Friday, June 30, 2006

June 30, 2006--Fanaticism XLI--Location, Location, Location, With a Capital "L"

Steven Erlanger’s article in today’s NY Times about the Israeli government rounding up 64 “moderates,” including a third of the Palestinian cabinet, caused both him and me to wonder—to what purpose? (See article liked below.) Yes, there is a kidnapped Israeli soldier, yes Hamas recently won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in the kind of election we have been calling for in the Middle East, yes, yes, and yes. So what else is new? Still, I ask, what is the current government trying to accomplish by detaining Hamas leaders with whom there might be some possibility of talking?

I haven’t a clue. In fact, no one does. I suspect even the Israeli government doesn’t really know what it is trying to accomplish much less what will be the ramifications of this latest action.

But here’s what I do know—the Old Testament folks were fortunate to have a King Solomon around who was renowned both for his wisdom and power. The combination of the two was essential to accomplishing things in that part of the world. Even then. But wisdom without the power to carry out what was thought to be wise doesn’t solve any problems. And power without the guidance of wisdom gets you current day Iraq.

Is there any evidence of wisdom now in that region? Does anyone there, here, or anywhere have a plan that has any chance whatsoever of working? And if there were such a plan, forget “roadmaps,” how would it get carried out? We may think we are the most powerful force in the world, but there’s a word for that too—hubris. And certainly there isn’t anyone in the Middle East who could compel even a Solomaic solution. I try to be optimistic, even in the face of the inevitable, but this situation has got me stumped.

Here’s the heart of the problem—as with so much else, it’s about real estate. Have you been to Jerusalem? If so you know that it is a short walk between some of the holiest shrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Dome of the Rock, the rock from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, sits right atop the site of the Jew’s Third temple, and just down the street, which happens to be the Via Dolorosa, the route Christ walked, carrying his cross, to get to Calvary, where nearby today sits the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Jesus was entombed. All these holy places are contained within a very small piece of real estate--less than one square mile.

Even Donald Trump couldn’t figure out how to close this real estate deal.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

June 29, 2006--Show Me the Evidence

Thus far, understandably, most of the stories about Warren Buffet’s incredible gift of $31 billion to the Gates Foundation have been about that--the immensity and generosity of the gift itself. There have also been some accounts of his reasons for giving away virtually all of his vast personal wealth—what do his children think about that?—and why did he give all that money to the Gates Foundation, after all, with $30 billion of its own assets, and more to come from the founder of Microsoft, why didn’t Buffet establish something in his own name? (See the International Herald Tribune story linked below for some of the flavor of the reporting.)

That too has been a part of the story—the fact that nothing will be named for him. By more than doubling the size of the Gates Foundation, one would have thought he would maybe have asked them to add his name to it, calling it the Gates-Buffet Foundation. Or at least put a plaque up on the wall. Something. But no, he has consistently said—I know how to make money; they know much better than me how to give it away.

I wonder.

The Gates Foundation has dwarfed the second largest, the Ford Foundation, for at least the past five years. Ford’s assets total about $11 billion, to give you a sense of just how large Gates is. In addition to being the largest, Gates has for some time also claimed that it gives away money in a different way than the older, more established foundation. Without naming names, Bill and Melinda Gates, their foundation’s principals and only trustees thus far (Buffet will soon make it a board of just three), have suggested that the other major funders are timid and ideological—they play favorites and have agenda beyond a commitment to solving some of the world’s most daunting problems. Gates is different—we identify problems, AIDS, Malaria, the failed American high school, and look objectively to fund only those who show evidence that they are contributing to the solution to these problems. Gates claims that they will be brutal in the evaluation of the work they fund, in effect their own funding strategies; and if things are not working (and since they will take risks, place “big bets,” in their language, they expect most things they back will fail), they will extract lessons from their failures and move on.

Sounds good; sounds dynamic. So what’s my problem and why am I wondering if Warren Buffet in fact made a wise decision to entrust most all of his assets with them?

I do not know anything about the quality or effectiveness of their global health grantmaking; but do know a good deal about their work with high schools in the U.S. Admittedly, they are low performing, especially in our poorest communities and need substantial reform. I’m with Gates thus far. But in the approach they have taken, and it is in truth a single, silver bullet approach, they have acted more as ideologues than entrepreneurs.

They see the problem to be attributable exclusively to the size of failed high schools, they are too large and impersonal and thus kids get lost in them. They have spent billions to break big ones up into more personal learning communities and to establish, from a blank slate, new, small, in effect, thematic charter secondary schools.

I say their approach has been ideological because, in spite of Gates’ rhetoric that they invest only in things that work, there was no real evidence, before they began funding them, that small high schools do better by low-income students than large ones. Common sense and belief would suggest the opposite; but the evidence is clear and the Gates Foundation folks ignored it.

And what have they found thus far in their own evidence gathering—though school districts can be seduced by the money to go along with the Gates high school ideology, who can turn down Gates’ money after all, on the ground, in the toughest places, there is no clear evidence that the Gates’ approach is working. Yes some of the newly created themed high schools are off to a good start but even with Gates’ vast resources only a relatively few can ever be sustained and they tend to unravel after the initial corps of educators move on.

So, Warren, if I had been you, I would have looked as carefully at the Gates Foundation’s actual record, the way you do when you take over a company, before writing such a large check.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

June 28, 2007--Happy Birthday Mom!

To get to 98 in itself is an accomplishment. But in truth less and less so thanks to modern medicine. I believe the fastest growing cohort in the U.S, population is nonagenarians. So my mother fits right there in the middle of that trend.

And since there are so many around who are in their nineties, not only are there all sorts of institutions and services emerging, including many levels of residence and care, there are also many new ways of relating to the “new old.” I find most of them patronizing.

I hate it when a staff member at the retirement residence where my mother lives says, in a voice that sounds as if she is addressing a two-year old, “Why Mr. Shapiro, you look wonderful today. I hope you enjoy your Canasta game.” Mr. Shapiro having been a major architect in his day still reads all of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and manages all of his investments and deserves to be addressed in a different tone of voice and should be doing more that having his day center around a card game. Though he is quiet a Canasta shark.

Here I am doing the same thing! Shame on me.

My mother plays a little Canasta, also works her way through the Times, dong the crossword puzzle every day, in ink, and manages to balance her check book and other accounts to the penny—something I find impossible to do.

She also has maintained a wide circle of friends, sadly shrinking most every month, and family. Especially family. She is the last of her generation to survive and takes that role very seriously. I always say to her that "I know on that distant day when you join you parents and sisters and brother and the others at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, you want to give them a full report. And you want to bring them nothing but good news." And since she does, she not only worries about everyone but is also the source of the frankest, soundest advice to all of us, particularly to those of the youngest generation who from time to time flounder.

Also, at her residence, she is everyone’s angel of mercy. She volunteered to be the one to send get-well cards to neighbors who are hospitalized and condolence cards to children and grandchildren when a resident dies. This puts her in touch with a steady stream of serious illness and death, not something one would expect someone of her age to want to do—quite the opposite. But she has taken this on and does it, indominantly, with class and grace.

So when you see her passing by, don’t tell her to have a nice day. Ask her what she thinks about the controversy surrounding the Da Vinci Code or how we as a people should treat immigrants. If you do, make sure you have a half hour to spare because what she has to say will take at least that long to discuss.

