Tuesday, January 31, 2006

January 31, 2006--Take My Frau, Please

I have for some time wondered why becoming a US citizen is considered to be naturalization. Then there was an intriguing article in the NY Times (linked below) on the subject of how the US and other countries test immigrants who have applied for citizenship that helped me understand.

This is an issue of great moment and hotly debated both here and in Western Europe where we and they have very different traditions of welcoming immigrants, much less offering or conferring citizenship. We “welcome” immigrants and have had a fairy clear process through which individuals proceed in order to become citizens. And a large part of our national consciousness about what it means to be American is based upon these founding myths and ideals.

We say someone becomes naturalized because it changes that person from being the alien, the foreign into the familiar, the natural. How this works in practice for people from different nationalities is of course frequently another matter—is it easier to become “natural” in America if one is from, say, England than, say, Nigeria? But at least we have attempted to grapple with these issues for many decades, with some of that grappling making us feel proud while at certain anti-immigrant times we have much of which to be ashamed.

The test for citizenship in the US includes a considerable amount of historical trivia (the name of the Pilgrims’ ship, the month in which the president is inaugurated, who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb—sorry, just a cheap joke) but also some more important questions about government structure and the Bill of Rights.

We are currently revisiting our test to make it a bit more robust and substantial. And we are also seeing that countries such as Britain, France, and Germany, which have very different histories of associating with and assimilating aliens, are struggling with how to make citizens of the new populations who have been filtering into their countries in recent decades, peoples who come from very different cultures (read Islamic) and who do not feel welcomed in societies that do not have immigrant traditions.

So in England, their new citizenship test includes questions about women’s rights and the participation of young people in politics. The Germans are being much more direct, some would say blatant, when asking,

What is your position on the statement that a wife should belong to her husband and he can beat her if she isn’t obedient? What do you think about parents forcibly marrying off their children? Imagine your grown son comes to you and declares that he is a homosexual and wants to live with another man. How would you react?

I suspect anyone facing the prospect of these questions might get on the next train back to Turkey. Come to think of it, maybe the Germans know what they are doing?

Monday, January 30, 2006

January 30, 2006--$60 Dollars A Shot

When I went to college, if you wanted to get your hands on what we used to call “dirty” books or magazines, the best you could come up with was a well-thumbed paperback copy The Amboy Dukes, which contained one titillating-for-the era sex scene; an issue of National Geographic that was devoted to some tribe in New Guinea where the “natives” didn’t wear any clothes; a copy of Swank Magazine where unfortunately there were black rectangles superimposed on the “private parts.”

Or one could become a sperm donor, where the magazines that was placed in your cubicle to put you in the mood was of very high quality. And so I found my way to IDANT, Inc. where not only did they have excellent reading material but they also paid you $20 per “donation.” As you might imagine, I would have been willing to pay them for the privilege.

So when the NY Times recently published a piece about sperm donation, I was inexorable drawn to it (see it linked below). No surprise, unlike your misbehaving Blogger, the Times took a different tack in their reporting, emphasizing some of the complex ethical issues surrounding this practice, which is now a major industry.

For example, up to this point donors have remained anonymous and children conceived by sperm donors as their biological fathers have not been able to locate them, in contrast to adopted children who now rather routinely, if they wish, can find their biological parents.

Further, since sperm banks may collect many donations from a single male (me for example) and they may divide each donation into multiple doses of sperm, it is conceivable that any given donor may have dozens of “children.” There was a case in the 1990s in Virginia where it was discovered that a fertility doctor himself had fathered at least 75 children.

Also, the cloak of anonymity may present other problems—fertility clinics frequently advertise that they have sperm available (for sale) from men who have PhDs (for the IQ points I suppose) who never smoked cigarettes (for health reasons) when it turns out that the donor was actually a chain-smoking high school drop out! Since these clinics are for-profit businesses there is an incentive for them to either cheat in this way or, if they in fact have a supply of sperm with PhDs, they might be tempted to divide it up and use it as widely as possible. Hence the problem of many, many offspring from the same father.

Needless to say, since all of this goes on in secret, it wouldn’t take much of a fiction writer to begin to imagine a whole lot of unintended and unknown “incest” occurring in that part of Virginia where . . . . I should probably stop right there.

And then I am wondering if somehow I might have a dozen or so now college-age sons and daughters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who might be looking for me to pay their tuition.

So I called IDANT, they are still around, to see what I might learn. They said they had no record of my “contributions”; and that even if they did, they would tell me nothing. That was reassuring. But they did say that, if I wanted to, I could come by and get back into the business.

They now pay $60. Inflation.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

January 28, 2006--Saturday Story: "My Liver? It's In Edible Condition"

“My Liver? It’s In Edible Condition”

This is a story about a love letter. From my father to my mother. While he was quarantined up in the Adirondack Mountains, with a form of TB. It’s dated about six months after they met, well before she fought to marry him.

Growing up, my favorite days were those when I was sick. Not that sick, but sick enough to stay home from school but not too sick to enjoy the soap operas on the radio, tea and toast served by my mother, and the chance to play with her button box and clothespins. These she brought to me on a wooden breakfast tray. And truly best of all, she brought them to me in my father’s bed where I would be ensconced until I passed two days without any fever.

This was in part to take me out of my bedroom, which I shared with my younger sister Laura, bringing me into a version of isolation to protect her. But there may have been another reason why my mother set me up this way, in the bed besides hers. Perhaps it was all to keep my germs away from Laura. Then again, maybe not.

* * *

I was reminded about this during a recent visit to Deerfield Beach in Florida to see my eighty-seven year old mother. She is fully compos mentis, and so when she raised her sweater to show us where some of the capillaries in her chest had apparently ruptured, causing a fan-like pattern of discoloration, I was I must admit shocked and averted my eyes. Not because I am squeamish about medical things, but because, by doing this, she was also exposing her bra and bear midriff. The sight of both, so early in the visit, was not only unexpected but set off memories of other, much earlier such sightings.

I wasn’t prepared to have those resurrected either; and so I quickly moved to divert all of us, her from her exploding capillaries, me from that bra, asking, almost as a non sequitur, if she had found that picture I had asked her to search for of me and Henry Cross. From the time when we lived together as brothers even though he was the son of our maid, Bessie Cross, and I was white and he was black. She in fact had and rushed to her bedroom to retrieve it.

It showed us squinting into a harsh summer sun, with me on my tricycle and Henry, shirtless, behind. We were four and six; but already, peering at this through time, and with the knowledge of what ultimately drove us apart, I could see his handsome threat and a sense of his awareness of how temporary this arrangement would be. I also noted enough strength to comfort me that maybe he had managed to survive. I knew at once, if these stories were ever to become a book, this picture must be its cover.

It was in a leather covered album of photographs of the kind many families keep, with the images displayed chronologically affixed to the pages with small stick-on corners. In this case beginning with foggy pictures of my grandparents arrayed in hierarchical rows with their brothers and sisters and then subsequently with their own children, my aunts and uncles. Thereafter was the first appearance of cousins.

But slipped in among these were others of my parents well before I was born, perhaps even before they were married. Most were from a weekend outing in Chester, New Jersey, to a rustic camp, with log cabins in the woods on pristine lakes. There in one, alone in a canoe, was my very buff father, bare chested, with his legendary perfect posture (something none of us could ever emulate and thus was a source more of punishment than pride), perfect moustache, and a look of enormous accomplishment—it wasn’t every Jewish man of his era who was so obviously capable of maneuvering a birch bark war canoe on a lake in the wilds of New Jersey.

But then again, from the picture next to it, of my mother in quite short shorts, framed seductively in the doorway of the first aid cabin, sporting a bandaged knee (of which she was clearly proud), hips tipped alluringly forward, I sensed that his feelings of accomplishment and her pride were perhaps more interconnected than the separate photos would suggest.

I was obviously eager to know if this weekend in the woods was after or before they were married and vowed I would ask my mother about that, before returning to New York, hoping that since my father had died nearly ten years ago, she might tell me the truth; and if she did, I would finally be able to pose the many other questions I had been gathering throughout my life. Including what had happened subsequently to transform, let me call it what it was, their animal intensity into anger.

We were in Florida for the unveiling of my cousin Morty’s gravestone. He had died suddenly the year before, while jogging, the first of our generation to pass away, sending seismic waves among the cohort of cousins; and so as the weekend was ending and it was getting to be the time for us to leave, it was not feeling propitious or appropriate to break the mood of grieving to ask my mother about things that would only add to her unhappiness.

It was getting late, all the relatives had left my mother’s apartment where we had gathered after the service. I was moving toward the guest bedroom, wanting to begin to end that difficult day, when my mother said, “I think there is another picture of you and Henry that’s a better one than I gave you.” And although as weary as I, she asked if I could pull yet another box of family mementoes and photos from the floor of her closet because she was certain that’s where it would be.

She began to sift through envelopes of unsorted pictures, humming to herself in a narration of remembrance--

“Look at Uncle Leon always with that cigarette dangling from his mouth. You know he died of lung cancer. How he suffered. And my sister Rachael with the leaf pasted to her nose so she wouldn’t get sunburned. Look at Rosie. She was so tall and beautiful; it’s so sad that she was never happy. But her mother, my sister Bea, was no mother to her, leaving her home alone when she was only three in such a dark apartment. And Morris in his uniform. He was so handsome. And dad’ sister Marilyn. She was some athlete. Look at this picture of her when we went to Chester together.”

Chester! Exhausted as I was I couldn’t resist, “Mom, when were you there? There are those photos of you and dad from the same time. The one of him in the canoe and you with the bandage on your knee.”

“Oh that was some time. Though Marilyn was impossible. She was with us and she never let your father alone. All she wanted to do was have him play tennis or handball with her. That’s how I skinned my knee—I insisted I too wanted to play handball. You wouldn’t know if from looking at me now, but I was quite a good player. I could kill the ball with either hand. Dad and I played in tournaments together in Brighton Beach. But that Marilyn. She almost ruined that weekend. We didn’t get away that often and I’m sorry your father insisted on bringing her along. I didn’t understand why at the time; but now . . . .” She trailed off.

