Friday, March 31, 2006

March 31, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XXVIII--Zero to Sixty

Fanaticism takes many forms from religious excess to an obsession with the soccer team Manchester United. And, it appears, it can also express itself in a devotion to fast cars. So much so that American automakers, in spite of oil-man George Bush's warning that we are "addicted to oil," are leaving the fuel-efficient car niche to the Japanese while rampaging ahead to develop and produce even more powerful gas-guzzlers for those of us who, in the words of the NY Times, "like the extra zoom" (see full article below).

It's all about going from zero to sixty in less than ten seconds. (Though where one might do that I do not know as our roads become more and more gridlocked.

Gasoline hovers near $2.50 per gallon, there is incontrovertible evidence that burning fossil fuel is a major contributor to global warming, the number of cars world wide has doubled since 1985 and is expected to double again during the next 15 years as India’s and China’s economies expand, the Japanese auto manufactures are building and selling so many high quality and hybrid cars and partly as a result GM is on the brink of bankruptcy (offering every single one of their hourly workers early-retirement buyouts), and what do the American manufacturers do in response to all of this—they ignore building fuel-efficient cars because they feel Americans are still power and acceleration crazed.

And they have some evidence that this approach to the market is working—Cadillac, which languished for years with its stuffy image that it was a car for old fogies, resurrected itself by producing hot models such as the STS-V which go from zero to sixty in less than five seconds. It is now so popular that at the recent Grammy Awards show, half the Rappers showed up in them.

But overall, Ford, and Chrysler as well as GM have continued to lose market share to Toyota and Honda, to the point where the Big Three are beginning to resemble the Three Dwarfs Sleepy, Dopey, and Grumpy.

So dopey that when asked by the Times about why they have foregone efficiency for size and speed they say that scientists must find ways to deal with the environment by coming up with “fundamental changes . . . to replace oil and gas.”

Well yes. But in the meantime, while they work on solving that problem, since Americans want their muscle cars and do not want to sacrifice anything, gas her up and put the pedal to the metal.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

March 30, 2006--The House That Steroids Built

The baseball season begins this weekend and still the subject on most people's minds is not Pedro's toe or Soriano's play in left field or Randy Johnson's Love Child. It is all very much about Barry Bonds, steroids, and his now discredited assault on Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's home run records. Even the Sports Illustrated article and the book from which it was excerpted, The World of Shadows, were both timed to coincide with the opening of the season (see NY Times book review below).As a lifelong baseball fan I can't resist weighing in. Not to condemn Bonds and McGwire and Sosa and Sheffield and Giambi but rather to point out just a few of the many hypocrisies that this sorry episode exposes. Allow me to innumerate a few.

Since so much of this is about home run records—not just the Babe’s and Aaron’s lifetime numbers but McGwire’s and then Bond’s one-season records--many fans and sportswriters are up in arms because they see using steroids to build bulk and bat speed as a from of cheating.

But cheating in baseball takes many forms and has gone on forever. For example, what would you call the Yankee organization’s building a baseball field specifically designed to accommodate Babe Ruth’s batting style? Yankee Stadium is called The House that Ruth Built because it was configured to have a very short right field fence to make it easier for the Babe, who batted left-handed, to hit home runs into the fabled Short Porch.

And what about teams that “doctor” their infields to have bunted balls roll foul if they are playing opponents stocked with good bunters or, if the home team has excellent bunters, tip the infield foul lines in so as to keep balls in play?

If you have fast runners on your team who can beat out balls hit to infielders, well let the grass grow a little longer or water it excessively to slow the balls down to give your guys a better chance to beat out hits.

And of course once Major League Baseball figured out that younger fans who did not know or appreciate the subtleties of well pitched games that might be 2 to 1 in the seventh inning, boring, that these fans preferred high-scoring games, to pander to their tastes MLB “livened up” the baseball to make them jump off the bat faster. And teams were allowed to purchase bats that were made of especially hard wood, extra kiln-dried, also to make balls leap off the bat and deeper into the stands—“Tape-Measure Jobs.”

What do you call allowing baseball gloves to morph in size from the tiny ones the old-time players used to the virtual baskets modern-day center fielders and first baseman have that allow them to catch almost anything hit or thrown in their vicinity?

Since teams are in truth businesses with annual payrolls reaching beyond $200 million per year they have to fill stadium seats that cost $50 to $100 each, sell hot dogs that cost $4.50 each, and attract fans to watch on them TV.

Since Baseball is among other things competing for audiences with the World Wrestling Federation which consistently garners the highest ratings on Cable TV, they have been turning a blind eye to the Barry Bondses who are so bulked up with the same steroids that Hulk Hogan uses that they are indistinguishable from each other in appearance and equally phony.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

March 29, 2006--If The Shoe Fits

If you have been thinking about Imelda Marcos and wondering what she is up to, allow the NY Times and me to bring you up to date. (See Times story below.)

First of all, she is alive and as well as can be expected for someone who became an orphan early in life and lost her beloved husband, Ferdinand, more than 25 years ago and who left her with only $5 to $10 billion, including 7,500 tons of gold (yes tons) and 1,200 pairs of shoes. So how good can she really be?

A note about the shoes--though she amassed a huge collection while First Lady, she retained just 200 when she escaped to Hawaii. So when she opened her Shoe Museum in Manila a few years ago she was able to put only those few on display. When she cut the ribbon, Mrs. Marcos told reporters that "this museum is making a subject of notoriety into an object of beauty." Others of her shoes, if you are interested, are currently for sale on eBay, size 8 1/2.

But Imelda these days is about more than just shoes--at age 77 she is into The Seven Pillars of Moral Regeneration. For those of you taking notes, they are: ecological order, human order, economic order, social order, cosmic order, and peace, and order itself. She has this so worked out that she goes about making PowerPoint presentations about the Pillars, including sharing the wisdom she has gleaned from her life and years—“Beauty is God made real”; “Common sense is common to all”; and closer to home, “The only things we keep are those we give away.”

On the subject of things, Mrs. Marcos has also moved on—all her jewelry these days is made from recycled plastic. “I’m more bejeweled than before,” she is quoted as saying, “Bejeweled with garbage.” And to demonstrate that she is no longer interested in rubies and emeralds, just this garbage, she has servants bring in trays and trays of her plastic jewelry, “I have jewelry for every dress and for every shoe and for everything.”

I suspect you think I am being ironic, actually mocking this extraordinary woman who has been through so much. Well, you would be wrong—I have inordinate respect for anyone who had so much who is now happy with so little. She has clearly been on a spiritual quest and has found a higher meaning.

I am even thinking that she will soon establish a plastic jewelry museum next to her shoe museum. The Sic Transit Gloria Mundi Museum and Gift Shop.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

March 28, 2006--How Will You Keep Them Down On The Farm Now that They'e Seen North Carolina?

While Hillary Clinton is claiming that the new immigration bill working its way through Congress is so severe that if would turn Jesus and the Good Samaratin into felons, something very different is worrying business leaders--if that law is passed it will require many businesses to fire their illegal workers, and as a result there will be no one available to hire.

Senator Clinton is engaging in just one kind of political posturing. Republicans in the House of Representatives are riding the wave of nativist anger that has historically reared its ugly head in America whenever “native” citizens (really the children or grandchildren of previous waves of immigrants) are feeling economically pinched—“Let’s get rid of all them foreigners who are taking away the jobs of Real Americans.” The House’s version of the immigration bill is strong on prevention and especially punishment, making it a felony to hire an illegal.

In the Senate, even conservative Republicans who one might expect to be into the criminalization business are being pulled between two constituencies—the hard right that wants to seal our borders and send home all 11 million illegal immigrants, and big business which recognizes that without these illegals many industries would be hard pressed to find workers willing to do the work presumably Real Americans don’t want to do—wash dishes in restaurants; mow lawns in Beverly Hills; and, most significant to the national economy, work on America’s farms.

According to the NY Times fully 70 percent of the 1.2 million hired farm workers are illegal immigrants (see article linked below). The Times quotes Kendall Hill who grows tobacco on 4,000 acres in North Carolina, “If not for Mexican workers, this country would be in chaos.”

So the Senate version of the bill includes provisions for a large “guest worker” program through which immigrants could sign up with the Feds and thereby become eligible to be hired legally. The only problem with this is that we for more than a decade have had a guest worker program and it isn’t, well, working. The government is so inefficient that only 25,000 workers were certified in 2004, the last year when figures were available.

So we have a problem here. Do we want to put America’s farms out of business, one of the few remaining industries where there is a positive balance of trade since many of our agricultural products are in demand worldwide? Or do we want to build a 2,000 mile-long fence along the US-Mexico border as many are clamoring for?

On this latter point, maybe there are some hidden opportunities—we can have our Israeli allies help us with this after they get finished building their fence to keep Palestinians out of Israel; and if we are worried about what Halliburton could do after we pull out of Iraq, these kinds of massive infrastructural projects are just the kind of thing needed to keep them busy.

Monday, March 27, 2006

March 27, 2006--Off With Their Heads!

Ordinarily I would hold off until Friday to blog about this—as a Friday Fanaticism. But this one can’t wait.

As a secular liberal I am trying very hard to get comfortable with the idea that there is great diversity within Islam—that not every Muslim is an Islamist radical. That though the Mullahs have control of the government of Iran and run most of the Madrasses in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, over the long course of Islam there have been moderate and tolerant voices, traditions, and practices. I spend a lot of time in Spain, and although I know the period during which much of Spain was under Islamic domination was not exactly a Jeffersonian democracy, Christians and even Jews were tolerated and played open and significant roles in the government, places of study, and the economy.