Happy birthday mom!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

June 27, 2006--"A Goal Close to Godliness"

To be in Europe during the World Cup is to be forced to think about why there is so little interest in the U.S. in this truly global event. One that fuels national passions and even leads frequently to mayhem. Here on Mallorca, for example, where there are many in residence or on holiday from England and Germany, when it appeared that the English and German teams might face each other in the second round, some of the municipal governments declared a version of martial law—in Mallorca this means no TV sets in bars and cafes may be turned toward the street and beer must be sold in plastic cups, not in glasses or steins. Very sensible.

I had thought that the problem we Americans have is that we can’t stand a sporting event that can end in a draw, with no winner declared. Or that the scoring is so typically low, even 0-0 is possible and often occurs, that we are bored to death well before the end of the two 45 minute halves.

But then while here, and having such easy access to the International Herald Tribune and El Pais (the English version), while searching for the baseball scores, one day after the fact to be sure, it is impossible not to read about futbol. About the controversies that rage around every national team—about their practice habits, or lack thereof; about how the German coach is suspect because he may have become too Californiarized during his time there and now believes in having a sport psychologist available for his moody players; or if Rinaldo is overweight and out of shape. Players and coaches have been killed for less. Literally.

So in reading the IHT’s soccer reporter Rob Hughes’ column about Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Mexico, I think I came closer to understanding Americans’ lack of interest. I’ve linked the full article below, but since you may not have the time to read it allow me to quote from it, commenting along the way—

Close to midnight Saturday, Argentina eliminated Mexico with a goal in extra time so stunning in its beauty and its timing that it is worth a place in the pantheon of great finishes in history.

We’re OK with the midnight part, but I’m not sure “beauty” is something we so openly value in a sporting event. And what’s this about “the pantheon”? Our equivalent, I suppose, are the various halls of fame.

There were 97 minutes on the clock when Juan Sorin, the adventurous Argentine captain, produced a long diagonal pass from left to right. He landed that ball spot on to the chest of Maxi Rodriquez, who had lurked with intent just outside the penalty box.

Do we admire “adventurous” or “lurking” athletic heroes who wait with “intent,” or do we prefer power and aggression?

Now came the magic. Cushioning the ball on his chest, swaying inside a defender and yet striking the ball with his left foot, Rodriquez imparted such force, yet so beautifully an arched trajectory, that it floated over the despairing right hand of the goalkeeper into the farthest top corner of the net.

“Magic”? “Cushioning”? “Swaying”? “Beautiful” again? And “floating”? This all sounds quite un-American to me. And the fact that the sport forbids the use of one’s arms by definition means more red-blooded folks in the U.S. will be tuning in to American Idol reruns than even Germany vs. England.

But, for me, at least while over here, I’ll be watching, even if I have to drink my brewskis from plastic cups.

Monday, June 26, 2006

June 26, 2006--Monday On Mallorca: Rituals

Especially in small towns and villages there is great devotion paid to daily rituals. Since there is rather little to do, these help structure time, and, while creating a sense of regularity, hold the possibility of revealing the miraculous that can be extracted from small, predictable gestures. Also, on the canvas that rituals provide can on occasion be found, admittedly in small, faint strokes-- there is no room for a Titian here—images of insight and wonder. And of course these rituals help keep the void at bay.

One might think the opposite should be true—since there is so little to do why fill up that tiny landscape with predictable things? Shouldn’t one look forward to the unexpected? Wouldn’t that provide more stimulation, more excitement?

It would, and of course that’s precisely the problem—too much excitement and stimulation would shatter the illusions needed to help get one through languid days. They would remind one of what is being missed by having chosen to cling to such a limited world.

For these and other reasons, in this village of Puerto Andratx, we are drawn to our morning coffee rituals because here it is that the quotidian commences and where we wait for the miraculous. Or at least a little something, anything to talk about.

Yesterday, while sitting down to la siempre, the languid “usual,” unknown to us, a pocketbook was found on a bench by the Sea. Ah, a look at its undisturbed contents by those who discovered it revealed that it was owned by an Elizabeth Rita Livsey of Bournemouth, England. Not a familiar name to anyone there, and thus they were confronted with a delicious mystery—what to do, how to locate her.

When Rona and I, as we were moving on to the second of our morning rituals, our second cortados at a second café for, we came upon all that mounting excitement. Did we know anyone with that name? Yes, in fact, incredibly she was a neighbor of ours, up in La Mola. She and her husband Paul used to live in Bournemouth. In fact, we had seen them just an hour before, in the midst of their own version of morning rituals—a long walk beside the Sea. Why not try to find them and let them know the bag had been recovered and that their Sunday would not be ruined by anxiety and calls to various banks back in England.

So after Rona and I had given everyone their descriptions, we came up with a plan and fanned out to search for them. One group of us along Carrer Isaac Peral; another along the waterfront.

And of course, before even ten minuets had passed, we found them arm in arm, as tranquil seeming as the day itself.

Finding them that way, so serene and unconcerned, that in itself would have sufficed to offer yet more evidence that living in this way helps put things in the right order of priority—Credit cards? Drivers’ licenses? Wallets? Cash? Where are they positioned in the great chain of being if placed beside this ancient Sea, under this enduring sky?

But when we told them not to worry, the pocketbook had been found they seemed surprised. Not that it was found, but that it was even missing!

Yet an even deeper message.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

June 24, 2006--Saturday Story: "Bull Gang"--Part Three

Part Two (posted below on June 17th) found our Bull Gang neophytes, Lloyd and Heshy, struggling to keep up with the flow of work. In their ineptness, they were unable to get essential materials to the sheet metal mechanics who were waiting for them, in frustration, on the upper floors. The situation was so serious that the chief of the Bull Gang, the fearsome Eddie Ribori actually threatened their lives. Frantic and counting the days until they could respectably quit to return to college, they were snatched from despair and danger by Joe Muri, a Tin Knocker of legendary repute who, though he lived in the boys’ neighborhood, had studiously avoided ever acknowledging them and their “kind.” But because Lloyd’s father had once helped him when he was down and out, Joe Muri passed along some Bull Gang wisdom; and Heshy and Lloyd, as a result, were able to get the trucks unloaded and the materials onto the hoist and thereby keep up with the men. Weekends allowed the boys to recover and see their girlfriends—Heshy his favorite Siegel twin, Lloyd his German Baroness, Sigrid von Hauptmann, who finally got him to agree to take her for a visit to her version of his exotic Brooklyn.

In Part Three, which follows, we . . . .

I didn’t realize that my father’s sister, my Aunt Madeline would be there when I finally brought Sigrid to meet my parents. I had been driving us all over Brooklyn to show her the sights—the elegant promenade in Brooklyn Heights with its ecstatic views of lower Manhattan, the shabby remnants of the once-glorious Coney Island, the truly exotic flavors of the Arab quarter on Atlantic Avenue, and the rich but dangerous Black enclaves of Bedford Stuyvesant--but more, in truth, this extensive drive-about was to avoid the inevitable encounter with my origins.

“But Lloyd, this is such a charming street,” Sigrid oozed, sensing my nervous hesitation, as we turned off Church Avenue onto my block, East 56th Street. “I love these little houses with their, what do you call them, stoops? And their gardens . . . “

“I would hardly call them ‘gardens,’ Sig,” I would have preferred her to stop trying so hard, to just let things happen, to let us get it all over with so we could get back to her chambers to both hide out and do other things, “They’re more like patches of dirt.”

“But look at those urns everywhere filled with succulents,” every stoop and front garden had at least two balanced on brick columns or pedestals, “Are they from cement? They make everything feel so secure and indestructible. That is important for growing up—to have a sense of permanence, a lack of threat. You were so lucky my sweet boy.” She slid closer to me, pressing herself to me. I could feel her heat, and was that trembling, as if she were remembering her own devastated childhood.

