Tuesday, February 28, 2006

February 28, 2006--Let Them Eat . . . Pork Soup

Just yesterday, Lundi, I wrote a blog about how I love Paris, if not the French. So it was a great disappointment to me today, Mardi, to see jumping off page three of the International Herald Tribune a piece (linked below) about how right-wing nationalists in France are aggressively confronting their Islamic countrymen through, yes, food. How French.

Here’s what’s going on—As a backlash against the pressure to accept the fact that France is a multicultural society, in 2003 a group called Identity Bloc came into existence to feed the homeless. Sounds benign enough. But they insisted on including pork in all the soups they made and distributed so as to consciously and aggressively exclude Muslims (and Jews?) from their ministrations. And they have been doing this quite vocally, serving what they call Identity Soup while chanting through megaphones, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!


This racist fare is made from smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ tails. The Bloc folks are overt about saying they are not just making soup but also a political statement—“Help our own before others.”

Pardon moi if I take a pass.

French authorities, ever tolerant, took little notice of this growing movement, that is until last November when the country was swept by riots protesting the treatment of Islamic citroyans. So they have been moving in on the Bloc when they demonstrate while ladling soup.

But with still a sparkle in my eye from my recent visit to Paris, I couldn’t help but notice that along with the Pork Soup the Identity Bloc serves a complete French Dinner that includes cheese and dessert and often even a glass or two of red wine. But there is a catch—to get the dessert you have to eat the soup.

I’m home.

Monday, February 27, 2006

February 27, 2006--I Love Paris!

If you’ve been following this blog you have been hearing my periodic rants about the French—How when Islamic youth took to the streets to protest the deaths of two teenagers, I mocked the French elite’s outrage that these youngsters who were French would do such a thing, ignoring the fact that merely calling these marginalized people citizens does not solve the problem of French racism; how when the foie gras industry was being threatened by animal rights advocates the National Assembly passed a law protecting gravage as a national patrimony; and how the French are blaming their obesity problem on the proliferation of American fast foods rather that taking a look at the changes within French society that are interfering with the traditional role of women to provide daily home cooked lunches and dinners; and how preposterous it was to assert that even though France has one of the slowest economic growth rates in Europe and the highest unemployment they had something better to offer than the “Anglo-Saxon” model—“soft power,” where enjoying one’s leisure is more important than having a job. And there was more.

But after a few days in Paris, I’m again in love with Paris, if not France. I suppose this is a version of the French hating America but not Americans.

First about soft power—it is affirming to ride on the Metro and to note how many people, especially young people, are reading. Not just magazines and tabloids, but books, real books (including some by American authors). If this is what the French are doing with some of their treasured non-work time, I say keep buying and reading books.

And then I am here to assert that foie gras is patrimonical. And I am glad there is a law to protect the gravage industry. In all its forms it is a national treasure and should be honored and protected from all PETA folks. Sorry Brigit Bardot.

But on the way in from the airport I did catch a glimpse of the miserable suburban ghettos where the Islamic French are confined and all the furious graffiti on literally everything. Both attest to the hopelessness of too many lives. This is still a national, and Parisian, disgrace.

In my renewed love affair with Paris, this is still unignorable. Love is not that blind.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

February 25, 2006--Saturday Story: "Waiting to Get Laid" Continued

Waiting to Get Laid

If I were honorable, I would begin this with the familiar disclaimer—“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental”—and change Ellen Goodman’s name to Elaine Goldstein and obscure the fact that we laid naked together every Thursday at noon, entwined in each others arms, under the daybed in her parent’s apartment, hiding from her brother Morton, who had come home from school for lunch to the “empty” apartment, to eat the sandwich his mother had left for him, singing to himself, unaware of our presence, and flagrant condition, just ten feet from where he was chewing.

But since these Thursdays were the most exciting times of my life, ever, because I was getting closer and closer to getting laid for the first time, and since this is not a work of fiction, cad that I am, I will call her by her true name, Ellen Goldman.

How did Ellen and I get to that place? Literally? I cannot speak authoritatively for her, but for you to understand the full extent of my excitement, I have to take you back a bit in time to when it was exciting if a girl would allow you to put your arm across the back of her seat when you went to the movies together. To be clear, I am not talking about your arm or hand actually touching her shoulders much less her neck; I am saying you were making progress in the relationship just by having your arm resting on the back of the chair. Knowing all the while the risks you were running to be able to reach along her chair back while straining not to do any touching--you needed to so contort that arm that you were in danger of having it yanked out of its socket or developing gangrene.

Less physically threatening were the opportunities available during the walk home. It might be possible to think about using that same arm, if it was still functioning, to circle her waist. Again there would be no arm touching back, but the arm might surround her back, an inch or so away from it but close enough so that the tips of the fingers at the end of that arm might actually touch lightly the puffed-out hem of her tucked-in blouse.

And then at the door, there could be the chance to hold for a brief moment just one hand and attempt a squeeze.With our current sensibilities I know you are screaming, “Enough!” This to you sounds more like the mating rituals among the Trobriand Islanders than the frisky youth of Brooklyn. But I insist on saying to you, before moving on, that what I have told you thus far is the virtual truth from my many months courtship of my first crush, Dorothy Bloomberger, when she was sixteen and I was fifteen but claiming to be sixteen. Getting away with the deception because of my great height, or her interest in the movies.

But I have heard you, enough!

I do, though, have to add that what I have just described was what one expected when going out with “good” girls. From the perspective of those of us who were perpetually over-wrought and desperate, sadly the overwhelming majority. It was reported, and I emphasize reported, by the likes of Donny Friedman that there was a group of very different kinds of girls, much, much smaller in number, girls referred to in politeness as being “fast.”

Donny Friedman had stories to tell of his times with one or two of these--in the coat closet with the Siegel Twins, in the balcony of the Rugby Theater with Muriel Berlin, and one not-to-be-described experience with Becky Sharfstein where he claimed they “went all the way.”

Ellen Goodman began very much as a member of that much larger classification of girls; but, as the result of my fevered relentlessness and whatever she was desiring, wound up in a category of her own—my first love.

We met on Lonely Street. If not down at the end, for sure still there.

Ricky Traub’s girlfriend Margie had a new 45 RPM phonograph and I went over there to see it. Ricky told me that she also had Elvis’ latest, Heartbreak Hotel. I knew Blue Suede Shoes; but though I tried, that didn’t do it for me—I recognized his smutty appeal, but couldn’t get beyond the lyrics to the smut:

You can do anything,
But don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.

But to be in nubile Margie’s bedroom, to see her new record player, and to hear Elvis Presley there lured my out of my perpetual sick bed, I had pretty much recovered from a winter-long case of the grip, and I raced over there.

Where I heard Elvis in HiFi and saw Ricky and Margie grinding away at each other, pelvis to pelvis, dancing to that incredible song. And on Margie’s bed, almost buried in a froth of crinoline, was Ellen Goodman, who would before too long change my life.

Ricky and Margie had been going steady for about a month, the first of my friends to establish such a relationship. This meant that he gave her his ARISTA pin to make the arrangement official, they would assume they would go out together every Friday and Saturday night (he would not have to ask her for a “date” at least a week in advance), he would call her all other evenings during which time they would review the day’s events (“Did you see what that Sheila was wearing today? What a tramp”; “Can you believe it, Mr. Gatti taught his class all day with his fly open”; “My mother doesn’t want me to let my hair grow long. I don’t know what I’ll do. I feel like dying.”), and most important Ricky would be allowed to slip his hand under Margie’s brassiere without too many preliminaries.

Ellen was Margie’s best friend. I had never met her. She lived on the other side of Brooklyn; up near the border with Queens. I had heard about her from Ricky who told me that she was cute and a good dancer and didn’t have a boyfriend. Though I was desperate for Margie, through Ricky, to introduce me to some of her girlfriends, Ellen didn’t seem like a realistic possibility since she lived so far away—at least two bus rides distance. And since I was the opposite of cute much less handsome (six-feet-two, only 140 pounds, and already sprouting a crop of pimples), I thought her cuteness would by definition rule me out of boyfriend contention.

In spite of this, when I saw her curled up on Margie’s bed, moving on the mattress to Elvis as only a good dancer could, I was smitten. Tortured soul that I was at such an early age (I was a prodigy in the field of unhappiness), smitten though I was, I was also nervous; because though I was attracted to the dancer part, I had two left feet and there was no way that at least one of them wouldn’t always be stepping on one of hers if we ever got onto a dance floor. However, I was hopeful because of the no boyfriend and very interested in the cute part because Ellen was just as advertised.

I knew from Ricky, who was obviously more advanced than I in these matters (just look at what he and Margie were up to), that it was essential to have a good opening line one when attempting to attract girls.

So I tried one of my best, to be more impressive even pulling myself up out of my usual slump, “Margie tells me you’re very good at Algebra.”

Still moving her hips to Elvis, she said, “Actually, it’s Geometry that I really love.”

“I haven’t taken that yet. I’m not sure I’ll like it.”

“Well, if you’re good at drawing or art it helps.”

“I’m not very good at that either,” quickly realizing that maybe this was not going well. How could I be impressing her if I was already managing to bore myself? And how, I am sure you are wondering, could something that began this pathetically lead to my lying naked with Ellen, under her parent’s day bed, just six months later?