But the situation in Afghanistan right now, where there is the likelihood that the courts will sentence to beheading Abdul Rahman because he 15 years ago converted from Islam to Christianity, is nudging me toward my own shrinking limits of tolerance (see NY Times story below).

Like you I know that this is now a hot political issue in the US, with President Bush being pushed by the Hard Christian Right to intervene. After all didn’t we invade and occupy Afghanistan in retaliation for their harboring and supporting Bin Laden as well as to bring democracy to that part of the world? Didn’t we help them write a constitution that attempts to straddle our notion of democracy and their version of conservative Islam? And perhaps, just maybe, didn’t some of us see this as an opportunity to do a little proselytizing on the side?

I know that the Shariah laws about apostasy were shaped as early as the eight century and when that occurred it was viewed as equivalent to treason—after all Islam at the time was fighting for its very existence and for someone to abandon the religion was literally going over to the enemy.

But that was then and this is now. Some contemporary Muslim jurists who read Islamic history this way also point out that the Prophet never called for the execution of apostates and taught that there should be no compulsion in religion.

Islam is in no way today so equally imperiled, in spite of how many in the Islamic world view our preemptive wars, and so shouldn’t it be possible for Afghanistan to have a constitution that might serve as a model for the moderate diversity within Islam? We’ll see.

I have a further question—putting aside this history, why should conversion from Islam (or any other religion) be such a burning issue? If yours is The True Religion and your coreligionists are the only ones who will go to your version of heaven, isn’t the very fact of leaving your religion and thereby losing the eternal rewards it offers punishment enough? Why not just let apostates live on and suffer throughout the remaining years of their natural lives and after that be condemned for all of eternity to the punishment they so deserve?

Yet once again, I don’t get it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

March 25, 2006--Saturday Story Concluded: "Number One Son"

Number One Son

It was not a politically correct era. Amos and Andy reigned on the radio. No one raised questioned about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. And even fewer thought much about who played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the movies or how his sons were represented. All I knew about this was that Charlie Chan had two sons, and one was decidedly “Number One Son.”

I knew and understood this because, to my father, I was then and always Number One Son. This was both my delight, to be considered Number One by him; and my burden, to have my relationship with my younger brother (inevitably Number Two Son) then and always defined this way. By nothing more than birth order. Or so it seemed.

By the time he arrived, my parents went to the hospital “to pick him up,” I was nearly six and had gotten used to being an only son, assuming this was a permanent condition. And since all my male cousins were only sons, I also thought this might even be the human condition. Or at least in my family.

So I was quite surprised by his appearance, and also by my mother’s seemingly miraculous loss of weight—she went to the hospital looking swollen and distorted and returned more as I had remembered her. Hospitals, I thought, must be remarkable places. Even more so than the fire house on Snyder Avenue.

At first I didn’t think of him as a brother. He seemed more like a squirmy toy or pet who spent all of his time sleeping and sucking on various things. Including I thought, since I caught a couple of furtive glimpses of this, something on my mother’s chest.

My father didn’t appear to pay any attention whatsoever to him. This suited me because by absenting himself from any seeming interest much less shared responsibility, he found more time for me. Especially on weekends when, because my mother appeared to want to draw him into some version of parental participation, he used being involved with me as both important to my wellbeing, since someone needed to pay attention to me now that I had to share my parents and even my room, and for him as a form of escape.

And escape we both eagerly did, roller skating together down all the length of Kings Highway to his mother’s house. Annie’s. Where the talk was thankfully not about eating, she served only coffee and cigarettes, but about her other son, Uncle Ben’s friend Mary Brady, who though she had neither boyfriend nor husband, and this was emphatically underlined by Annie’s ribald laugh, she at least had a full moustache.

My father was the most graceful of skaters and I was thrilled to be with him and to be seen with him as he glided from side to side, swinging his arms in a seamless rhythm, while I awkwardly attempted to keep up, stumbling hopelessly on every crack in the asphalt. Best was his accepting my ineptitude and effort to do as well as I could as it made him proud of my aspiring though still sputtering athleticism.

When he sensed my frustration, after yet another stumble, he would turn to me and say, “It’s all about the trying. Not everyone can succeed, but everyone can try.”

This is where we began—linked in common physical effort that was leavened by his sensitivity and helpful understanding. Things, however, would change and before too long take a very different turn.

* * *

Back at home, life quickly got more complicated. In spite of my mother’s tireless and devoted ministerings, my brother developed a case of colic which meant that he had to be moved out of my room into their bedroom so that he wouldn’t disturb my sleep and they could attend to him through the night. I had had a room of my own for six years and was not happy about his moving in on me, but now that I was alone again I felt ignored and in truth abandoned. I could hear his unhappiness seeping through the common wall that separated us, which upset me, but even more upsetting were the sounds of their concern and attention. Both my mother’s and my father’s. I felt as if I was slipping away into insignificance.

Colic was followed by chronic cases of the croup, ear infections, tonsillitis (which soon required surgery), Pleurisy, Scarlet Fever (which led to our apartment being quarantined), and various poxes. And on top of that he seemed to stop growing, and suddenly one day the arches of his feet collapsed.

This took him and them out of the care of Dr. Holsager, the faithful family doctor, and into the world of specialists and hospitals, some in far away Manhattan. I found myself more and more in the care of Aunt Tanna, who though she appeared to love me more than her own son, Cousin Chuck, was no substitute for what I felt had been snatched away from me—all because a stupid case of fallen arches.

I had those too and all that was provided for me were a few visits to the chiropodist, “Doctor” Bloom (“Doctor” in quotes because he never even graduated from college). All he was previously ever known to do, or was apparently capable of, was cut my mother’s and aunts’ toe nails and shave off some corns. But in me he had a real case to contemplate, which he enthusiastically and literally stooped to do. Crouching at my feet to examine my arches in many different kinds of light, including with a flashlight, rotating them to see them in all dimensions, in full relief. And then, after making Plaster of Paris molds of them, he fabricated a gleaming pair of stainless steel arches which he told me I had to wear until I was at least fifteen, which condemned me to a childhood-long sentence of “old-man” Oxford lace-up shoes.

With the prosthetics shined up and fitted, he smacked me on the back of my head and turned me back out onto the streets. For me there were no trips across the East River, no searches for orthopedists and endocrinologists—just some time in the chair in Dr. Bloom’s murky basement office, which reminded me more of Dr. Frankenstein’s dank laboratory than Dr. Holsager’s.

* * *

Those languid marathon days of roller skating were over. My father got pulled into my brother’s and mother’s world of doctors and medicines, as their driver or minimally to pick up an endless stream of prescriptions. I could barely get his attention.

That is until Mr. Ludwig, the coach of the P.S. 244 basketball team recruited me for the squad. Not because of any demonstrable shooting or rebounding skills but because, over the summer between fourth and fifth grades, I had shot up at least half a foot and was beginning to tower over not only every other kid in the school but all the teachers as well, Mr. Ludwig included, who had been a giant during his era at five-eleven.

This interest in my size was a mixed blessing since it also underlined the fact that my brother was still languishing at the height of a four year-old. But I decided, in spite of this, that I would continue to grow and to join the team.

Mr. Ludwig’s eyes lit up when he saw me slumping in the schoolyard, knowing from years of coaching that that telltale slump signaled the sure signs of premature tallness with its concomitant stigma of round-shouldered chestlessness. Just what he was seeking, the tallness, to fulfill his dream of winning the Borough of Brooklyn if not the City of New York Public School Championship. Something that had eluded him for decades. In fact, the situation was worse than that--the Rugby Rockets were famous for finishing last in their league ten years in a row. In me he saw the possibility of at least a winning season. Which would mean he could finally retire, as that was the goal he had set for himself—to go out in his version of on top.

If I had only known the stakes for which I would wind up playing. I naively thought it was just about jump and foul shots. I didn’t at the time realize it was really about fulfilling dreams—his and, I would learn, my father’s.

Mr. Ludwig, to mention Dr. Frankenstein again, needed to create his basketball monster out of my pathetic body parts—the chest has already been mentioned but not the lungs that it contained. These were one key to success on the hard-court—running relentless up and down and side to side required lung power and this in my case was in very short supply. So I was propelled into long afternoons of wind sprints until I either collapsed and puked (both happened so frequently that the custodian had to be stationed nearby to mop up after me) or began to build that essential capacity.

And at the same time I needed to learn to coordinate catching a pass without allowing the ball to slam into that chest, dribbling once or twice while sighting the basket rim, and launching the ball on a trajectory so true that at least one out of three times it would go through rather than ricochet woefully off the backboard. Three disparate moves that needed to be linked in quick and seamless succession, none of which was native to me.

But learn them I did to help Mr. Ludwig effect his escape to a Condo dream in Florida and to reengage my father’s attention since I learned very quickly that when I came home with scrapes, bruises, and occasional broken fingers and nose that he was not the least bit concerned about in the injuries but was rather obsessed, that’s the word, with my emerging prowess on the court.

He began to come to an occasional practice, unfathomably interested in the wind sprints and relentless foul shooting—one could not get released from the daily ordeal until sinking seven free throws in a row, which often took me a good forty extra minutes.

Not since the long-ago Saturday roller skating had my father passed along any of his acquired wisdom about “trying” or anything else since he was so involved with my brother’s feet and lack of growth. But in the P.S. 244 gym, though my brother still needed attention since he was still the shortest by far of anyone in his first grade class, with his full focus now on me, my father moved on to talk about what I learned were his actual principal subjects—“intestinal fortitude” and “improvement in the breed.”