All I wanted to know, “Was this before I was born?”

“Oh sure. Many years before.” I knew it wasn’t until they had been married for nine years that I was conceived. “In fact,” her voice became a hush, “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she flipped back to the picture of him in the canoe, “but that’s silly because it would not be a big thing today.” She looked up at me, “You know I was quite liberated for the time, I didn’t need to wait for Women’s Lib. I had my hair bobbed, I smoked and drank whisky in Speakeasies.”

She smiled up at me, “Yes, I want you to know, we were there together before we were even married.”

“I always wanted to know, but why do you now want me to?”

“Because you only saw us after things had become so bad. So awful. At my age, you never know, this may be the last time we have a chance to talk like this.” I shuddered because I knew it was true.. “I want you to know that we loved each other at that time, and in that way too.”

She paused to gather her strength. She was seated on a bench beside her bed, hunched over. Her breathing had become labored. “You know that’s why I was attracted to him and why, in spite of my parents not wanting me to see him much less marry him, I insisted. I fought with them. Because he was, look, so handsome.”

She was smiling now in her remembering, looking down at the photo in her lap, holding herself, rocking gently, “And, and I loved having sex with him. That too.”

I waited to see if she would say more. But she resumed her humming, clearly not wanting to continue. I of course wanted to ask, “But what happened?’” but it felt like too much for this day. Maybe for any day. So I reached over to her and we hugged for awhile. And she fell asleep in my arms. I was quite reluctant to let her go, but I did and lifted her to her bed, tucking her in as she so many times had done for me.

I went to bed as well and got up early so as not to miss the plane. Over coffee, we did not refer to the night before, just talked on about Morris and Eleanor and their new car and the weather in Florida and New York. “You sure you’ll be warm enough there?”

* * *

Back in New York, with that picture of Henry Cross, I returned to my reveries of being sick and staying home from school and being taken care of by my mother. Some of these now altered by what I had learned in Florida. That time which had seemed so sweet and desirous to me was now clearly more ambiguous—I knew how happy my mother had been to have me there, in my father’s bed, and to be able to tend to me so lovingly. But I also knew, without ambiguity, that something very disturbing had happened between them, after the love and passion, and that somehow I had been drawn into the middle of it.

The literal middle because, I was now remembering, even when not sick, my mother frequently invited me into their bedroom to protect me from the terrors of my recurring nightmares. I would scream out from my bed, which was pushed up against the wall separating our two bedrooms, and to calm me she would come for me and bring me into their room where she would settle me between them, actually in the crack between their two adjoined single beds, where I lay face down, peering at the floor, trying both to resume sleep and somehow create enough white noise in my head to drown my demons as well as whatever sounds or words they might utter.

One winter I developed a severe case of the croup; and since I had what I later came to understand to be a weakness in my lungs similar to my father’s, there was fear that it would become pneumonia, which was much more life threatening then than now. I was thus in for a long siege and would be taking over my father’s bed for at least a week. My mother therefore not only needed to make sure I was comfortable, fed, medicated, and above all warm; but she also needed to make sure I had more to occupy me than just the boxes of buttons and clothes pins—they might be enough to get me through a cold, but the croup cum pneumonia was a different sort of challenge to her preoccupying skills. So she arranged for me to have a steady supply of comic and coloring books, as well as cardboard, oak tag, scissors, paste, and various kinds of tape. With these I was able to construct crude airplane models and, as my culminating project, I managed to fabricate a tiny Jeep, using, I thought ingeniously, the cellophane wrapper from a pack of my father’s Camels for the windshield. It was quite a little masterpiece, at least my mother and I thought so. Though when my father got home and my mother showed it to him, his only comment was a curt, “It’s good to see for once that you managed to complete something you started.” That did not speed my recovery.

There were also times when I was left alone—my sister was in school and my mother needed to go grocery shopping. These were also sweet moments when all was quiet except for the periodic ticking of the radiators. I daydreamed about the coming spring when I would prepare my vegetable garden and thought about summer trips up to the Catskills. But I also seized the elicit opportunity to go through my parent’s closets and chests of drawers. Tentatively at first but then more boldly. There was the forbidden excitement of slipping into my father’s green corduroy jacket and even more when wrapping myself in my mother’s fox stole, trying on a pair of her high heeled pumps, and wobbling in them as I clopped across the room, catching fetching glimpses of myself in the mirror above her vanity.

I loved the silken feel of my mother’s stockings and the intricate engineering that went into the construction of her boned girdles and brassieres. Though tempted, I never was adventurous enough to try them on, fearing that I would somehow get trapped in them and would be thus discovered, writhing on the floor, a miniature Houdini, while attempting to free myself, of course, just when my father got home from work! There was nothing in his closet quite so tempting except maybe his athletic supporter, but this I knew would somehow fall right off me and thus did not present an equivalent opportunity to be so daring, though in its most critical dimension it was more than daunting.

One time when my mother was at the beauty parlor, I found a small locked box at the bottom of her vanity table, but needed to slip it back under her nylon slips where it was clearly hidden when I heard her coming up the steps. But I got right back to it the next day when she went out; and with the same dexterity I felt had been on display in the fabrication of the cardboard Jeep, in spite of my father’s dismissal, with a crochet needle I quickly managed to pick the tiny lock.

It was full of letters from many years ago—I knew this from the cancelled stamps from that earlier era. They were all addressed to my mother, using her maiden name, and, it was obvious, all were in my father’s handwriting. From the postmark I knew they were written in 1927, it looked like May, and were apparently mailed from Lack Saranac Lake, New York, up in the Adirondacks to her parent’s home in Brooklyn.

The first time I just looked at them, turning them over and over, examining the images of George Washington on the three-cent stamps, holding them up to the light to see what might be in them, to see if somehow I could read a phrase or sentence without removing the letters from the envelope. This proved fruitless, though I did see a word that looked like educable (my mother was already a first grade teacher) or edible through a translucent corner of one envelope. Nothing more.

And so the next time I was sick and home alone I quickly snuck the box back to my father’s bed where I was again settled, and on the breakfast tray opened the lock, determined that I would at least take out one letter and read whatever I could without fully unfolding it. The one on top, which I had previously rotated in the light, was as I had left it a month ago. I lifted it again and this time took the letter from its sleeve. It was folded in a manner so that I could read what appeared to be a third of it without unfolding the rest. It was dated May 22, 1927, and I read:

My Dear Moon,

They even manage to get the New York Times delivered all the way up here. Not that anyone who lives in these parts can read anything more than the label on a bar of Lifebuoy, though from the smell of things in these woods I wish more of them would unwrap that bar of soap than just squint at it. And so I read that story about Lucky Lindy who somehow managed to fly himself across the Atlantic Ocean without winding up sleeping with the mermaids. Though from his reputation I’m sure that wouldn’t make him too unhappy. And it wouldn’t make me unhappy either if I could be sleeping with my own Mermaid Moons. I promise you I’d even figure out a way to play upon her scales!
You asked me how I’m feeling—well come a little closer so you can be the judge of that. And you asked about my lungs—when all I think about are yours. And about my liver you were wondering, we’ll it’s in edible condition. So much so that . . . .

His remaining words slipped away under the fold and before I could even think about what to do, my heart was thumping. I heard my mother on the steps. Somehow, though quivering, I managed to get the letter back into the envelope, it into the box, the lock secured, and the box back in the drawer before she appeared at the bedroom door radiant in the afternoon sunlight streaming in. Was I warm enough, would I like some toast and tea? I made a chocking sound in response, attempting to say “Yes.” It was such an unearthly croaking that she was alarmed and asked anxiously if I was relapsing and should she telephone Dr. Holesager to see if he could come right over to give me a shot. To that frightening suggestion I managed a miraculous recovery and a clear-throated, “I’m fine. Yes, tea.”

* * *

Every Sunday at the stroke of noon my mother calls. I know she attempts to place the call at that precise moment as yet another way to keep track of her decline, which she insists is occurring, though it is undetectable to the rest of us. She remains quite perfect.

So when she called the Sunday after my most recent visit to Florida and my recovering the memory of that letter, since she had said she wanted me to know I told her that I had just remembered finding dad’s letters to her from Saranac Lake when I was still a child and sick in bed at home.

She was silent for a moment. Then said, “Someone’s at the door. I need to call you back.” While I waited, I fretted that in my greed to know I had pushed too hard, too far. I knew she had said she wanted me to know about that time and what had happened, but why hadn’t I let her do what she wanted to do at her own pace, in her own way? I know she had said there might not be much time remaining. But still.

I was beginning to wonder if she would in fact call back when the phone rang. Without even a hello, she said, “I have six of his letters in a box in my dresser.” I could see it again. “I have been wondering what to do with them as I have been going through my papers, making arrangement,” I knew she was getting everything ready even though it seemed, I hoped, premature. “When I just got off the phone I put them in a manila envelope and am sending them to you. Do whatever you want with them. I don’t want them here anymore. I’m not even sure why I kept them. I meant to throw them away when he died. Maybe I thought you would want to have them. So you will.”

“Mom, it’s OK. I’m sorry I went back to that time, but you had said you wanted me to tell me what had happened.”

She interrupted, “There’s the doorbell again so I have to run. I’m going downstairs now to put them in the mailbox. I love you.” And hung up.

I must admit, in spite of my unyielding guilt for upsetting her so, I could not wait for the letters to arrive. Would they be as I remembered them? What else might be revealed? And what more did I really want or need to know?

The mails were swift that week and I had them in two days. But I then let them sit, now out of their leather box, beside my bed on my night table next to Tony Judt’s Postwar, through which I was slowly making my way. For more than two weeks they sat there (I also made little progress in my reading) while I considered that maybe I too should let them be and do what my mother had thought to do—get rid of them. As my Aunt Marilyn used to say, when insisting on just living, “That was then and this is now.” That was seeming like good advice in this circumstance as well. This was certainly now.