As we approached 205 East 56th Street, my house, I put my free arm around her to show both comprehension and compassion for that trembling. She nuzzled my neck, right there in full sight of everything and all who had been at the center of so much of my life! This amazing, forgive me, creature from another world was nipping my bony neck!. And everything and everyone were out there in the street, filling their porches, or leaning perilously from second floor windows to see everything—whatever was to transpire was to be extensively witnessed and then recapitulated and gossiped about after we left for months, perhaps years. It was not every day on this block, on a hot day in late July, that a Sigrid would arrive in a blazing yellow car with the top down.

There was no spot for the car right in front so we needed to park by the Pearl’s house next door, which meant we were required to walk a short gauntlet of eager eyes. I attempted to hurry us, to pull us along into the shade and sanctuary of my parents’ apartment, whatever the consequences, but Sigrid moved at her own languid pace, turning like a giant ballerina on the sidewalk to take in the full arc of 56th Street, things to me so familiar as to be beyond noticing--the huddled two family houses, the occasional punctuation of six storey apartment houses where the Italians lived, the asphalt street softened by the fiery sun (my boyhood playing field demarked by the sewer covers I had told her about that served as our bases and goal posts), and the vacant lots where the rival gangs built their scrap-wood shacks and waged their internecine wars.

Taking in all of this so excited Sigrid that she glowed like a second sun, so radiant and comfortable in her body and on that street, this Saxon goddess right there among them, that I could almost hear gasps of appreciation emanating from those gathered to take in her entrance, appreciation for her endorsing ease and comfort.

The house in which we lived was the most substantially constructed on the block. Or at least it appeared to be that way from its surfaces. We lived on the second floor, and though renting it, from its glossy exterior and my father’s snappy wardrobe of checks and stripes and a series of seemingly flawless cars, we derived the undeserved benefit of appearing to be in much better circumstances than my parents’ actual struggles would suggest.

The house itself was owned by Willie Portnoy, the Lumber Baron, who with his family lived on the first floor. He spared no expense when building it, especially when it came to the externals—we had the slickest face-brick façade, each glazed brick allegedly cost five dollars, and wrought iron, which enclosed and encircled every square foot of side walkway, the driveway that led to the two-car garage (which side my father was assigned to use always caused fierce disputes), and the two tiny weed-strangled plots that constituted the front “gardens.” The steam heat, on the other hand, hidden from street view, never worked. Or perhaps the Baron never turned it on. So my father had a ball peen hammer hanging on one of the radiators that was directly above Willie and Pauline’s bedroom, which, on below-zero nights, he would use to bang on the pipes, yelling, “Willie you cheap bastard turn up the heat!"

Sigrid, at her insistence, was about to enter into this world. And, still unknown to me, to meet Madeline.

* * *

“Sorry we’re so late. The beach traffic was impossible.”

Whaaa?” It was my unexpected Aunt Madeline who was notoriously hard of hearing, actually quite deaf but in complete denial about her condition. This was her universal seagull-caw that indicated she couldn’t hear a thing.

The beach traffic,” I hollered back in her direction as she crouched near my parents, a little behind my father as if seeking his protection from this Nordic apparition.

The beach? You went to the beach. It’s so bee-u-ti-full there. You went swimming?”

“No Aunt Madeline, we got caught in beach traffic. That’s why we’re so late.”

“I’m glad you went swimming. The water in Brighton Beach is the cleanest. No one flushes their toilet there.” Sigrid appeared to enjoy meeting my tiny, unpredictable aunt, glowing at all her hollering. We both, though, sensed my parents’ growing embarrassment. This was to be their afternoon, not Madeline’s.

I love the water there. I swan there from when I was your age.” Aunt Madeline was totally devoted to the beach, forcing her brother Ben to drive her there all throughout the year. She was a strong swimmer who routinely ventured far out beyond the undertow, past the line of breaking waves to swim relentlessly and effortlessly for hours, back and forth in quarter-mile-long laps. And she was equally devoted to the sun, spending even more hours baking in it, ignoring her doctor’s warnings, so that her skin had assumed the color and texture of a fine Italian pocketbook.

“We can’t stay too long. I have to get Sigrid back to the city. She’s doing research for her philosophy professor and has to complete a project for Monday. And we also need to see Heshy. Sigrid wants to meet him.” Though Sigrid was clearly enjoying Madeline and bathing her in an affectionate smile, I couldn’t be sure things would continue even this well.

“Isn’t it time you introduced her to your parents?” This finally from my mother who stood with her arms folded across her chest. “Have you forgotten already how you were raised?”

“Of course, I’m sorry, Mom, this is my friend Sigrid von Hauptmann. . . .”

Whaaa? What’s he saying?”

My friend, Aunt Madeline, Sigrid von Hauptmann.”

She’s who? I never heard such a name like that. She’s an American?”

“No, Aunt Madeline, she’s from Germany. She was born there but goes to college in New York. And Dad,” I struggled to move ahead quickly before Madeline needed further attention, “this is Sigrid. I told you about her. The Barnard senior. Sigrid these are my parents.”

Sigrid appeared to curtsey to them, “I’m so very pleased to meet you after all this time. Lloyd cannot stop telling me about you and his brother, who I know is away at summer camp, and your wonderful family, your wonderful brothers and sisters. Your brother Jack,” she said to my mother, who was now smiling at just the mention of his name, “he sounds like such a fine brother. So generous.” With this reference to the “sainted brother” my father stopped smiling though it was obvious that he was in his own way as fascinated by Sigrid as Madeline.

“And your brother Ralph,” she then turned to my father.

Ralph?” Madeline barked having heard her brother’s name clearly enough. “My brother? He’s coming too? He never comes to Brooklyn. Does the mountain ever come to the molehill?” she spat.

“I only meant,” Sigrid picked up, now including both Madeline and my father in her radiance, “I only was trying to say, my English is not so perfect, yes?” to which my mother nodded, “that your brother Uncle Ralph was so kind to let Lloyd and Heshy have such a good job for the summer. They are learning so much, making so much money,” my mother nodded again, “and look at the wonderful muscles Lloyd is developing.” She reached over to touch my biceps, which I could not help but alternately tense and flex to accentuate their enhanced definition. “His coach will be so pleased when he sees him in September.” This again engaged my father who had dreams for me of athletic glory and thus he resumed his open adoration.

“Since you have to run so soon,” my mother said, “maybe you want a bite to eat. I prepared some salads and got smoked fish from the appetizing store. We also have fresh bagels and bialys.”

“We already ate at Nathan’s in Coney Island. I wanted Sigrid to try their hot dogs. She ate three of them. So why don’t we go into the living room and talk for a few more minutes and then I’ll take Sigrid over to Heshy’s.”

What did she eat?” Aunt Madeline interjected yet again. “A dog? I didn’t know they did that in Germany. I thought just in China.”

“No Aunt Madeline we had hot dogs, frankfurters at Nathan’s. You know Nathan’s? We used to go there together.”

I never liked the Germans. Even before the war.” I began to think I needed to find a way to get us to Heshy’s in the next few minutes.

“I would love to have something to eat,” Sigrid said, still smiling, not allowing Madeline to upset her or ruin our visit. “Lloyd has also told me about all the wonderful Brooklyn food you make. Your wonderful stuffed cabbage. I lived on cabbage and turnips during the war. It was so terrible there. In Germany.” I cringed—now she was talking about Germany! “My bother and I were sent to our grandmother in the country. To be safe.” Everyone became silent. “So please, yes, let us have something to eat. Lloyd is always in such a hurry. I would like very much to have, what you called ‘a bite to eat.’ Yes, a bite would be very fine.” And with that my mother escorted us to the dining room table, which was reserved for only very occasional special occasions.

