging face of pimples. He couldn’t wait to get me into the gym, where he quickly discovered that I was considerably less than a work in progress. Whenever he would pass the ball to me it would hit me in my decidedly underdeveloped chest, knocking the air out of my lungs and frequently rendering me unconscious. Thus, he needed to take me on as his personal project if he was to put those six feet to use so the Rockets could crawl out from the cellar.

When my father learned that Coach Ludwig saw this promise in me, but that it would require hours and hours and months and months of after school work to teach me the game, it was immediately apparent that having to go for Hebrew lessons every day but Friday, also after school, would get in the way of his basketball dreams--an eventual basketball scholarship to college and, who knows, if I kept growing and wound up seven feet tall, maybe I could play for the New York Knicks in that sports temple, Madison Square Garden. Who knows, but clearly there was a problem and so he began to work on my mother to see if at the very least she would allow me to take a break from Hebrew School for the next year so I could have the time for other forms of learning, learning that would build character, he claimed, as well as my body—running, passing, shooting, and rebounding. Then, he argued, at the more traditional age of eleven I would go back to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah.

But she was unbending, not seeing basketball as he did to be quite such a vehicle for my apotheosis, and knowing that my tallness already marked me for high regard within her family; and in the world beyond the family it would guarantee that I would always be perceived as having been born in America. But she also knew that if I was allowed to stop attending Hebrew School, especially if I helped the Rockets at long last achieve a winning season, I would never return.

This meant that my father needed to employ other tactics--and so he began to work on me. I of course proved much easier to convince as to the primacy of basketball, and with his approving sanction, I immediately began to lose what little interest I had in the rote learning, the backward reading, and the tortured hieroglyphics of the Hebrew alphabet that characterized my “Jewish Education.” I looked for a way to get away from the Hebrew-school humiliations I now had heaped daily on top of those already accruing from public school. At least in the gym, though the ball was still frequently thumping me in the ribs, I stood head and shoulders above everyone, including Mr. Ludwig. At least that was something.

My final day at Hebrew School was the result of my refusal to “contribute” yet another quarter to the costs associated with planting trees in the desert sands of Israel. These quarters were extorted from us by our Hebrew teacher for any infraction, no matter how minor, including my seemingly inherent inability to pronounce the uvular fricative—the quintessential phlegmy "ch" sound required by so many Hebrew and Yiddish words. Though I had the requisite post nasal drip and could thus produce all the torrents of phlegm anyone would ever need for extended discourse in any Polish shtetl, this my specially evolved nose assured, my "ch’s" still tended to come out more like "cha’s," and so I had to keep anteing up quarters for every spritz. Until one day, as our first exhibition game approached against traditional rival PS 92 (who was rumored to have a center about as tall as I, another freak of nature), I was doubly motivated to draw a line in the sand in East Flatbush and stamped, “No more.” And as a result was summarily sent to the chief rabbi’s office for punishment, which he immediately administered, Old Testament style, by lashing my wrist with his ruler, sending me out screaming into the evening.

My father had his victory; the Rockets did in fact have a winning season for the first time since 1941; and my mother’s prediction that if I stopped attending Torah classes I would never return also turned out to be prescient. In the grand design of things, in the struggle for dominance between the two worlds we were attempting to straddle—the kosher and treyf—my dereliction scored a point for the treyf—things were beginning to be “torn to pieces.”

This became even more literally true in just a few months when my father, in a fit of rage that was spurred by a fight he had with my mother over his intention to buy and run a bar and grill (“Such a schonder for a Jew!”), stormed into the kitchen and in an act of Biblical tectonics intermingled all the dishes—the milkhedik with the fleyshedik. Inseparable as a result, recall, because they were identical in design and color and were only distinguishable because they had been stored in separate cabinets.

Considering the consequences of this sacrilege, no more visits by my mother’s parents, I thought this might mean the end of their marriage and began to prepare myself for the humiliation of a life spend shuttling between their two apartments.

But as with numerous previous violations, after a period of silence and passive aggression, my mother began to take up her life of resignation and duty. Food had never stopped being prepared and served, laundry had continued to be tended to, but then, added slowly to this, simple forms of greeting and communications reemerged; and I realized I would not have to be the first in the family or neighborhood to bear the stigma of having divorced parents.

And there was something else that was astonishingly different. Astonishingly, since it constituted an acknowledgment, even an acceptance of what my father had violently wrought within my mother’s family: My mother began to use her pots and pans and dishes in unexpectedly different ways.

When we assembled for breakfast one Sunday morning, when traditionally my mother would make scrambled eggs for us with potatoes and toast, accompanying them were strips of perfectly prepared . . . bacon!

Though we said not a word that morning, keeping our eye riveted to our plates, we did lick up every crackling bit, wanting but terrified to ask for seconds. Or ever talk among ourselves about what had transpired and was changing our lives.

But somehow, by some form of osmosis or telepathy, next Sunday, Cousin Chuck showed up at breakfast time, something he had never done before, and sat himself down at the table where he too was served by my mother a portion of that savory treyf. And the Sunday after that, his father, Uncle Eli was found at our table as well; and the weekend after that Uncle Harry set a place for himself; and after that Uncle Bob; and after that Cousin Murray, recently discharged from the army; and the following Sunday Cousin Hank seated himself at the now groaning breakfast room table, Hank who had escaped the Nazis and who kept a kosher home out of devotion.

My mother added pancakes to the menu and eventually pork sausages. We ate in rapt silence except to mutter for second helpings of what had previously been forbidden. Our smacking lips could be heard downstairs in the Portnoy’s apartment . . . and maybe up in Heaven. We might get a hint of that latter possibility next Yom Kippur when atonement might be called for.

And so my mother, by accretion, came to preside over what we affectionately began to think of as The Treyf House. This transformation occurred without acknowledgement or discussion. More and more family members just showed up, so that in a few months our apartment began to resemble less our old apartment than the Scobee Diner.
My basketball career thrived (only at the public school level and my only appearance at Madison Square Garden was during the NIT Tournament where I sat installed in a cheap seat right under the roof); any plans for a bar mitzvah were cancelled (though I still to this day am a champion phlegm generator); and I finally topped out at six-four in height (and thus as my mother understood have always been taken for an American); and extra-crisp bacon and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce are still my illicit favorite.

Friday, December 30, 2005

December 30, 2005--Fanaticisms XV--That Old Y Chromosome

I know you have been wondering what is going on with Crown Princess Masako of Japan. She hasn’t been seen in public very much. Actually since about 2003. You remember her? Harvard and Oxford educated, a diplomat, who in 1993 married the future Emperor.

Things were going very well. She was reported to have adjusted to her new life of comparative isolation and even gave birth in 2001 to Princess Aiko, who is also reported to be a lovely little girl.

But that’s the problem you see—she’s a girl—and although the Crown Princess has been under pressure to have a second child, actually she is under severe pressure to have a male child. This hasn’t happened and all indications are that they have stopped “trying” (how they know that is anyone’s guess). Crown Princess Masako has apparently even undergone therapy (psyco- it is thought) but still no additional issue. And without a male heir to the throne after both the current and future Emperors die, the Japanese are in a fit about what to do.

Knowing a little history sometimes helps, and leave it the NY Times to supply it (see link for full story). They report that this has happened before—which is no surprise since Japan has had Emperors for up to 2,665 years. During so much time everything has happened. It would be inappropriate in this family medium for me to tell you the everything. Suffice it to say that other non-Emperor male members of the imperial family saw sons of theirs ascend to the throne when an Emperor died without a direct male heir.

This is serious business—to quote Tsuneyasu Takeda, a member of a former branch of the imperial family, “The Emperor is valued not because he is intelligent or handsome [gotcha]. It’s because he is the inheritor of the [male] blood that has been preserved for 2,000 years.”

This is such serious business, the need to see someone with the right Y chromosome on the throne, that a deeper look at history suggests a solution that some say is under consideration—

The Paper of Record reports that most Emperors have had numerous concubines and that many of them bore imperial children. So many actually had male children that at least half of all the Emperors in Japanese history were the sons of concubines. One imperial prince, Tomohito of Mikasa had the courage to write recently, “I wholeheartedly support a return to the concubine system. But I think the social mood inside and outside the country may make it a little difficult.”

Just a little?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

December 29, 2005--Ommmm

Not only did the Intelligent Design folks hit a speed bump recently, but the Dalai Lama is also in trouble. For some of the same reasons.