During the two weeks, on Sundays, at noon, my mother and I resumed our routine, talking in turn about every living member of the family with her concentrating as always on all the illnesses, near deaths, losses of jobs, and marital tsouris, not out of any feelings of schaudenfreud, but rather out of her unending love and concern with everyone’s health and well being. Including, was everyone warm enough, what with the price of heating oil at such an all time high.

The second Sunday, at the instant we rang off, I stopped resisting and opened the letter on top, almost tearing it in my new haste, the same one from May 22, 1927. It did in fact have the wily reference to his liver; and below the fold where I had been reluctant to venture decades ago, he continued:

. . . And about my liver you were wondering, we’ll it’s in edible condition. So much so that when Lindy makes his way back here maybe we’ll broil it up and make a small private party out of my organs. "

The rest of it, and the rest of them, were in a similar playful, sexy vein. I confess that then as before I was instantly aquiver. Who had been that man who I certainly never knew, so forbidding and unsatisfiable. When I would bring home a report card with a 98 in Algebra he would say, “What happened to the other two points?” It was inconceivable to me that this fierce and dour man could at one time have ever been thinking about using any of his organs for anything other than digestion or elimination. I could only learn that from my mother.

And so when next Sunday arrived, I sat by the phone watching the digital clock flip toward noon. And at its stroke, there she was, still obviously in full powers, no further declined from last week. So I took the chance. After an update about Cousin Mark’s latest surgery, I said, “Mom, I read dad’s letters,” expecting her door bell to ring again. But there was silence at her end. “They are amazing. He seemed like a totally different person than the one I remember growing up with. No?”

“He was. You did not know him. He became bitter. He grew up with money and when he wasn’t able to make much on his own, always scheming and failing, he grew angry with the world. And especially with me. He blamed it on me. When I went back to work he saw that as evidence for all to see that he had failed. He couldn’t make enough to support the four of us. Now everyone knew. His wife needed to work. It was not a time when women worked because it was their career. They worked because their husband’s didn’t earn a good enough living. He resented me for it, even though he knew it wasn’t my fault but rather his own failure. He didn’t talk to me for four weeks after I started, though he took my paycheck and put it in his checking account.”

“You did once tell me that. And how from the money he gave you, from the money you earned, you managed to save enough to help pay my college tuition.”

“Yes, that’s true. And of course you remember, how could you not, what he did when my brother sent me a washing machine so I wouldn’t have to do the laundry by hand?”

“I do. That was awful. And,” I took a chance, “and cruel.”

“It hurt so much. He was so jealous of anything my brother did.” She paused, “How ironic considering his own brothers, and especially his sister Marilyn. How he would make excuses for her. I can’t tell you.”

I knew we were moving into even more painful territory and told her, for a change, that I needed to run, that there was someone at our door.

* * *

For some inexplicable reason, my mother’s mentioning Marilyn brought back another wave of memories. All still from those times when I had to stay home from school to recover from a cold or Strep Throat, and even once Scarlet Fever. Always in my father’s bed; always tended to by my mother. So devotedly. She once, when inspecting me, found a tiny corn growing on my smallest toe and cared for it as if it was a tumor, dabbing it with ointment and wrapping it with lamb’s wool.

I think it was when I had Scarlet Fever that I recall my father being in the bedroom, his bedroom, more than was typical when I was sick. But I am not sure because Scarlet Fever induces such high fevers that during those ten days there were times when I was so delirious I am not certain if what I experienced was real or imagined. So I share this only tentatively.

I remember it being late afternoon because of the light that had flattened in the room as it streamed through the corner window, the one that looked east across a vacant lot beyond which was my friend Heshy’s house. It was at this window that I signaled to him with small mirrors of the sort the Lone Ranger used to signal his scout Tonto that we secured by sending in 10 Cheerios box tops and 25 cents. But then again it must have been evening because when I roused from a hot dream-filled sleep, I saw my father standing by that very window. Had he come home early from work or was it later than I thought?

Since I had done nothing that day but lie in a half sleep and thus did not have anything to show him that I had accomplished, I lay still pretending to be asleep.

I had never seen him so interested in what was going on outside. When he came home so tired from his long days he always just collapsed in his corduroy chair in the living room and waited for supper. Even if there were street games going on he never showed any apparent interest in them or anything else. Just seeking to recover, have something to eat, smoke a few final Camels, maybe listen for a half hour to the sports news on the radio, Stan Lomax, and then slump off to bed. I was thus quite surprised to see him so interested in what might be out there, to so capture his attention. It was as if something must be going on at Heshy’s. There was certainly nothing happening of any interest whatsoever in that lot. The most that ever occurred there was when the shoemaker, John Inusi, would drag out a canvas sack and from it dump another load of leather shavings onto the small mountain he was building.

I began to cough and this alerted him to the fact that I might be waking. As if I had caught him at something, uncharacteristically, he turned and bolted from the room. As you might imagine, this aroused my curiosity; and though my mother had forbidden me to get out of bed on my own, I did and managed to get myself to that window, supporting myself along the way by leaning against her vanity table and when I got there holding myself up by hanging onto the poll of the standing lamp.

The fever also had the effect of blurring my vision, but in spite of that I could see quite well enough. There framed in her bedroom window was Heshy’s sister Gracie. Her father, Mr. Perly’s pride, literally manifesting the truth of his belief in the progress inherent in dialectical materialism, since she was as endowed above as Heshy was below.

The light was such that even I, in my bleary state, could see that she was packed into just her panties and brassiere.

* * *

It was another Sunday when at 12:00, the phone rang. Without preliminaries again, my mother picked up our conversation as if a mere few minutes had passed since last week.

“I to this day I do not understand the things he let his brother Ralph get away with. Always calling attention to your father’s used cars, flaunting in his face his own new Cadillacs. He needed to get one every year? I always thought he bought them to belittle your father. And why your father accepted his bags of hand-me-down pajamas I will never know. True they were silk and from Sulkas, but it was humiliating. And as rough as your father was to all of us, so critical of everything we did, why did he make such excuses for his brother? I can tell you, because he was rich and lived in that house on Long Island Sound. Even though he was a crook and made most of his money on the Black Market. I hated that house and all its antiques.”

“I always wondered about the same thing. What power did Uncle Ralph have over him? And that was an awful house. Everyone was so miserable there. What I remember most was Uncle Ralph sitting alone upstairs in that little room off their bedroom, watching Westerns on TV, Hopalong Cassidy, with a never-empty glass of Chivas Regal next to him.”

“And his sister. Marilyn. Did you ever wonder about her?”

I could not think of what to say.

Though we did not have a good connection I thought I heard her crying softly. I was hoping that maybe someone would knock on her door. The line went dead. There was the dial tone. I called right back but it rang and rang and rang. She had also obviously switched off her answering machine. I tried to reach her repeatedly through the day but always met with the same frustrating result. I was so tormented by the pain I was clearly causing that I even made a few calls to the airlines to see if I could get to Florida that evening. There were no seats to be had, I am not proud to say, at a price I felt comfortable paying. I did pledge to myself, in my now mountain of guilt, that if she wouldn’t take my call by early Monday afternoon, no matter the cost, I would fly to Deerfield Beach no later than Tuesday morning.

So you can imagine my relief when at precisely noon Monday, I was working from home that day, the phone rang and it was her. This time there was no roll call of family matters. She just said, “You saw those pictures of us in Chester, you know before?”


“Remember how you noticed that his sister Marilyn was with us and I told you how she spoiled the weekend?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Well she did more than spoil a weekend . . . . She ruined my life. At least that part of it that we have been talking about. How he stopped touching me.”

“I do remember your mentioning that when I was in Florida recently.”

“And you also remember how I took her into our apartment after she had her hysterectomy? How she stayed for two months? How I fed her and changed her dressing? I did everything for her. I even put her in your father’s bed. You remember that?”

“Yes I do. I always wondered why . . . .”

“Me too. I wondered. She was not a good person. I know you came to feel differently about her toward the end of her life. You had a special relationship with her. But to me and to your father she was evil.”


“Yes, that.” I could hear her labored breathing. “She made him do things. He was a very stubborn man and I couldn’t get him to do even the simplest things for me. But for her, there was never anything he wouldn’t do.”

“I know that.”

“He even made me bathe her when I took her in. That was the worst.”

“I can only imagine.”

“My darling, you cannot imagine.” I was trying to. “He even brought her flowers. He never, never brought me flowers.”

* * *

As I struggled to take in the full flood of what my mother had been telling me during our interrupted bites of conversation, knowing she would say no more and we would need quickly to resume the former structure of our weekly calls—more about the family and the weather in New York and Florida and less about it--finally, as I went back over my memories of especially those times when I was sick and my mother was out of the house, when she left me alone in his bed, there was yet another flicker of remembering, I felt certain more real than hallucinatory, that I now feel compelled to share.

I think it was again when I had Scarlet Fever, and thus my uncertainty about its reality. Feeling somewhat stronger, I moved into the living room, to sit in my father’s chair to listen to the radio and to take in the odor of his body that had penetrated the fabric. Perhaps thinking that breathing in some of it would somehow strengthen my lungs.

I must have slipped into a half sleep or reverie because the next thing I remember noticing was that the sun had shifted, flattening against the west-facing window, onto East 52nd Street. The house was still and so I assumed my mother was not yet back from her chores—she had indicated she needed to make three stops, the last one at the bank which was quite outside the perimeter of our neighborhood so I should not worry if she returned later than usual.

I was in fact feeling much better. So much so that I thought I would go “camping.” There would still be time for that. By this I meant gathering my hard- rubber flashlight, my Cub Scout mess kit, and illuminated compass (all hand-me-downs from Cousin Morty) and “hike” to the campground “cave,” in truth the interior of my mother’s walk-in closet. Where I would settle down by the “fire,” nestled in against the wind among her scented nightgowns and dresses.