I assumed he had learned about the former while trolling all those Manhattan hospitals seeking growth hormones for my brother; and the latter from his devotion to horse racing. I understood that the fortitude was related to the trying, and I knew the value of that as I panted my way up and down the gym floor. But the improvement in the breed imperative proved to be considerably more problematic. By it he meant that he saw himself as the sire of the family’s next generation. Indeed as my sire. And by defining himself that way, he was expanding the normal notions of fatherhood and what it meant to be a child. Really, a son. It was his expectation that in all aspects of life I was to exceed him, to be an improvement. As in horse breeding how sires were put to stud with carefully selected dams so that their foals when grown would outperform them—run faster, and as the ultimate measure win more races.

So what was going on on the basketball court was an objective measure of how effective a sire he had been, of his particular form of eugenics. Would I be taller? The answer to that was already “Yes.” Would I be a better athlete? That was still to be determined, but it was quite clear to me that these issues were cosmic.

It is only on reflection that I now know that not only was he tormented by the daily evidence of my brother’s tortured body, but that he was also struggling, indeed failing in business. Repeatedly. My mother needed to go back to work, which at that time was a public acknowledgement and humiliation that he was less than an adequate man. So when after our first game of the season, after I had gathered in the key rebound by basically just standing flat-footed and graceless under the basket while merely extending my arms and hands at least six inches higher than anyone else could reach even when jumping, in the victorious locker room (yes he accompanied me into that sanctum), while I sat there lathered with sweat and wearing only a jock strop that in truth I didn’t require, it was then that he sat down beside me and for the first time and only time in my life put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “You are my number one son.

That more than made up for how embarrassed I felt by my father’s presence there, most of the other team members’ fathers hadn’t even come to the game, but with those words I belonged to him body and psyche.

And both of them he worked on.

* * *

As the years passed and my body gelled if not hardened and I became more adept at basketball, my height still my best asset, my father trailed along after me to practices and attended all games, sitting high up in the bleachers of school gyms, looking down on me while I labored as if he was the eye in the sky. It felt as if I was being simultaneously supported and scrutinized.

These conflicting pressures etched their way into my psyche, at the time what little there was of it. I basked in number-one-son-ness and how that set me clearly above and apart. But there was also a distinct price to bear--his support began to turn into a form of relentless expectation which in turn was transformed into ceaseless dissatisfaction and criticism. I was caught, therefore, in an emotional shredder—sheared between needing the intoxication of his regard while paying for it, as any addict must, by having to absorb and manage his disappointment and disfavor.

And all the while, my brother, Number Two, in seeming compensation for his physical underdevelopment, was acquiring a keen sensitivity to the vagaries of human nature and the hidden forces that shape all interactions. I later realized that though he appeared and passive and apathetic, I thought perhaps contemplating the consequences of his own misshapen destiny, he was in fact using these new capacities to observe the contradictions within what was transpiring between my father and me, and especially to me. And he was plotting his revenge.

On many days when I was feeling especially confused and afflicted by my father’s barrage of mixed messages I noticed that my little brother was also trying out and perfecting a wry form of aggressiveness, which he directed toward me as surgically as my father applied the ambiguity of his expectations. I felt this the most from my brother on those days when my father’s criticism was harshest.

But because I still craved and clung to my place in the family hierarchy I simple plunged ahead heedless of the consequences, driven to excess by my father and still very much by Mr. Ludwig, who I spied one day looking at Florida real estate brochures as the Rugby Rocket’s record tipped to five wins with but four losses. A winning record.

One of those excesses took an unexpected turn. My frenzy to succeed and please got transmuted into sexual energy. I found that after each workout, especially after each game, I experienced a charge of desire so keen that I could not rest or sleep unless it was satisfied. Which it was, at first by accident, when I discovering that as I rolled around agitatedly in my bed, clutching my pillow, I would set off spasms of relief, at first dry but later accompanied by spurts of jissum, which were swiftly followed by dreamless sleep. After this blessed discovery I sought this solace every night, turning that accident now intentionally into a ritual that thankfully brought about rest. I practiced this magical art as assiduously as I continued to work on my foul shooting, setting my own private nocturnal goals just as Mr. Ludwig did on afternoons in the gym. Goals I prefer here not to describe.

I didn’t know what my brother might have been making of this, he had returned to his own bed in our room after recovering from the colic and the subsequent plague of bed-wetting and nightmares that continued until he was nearly five. I attempted to hold off until he was fully asleep and to stifle my movements and ultimate groans so as to keep my obsession secret. I took great pains to do this because I was well aware of how sharp an observer he had become and was concerned about what he would do with knowledge of my depravity. Which was how I viewed it.

As with other forms of addiction, my masturbatory need required more and more stimulation to satisfy it. And so on those occasions when my parents went to the movies, leaving me responsible for the two of us, I would attempt to induce my brother to go to bed as early as possible so I could sneak out to Bob’s Candy Store and once there slip in among the pocket books that Bob sold from rotating racks hidden in a dark back corner beside the stacked boxes of empty soda bottles.

The first few times I did this I rummaged surreptitiously through the books, taking a quick look at those that featured covers with pictures of girls in torn blouses. But then my cravings could not be satisfied by these mere glances; I needed to fondle the books, thumbing through the pages and stopping to read for a delicious moment wherever the words “throbbing loins” jumped alluringly off the page. And later still, not sufficiently satisfied by even this, I would, yes, steal one of the books that seemed most enticing, slipping it quickly inside my jacket while Bob dipped his head below the counter when hand-packing a pint of ice cream.

I began to accumulate a small collection of these books, and from it each night I would select one to take under the covers with me, reading through it by flashlight in order to find passages that could arouse.

The Amboy Dukes, set on the streets of Brooklyn, just walking distance away from where we lived, worked particularly well and was the first of my stolen books to have its cover in tatters. I still remember its opening lines:

The boys stood around on Saturday nights, ready for action. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, they stood on the corners and discussed the deadly gossip of rackets: whores, guys who were cut up, and the dough you could make from one sweet job.

Under that blanket, flashlit, I knew what they meant by action, and the very word whore overwhelmed my senses. Then on page 108, who could forget 108, when that action was in the embrace of that whore . . . . After a while it was difficult to unstick those pages.

And so I slept.

* * *

And practiced and played and studied because I had also discovered that I was by nature considerably better at school work than sports; and since my father seemed almost equally interested in my grades as in my points-per-game average, another form of genetic improvement, I took pride in his waving my report card in the faces of his brothers-in-law, whose sons had never been able to so successfully combine and perfect the arts of body and mind.

“So what do you think about my son?” he would propose rhetorically, since no answers or acknowledgements would ever be forthcoming when the entire family was gathered for a Passover Seder, “My Number One Son.” He would tousle my crew-cut hair so violently that it would make an audible sound as if to call everyone to attention and to make sure at least some eyes were turned his way. I especially noticed my brother’s from under their serpentine lids.

With my mother working and my father moving from business to business and then to a job working for his younger brother—the ultimate humiliation—and then spending all his free time with me in the gym, schoolyard, or at a game, my brother began to slip off the family map. Largely I felt by intention. He would sleep well into the afternoon on weekends and when he was awake he would do whatever it is he did, alone the rest of the day in our room with the door decidedly shut tight. At the dinner table he would sit passively and eat with his head bowed, never saying a word, never asking or reaching for a second helping.

During one of those dinners, my mother, realizing how central a figure Mr. Ludwig had become in our lives—responsible for my transformation (I had begun to develop pectorals which I flexed so compulsively that Heshy, who knew of these matters, began to call me Blaze after the stripper Blaze Starr); and for my father’s having something in his life that compensated at least somewhat for all his personal failures. Thus she offhandedly suggested that maybe it would be nice one evening to invite him over for supper.

My father exploded in instant rage, slamming his knife and fork on the table and sweeping his glass of water onto the floor where it shattered. He leapt to his feet and screamed at my mother, and then at me, “I don’t want that bastard in my house. Ever. I know you think he is Mr. Wonderful. For what reason I’ll never know. I can only imagine. All you ever do is talk about how perfect he is—his war record, which I have my doubts about, and how smart he is, and how handsome.” He snarled at the word “handsome,” glaring at her.

“And you,” wheeling toward me, pointing and threatening, “you too think he’s so special,” he was using his sing-song voice, lisping his s’s while mocking my fondness for Mr. Ludwig, “What’s so special? His fancy books and the way he struts around like a peacock? What’s so special? How he taught you to play basketball? Why, you can’t even jump and shoot at the same time. The only reason you’re on the team is because you’re so overgrown.”

And to drive the stake in deeper, while storming out of the apartment, he spat back at me over his shoulder before slamming the door, “Some number one son.”

He returned two hours later with his arms filled with bags from various neighborhood stores and markets. As if nothing had happened. For my mother, who refused to acknowledge him, he had bought a bunch of red bananas, her favorite which were very rarely available; for my brother there was a pint of Breyer’s maple-walnut ice cream from Bob’s, his favorite, for which he grunted, “Thanks”; and for me there were two things—a new softball and a Brooklyn Dodger jacket, both from Davega’s Sports, which he knew I craved.

To me he turned, smiling, and said, “And these are for my number one son.”

These two sides of him, so juxtaposed in the course of only two hours, were at the time totally incomprehensible to me, but the jacket was the perfect size.

* * *

To this day I believe that evening was the catalyst for my brother’s incredible metamorphosis. In spite of all the medicines and diets and specialists, he lagged so far beyond his peers that he was beginning to be called by an assortment of cruel street names—Tiny and Half-Pint and Pipsqueak were the best of them. There was also Midget and Rodent and Toad. It did not help that he also had protruding ears and when Toad was coupled with Dumbo, after the cartoon elephant, it was understandable that he often had to be dragged to school. Not that I really noticed.