Just as the judge in Dover Pennsylvania ruled that the ID folks were “hypocrites” when they asserted they were interested purely in science, not in promoting religion, when calling for the inclusion of an alternative to evolutionary theory in the school district’s biology curriculum, some members of the Society for Neuroscience claimed that it was scientifically irresponsible to invite the Dalai Lama to their annual meeting to talk about the neurobiology of meditation.

The initial report in the NY Times about this flap (see article linked below) said that those calling for the Society to rescind its invitation were Chinese or of Chinese descent and thus were being “political” and not scientific. But when one looks more closely at who is leading the objecting, unless Dr. Nancy Hayes is from Beijing and married a Mr. Hayes, it seems that something else might be at work.

It is, and again it reminds me of the Dover Monkey Trial. As there, the controversy is about the nature of science itself. If you at all follow this blog you know that at times I have taken a poke at the Dalai Lama—for his self-marketing, his affiliation with celebrites-- cheap shots, I admit, but hopefully a little fun? This time, though, I stand with Richard Gere in support of the DL because there is very interesting early evidence, real scientific evidence, that there are significant neurobiological changes when people are in deep meditative states. And that these states cause brain activity in those parts of the brain that are associated with happiness, positive emotions toward others, loving kindness, and compassion. To quote a lyric, “What the world needs now.”

But my support is not just based on some smarmy hope that we might be able to meditate ourselves toward peace (though most other strategies do not seem to be working very well), but also because when potential new paradigms in science emerge they are not initially neatly tied up in clearly replicable studies—one of the essential measure of true science—and are thus fragile. I’m OK with that—ultimately things do need to be verified and replicated experimentally--but this research may just be at the important beginning of a new set of discoveries. Perhaps we need to leave it alone and allow the ideas to be heard and debated. To quote Dr. Robert Wyman, a neurobiologist at Yale, “This research is a first pass on a new topic, and you just can’t do perfect science the first time through. You get curious about something and you mess around. That’s what science is in the beginning, you mess around.”

Keep messing around guys; we can use all the help you can offer. We’re in a real mess here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

December 28, 2005--Just So Long As You Spell My Name Correctly

Say you’re Britney Spears and the last the public knows of you is that you were walking around LA barefoot and pregnant. And very pregnant at that. On the arm of your husband, or sperm donor, without an album for quite some time, much less one that went platimnum.

When we first met you, you declared you were going to wait until you married before you did it; then you proclaimed “I’m not so innocent.” As proof, we next heard from then boyfriend Justin Timberlake that you had indeed done it. So you ran off with a high school boyfriend and got married in Las Vegas, divorcing or annulling three days later. What next? Oblivion? Back to the trailer in Alabama?

Not so fast. The NY Times, which has not been known to be keeping close tabs on your career, much less your life, reported that you just filed a libel suit against Jann Wenner’s US Weekly, seeking $20 or $40 million, I forget just exactly how much, because the magazine published an article claiming you had made a Paris Hilton-style sex tape. That in itself is not the subject of the suit (everyone these days makes these kinds of tapes and makes sure they are widely circulated), rather you're pressing your claim because they wrote that when watching it with your estate-planning lawyer, for God knows what reason, you and hubby Kevin Federline had “acted goofy the whole time.” (See link below for Times article.)

Yes, Britney is suing the now 60 year-old Wenner (it has come to this) because his Zine called her “goofy.” Outrageous! Please, put me on that jury and I’ll vote not only guilt as charged but will be sure she gets $50 million!

Let’s acknowledge right away that this is not about the cash. Even with me on the jury, what jury in its right mind would find for the plaintiffs? So what then might be at work here? Could it be PR, the new currency of celebrity that trumps even money? US Weekly, when faced with the suit, shot right back, “Coming from a celebrity who sold pictures of both her wedding and her stepdaughter, it’s unlikely the issue here is privacy.” In case you are skeptical and don’t subscribe to People magazine, where you could have gotten a glimpse of the wedding cake and the bouquet toss, check out reruns of Chaotic, the Spears-Federline reality show on UPN, where most of the footage is of Britney and Kevin pawing each other. Not exactly reticent. Just boring.

But what do I know. I thought Paris might have been Yahoo’s most-searched name, but it turns out that it’s Britney. So at least it's good to know it will not be that difficult to come up with a jury of her peers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

December 27, 2005--For Want Of A Toilet

For decades development specialists have been unanimous in saying that if countries in the developing world could manage to provide a basic education to girls this would lead to considerable economic progress (in may places women are at the center of providing livelihoods for their families), improvements in the institutions of civil society (educated women play key roles here), and healthier reproductive practices. Schooling for girls then is the single most powerful development tool.

Though there is much that needs to occur in order to reach that goal—at a minimum a complete primary education for girls—there is one relatively simple thing to do, also known about for many years, that is not very alluring or “sexy” to international donors and thus has not received the support it deserves—toilets. If girls are to stay in school beyond the 4th grade, what can I tell you, they need them.

Which foundation or international agency wants to be known for being in the toilet business? There are Pew and Kellogg Centers, Gates Scholarships, and Rockefeller Fellowships. But no Carnegie or Mellon or Ford Toilets.

But having private toilet facilities for schoolgirls in sub-Saharan Africa and other impoverished places would help get the job done. Experts agree if would contribute to the elimination of the 4th grade drop out problem. It may be as simple as that.

Here’s the problem—typically girls begin to menstruate at age 14 or 15 and without private sanitary facilities girls will stop going to school. This is especially true in those cultures where menstruation is so taboo that a menstruating girl is not allowed to participate in cooking. So to expect schoolgirls to hide in the bushes because there are no toilets is not going to work. And thus they stop going to school. The problem is so acute that in central Africa at least 24 million girls will never complete even an elementary education.

Finally, this issue, which has been ignored for so long, received front page treatment recently in the NY Times (see full article linked below). Though there are other pressures on girls to drop out—sexual harassment by male teachers (there are many fewer female teachers, again because so few girls continue in school much less enroll in teacher training programs), growing responsibilities at home, and pressure from parents to get married, according to the Nairobi-based Forum of Women Educationalists, the inconvenience of menstruating while in school without sanitation, is just one more reason for girls to stay at home.

As evidence that this is true, when Guinea decided to establish “girl friendly” schools, including improvements in school sanitation, between 1997 and 2002, enrollment rates for girls jumped 17 percent and the dropout rate fell at an even greater rate. This only goes to show that sometimes seemingly intractable problems have clear, affordable, sustainable solutions.

It all depends on what you consider to be sexy.

Monday, December 26, 2005

December 26, 2005--Thigh Bone Connected To The . . .

I’m from Brooklyn and worked for many years on Staten Island so I was not surprised to learn that an embalmer, who lives on SI, was at the center of a scam that involved a funeral home in Bensonhurst Brooklyn.

According to the NY Times (link below) here’s what they were up to before being busted by the Brooklyn District Attorney—bodies would be brought to the funeral parlor in Brooklyn where the embalmer from Staten Island would, without family permission, remove their bones and various organs and then sell them to Biomedical Tissue Services, located, where else, in New Jersey. Biomedical in turn would sell the bones and tissues to processing companies which would grind them up and prepare them in other ways for use in newly developed medical procedures that require less than full organs for the treatments. This apparently is not Frankenstein Redux but rather cutting edge biomedical technology.

So far so good. The investigation of the Bensonhurst funeral home and others in this new version of grave robbing was hardly a story for even the Times which promises to pass along “All the news that’s fit to print.” What caused the recent headline was the fact that Alistair Cooke, erstwhile and distinguished host of Masterpiece Theater, was among those whose body was plundered for its bones before he was cremated.

As you might imagine, his family, to quote them, is “reeling; it’s so horrific on many fronts.”

One of those fronts is the fact that after Biomedical Tissue did its thing they sold Mr. Cooke’s pulverized bones to two companies who then passed them along for transplant. Not knowing that Biomedical had altered the paperwork to hide the fact that he died at 95 of cancer and that it had metastasized to his bones. Biomedical said that the “donor” had died at 85 of a heart attack! None of the companies or parties involved has been available to respond or to let patients know that they may have received toxic transplants.

I suspect you may be thinking this is a rather ghoulish thing to be commenting about the day after Christmas. If you are it may be time right now to hit the delete key and move on to your post-Christmas gift returning.