In my mind I would conjure up images of the Lone Ranger and his trusted Indian companion Tonto alone under the stars on the High Plains of the Old West. Waiting to ride into town the next morning to help the grieving widow make the mortgage payments on the ranch and drive away the cattle rustlers who were plaguing her. And then depart, before anyone could thank them, leaving as their only trace, a single silver bullet.

I went to my bedroom first to gather my equipment. And then to my parent’s bedroom and her closet. The sun was clearly setting—it was streaming from the front of the apartment all they way back to my parent’s bedroom, probing for the door of my mother’s closet as if it were a spotlight.

It was not latched. It had been over-painted so many times that it never did. All was silent.

I pulled the door open. The smell of camphor jumped out. And the light fell in among the coats and dresses and shoes and garment bags. Reaching all the way back to where I was planning to settle.

If I am remembering correctly, it fell on my mother as well.

Who was crouching in the back, at my campsite. Naked. Pulling silently at her face.

Friday, January 27, 2006

January 27, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XIX--Eruv, Or Carrying On

Why would I expect you to know anything about the Tenafly, New Jersey Eruv Association? Actually, if it weren’t for the trusty NY Times, neither would I (see link below).

It seems the Town Council there, after five years of legal battles, five, just reimbursed that Association, with taxpayer money, for the $325,000 in legal costs they incurred to get approvals to set up an eruv for the Orthodox Jews of Tenafly.

I know, I need to take a step back to give you some background. Especially what is an eruv anyway?

On the Sabbath, observant Jews are not permitted to do anything but the most limited form of work outside of the home. This includes prohibitions about moving an object from an enclosed area to the street; moving something from outside to inside; moving anything, including say a baby carriage, more than four cubits along a sidewalk. (A cubit is a unit of linear measure, from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger of a man.) Or even carrying much less opening an umbrella. (These rules are called Eruv for Carrying) Just these prohibitions, and there are many, many more, make it very inconvenient for Sabbath observers who live in places such as Tenafly (or pretty much anywhere other than a sthetl in Poland), to get through a Saturday.

So, the ancient rabbis, in their eternal wisdom, came up with the concept of the eruv—they extended the definition of a home to include anything within the physical boundaries of a community, a sort of semi-invisible enclosure, within which all bets are off. Anything going on within this eruv is considered to be occurring in this virtual “home.” These eruvs, and there are thousands of them all over the world, are generally demarked, as in Tenafly, by, trust me here, placing plastic strips on a neighborhood-wide circle of utility poles. In Tenafly’s case these strips enclose 4.4 square miles. That’s a lot of cubits!

The fight in Tenafly was a traditional church-state dispute—should taxpayers in any way support public religious practices. In this case give town permits to, among other things, install the plastic eruv strips. The courts ultimately compelled the town to produce the permits and to reimburse the Eruv Association, saying that by doing so Tenafly would not in fact be forcing non-Jews to live in a “religious community.” If your house happens to be within the eruv boundaries, so be it. Maybe, in fact, it would increase property values since it would make your place more attractive to Orthodox Jews wanting to move to Tenafly: they would already be right there in a pre-existing eruv. The dark side of this—many in the area resisited the eruv idea because they thought it would attract even more Orthodox Jews to move into their community.

Let me end here with a little more about eruvs because I feel certain that by now you are fascinated by them. The rabbis also came up with hundreds of rules about Sabbath observance that pertain to what goes on inside as well as outside the home. For example, here is something from the Wikipedia on "Eruv For Cooking":

Normally, cooking is allowed on Jewish holidays, but only for consumption on that day, and not for consumption after the holiday. Technically, if such a holiday occurs on Friday, cooking is allowed for the Sabbath, but the rabbis forbade this in order to prevent confusion on other years (when the holiday does not immediately precede the Sabbath) unless this ritual of eruv tavshilin is performed, which would remind the people of the reasons for the exception.

This ritual consists of cooking and baking some food for the Sabbath even before the holiday begins. Then, because the "dishes" or "servings" are "mixed", meaning we have "mixed" the time of preparation between the day prior to the holiday with a food that may be eaten on the day after the holiday (which will be the Shabbat), this thereby allows for cooking to take place on the holiday itself which is not considered a "new" cooking, but rather a continuation of the "mixed" cooking that has already "begun" before the holiday started.

So there you go. It’s still Friday, so get right into the kitchen and start that mixing so you have something to eat tomorrow.

Because if there is one thing we Jews insist on it's making sure you EAT!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

January 26, 2006--Gender Dysphoria

Please take a moment to read the obituary that appeared recently in the NY Times (it is linked below). It’s for Stanley Biber, who died at age 82.

Like me, I suspect you never heard of him. He was just a simple small-town doctor who practiced in Trinidad, Colorado. What then was so special about him? He was trained as a general practitioner (remember them?) after dropping out of rabbinical school. He then serviced in a MASH unit during the Korean War and after that returned home to Trinidad. For the next 15 years he had a typical rural practice--delivering babies, dealing with Strep Throats, broken bones, and outbreaks of Chicken Pox.

But then one day, in 1969, a friend came by to see him to ask if he would perform an operation on her. He relied, “Of course. What do you want to be done?”

She said, “I’m a transsexual and want you to turn me into woman.”

He thought--but aren’t you are a woman? And then asked, “What’s a transsexual?” At which time she told him that she was actually a man living as a woman and wanted an operation to turn her into a physical woman.

Now this was Trinidad, Colorado, not Greenwich Village.

So he said, "Fine. I’ll do it.”

And he did, working from a set of hand-drawn diagrams he obtained from Johns Hopkins University. The operation was a success and word began to get around. There were not that many doctors in the US at the time performing these operations on people who were experiencing gender dysphoria, the feeling of being trapped in the body of the wrong sex.

Transsexuals began to slip into Trinidad for their operations, which he duly performed. So many in fact that over the course of his life he did more than 4,000!

You may wonder how the folks in Trinidad took all this. It is after all a conservative place and to have the local motels filling up with transsexuals waiting for their operations must have strained the local culture (though it did turn out to be good for the motel and restaurant business!). Whatever the townsfolks thought about what he was doing, they decided not to impede his work. He was that respected and beloved.

His clientele was as diverse as one might imagine—there were three brothers who became three sisters. There was an 84-year-old train engineer and a 250 pound football linebacker. A cross section of America, of all of us.

Shortly before his death, in an interview with the The Rocky Mountain News, he said, “We turn out a real good product. I have one former patient, a man who became a woman and is now married to a gynecologist. Her husband doesn’t know.”

Good product indeed! Rest easy Doc.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

January 25, 2006--La Boheme Princeton Style

Did you see that insurance magnate and philanthropist Peter Lewis just gave Princeton University a $101 million gift to expand its “creative and performing arts activities”? (See NY Times story below.)

You might be wondering, why $101 million rather than, say, just a round $100 million? Well, it’s so that his gift will be the largest in the history of the University; the previous all-time high was a mere $100. Who says the Ego wilts in later years? On the other hand he’s still just 72.

You might be wondering about my tone here. You would be correct. I am intending to be ironic (mocking?). Let me explain.

Princeton’s president, Shirley Tilghman says it “will have a transformational effect on Princeton.” I’m no so sure.

Princeton is not in any significant way a fine arts school; it is not noted for its music, painting, film, or dance programs. In fact, I do not think an undergraduate can even major in one of these subjects. That is in part, I suspect, why Lewis’ gift was framed as supporting arts activities.

Let’s hear further from Dr. Tilghman, a molecular biologist: “After becoming president in 2001, I began trying to identify the things we are doing well while being particularly alert to ways in which we are failing to meet student demand or faculty aspirations.” Fine.

The arts emerged as one of those areas in which she felt the institution was failing. In talking with students and faculty, she heard “of student dance groups having to move all the chairs out of a classroom to create rehearsal space . . . and of music students who carried their instruments all over campus in rain and snow because there was no storage space.”

I know Princeton has a large campus and it does rain and snow there, but what is wrong with this picture? Since when should we be worrying about musicians having to schlep around their instruments; or, poor babies, having to move chairs and tables to prepare enough room for themselves to dance? Maybe with parents shelling out at least $50,000 a year in tuition and room and board fees Princeton feels an obligation, in loco parentis, to make sure its charges are warm, dry, and won’t strain themselves too much.

Which brings me to another question—since when have we been thinking that colleges and universities are the best places to train and encourage artists? To me, I can’t think of a worse idea. To do so sounds all too conventionalizing, what with arts faculty trecking down the same deadly tenure track as those in history and sociology and all the politicking and compromising that represents. Aren’t our artists supposed to be transgressive and anti-bourgeois? How much of that will they get at Princeton, especially if we move the chairs and tables for them?

The last I heard the most transgressive and creative thing to happen at Princeton was when they invented the art of Streaking? Remember that—running around campus all naked. Performance art?

How much did Peter Lewis contribute to that? Actually, as a Princeton Alum, maybe he was the first one to drop his pants.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

January 24, 2006--Post-Privacy America

For those of you worrying about the National Security Agency’s domestic “eavesdropping” program, relax. Every day there’s another story about it in the NY Times (see link below for just one example), every day there’s another speech by President Bust or VP Chaney (they know the polls show this is a “good” issue for them). I’m here to tell you that there is no need to surrender--we already have.

We live in a post-privacy world where I think we all assume that everything to be know about us, every email we send, everything we say on the phone, every document we transmit, is easily accessible to even the dispassionate. Let me share a few stories and then offer some advice about this.

I have worked closely with a U.S. Senator who got concerned about identity theft. He is a man of some years and thus not as familiar, as are his young staff members ,with computing, the Internet, and cyberspace. Thus he asked them to see what they could learn about him and his family—especially personal information about finances, health issues, even misdemeanors. He said, “Take a few days and get back to me about this.”