To Be Continued--

Friday, February 24, 2006

February 24, 2006--Fanaticisms XXIII--No Sex Please, We're Kansans

What’s the Matter With Kansas jumped to the top of the best seller list shortly after George Bush was reelected. Liberals like me wanted to understand how he managed to defeat John Kerry when it was so obvious that Kerry, though he ran an inept campaign, was the superior choice. We were told it was all about “values,” that conservatives, especially Evangelicals, voted in disproportionate numbers because the preferred Bush’s values. The book would help us understand.

It looked at the state of Kansas as a microcosm of Red State America, where cynical Republican politicians pandered to Kansan’s traditional values. Telling them they would pass constitutional amendments against gay marriage, prayer in public schools, and flag burning, while in fact ignoring these issues (except to talk about them) but not those that they really cared about—tax cuts for the rich, out of control pork barrel spending, and of course foreign adventures such as waging war in Iraq. The theory went that Kansans were so obsessed with homosexuality that they would overlook the fact that their political representatives were selling out their economic and class interests.

As with so much conventional wisdom this turns out not to be true—what’s really wrong with Kansas, and why they are so crazy there, is that their leaders are trying to limit sexually activity in Kansas itself. And I’m not talking about gay sex. A federal trial is underway there that, if successful, would require anyone under age 16 who engages in consensual, heterosexual activity to report such activity to state authorities. I’m not making this up—check the article linked below from the NY Times.

And we’re not just talking about sexual intercourse—the law at issue also covers “lewd fondling or touching done with the intent to arouse.” They’re talking about my adolescence here! If these were against the law in Brooklyn when I was growing up, along with all of my friends, I would have spent ages 14 to 16 in the slammer.

And so would 50 percent of Kansas teenagers if they are like everyone else in America—national studies show that 30 percent of teenagers under 16 have had intercourse (that should send them away for five years) and an additional 20 percent have “experimented” with oral sex or genital fondling (18 moths for that).

Those pushing for this federal ruling claim that if teenagers engage in this “illegal sexual activity” (and it is currently illegal in Kansas) it will lead to depression and mental illness.

Actually, perhaps the opposite is true—that unless these kids are allowed to do some fondling they’ll turn to drugs and who knows what else to help them get through the day. Then who will Kansans vote for?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

February 23, 2006--Goody Bags

The first time I heard of Goody Bags was at a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. The affair had a theme—sharks, as in sharks the fish. There were rubber sharks accompanying the floral centerpieces on each table; there was a shark slide show flashed throughout the afternoon on the wall behind the band; and when the newly anointed little “man,” cousin Louie, made his first appearance in his blue serge Bar Mitzvah suit, the band struck up the theme from, you guessed it, the movie Jaws.

And when we left, six interminable hours later (the band was that loud), we were each given a gift bag within which there was a goldfish in a little bowl. A Goody Bag.

Cut to the recent Grammy Awards—they too distributed such bags, though they call them Gift Baskets. And as you might suspect, they did not contain goldfish. According to a report in the NY Times (see below) they contained little throwaway things such as a cruise to Antarctica and Tasmania, a three-night stay at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, high-thread-count bed lines, and even a coupon for Lasik eye surgery.

What’s going on here?? In a word, commerce.

There is an appropriately named fellow in Hollywood, Lash Fary, who the Times calls the “sultan of swag.” For a fee, he gets travel companies, jewelers, hotels, and eye surgeons to give him these freebies which he in turn arranges to give to celebrities at the Grammys, Golden Globes, Oscars, etc. He then tries to get the recipients, even the award losers, to allow him to photograph them with the products, which the companies in turn use in their more traditional marketing campaigns.

Lash also gets the organizers of the Grammys and such to permit him to set up “interactive gifting suites.” Here celebrities such as Queen Latifah have face-to-face opportunities to pick up the loot on display there. And, if the give-away providers are fortunate, they get to meet the stars and, most important, be photographed with both the stuff and them.

As with many things too good to be true, there is the other side of the story—taxation. Are these truly gifts and thus not taxable or are they, in the opinion of some tax experts, a version of income? The companies take deductions for the value of the gifts because they see them as a business expense. But what about Gwyneth Paltrow? Her Goody cruise was worth $22,000. Was it a gift because the Tasmanians love her or was it a fee for service? I suppose they’ll have to fight it out in Tax Court.

But when all is said and done, it is reported that only 5 to 10 percent of the celebrities ever take the cruise or stay at the Mirage. Who wants to have to hang out with all those Prols on a Carnival Cruise where all everyone does is eat?

I want my goldfish.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February 22, 2006--True Lies

Have you heard about Buzz Marketing? Others call it Viral Marketing. It is designed to sell things to people who are simultaneously watching television, talking on a cell phone, text messaging, surfacing the Internet, and sending instant messages. In other words, folks difficult to reach through conventional means of advertising—print, radio, and TV ads. Thus Buzz Marketing.

In a word, BM involves enticing consumers to spread marketing messages to each other. A recent NY Times piece, linked here, describes one Buzz campaign that has raised implications broader than its effectiveness.

That campaign pitched cell phone ring tones. Ones, for a fee, that could be downloaded so that your cell phone would have its own distinctive ring. When you get a cell phone, as part of the package, your provider offers x number of sounds or tunes you can set up as your ring at no additional cost. So if you want, you can have your phone play a little Mozart, clang like a cow bell, or whatever. But then you can buy a ring tone separately if, for example, you want Snoop Doggie Dog rapping to you when someone calls.

Oasys Mobile had a better idea—they developed ring tones that it wanted to market as having the power to increase your sexual attractiveness. Whenever your cell phone rang, using one of the tones you could buy from them, it would literally attract to you a member of the opposite sex, or the same one if you were thus inclined. Sort of the way Pheromones attract insects to one another.

Oasys hired McKinney & Silver to develop a Buzz campaign. M&S came up with the concept of Pherotones, a faux-scientific notion (tones, not mones) which claims that certain tones produce physical reactions in people, including stimulating sexual desire. To push the ring tone product, they produced a series of ads that appeared only on certain websites that could be downloaded and, key, passed along to others.

These ads featured a Danish doctor, actually a raven-haired, leggy actress playing the part, saying, “Experience the ring tone secret I discovered in Denmark, that’s too hot for mainstream science.”

And work it did. After placing these ads on a fake website, Pherotone.com, they are averaging 10,000 page views a day and Pherotone.com is now in the top 10 percent of the most popular blogs worldwide.

As a result of campaigns this effective, Buzz Marketing itself is a rapidly expanding segment of the advertising economy—nearly 80 percent of marketers spend some money on it. How else to reach all those kids IMing while Surfing and TMing?

But here’s the problem—the “Dr. Myra Vanderhood” ad for Pherotones does not include the traditional disclaimer that she is an actress or that Pherotones have not proven to be effective by the FDA. In ads we are all used to this occurs, albeit for a millisecond, at the bottom of the screen in a type face so tiny no one can read it. But at least it’s there. In the case of Buzz marketing, however, it is not only not there but for it to work it cannot appear because these ads, if they are to be passed along, need to be believable. Or at least make people willing to be fooled, which studies have shown people are quite eager to do.

In other words, Buzz Marketing is an out-and-out form of very intentional lying. Thus, BM has revived within the advertising industry their historic, soul-searching question—Is it acceptable to use advertising to trick people?

Like selling Coke as “the real thing” isn’t tricking people? What’s “real” about it? Since Coke sales are down, I wonder if Dr. Vanderhood might be available to explain.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

February 21, 2006--Face Off

What’s the cost-benefit of having a face-lift? Not how much does one cost or what is the benefit in how you look—but how much is it worth to get a face lift?

That was at the heart of a recent story in the NY Times (see it linked below).

The Surgery Academy reported that in 2004, the average cost of a face-lift was about $6,500; a brow-lift, $3,400, face and neck liposuction, just $2,300, while Botox injections would have set you back $440 a visit.

The Times reports about a 62 year old woman who purchased a face-lift so as to look younger at work, not just to her ten year younger boyfriend. She is a stock trader at a company where (male) traders typically retire in their 50s, both because they have amassed enough to live well and because they are burnt out. She wants to continue but feels as if she no longer fits in among her crowd of young colleagues. Since she is not ready to retire, to protect her position with the firm, she went for the full lift.

She was not alone in this—the same Academy report claimed that 22 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women who had plastic surgery did so for work-related reasons. With both figures sharply up from previous years.

Some are needing to work many more years than anticipated because their savings and pension systems will not be able to sustain them in early retirement and since often there is considerable unspoken (because it is illegal) age-discrimination. Others seeking promotions realize that age or youthful looks are taken into consideration in promotion decisions thus ante up the $6,500 to go under the knife and emerge with a new face to present to their colleagues and superiors.

And it works, assuming that once you unwrap the bandages you don’t find your skin stretched as tight as Joan Rivers’ and you can no longer smile or talk on the telephone—the latter an occupational hazard for stock brokers. Wendy Lewis, a consultant who advises clients considering cosmetic surgery (there is clearly a consultant for everything), says, “You get something done, you get the promotion.”

Now college professors are getting into the act. Not necessarily the Botox part, (after all they have tenure and can’t be fired for any reason, including putting their students to sleep with their lectures), but they are researching the relationship between attractiveness and success. A study conducted by faculty at the University of Texas and Michigan State University concluded that men and women “with above-average looks receive a pay premium,” while others who, how shall I put this, are unattractive “receive a pay penalty.” Even professors at Harvard have weighed in, claiming that their research reveals that there is a “sizable beauty premium” paid in the corporate world.

I’m headed for Paris in a few days . . .