Because I remained curious about what happened to the rest of Sir Alistair. And now I think I now know the answer because on further inquiry I learned that as a fully assimilated and naturalized American, and a true New Yorker, he had always wanted to have his ashes scattered in Central Park. Which is illegal. (You can only imagine if it wasn’t.) When his family was asked about this, they too declined to comment.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

December 24, 2005--Saturday Story: "Litwin The Tire King"

Litwin The Tire King

Basically all losers, Brooklyn’s true royalty were the Dodgers, gangsters, and anyone who managed to eke out more than a living. But men in the latter category, men who had their own businesses, who were their own bosses, even if they made less that a Fuller Brush man, they could at least think about themselves as royal. Especially if they managed to earn enough to buy a one-family house (and not a semi-attached version), get a new new car every three years, particularly if they didn’t need one (as opposed to buying a used new car), and could buy their wife a mink coat (not just a stole) from I. J. Fox, before she was fifty and weighed 200 pounds. But a mink not from Cousin Moritz, who had a few pelts stashed away in a rickety loft building in Manhattan.

There was, for example, Willy who owned his own store, Willy’s Fine Fruits. Not that he ever had much fruit—it appeared that he specialized in root vegetables because they did not require refrigeration or ice and thus he did not need to incur those unnecessary expenses. But this also meant that he did almost no business. Since the mothers were doing some aspiring of their own, they had only limited interest in a steady diet that emphasized potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, and beets. Though Willy did display some cabbage, at times celery, and tomatoes from New Jersey for three weeks in August (there was as a result an annual rush of customers), his basic offering of fruit was two bushels of apples (indistinguishable in taste the women said from his potatoes), and a few bunches of bananas. You can then imagine that Willy and Mrs. Willy not only didn’t have even an attached house of their own but still lived in a third floor walkup.

So much for the alleged transformative magic of having your own business. From Willy I knew that more was involved than just that.

Then as another example, there were the machies--what we called refugees from Poland. They owned a Dairy. I didn’t exactly know what machie meant but when I referred to them that way on one shopping excursion for my mother—I think to get four eggs—they told her what I called them the next time she came into their store, and subsequently I painfully learned that some things were to be kept private because for the first and only time in my life my mother smacked me a few times when she got home.

The machies, I mean the Wilnitzskis, were considerably more entrepreneurial than Willy. They had a fully stocked store that was heated and had wire baskets into which to load canned goods. They even used an adding machine to calculate what was owed as opposed to Willy who did his tallying with a crayon on the same brown paper bag in which he loaded your potatoes. And though the Wilnitzskis barely spoke a word of English, the atmosphere in the store was so welcoming that the women would gather there to exchange family stories as an alternative to the literally more toxic environment available to them at the beauty parlor.

But it was quite a marginal business. Though many in the neighborhood wanted very much to shop there, in truth more as a way to help them get started in America after having spent three years in The Camps in Poland, the last six months at Auschwitz, their prices were a little high (there was a competitive A&P three blocks down Church Avenue) and that sadly trumped any desire to show solidarity or benevolence. Twenty-five instead of thirty-five cents for a loaf of white bread made the three block walk irresistible, as well as guilt-provoking. What after all had we suffered—rations on the amount of meat we were able to buy each month? Thus, the Wilnitzskis began to grow bitter and the atmosphere in the store began to darken. There were even days when, muttering incomprehensibly, they would wave their arms and hands around not only out of frustration but also, the women were beginning to say, to flash their concentration camp tattoos in our faces. Talk about guilt!

Their son Nathan was in my class and though his English was halting and heavily accented and he wore funny clothes (it was rumored, from over there), we attempted to draw him into the gang. He wasn’t that bad in comparison to some of the other refugee children in the neighborhood who either ran wild or kept morosely to themselves. Nathan at least tried to fit in, and was tireless in chasing the girls away from where we would gather to play, which made him at least useful.

It was during an extra hot day one August when my mother was too exhausted to even think about going out, and because she had pity on me not to demand I go all the way to the A&P, that she sent me to the Dairy to get some milk and a half pound of cream cheese with scallions. It was then that I discovered that the Wilnitzskis were gone.

The store was abandoned and shuttered and I could see that a window had been shattered. Peering through the opening I could also see that all those careful displays of paper towels and canned soup had been toppled over. Something had been written on the wall above the ice chest, but it was too dark for me to make out what it said. Though it did look to me like very angry writing.

And when in the afternoon I went over to the schoolyard to play some ball there was no Nathan. No one knew where he was or what had happened. Later it was rumored they had moved away to stay with some relatives in Toronto.

Years later I wondered if they had opened another dairy there. And if they were still living in an apartment or had made enough money to buy a one-family house. I suspected the latter.

The Vets were clearly the most successful. They came back from the army where they had been in the Radio Corps and immediately started to build all sorts of homemade electrical things—portable radios, walkie-talkies, and even a hand-wired television which flickered away in their basement apartment and which we all instantly knew was more than just magic—it was the future. And as such, when they decided to turn this hobby into a business, their store, called The Vets, became a place to which people were drawn. At first to stand in the street outside to peer at the TV in the window that was always turned on. And although we could not hear any sound we were still entranced by the images and later by the silent play of the Dodgers on TV or the Friday Night Fights broadcast live from Madison Square Garden. When there was a championship bout, one had to fight to get close enough to be able to see the tiny figures squaring off on the bug-eyed 10 inch screen. Especially if the challenger was Jewish.

And when they began to carry televisions that were affordable, that could be paid off five dollars a week, their radio repair shop turned into a business. And the more they were able to sell the more repair work they had since these early sets needed to be constantly in the shop or, if you bought one with a service contract, one of the Vets would actually come to your apartment and dismantle the TV on the living room rug. A version of a doctor’s house call, but much more a young boy’s fantasy—to have all those tubes and capacitors and transformers stacked up right there. It made missing Kukla, Fran and Ollie tolerable, and it sure beat getting a penicillin shot.

They did very well and so we were not surprised when one of the Vets, the marred one, was the first to buy his own house—just around the corner from the store. Attached to be sure, but a private house nonetheless. And his wife showed up one day at Willy’s in a Persian Lamb jacket. Clearly on the way to the mink.

Except that in an act of overreaching, the Vets, if you can believe it, added dozens of tanks of tropical fish to the unused front of the store, feeling this would bring in more customers. And it did for a time so they expanded that part of the business, investing in the most delicate and exotic and expensive fish from the Amazon that the Aquarium in Coney Island didn’t even have. It brought them to the attention to the Brooklyn section of the Daily News where there was a story and a picture of them in the army caps standing in front of the Beta tank. But the whole enterprise came crashing down when one weekend in November there was a power failure and all the heaters in the tanks failed and, as a result, when they arrived at the store Monday morning, they found every single fish belly up and dead.

So were the Vets—they too went belly up, bankrupt. And they too, like the Wilnitzskis before them, for very different reasons, slipped away one night to avoid their creditors, taking with them all the TVs they had in the back awaiting repair. Thanks to this, in many apartments throughout East Flatbush there was considerable despair and no Uncle Milty for quiet some time.

Then there was Litwin. The Tire King, who made a comfortable living during the War selling retread tires on the Black Market. But his fortunes really soared, when after the War, he got the first Firestone Tire franchise in Brooklyn. He was very quick on his feet and got a jump start on the competition by arranging to buy hundreds of fresh-off-the-line Firestones and had them trucked directly to him from Toledo.

So when the word spread that Litwin had a supply or real tires there (as opposed to retreads), there was a line around the corner on Ralph Avenue as everyone from the neighborhood as well as from as far away as Lakewood, New Jersey raced over there. My father included—to buy four new black walls plus a spare.

Litwin’s business flourished, he did so well that he was able to get a new Caddy every year, bought Mrs. Litwin a full length mink, so huge that it looked like Joe Lewis’ bathrobe, which thus almost managed to obscure Yetta, his wife, who was quite extra large herself. And most enviably, Litwin also was the first to buy a totally detached private house on an acre of land, if you can believe it, on Long Island!

My father was fascinated by Litwin, feeling that as a businessman himself, there were lessons to be gleaned from Litwin’s success.

Dad was a failed businessman—his first venture was a bar and grill that he, a Jew, owned in an Irish neighborhood (he failed there because he was principled and refused to sell drinks to anyone after they had “had enough”—when the profits unfortunately kicked in). With his Uncle Herman he owned a parking garage in Park Slope before Park Slope was Park Slope and there were still plenty of places to park safely on the street for free. And then he opened a laundromat in the middle of Flatbush just at the time when everyone in that neighborhood was beginning to be able to buy washers and driers of their own.