Well, within an hour they returned to his office hauling stacks of print outs—about his own investments, mortgages, health insurance, and hospitalizations (no misdemeanors--he's one of the good guys). They had similar information about his daughter and son.

Faced with this, he said, “Well, I guess that just about does it. The cork is out of the bottle.”

Shortly after he told me about this I was in line at my bank, needing to get a certified check. The line was crawling and while shuffling forward I couldn’t help but listen in, without the help of the NSA, to cell phone calls of the women ahead of and behind me. In a voice considerably less than a whisper, the woman in front of me was talking with her sister, telling her in very explicit detail about the beating she received from her husband the night before. The other women, also broadcasting, was talking to a friend about her daughter’s boyfriend and how she was upset that he was refusing to contribute to the rent on the apartment they were sharing.

As someone who grew up at a time when there were things called phone booths that actually had doors on them so you could make calls in private, all this public chatter is disconcerting. But it also suggests that old notions of privacy are as obsolete as rotary phones.

Thus my suggestion—again, relax. Let it all hang out because it already is.

Monday, January 23, 2006

January 23, 2006--Aunts Bertha, Tanna, Fannie, and Gussie

As an Ashkenazi Jew (Jews who descended from communities in Central or Northern Europe), I was not at all surprised to learn from a piece in the NY Times (see link below) that recent research reveals that at least half of us (4.0 of 8.0 million) are direct descendents of just four women who accompanied their husbands (assuming they were in fact married, if you know what I mean) a few thousand years ago when they left the Middle East for points north and west.

You see, if you, like I, grew up with Aunt Bertha, Aunt Tanna, Aunt Fannie, and Aunt Gussie, you would have known all along that all eight million actually descended from the four of them. So it was no surprise to find scientists using the latest DNA evidence coming to the same conclusion.

But for those of you of a more scientific bent I have linked below the matrilineal ancestral tree that shows how prolific these original aunts were; and also, here, I want to give you a flavor of the study itself, published online last week in The American Journal of Human Genetics:

We initially generated a maximum parsimony tree of 121 complete mtDNA sequences belonging to Hg K. The tree encompassed 28 novel and 93 previously reported mtDNAs (fig. 1 and table 3). The sequencing procedure and phylogeny construction were performed as described in appendix A. Of the 28 novel samples, 13 were from Ashkenazi Jews, and 15 were selected from non-Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish Near Eastern populations. Samples for complete mtDNA sequencing were chosen to include the widest possible range of Hg K internal variation, on the basis of sequence analysis of the mtDNA control region.

This is obviously an incredible piece of research, but if they had only come to one of our Passover dinners, even just for the Second Seder, they could have saved themselves a lot of work and been able to deploy their scant research money for other, more important purposes.

For example, to do a double-blind study comparing Tanna's and Gussie's Matzoh Ball recipes.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

January 21, 2006--Saturday Story: "My Liver? It's In Edible Condition"

“My Liver? It’s In Edible Condition”

This is a story about a love letter. From my father to my mother. While he was quarantined up in the Adirondack Mountains, with a form of TB. It’s dated about six months after they met, well before she fought to marry him.

Growing up, my favorite days were those when I was sick. Not that sick, but sick enough to stay home from school but not too sick to enjoy the soap operas on the radio, tea and toast served by my mother, and the chance to play with her button box and clothespins. These she brought to me on a wooden breakfast tray. And truly best of all, she brought them to me in my father’s bed where I would be ensconced until I passed two days without any fever.

This was in part to take me out of my bedroom, which I shared with my younger brother, bringing me into a version of isolation to protect him. But there may have been another reason why my mother set me up this way, in the bed besides hers. Though I was too young to know if that was true much less understand why. Perhaps it was all to keep my germs away from Leonard. Then again, maybe not.
I had quite a cold this week and my mind was as congested as my brain. Thus, this is all I feel good about sharing. I'm feeling much better and promise the rest next Saturday.

Friday, January 20, 2006

January 20, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XVIII--Doing the Limbo

It was very disturbing to learn that the Catholic Church is in the process of jettisoning Limbo from its pantheon of places one can wind up in after death (see NY Times article below). Up until now, we have had Heaven, of course Hell, and sort of between them, Purgatory and Limbo. Purgatory for those who have some venial sins to expiate and are thus not yet ready for Heaven; and Limbo for unbaptized babies and “worthy Pagans” such as Moses, Socrates, and Plato.

One thing I thought we could depend upon is the unchanging nature of the Church. It brings so much comfort to know that in a tumultuous world at least one institution is true to its traditions and Truth. Especially about something as fundamental as this. Yes, the Church, after centuries, adjusted its thinking about the centrality of the Earth in the universe and even figured out how to assimilate evolution, but Limbo?

What could be going on here? First a little background—Limbo is not truly biblical but is a construct of early Church theologians, particularly the product of the differing views of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Augustine persuaded a Church council in 418 to reject the idea of an “intermediary place” between Heaven and Hell, contending that unless even babies were baptized they needed to go straight to hell. This was to say the least quite a harsh doctrine especially since so many babies at the time died well before being baptized. So in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas put forth a cheerier idea—let’s establish Limbo (from the Latin limbus, meaning hem or boundary) for the Innocents and others from pre-Christian times that are worthy. This had worked well apparently, until recently.

What might be behind the current move to abolish Limbo? A few things. First, with the Church growing so rapidly in Africa and Latin America (shrinking everywhere else), places where infant mortality is so high, the idea that infants can never get to Heaven is not a good selling point to potential converts. Also, a little closer to home, in the West there is another form of infant mortality (or “murder” if you will) that is the result of abortion.

What is to become of these ultra-innocents? Pre-natal or fetal baptisms? We’re not there yet and so until we figure out how to do that, let’s just get rid of Limbo so these “babies” can also go right to Heaven.

OK, but what now about Moses and Socrates? Where do they go once they are evicted from Limbo? As far as I know, the Church hasn’t figured that out yet. But stay tuned, wait a couple of hundred years, and I’m sure they’ll let us know.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

January 19, 2006--After Four Hours, Call Your Doctor

I always thought that the not-so-hidden appeal of all the ads for Viagra, Levitra, and such was the tag line--"If your erection lasts for more than four hours, call your doctor." I confess that I would only do that if I had the hots for Old Doc. Otherwise, isn't this why you took the damn pill in the first place? Risking a stroke or blindness or whatever. I'd settle for just three hours. But four? That's my idea of heaven.

But leave it to the Gray Lady NY Times (see story below) to again throw cold water on the party, reporting that advertisers are pulling the plug on this salaciousness and will in the future be emphasizing the gory side effects. Score another one for the Blue Stockings among the fundamentalists.

The drug companies appear to be concerned that since the early, heady days when Viagra was introduced there have been a number of studies that indicate there are some side effects that did not show up initially. Whereas a headache and a little upset stomach were possible, as well as seeing everything with a blue tinge, there have been recent claims that even going blind while dosed up is a possibility.

So rather than just trot out Bob Dole with a sheepish smile on his face, or producing a commercial that shows a vigorous man throwing a football through a car tire swinging back and forth on a rope (get it?) they had better include some doctors in the these ads (not the one you call after four hours) because if they don’t the Levitra ads will be followed by ones for 1 800 LAWYERS.

In addition, there are the Super Bowl folks, where these ads have been in full flagrant display. After the Janet Jackson incident, are a little reluctant to air commercials that indicate the real reasons men take these pills. If they will allow any at all they will now be much more what the advertisers call “disease-state” commercials, those that emphasize the medical aspects of erectile dysfunction, including the full list of potential side effects..

I can’t wait for half time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

January 17, 2006--The Martians Are Coming

You mean to tell me that we just learned about this last Monday? That there is a previously unrecognized galaxy, yes galaxy, with hundreds of thousands of stars heading our way? In fact, it is so close to our own galaxy that there is already evidence that it is merging with us.

Why was this story buried on page A15 of the NY Times? (See link below for the brief article.) This seems to me deserving of front page treatment. OK, if not above at least below the fold.

I am not an astronomer but it seems to me that this is a huge deal. Our galaxy is not that big in cosmological terms, even though it contains 200 billion stars and measures more than 100,000 light year across its breadth. The one they just discovered, which is in the process of merging with ours, is by no means that large (I think I should say Thank God for that), but what are the potential consequences of this merger?

I must hasten to add that this is not of that immediate a concern to us since it is now about 30,000 light years from Earth. (Recall that a light year is the distance light travel in a year and since its speed is 186,000 miles per second, if you do the math, you will see that this means our new galactic partner is still quite far away.

But since the astronomers who made this surprise discovery do not know the implications of this cosmic collision (for example will all this additional mass joining our galaxy affect gravitational forces on Earth?), I would suggest, if you are at all inclined, that you might want to stock up on canned foods and AAA batteries. Just to be safe.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

January 17, 2006--How to Take the Fun Out of Fun

At the risk of being redundant, I wish once more to turn to the subject of Parenting, contemporary style. And how some versions of it take over the lives of children and, in a burst of vicarious excess, manage to take the fun out of fun and thereby replace the fun with passivity and dependence.

I’m poaching my title from a recent column in the NY Times by Peter Applebome, “How We Took the Child Out of Childhood.” It appeared in the NY Metro Section and thus I suspect you may not have seen it. And since I somehow can’t seem to link to it below I’m afraid you will not be able to read it that way either. So let me begin by attempting to summarize his argument:

At its essence he poses the following question—“How did we get to the point where few kids ever get to play with friends outside of a play date, to walk to a neighbor’s house without parental escort, or to have free, unsupervised time in which they’re not tethered to a television set, computer, or Xbox?"

He then gets a little nostalgic, mooning about how he and Howie Kavaler and Sammy Brett used to play football in the street and ride on their bikes along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. OK, you will say, that’s when kids lived in city neighborhoods; but it’s different now with everyone living in the suburbs.

Well, not everyone lives in the suburbs where it is in truth not so easy to spill out onto the street (first of all there are no streets in the suburbs, just roads and lanes). But much more than not being able to round up a neighborhood gang of kids to hang out or play with is what he (and I) are talking about. We’re talking about a new paradigm of childhood, actually of parenting.