But I did notice what happened to him when he returned, after being forced to go, from a summer camp for kids with “problems.” There were no camps dedicated to midgets and he wasn’t retarded so they sent him to the only place at the time that specialized in kids with problems, Kinder Lake Camp for Special Children, where Special really meant Fat. And although he was thin as a rail they sent him there anyway thinking it might do him at least some sort of good. And it did--he returned unrecognizable.

He had shot up at least ten inches, which was miraculous. But the real miracle was that he also had developed muscles. Everywhere. And it quickly became evident that he had in addition somehow become a natural athlete—at least as graceful as my father—so that improvement in the family breed was breaking out all over.

This immediately made my life more complicated. As a consequence, since I could think of nothing else to do, I began to beat him up regularly, realizing that though I was five years older than he and still taller and perhaps stronger, my primogeniture would not last much longer if he continued to grow and bulge so I had better get my licks in while I could.

One of my schoolyard friends who had made a careful study of how the Amboy Dukes perpetrated violence (I of course continued to pour over the book for my own purposes) had taught me how to administer a beating in such a way that it would not show bruises and as a result you could deny that it had ever happened. It was called a Noogie. It was simple, all you needed to do was punch someone on the top of his head and his hair, being there, would cover up whatever traces you might otherwise have left if you pounded on unprotected skin.

And so I took this good lesson to heart and applied it to my brother, punching him in the head with my bare knuckles just as he was about to fall asleep in the bed across from mine. Though I pummeled him this way every night as relentlessly and ritualistically as the other ritual I was celebrating later under my own blanket, he never once whimpered much less cried. Perhaps he had learned that as well at Kinder Lake.

His lack of response, his stoicism in the face of my nightly assault, and, most significant and unusual, the remarkable restraint and discipline he showed by not reporting what I was doing to him to my parents, all of this in combination perversely only spurred me own to other forms of attack.

The friend who was a student of the Dukes also taught me about Indian Burns, how if you gabbed someone’s wrist in your two hands, gripped firmly and then twisted your hands in opposite directions, rapidly back and froth, you would inflict pain so severe on your victim that it felt as if his skin was on fire—hence the name of this form of torture.

I immediately put this new technique to use, administering Indian Burns to each of his wrists as an accompaniment to the nightly Noogies. But with the same result—nothing. At least nothing that I could fathom. Would that I had.

* * *

He had his revenge and it wasn’t sweet. I was hoisted by my own petard—by my faithful Amboy Dukes. The book.

Since she had returned to work it was unusual for my mother to be home before I came home from school, unless she was sick, which was rare. So when I got to the top of the steps and found her sitting, obviously waiting for me, at the breakfast room table I knew someone had died. Probably Aunt Bertha who had had a crippling stoke a year ago. I was already wondering when the funeral would be and if I would need to wear a suit.

She patted the chair to her right—my fathers! Indicating I should sit down even before tasking off my coat. I had never sat in it. Had he died? As Number One Son would this now be my chair?

Then I noticed, resting in the center of his placemat where his dinner would normally be set, instead of his plate, there was my copy of The Amboy Dukes. I recognized it even though it was by then missing all of its cover.

She sat there just looking at me. Angry but also from the look on her fallen face, sad and profoundly disappointed.

I began to stammer, “Should I take my coat off?”

“You should,” she said in a voice I had never heard before, “And then you should go to your room—your brother will be sleeping with us now—and stay in your room until supper. And then after you eat you will go back there and do your homework and then go to sleep. You can only come out to go to the bathroom.”

Then in an even more somber voice, she said, pronouncing each word as if she were sounding them out syllable-by-syllable, “I have your flashlight and your other books. You will not been needing it or any of them any more.”

I was shivering, though still in my coat, in that perpetually overheated apartment.

“And,” she continued, “You will do this every day for the next ten days. On weekends you will come out only for breakfast and lunch and dinner. You will not play with the Rockets during this time though I know there are important games on the schedule and they are contending for the Borough Championship. And you will not go to practice. I already talked with Mr. Ludwig and he understands.”

Mr. Ludwig? What had she said? What did he “understand”? I tried to ask, croaking out a feeble, “Mr. Ludwig? What . . . ?

“Never mind that.” Which was impossible—all I could do was mind that. “And after the ten days are up you can resume your normal routine, including basketball.”

“And dad?” I stuttered.

“Never mind that either. I called him at his job and he agrees with your punishment.”

“And what did you tell . . . ?”

“Enough. Just go to your room now.” And with that she got up and went to her room, slamming the door with a sound that reverberated like the one my father made that catalytic evening.

* * *

So I did my time, humbled and exposed for what I truly was, unable for days to sleep without my books and flashlight. It was Cold Turkey, just like what the junkie experienced had to go through in The Amboy Dukes. And like him I came out the other side.

After the ten days of Purgatory, I crawled back into my life, first silently making amends with Mr. Ludwig, who I sensed not only knew why I had been punished but hinted that I what I had done wasn’t anything that depraved. After all he had been a GI in France during the Big One, World War II.

And then with my father, who, with a wink, suggested that my reading habits had actually improved—less time with Mr. Ludwig’s and his androgynous brother Ben’s books and more with the kind he and other real men preferred from Bob’s Candy Store. I might actually turn out to be his ideal son after all as he was clearly still thinking primarily about biological progress.

And when things calmed down further, it was also clear that my brother too was doing well. He thankfully stopped growing when he reached six-two, even though for a while it was looking as if he might become another kind of “freak,” a Pituitary Giant, and he focused his athleticism on swimming, where he quickly excelled. His years of self-exile and private and public suffering had indeed inspired him to build the inner resources needed to do well in school and form deep and enduring friendships.

We haven’t to this day discussed what happened and what he had done so subtly and successfully to me. But we both still bear the burden of where our father had placed us so enduringly in the family chain of being.

* * *

I should add that the Rockets in fact won the one game I missed when my mother had “benched me.” We lost the first one when I returned—I had slipped back in stamina from lack of practice and fouled out before the end of the first half. But we won the final two games, winding up with a nine and eight record. The team’s first winning season in a decade.

And Mr. Ludwig disappeared, abandoning his class, after that seventeenth and final game. No one knew where he had gone, though I had a pretty good idea having seen him fondling that brochure.

No one ever heard from him again. Including my mother.

Friday, March 24, 2006

March 24, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XXVII--Holy Hillary!

After the presidential election in 2004, disappointed Democrats concluded that George Bush was reelected because he did a better job of appealing to voters who were more concerned about “values” than the war in Iraq, terrorism, or the economy. In other words, he did a better job than Kerry of appealing to those on the Religious Right.

So what have we seen since then? Among other things, lots of Democrats adjusting their positions on abortion, gay marriage, and school choice. And we have also seen lots of pictures of Democrat presidential aspirants attending church on Sundays.

So it was not at all surprising to hear Hillary Clinton wondering out loud about what Jesus would think of our current immigration policy. (See NY Times article attached below.)

In commenting about a bill pending in Congress that many view as overly stringent, Senator Clinton said, “It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture because the bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.”

The blogisphere erupted in mockery as did all the pundits on Fox News. There she goes again, pandering to religious conservatives in an attempt to widen her appeal.

I was about join in but stopped myself because I realized that--Hillary is right. Senator Frist’s immigration bill will in fact land Jesus in jail after his Second Coming because he will for certain embrace and shelter those poor immigrants suffering under this mean-spirited law.

Good for you, Senator Clinton, I thought, toss it back in the face of those hypocritical Republicans who are the real panderers!

But just as I was getting swept up in my own new-found religious fervor, I again caught myself, thinking that even though her heart and mind are in the right place, Hillary Clinton and now I need to keep God out of our political discourse.

To be invoking Jesus in support of legislation is not so different than claiming that he is guiding us in war. Remember that our president, when asked if he follows his father, former President Bush’s advice, said, no, but he follows “a higher father.”

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006--Take Cover!

For someone who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s always worrying that the Russians were about to drop an Atomic Bomb on Times Square and who in school once a week took part in either a Shelter or Take-Cover Drill, you can imagine how disappointed I was to learn from the NY Times what had been stashed away in Fallout Shelters for those of us who would have been fortunate enough to have survived the blast, fire storm, and radiation. (See story linked below.)

First a little background for those of you too young to remember those days. It was agreed that anyone within say a five mile radius of a Hiroshima-size A Bomb blast would either be vaporized (literally) during the first few seconds or incinerated (the word in common use for this) in the subsequent fire storms. Those of us living beyond those concentric circles of devastation (and the Times as well as other papers would periodically publish maps of the city showing how these danger zones were demarked), would face the danger of radiation and the slow and agonizing death that would be our fate. That is, unless we could quickly enough get down into the Fallout Shelters that dotted our neighborhoods.

We practiced finding our way there wherever there was an Air Raid Drill, which would be announced by wailing sirens. We were told that once in those shelters there would be enough provisions such as canned food and water to keep us alive until it was safe to emerge and resume our lives. Perhaps in just two short months.

Descriptions of what that life would be like varied considerably. One prevalent view was that a full scale atomic attack on the US would “bomb us back to the Stone Age.” Not a pretty scenario, but at least we wouldn’t be vaporized.

So you will not be surprised to learn how eager I was to read the Times piece about this 50 year-old cache of shelter supplies because back then, though we were told these would be adequate, we were never shown any of them during the drills. And thus at the time I wondered about three things—where would we sleep and would we be warm; what kind of food would we have (I was a fussy eater); and how would we go to the bathroom since the apartment house basements that were serving as Fallout Shelters did not have bathrooms?

Now I know.