So as an admirer of Litwin, my dad would load me into the car every Saturday, whether we needed tires or not, to visit The King to see what we could learn about his business that my father could apply to his own--at the time he had both the bar and the garage—since he too was in a version of the Automotive Industry.

One thing my father gleaned from Litwin was that he not only had the latest model tires direct from the factory, but he also sold them at a discount. Aha, my father thought, that’s the secret—cut the price. And so he did, offering beers at half price before seven and after eleven. But that didn’t work. Actually it had the opposite effect since his regulars had just so much capacity and no matter what Dad charged when they reached that capacity or “had enough,” they either stopped on the own or my father refused to serve them. So the Seven-Eleven Club went the way of the laundromat. And at the garage, no matter how much he would discount the price for monthly space, pre alternate-side-of-the-street parking, there were not enough customers to rent them. Thus the garage too was on the brink of collapse and Uncle Herman, who had put up the money, was in the early stages of looting the fixtures.

Maybe, maybe there was something else besides cutting prices that could be learned from Litwin. And so one Saturday, after we hadn’t been there for a few weeks, we ventured over. When we turned off Kings Highway toward Ralph, we immediately needed to slam on the breaks because there was at least a three-block long line waiting to get onto the lot. This was most unusual. After the pent up postwar demand had been met, there were never more than a half dozen cars there. Maybe, my father thought, Litwin had a supply of dazzling new White Walls we had been hearing about. Dad in fact was eager to get a set for his new used sleek black Chrysler, so maybe that was what was going on.

We crept toward the station and in about half an hour, in addition to the familiar mountains of used tires heaped before the garage that were icons of the King’s fortune, we noticed something very new—at least a dozen gas pumps had been installed in front of the tire shed since we had been there and everyone in line was waiting to get filled up. But why such a lineup?

As with all other gas stations, Litwin had surrounded the place with huge signs not only advertising the type of gas being offered, in his case Texaco, but also the price per gallon. And Litwin, completely in character, was selling his gas for two cents a gallon less than anyone else. My father immediately knew this was a brilliant strategy—to announce to all that that wizard Litwin was now not only the King of tires but he was also a General in the Gas War! And my dad also knew that he could not make a profit selling gas at these prices and he was doing it as a loss leader, a new concept for me; and that by next weekend he would raise his prices, but by having attracted new customers for gas he would thereby increase his already booming tire business. Litwin was a genius! And if my father could only figure out how to do something equivalent he too would be in the Caddy, mink, and private house business!

Through the following week my father was in a continuous state of agitation and anticipation—he couldn’t wait to get back there to see how Litwin would in fact be doing after he raised his gas prices and what effect that would have on his overall business. At five in the morning on Saturday my father roused me and said, “Get dressed. We’re going first to Garfield’s to get something to eat and then we’re going over to Litwin’s to see what’s going on.”

In truth I was more interested in the breakfast at Garfield’s where I knew they had the best lox and eggs and onion rolls in the city, and it was additionally special to be included among the other early-rising men of Brooklyn. Real men who did real work and were thus out and about on their own before dawn.

But my father was so eager to get over to Litwin’s that he made me bolt down the food and yanked me out of there before I was able to finish my fourth roll. But the car wouldn’t start; and it took so long to get a taxi to give us a push, that by the time we got to Ralph Avenue there was a two-block line!

My father was totally perplexed. “What’s he up to? What’s going on over there? Is he selling something else beside tires and gas?” He wondered out loud that maybe Litwin had been so successful pumping gas below the margin that those in line were waiting for both gas and tires. “What a genius, what a mensch. If only he might be willing to share some of his secrets with me. If only . . . “

This time the line moved forward much faster because Litwin himself, as nattily dressed as ever, was actually there at the pumps directing cars to either fill up or move over toward the lifts so they could get new tires. So it was working my father mused. “He’s amazing!” But just as he uttered this praise, he noticed that Litwin was still selling gas for two cents a gallon less than anyone else. He was still at war.

So this wasn’t a temporary pricing scheme to lure business his way. “What is he up to? What is he thinking and how can I do a version of the same thing?”

We pulled over to one of the bays and got out, peering over at what was going on. Marveling at Litwin’s acumen and energy. After a bit, Litwin looked up and saw my father waiting, wanting to approach him, and with a royal gesture indicated it was all right to step closer. He turned to his son who was a genetic duplicate of Mrs. Litwin, (which was not a good thing for a single 26 year old), and signaled for him to take over directing the flow of cars as Litwin hoped he would on day take over everything else so he and Yetta could move permanently to Miami Beach where, with the same sense of vision he had for business, some years earlier had bought waterfront property.

He nodded to my father that he would speak with him, a colleague in the Business, for just a minute, “You can see how busy I am.”

“Yes indeed I can. This is wonderful. And that’s why I want to have a brief word with you. Tell me, please tell me, how do you do it?”

“I do not understand. How do I do what?”

“I know from the tires. That I understand. You knew that business from the War and then from Firestone. But gas? What do you know about gas.”

“Well, to tell you the truth,” he guffawed, “living with Mrs. Litwin, I know gas! But I get what you mean—gas for cars.”

“Yes, gas for the cars. In my garage I have a pump and I sell gas. Not very much, to tell you the truth, but I know how much it costs to buy from the distributor and I therefore know the margins. That’s what I want to know, how you can make money from the gas? Yes, I can see that by selling it so cheap you get more people coming in to by the tires. But I do not get how it works with the gas.”

Litwin moved closer to him and reached up as if to whisper in my father’s ear (Litwin was no more than five-two, my father was five-eleven, and so he needed to stand on his toes). I approached them as well, two old Jews about to share some ancient hermetic knowledge that I also would need to know before too long—Tires? Gas? Parking? Beer? Washing machines? Medical school?

“Well Dave, since we’re in the same business I’ll tell you.” My father was quivering. Litwin’s mouth was almost touching his ear, “It’s true that I sell my gas for less than I pay for it. And I do lose two cents on every gallon.”

“Yes? And?” My father almost fell over onto Litwin.

“It’s simple. Though I lose two-cents a gallon, I make it up on the volume.”

“That’s it?

“Yes, that’s what I’ve learned and you can see for yourself what I’ve achieved.” With a sweeping gesture that took in his empire—the four bays for tire changing, the sixteen gas pumps, and by implication the house, Caddies, and mink. (But it was also clear that this achievement did not include his schlemiel of a son.)

My father didn’t understand and was forever frustrated by that, by what Litwin had revealed to him and that he would never fully figure out or be able to apply. And so we lived on in our small apartment, Dad never did manage to buy a real new car, and though my mother never got her mink coat (she in truth didn’t want one), she did one day come home to find a very nice stole that my father bought from Cousin Moritz.

But it was the great Tao of Business that Litwin had discovered right there on humble Ralph Avenue right next to the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. A King among his peers.

After a few years, he and Mrs. Litwin did move to Miami and lived into their nineties, though their son did manage to bankrupt the business when he opened a restaurant midway between the garage and the gas works.

Friday, December 23, 2005

December 23, 2005--Fanatacisms XIV--72 Virgins And Barbara Walters Too

I don’t know about you, but one of my guilty pleasures is to try to tune in when Barbara Walters has one of her Specials. I am so glad that she has moved on from interviewing world leaders. Look what happened to poor Anwar Sadat right after he appeared with her.

So when I learned from the NY Times (see link below) that her Christmas Special this year would be about heaven, yes that heaven, I cancelled my reservation for dinner at Jean George, accepting the fact that I’d have to wait another six months before I would be able to secure another one, so I could see her with Imam Faisal Rauf, the Reverend Calvin Butts, the Dalai Lama (with Richard Gere), Maria Shriver, Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals, and joining Barbara, to represent the Jews, Jackie Mason (who I should in fairness note is a lapsed rabbi).

This is obviously the year that not only liberal Democrats have found their way to God but also Ms. Walters. And since as you know this is one of my favorite subjects, God, I disconnected my phone and email, turned off all the lights so no one would know I was at home, and prayed (forgive that) the cable wouldn’t crash as it had the week before. I don’t have Tivo.

Everyone of course has a very different version of heaven and how you get there. Some she interviewed are having so much fun while alive that they can barely imagine that heaven will be an improvement. Jackie Mason said, “There’s nothing more I really want,” though if there is a hereafter he hopes he’ll be able to get some lean Pastrami. But I suppose by certain religion’s definitions anyone this happy in the here and now shouldn’t be too worried about what they’ll find in heaven since they are likely on a track to the other place.