Caused, first, by an explosion of parental anxiety over child abductions, sexual abuse, and crime. (Thank you local TV news for this—this is your main fare even though rates for these kinds of crimes have plummeted in recent decades.) Second is the parental panic over the transmission to their children of their own class and status. Thus the obsession with getting toddlers into the right play schools and résumé building that begins shortly thereafter so as to make sure Junior gets into an Ivy leagues college. Third is parental guilt—what with both parents working and thus out of the house so much they figure they owe their kids, in Applebome’s words, “a designer childhood” every bit as cutting edge as their flat screen TVs.

For these and other reasons parents who have those concerns have moved in so close to their children that they wind up managing all of their realities. And with wireless phones with “family plans” that encourage unlimited, no-cost talk it is not unusual for parents and their children to be back and forth to other this way literally dozens of times a day.

Ironically, parenting of this sort that overtly posits the importance of autonomy, creativity, freedom, self-motivation, even entrepreneurship and leadership skills for their children, ironically winds up engendering their very opposite—children who feel the need for their parents to plan all their activities, make or be involved in all their decisions, monitor and supervise all their activities, experience life joined at the hip, and ultimately robbing them of the very capacities they say they want for their offspring.

It is therefore good to know, as Applebome reports, that there is a backlash against this kind of hyper-suffocating parenting—a movement to back off and let the kids plan and manage important aspects of their lives, especially those that enable them to be truly creative, improvisational, innocent, exploratory, and ultimately to be the kind of strong, responsible, and independent young people their parents claim they hope they will become.

So let’s join this Backing-Off Movement and let the kids have their childhoods back and even some good old-fashioned fun.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

January 14, 2006--Saturday Story: "Carol Siegelstein's Knight In Shiny Chinos"

Carol Siegelstein's Knight In Shiny Chinos

This is the story of how a skinny-as-a-wretch overgrown 14 year-old with a sunken chest, terrible posture, an outcropping of pimples, size thirteen feet, and showing premature signs of baldness tried to get a girlfriend, Carol Siegelstein, with the help of Heshy Perlmutter, who, because of his legendary “equipment” (nicknamed as a result, Big Dick) could have snapped up said Miss Siegelstein in a second, but was willing to be of assistance if and only if our Wretch was able to secure a pair of tight pants.

Since I mentioned pants, let’s begin with his shoes—fully size 13 feet. In that era, when size 11 was considered to be large, 13s were a big problem. Not just finding anything in that size, a considerable problem in itself, but finding something that didn’t look like “old- men shoes”--always black; always with laces; always with leather soles; and worst, always with wing tips. Not exactly appealing to a 14 year old who wanted to get a girl friend who he knew would look first at his shoes. And sneakers weren’t much of an option either—at that time there were only Keds, and they too were clunky. It was not a time when that sort of footwear was considered to be cool. Quite the opposite. Keds were just clunky.

There was a further complication—for anyone six-two at such an early age it was certain that that person would, in addition to huge feet, also have flat feet. Which meant prosthetics--arches. Not the light-weight fiber glass version of today, but pound-and-a-half slabs made of stainless steel. Forget the process by which one’s feet were cast in Plaster of Paris to get the shape right or the always ice cold feel of them once inserted in shoes; what was truly at issue, especially when it came to getting a girl, was the clanking sound they made with every step and, worse, what they would do for one’s image when put into the Keds (yes, they were required for that too) so that you as raced around the school yard you sounded like one-person The Anvil Chorus.

It didn’t help that this Wretch of six-two weighed just 135 pounds, none of it muscle. He was addicted to Action Comics, not for the action but for the information provided therein about Charles Atlas, an early version of Jack LaLayne who was famous for helping 97-pound weaklings who were always getting sand kicked in their faces by hunks with triceps while they were ogling some babe on the beach in a one-piece bathing suit. Charles Atlas promised that if you practiced something called Dynamic Tension, where you pressed one hand against the other so hard that it built muscles and turned you into a sand-kicker. When in fact doing this made you pass out because if you really were dynamic in the tension department you needed to hold your breath and hence passed out well before developing anything resembling Pecs.

Nicknamed Bean Pole and String Bean, not at all affectionately by the school yard jocks and the good looking girls also meant that, when it came to chest development, even to think about Pecs was a foolish fantasy. We are talking here about someone whose chest was so sunken that the beloved family doctor who made house calls even on Sundays for just a slight case of the croup (and maybe some coffee and a hug from his mother who at the time had a delicious chest of her own), when it was time for the annual visit to the office and a chest X Ray, Dr. Holesager would say, “For you it isn’t even necessary to take off your shirt or turn on the machine. All I have to do is hold you up to the light.”

This would bring waves of laughter to the doctor every time he reminded himself of his witticism while making his weekly round of mothers. And of course humiliation to our delicate Bean Pole.

Thus for him the required Gym class was also a nightmare, not to mention the required Shower Class. Yes, Shower Class—recall, these were the children of immigrants from shtetals where there was not only no hot water but no water at all. And so, it was felt, they needed to learn how to take a shower. More about this in a moment.

Gym Class consisted mainly of lining up in size-places for a Brooklyn version of military drill (recall The War had ended only a few years ago and what with the Russians just exploding an A Bomb of their own—thank you very much Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-- who knew what the 14 year olds would be doing in three or four years). Occasionally they let them play Dodge Ball where the object of the game was to blast one of the other kids with a heavy basketball-size ball. This was also a type of crypto-military training where racing in a serpentine pattern in the gym to dodge the ball was not too unlike gyrating across a battlefield to dodge the real thing—bullets--and therefore was probably an even better skill to acquire than marching in place.

But Gym was still mainly about lining up, and so line up they had them do, with an emphasis on the size-places part. This took the Gym teacher, Mr. Scherr, about a month to get right for two reasons: His recruits were growing so rapidly that by the time he had a line of 25 completed to his satisfaction he would have to reshuffle them to take into consideration their most recent spurts in height. The other reason it took so long to do was because, let’s be honest, how smart were these Gym teachers anyway? Can you imagine a professional life that consisted of getting these kinds of kids into line and then barking orders at them—“Attention. Right Face. Left Face. About Face. OK, Ready, March In Place. One, Two, Three, Four, Halt. Left Face . . . .” I do not think they taught this in Teachers College.

So Mr. Scherr, after a month of jockeying them around, had everyone in a good enough line, Arms-Length apart (another critical skill) and was ready to inspect his charges as they About-Faced. He did this, arms behind his back, with a ruler for a riding crop, by walking slowly up and down between the size-placed rows, inspecting Drill-Sergeant style, noticing things as seemingly insignificant as the fact that some Ked laces were not in even-sized bows on both feet, snickering at the String Bean’s especially since he knew (1) they were 13s and (2) there were those stainless steel clangers hidden inside.

He would also stop to inspect the chests, making sure that first, the shoulders were pulled back into Attention and, as a reciprocal consequence, the chests were out and the chins tightly tucked in. He was particularly frustrated and amused by the Pole’s attempts at both--He was the only one, when even doing an excellent job of chin pulling in still couldn’t get the chest to stick out further than the chin! More chin than chest—must be genetic.

Mr. Scherr gleefully pointed out in a voice that not only filled the Gym but echoed throughout the entire building, all the way down to the first floor, “You call that a chest?”

It squeaked, “Not really. But I’m working on it.”

The bell clanged and it was time for Shower Class, held in a huge, tiled communal shower room right adjacent to the Gym. Where Mr. Cuba awaited, dressed-to-the-nines, all in white: White Duck pants; white tee shirt, white socks, and even white shoes with white shoe polish painted around the edges of his soles. He looked either like a counter man at a Navy Yard diner or an orderly in an Insane Asylum. I leave it for you to decide. But everything he wore was extra tight and form fitting. And, one needed to admit, he did indeed have the form to go with the outfit. For that he was envied. Nothing else, for just that—the form.

After all, if Mr. Scherr had to spend his life inspecting chests, Mr. Cuba needed to inspect everything. And I’m talking about naked 14 year-old’s “everything”—chests, pimples, Athletes Foot infections, as well as the other things hanging out there for close scrutiny. Which he seemed to be quite diligent about—the other hanging things just referred to.

Shower Lessons consisted of the following, in sequence—(1) Getting Undressed in the Locker Room and Stacking One’s Clothes In A Proper Pile, (2) Getting Into the Shower Room Without Stepping In Any Puddles Left Over From the Previous Class, (3) Getting the Hot and Cold Water Mixed Just Right to Assure Comfort and Hygiene, (4) Soaping Well, With Extra Emphasis On Those Body Parts That Either Get Sweated Up or Are for the Elimination Of Bodily Wastes, (5) Getting Back to the Locker Room Without Bumping Into Any Other Naked Kids, (6) Proper Toweling, With Extra Emphasis On Hard to Reach Places, Especially the Back Between the Shoulder Blades and Between the Toes and Crotch Where Athletes Foot Was Most Virulent, and (7) Getting Dressed, Putting On One’s Clothes In the Correct Order.

Your basic Seven-Step program.

Grades were given for each step, a potential point for each—Seven points received an A; six a B; 5 a C; fewer than that and you needed to repeat the class the following year. In other words, you would get left back in Shower. Not at all a good thing. Mr. Cuba was an easy grader except for the steps that involved soaping and toweling of the sweaty or private places. For these he was quiet a tiger and needed to get in close enough to give an accurate grade since he claimed he was near sighted and his glasses got fogged up in the shower room. Thus he had to get his head right in there so he could be fair in the giving or withholding of points.