From the supplies sequestered under the Brooklyn Bridge (never mind it is less than a mile from the Brooklyn Navy Yard which was reputed to be a prime Soviet target and thus likely to have been incinerated) I understand that we would have had paper blankets to keep us warm, high-calorie crackers to eat (352,000 of them which would have lasted for quiet some time if we didn’t have second helpings); and five gallon tin cans in which to potty.

You can only imagine my disappointment. I am OK with the blankets; but not about the other arrangements. Five-gallon cans? How long would that work? And cookies? For dessert, fine; but what about some cans of Bumble Bee Tuna (it didn’t have to be the Solid Albacore version) or some Spaghetti Os?

But then I got it—at the very end of the Times story is a quote from Graham Allison, who was at the time an Assistant Secretary of Defense in which he confessed that Fallout Shelters would have been ineffective in the event of nuclear war; but “At least people would think they were doing something, even if it didn’t have any effect.”

Sort of like today, no?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

March 22, 2006--Maybe We Can Just Get Along

While Hindus and Muslims kill each other in Kashmir and while Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq still today seek revenge for an event that occurred in 670 AD, there is at least one remote place where these kinds of religious and sectarian differences do not seem to matter. In Varanasi, India.

Varanasi is considered to be Hinduism’s holist city, a city which embodies the spiritual soul of India, and whose beginnings over 2,500 years ago, are steeped in Hindu mythology. The Ganges, India's holiest river, flows past Varanasi in the course of its 2,600-mile journey--from its remote source in the Himalayas, across the fertile northern plains of India, to the Bay of Bengal.

For a Hindu to die in Varanasi, and to be cremated there on the banks of the Ganges, is to be absolved of karma, freed from the wheel of reincarnation and absorbed into the Infinite.

But to Muslims Varanasi too is a holy city and thus one would suspect an ideal place to foment and perpetrate violence. In fact, earlier this month, the NY Times reported (see below) that homemade bombs were set off there most likely by an Islamic militant group. But unlike other places this did not set off rounds of retaliation. Life continued as it has for centuries with Muslins and Hindus living side by side and sharing one of the city’s most sacred temples like the Bahadur Shahid shrine where Hindu and Muslim pilgrims come to pray and seek to have evil spirits banished. This is accomplished by holy men with the wave of a peacock feather duster.

Varanasi has long been a place that has attracted mystics, including the 15th-century poet Kabir who, though he ejected both Muslim and Hindu practice, was fought over by both when he died. They eventually made a deal to literally divide his remains between them, but when they unwrapped his shroud there was nothing there.

Maybe that’s the answer we have been seeking—after all the fighting, after all is said and done, there is nothing there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

March 21, 2006--Sic Transit Gloria Alan Greenspan

I’m not sure this is what Max Weber had in mind when he wrote about the Protestant Ethic. That an important way to check on the status of one’s chances for salvation is to work hard, seek success in this world, and through that success find evidence of what is in store for you in the next world. But when a preacher such as Joel Osteen signs a book deal that is likely to yield him at least $10 million up front, it makes one wonder if this then also means that he will for certain be Saved.

To me, that’s the real question—not that Pope John Paul II got only an $8.5 million advance, which was equaled just recently by Alan Greenspan; or that Bill Clinton received $10 million for his memoirs. That’s just inside-publishing talk important only over lunch at Michael’s in New York City.

But before proceeding I must ask about the metaphysical implications of the worldly success of Jewish Alan Greenspan’s $8.5 and adulterer Clinton’s $10.0. I leave that to your reflections. I just want to know more about this Osteen, including did he change his name from, say, “Ostein.”

As far as I know he didn’t, but he is obviously quite a success. He inherited the pastorship of his father’s Lakewood Church in Houston and built its flock to such a size that he had to buy the Compaq Center and renovate it for $70 million to accommodate the more than 30,000 who attend services every Sunday. (The Houston Rockets needed to find a new place to play basketball.) And his previous book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living Your Full Potential sold more than three million copies and earned him at least $10 million in royalties. So Free Press’ advance for the new book looks pretty much like a sure thing.

As the title of his first book suggests, Osteen is not only a self-help minister but also what some have called a “prosperity preacher.” A glimpse at his website in which he lists his beliefs includes--

WE BELIEVE…as children of God, we are overcomers (sic) and more than conquerors and God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life He has in store for us.

Everything is unabashedly about “abundance.” He lives in a $3.0 million house in former President Bush’s neighborhood and owns two his-and-hers Porsche sports cars.

One of his most often quoted sermons is on how as a child of God we should be receiving "preferential treatment" by everyone. In it he testifies about how he had been pulled over a couple of times for speeding but when the officer saw his last name was Osteen, no ticket was issued. He said the same can happen for every Christian who wakes up declaring they have God’s favor.

By following these beliefs and methods of worship, Osteen says he has been able to get the best parking spots in busy parking lots, first class seats on crowded airplanes, and priority seating at restaurants.

Even at Michael’s. And for all of eternity.

Monday, March 20, 2006

March 20, 2006--Dutch Treat

As in a number of other Western European countries, just last week the Dutch introduced a new citizenship test (see NY Times article linked below). In Germany for example, new questions were added recently about married life (“Do you believe a wife is a husband’s possession?”) as well as in England where there are a series of questions about proper imbibing behavior in pubs.

Many have suggested that questions of this kind are designed to discourage Islamic immigrants from seeking citizenship and to encourage them to either continue to stay on as “visiting workers” or, better yet, go back to where they came from. To Turkey.

The Dutch, who pride themselves on their liberality, openness, and resistance to all kinds of prejudice, be it religious, gender, or sexual-preference based (after all who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis?) have gone one step further than their EU colleagues—in addition to introducing a new test they have developed some modern methods to help aspiring citizens study for that exam—they give all applicants a DVD in a package of study materials that provides them with a glimpse of Dutch life as it really is. In other words, they tell it like it is to live in Holland, as if citizenship applicants haven’t somehow figured that out while living and working there for years.

In spite of this snide comment, one might think using DVDs as an instructional tool is not such a bad thing. It feels like a very up-to-date way to be helpful.

Less helpful, however, is some of what appears on the DVD. Telling it like it is includes scenes of nude sunbathers (a Dutch cultural pastime) and homosexuals French Kissing, sorry Dutch kissing. Presumably, some say, to let the many Islamic immigrants know that if they want to become Dutch citizens they had better get used to this sort of thing.

When I told some friends about this film one or two said, “But isn’t this a good idea, to let people know about Dutch values and mores, things they will have to live with as they also need to learn the Dutch language?” I thought about that for a minute but then wondered out loud if for citizenship aspirants who are from the United States or other European countries there are scenes of Islamic Dutch citizens in head scarves, at daily prayer, and shopping in Halal stores to inform these non-Islamic test-takers that Holland has already become a substantially Muslim country?

I checked, and discovered that there are no such scenes included in the two-hour long film, so film length was clearly not the reason.

And while researching what is in the video I also discovered that there is really no need to include scenes from Dutch Islamic life because applicants from the United States and the European Union nations are exempt from having to take the citizenship exam.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

March 18, 2006--Saturday Story: "Number One Son"

Number One Son

It was very much not a politically correct era. Amos and Andy reigned on the radio. No one raised questioned about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. And even fewer thought much about who played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the movies or how his sons were represented. All I knew about this was that Charlie Chan had two sons, and one was decidedly “Number One Son.”

I knew and understood this because, to my father, I was then and always Number One Son. This was both my delight, to be considered Number One by him; and my burden, to have my relationship with my younger brother (inevitably Number Two Son) then and always defined this way. By nothing more than birth order. Or so it seemed.

By the time he arrived, my parents went to the hospital “to pick him up,” I was nearly six and had gotten used to being an only son, assuming this was a permanent condition. And since all my male cousins were only sons, I also thought this might even be the human condition. At least in my family.

So I was quite surprised by his appearance, and also by my mother’s seemingly miraculous loss of weight—she went to the hospital looking swollen and distorted and returned more as I had remembered her. Hospitals, I thought, must be remarkable places. Even more so than the fire house on Snyder Avenue.

At first I didn’t think of him as a brother. He seemed more like a squirmy toy who spent all of his time sleeping and sucking on various things. Including I thought, since I caught a couple of furtive glimpses of this, my mother’s chest.

My father didn’t appear to pay any attention whatsoever to him. This suited me because by absenting himself from any seeming interest much less shared responsibility, he found more time for me. Especially on weekends when, because my mother appeared to want to draw him into some version of parental participation, he used being involved with me as both important to my wellbeing, now that I needed to share my parents and even my room, and as a form of escape.

And escape we both eagerly did, roller skating together down all the length of Kings Highway to his mother’s house. Annie’s. He was the most graceful of skaters and I was thrilled to be seen with him as he glided from side to side, swinging his arms in a seamless rhythm, while I awkwardly attempted to keep up, stumbling hopelessly on every crack in the asphalt. Best was his accepting my ineptitude and effort to do as well as I could and thus make him proud of my aspiring athleticism.

When he sensed my frustration, after yet another stumble, he would turn to me and say, “It’s all about the trying. Not everyone can succeed, but everyone can try.”

This is where we began—linked in common physical effort that was leavened by his sensitivity and helpful understanding. Things, however, would change and before too long take very different turns.


Friday, March 17, 2006

March 17, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XXVI: Y-Chromosome Redux

The crisis continues. In fact, it is intensifying—millions in Japan are taking to the streets out of concern for the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne (see liked article from the NY Times).

I’ve commented about this before—how because Crown Princess Masako has not delivered a male child, after her husband becomes Emperor, there is no available male with the right bloodlines ready to succeed him. And as a result, since the Japanese have given up the concubine system, which allowed Emperor’s male children who were born outside of wedlock to ascend that Throne, the Japanese have been struggling with what to do.