Most chilling is the who and the how of this—what do you have to do during your lifetime to be a strong candidate for the afterlife, and what religion do you need to belong to in order to even have a chance?

In regard to the latter, it seems that unless you make the correct choice right now you have no chance whatsoever of getting up there. For example, when Barbara asked Ted Haggard if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your savior does that mean you go right to hell, the good Rev had a pretty definitive one-word answer, “Yes.”

It gets a little more interesting when things become eschatological—the various ways in which heaven is imagined. Elizabeth Taylor chimes in to speak from her many near-death experiences. Why she claims that what she saw while in that state is a vision of heaven feels a little presumptuous, don't you think? In any case it’s all quite pleasant, sort of how heaven is depicted in Hollywood—suffused with light, puffy clouds, harps, staircases. Very nice. Though I wonder what they’re serving and if you need reservations.

Of course, from all the disturbing headlines, where Islamic terrorists blow themselves and others up in a form of suicide martyrdom, we are especially eager to learn what will await them in Muslim Heaven. By now we have heard about the famous 72 virgins who await jihadists. But we also learn from Imam Rauf that there will be many, many servants, “young youths,” residing in gardens where rivers flow. Pure poetry. But wait, what about women, Barbara probes, always the feminist. He smiles and says, “And why not?”

So I’m ready. Where do I sign? But only if you promise Richard Gere won’t be there.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

December 22, 2005--Brokeback Pyramid

As embarrassed as I am to admit this, I did take a peek last night at the O'Reilly Factor. After he ranted again about how it is essential to return Christmas to Christmas, he lurched into a segment on Brokeback Mountain and how the NY Times has done six stories, count them, six articles about the film because they are using it as an excuse to promote their covert campaign in support of gay marriage.

By coincidence, having just returned from seeing the film that very evening (for what it's worth I give it One Thumbs Down and just two and a half stars) I didn't at all think about it as a film promoting marriage--straight or gay--since all the ones depicted in the film are so unspeakably unattractive. If this is a film about marriage, I vote for fooling around while herding sheep.

But then later that very same evening, while catching up with the NY Times, I came across an article in the Science section (see link to it below) that, well, maybe is a covert attempt on the part of the Times to change the law here so that even Elton John can get married on his next tour of the US.

The piece is about a painting on the wall of a 4,300 year old tomb right near the great pyramids at Giza--of two men in a loving embrace. Like right out of the movie!

Up to this point there have been two explanations: It is agreed that the two men depicted were the chief manicurists, you heard me, to Pharaoh Saqqara. That's not the point though--what they did for a living. According to one view, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are just very loving brothers and thus posed for their portraits with their arms around each other. Someone else
even speculated that they might have been the Chang and Eng of Ancient Egypt--cojoined twins, Siamese Twins if you will.

But if one peers a little more closely at the actual image on the wall of the necropolis, and compares the specific details of the kind of embrace depicted there, Nian and Khnum are locked in each others arms in ways quite similar to Ancient Egyptian heterosexual couples. You see, it's all in the iconography. That's after all what scholars do--they cut through to the truth of things in these subtle ways. To make this even more convincing, that more than cojoinedness or brotherhood is involved here, the archaeologist espousing the gay interpretation is French, one Nadine Cherpion. And you know of course what Bill O'Reilly would have to say about that.

But at the end, instead of making the case itself, the Times takes the coward's way out by giving the final word to Dr. David O'Connor, professor of ancient Egyptian art at New York University:

"The semipublic nature of their tomb chapel suggests their gay relationship was accepted as normative by the elite of a particularly famous and illustrious civilization."

But still not in Wyoming.

Though did you also get a chance to look at the Pharaoh's toe nails?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

December 21, 2005--To Die For

First thing every morning, my father would open to the obituaries in the NY Times. Not to see who of the rich and famous had passed away the day before, but to look for his own name. If he didn’t find it there, he would put on his hat, tuck the paper under his arm, and troop off to the subway to go to work. Well of course one day he found his name among the obits—actually we did.

But to keep up family tradition, and ward off evil spirits, I do the same thing. In truth, not just to look to see if I’m there, but also to see how anyone I might know is written up, immodestly composing in my own head how I want to be memorialized. In other words, to see how the competition is doing.

While at this the other day, I came upon an obituary that made me feel a little envious. Not to have been included (I’m not quite ready for that) but about how I would like to be remembered. It was for Mary A. Littauer, who died at 93 (not a bad number) who was a “self-taught expert on horses of ancient times” (see full obit linked below).

I was attracted to the notion that it was possible to be so successfully self-taught that one could, in this now unconventional way, become such a leading expert, acknowledged world wide as the ultimate authority on ancient chariots and such. In an era of heightened specialization, where such global preeminence is reserved for the ultra-formally taught, it was encouraging to see that there might still be another way to become an esteemed scholar.

It was also a woman’s story—she had a beloved pony as a child; married an officer in the cavalry; raised children; did volunteer work; and when in her 50s her husband, whose health did not allow him to ride with her, because she did not enjoy riding alone, he encouraged her to write a book about horses. Rather than considering writing for children, which would have been expected, Mrs. Littauer decided to write in a scholarly way about horses in ancient society—when and how horses and men got together.

Eventually, after teaching herself ancient Greek, German, and Russian so she could have access to the texts she needed for her research, with someone she met who was a professor of Aegean archaeology at the University of Amsterdam, she wrote two books and more than 60 articles that are still considered to be definitive.

She was the first to argue that the earliest wheels were not, as had been the prevailing view, used on two-wheeled carts; instead proving that they must have had four since the soft sands of the Middle East would not have supported them if they had just two. And one day, while visiting an exhibit at the British Museum, she noticed that an ancient horse’s bit was displayed upside down and had the curator correct it.

Quiet a gal and quite an obit! I should be so lucky.

Again, no rush.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

December 20, 2005--Tis the Season to Be Scrouge

I don’t know about you, but I feel conflicted and guilty, at the risk of being politically incorrect, when on the subway I ignore anyone begging for money. Or for that matter avoiding eye contact much less reaching into my pocket to give to someone trying to collect money for the homeless. I feel especially upset with myself when I notice that those who tend to give are much less affluent than I.

I of course have all my rationalizations handy—they are really looking for money for booze, not food; or they will not turn in the money they collect to the Coalition for the Homeless but will keep it for themselves so they can buy wine or whisky. I even have “permission” from the City as the subways are plastered with signs that discourage giving money this way, encouraging you instead to contribute to real charities. But though I try to do that I am still haunted by the perception that people poorer than I seem to find a dollar to drop into the cup while the checks I write to Meals On Wheels or Oxfam in truth do not really amount to a significant percentage of my annual income, or what I could easily afford . . . and deduct from my taxes.

Thus I’m not sure that an article in yesterday’s NY Times about how higher income people are less charitable than people with modest incomes provided me with much comfort—I still feel pretty guilty about my own niggardliness. (See link below for complete report.)

Here’s the bottom line—Americans younger than 50 and who earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per year are two to six times more generous than those Americans who make more than $10 million! The percentages that they contribute each year to charities, when calculated as a percentage of their net worth, show that the lower income people give on average 2.5 percent of the value of their assets while those much wealthier give just 0.4 percent.

As a sidebar to this and counter intuitive to me at least, single men are considerably more generous than single women with the same incomes and assets—men contribute 1.5 percent whereas women give 1.1.

And no surprise, those older than 65, more likely to have fixed incomes, are among the least charitable. Perhaps this provides some solace for me as I sort of fit into that demographic. But to tell you the truth, I still don‘t feel very good about myself.


Monday, December 19, 2005

December 19, 2005--Found At Last--WMDs!!

I know we’ve moved on and are now focused on democracy-building in Iraq. Enough already about Yellow Cakes from Niger; let’s move beyond whether or not Saddam met with al Qaeda leaders and thus is responsible for 9/11; forget about how it would all be a “slam dunk.” I get it, but I’m still obsessed about those Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam had and those missiles that would deliver biological agents to England in 15 minutes, or whatever. The real and original reason we built the Coalition of the Willing (including 113 soldiers from Mongolia) and launched Shock and Awe was to get those weapons out of his hands.