Our Precious Wretch, as you might imagine, dreaded Shower Class more than anything else. For reasons so obvious that we need not humiliate him further by enumerating them. Suffice it to say that he used his good brain (God gave him that in compensation for his chest) and figured out that if he could get a doctor’s note saying he was allergic to something in the shower Mr. Cuba would make him the Hot-Cold Monitor, the kid responsible for providing the right mix so the students in the shower wouldn’t either be scalded or flash frozen. Old Dr. Holesager provided such a note, again with many chuckles. But it didn’t work. Mr. Cuba saw right through the scam and pushed our Precious back into the locker room, watching particularly closely as he undressed, marking him down in his notebook as a likely repeater.

But the following week, when it came time for Step Six, Proper Toweling, Mr. Cuba, who had his nose right there between the Big Toe and the one next to it noticed something for which he didn’t even need his glasses—the early signs of the onset of Athletes Foot, evidence of the first tiny fungal spore. Automatic exemption from Shower and quick assignment to the hot and cold water valves, where the Wretch got though the rest of the year without managing to burn off anyone’s skin. He didn’t even get left back.

At least one thing to feel good about, maybe even a sign from the Divine that it was time to think about Carol Siegelstein. But that was a job for more than one kid, and so he turned for guidance to the ever-bulging Heshy.

From the accumulated wisdom derived from his raging hormones, Heshy told him it was simple—

“Girls go for boys who are real men. But in your case, look at you, this is not going to be easy to accomplish—to get Carol Siegelstein to see you as a real man. For one thing, in addition, to needing the right equipment,” he winked, “you also need a chest. Again, look at that situation objectively,” he lowered his eyes to the feeble concavity. “So what do we need to do here?” he stroked his chin, which though it was only three in the afternoon already had Five O’clock Shadow. Heshy was so much that kind of real man Carol would need to perceive in the String Bean if his wooing would have the slightest chance of being requited.

After a moment of pondering, contemplating, and chin stroking, Heshy perked up, “I know what you need--you need a pair of tight pants. Chinos.”

And, lowering his eyes a good twenty inches below the chest, declared, “You’ll also need to do something about that.” If pointing could wound . . . .

“The chinos I think I can get, but what do I need to do,” he stammered, “about the other thing?”

Heshy went back to his chin, which had darkened further in the interim, “We’ll get something to stuff down there.” No need to do any pointing. It was understood.

And so the plan was beginning to take shape. Carol Siegelstein, with Heshy in command, did not stand a chance, even with our Bean as the intended.

The next day Heshy revealed that he had a source for the pants, since it was clear there would be no tight pants unless Heshy was the supplier—the Wretch’s mother would not go for tight. If anything, she insisted on getting clothes two sizes too big so he could grow into them. Which he did—at least the height part. But it was agreed that there was little they could do about the shoes—the Keds would have to do. But could he somehow manage to leave the insertions home?

Heshy had spent the weekend considering what strategy to implement after they got the pants and shoes problem solved. This was not going to be an easy one because the word in the neighborhood was that Carol Siegelstein was being pursued by Donny Friedman, the highest scorer on PS 244’s basketball team. He was averaging enough points per game to feel entitled to do a little off-the-court scoring, with Carol as the purported object of his affections, if one could call them that.

Heshy’s plan, therefore, needed to be foolproof, literally because his subject was quite the fool in these matters. If sports couldn’t be the theme of the approach to Miss. Siegelstein, than it must involve combat, which in truth was what every real man engaged in as much as possible, unless he could prance around in center field or play quarterback on the school team. And considering what Heshy was representing, where even catching a ball was beyond his charge’s capacities, what better way to impress Carol than through fighting?

The plan then was for young String Bean to do combat right across the street from where she lived. To thrash around with an opponent, generating enough violence and noise so that she would be drawn to her bedroom window, yes that window, and thereby look upon her potential hero. She would discover him at first in seemingly hopeless peril, battered and bloodied, close to ignominious defeat, and thus eliciting her sympathies—she was reported to be sensitive as well as an acknowledged raven-haired wonder. But just as she would be about to cry out for the brute to stop, to leave her soon-to-be-love alone, through a burst of creative jujitsu, he would reverse the situation, surmount the villain, and turn ignominiousness into victory. He would pop to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose, and cross the street to where she would be waiting, and if he was really lucky, invite him upstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water. Who knows after that what might transpire?

Heshy could plan no further than for the battle and its outcome. Once his subject was in Carol’s embrace or kitchen, he was on his own.

The true brilliance of Heshy’s plan was in the choice of opponent—for the triumph to be most convincing, and Heraldic, it would be necessary for the boy to defeat a man. And for this truly there was but one candidate (other than Cousin Murray who was 15 years older and married and lived in Manhattan)—the man for the assignment was none other than Heshy himself.

No greater friendship had hitherto been known on East 56th Street. Not sitting out of a Punch Ball game to allow Stanley Futoran to play for once, to relieve him of his endless role as the Pillow in Johnny On the Pony games (Mel Leshowitz had done the sitting); offering on a hot August day to share one’s chocolate Mello Roll with Herbie Bronstein who didn’t have the ready cash to buy one for himself (it was reported that Carly Walburton had done that sharing four years ago); or agreeing to take Myron Portnoy’s 250 pound sister Sylvia to the Rugby Theater for a Saturday matinee (Melvin Streisand had done that squiring two years ago); no, none of these generous and gallant gestures could compare with Heshy’s volunteering to allow himself to be beat up in broad daylight, right out in full view, on Carol’s block, no less, where East 56th Street’s historical rivals, the East 54th Street Social-Athletic Club ruled, to be humiliated, let’s be frank, by a sad sack of boney beans.

They choose a particularly auspicious afternoon for the joust. Overcast and threatening, with a hint of possible lightening and rolling thunder. Among other things, this meant that Carol would be at home (she had recently administered a Tony Home Permanent to her hair and there was no likelihood at all that she would allow it to get rained on). She would not be immersed in homework (she was not in truth a scholar, just a beauty), perhaps doing her nails to complement her curls, her pride, while listening to the radio. They hoped it would not be turned up too loud since she lived on the second floor; and it their scheme was to work, it was essential that she be able to hear the ruckus they would fabricate.

Thus they began. No need to build to a crisis here, after all this was all about theatrics, and so they just lowered themselves to the sidewalk, being sure to position our Hero under Heshy in just the right configuration of submission—in a Full Nelson, which the professional wrestler Gorgeous George had perfected as the best way to break his opponents’ backs. Since the Gorgeous one was as well known for this as his plaited hair and imitation gold hairpins, they were certain that Carol, whose family was among the first to acquire a television, they were sure she would be aware of the danger of such a life-threatening hold.

The grunting commenced immediately and it included considerable snarling plus a smattering of muttered curses. And as the plan had predicted, there was very soon a stirring to be seen behind the Siegelstein Venetian Blinds. They appeared to lift an inch or two. Were there those glorious blue eyes peering out? Then the blinds snapped up to full attention, and there she in fact was silhouetted from behind by her bed lamp. It was enough to take away the entire neighborhood’s breath.

And so they grappled even more manfully, and in the rolling about were still able to manage to get the sequestered vial of red Poster Paint out of Heshy’s denim jacket, unscrew it, and covertly smear a swatch of it across the String Bean’s face. Blood! They could almost hear Carol sighing from her window sill.

When as on cue, as it was time for the jujitsu move, they reversed themselves, making it appear that by some miracle to be sure Heshy now was the one in danger.

Carol disappeared from the window. They paused in their mortal embrace, straining to see what might be happening. It was to be just as anticipated. She was on her way down the steps and would in a moment appear outside, race across the street, and offer to take the Victor in hand, lead him back upstairs, wipe the “blood” from his chin, offer him that water, and proclaim she would be his. At least until September.

And yes, there she was, rising up onto tiptoes on her stoop so as to get a fuller view of the mayhem, dressed in seamless Toreador pants and a delectable Bolero top. A look of awe or shock on her face—either would do for their purposes.

Catching sight of her, the faux-triumphant one, lifted himself off the prone Heshy. He was so eager to race toward the embrace of his Carol, or at least get across the street without being hit by a car, that in his clumsy haste he stepped down on the region of Heshy’s “equipment,” tearing his chinos in that most intimate yet prominent place, causing him to roil in unfeigned pain.

Perhaps thinking that Heshy was only dramatizing his defeat, still putting on a show for our Hero’s continuing benefit, he did not look back as he dodged between the onrushing traffic to get to the other side and to his delicious reward.

But Carol, seeing Heshy’s true agony, had plans of her own. She bounded down the front steps and also raced across the street, but in the opposite direction, passing our Knight midway.

She swooned to her knees by Heshy’s side, taking him into her arms, allowing her tears to soothe his pulsing loins (though in truth they fell quit a bit north of the affected region).

* * *

Later that day, as the story spread from house to house and block to block, it was debated what had drawn Carol to Heshy’s side, abandoning his Better who needed to find his water elsewhere—was it his pain, the blood (paint) that had dripped on his face, or was it the torn pants?

Consensus had it that it was for sure the latter.

And lest you are concerned about our Poor One’s fate, he at least had managed to enhance his reputation. Heshy, true to his word, never revealed why he had been “defeated”—in part out of concern that maybe, just maybe, Carol raced to his side out of concern for his pain and humiliation. And if that was true, he certainly did not want to disabuse her of that.

No less than the true Wretch he still was, he moved on quickly from Carol Siegelstein (he surely did not want to compete unscripted and un-choreographed with Heshy in this realm), becoming enamored from afar (of course) with Muriel Berlin, who was appropriately best known for her chest.

But he remained reluctant to ask Heshy’s help again, considering what had happened when he had assisted with Carol Siegelstein. And he wisely decided to be patient in his pursuit of the voluptuous Muriel, waiting until he could get a new pair of Keds and no longer needed to stuff those socks into his chinos.

Friday, January 13, 2006

January 13, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XVII--Sticks And Stones

I’m OK with the fastings, the Sabbath ceremonies with candles, eating the Host, and even an occasional animal sacrifice, but I don’t know about the Ritual Attack on Satan that concludes the annual Hajj in Mecca. The recent one led to a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia that wound up killing 345 pilgrims and injuring at least 1,000 (see NT Times article linked below).