Ach, a table just like my grandmother’s,” Sigrid exclaimed as we moved through the swinging door that separated the breakfast room from the dining room. It was massive, of dark wood with sturdy legs that must have been turned on a heavy lathe, my mother’s pride. “The only good piece I have,” she would say in front of my father when they were fighting about something, when she wanted to particularly upset him, “A gift from my parents when we got married.” Surely not something he had been able to provide. This usually drove him into long, sulking sieges of silence.

“Seeing this table, just like my grandmama’s, it makes me feel so at home, if I may say that.” My mother moved to put her arm around Sigrid, which was an effort since Sigrid was at least a foot taller.

“You are always welcome here, dear,” she said, looking up at Sigrid, recognizing what Sigrid was feeling, “If you are a friend of Lloyd’s, this is your home too.” Sigrid stooped so that she could rest her head on my mother’s solid shoulder. And seemed silently to be crying. But just for a moment before quickly regaining her composure and cheeriness.

“I am so happy to be here with all of you. I so much miss my family back in Germany.”

Whaaa? Germany again?” Aunt Madeline appeared to have no difficulty hearing “Germany.”

I sensed the approach of imminent doom and desperately tried to change the subject, “Dad, tell Sigrid about your chess.” I thought that might work since he was devoted to it, playing out and analyzing the championship games reported each Sunday in the New York Times. “Sigrid plays too. She even competed in a few tournaments, like you. I know she’ll tell you she’s not very good,” I was groping to find something other than Germany to talk about, “but she really is.” Sigrid exchanged a quick look with my father, as if to say, “Isn’t your son still such a little boy.”

But my father, also perhaps concerned where his sister might take us, picked up my lead, “Well, I do play a little. There is a chess club I go to Tuesday nights in downtown Brooklyn. There are some good players there, of could not like in Europe,” he was rarely this gregarious with someone whom he had just met, “In Eastern Europe of course, Russia particularly. And in Germany? I do not know about the German players.” I began to shift in my seat, fearing what might next erupt from Madeline. But though he too did not hear well and as a result usually could match his sister in volume, he was careful to pronounce “Germany” and “German” in an uncharacteristically muted manner. Madeline did not rouse. She was quite preoccupied with her eating.

My mother, characteristically, had put out a bountiful spread of delicatessen and appetizing store salads and cold cuts. Madeline, who never ate more than a quarter of a small chicken at any meal, she was so concerned about her weight, spending any of her rumored accumulation of money, and what she called her “numbers,” by which she meant her cholesterol, in contrast, when at my parents or her brother Ralph’s on Long island, where they were paying for the food, she was known to fill her plate many times; and her chewing was so, shall I say, enthusiastic that it generated enough sound that it alone drowned out for her any conversation and thus we would have a window of time to get in a few sentences before she put down her fork and rejoined us. Only a very few moments since she was also the fastest eater in the family.

And thus before Sigrid could say much about her own chess, much less its status in Germany, Madeline raised her head from her plate, where it had been substantially buried. “What did she say? I couldn’t hear because I was eating. Do you have any cake?” she shouted at my mother.

“You know I do. Why don’t you let the rest of us eat something and talk and then I’ll put it out.”

Sigrid had been telling my father about a young grandmaster who she felt might one day contend for the world championship. He was, she said, at age twelve already the German national champion.

She can’t stop talking about Germany.” Since Madeline was still focused on Germany, and filled with food, I felt we were now going to move rapidly toward disaster. I checked my watch. It was nearly 4:00. How much longer before we could respectably escape?

“Mom, I think we will skip dessert. As I told you, we need to go over to Heshy’s house.”

“My Harry, he was in Germany,” Madeline continued, but now more subdued, maybe digesting. “He was a soldier, in the army.” Harry was Madeline’s third and last husband, the last as well to commit suicide. All three had done so for the same reason. He was the only one of the husbands who interested her enough to inspire her to have her hair done any place other than at the local barber school. He on the other hand decided he too had had enough after just two years of marriage—life with Madeline for him was literally deadly. In truth, everyone in the family was more sympathetic to Harry than to Madeline’s endless grief.

“He saw action over there.” We were sill in Germany. “But he never told me any stories, except those about how he threw away his knapsack and carried a dice table on his back so whenever they had time he would run a Crap game. He came home from the war with a lot of money. He loved to gamble,” she seemed lost in these memories. “But I also know he saw and had to do terrible things. Terrible. I loved him so much, that funny little man.” She was actually smiling. “You can see, I am ugly. No, no,” she said as Sigrid rose to protest. “It is true. But he made me feel beautiful.”

And with this she began to sob so uncontrollably that my mother had to snatch away her dish to prevent Madeline from lowering her head into her leftover whitefish salad.

Sigrid was sitting next to her and reached over to try to comfort her. “Leave her alone,” my father bellowed, recovering his full voice, “She always does this at the end of every meal. Just ignore her. She’ll stop once she has a piece of cake.”

“But she is so unhappy,” Sigrid insisted though careful not to appear to disagree with my father who certainly knew his sister. The huge wormwood table was trembling from Madeline’s crying. But my father was right, I could testify--this is what Madeline always did before dessert.

“But you know, your being here,” he looked at Sigrid, “and my sister talking about the war, reminded me of something I haven’t thought about for a long time.” I couldn’t begin to imagine where this might lead. I feared again, not to a good place. “I was too old for the service. The draft board kept turning me down so I volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden. I wanted to do something to contribute to the war effort other than eating rationed meat once a week. They gave me a helmet and a whistle and taught me what all the Nazi planes looked like. From their silhouettes.” I had never heard any of this before and was so stunned that I forgot what Sigrid might be thinking about my family’s continuous talk about Germany and the war.

“My job was to check to see if any lights, even from radio dials, were showing behind the blackout shades that everyone was required to have. Heshy’s father, Mr. Perly, made them. I think it’s the only time he ever made a decent living,” he chuckled at that recollection. “If a light was showing I would ring their doorbell and tell them to pull their shades all the way down or cover their lampshades with towels. So in case the Nazis sent planes over Brooklyn they wouldn’t be able to see any lights on the ground and use them as targets for their bombs.

“And then after everyone was asleep and all the lights were turned out there was no need for us to walk the streets, and so they sent us up onto apartment house roofs to look into the sky through binoculars to search for enemy planes. I spent hundreds of nights on the roof of that building there, right across the street,” he pointed to the apartment house where all the Italians lived. Sigrid, equally riveted by my father’s story, even got up to peer at it through the window, seemingly imaging what it must have been like on that roof top those pitch-black nights when who knows what she had been doing at the same time on the other side of the ocean.

“In the winter,” he now turned to me, “to keep me warm through the nights, and we had real winters back then, your mother sent me out with a thermos of hot coffee. Also to keep me awake. Because some of the men fell asleep. Actually,” he caught Sigrid’s eye, “there were women too doing this. To fall asleep on that roof, I felt, was to let my neighborhood down, my country down.” He paused and all we could hear was Madeline still sobbing with her head still resting on the table.

“You know what was the worst?” We all looked toward him, no one speaking, “it was the silence, the utter silence. It was not a restful, peaceful silence, but a silence filled with threat. I longed to hear even a simple dog’s bark. To break that sense of danger. To pull me back into the familiar world of family and going to work and listening to a ballgame on the radio. Just the thought of the sounds of a game late at night coming in all the way from Saint Louis. If we could only get back to that I thought we would all be safe. Especially you and your brother. All I wanted was for you to be safe.”