Monday, February 20, 2006

February 20, 2006--Der Test

I am having further thoughts about the struggle currently raging within Germany about how to test immigrants seeking citizenship. Until recent years the exclusive focus of that test had been on historical and constitutional issues. Questions were only about the nature and structure of the German government and Germany’s place in European history. If there was criticism it had more to do with what was underrepresented in that history (take a guess) than how it was understood or interpreted. In other words, like many other Western countries, Germany’s test for citizenship was fairly straightforward and not very controversial. It might even have been viewed, in its benignness, as welcoming to potential new citizens.

But things began to change in 2000, and more recently what is being tested for has become contested and even inflamed.

As reported in the International Herald Tribune (see link below—I am still traveling), testing guidelines have now come to include questions about values and attitudes in addition to the traditional kinds. Some have been claiming that these changes were instituted to limit the number of Muslims who would become Germans because the new questions about attitudes seem designed specifically to confront traditional Islamic values and thus screen out Muslims. For example, questions that ask about applicant’s views toward women (“Do you think it is acceptable for a man to consider his wife his possession?”), sexuality (“What would you do if your son told you he was a homosexual and wanted to live with his lover?”), terrorism (“Would you tell the police if you knew of a suspected terrorist?”),and anti-Semitism (“Some people are accusing the Jews of being responsible for all that’s bad in the world. What do you think about such accusations?”).

For some political leaders in Germany, Heribert Rech is one (he is the interior minister of Baden-Wurttemberg, a southern state where there is a disproportionate number of Islamic residents), he wants to have his state add additional questions of this type to the test for citizenship, claiming that B-W and other states have the right to supplement the national exam.

Since B-W is also home to a disproportionate number of neo-Nazis I began to wonder how they would fare if they were required to take this new test to retain their German citizenship. I suspect we know what they would say about Jews being responsible for all the “bad in the world,” or how they regard women, and for sure we know what they think about homosexuals—beat them up along with the Jews.

But as I was having these thoughts I caught myself—aren’t I again just taking a cheap shot at the poor Germans who are struggling with all these complicated political and cultural problems?

From six time zones away, how in fact would my own countrymen, Americans do if we applied the same set of questions to them? I know this is just a fantasy, once a US citizen always a citizen (actually all you need to do is be born in the USA to become a citizen, even if your parents are here illegally); but what if we could retrospectively require citizens to be tested say every ten years? After all to renew drivers licenses we retest every five to ten years. Isn’t being a good citizen more important than being a safe driver?

I suspect that if we in the US asked about attitudes toward the religion of others, women’s rights, and homosexuality we would wind up withdrawing US citizenship from millions.

Come to think about it, maybe this is not just a fantasy. Perhaps it’s a good idea and we should get started with this as soon as possible.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

February 18, 2006--Saturday Story: "Hiding to Get Laid"

Hiding to Get Laid

If I were honorable, I would begin this with the familiar disclaimer—“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental”—and change Ellen Goodman’s name to Elaine Goldstein and obscure the fact that we laid naked together every Thursday at noon, entwined in each others arms, under the daybed in her parent’s apartment, hiding from her brother Morton, who had come home from school for lunch to the “empty” apartment, to eat the sandwich his mother had left for him, singing to himself, unaware of our presence, and flagrant condition, just ten feet from where he was chewing.

But since these Thursdays were the most exciting times of my life, ever, because I was getting closer and closer to getting laid for the first time, and since this is not a work of fiction, cad that I am, I will call her by her true name, Ellen Goldman.

How did Ellen and I get to that place? Literally? I cannot speak authoritatively for her, but for you to understand the full extent of my excitement, I have to take you back a bit in time to when it was exciting if a girl would allow you to put your arm across the back of her seat when you went to the movies together. To be clear, I am not talking about your arm or hand actually touching her shoulders much less her neck; I am saying you were making progress in the relationship just by having your arm resting on the back of the chair. Knowing all the while the risks you were running to be able to reach along her chair back while straining not to do any touching--you needed to so contort that arm that you were in danger of having it yanked out of its socket or developing gangrene.

Less physically threatening were the opportunities available during the walk home. It might be possible to think about using that same arm, if it was still functioning, to circle her waist. Again there would be no arm touching back, but the arm might surround her back, an inch or so away from it but close enough so that the tips of the fingers at the end of that arm might actually touch lightly the puffed-out hem of her tucked-in blouse.

And then at the door, there could be the chance to hold for a brief moment just one hand and attempt a squeeze.

With our current sensibilities I know you are screaming, “Enough!” This to you sounds more like the mating rituals among the Trobriand Islanders than the frisky youth of Brooklyn. But I insist on saying to you, before moving on, that what I have told you thus far is the virtual truth from my many months courtship of my first crush, Dorothy Bloomberger, when she was sixteen and I was fifteen but claiming to be sixteen. Getting away with the deception because of my great height, or her interest in the movies.

But I have heard you, enough!

I do, though, have to add that what I have just described was what one expected when going out with “good” girls. From the perspective of those of us who were perpetually over-wrought and desperate, sadly the overwhelming majority. It was reported, and I emphasize reported, by the likes of Donny Friedman that there was a group of very different kinds of girls, much, much smaller in number, girls referred to in politeness as being “fast.”

Donny Friedman had stories to tell of his times with one or two of these--in the coat closet with the Siegel Twins, in the balcony of the Rugby Theater with Muriel Berlin, and one not-to-be-described experience with Becky Sharfstein where he claimed they “went all the way.”

Ellen Goodman began very much as a member of that much larger classification of girls; but, as the result of my fevered relentlessness and whatever she was desiring, wound up in a category of her own—my first love.

To be continued next week. . .

Friday, February 17, 2006

February 17, 2006--Fanaticisms XXII--Waiting for the Mashiach

When I read that almost a quarter of a million mourners from Israel and around the world gathered in Jerusalem for the funeral of the Cabbalist rabbi Yitzah Kaduri, who died at 106, I was impressed (see NY Times article below). About both numbers—the 106 and the quarter million, considering that the Jewish population of Israel is just 5.0 million. Who was this man; what was this all about?

All the Times said about him was that his disciples believed that he had spiritual powers, notably as a healer, that he lived an austere life as a bookbinder, and the only luxury he allowed himself was smoking foreign cigarettes.

Since ads for cigarettes are not allowed in newspapers, the Times did not mention the brand. But out of perverted curiosity I wanted to find out which it was. Further research revealed they were Marlboros. So the good rabbi was a Marlboro Man. But that research also revealed a little more about him.

In addition to healing he was a seer who each year would prognosticate what would be coming. He appeared to do this by interpreting the meanings hidden in the number signifying the Jewish year. For example, in 5766, last year, he foresaw that it would be a year of “secret and revelation” in the world. There would be great tragedies unless Jews “work and strive that the Mashiach [Messiah] be revealed.”

In fact he said that that time is near. In the political arena he revealed that the Sharon government would be “the last prime minister in Israel,” that thereafter there would be leadership “of the Messianic era.”

Now I’m beginning to get it. I suspect that even Madonna the Cabbalist went right from the Grammies to the funeral.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

February 16, 2006--Praying For Darwin

“A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.” This was a part of the reverend Patricia Templeton’s sermon last Sunday to mark the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin (see NY Times story linked below).

One parishioner was so moved that she said that alternatives to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, such as intelligent design, seem a false way to use science to explain the work of God. "It's arrogant to say that either religion or science can answer all our questions," she said. "I don't see the need either to banish one or the other or to artificially unite them."

Another pastor, Mitchell Brown spoke about how good science compels believers to avoid seeking “special effects” answers to perplexing questions. Darwin, “forced religion to grow up, to become really faith for the first time.”

These sermons were inspired by a movement within Christianity, the Clergy Letter Project, as a response to the much more powerful Evangelical assault on Evolution and the promulgation of intelligent design to explain the development of life on Earth. (Though it hit a major legal roadblock recently in Dover, Pennsylvania.)

Though this counter effort could certainly benefit from a snappier name, Clergy Letter Project doesn’t quite get the job done, it does not just represent a fringe group of ministers. To tell you the truth, when I began to learn about them I was worried that they would be easily dismissed—they seemed, sorry, to have too many female clergy to be widely effective; they felt too Episcopalian; and from some of the reports I read they were holding services in apartment house basements (that in fact is where the Reverend Brown delivered the sermon I quoted).

But then I read that more than 10,000 ministers in 48 states had signed the Project’s letter and thus felt a bit more optimistic. That letter, by the way, at its heart says: “There is a growing need to demonstrate that the loud, shrill voices of fundamentalists claiming that Christians had to choose between modern science and religion were presenting a false dichotomy.”

Couple this with the recent move among a substantial number of Evangelical leaders to support efforts to protect the environment and maybe it might be possible to believe that there is hope—not just in the Hereafter but right here among the flock.

Happy birthday Charlie!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

February 15, 2006--Anton Scalia--Duck!

I can't control myself--I need to write something about Dick Chaney shooting one of his hunting pals. I'm still out of the country and didn't see what Maureen Dowd wrote. I assume someone woke her up at 3:00 a.m. to tell her the news and she banged out her column in about seven minutes. I can only imagine what John Stewart and Jay Leno must be saying. But I can't resist--this is my absolutely favorite story in at least 10 years (see NY Times account linked below). I need to blog!

What is striking to me is not that this “incident” symbolizes that this gang can’t shoot straight; nor that the Chaney people took many hours before releasing the story, presumably to get the right spin in place and/or to keep it off the Sunday talk shows; nor that Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, attempting to out-Leno Leno wore an orange tie to his briefing with reporters, saying it’s the color hunters wear so as to not get shot by their buddies and he doesn’t was to get shot by the VP. No not that.