But now at last I have some good news to report—we have just recently found those illusive WMDs that those pansy UN inspectors couldn’t locate. If we had only thought to send in the archaeologists we could have skipped all this fussing, Congressman Murtha’s rantings, and that hollering on the Fox News Network. If we had only left it up to Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. True, they need to get that “Oriental" out of the name of the Institute, but old Clemens found WMDs right there hidden away just above Iraq’s northern border. Of all things, buried in an archeological site from the fourth millennium BC. (See NY Times report linked below.)

I don’t want to mislead you—he didn’t find canisters of Anthrax or aluminum tubes from Pakistan or Korean missiles. He found 1,200 oval-shaped clay balls about three inches in diameter that were propelled with slings (David and Goliath style) and another 120 clay balls about twice that size. They haven’t as yet figured out how the Uruk people launched them.

Professor Reichel claims that these ancient WMDs are clear evidence that in this contested part of the planet the site at Tell Hamoukar is thus far the “most ancient . . . war zone” yet discovered. How fitting. And how telling that this place of battle is right where what we now refer to as “civilization” began, in a region that includes present-day Iraq and parts of Syria.

The sandy remains at Tell Harmoukar, as in Ozmandias, are something to behold, and contemplate—did the Tell fall because of disease, failures in the food supply, or from war with enemies to the south? Dr. Reichel says that though he cannot tell, “it stands to reason that it is the latter.”

And south from there? A mere 100 miles? Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

December 17, 2005--Saturday Story: "The Dead Rosenbergs"

The Dead Rosenbergs

When we heard that the Rosenbergs had been electrocuted up in Sing Sing and that their bodies would be laid out and available for viewing at the Gorelik Funeral Parlor just six blocks away, we raced over there so we could for the first time see some real dead people. In my neighborhood we had seen lots of dead cats and dogs, but no dead bodies and thus had developed an inordinate interest in death.

But a lot of others had the same idea that hot June night, or one of their own, and thus we wound up near the end of a line that stretched around the corner. Since it took hours for the line to crawl toward the entrance, we learned from what we overheard that no one else shared our morbid obsession: We were there to see some corpses. Everyone else was lined up to pay their respects to these martyrs of “progressivism” and to protest not just their executions but the injustice of the entire American and Capitalist System. We barely understood any of this—the raging about Judge Kaufman, the abuse heaped on President Eisenhower who refused to stay their “murder,” and especially the fury reserved for someone named Roy Cohn, who, as a Jew, was venomously vilified for his role in their prosecution.

“He should rot in Hell,” we heard these atheists mutter.

Heshy Perlmutter was with us and he understood what they were feeling. His father, Mr. Perly, was the local glazier and window blind maker but was better known for wandering the streets at night while talking to himself, debating some inner furies, waving like a stick a rolled-up copy of the Daily Worker, the only paper besides the New York Times that didn’t have any comics. Heshy knew that what his father was so agitated about also had something to do with Capitalism and “surplus value,” whatever that was, and lynchings and anti-Semitism and McCarthy and also that betrayer Roy Cohn.

More important, having Heshy with us meant that we would actually be allowed to enter Goreliks. You see, as we got closer to the door, word filtered back to us that to be admitted you had to be at least sixteen. All of us were a few years younger than that and were worried that we would have to wait for subsequent executions before we would get to see some dead people. But when we got to the entrance, the man guarding the velvet rope took one look at me (already almost six feet tall), and especially at Heshy’s premature beard, and waved us in. (Heshy’s nickname, you should also know, was Big Dick.)

Once inside, things settled to a hush. No more sputterings about the Running Dogs of Capitalism, just the muted sound of shuffling feet as we inched our way toward the chapel. As we crept forward, Heshy and I were whispering to each other about what to expect. We thought Julius and Ethel would probably just look like the cats—with stiff arms and legs and bulging, staring eyes (would they be attracting flies too?); but we grew increasingly nervous about how dead people who had been electrocuted would look! We had never seen an electrocuted cat or, for that matter, dog.

What we knew from The Street was that when someone from Murder Incorporated went to The Chair, the next morning, screaming in six inch type from the front pages of the Daily News and Mirror would be the headline, “Bugsy Berkowitz Fries!” And since we knew how my mother’s fried liver looked—the closest thing to shoe leather not worn on a foot—we were trepidiously expecting the Dead Rosenbergs to look like huge slabs of fried liver in side-by-side coffins. We were thus rethinking the whole situation: Maybe we should wait until we were really sixteen when perhaps someone would just die of a heart attack or something. That would be a better way to get started with dead bodies.

But before we could reconsider and get out of there, we were pushed through the chapel door by some grizzled shoemaker (if we had thought about it, we might actually have been glad to have a shoemaker nearby as we approached the leathery Rosenbergs). He again began to spit about that “Jew bastard Roy Cohen.”

And then, there we were thrust face to face with the dead Rosenbergs whose adjacent coffins were tipped forward for better viewing. Dead they were, but under spot lights with orange faces and black hair that looked as if it had been touched up with shoe polish. Even Julius’ mustache was so blackened that he appeared more like a Semitic Hitler than a Jew from the Bronx. It was not hard to believe, from their squirrelly looks, that they had been spies and had indeed given away to Russia the secret to the Atomic Bomb, which as a result caused us to have to practice taking cover under our desks in school in case the Reds decided to drop one on the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The undertakers moved us along quickly so we had time for just a quick but sufficient glimpse and, in truth, a sniff because all the dead cats and dogs we knew stank something awful. We were curious about that too. But the Rosenbergs smelled more like the science lab in school, which was fitting since this whole experience was more like an experiment to us than a pilgrimage, except perhaps to Heshy who would be interrogated and lectured, we were certain, by Mr. Perly, about more than their hair, painted faces, and smell.

I had entered this cult of death as the result of being most responsible for taking care of the family plot in Mount Lebanon Cemetery. We couldn’t afford Perpetual Care for the graves so unless we wanted them to look like a jungle, someone had to go there regularly, spring through fall, to cut the grass and pull the weeds that were indigenous to that part of Queens. As the youngest and most dexterous family member this truly awesome responsibility fell to me. So clip and pull I did with barely disguised eagerness, finding a pinking shears to be the best weapon against the incursion of thistle.

As I would work my way among the headstones that multiplied through the years, as I drifted further from the bench where my mother and aunts sat huddled, talking silently to their deceased mother and father, I began to think about more than what was growing above ground. What, I wondered, was happening below the ground? That was not a question I could openly ask about poor Uncle Hyman who, I had been told, died of a heart attack before he was fifty. (The weeds, by the way, were thickest at his grave.)

Again in the spirit of experiment, when one day Chirps my parakeet died, rather than leave it to my mother do whatever she did to dispose of our dead pet birds and guppies (I suspected the guppies for sure got flushed away), I absconded with him, found an empty Hellmann’s Mayonnaise jar, washed and dried it thoroughly, put him inside, screwed the top back on securely, and buried him in a shallow hole of a grave in the vacant lot next door. Thinking I would dig him up periodically to see what was happening to him in that jar, interred as I imagined he was, not so unlike Grandma and Grandpa at Mount Lebanon. That would finally answer my existential question.

A week later, when I exhumed Chirps, he looked a little dried out, sort of what an apricot left too long in the sun begins to look like, with his flesh now sucked tight against his tiny bones. The second week it appeared that his eyes had disappeared. Where they went I couldn’t figure out—though I turned and shook the jar they didn’t seem to be in there anymore. This was getting profoundly interesting, and mysterious.

But when I went to unearth him up for the third time, about a month after he died, I couldn’t find him or the jar. I had marked his place with a distinctive stone but couldn’t find it; and without that, I couldn’t remember precisely enough where he was buried. And so over the course of the next week, I dug up virtually the entire lot, which must have been at least 30 feet wide and 75 feet deep.

My mother wanted to know what I was doing out there at all hours. I reminded her that in the past I had planted a successful, even legendary vegetable garden and was thinking about doing that again.

She said, “But it’s November.”

And thus I gave up on Chirps, but not on my quest.

Next came my obsession with Egyptian mummies. Even before I was aware of King Tut and all the stories surrounding his discovery and his treasures, from Richard Haliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels, a huge and enthralling book given to me one birthday by my well-traveled Aunt Helen (I can’t begin to tell you how I inhaled her stories about her trips to Europe—the first in the family to venture east of Montauk Point), from the book, I learned about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which included the Pyramids at Giza. And how they were in reality giant tombs for the most famous pharaohs. And that the dead pharaohs, turned into mummies, were sealed in those pyramids.