The Prime Minister proposed legislation that would have allowed females to become Emperors but had to withdraw it when nationalists in his own party rose to resist. These nationalists, who have been gaining strength in Japan, stand for much more than just Y-Gene Emperors. They are also fervent in their insistence that World War II history be revised. For example, that the Rape of Nanking was vastly exaggerated; that Japan invaded Korea and China to liberate them; and, of course, that Japan was tricked into the war by the United States.

But these nationalists’ strange sense of history stretches back in time to well before the Second World War—all the way back to at least 2,665 years ago when Jimmu, who was descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, became Japan’s first Emperor.

Also, these nationalists ignore their own imperial history, forgetting that at least eight previous Emperors were actually Empresses—women. Based on this, one would have assumed that, good traditionalists that they are, they would have been strong proponents of the Prime Minister’s legislation. But that was then and this is now.

One further complication—this one also about genetics. Forget the Y Chromosome for the moment. The main reason why there is this insistence on male succession is because of the requirement to “keep the male bloodline pure.” To assure that, the Empress has “to have a pure body.” Which to them means she has both to bear the Emperor’s children and that at least one of them must be a boy.

But what makes these rabid believers in male succession so sure that the Empress herself isn’t fooling around? Not every Eunuch is as dysfunctional as one would like to believe.

If I were to offer any advice to those in Japan who want to restore Japan to its imperial glory, it would be to suggest taking a page from what we Jews do—as a practical people we say that Jewishness is defined by being born of a Jewish mother. The father, maybe Jewish, maybe not (if you get my drift), is not the defining issue. Biologically, before recent advances in DNA testing, one could be sure of just one thing—a child’s mother.

So Japan has it all backwards. They need to rethink what they mean when they say that the Empress must have a “pure body.” In other words, as they revise their history by thinking Jewish.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

March 16, 2006--Jewish Genes

For many years I have been an amateur student of the nature of human nature. Anyone who lived through the last 50 years of the 20th century could easily be excused for being interested in this subject—especially when struggling to understand the human capacity to inflict what can only be called evil on other humans. There have been numerous holocausts, world-scale wars, and purges that have taken the lives of tens of millions. Other than helping to control the size of the world’s population, what evolutionary purpose has been thus served? It is almost enough to cause one to want to jettison both Darwin and Intelligent Design!

A recent article in the NY Times (linked below) on the gathering evidence that human evolution is ongoing might be helpful in this search for understanding, while also reopening the dangerous question about how many social and cultural traits noticed among different societies, races, and religions might be biologically determined.

Findings from the Human Genome Project are suggesting that regionally varying physiological capacities might be DNA based. East Asians, for example, show signs of recent evolution (“recent” here being during the last 6,600 years) that have enabled them to better digest rice; and Northern Europeans have apparently evolved in ways that make it easier for them to benefit from milk and milk derivatives.

None of this is either very surprising or controversial. Much more complicated are those studies that are finding evidence that character traits are also genetically transmitted. The Yanomamo, a warlike people from Brazil, may have evolved in ways that select for fiercer people: there are genetic data which suggest that men who have killed in battle have three times as many children as those who did not and that this has led to biological changes in the population.

Considerably more complicated are genome studies that see certain alleged characteristics of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews as genetically transmitted across the generations. These studies claim that because Jews were excluded from certain aspects of communal life they needed to make their livings in ways that required increased intelligence. Cognitively demanding professions such as money lending and tax farming were available only to Jews, and thus they needed to get smarter in order to survive. Hence when mutations occurred that made some Jews brighter than others, presumably they had more progeny (boys let us pray) who could carry on the family business while the others, including the gentiles, got left behind.

I suppose this explains the Rothschilds. However, it also takes us potentially back into Protocols of Zion territory. And to killing for that matter. But don’t just pick on the poor Yanomamo.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

March 15, 2005--When Too Much Is Not Enough

My favorite architect I am almost ashamed to admit is Morris Lapidus, the designer of the Fontainbleau and other fabulously excessive hotels in Miami Beach. When asked to explain his taste for the Neo-Baroque he famously asserted, "too much is not enough." This became the title for his autobiography and was put forth as a counter to the even more famous Le Corbusier mantra that “less is more.”

Obviously Corbu never worked in Greenwich, Connecticut. Morris, on the other hand, would have been quite welcome there.

For example, he might have been engaged to work with hedgefund manager Joseph M. Jacobs and his wife who are planning to build a 38,929 square foot palazzo-style home in the exclusive Conyers Farm section of Greenwich (see NY Times story below). This place, twice the size of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, has drawn the ire of neighbors who want to maintain the “rural nature” of the neighborhood. So you can imagine what they have been saying about the Jacobses’ plan to erect a 224 foot-long faux-Palladian façade. Not to mention the indoor pool (standard stuff), squash court, 3,600 square-foot gym, home movie theater, wine cellar, billiard room, beauty parlor, eleven bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, and four (count them) kitchens.

I understand the need for all the bedrooms. After all, as Mr. Jacobs said, I don’t want to come down in the morning “and there’s people (sic) people sleeping on sofas.” On the other hand, I didn’t quite get the need for the four kitchens until I realized, as one of the lawyers involved in the zoning dispute noted, “I doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs are going to want their five live-in staff to have coffee with them in the main breakfast room down on the main floor.”

I also don’t understand why the neighbors are so up in arms considering the fact that their rural community already includes any number of “homes” that exceed 30,000 square feet. Another hedgefund manager, Steven Cohen has a huge Georgian place that of course includes the ubiquitous beauty salon as well as an art gallery, theater, and an ice rink with its own Zamboni. And the Queens of Mean, Leona Helmsley has a 31,045 square-foot spread with 12 bedrooms and 15 baths. And of course Steven and Diana Steinman’s 36,287 footer surprisingly has only six bedrooms yet 15 bathrooms. I must confess that I do not get this bed-to-bathroom ratio. And in truth I’m not sure I want to.

I don’t quite know how to put this, but as a Jew let me try: Until now I thought that Greenwich was “restricted.” You know, no Jews allowed.

March 14, 2006--Tostitos At 2:00 AM

Yesterday I learned that taking vitamin B supplements will not reduce my risk of heart disease. About a week ago I read that a low fat diet also doesn’t work. And today from a report in the NY Times I discovered that though my Ambien may help me sleep through the night, while I’m sleeping, in the words of the article linked below, it may “unlock a primitive desire to eat.” A desire so strong that I won’t be able to wait until I wake up to satisfy it. Rather, the Ambien will turn me into a sleep walker and in that state launch me toward the kitchen where I will “claw my way through the refrigerator and like an animal will consume calories ranging into the thousands.”

I am not really comfortable making fun of people with eating disorders or who are grossly overweight, but occasionally there is a story that unlocks a primitive desire within me to misbehave and thus overcomes this restraint. This is one of those occasions. So I warn you--you might not want to read any further.

* * * *

An Ambien user in Salinas, California would awaken each morning to find candy bar wrappers and Popsicle sticks next to her bed and beside her refrigerator. She of course blamed her husband. Her son was so worried that he sat by her bed at night to see what might be going on. He was afraid that his mother (or father) would choke to death. He discovered that it was in fact his mother who was eating ravenously at night . . . while sleeping. Neither his mother nor her family, by the way, had noticed that she had recently gained 100 pounds!

A second woman recounted how her husband would find her in the kitchen in the middle of the night, initially thinking she was awake. “One day,” she said, “I got up—my husband describes this in great detail—I got a package of hamburger buns and I just tore it open like a grizzly bear and just stood there and ate the whole package.” All while asleep.

Another woman began taking Ambien after back surgery. She had two aides to assist her during the day since she was in a full body cast and was unable to get herself out of bed to go to the bathroom. But things did not go well with the aides—the patient found food missing and accused them of stealing from her refrigerator and pantry. They protested so vigorously that her son (another good son—is there an Oedipal pattern here?) came to stay with her. In spite of the fact that she was encased in the cast, she somehow managed to get out of bed and sleepwalk (or sleep-crawl) into the kitchen where her son found her, standing at the stove, fast asleep, frying bacon and eggs!!

The NY Times, always attempting to be helpful, published a list of safeguards when using Ambien—among them one that is counterintuitive: They recommend taking Ambien on an empty stomach. If you eat first the drug will take longer to work and “you might be more apt to roam around the house.”

Slap me--I suspect looking for dessert.

Monday, March 13, 2006

March 13, 2006--Vive Le Job

In 1968, it was Vive La Revolution. Today, it's Vive Le Job.

In May 1968 a general insurrection broke out across France. It quickly began to reach near-revolutionary proportions. Some philosophers and historians have argued that the rebellion was the single most important political event of the 20th century because it included more than just one demographic group. This time it involved students, intellectuals, workers, and many who were racial minorities. It was a popular uprising, superseding ethnic, cultural, age, and class boundaries.

It began as a series of student strikes that broke out at a number of universities and high schools in Paris, following confrontations with university administrators and the police.

Most of the protesters were motivated by their opposition to the Vietnam War, but many saw the events as an opportunity to shake up the "old society," challenging what they perceived to be inequalities in the economy and education system, structural sexism, and racial bias. Eventually upwards of 10 million were actively involved in France, and the protests spread across all of Europe.

Between then and now there has not been a single similar occupation of the Sorbonne. That is until last weekend.

As reported in the NY Times (link below), French riot police fired tear gas into the occupied buildings in the Latin Quarter and arrested 11 of the 200 student protesters.

What was behind this first revolutionary action of the 21st century? In a word, jobs.