And not that Vice President Chaney called his 78 year-old pal in the hospital to joke with him and to offer to do all he could to help; nor the fact that when they discovered one of the shot gun pellets had lodged in his heart and he thus needed to be taken to the ICU because it caused a heart attack; nor that later that day Chaney released a statement saying that “his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington,” the same words he offered when Ariel Sharon had a stroke. I don’t know about Maureen and Jay and John, but none of this struck me as so noteworthy or funny.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about—

So they were hunting on former ambassador Anne Armstrong’s spread, Chaney may or may not have had a proper hunting license, they were escorted and surrounded by a small army of Secret Service Agents (all in orange I assume), maybe they even had a few drinks. I can live with this. Boys will be, well, boys.

But what were they hunting for? Was it one of those Texas Big Game places where they have the Big Seven in cages, set the “hunters” up in front of them, then open the doors on the cages, and as the animals race out they point blank blast away at them?

No, they were hunting quail. Do you know what quail are? Bob Whites? They are quiet small birds, about eight inches in length, stubby in shape (sort of like the VP), and weigh about six ounces. And they can barely fly, being much more comfortable scampering along the ground in family groups of about a dozen birds.

So picture this—Chaney and his entourage fly all the way to Texas at taxpayer expense on his own government plane, Air Force Two, he schleps out to Anne Armstrong’s, gets into his gear (pictures please), and with Mr. Whittington and a few other fat cats (this time not including another hunting companion, Justice Anton Scalia) drags himself out into the “bush.” I assume either a Beater or Secret Service Agent comes upon some quail and scares them into flight. Chaney does whatever is necessary to get his twin-gauge shotgun into locked and firing position and pulls the trigger(s). The quail make their escape and Mr. W is loaded off to the hospital. Where the doctors report he has anywhere from five to 200 pellets in various parts of his body, now including his heart.

Let me get this straight—Chaney was using shotgun shells that contained at least 200 pellets to kill a six ounce quail?

Sounds like more Shock and Awe to me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

February 14, 2006--Ex Men

I hate to have to bring this story to your attention on Valentines Day. Can we chalk it up to the fact that I'm still six time zones away from my natural habitat? It is a subject about which I know a great deal--remarrying. Except that I finally got it right. Not so, apparently, Revlon's Ronald Perelman.

My thinking about this was provoked by a recent article in the NY Times (see it linked below) about Mr. Perelman’s announcement that he was divorcing his wife, the actress Ellen Barkin, and that she would be receiving $20 million, the amount they wrote into their pre-nuptial agreement. This in itself would hardly be worth noting on Entertainment Tonight much less the Times—Ronald Perelman is a certified billionaire and $20 million to an actress of her stature is about what she’d get for appearing in just four movies.

What struck my attention was the fact that this was Perelman’s fourth divorce. As a sidebar I should mention that those prior pre-nups were for $8, $80, and $30 million respectively. So these four divorces add up to $138 million, if my arithmetic is correct. They are starting to cost him real money.

Ever seeking the meaning of social phenomena of this kind—why ultra rich men (and we are talking men here) engage in serial marriages, Donald Trump comes to mind—the NY Times asked some experts. If you start with the assumption that men such as Trump and Perelman probably do not have trouble getting dates, in spite of The Donald’s hairdo and The Ronald’s everything, why after failing in marriage so many times do they keep at it? Some psychologists interviewed say they are romantics at heart, believing that there is something special about being married. Or, to quote David Patrick Columbia who writes NewYorkSocialDiary.com, “It’s ego. If you’re a big deal, you’ve got to have ways of showing it. You’ve got the house, got the car, so get the wife.” Others such as Janis Spindel, a matchmaker who gets $100,000 to find clients spouses, claims that these fellows are somehow mystics, thinking “three times is the charm.”

I remain skeptical. If it’s romance and magic they are seeking why do they call their lawyers immediately after a wonderful Valentines Day dinner to begin to strategize what kind of pre-nuptial deal to strike? Sounds to me more like business as usual than love.

Or maybe these guys are just jerks.

Monday, February 13, 2006

February 13, 2006--Happiness Experts

For the first time, last year, 2005, Americans, as a people, spent more than they saved. There are all sorts of explanations for this—perhaps we were just emulating our government which continued to rack up record deficits; maybe because the value of our houses rose so much and interest rates continued to be low we took cash-out mortgages and used some of that cash to shop. Then could it be that we simply decided that money can in fact buy happiness and with that in such short supply from other sources, we collectively decided, “What the hell, let’s shop!”

Sorry to be the one to disappoint you, especially as I myself continue to be spending it while in Europe, but one of the consequences of being here is that I get the International Herald Tribune every morning and there are occasionally stories available there that do not appear in the NY Times. In this context, then, I cannot help but share an article from the IHT (linked below) titled, “Materialism Is Bad for You, Studies Say,” which just about says it all.

In the past, religious thinkers and philosophers have claimed that materialism is bad for one’s soul; now researchers are purportedly finding that it’s even worse than that—materialism is bad for our psyche. Forget soul! We live in a post-soul society.

To be fair, most of this research is socio-economically based. For people living hand to mouth earning more money is probably good for both their souls and psyches.

But let’s anyway listen to the experts. Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychology professor and, yes, happiness expert, says that “Those who value material success more than they value happiness are likely to experience almost as many negative moods as positive ones.” Nothing all that astonishing here but it does sort of sound right.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor who focuses on people’s flawed ability to predict how they will feel about things, says that though “we think money will bring us lots of happiness for a long time, actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.” Flawed predicting here. But he does acknowledge that even if we get this message out to people, that money ultimately buys unhappiness, they will still go on coveting “a Porsche and a new home and tickets to the Super Bowl.”

I just thought of one more reason for all this doomed spending, both governmental and personal—could it be that it’s the ultimate distraction? In the old days they used to give us Bread and Circuses. Today we for sure want more than bread and the animal rights people have pretty much done away with the really distracting circuses—throwing Christians to the lions.

So now we’re not only bowling alone but also are on our own to figure out how to get through another lousy day.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

February 11, 2006--Saturday Story: "Augie's"


I went to Augie’s Barber Shop to get more than just a haircut. True, my mother sent me there about every six weeks to have one. That’s what she thought was going on--haircuts and, for the men, shaves—but she had never been to the back room. I duly got my trims, but it was for that room that I went to Augie’s.

His shop was on Church Avenue, just a block away from where we lived, but it could have been across the ocean. First of all, he and the other barbers but one were Italian. In our Jewish neighborhood, a place that Italian, and thus so exotically otherworldly, was an attraction unto itself. But it was because of the other things that went on there that it was truly foreign.

There were five barber chairs, including one in the shape of a pony with a saddle where kids got their hair cut if they cried. Riding the horse was to distract them, which it did, but it was also a form of humiliation because it revealed them for what they were, crybabies. After all, what’s so awful about getting your hair cut?

So those of us who were kids tried not to cry so we could graduate as soon as possible to a real chair. Even though we had to sit in it on booster seat until we were tall enough for our heads, and hair, to emerge above the head rest. Getting promoted to a big chair was to most of us a bigger deal than getting promoted from the fourth to the fifth grade.

Augie was the owner so he had the first chair nearest the window, cash register, and the pony. He was the only one allowed to punch the register keys and make change, but other than that and cutting hair and giving shaves by the window, he didn’t place himself above the others. In fact, the huge brass Italian coffee machine was on a table near his chair and he spent more time making coffee for the other barbers and himself than bossing them around. In that way he was unique—all other store owners in the area seemed to spend most of their time yelling at people, those who worked for them as well as the customers.

There were two other barbers and they always worked at the same chairs. I never saw anyone cut hair at the last one; it seemed to serve primarily as a place for stacking towels. I wondered if Augie had this extra place in the hope that business would improve and he would need to hire a third man.

In the place next to Augie was Sal. He had only a one inch rim of plastered-down hair and I thought did not make a very good advertisement for a barber shop. It looked as if he never needed to have his hair cut, what there was of it, or at most maybe once a year. If Augie had customers like Sal he not only wouldn’t need that extra chair, he probably would have to fire Sal.

When my mother sent me in for a haircut, she instructed me to only let Sal cut my hair if Hymie, yes non-Italian, Jewish Hymie wasn’t available. She insisted that he was the only one who knew how to cut hair the right way, leaving the neck “long,” which meant when it came time to shave the back of the neck, with a freshly stropped straight razor, Hymie was the only who didn’t shave so high that you came home looking like a yokel who lived on a farm.

In fact, my mother insisted that if Sal and Hymie had customers and only Augie was free, I should wait for Hymie or, if absolutely necessary, Sal. Under no circumstances was I to let Augie cut my hair. “He may be OK with shaving,” she would say, “Or making coffee and putting it in those little cups; but the boss is only interested in the money. So he works too fast. He uses the electric shaver more than the scissors. He just wants you in and out of his chair.”

This at times posed for me a considerable dilemma: for a ten year old kid to find Hymie and Sal busy and Augie only fussing with his hot steam and thus not otherwise occupied with hair, and then to have to say to him when he waved me toward his chair, “I’m waiting for Hymie,” or worse, “I’m waiting for Sal,” that was beyond my capacities. And thus I would slink to his chair (he by the way was the first one to say to me, slapping the leather seat of his chair, “Kid, I think you’re big enough now not to have to use the booster”) knowing that as an inevitable result even more trouble would await me, because when I got home my mother, who had the uncanny ability to know at a glance which of the three had cut my hair, as if they had somehow left scissor marks as distinctive as their finger prints, she would send me right back to Sal or Augie (never Hymie) to have them make adjustments to what they had inflicted on me.