And with that, Madeline arose from the table shouting “Where’s the cake. I’m ready for the cake.”

My father at that human bark emerged from his reverie and said, “I think maybe it’s time for you to go over to Heshy’s.” He was protecting us again. “I know you have to get Sigrid back to the city.” And with that it felt all right to say goodbye, exchange hugs and kisses, and leave.

Heshy’s was just across the way. Just on the other side of the vacant lot.

* * *

I said, “Let’s walk. I’ll leave the car where it is.” It was covered with kids who were draped on all four fenders, waiting for us to emerge as were all the porches and stoops still filled with the neighborhood yentas who leaned forward to get a better look at Sigrid, who would be the featured subject at their coffee klatches for weeks to come. “Heshy’s is just around the corner on Church Avenue.”

Sigrid decided to give them a good show—she pulled herself up to her full statuesque six-feet, plus three inches from heels; and although she had dressed demurely for the sake of our visit with my parents, once on the street she pulled back her shoulders so as to put her perfect breasts on best display and with her hands flipped her skirt to reveal glimpses of waxed thighs as she stretched out her stride. I needed to jog alongside to keep up. Mrs. Pearl, who lived next door literally slid out of her folding chair, with it collapsing on top of her, as she strained to get a better look. An enterprising kid could have made a fortune selling front-row stoop seats.

We walked by the vacant lot that separated Heshy’s and my bedrooms, the lot we attempted to bridge with various homemade communication devices, one less effective and more dangerous than another; it was still piled high with discarded car tires that “crazy” Herbie Bender in his autism climbed endlessly like Sisyphus; then by John Inusi, in his shoemaker’s shop that Sunday to catch up on the work that typically accumulated during the summers, he was still there, as during my childhood, bent a bit now from the years, at his ancient grease-slicked stitching machine that he brought with him on the boat from Italy; he too, who always had an eye for the ladies, squinted out through his crusty store window to take a look at the majestic Sigrid; then we passed quickly by a store piled high with steam boilers and air compressors that represented a neighborhood mystery—no one was ever seen to be there though the rent had been paid for decades; some said it must be a front for the Mafia—there could be no other explanation; and next came to a door that led up a flight of steps to the second-floor apartment and office of Dr. Honey Traub, the decorated war hero dentist, who both lived and worked up there until he made enough money to build the neighborhood’s most expensive and elaborate house across Church Avenue, a “showplace” it was declared by those same yentas, on what was at least a half acre of vacant land—his life with his two golden sons, Ricky, my friend, and Bobby, my brother’s, more than anything to that time represented the full expression of America’s promise: to move from an airless apartment above a shoemaker’s shop to such a house on such a vast piece of real estate--because it was just that, real estate, decidedly not a vacant lot, with such a wife, Gertrude, about whom half the men on the block lusted, if they had the strength at the end of a long work day--this meant that anything was possible; and at the corner of East 56th Street and Church Avenue, directly across from Krinsky’s candy store, was Dr. Smith’s pharmacy, the only person on the block who appeared not to have a first name—all his diplomas and certificates of certification listed him as “P.K.R Smith, Jr.”-- the “Doctor” we added, he had never earned one, except in the eyes of all of us who he treated extra-medically, at no charge, for deep cuts just short of requiring stitches, gingivitis, epidemics of “trench mouth,” and, I always suspected, the Italians for a variety of unmentionable forms of venereal disease beyond the ken of our or their family doctors; and finally we passed The Elegant Lady beauty parlor, where my mother went every Saturday morning to have her hair washed and roots touched up, but perhaps more to escape for a few hours to a sanctuary of women who desperately needed respite from their ceaseless chores, and more in truth from their “men.”

Then we faced Perly’s Glass Works—no sign announced it but everyone knew that if a kid drove a baseball through one of your windows, or if a cat shredded the tape on a Venetian blind, or if a mirror needed reglazing, you knew where to find Mr. Perly, that is unless he was out wandering the neighborhood, clutching his Daily Worker, muttering incomprehensively to himself in a patois of two or three languages.

I had alerted Sigrid to the fact that to get up to Heshy’s apartment, above the store, we needed to use the stairs at the back and thus we might encounter Mr. Perly; and if we did I could not predict what might happen. But if we kept moving, we would find Heshy holed up in his bedroom. She said, “I hope we do meet him. I would love that. He sounds so exotic.”

I had not been there for some years but everything remained as I remembered it—I had spent some time there with Mr. Perly, getting him coffee and cigarettes from Krinsky’s and even occasionally the Worker. The floors were still strewn with half empty putty cans, unfinished shades and blinds hung as if in tatters from hooks screwed into the ceiling, and his work table was even more eroded from the caustic mixes he used to glaze his mirrors. The single unshaded light bulb still drifted in the air we stirred as we moved toward the back. But it was the smells compounded from the putty and Silver Nitrates that evoked for me the strongest memories of my one night, very late, when Mr. Perly asked me to help him make some mirrors for Mrs. Pearl—she was redecorating again. This felt as if it were from such a different time. Or so it seemed, with Sigrid clutching me.

We did find Heshy in his room, curled on his cot, reading by the light filtering in from the space between our houses. When he saw us he slipped the book quickly under his pillow. He was the same old Heshy, I thought, whose collection of “dirty” books was known well beyond our street—who knew what he had been reading and was trying to hide from us.

I introduced Sigrid who couldn’t have been more pleased to be finally meeting Heshy. He suggested we go into the kitchen where we could sit and have some coffee. Which we did. Sigrid sat facing the window and said pointing, “Oh Lloyd, look there is your bedroom. Please, Heshy, tell me about the smoke signals you made to each other.”

He was at the stove heating water for the percolator. “We never did that,” he said in a soft monotone.

“But Lloyd told me you did. And the hose you talked through, no?”

“The speaking tube we did try—it didn’t work, the distance is too great and to be heard we had to shout. But never smoke signals,” he still stood facing the stove even though the water was already perking, “Lloyd, you may have noticed, has a lively imagination.”

“Lloyd?” Sigrid turned to me plaintively, “No smoke signals? I thought you made-believe you were Indians. Just like that Indian on the radio you told me about, no? He was Tonto? Heshy, you told me, was Tonto and you were the Ranger?”

Heshy had joined us and now looked directly at Sigrid, saying with some bite, “The Lone Ranger. He always saw himself that way and me as his sidekick, you know, his ‘faithful companion,’ like Tonto.”

“But in my country, there is great interest in Cowboys and Indians, especially Indians who are seen to be a part of nature, die natur, not tainted by civilization. We see them to be victims. Cowboys to be their oppressors. From what I felt, if I may say this Heshy,” she was smiling at him in the filtering light, “it felt to me, if I may be honest, as if you did not want to be that Brave, that Tonto. This I do not understand.”

“I never saw it that way. Everyone here wanted to be the noble cowboy, not the ‘noble savage,’ the unaccomodated man, advancing on the wilderness, a solitary, beyond the reach of towns becoming cities, uncorrupted and uncorrupting. Quite a myth. Like Cooper’s Leather Stocking. Do you know him? I mean Cooper?”

“Yes I do. I have read much of him. I know many think The Deerslayer is a book for young boys, like Huckleberry Finn was once thought to be, but it is a very profound book about American consciousness.”

“I agree. I am also very interested in issues of consciousness.” Things were now going well—for a moment I had thought there would again be problems and I would have to find a way to extract us without unduly insulting Heshy. “In fact,” Heshy continued, “when you came in, I was looking again at Sartre.” I thought, well done Heshy, sure, Sartre is under your pillow! “Lloyd had told me that you were working on a project about Sartre and consciousness.” He peered at her, and she at him. “This interests me as well. No one, in my view, has done better jat delineating the contradictions that were, in my view, the principal consequences of the First World War.” Sigrid was nodding; I was worrying that again soon we would be talking about her War.