In order to attempt to invigorate the stalled French economy the new government is attempting to pass legislation to make work rules more flexible. Currently, after a very brief period of employment (just a few months), workers are either guaranteed those specific jobs for life or lifetime health and unemployment benefits, which must be paid for by their former employer. As a consequence, some laid off workers find they can do better by never working again and entrepreneurs (and there are some in France in spite of George Bush saying the French do not have a word for “entrepreneur”) are reluctant to form new businesses or hire more people for fear of the long-term financial obligations.

The proposed legislation would authorize “first employment contracts” which would allow employers to hire people under the age of 26 (where unemployment is highest) for a two-year trial period during which time they could let them go without needing to pay them benefits for life.

While occupying the Sorbonne the protesters damaged the building and destroyed a number of “ancient books.” No surprise—who needs books if you can’t be fired.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

March 11, 2006--Saturday Story: "The Siegel Twins"

The Siegel Twins

Every time there was a Siegel family gathering, the Siegel Twins’ cousin Yetta would pull them aside to tell them that they needed to do something about their busts. Yetta was something of an authority on the subject, reportedly having fully developed breasts of her own by the time she was just twelve. And though she was by then thirty-five and the mother of three, they were still her best assets.

She would tell Rochelle and Rachael that unless they did something with them very soon they would likely wind up marrying bus drivers and living in adjoining basement apartments just down the street from their parents. They were that important to their future.

I should tell you that I unfortunately know none of this firsthand. All I am reporting here came from Donny Friedman, the star of our school basketball team. Though not much of a scholar, he had an unstoppable jump shot, and this latter attribute qualified him for many visit to the classroom coat closet with the Twins. They too were not known for their prowess with long division. So they were an early version of soul mates—they were well suited to communicate even among the camphor-suffused coats.

Though we were most eager to learn about those forays, as a gentleman in development he was reluctant to share any intimate details. He was, tough, equally sensitive and thus quite willing to talk sympathetically about there anatomical dilemma—they by no means wanted to live out the same fate as their mother, who was in fact married to a bus driver—they were desperate to do something about their breasts and it appeared that they had selected Donny to be of assistance, even though he was not showing any signs of interest or aptitude in science or the medical arts. This was somewhat unusual since at least half the Jewish sixth grade boys had already declared themselves pre-meds. Donny, though, did the best he could to be cooperative and helpful.

He had a sister, Marcy, and she was quite a prodigy in the bust department and told Donny that the best thing the twins could do, besides spending afternoons in the closet with him, would be to brush their hair at least a half dozen times a day, stroking each side of their heads exactly one hundred times, while chanting, “I must, I must, I must improve my bust.” This Marcy said would help pass the time as well as increase the needed blood flow to the affected areas.

Donny duly passed this along and reported back to us that Rochelle and Rachel had already gone through two brushes each, they were also famous for the kink in their hair, and they, and he, were feeling optimistic—something measurable seemed to be occurring.

Some weeks later, Donny told us that Marcy learned about a product called Bust Cream. She saw an add for it on the back cover of True Romance magazine, ordered some via the mail-in coupon, had tried some, not because she needed it but in the interest of experiment, and could give it her endorsement.

The Siegel twins, he said, also secured some and, in his first slip into indiscretion (we were hoping for many more), told us that he was helping to administer it each afternoon in the closet.

“So that was what I smelled,” said Herbie Fleishman, “And all along I thought it was Moth Balls.”

“You moron,” we chorused.

“But I never smelled Bust Cream before.”

“With a beak like yours you should be a specialist in smells. You should know the difference between Moth Ball and Bust Cream,” which brought quite a few guffaws from the rest of us, similarly endowed.

And as it turned out, Herbie, later “Dr. J. Herbert Franklin,” not only had that beak clipped, but also became a famous ear, nose, and throat man. As my mother said about him many years later, “The Biggest on Park Avenue.”

Donny had so befriended and served the Siegel Twins that they invited him to accompany them to their cousin Rosela’s Sweet Sixteen. It was to be at the Club Elegant on Ocean Parkway. A very fancy place which meant that Donny needed to get a suit a full six months before his impending Bar Mitzvah. (He also needed to learn some Hebrew; thus far three years of rote drill left him stranded just halfway through that backwards alphabet.) Fortunately he was the same size as Larry Diamond, who, because his family had money, already owned two suits. So Donny had his choice between blue serge and charcoal gray. He chose the former because the Twins told him it would go better with their dresses. And please don’t forget to but two wrist corsages. Cymbidium Orchids were much preferred, promising if he showed up with these that they would later in the evening at the party give him a full, up close update about the results of the brushing and creaming.

Donny promised to give us an update about that update if we would chip in to help with the orchids, which we enthusiastically did. And he then promised to deliver that report first thing Sunday morning. We thus made plans to meet him at Bob’s Candy Store so we could learn the results of our investment.

He was a little late but did show up, looking a little bleary eyed but still with the familiar athlete’s hop in his step. Maybe actually a little more hop than usual. We were thus optimistic that what he was about to tell us would be well worth the wait. We ordered four Egg Creams and retreated to a private booth in the back of the store, leaning toward Donny who had set himself up in the middle of the banquette on one side of the table so the three of us had to squeeze into the one on the other side. I could feel Melvin on my right and Herbie on my left trembling in anticipation—or was I the one, from my excitement, causing all the vibrations?

He tortured us by beginning with a description of the Club--who cared about the decorations—it was truly elegant and therefore, he snorted, well named. He had never seen such chandeliers except maybe in Larry Diamond’s mother’s dining room. And instead of electric bulbs, the whole place was lit by giant candles which where on top of what he described to be huge Menorahs, even though the place was owned by Italians. And they had a band playing that included four guys all in tuxes, including one who played the saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet.

Herbie was confused, “All at once?”

“No, not all at once, Herbie, you moron.”

“But what about the Twins?” I stammered.

“They were there too along with their cousin’s and Rosela’s friends.”

“And?” we all asked at once.

“Everyone was wearing gowns, like at a wedding. I’m glad I had a nice suit.”


“There was a long table where they had little meat balls and tiny stuffed cabbages and there were waiters walking around with silver trays on which there were Pigs In Blankets. You could eat whatever you wanted.”


“The band played all night and everyone was dancing.”


He leaned forward, “The girls’ dresses were all strapless.”

We were at last getting closer to what we had anteed up to hear, “And the Siegel twins, what about theirs?”

“I think they were pink. I’m a little color blind but I think that’s why they wanted those orchids.”

“And did they like the flowers enough to . . . you know? Let you see?”

Donny leaned further across the table so that our heads were inches apart. “Let me put it to you this way—they were the only girls there who didn’t have to constantly pull up the tops of their strapless dresses.” He winked. That was something else at which he excelled—winking. Though we all practiced that art none of us could yet do more than look as if we were squinting myopically when attempting to emulate Donny, or Clark Gable.


He moved even closer toward us and lowered his voice yet further. Here too he had advanced far beyond any of us—his voice had already changed and his whispering was thus already yet another form of art. “I really need to tell you about the twin’s cousin. Yetta.”

Again all at once, “Yetta? Who’s she?”

“Their older cousin. A woman. With three kids.” He seemed distracted by thoughts of her.

“So what’s the big deal with her? She sounds old.”

“She is but she still looks good. In fact, very good.” He returned to winking, “Even better than the Twins.” Yet another movie star wink.

“What are you talking about?” All this about this Yetta and not the Siegel Twins was making us annoyed, making us feel that we would not be getting our money’s worth.

“Well, it got to be about 11:00 and the Twins had not yet let me check up about their progress and I was beginning to feel frustrated since I knew their parents had hired the band until only 11:30 and the party would end at that time. But just as I was about to give up on the Twins, Yetta came over to me and asked if I’d like to go out onto the terrace that overlooked the Parkway for a smoke. Now you know I don’t smoke because of basketball, but no girl or woman who looked like Yetta every invited me for a cigarette on a nightclub terrace before so I went with her and let her light up one for each of us since I told her yes I’d like a smoke. It made me choke and cough but to cover up I told her that I had a cold. I don’t think she believed me.”

Donny had recaptured our interest. We were thinking maybe we would hear something good. “And?”

“She asked me what I thought about Rachael and Rochelle. I told her I liked them. She said, ‘That’s not what ‘m talking about. You know what I mean. They told me all about you and that coat closet and the brushing and the cream.’ I couldn’t believe what she was saying, thinking she was going to get me into trouble for what I was doing to them. Get me expelled from school or something. I tried to tell Yetta that it wasn’t my fault; that the Twins were the ones who came up with the idea to meet in the closet every afternoon.

“But Yetta stopped me before I could get any words out and said, ‘I know all about what they are up to and how they have been using you.’ I was stunned, though must admit I didn’t mind being used by them in that way.

“’And how do you think they are doing?’ Yetta asked. ‘What do you mean doing?’ I was so nervous that I wasn’t understanding her. ‘You know, with my idea about their busts?’ ‘Your idea?’ ‘Yes, I’m the one who told them they need to do something about them. So what do you think? You know more about them than I. Have they gotten any bigger?’ ‘Ugh, I’m not sure. To tell you the truth I was supposed to find out tonight.’

“Yetta laughed at that one, saying, ‘Forget about that. In fact, forget about them. They’ve moved on.’ ‘Moved on?’ I asked, becoming very confused.

“‘Yes, thanks to me and of course you, they told me they are now ready for Italians.’

“I was now totally puzzled, ‘Italians?’ ‘Yes, Italians, for boyfriends.’ I was speechless.

“Yetta then moved closer to me, took my hand, and guided it to her waist. I could feel her ample hip beneath the satin of her gown. She whispered close to my ear, ‘And it’s also time for you too to move on.’ She was leering at me. I could taste her perfume and inhaled the smoke she blew towards me. ‘They’re ready for Italians. And you, you Donny are ready for a woman.’”