First about the Hajj itself. It is a weeklong series of activities that include (1) a trek to Mina where pilgrims sleep before (2) hiking to Mount Arafat, and (3) after that a visit to the Muzdalifa Plain where they gather stones for the upcoming stonings that highlight and conclude the week. Then (4) they move back to Mina where they encounter three walls or columns that represent Satan because that is the place where the devil is believed to have tempted Abraham. They proceed to pelt them with stones, thereby purging themselves of evil. Next (5) they return to Mecca where they circle the Kaaba in the Great Mosque and then (6) return to Mina for more stonings. It was at this final stage of the Hajj that the stampede occurred—at least 70,000 were crowded into a bottleneck of a space where on previous Hajji many hundreds have been trampled to death.

The Times piece is largely about the bottleneck aspect of this—why Saudi officials haven’t fixed the situation, widening access and egress, redirecting traffic in the narrow valleys, and such. Obviously all of this should be done since this is a notoriously dangerous situation with stampedes of this sort every time. Just last year the Ministry of Hajj completed a significant improvement, turning circular barriers around the walls that are stoned into ellipses. Well done.

Though I am also concerned about the safety of the traffic flow, in my agnosticism I also wonder about the situation itself. I know that a revisionist history of Islam would suggest that one reason The Prophet was originally resisted and driven from Mecca to Medina by those pre-Islamic priests was because they controlled access to the Kaaba and thereby, to put it directly, had a thriving version of a tourist business going on. They needed Mohammed out of town to preserve their monopoly. (Since I am an equal-opportunity offender of all orthodoxies, I must hasten to add that early and even contemporary Christian pilgrimage routes were also the profitable beginnings of modern tourism—there would be no Rome or Camino De Santiago as we know them if there was not the religious requirement that all believers must partake of one of these pilgrimages at least once in a lifetime.

Having said this, I also worry about something as profoundly important as the Hajj being so much about various forms of stonings. If this were just a symbolic activity, so be it. But day-to-day stonings very much persist to this day, for “crimes” such as adultery, non-marital sex, all forms of homosexuality, etc. If some feel the need to be guided by the rules set forth in Deuteronomy, also so be it, but let’s try to get out of the stoning business. If we could, I’d even vote for some old-fashioned name calling. At least that doesn't break any bones.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

January 12, 2006--How Do I Adore Thee?

I love children. In fact I have been known to do a little boasting about my nephew and nieces. But when I saw a bumper sticker that bragged “Proud Parent of A Vegetarian,” well that felt like just too much.

The NY Times, reporting on this phenomenon of Competitive Bragging, cites a counter-movement, anti-bragging, that has spawned bumper stickers that archly proclaim, “My Kid Sells Term Papers to Your Honor Roll Student” (see link for full story). Now that’s almost reason enough for me to think about buying a car so I can have a bumper of my own.

One anti-brag parent, Amaechi Uzoigwe, says, “Let children be children. Let them enjoy whatever they’re doing. Stop living through them.” He’s right. But if I were Mr. Uzoigwe and my five year old could already spell his last name, now that’s something to consider bragging about.

Of course to spoil all this fun, academics have gotten into the act by studying the situation. For example, Dr. Arlie Hochschild published an ethnographic study in 2003, Unequal Childhoods, in which she posited, in the post-modern jargon of her trade, that this form of bragging is largely endemic to the upper middle class since they are the ones who believe in “intensive cultivation,” transporting their children back and forth to soccer practice, play rehearsals, and music lessons. These parents are eager to pass along to the next generation their own stations in life; but since “they can’t do it through land or money in a meritocracy,” they attempt to do it through their children’s’ skills, whether they have them or not. Thus all the bragging.

The Times, ever helpful, in case anyone cares, provides some guidance about acceptable and over-the top boasting. Here are a couple of examples:

Acceptable: Posting your child’s honor roll certificate on your refrigerator.
Over the Top: Posting the certificate on your front door.

Acceptable: Telling everyone that your child got a leading role in the school play.
Over the Top: Talking about this for longer than it takes to see the whole play.

Acceptable: Telling a friend that your toddler is successfully potty trained.
Over the Top: Dressing your toddler in a “Potty Trained and Proud!” T-shirt.

Or just maybe cooling it when your child says, “Enough Mommy (or Daddy) enough.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

January 11, 2006--Gotta Pee

When you are of a certain age, and I am, it is important to be able to have ready access to the “facilities.” So when I read about all those artists putting urinals in art galleries (in the gallery spaces themselves, not in the back behind closed doors) it made me a little nervous. And then to say they are ART, well you can only imagine.

I’m being a little tongue in cheek here. I of course know that in 1917 in New York, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp famously exhibited a urinal at the Society of Independent Artists show, titling it “Fountain.” It created quiet a sensation, challenging traditional ideas about what constitutes ART. Claiming, by its placement, that ART is whatever artists say it is.

That urinal still exists and gets around (actually it doesn’t, but Duchamp signed eight others and sold them). It was most recently displayed in Paris at the Dada exhibit at the Pompidou Center. Where it was attacked. I mean physically attacked by a hammer-wielding artist, Pierre Pinoncelli (see NY Times article linked below). He managed to chip it and was therefore removed so it could be restored.

Some of my best friends are art restorers and I wonder what they must have thought when while laboring over a Rembrandt it was pushed aside so they could get to work on this piece of porcelain.

We have heard from Mr. Pinoncelli before—in fact he urinated in this very urinal in 1993, making an artistic statement of his own, saying he wanted to return it to its original use by deflating its status as ART. For his efforts, he was put in jail for a month and fined $37,500. But he is a considerable artist in his own right, not just an art vandal. He is a Conceptual Artist, one whose work is more about the ideas that infuse it than the work itself—the urinal, for example, qualifies since Duchamp didn’t fabricate it; but by merely placing it in a gallery he was conceptually “elevating” it to the status of ART—it was no longer not just something in which to, well, pee.

Pinoncelli is well-known for les happenings de rue, "street happenings," such as using a water pistol to spray red paint on the French Minister of Culture, to presumably lower his status and return him to his original use, whatever that might have been. Also, as “a homage to deported Jews,” he covered himself in yellow Jewish stars of the type the Nazi forced Jews to wear. As a Jew myself I found that to be very moving.

But most striking, if I can use that word, was his “performance piece” during which he chopped off half of the pinky on his left hand, using the blood to write a protest against the kidnapping of a Colombian politician. He said at the time, “The idea was to share in Colombia’s violence.”

I know this is marking me as a Philistine. So be it. In the meantime I wish my art restorer friends would finish up with the Rembrandt already and get it back into the museum.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

January 10, 2006--Location, Location, Location

Have you been checking the daily bulletins about Ariel Sharon’s condition? Not the medical bulletins. Rather those from Pat Robertson. In which he asserted, via his 700 Club broadcast, that Sharon’s stroke is God’s rebuke for giving up the Gaza Strip. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Since you might have missed the broadcast itself (I know, it runs up against Desperate Housewives) or if you just read about it in the Times or elsewhere, you only got snippets, I therefore thought you might want to see the full transcript—it’s only a couple of paragraphs:

Sharon was personally a very likeable person and I am sad to see him in this condition. But I think we need to look at the Bible and the book of Joel. The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who “divide my land.” God considers this land to be His. You read the Bible and He says “this is my land” and for any Prime Minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says “no, this is mine.””Mentioning the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin at the hands of a right-wing extremist, Robertson said he “had a wonderful meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in 1974, he was tragically assassinated, it was a terrible thing that happened but nevertheless he was dead. Now Ariel Sharon who again was a very likeable person, a delightful person to be with, I prayed with him personally, but here he’s at the point of death. He was dividing Gods land and I would say woe unto any Prime Minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America. God says “this land belongs to me. You’d better leave it alone.”

There you have it in its entirety. Clearly the Reverend Pat moves in high Israeli circles—Rabin, Sharon himself, and many others. You might be saying, what’s up? This is something I know a lot about so hang on for the ride.

What this is really all about is the Final Days, the End of Time, the big Armageddon itself. Here’s how it will work, according to Robertson and his kind.

They see the Bible prophesizing the earth’s Final Days, the coming of the Antichrist, the eventual return of Christ (the Second Coming), and the ultimate Final Judgment. In order for all of this to occur there are a number of preconditions that have to be met. Primary among them—the Jews of the world need to return to the Promised Land, God’s Land in Robertson’s view, and that that land needs to consist of Greater Israel, from the Nile River to the Euphrates River. In other words from Egypt in the west to Iraq (yes) in the east.

So this is all ultimately about real estate. And thus Robertson’s rant about Sharon—he gave away a strip of this sacred real estate, even more valuable than that on the Upper East Side of New York City. If Sharon were to keep this up, say, give away some of the West Bank, it would turn back the Armageddon Clock.

This is why so many Christian Evangelicals are such good friends of Israel, because of the role Jews must play to bring about The End. As another example of this interest in Jews, Robertson is very much at the center of the movement to help Jews return to Israel via The Wings of Eagles Program of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. They run ads on the 700 Club which say that for $350 each you can send a Jew to Israel. They show an aged, toothless Jewish couple stranded in a wood hut in outer Siberia tearfully asking us to send the Wings folks $700 so they can get to Israel. Tough stuff.

And what happens after they and all the other Jews get there? 144,000 of them have to take the lead to evangelize the non-Christian world. And while doing that the Antichrist will appear (he will most likely be either the Secretary General of the UN or the head of the European Union—thus Robertson’s crack in his comments about the UN and EU—get it?). The Antichrist will then slaughter the non-converted Jews before Christ also returns. Those Jews who have been converted will join those who have all along been the right kind of Christians (Catholics need not apply) in the eternal rewards of Heaven.

I know you think I’m making this up. Well, I’m not. I refer you to the Left Behind website, that of the IFCJ, and of course Old Pat is there on your TV every day.