“I do though think he is now feeling a little dated, don’t you agree?” Sigrid was now nodding vigorously and had placed her elbows on the table so she could get closer to it and to Heshy. I was beginning to think that maybe there were now other reasons to try, very soon, to get us back to the city.

“I think there is some newer, better thinking going on among the current younger generation on the Continent.” Heshy added. “We will here be hearing about them soon. Of that I am certain. That will be good for us here—we need this critique; we continue to be so naïve in our optimism.”

“Yes that is true,” Sigrid said, “It is America’s greatest weakness.”

And just as she uttered those words about America Mr. Perly appeared, looming in the doorway. Ignoring us, more like we weren’t even there, he said, as if to himself, “Coffee.” He went over to the stove and poured himself a cup, and, still not acknowledging our presence, sat down between Heshy and Sigrid. He spread out his paper and muttered, “Dogs. Hunde. It is not the German problem; it is the American problem. Their treats. Their Americanisa bombs. It is a wonder, no, anyone is still alive?”

“Ah, Mr. Perly,” I tried to interject and shift subjects, though I knew from the past that that was not possible, “I want you to meet my friend, Sigrid, from college.”

“There will be a comeuppance, this I assure you,” he rolled his paper into a weapon and slammed the table with it so that Heshy and I jumped with a start—Sigrid didn’t move. She had her eyes locked on him. “Soon, it will be soon. There will be a reckoning, a reckoning I tell you for these running dogs.”

“You know, Mr. Perly, that I am too from Germany,” I leaned back from the table to be closer to the door. “And you are wrong.” He slammed the table again in response, this time with both hand and it rocked on its chrome legs.

“I am telling you that it is der system here. Never the people. The workers here too give both their money and blood to these farstunkena fascists in Washington and Wall Street.”

“Yes, I do agree, there is an American problem. I too know about American capitalism. It can be a cruel system. But there is also very much a German problem.” She shifted tone, looking directly at Mr. Perly, not backing off, “I was there. I saw the consequences. I saw the dead. I ate scraps of garbage.” Mr. Perly looked up at her.

“This was not something the Americans did. It was us, the Germans who caused that. My family too.” She was no longer smiling or radiant. Just a little girl in a long body, forlorn in the fading light of Brooklyn.

Mr. Perly sat motionless, no longer flailing. He pushed his chair back slowly and then raised himself. I slid mine back as well, yet closer to the door. It felt as if all the oxygen had suddenly left the room. He approached Sigrid and stood behind her, totally still. She was bent, slumped toward the table. I had never seen her in anything resembling that kind of posture.

He then reached out toward her and gently placed his acid-gnarled hands on her magnificent shoulders, the contrast startling. And said, “You will be well, mein kinder.” And more incredibly, leaned over, still from behind, and placed a long kiss amidst the curls of her blondest hair.

* * *

Sigrid asked me to raise the top on the car. She wanted to shut off the outer world. She curled up beside me, and we drove toward Manhattan. Nestled together. Silent for quite some time.

When we were half way across the Brooklyn Bridge, Sigrid said, “I wish I had grown up with you and Heshy. Then I would have something to remember. Now I have only things to forget.”

* * *

The next morning, Monday, when changing in the construction shanty, I noticed that Heshy had a book stuffed in his sack that appeared to be written in French while I was still working my way through The Stranger. With everything that was happening, it was looking as if it would take me the whole summer to finish it.

While pulling on our overalls, studiously avoiding any references to Sigrid’s visit to Brooklyn, Eddie Ribori approached us and said, “There’s a big fan arriving today—they say the biggest ever made, twenty tons, twelve feet tall—today you two’ll be working with me and the men.”

To be continued . . . .

Friday, June 23, 2006

June 23, 2006--Fanaticism XL--Musee des les Pocketbooks

Sometimes on Fridays, the NY Times, or Herald Tribune offers up too rich a bounty of reports about items of fanatical interest to select just one about which to blog. Today is no exception. So allow me to write briefly about three—the first two are follow-ups to earlier commentaries, the third is new but in the same spirit. All are linked below.

I blogged just a few days ago about the decades-long debate within the International Red Cross about Israel’s application for admission, under its own emblem, rejecting both the Cross and Crescent as unacceptable to them. If Islamic countries can have their Red Crescent, why can’t Israel have a symbol of its choosing—a Red Star of David when functioning at home, but a red crystal or diamond when operating abroad. Well, it worked—they’re in.

But I failed to mention that even before this exception was made for Israel, the IRC had made one for the Shah of Iran—they were allowed to use a Red Lion. Of course we know what happened to the Shah and his lion.

Then there is a report from the front about the Foie Gras Wars. When I blogged about this a few months ago the battle that was raging was primarily confined to France, where the gravagists, or force-fed-geese industry was repelling the attack of groups who claimed it is inhumane to stuff plastic tubes down geese and ducks’ throats to fatten up their livers a few weeks before they are slaughtered. The farmers won a got the French Assembly to pass legislation declaring gravage to be a “national patrimony.”

But now, in the United States, God save us from ourselves, there is an attempt to get the US Department of Agriculture to declare foie gras “adulterated” food and thus ban it. But on the other side, marshalling his forces, Eric Ripert, executive chef of New York’s acclaimed Le Bernardin restaurant, said, “We can criticize how foie gras is produced, and be concerned about the health of the duck and blah, blah, blah. O.K., fine.” That about sums it up for me.

Finally, also in France, there is a problem on the Champs-Elysees about the “day-of-the-Lord” situation. There is a law that prohibits retailers from opening their stores on Sundays. Well, Louis Vuitton has a new 20,000 square-foot “shop” there, and with the rent they must be paying want to open for business on Sundays. But then there is the inconvenience of that law. So what to do? Brilliant, declare the place a “cultural center, which would make it exempt from the Sunday law, by sticking on the top floor, in 1,900 of the square feet, a space for “art exhibits” and a display about Louis Vuitton’s history!

Voila, a Musee des les Pocketbooks. Can’t wait to get in line to check it out.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

June 22, 2006--35 Miles to the Magnum

Just when I’m settled in here and have adapted to the new time zone, but more important built up my wine-drinking capacity so that I can handle a glass or three over both lunch and dinner, not to mention an occasional mitz y mitz between, I read in the IHT that the European Union wants to mess with the European, actually French, wine-producing system (article linked below).

The problem is that with virtually every state in the United States, not to mention Australian, Chile, and others producing better and better wines, the demand for European wine (again, read French) has declined; and so vintners each year are left with many left over bottles.

They have figured out a solution to that—via EU agricultural subsidies, buy the excess wine from the producers and turn it into industrial alcohol. Tres elegant. But it does get money into the hands of the wine growers and to many of them that’s all they really care about because, in truth, a great deal of wine being produced in Europe, and yes also France is, how shall I put this, swill.

Actually, that’s part of the problem too—the hegemonic hold that French, Italian, and Spanish producers have had for centuries is being successfully challenged by the production of very high quality wines from all over the world.

The EU’s agricultural commissioner is formulating proposals that would change the system—begin to end subsidies for overproduction and let market conditions prevail. In theory this should put pressure on winemakers to enhance the quality of their wines. But it’s my guess that her proposals have very little chance of being approved since farmers and wine growers are a very powerful lobby across Europe and to them, if via subsidies their excess wine is destined to be turned into rubbing alcohol, then what’s the problem?