This usually involved trimming a little higher around the ears. Though my mother liked the neck long, for some reason she liked the hair shaved quite high around my ears. I thought this made my prominent ears stick out even more, assuring that Donny Friedman at school the next day would point at me and in a voice that would resound through all the halls of P.S 244, gleefully bellow, “Look, Dumbo!”

There were lots of things to wonder about and learn at Augie’s. For example, why did the barbers keep dipping their combs in a blue solution called Barbercide? (Hymie said, “To kill the hair germs and the lice.”) Why did they make a pyramid of hot towels on the men’s faces before giving them a shave? (“To soften up the skin so the razor can cut closer,” Sal claimed.) Why did they brush off the back of the neck with white talcum powder after they finished shaving there? (“Because the powder gathers all the shaved hairs sticking to your neck so when you button your shirt collar you won’t feel so itchy and scratch yourself until you bleed,” Augie told me.)

But most interesting to me was what they did with all the cut hair that fell to the floor and settled around and among the chairs. Hymie said, with considerable authority, “We sweep it up and it’s made into hamburgers and then send them to Russia so when the Communists eat them they die.”

I had never thought of hair being such a lethal weapon but was excited that the hair that was cut from me was being used to defeat Stalin. Though when Hymie told me about how hair was more deadly than poison, I remembered my mother warning me that when I had a hair in my mouth I should be sure not to swallow it, that I needed to spit it out. Until then I did not realize the mortal danger I was facing every day from something so seemingly ordinary. I wondered what else was lurking to put me in danger.

So when Augie offered me my first job, saying he would pay me a quarter for doing it on Saturday mornings when the place was busiest (even Augie had to put aside the coffee cups then and join in the shaving and haircutting), I jumped at the chance, not just because of the quarter, not just because by having a “job” I would be another step closer to being grow up; but because the job involved sweeping up the hair, gathering it in the corner, and putting it into a small lidded can; and by doing that I knew I would be contributing to winning the Cold War. I thought that after I did that, someone from the Army would come to Augie’s, collect the hair, and take it to the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Fort Hamilton where they would make it into those killer burgers.

Thus, after getting my mother’s permission, which was easier than I had expected (“It’s good for everyone to have a job so they can learn the value of money”), I leapt at Augie’s offer, not realizing that by entering his employ I would be taking an even bigger step toward growing up than I could have anticipated.

This I know you realize involved the back room.

At the far end of the shop, beyond the last, unused chair and to the right of the stainless steel globe within which towels were steamed before being plopped onto the faces of the men stretched out waiting to be shaved, there was a door. Some times when I was waiting for my haircut, sitting behind the barber chairs reading the Police Gazette or New York Confidential, neither available at home, in school, or at the public library because of their racy crime stories, I noticed that a kid I knew from school, Tony Randazzo would run into Augie’s, out of breath, clearly not interested in getting a haircut, and after looking back over his shoulder would open the door a crack and slip inside. He was rarely there for more than five or ten minutes. Then the door would open about six inches, Tony’s nose would appear (it was that long), then Tony himself would follow, and with a nod to Augie would be out onto Church Avenue again, heading west at a trot toward the pool hall on East 54th Street.

Tony Randazzo was an anomaly at P.S. 244. Not because he was Italian (there were three other Italians in my grade alone), but because he was famous for having been the only one to have been left back four times. Therefore, he was still in 6th grade even though he was almost seventeen. He was old enough to shave and drop out legally, so it was puzzling why he didn’t. Maybe it was because he was making money off the other kids, charging each of us a nickel a day to “protect” us from the other Italians who he said would beat us up on the way home if we didn’t pay up.

Or perhaps he remained beyond the required years because every girl in 6th grade had a crush on him. Further, it was more than rumored that the Siegel Twins’ infatuation had progressed considerably beyond the crush stage. Some of us, when we heard about Tony and Rachael and Rochelle Siegel, who were developing very nicely, thought that maybe we too should figure out what we had to do to get left back since neither the Siegel Twins nor any other girls would even say hello to us. To increase my chances of being demoted, I considered that maybe I should resign my job as blackboard monitor.

So when I kept noticing Tony sneaking in and out of Augie’s back room, I thought something must be going on there that involved what all the Jewish people in the neighborhood thought Italians did—making illegal wine. But that went on in the basements of their houses, not in the back of barber shops, shoe repair stores, or pizzerias, the only other places where there were Italians. Maybe, when I began my job sweeping up the hair I could learn more about what was going on.

The first two Saturday’s were routine days for Augie’s but not for me because I was hard at work! Saturday was a day when only men came in, no kids were allowed, and one part of my job was to be sure that there were some other magazines for the men to look at who were waiting. On Saturday’s the Gazette was supplemented with the girly magazines Swank and Dude. For me to be directed to the cabinet next to the unused chair where they were kept and to have the responsibility to place them on the side tables by the chairs where the men waited, as well as catch a peek at them when I arranged them there, well to think I’d also be getting a quarter from Augie at four o’clock, that was my idea of growing up.

On the third Saturday, which was extra busy because Monday was the first night of Passover and the men wanted to look their best when they went to their mothers for the Seder, knowing they would come under increased scrutiny and potential criticism (“You didn’t even have time to take a haircut for Passover?”); and thus I was scurrying from one chair to the next because the hair kept piling up almost too fast for me to sweep it away. Before one o’clock the pail for the hair was overflowing and Augie told me to take it to the back and empty it in the big container by the alley door.

Without thinking, I pulled open the door to the back room and burst in, clutching to my chest the pail full of hair. As the door swung closed behind me, I stopped in my tracks, gasping for air. Not because I was out of breath from exertion, but because I was in the back room of Augie’s!

Tony Randazzo was there, squatting beside a man I had never seen before who was seated in a chair next to a small table on which there were at least five telephones and neat piles of note paper on which he was writing whatever it was Tony was whispering to him. All the while picking up the phones that rang incessantly, holding two with raised shoulders to each ear and a third in front of his mouth, where a cigar was dangling, barking into each in turn by shrugging first one than the other shoulder.

Into the one held up to his right ear, “Yes. Five-to-two. Ten spot.” And into a second phone at his left ear, “Two-to-one. For five. Got it.” Then into the third, the one he held in his hand, “You owe me twenty-five. No action for you ‘til you pay up. You got me?” That phone he slammed back into its receiver.

Tony swung his crouching body in my direction and gave me a nod. Never before had he even noticed much less acknowledged me, except of course when he was collecting his nickels.

Just then the door from the alley opened and through it came the most esteemed dentist, perhaps the most respected man in all of East Flatbush, Dr. Henry (everyone called him Honey) Traub. He was wearing his white coat and was clearly in a hurry. He went right over to the man with the telephones and took what looked like a roll of a hundred dollars from his pants pocket. He peeled off at least six or seven tens and slapped them down on the table, saying, “Five on number three in the first. Ten on number seven in the second. Ten again on the three horse in the third. . . . “

This was Dr. Traub, not only a World War II veteran but a decorated hero who had filled teeth while under enemy fire. The wealthiest man in the neighborhood. A professional, not just someone who owned a grocery store or worked in the City, but Honey Traub, who my mother idolized, was betting on the horses!

I was not unaware that this sort of gambling went on and knew by then that the man with the cigar Tony worked for was a Bookie. I also knew about Bookies from my father, but he told me that only the goyim bet on horses. Not someone like Dr. Traub, a Jew no less. Who, when he finished placing his bets looked over toward me, smiled, and like Tony also nodded. This man who knew more about my mouth and gums and teeth than my mother, who took care of them as if they were his own son’s, just last week beginning to give them a fluoride treatment, the latest, and showed me how to brush. Not side to side but from the gums down. “Like this,” he said holding my hand gently in his, “And you will never get gingivitis.”

As he was slipping out the alley door in came four other men I knew from the neighborhood. They were friends of Tony’s and were there to shoot some pool. As they shook off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves, simultaneously lighting cigarettes by snapping their thumb nails across the tops of wooden kitchen matches, I noticed for the first time that dominating Augie’s back room was a full-size pool table. Without more than grunting greetings to Tony they began to chalk up their cue sticks and rack up the first set of balls. In a moment the sound of ivory balls smacking into others filled the room, as did their smoke.

I couldn’t move. My mouth literally hung open. Were their other things I hadn’t noticed?

There were. The walls were covered with Pinup calendars. As you might imagine, these were not like the ones up front where the girls lay against draped backgrounds, with their backs arched, wearing two piece bathing suits. Those were intoxicating enough for me. To catch a look at them as the pages turned with each new month was half the reason to come regularly for haircuts.

But those in the back room were of a very different sort—they had pictures of totally naked girls! Against the same scarlet backgrounds, with backs slightly more arched, but with naked breasts and rear ends (the rest unfortunately was covered by their artful poses).

Prior to this the only naked breasts I had ever seen were in National Geographic magazine when there was a story about a tribe in Africa where the natives didn’t wear any clothes. But at the risk of offending, I need to tell you that on the calendars in Augie’s back room, the naked girls were Americans!

Just as I was sneaking looks as these calendars, the alley door opened again, and I almost died to see . . . the Siegel Twins!