So when our public school class went on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I managed to sneak away from the group and got “lost” for an hour in the labyrinth of the Egyptian Hall where, secured in glass cabinets in open coffins, what the Ancient Egyptians called sarcophagi, I could see actual mummies, dead pharaohs’ bodies that were more than 4,000 years old!

I was getting closer to the real thing. But there was still a problem—I couldn’t actually see the pharaohs’ bodies since they were so tightly wrapped in cloth shrouds. But the fact that I could sense more or less full bodies obscured within those wrappings suggested to me that both Chirps and Grandpa and Grandma might still be recognizable if somehow I could only get to them. After all, if the mummies were in such good shape after 4,000 years, Grandpa and Grandma and Chirps might still be quite like I remembered them.

Little did I know that before very long I would have a close encounter with a dead body, right in my own family, when one of Aunt Madeline’s husbands killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

I barely knew him because they had been married less than six months. He seemed nice enough to me. Minimally he was the first of her husbands who wasn’t bald and, even more important to her, was taller than she and thus a better dance partner. Stories circulating in the family suggested that after living with Madeline for even a few weeks he took the easy way out by killing himself. Though he may have had enough of her, from her carrying on after his death, she appeared to have lost the love of her life. In fact, things were so bad with her, and his ten year old son from a previous marriage, that it took her brothers’ and their wives’ total attention to console her.

Perhaps because of my experience weeding the family plot, making arrangements for his funeral fell to me.

My primary responsibility was to give the mortician a suit in which to bury him. As you might imagine, at 12, though tall for my age, I was not fully prepared for this. So I just grabbed the first suit I saw from his closet and spent the rest of my time hoping that at the fservice they would have an open coffin so I could at last . . . .

To my considerable disappointment they didn’t. But at the funeral the person from the funeral parlor who was in charge and to whom I had given Murray’s suit, pulled me aside and directed me to a very private corner where he whispered so as not to disturb anyone, “Was that his suit you gave me?”

“Certainly,” I said, “It was in his closet.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think so, why are you asking?”

“Because it looked as if it was a suit for a ten year old.”

I looked over to where Murray’s ten year old son was sitting and saw that he was in casual clothes. He was not wearing a suit.

The undertaker rasped in my ear, “I can’t tell you what we had to do to get it on the body.” I was cringing, “But we did,” he added with a twisted smile.

And so, until that day when I got to see the Rosenbergs, I felt considerable guilt about what I had inadvertently done. But more, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the Goreliks needed to do to get that suit to fit poor Murray. To save you from losing your dinner, let’s leave it at that.

My education and interests took some new directions as I began to grow into my body. And though a total failure at Hebrew School, where I was presumably to receive a religious education (in fact all any of us learned to do was read, really parrot Hebrew at break-neck speed without understand even one word), in spite of this, I begin to think about what one might call “spiritual things.” Kind of adolescent meaning-of-life questions—Where did we come from (not just Birds and Bees sorts of things)? And where were we going (and I didn’t mean Mount Lebanon)? And other such profundities. Heshy, under the influence of Mr. Perly and his surging hormones, was ever the materialists and said, non-biblically, that we’re just a bunch of atoms and molecules and thus to a version of dust we shall revert, after a life of feeling up Carol Siegelstein in the school coat closet.

By then I was also into atoms (remember the A Bomb) but the dust-to-dust thing didn’t work for me. I had begun to think there were higher issues and meanings to being human. I saw a very different place in the world for us as compared to Chirps and my guppies.

* * * * * *

Some time later my father began to fail. He had always been such a force of nature. I know to children fathers often seem to be that powerful and arbitrary, but my father was truly tectonic. When he raged, all trembled; when he commanded, all obeyed; what he expected, we did; and when he acknowledged and in his own coded-way loved, we all were smitten. So when his big body was being reduced by time and he could no longer lunge forward but was afflicted by what the medical people called “retrograde movement,” which meant he fell backwards when he attempted to move ahead, I saw this to be a metaphor for his decline—he was heading backwards, even while attempting still to cut his way through life.

To see him like this raised many more questions about the meaning of life, at least the meaning of a life. The answers I came up with were not comforting. Everything seemed to reduce itself to biology—eating and pissing and shitting was the final summing up. Not so different from what Heshy had been saying some years earlier.

Dad lived in Florida and we in New York; and so when my mother called to say, “Come down,” we got on a plane to Fort Lauderdale. We immediately lost our way from the airport to the hospital, grinding in frustration that we would miss the end. From my mother’s voice and her deserved fame as the family “witch,” invariably perceiving the future, we knew there was very little time and every missed turn made it less likely that we would find him still alive.

But with a sense of the miraculous, the hospital appeared just as we were about to make another futile U turn. We skidded the car into the parking lot and raced up the steps afraid that even to wait for the elevator would make us fatally late. And found his room and him in bed, unconscious, breathing with obvious final distress.

I sat beside him and held his withered hand, saying what I knew would be a few last words. There was no way to know if he heard me as I attempted to sum up what I had by then come to conclude about us (contested), his life (contradictory), and life itself (still imponderable). I longed to feel even a reflexive squeeze from him and perhaps there was one or at the very least a last spasm to let me know he understood, and that was what he too had come to understand.

And then all was utter, utter stillness.

I closed his quickly cooling eyelids and put my hand to his chest as he had done so many times to me when he would say to me as child and adult, “Such a good boy. Such a lucky boy.”

And then he was no longer there. Even during his last unconscious moments it was apparent that whatever he was was present but then that was gone. Just gone.

I looked at his body to see if I could perceive his spirit depart or whatever it was that was him.

But there was just a body.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Fanaticisms XIII--God And Milk And Cookies

Leave it to the Beulah Land Church in Boston to get ahead of the curve. Just when upward-aspiring parents are playing Mozart to their fetuses or hiring nannies to speak only Cantonese to their infants or prepping their toddlers for nursery school interviews, the good folks at Beulah Land are now offering Bible classes for little ones under the age of three (see NY Times link below for full story).

At least the classes run for only 15 to 20 minutes—the diaper set have rather short attention spans, you know, and so this schedule is developmentally correct. But they do manage to cram a lot into those few brief minutes—Bible lessons and Christian tenets are offered, all via songs and stories illustrated with colorful characters affixed to felt boards. How Montessori.

Father Gray began the whole thing by at first offering non-religious playgroups at the church but then quickly thought Why not have kids begin to think about God early in life, in his words, to provide “a more spiritual way to enter into the parish community”?

He starts off each group with an upbeat rendition of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands; and while he has the tikes’ attention, quickly moves on to the Ten Commandments. Actually reading them to the little ones. I wonder which is their favorite—surely not Honor Thy Mother and Father who after all dragged them to this torture. They do skip all the sacrificing and flagellations and such, leaving that until later when the kids can get their hands on the DVD of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. But the kids do seem to love the one about Noah’s Ark.

There are of course some child development people who are wondering about this. For example, Professor Joan Lucariello of Boston College (a Jesuit institution) claims that infants are not capable of processing these kinds of abstract concepts. At best they are at the Mama and Dada stage and so it’s pretty certain that they are having some difficulty figuring out who this God is.

But Father Gray says, who cares, “True, it’s sort of evangelistic, but it’s fun.”

And good business too—about 250 churches in the US and Canada are using the curriculum developed at Beulah Land, buying the felt boards, Bible characters, Arks, and other stuff from Beulah Enterprises! Get it?

At the end of each class it is not surprising that the children get a little restless so Father Gray sings a song that requires parents to raise their babies off the floor and raise them high in the air at each Alleluia. At last some fun--sort of like in Gymboree.

Then it’s time for the milk and cookies.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

December 15, 2005--Let Them Eat Prunes

As we approach the Eating Season and begin to think about Christmas, New Years, Hanukah, and Kwanza dinners, if we can’t any longer so easily get our hands on the very best caviar from the Caspian Sea (all the sturgeon there have either been poached out or died from pollution), thoughts turn, not to Sugar Plums, but to Foie Gras.

That is unless you live in Israel or California where Foie is either illegal or about to be. Not for health reasons (it’s all cholesterol) but rather out of concern for the ducks and geese that are literally forced to produce it. As usual, the NY Times is on top of the story and so am I since it involves the French (as well as the geese), one on my on-going interests (see full article linked below).