One proposal not on the table is to turn the surplus wine into fuel for cars—that would be one way to chip away at another hegemony—the stranglehold Middle East oil producers have on the “developed” world. Actually, some conversion of wine to, in effect, petrol is already occurring.

But as one might imagine, as if this situation isn’t complicated enough, there is also the feeling in parts of France that this surplus in wine is all the fault of, yes, America. At least to one producer, Serge Azais, from the Languedoc region, which produces, I admit, some of my favorite wines; and it is also the region of my favorite heresy, but that’s for another blog. Monsieur Azais claims that “If the British [OK, the British are at fault too] and Americans had better taste, I wouldn’t have to destroy so much of my wine.”

Excuse moi, I think I do have good taste and I do know your wine--it would do much better in my car than in my glass.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

June 21, 2006--The Red Fur Hat

It all began so simply in 1863. That is if you consider carnage simple. Swiss humanitarian Henry Dunant founded the Red Cross then after witnessing in horror the unattended casualties, left to die after a battle between Austrian and Franco-Sardinian forces. His vision for the Red Cross was and is to help all, regardless of nationality, who are in dire need.

So why then in Islamic lands do we have the Red Crescent (moon or sword?) and not the Red Cross? Because the Red Cross’s cross reminds Moslem people of the Crusades and that for them is a problem. Never mind that the Red Cross emblem is the inverse of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background. Or that the cross itself in the Red Cross symbol is hardly suited to a crucifixion. It’s just not the right shape.

But though Islamic concerns were addressed we now have a problem with the Israelis who want nether the cross nor the crescent. They have been kept out of the Red Cross/Crescent until there could be international agreement about what might be acceptable to them. They settled on an emblem which consists of a blank, red-bordered square standing on one corner—sort of a Red Diamond? Not sure that is the best way to represent the Jewish Red Cross considering who controls the international diamond industry. There is a piece about this flap (linked below), which has been going on for decades of course, in The International Herald Tribune, which is owned and published by the NY Times so I consider it appropriate to mine for this blog.

OK, let’s assume that they strike a deal for the Israelis by bringing the Palestinians into the International Red Cross at the same time. Actually, it would be good to see some examples of this kind of compromising in that part of the world.

But then, what about other excluded groups—what, for example might be the emblem for the Mormon Red Whatever—the Red Bee? For the Amish? How about the Red Beard? For Hindus—easy, the Red Cow. The Jains—the Red Ant? The Buddhists—it’s hard to represent but I suggest the Red Ommmm. For the Hassidim it of course has to be the Red Fur Hat. And for the Black Muslims? The Red Bow Tie.

Is everybody happy? Good. I’ve earned my vino. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

June 20, 2006--Dying Old

For someone in my circumstances—getting on in years yet blessed with a much younger wife—the news reported in the NY Times is encouraging that the gap in life expectancies between men and women is narrowing (article linked below). In fact it is narrowest right now since 1946, when I suppose men stopped being killed in the Second World War!

But, the Times reports alas, if current trends continue, the gap won’t close until about 2056, fifty years from now. Little good that will do me! But what about those of you who will be around at that time? How is life likely to be different?

First of all, if old folks worry a lot about money, women who as a result will be much less likely to be widowed, will have more of it—men will be around to collect social security (if the system isn’t bankrupt) and men still have more income from pensions then women.

Also, since men now begin to fail much earlier than women and thus require the care that their wives provide, men in the future who will be living longer will be more available than at present to provide assistance to their wives.

But for this to be true much more needs to change than just the death gap. We do not as yet know the long-term effects of recent decades’ move toward gender equity; but studies show that though income gaps may have narrowed, the care gap remains pretty much the same, with women disproportionately doing most of the care giving.

As one woman in her 70s recently shot back, when her husband asked if they were ready to move into assisted-living, “He’s had assisted-living for the past 40 years!”

I haven’t done any formal studies of this issue, but from the experience of my life, many women of a certain age that I have known would be happy to forgo the little extra there would be in the bank account if their husbands lived longer or the begrudging help they might be willing to provide in an emergency—let’s be honest, how many men even now leap at the opportunity to accompany their wives to medical tests—they would be willing to forego this for a little peace, a little respite from having to wait on their princes hand and foot. They probably wouldn’t admit it in public, but I suspect that more women than one might imagine are not so happy about this demographic trend.

Did I ever tell you about my Aunt Fay and Uncle Harry . . . ?

Monday, June 19, 2006

June 19, 2006--Monday On Mallorca

In our village, Puerto Andratx, at the western-most extreme of Mallorca, for centuries, men, men only, set out to sea every morning, before dawn to fish the Mediterranean. Though the Sea some claim is being fished out, we still await their return in the afternoons in the hope they will bring back some merlusa or lubina for our dinner. Either, simply cooked on the plancha—a hot steel plate--sprinkled with Mallorcan olive oil but especially with locally gathered salt, also from the Sea, is a nightly treat. Some call it the Mediterranean Diet; we call it heaven.

At the next town east, Camp de Mar, an over-developed spot where Claudia Schiffer has a place, though somewhat spoiled by all the building, there is an almost perfect beach where children, and some adults, lie naked in the sand and tentatively take to the water—it still carries a chill.

Beyond the beach, approached only by a 100 meter long wood planked walkway, half a meter wide, is a small island, actually a craggy, flat-topped rock. On which there is perched a restaurant, well-named La Isla. One would think it is a Mallorquine tourist trap—there are quite a few of those—that serves more-or-less fresh fish for a price. Actually, it is run by a local family and prepares and serves the freshest fish in the area, simply prepared, and at modest cost. sardinas a la plancha, for example, is six Euros—about seven dollars—and for this you get six or seven crackling sardines, also salted, a salad, a small tub of local olives, fresh baked hard rolls, and a glass or two of vino blanco, each about two Euros. Divine. And what a view back to the beach, out to sea, or off to the Tramuntana Mountains.

The other day we had come to the end of our sardines and were still on our third glass of vino, it was about four in the afternoon, and right on schedule the daily Llevant wind came up from the east to cool the air. We had been watching some children toss bits of bread into the water to attract the fish, easily visible in the clear water. That’s how one passes a few hours on a June day on Mallorca—a little food, wine, watching the kids chum for fish.

To alter things that day, just outside the boundaries of the restaurant, near to our seaside table, an old man with a fishing rod and a creel, clearly a local, came along; and while sitting on the rocks, baited his hook with a large chunk of bread and began to cast his line out, of course quite expertly. We thought, aha, the children had been attracting fish with the feedings and he was now here to take advantage of the situation—using, cleverly, bread as bait. We wondered, though, about the size of the bread pieces that he was casting out away from the island, but assumed he had been doing this for at least 40 years and thus knew what he was up to, what would work.

In fact, he managed to catch nothing in that spot during the next half hour and so picked himself up, we assumed in frustration, and moved over to sit on the wooden bridge to try his luck there. He did the same thing—baiting his hook with what looked like half a roll and continued repeatedly to flip his line out to sea. With the same results.

After another half hour, we were well onto our fourth or fifth glasses, memories grow hazy in this sun and it might have been just fifteen minutes, he closed his creel, disassembled his rod, and left. We thought how sad—he had come all this way and achieved nothing. And how much grief would he get from his wife! He was supposed to have brought home something for dinner.

But then wondered—what did we achieve that afternoon? Not very much. Actually, just the right amount of nothing.