They flounced toward Tony who pulled himself up from his squat. They were wearing their identical rabbit fur jackets which they flipped off and tossed onto the pool table, which drew curses from the guys shooting pool because their game was now ruined. The Twins giggled at their protests and ran to Tony where they began hugging and kissing him—Rochelle on his right side, Rachael on his left. The Bookie also rose from his chair, letting the phones ring off the hook, and snuggled up close to the three of them, joining them in a four way embrace.

As I was struggling to think what the Twins were doing here and what would happen next, from the front room of the barber shop I heard Augie calling to me, “Did you get lost back there or something? You’d better get in here. The hair’s piling up to the ceiling.”

I could hear Sal and Hymie joining him in laughter.

Friday, February 10, 2006

February 10, 2006--Fanaticisms XXI--Brokeback Bible

“That would be like Madonna playing the Virgin Mary.”

Thus spake the Reverend Jason Janz, assistant pastor of the Red Rocks Baptist Church in Denver, about a gay actor, Chad Allen, who played a slain American missionary in the film, “End of the Spear,” which was produced by Every Tribe Entertainment, an evangelical film company (see NY Times story below).

Executives at Every Tribe responded, “If we make films according to what the Bible says is true, it’s incumbent for us to live that way.”

To that Janz retorted, “We must realize that the Christian message and the messenger are intricately related.”

To this, Jim Hanon, the director, said, “If we start measuring the sin of everyone in a movie, we would never be able to make a picture because none of would be left.”

And to this the assistant pastor asserted, “If young people get exposed to Allen’s views on homosexuality, that would cause some of them to question Biblical views of homosexuality and every other sin” (emphasis added).

Then things really began to heat up. Evangelical websites lit up with more than words; they included calls to action. Actions such as encouragement to firebomb the houses of the filmmakers and the gay actor. When asked about this version of an eye for a . . . just what I cannot say, Kevin Bauder, president of the Central Baptist Seminary in Minneapolis, took a deep breath and thoughtfully opined, “Granted we must not overreact [so far so good]; and it probably would be an overreaction to firebomb these men’s houses [probably?], but . . . .” He then trailed off into further musing, promising to get back to us after he figured out what an appropriate reaction might be.

Let’s get back to this idea of Madonna playing the Virgin Mary. Isn’t she the one who wrote and performed, “Life a Virgin”? That’s a good start. And didn’t she get to open last night’s Grammy show, besting Mariah Carey who protested bitterly, not at all willing to turn her cheek (the one on her face) as the Christian thing to do? And hasn’t Madonna managed to resurrect her career countless times and still manages to get onto the charts even as she approaches sixty? I think she is thus still bankable.

So if Every Tribe has a script for “Like the Real Virgin,” I know Madonna’s agent and he’ll be sure to run it by her.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

February 9, 2006--Monkey Money

I'm on the road, in Spain, and thought to bring you something that appeared only in the International Herald Tribune. Sort of my version of Behind the IHT.

I suspect that you as I do not know Lakshmi Mittal. Until I read about him in the IHT (article linked below), his was a name with which I was unfamiliar. As you, I of course know who Bill Gates is as well as Warren Buffet, the world’s first and second wealthiest individuals. And so you can only imagine my surprise when I learned that Mr. Mittal is next, third on that elite list. So wealthy in fact that in 2004 his net worth grew at a rate of $36,000 per minute. Not bad.

But what is bad is his hostile take-over bid of $22.4 billion (how many minutes at $36K per does it take to get to $22.4 billion?) for one of Europe’s corporate icons, Arcelor Steel. Now there have been many such bids along our gilded way, but what is unusual here, and terribly, terribly upsetting to Arcelor and many, many European bystanders, is the who of this unwelcome bid—you see Lakshmi Mittal (note carefully that first name) is not one of us but rather one of them—from India. Forgive me, a Packi, generically, from there, the Colonies. I know you may say that’s all over; the Colonies are no more. Well, not exactly. Not when it comes to the colonial mentality.

The French particularly have been worrying about globalization. Not so much when it meant one could get simple things manufactured there on the cheap. That was OK. Just so long as the workers were being paid "Coolie Wages." And it was still all right when Algerians and Turks came as “visiting” workers and as such were willing to do all the jobs no one else wanted to do. And it was sort of OK when some service work was “outsourced” to Bangalore and Mumbai because who after all wants to answer the phone when someone calls to complain about a credit card bill or wants to sit at a computer terminal all day editing software. And besides the corporations doing the outsourcing could cut their local overhead and increase their quarterly profits.

But it stopped being OK when those “visiting” workers decided not to go home and to seek citizenship. And it certainly was not at all all right when these Wogs started to build their own universities and research institutes and began to become truly globally competitive. Even amassing enough capital to begin to have the capacity to turn the tables on us. Hence the bid for Arcelor and the cries of outrage.

First a measured reaction from Sebastien Montigny, head of business development for France at Infosys, the Indian outsourcer, “First, we were talking about the European Community and the plumber from Poland. Then China. Now, India is emerging as a new, big important economy that France has to deal with.”

Let’s now listen in on how they are dealing with this from none other than Guy Dolle, CEO of Arcelor. He had a few choice words about Mr. Mittal, who by the way was born in a rural Indian village that did not have either electricity or running water: Dolle says that Mittal Steel, an empire spanning five continents, is just a “company of Indians” made up of a “group of less-than-average” businesses that would pay for Arcelor in “monkey money.”

Less-than-average? Monkey money? Let’s hope there’s is a golden parachute awaiting Monsieur Dolle because he’s going to need it. Those monkeys are about to put him out of a job.

As a sidebar—the story about the “Pinstriped Indian” appeared on the front page of the IHT and then jumped to page 4. The rest of page 4 included the following stories—“World’s Muslims Unite in Anger Over Cartoons”; “Large Toll Feared In Ferry Sinking” (up to a thousand pilgrims returning from Mecca drowned); “Danish Satirist, A Muslim, Sees Laughter Ebbing Away”; and my favorite, “Wrangles Delay Voting On Iran’s nuclear Policy.”

While we’re worrying about monkey money Iran is building an A Bomb. With our oil money.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

February 8, 2006--Stiff Upper Lip and All That

As most countries in Western Europe are currently struggling with notions of national identity—especially how to deal with (welcome and assimilate?) new residents from their former colonies and the descendents of “visiting” workers from the Islamic world who chose not to end their “visits” to places such as Germany—as they struggle with these perplexing and at times dangerous issues, as one might imagine, it is taking particularly curious form in Great Britain, in England. (See linked below Alan Cowell’s article from a recent issue of the NY Times.)

In England they are posing the following question, a version of which could serve the rest of the continent:

"If this multicultural society is to embrace all its disparate strands after decades of immigration from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and most recently Eastern Europe, what common values should bind a new Britishness transcending faith, race or origin?"

In America, we of course have needed to grapple with this as well, and continue to. But with our notion of the “Hyphenated-American”—Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and so on, we at least indicate to all the people’s of the United States that though the melting pot ideal was and is a national fiction, we do want all people to somehow become American while at the same time continue to embrace their Italian-ness, Mexican-ness, etc. We even have national holidays such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving that are enthusiastically celebrated by all Americans, though Italian-Americans traditionally serve lasagna along with the turkey! And certainly we have a long tradition of patriotism, at times quite contested, that involves the embrace of national symbols such as he Statue of Liberty and of course the flag.

Democracies that are striving to become as pluralistic as the US do not have close at hand either our assimilationist ideology, the concept of national hyphenation (there are no Turkish-Germanys, Algerian-French, or Pakistani-Brits), or the equivalent of our national celebrations.

In Britain, there is now a 146-page book called Life in the United Kingdom published by the Home Office that aspiring citizens need to assimilate and be quizzed about. It includes British history from the time of the Roman conquest but also some behavioral characteristics that are considered to be essentially British. For example, and I'm quoting, “If you spill a stranger’s drink by accident [type of drink not specified!], it is good manners (and prudent) to buy another.” This is in a section of Life entitled “Pub Advises.” That should get the job done.

But in case it doesn’t, Prime-Minister-In-Waiting, Gordon Brown mused in public recently that perhaps the English should emulate the Americans (that will get him a lot of votes) by setting aside a day for the British to celebrate their Britishness—their version of the Fourth of July (Boxing Day?) or indulge in more flag waving. This latter suggestion would undoubtedly unleash considerable debate since not everyone in, say, Scotland, part of the UK, would agree to run around on that day waving the Union Jack. You see, as part of Britain’s attempt to acknowledge and empower Scottish and Welch and Northern Irish identities these nationalities within the UK have been allowed to fly their own flags.

So this notion of defining Britishness will also continue to prove to be a sticky wicket.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

February 7, 2006--Privatizing Belief

This will be about how at times belief trumps reality. In the secular realm where belief can be as powerful as in the scared.

This will be about the reform of poorly performing public schools. There are about 45 million children in our schools, more than a third of them in schools that are failing. We have been having a national debate for decades about what to do to help fix these schools so their students can realize their true potential. This debate has been heated because this not only threatens the country’s standing in an increasingly competitive world but also because the inequalities that are being exacerbated by in the schools are socio-economic and race based, with kids from poorer backgrounds faring decidedly less well that those from more affluent families. And perhaps worse, with those most disadvantaged by the schools being children of color.

The debate about what to do involves fixing things like under qualified teachers; inadequate school principals; classes too large to teach well; teaching reading via an emphasis on phonics; and if all else fails, enabling parents to enroll their children in charter schools or, more radically, giving them money so they can pay the tuition for private schools. It is these two latter reform strategies that I want to discuss—the potential effectiveness of charters and vouchers to close these unacceptable academic achievement gaps.