Donny said no more. We couldn’t think of anything else to ask. After a moment, he slipped out of the booth and left Bob’s. Through the front window we saw him, head down, turn the corner onto East 56th Street.

We sat there, not saying anything. Each of us lost in our own thoughts.

I was wondering if I would ever be ready for a girl much less a woman.

Friday, March 10, 2006

March 10, 2006--Friday Fanaticisms XXV--Praying With Tony

Now we learn that George Bush and Tony Blair share the same Senior Advisor—God.

We’ve known this about President Bush for some time—when asked during an interview early in his first term if he sought advice from his earthly father, Bush Forty-One, he said, “I follow another Father.”

Blair, on the other hand, though he leads a country in which politicians typically do not talk publicly about their own religious beliefs, has long been suspected of being a Closet Catholic (in the UK this is not at all a good thing for the Prime Minister). Or, if he is under the influence of his wife Cherie as many suspect, it is speculated that he may be a Closet New Ager, listening to Cherie’s astrologer (a la Nancy Reagan) and fingering her crystals.

But in a recent interview with a reporter from Independent Television (ITV), Blair came out of that Closet—when asked about his decision to send troops to Iraq, he indicated that this judgment must be “made by other people . . . and if you believe in God, it’s made by God as well (see NY Times story linked below).

So now we know—both Bush’s and Blair’s foreign policies are being guided at least in part by God.

What else might be going on here beyond seeing this as an expression of their faith? And how might one characterize that faith? Considering the global consequences, spurring that Clash of Civilizations we have been hearing about for years, we need to have answers to these questions. But since neither Bush nor Blair are likely to provide them, allow me to speculate.

You’ve heard me opine here about how tens of millions of so-called premillenialists Christian Fundamentalists believe that we are close to experiencing the biblically prophesized Final Days. When Christ will make his second appearance (the Second Coming) and all life will end and there will be the Final Judgment. According to those who hold these beliefs there are certain preconditions that need to be in place before this can occur. From me and elsewhere you know that, among other things, one of the key preconditions requires all Jews to return to Israel.

Getting more specific, sort of like “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is,” in this case, “It depends on what your definition of Israel is.” To premillenialists, and in this I for certain include George Bush and now suspect Tony Blair, their definition of Israel is all the land that stretchs from the Nile in the west to the Tigris and Euphrates in the east—in other words, all the way into Iraq.

So as Bush and now Blair declare that they await God’s judgment in regard to their foreign policy decisions, I suggest we might want to insist on pressing them to be even more explicit about this. And if we find that they in fact claim to be divinely guided it may be time for a Vote of No Confidence on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

March 9, 2006--Whither Whistler's Mother??

Can’t they leave well-enough alone? According to the NY Times (see link below) they’re now even messing with Janson’s History of Art. Isn’t anything sacred?

It was the basic art history text that literally millions of baby boomers read, or had inflicted on them. Love it, hate it—it was the TRUTH. If an artist was in there he (and I mean he—see more on this below) was a part of art history. If he (or she) wasn’t included, that artist or period of art or school of art just didn’t exist.

In my college (Columbia) back then, we were so committed to what was called the canon (in literature as well as in art) that the basic Art History course consisted of Janson, lectures derived from Janson, and a box of 500 black and white reproductions (also from Janson) that we had to memorize. The final exam consisted of us having to identify the full work, from among these reproductions, from just a series of one square-inch segments--say the lower left hand corner of Vermeer’s Woman With a Pearl Necklace.

This was considered an essential part of a higher education for a manchild. Good training, we thought, for cocktail party chatter: “Yes, I know that work. Lustrous pearls don’t you think?” It was thought that this would help us make our way in the world.

So what have they done? Old man Janson died some years ago and his son took over, single-handedly, in his limited way, bringing editions up to date. He retired from this recently and the publisher invited a group of six scholars to serve as editors to turn Janson into something that could again become a campus bestseller in our postmodern age where the concept of canon itself is contested: if everything is socially constructed how can we force-feed youth a steady diet of Dead White Men?

So the latest edition includes more than one women—Mary Cassatt finally got included in the mid-1970s and was the only female artist to make it into in Janson until now. Photography makes its first appearance as does Decorative and Performance Art. But the old focus on showcasing individual geniuses and masterpieces has been discarded. Works that foster discourse are included. For example, Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Family, which caused such a ruckus when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum because it is painted with elephant dung, is in the new edition not because it is considered to be a masterpiece but because it can be used to foster discourse about the differences between Western and African ways of seeing. In the words of one of the editors, “It is a vessel loaded with meaning.” Can’t wait for that cocktail party!

That old chestnut, Whistler’s Mother is out (technically, back in my college days we knew it as Arrangement in Grey and Black—such at the time was the sophistication of an Ivy League education), but another chestnut, Grant Wood’s American Gothic has been added. I wonder how a square-inch of that looks? The pitchfork is a dead giveaway.

In recent decades, those who continued to use the Janson as a text (and fewer did) would “teach against it,” using its perceived limitations and exclusions as the real text. But, as Professor Hofrichter who has taught against it for years said, “Now, I’ll have only myself to teach against.”

Can’t wait to sign up for that course.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

March 8, 2006--Safety Pre-Schools

A friend showed me his son’s application to school in which he was described as “enthusiastic, creative, inquisitive, and sensitive.” I told my friend that I thought his son would be a shoe in—“He sounds just like the kind of student Harvard is seeking.”

My friend said, “You don’t understand, it’s an application that I wrote for my 18-month-old toddler. For nursery school.”

And so it goes in New York City where the competition to be admitted to elite pre-schools is perhaps even fiercer than getting into Harvard. This is the result of an increase in the number of babies being born in Manhattan (interestingly, many more twins and triplets than in previous years) while slots in selective pre-schools has not kept pace (see NY Times story below). There are now 26 percent more children under five in Manhattan than in the year 2000.

Thus the application has become even more high stakes than in the past. Affluent parents are engaging consultants to help them thread their way through the process—from selecting programs to which to apply (including so-called “safe” nursery schools where little Justin is certain to be admitted) to how to psych out what to say on the application essay.

One frustrated parent was quoted as saying, “What do you say about someone who just popped out of the womb?” Well, “enthusiastic, creative, inquisitive . . . . “

And then what do you do if you have triplets--up from 60 born in Manhattan in 1995 to 299 in 2004—since nursery schools, looking to diversify their charges, are loath to admit three kiddies from one family. What these parents are apparently doing is seeking places in three separate schools! Sounds like a daily logistical nightmare to me.

But then I thought—maybe this is not such a bad thing after all, this hardball competition. Parents writing school applications for their children sounds familiar. Up to this point my experience with this has been limited to college applications where parents and their consultants, how shall I put this, “help” their high school seniors with their applications.

So perhaps parents writing pre-school applications for their enthusiastic, sensitive babies is just what the doctor, I mean pediatrician ordered.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

March 7, 2006--Bjork's Dying Swan

There has already been so much Dis about Sunday’s Academy Awards that I am reluctant to pile on. But since it is everyone’s favorite Schaudenfreud night, mine included, please forgive me—I can’t control myself.

The consensus is that it might have been the second worst Oscar show ever, topped only by the one in 1989 when Rob Lowe opened the festivities by dancing and signing with a young woman dressed up to look like Snow White.

This year’s version was awful, but not for any of the following reasons—not because the host, Jon Stewart was not funny; not because all the nominated songs were terrible; not because of the bland choice of winners or their boring acceptance speeches; not even because the TV commercials were sophomoric. This is always the case.

No, the show was awful because of the clothes.

A lot has been said and written about the commercialization and commodification of fashion at the Oscars, including in the NY Times (see their story below). How clothing designers and jewelers vie with each other to “dress” and bedeck Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron. How once the evening is over all the dresses and shoes and jewels have to be returned. How people unknown to most humans, Jennifer Rade, for example, “styles” Angelina Jolie. Or how Anna Bingemann picks out what Uma Thurman will wear. Or how much someone like Reese Witherspoon, who makes upwards of $10 million per movie, would have to pay for her dress if she had deigned to buy it--$50,000 or so. Or that Dolly Parton wore $1,500,000 of borrowed jewelry from Fred Leighton. This is by now familiar Dis territory.

What was new this year, and spoiled the spirit of Schaudenfreud, was the fact that everyone looked too good, too sophisticated, too tasteful. And so the opportunity to trash the stars for their tastelessness was stolen from us.

I longed for those Oscar nights when at least half the people walking the Red Carpet looked like tramps. When Joan Rivers and her colleagues would brazenly say what we were all thinking—“Can you believe what Barbara Streisand is wearing? Where did Cher get that dress?”

Everything was so blanded down. I suspect because the stars have come to realize that half the reason people tune in is to see what they are wearing, and that the highlight of the multiple Red Carpet shows that precede the award ceremony (I counted at least four TV channels simultaneously covering the arrivals) is to make fun of the clothes, hair, and makeup.

If you think I’m making this up, note that these same cable channels that had those shows are no longer talking about who won which Oscar but are rerunning the Red Carpet arrivals. “Fashion Police,” as just one example, has already been on the air at least four times, and it is totally devoted to showing a panel of fashion experts (check out what they are wearing if you want to Dis) desperately attempting to make fun of what people were wearing. But again, without much bite since the actors and actresses didn’t offer as much opportunity for mockery as in the past.

I found myself longing for Bjork who showed up in 2001 wearing a white-feathered knee-length dress taxidermied to look like a swan. Now we’re talking Schaudenfreud!