You do know how Foie Gras is produced? By force-feeding. Via a process called gavage, the birds have a pipe shoved down their gullets several times a day through which blenderized corn is pumped. It gets the job done—within 18 weeks of gavage a typical goose will weigh six times what he or she weighed when this all began and his/her liver is ready to be removed and turned into the delicacy we can’t get enough of at this time of year.

From this you can see why people have been successful in getting a number of governments to pass legislation to stop this practice or curtail the import and consumption of this special holiday treat. If you can believe it, the anti-Foie Gras wave of protest has even reached France. Brigitte Bardot has been in the forefront of protesting this practice as well as the clubbing to death of baby seals. She and others have been so effective in raising consciousness about gavage that the French Assembly, under pressure from the FG producers, has passed legislation that declared Foie Gras a “cultural and gastronomic patrimony.” Indeed.

If you think this is just about patrimony, think again. We’re talking Big Euros here. France produces about 75 percent of the world’s FG supply, 17,500 tons a year which generates 1.5 billion Euros and provides 130,000 gavage-related jobs. Considering the unemployment situation in France, do we want to see these 130,000 gavagers tossed onto the dole along with all the Algerians and Moroccans?

When the state of California passed a law to forbid the production and sale of Foie Gras after 2012 (which is courageous since California has its own gavage business going on), a Monsieur Lacriox-Dubarry (I don’t think a relative of the frock designer Christian Lacroix), whose family has been in the FG business since 1908 (newcomers), said disdainfully of our West Coast neighbors, “They can eat prunes.”

Now just you wait a minute, do you know how prunes are produced? Check Brigitte’s Website. She’s at long last also moving on to do something about that disgraceful situation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

December 14, 2005--The Labiodental Flap

Pay attention because this is a complicated story about language and culture and the way marginalized people occasionally manage to find a place for themselves in a world of hegemonic forces. So far so good, right?

This is about how African peoples who speak more than 70 distinct languages recently managed to get one of the sounds common to all of them included in the International Phonetic Alphabet—the Labiodental Flap. This is the first time in 12 years that the IPA has been amended; and as you will learn (1) this is difficult to achieve and (2) since by having one’s language recognized this way is literally a way to be put on an important map of the world, a number of other indigenous language speakers are attempting to do the same for their own special tones, stresses, and aspirations (literal aspirations—check the etymology for this).

Where else did I learn about this but in the ever-venerable NY Times (link below to full article).

The Labiodental Flap is a sound that is like a buzz that is sometimes enhanced by a faint pop. It is produced by the lower lip moving back and forth and by so doing flapping on the inside of the upper teeth—thus the Labio-Dental-Flap.

The Phonetic Alphabet was established in 1886 in an attempt to have graphic symbols that would represent all the distinct and unique sounds characteristic of all the then known languages of the world. They then numbered about 1,000; today there are more than 6,800. The IPA list has also evolved through the years, in effect to keep up with the identification of so many additonal languages, so that now there are 28 symbols for vowel sounds, 86 for consonants, and 75 others for tone, stress, aspiration, etc.

Things get more interesting, if I haven’t already lost you, when one looks a little more closely at how new symbols get included and often who is behind the effort to have them accepted.

Speakers of uncommonly-spoken languages (the PC way to describe them) come from very remote places and do not have representatives who lobby for them before the IPA folks. This occurs when either anthropologists, or much more typically, when Christian missionary groups make the case that they have identified a new stress or tone that is a strong candidate for inclusion in the IPA. Anthropologists might have as their motivation an interest in the sheer advancement of knowledge or at most are eager to have their favorite tribe, one perhaps that they spent a lifetime studying, recognized and thereby elevated in status by have their special click or flap recognized.

Missionary groups on the other hand become advocates so that the IPA can agree to a symbol that will allow them to capture all the linguistic nuances of people they are attempting to evangelize. If there is to be a proper Xhosa Bible available for their conversion work, then there must be a way to symbolize the unique Xhosa Side Click.

More work needs to be done—For example, there are two Brazilian languages, Oro Win and Warl’ that await having their Bilabial Trill included and one in the Philippines of particular interest to the leading language-oriented missionary group, where the sound they wish to capture is made by sticking the tongue out of the mouth, rather inelegant but a unique sound nonetheless. A Bible for these people requires its inclusion, though it will probably need to be plasic covered to protect it.

If any of this sounds at all strange to you, just think how you might feel if there were no IPA symbol for a sound unique to English—the vowel in “bird.”

So now you know how the Oro Wins feel. Not that good, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

December 13, 2005--Fiddle On

Evolution I can understand. Even gay marriage I can understand. But Proms? When did they get caught up in the Culture Wars?

I always thought of them as a relatively innocent thing—maybe graduating high school seniors would drink a little more than what they would guzzle down on a typical Saturday night; maybe they would get a little higher; maybe they would stay out all night to watch the sun rise (that always seemed a little romantic); and maybe a few would even get laid rather than administer oral sex on each other. No big deal. Teenage America circa 2005. So what’s the problem?

Well, senior proms are now on the front lines of the CWs. The NY Times recently reported that an increasing number of high schools are canceling them (see link for full article) because educators are disgusted by the decadent “prom culture.” Yes, some see them to be nothing short of school-sponsored bacchanals that reflect an anything-goes attitude.

Parents are being faulted for renting houses for the kids so that couples can spend the entire night together, winking at the use of alcohol and drugs and even arranging for overnight cruises for their precious ones. But some parents and school officials are claiming that the prom is also a time to lose one’s virginity—assuming junior is still intact, so to speak. To quote a harried administrator at Kellenberg High, “This is supposed to be a dance, not a honeymoon.”

But the concerns run deeper—some are seeing proms to be obscene displays of conspicuous consumption. It is not uncommon to cost $500 to $1,000 per person for dresses, tuxes, limos, corsages, and parties both before and after the actual event.

Others who are more socially conscious are perceiving a prom gap in which rich and poor wind up walking up very separate and unequal aisles on the big night. To them, these mega-proms are another example of “consumer-driven parenting,” in which parents who want to manage all aspects of their children’s lives see the prom as yet one more experience they can purchase. Thus we see Sweet Sixteen parties that look like weddings and weddings that look more like coronations.

And if you were thinking we are talking about small potatoes, think again—the Prom Industry in America is estimated to gross about $2.7 billion annually.

So I say, let the orgies continue!

Monday, December 12, 2005

December 12, 2005--For Want of A Flashlight . . .

As part of The Coalition of the Willing, those nations that have joined us in Iraq, one member, Mongolia, has supplied 131 soldiers. Thus, on a recent trip to the region, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld dropped in for a visit to thank them and to receive in turn a gift—a horse that is a direct descendent of the kind of steed that Genghis Kahn and his warriors rode across the Steppes and the Gobi Desert on their conquests.

According to the NY Times (link below), Genghis Rummy quickly named it Montana because the area he visited and where he received his horse reminded him of the big sky landscape of that state.

But then he ran into a problem—how to get Montana home with him (his DOD 747 is equipped with the highest high-tech command and communications gear but is not outfitted to transport livestock); and equally significant, what to give the Mongolians as the culturally-required exchange gift. Since events of this kind are obviously heavily choreographed in advance one would have thought Rummy and his entourage would have planned for this. Or for what to do in Iraq after toppling Saddam.

But scramble they did and managed to come up with an appropriate ceremonial token—a flashlight. Yes, a flashlight in exchange for a Genghis-Kahn quality horse. Talk about taking your few remaining allies for granted.

For the flashlight, since Rumsfeld couldn’t take his gift with him (I suppose they will have to send a specially equipped plane from the US Cavalry to do that), the Mongolians will take care of the steed and said, most generously, that they will do so for as long as it takes because the animal now truly belongs to the SOD. And until he retrieves it, “only the Steppe winds will ride on his back,” to quote a poetic Defense Ministry official. It all sounds so quaint and reminiscent of those better times when conquest and pillage were so easy and so much fun and didn’t require UN or Congressional approval to justify one’s actions, much less appearing on Meet The Press.

But before I end, let me understand something else—the Clintons, when they left the White House, got into all sorts of grief when they tried to slip out under cover of darkness with a couple of cheesy lamps and end tables that were allegedly given to them as gifts; but Rumsfeld gets away with shipping Montana (on a government plane) to his ranch in New Mexico (Montana in New Mexico?)?

OK Rummy, keep the horse, join the wind and ride on his back across the Mohave; but do us all a favor—how about doing it soon and permanently?

In fact, send me the bill for shipping the horse. And oh yes, for the flashlight. I assume batteries were included.