Educators call this privatization because it involves, via charters, a version of a market approach where public money is deployed to schools that are reconstituted outside the normal ways of doing business and governing traditional public schools. Or taking tax dollars and through vouchers transferring that money to private school ventures.

These privatizing approaches are highly favored by business leaders who get their corporate foundations to fund charters and vouchers, conservative governmental leaders (including our current president) who see the market economy to be the solution to most social problems, and many educators and philanthropies who have for all intents and purposes given up on the public schools’ ability to reform themselves. Sounds good, right?

Sorry, not exactly. Though charters and voucher programs have been around for quite some time and have received billions of dollars of support, there has as yet not been one independent evaluation of charters and vouchers that indicate that they work to close those academic gaps. The most recent was reported in the NY Times (linked below). This University of Illinois study concludes that if you control for race and socio-economic background, students do no better in either charter schools or private schools.

There are lots of data to cite but let me mention just one—about how vouchered students do in Catholic schools, those schools most often cited as working well with low-income minority students: the study found that though raw scores of fourth graders in Catholic schools were 14.3 higher on math and reading tests, when these scores were looked at so as to compare vouchered students attending these schools with their equivalents left behind in public schools, the vouchered students scored 3.4 points lower.

One would think that this stream of negative evaluations of charter schools and voucher programs would drive corporate types away from supporting them since they are so “bottom line” oriented. Well, wrong again. The support continues; in fact it has increased. Rather than be guided by the facts on the ground, the data, by reality itself, they persist in their belief that this privatized approached is the solution.

If there were no examples of other kinds of reform models that were in fact working, I would say, keep going with what you believe. But belief here will not get the job done. Only effective practices that have evidence that they work will.

Monday, February 06, 2006

February 6, 2006--Nellie

Nellie died. Nellie McKay. She was a student of mine. In the first class I ever taught. At Queens College. In 1965.

I learned about her recent death from an obituary in the NY Times (see it linked below). The obit was of course not about her life as a college student but rather about what she achieved thereafter.

She graduated from college in 1969, a literature major, and went on to Harvard where she was the first black women in that university’s history to earn a Ph.D. in English and American History. That in itself would have merited a Times obituary, but one below the fold and without a photo. Hers was both above the fold because after Harvard she went on to become one of the founders of the field of Women’s Studies, with a particular interest and expertise in black women’s studies. And she looked still very much as I remembered her. As the Times noted, she was the central figure in establishing this essential aspect of cultural history. She was the general editor, along with Henry Lewis Gates, of the definitive Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

So now you know this much about Nellie McKay. Let me tell you a little more that wasn’t included in the obituary.

She took a second course with me in 1968. In American Literature. By early spring we were reading Huckleberry Finn. She was part of a special program at Queens that was set up to enable school para-professionals to complete college degrees. Because of the informal segregation of the New York City teacher corps at that time, virtually all the professional staff, the principals and teachers, were white and all the Paras were black. Thus, Nellie and the rest of my students in that class were African American. You might then imagine that I approached the teaching of Huckleberry Finn with some trepidation, especially since I was not tenured and, I’m not proud to admit, didn’t want to get myself into trouble. In fact, during the evening I remember so vividly, April 4th, we were to discuss the relationship between Huck and, forgive me, Nigger Jim.

Things got quite hot and I was eager for the bell to ring signaling the end of class. One student in particular, I’ll call him Herb Spencer, who had recently been released from Attica where he had served seven years for manslaughter, was dominating that part of the discussion, if you can call it that, and frankly had all of us terrified. He was also physically quite imposing, so when he jumped from his chair to emphasize a point, that Twain was a racist and that was that, none of us had the courage, frankly, to take him on.

Except Nellie. She rose to her full five feet two, turned to him, and said, “Herb, first of all sit down and stop waving your arms like that.” He sat right down. “Twain was not a racist; you missed the whole point. He was showing the society to be racist by representing Jim as so humane.” She said more of course and much better than I am remembering it; but I gave you the essence of the situation.

Just as Nellie sat down, someone from the office entered the classroom, came over to me, and whispered that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. I slumped back against the desk.

I needed to tell the class but couldn’t think of the appropriate words. I just said, “They killed Martin Luther King.”

Everyone, me included, began to sob.

It was obvious that we needed to adjourn, that we wanted to get home to our families. We hugged and cried some more and began to go our separate ways. Most of the students to South Jamaica, the black ghetto of Queens; me back to Brooklyn Heights, the white ghetto of Brooklyn.

But I realized that Nellie, who had become a friend, did not have a car. She went back and forth to the college by bus. I told her I would drive her home. She said absolutely not. It would be too dangerous for me, a white person in a yellow Opal station wagon, to be driving around South Jamaica the night MLK had been murdered. But I insisted, and after some more arguing she relented and I did in fact drive her home.

As we got closer to where she lived, listening to the news on the radio, we learned that there were fires raging in black neighborhoods across the city and country, including South Jamaica. We could see some from the car. And thought we even heard gunfire.

We did though manage to get to Nellie’s without incident, except to have someone glare at the two of us seated together in my car—a black woman with a white man.

I walked up the front steps with her and into her apartment. Her son Harry was away at college so she was living alone. I asked if she was all right about being home by herself. She said she would be fine; but, but she was not so sure that I would be safe driving by myself back through that part of Queens. I told her that I would be. She though felt otherwise and said I had two choices—either I would stay with her until things settled down or she would accompany me back to Brooklyn.

You know from how she handled Herb Spencer in class that one didn’t fool with Ms. McKay when she was determined about something. So I said, “I’ll stay with you.” Which I did.

It was the worst night of my life: King’s brutal murder; the urban disruptions; the despair about the unknown future of America; and more.

But all through that night, though I had thought I would be taking care of Nellie, she took care of me. Then and for many years thereafter.

Rest easy, Nellie my love.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

February 4, 2006--Saturday Story: "Mr. Perly"

Mr. Perly

Considering the daily mayhem on the streets of East Flatbush, it was essential, in all weather, for a glazier to be available to fix the plague of broken windows. Both in homes and stores. The former, the result of wayward rocks, baseballs, hockey pucks, and, in season, snow and ice balls; the latter caused by criminals-in-training who saw breaking into the corner Candy Store (Bob's) to be the ideal prerequisite for later-in-life felonies.

And since the foremost perpetrator of these misdemeanors was, of course, Heshy Perlmutter, it was appropriate that the neighborhood glazier was his father, Mr. Perly. This, in truth, was not as ideal a situation as it might at first seem. You might imagine that the father would show family contrition to the violated, the skills of which his son had not as yet acquired. Or he would make extra haste to repair what his only son had wrought. Especially when it was cold or otherwise inclement. That is what one would have expected. But Mr. Perly lived in a world so much of his own, what else was new in a neighborhood like ours, that, if anything, the victims all would probably have been better served if they had thought to import a glazier from far-away Manhattan.

Mr. Perly always appeared to be preoccupied with higher thoughts and complex issues since he was frequently seen to be in frantic motion, wandering the streets in passionate discourse, with himself. Slashing the air, to punctuate his best locutions, with rolled-up copies of either the Jewish Daily Forward, PM, or the Daily Worker. This baton, pointer, or weapon, depending on the subject at hand.

His perpetual argument, because that is what it was, was conducted in at least four languages—German, Yiddish, Russian, and his own unique version of English. And there were at least four participants, with Mr. Perly playing all the parts. One time when I was trailing him, in the manner of Sam Spade Private Eye, trying to listen in, I think I heard him fighting with someone called Leon Trotsky.

I was fascinated by him and spent considerable time attempting to become a part of his polyglot universe of languages and glass. After a while I came to understand that the reason he had no “real” interlocutors was not so much because he was crazy but that he had concluded the ideas he was grappling with were beyond the grasp of his neighbors or peers. In fact, though disheveled and living on the edge of poverty, he felt that he did not have any peers because he practiced the art of glazing, which was an ancient and hermetic craft. While everyone else either worked at a gas station or behind the counter in an appetizing store, slicing Lox.

Most thought that Mr. Perly’s work involved just fixing broken windows; when in fact, in the dark inner recesses of his shop, he engaged in his true calling—silver-glazing sheets of glass to turn them, alchemically, into mirrors. It was really that world of mirrors I wanted to know about, and enter. But knew I would first have to approach it through Trotsky.

And since I had no idea who he was I needed to find out. So I asked Heshy who told me that he didn’t know much about Trotsky except that he was some kind of a Russian, was somehow involved in the Communist Revolution, and that his father talked about him all the time. If you could call it talking. Even in his sleep when he would cry out about what Heshy thought sounded like “Bonaparte. Bonaparte.” Or maybe, stranger still, Bonapartism. Heshy said it was if he were fighting in his sleep with Napoleon Bonaparte who had betrayed the Revolution or something like that. But Heshy was a good enough student to know that Napoleon had died way before the Russian Revolution, and so I quickly realized that he would be no help in my learning about Trotsky. And since it was clear in that era that it was not a good idea to wander in the neighborhood public library and ask about a Communist like Trotsky, for these reasons I figured out that I would have to take an even more indirect approach to Mr. Perly. Here Heshy was more helpful; he suggested if I wanting to learn about the mysteries of glazing, turning plain glass into mirrors, I should probably forget about Trotsky and the Russian Revolution and Communism and just hang around his father’s shop, to see if I could make myself useful by offering to keep him supplied with an endless supply of coffee and pack after pack of Old Golds.

Thus, every day, after school was out, I went to Mr. Perly’s store on Church Avenue, initially just sitting there in the back near him, saying nothing, offering nothing. Just afternoon after afternoon spending from 3:30 to 5:30 there, silently sitting on a battered work bench that was pushed back against one wall among the half-empty five gallon cans of putty that he used when fixing broken windows, to secure the new glass in the window frame with a fine a bead of this semi-soft clay-like substance after fixing them in place with a series of tiny triangular nails. I would watch him out of averted eyes.

At that time of day he fabricated Venetian Blinds, hanging two slotted fabric tapes from hooks on the ceiling into which he inserted the slats and then the cords that were used to raise and lower the blinds as well as open and close them against the light. It was repetitive but rhythmic work and at times, though he didn’t speak or acknowledge me, he did emit sounds that reminded me of davening or praying. In spite of Heshy having told me that his father was a passionate atheist.

After about ten days of this, unexpectedly, he growled, “Coffee.”

I popped up from my half-reverie and said back at him, “Sure Mr. Perly. Do you want milk and sugar?”


“Right away. I’ll run right over to the candy store on the corner.”


“Old Golds, right?”

He continued to thread slats into the hanging tapes, saying nothing more, not looking over at me. But I was thrilled and hopped off the bench and raced across the street to Bob’s to fill his order. They knew it was for him and didn’t ask me for money, adding it to his tab.

This then went on for another two weeks—Mr. Perly humming and threading his slats, me tucked away waiting on the work bench, until he would bark “Coffee” or “Cigarettes” or at times both. I would jump right to it and be back in a flash with whatever he needed.

Things began to chance when one day he muttered the Worker as well as Coffee. I thought I knew what he meant but thought I would take a chance and ask, “The Worker?”

“The paper mit the coffee.”

I brought both back to his workshop. He got down off the small stool on which he stood to insert the topmost slats, he was less than five feet tall himself, and came over to a paint-splattered chair near where I was settled. He slumped onto it, sipping at his coffee, sputtering and spitting as he always did after his first gulp, “Ach, zehr heis.”

“Sorry Mr. Perly.”

He opened the paper and smoothed it out on the bench, smoothing the pages with his work-battered hands, talking to himself in the same agitated mix of languages that were familiar to me from the times I had tailed him through the neighborhood.

Dat Truman. Est ein dog. Und his cronies. Schwein, all of them.”

I decided to take a chance, “You mean the president? But didn’t he stand up to Stalin?”

At that, Mr. Perly hurled his steaming cup across the shop where it smashed against the wall and sprang off the chair with the coiled energy of someone half his age. I remained where I was, transfixed with excitement, and fear. He stomped around the room, spewing a stream of, to me, incoherent curses. But among them I thought I did hear him talking about Bonaparte or, actually, Bonapartism.”

So I took a further chance, “Who, Mr. Perly,” I whispered, “is Bonaparte?”

Nicht Fascism!”

“I don’t understand. Won’t you . . . . ”

“What do they teach you? Nothing. Mein son Harold, he knows nothing except baseball and girls. Ach, America.”

“But Bonaparte?”

“A fascist like the rest of them.”

“Do you mean Napoleon?” That much I knew from World History, at least his name and that he was French and tried to conquer Russia.

Yah, him. But Trotsky, you know, he was really Bronstein, a Jew? He knew. He knew fascism. So they killed him. Ramon Mercader. In Mexico, mit an axe in his kopf.” He dropped his head and sighed deeply. I waited.

He resumed, “But der Nazis were not Bonaparte.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Didn’t you read in school about Trotsky, his last letter in 1940 before they killed him?”

“No. What did it say?”

“That fascism is not the same as Bonapartism.”

There was that word from his sleep. Heshy was right. It was what he was crying out from his dreams.

“That . . . ?”

Yah. Fascism comes after, after the vanguard fails to lead the masses. Look, it’s right here.” He pounded his hand on the Daily Worker still spread out on the work bench, which launched the can of triangular nails into the air, and resumed his pacing and mix of oaths

Friday, February 03, 2006

February 3, 2006--Fanaticisms XX--Pharisees

The headline could just have well have read, “Democrats Wrap Themselves in Jesus” for the NY Times article about how Democrats all over the South and beyond are getting behind legislation to support Bible study in the public schools (see link to article below).

After the 2004 election, Democrats came to believe that they got trounced because George Bush and the Republicans did a better job of mobilizing Christian Evangelicals and exploiting hot cultural/family values issues such as gay marriage and prayer in schools. Thus, to avoid making that same mistake in 2006 and 2008, Democrats have become “comfortable” talking about God and faith and their own religious beliefs and practices. Even John Kerry during the waning days of his waning campaign began to show up at church more publicly despite a number of Catholic Bishops speaking openly about not allowing him to take Communion because of his support for abortion.

The Times piece is about Democrat state senators in Georgia and Alabama introducing legislation that would authorize public schools to teach courses using the textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, which was produced by a non-partisan conservative Christian group called the Bible Literacy Project. To quote one of the senators, “We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith.” Talking about faith seems like a very different thing than teaching the Bible in public schools, especially since the content of the course they are promoting is ultimately more New than Old Testament and therefore decidedly Christian. Our faith indeed.

As you might imagine, Republicans are up in arms. I do not blame them and, in fact, actually agree with them.

They call these Democrats “Pharisees,” a term they apply to liberals who exploit religion (and they should know exploiting when they see it). They recall with horror how effective Bill Clinton was when he co-opted Republican issues such as welfare reform. But they also point out that what the Democrats are up to is pandering to people, using their deepest beliefs as a cynical political tool.

If you want a glimpse of the pandering and the cynicism, take a look at what Democrat Party Chairman Howard Dean had to say—in promising that they will do a better job of talking to the public about values--“I think teaching the Bible as literature is a good thing.” Ignoring, of course, that we’re not talking literature here.

We’re talking about Democrats attempting to out-conservative conservatives, who are on the move in the same states to get them to require that The Ten Commandments be displayed in the public schools.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

February 2, 2006--I'll Take the $1,000

It takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets. How long would it take for 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

If this kind of question makes you crazy, then you are like me. When I saw it the other day in the NY Times (link below), I flashed back to that time when I took the SATs and how I got a migraine the night before and the kind of stomach the next morning that caused me to spend more time in the Boys Room than filling in my answers with a Number 2 pencil.

The widget question was imbedded in an article about the economics of risk taking. About differences in individual’s willingness to defer an immediate, certain benefit in the hope that being patient might bring them a higher yield. The kicker—a potential higher yield that is considerably less certain, riskier.

Would you, for example, rather have $1,000 for certain or a 90 percent chance of getting $5,000? What about a 75 percent chance at that $5,000? Get the picture?

Economists who fret about these matters are called “decision researchers,” and they don’t all work for Las Vegas casinos. They do their research both out of curiosity (that is at the essence of all good research) but also at the behest of the insurance and investment industries, both of which are every much in the risk-reward business as those running Crap Tables.

Here are some of the things they have been finding—those who do well on questions such as the one I posed actually like taking risks more than being certain about outcomes. And at the risk of being politically incorrect, there are apparently also gendered differences—for example, 80 percent of high scoring men would chose a 15 percent chance of getting $1.0 million over a sure $500, compared with 38 percent of high-scoring women. Maybe that’s why one finds so many more women playing the slots and so many men going broke betting $50 a hand at Blackjack.

OK, let’s see how you did with the widget question—I of course did as miserably with it as I did on the SATs. I came up with the answer that it would take the hundred machines one minute to make the 100 widgets. I assume you got the right answer—five minutes. And I also assume that you went to a better college than I.

Look for me next time you’re in Atlantic City—I’m the guy at the nickel slots.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

February 1, 2006--Our Fault . . . Again?

I'm about to take off for a visit to Paris, but when I read the NY Times article linked below, to tell you the truth I am having second helpings. Sorry, second thoughts.

In spite of the recent interest in a book about why French women are so thin (Mireille Guilano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat) and what all of us could learn from them (each day smoke as many cigarettes as possible and have at least two glasses of Montrechet), it appears that obesity is a growing problem in France. Forty-two percent of the population is overweight. And since children are becoming obese at a faster rate than adults (increasing at 17 percent each year as compared with 7 percent for adults), it is projected that by the year 2020, the French will be as fat as we are in the United States.

What’s going on here? A number of things have been observed to explain this disturbing phenomenon: First of all, contrary to the perception that the French sit around for hours every evening smacking their lips over magnificently prepared dishes made from the freshest of ingredients, it appears that they have taken to gulping down their food. An average French person today spends just 38 minutes over dinner whereas 25 years ago they lingered for 88 minutes.

Then, it’s the fault of women—in the past, it is claimed, a meal in France was such a ritual that eating between meals was considered to be a family misdemeanor. But now, since so many mothers need to work outside the home and thus have less time than in the past to shop at the local markets and select special things for the dinners they would laboriously prepare, they are blamed for irresponsibly setting their kids up in front of the TV and shoving unhealthy food at them.

But then of course there is the real reason the French have an obesity problem, and who else is there to blame than us? Because of how we have so debased the culinary habits of the West, the French have been seduced into a sedentary life of between-meal snacking and binging on fast foods. Right there on the Champs Elysee, in the very heart of Paris, there are those iconic Golden Arches beckoning. So successfully that over the past five years McDonald’s sales have increased by 42 percent. Some 1.2 million or 2 percent of French population eat there everyday. More than anywhere else in Europe.

Must be those French Fries!