And came to conclude that he was there, in fact, not fishing, but rather feeding the fish. Along with the children.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

June 17, 2006--Saturday Story: "Bull Gang"--Part Two

Part One (posted below on June 10th) found Heshy and the soon-to-be-named Lloyd struggling to survive as members of the Bull Gang, relegated to long days of unloading trucks delivering sheet metal duct work to the fifty-storey Tishman Building under construction on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The pay is good for a summer job, the boys are between their second and third years of college; and by working together, these formerly inseparable friends, were reunited after going somewhat different ways after having grown up on the streets and vacant lots of East Flatbush in Brooklyn. The Bull Gang is led by the notorious Eddie Ribori who, with his band of misfits looking on gleefully, on their first day on the job assigned derisive nicknames to our heroes—Heshy became Big Dick, for indelicate reasons, while his partner, for obvious reasons, was baptized Joe College. We find them then at the end of Part One being warned by Eddie that “construction sites are very dangerous places” and unless their work improves they may experience that danger first hand.

In Part Two, which follows, we . . .


“Now let’s get to work,” Eddie bellowed, signally the fun was finally over, “and you two, Joe College and Big Dick, there’s a truck waiting by the hoist for you to unload. And make it quick. The driver has half a load for us and then he has to take the rest to another job downtown.”

“But what about the fan?” I somehow managed to stammer at Eddie Ribori’s back as he and his band of three had tuned toward the elevator that would take them up to the twentieth floor.

Eddie Ribori wheeled to glare at me. “I told you two that there’s a truck in the street that needs unloading. Let’s see if you can get that done before the end of the week or one of you slices off a thumb. So make sure you keep at least one stuffed in your ears at all times.”

And again to gales of derisive laughter Eddie and his men marched off, leaving us on our own, with our new names, to deal with the truck. Which as promised was waiting on 54th Street by the construction hoist, a makeshift-looking elevator structure of metal piping, wire, wood beams, and slats that rose the full height of the building and was used by Bull Gangs and laborers to hoist from the street cinder blocks and mortar, coils of electrical cable, wall boards, pipes, kegs of iced beer (it was hot after all!), and in our case sections of sheet metal ducts that had been fabricated in Apex’s shop in Long Island City and which now needed to be off-loaded from Uncle Ralph’s truck and delivered to the seventeenth floor where a gang of his Tin Knockers awaited their arrival so they could assemble them, screwing them together, seven-foot section to seven-foot section, until they were joined into long lines of ducts that they would then hang, affixed to steel rods that had been inserted into the underside of the poured concrete eighteenth floor, the floor above, and where, when installed, they would wait, hidden from view and awareness, behind finished and buffed dropped ceilings, the eventual arrival of typists and file clerks who would be cooled by the silent rush of air through hot summer Augusts and made toasty by heated air during the depths of Decembers.

The Apex truck was double-parked and causing such an early-morning nightmare for the coagulating cross-town traffic that its driver, Stewie Slotman, when we finally arrived, was already in such a state of agitation that his entire body was shaking as if he had just emerged from a long season of shock therapy. He was so roiled by the commotion in the street that he had lost his battle with what we subsequently realized were nervous tics. They moved in waves from his feet to his head and, for him, were so seismic that he could not make himself understood, except though strings of twitches in his face, where they were most expressive. This was also how he earned his nickname, Twitch.

It was clear from his condition, if we wanted to get the truck unloaded before he required resuscitation that we had better jump up onto it and get started.

There would be no instructions, no orientation about how to unload a truck. Nothing of the kind I had received about how to use the equipment in the chem lab at college. It was simply, “Get the fuck up there. I can’t wait all day for you faggots to get going. I’ve got Steam Fitters waiting to use this friggin hoist in an hour.” Just this from Vito (the Provolone) Provenzano, the hoist operator, who we later learned required twenty dollars cash to allow Apex or All City Electric to use his equipment even though Uncle Ralph and his contractor colleagues had to pay $100 an hour, on the books, for its use. Lou Wasserman slipped the Provolone the former; Apex’s comptroller the latter. It all worked very well.

Heshy and I, on the other hand, didn’t. While attempting to hop up onto the truck bed with the ease and grace of someone who had been doing it for twenty years, Heshy slammed a leg into the rear of the truck with such force that he was thrust back into the street where he fell under the wheels of a rampaging taxi which had just finished crawling toward the corner where we were and was in a such frenzy to at last make it across Fifth Avenue that, if he hadn’t managed to swerve, that Monday would have been Heshy’s first and last day on the job.

With considerable embarrassment, accompanied by shrieks of pleasure from the very amused Provolone, Heshy picked himself up from the pavement and managed to scramble up onto the truck to join me with the help of a boost from the equally convulsed Twitch, a leg up which he had already administered to me, so that now both of us were in place and ready to unload the ducts that were standing on-end as if in columns.

Twitch had lashed them with ropes to the truck body so they would not come crashing down as he bumped his way from the shop in Queens to Manhattan. But when I finally managed to untangl the rope, with the unforgotten skills I had acquired while a Boy Scout, which Twitch had secured with no less than a dozen improvised knots, when I then with visible pride turned to be acknowledged by Heshy and maybe even Provolone for my achievement, the entire bundle of ducts came crashing down on me, with one of them slicing into my left thumb. This sent blood spurting and Twitch racing as if in a seizure to get the first aid kit from the cab of the truck, something he regularly needed to do for new Bull Gang members since the ends of sheet metal ducts were as sharp and raw as scalpels and show-off klutzes like me were always self-amputating body parts their first week on the job.

Fortunately, my cut, though deep, closed quickly under the butterfly bandage that Twitch applied, and I still had both thumbs.

I thought then that maybe we had in fact been offered a little orientation from Eddie Ribori—from then on, though I didn’t keep at least one thumb in my ear, I did get a good pair of work gloves and kept my eyes more on the ducts than Twitch or Vito Provolone. It was just get the friggin ducts onto the hoist and move on to the next thing.

* * *

We spent the entire first month pretty much doing nothing other than unloading trucks which were arriving with fuller loads and, after our first week, twice a day since the pace of work had picked up—the Tishmans’ wanted to have their building completed and occupied ahead of the original schedule to take advantage of the increasing demand for office space. The city was booming while I was floundering. It wasn’t as if I kept slicing off my fingers—I had solved that problem with the gloves and by keeping a lookout for duct avalanches--it was more that I was feeling frustrated that we were still mired in the routine work of unloading trucks and schlepping ducts to the hoist. I had not forgotten about the true work of the Bull Gang—it was all about moving those mammoth fans. I wanted to put my hands on them.

True, Eddie and his three senior crew members were so occupied with those blowers, now working up on the fortieth floor, also the result of the Tishmans’ accelerated schedule, that they left us more or less alone, except in the mornings, having just the time then, at the shanty before work started, to shoot us a few zingers—The Man-Mountain, “Hey Joe College, read any good books lately?” He paused to set up the punch line. “I mean the ones without the pictures!” Even our defender Lou Wasserman liked that one and couldn’t help chuckling. The Turnip, “Say Big Dick, I hear you sit on the back of the truck all day trying to look down girls’ dresses.” He would then turn to the Parrot knowing he would really like what was coming, “or is it the dresses not the tits you’re interested in?” That in fact was always the Parrot’s favorite and send him into bursts of high-pitched whistles.

The Bull, Eddie Ribori surprisingly joined the ribaldry only occasionally. If I thought he was capable of such an emotion, I would have said he seemed sad, even depressed. But not depressed enough to deter him one morning from savaging us before all the assembled mechanics. “Everyone here is busting their chops to get this fuckin job done. Even working ten, twelve hours overtime every week. In this heat. Their kids are home from school and the guys come home dragging their tails so tired they can’t play with them or take them to a ball game or nothing. And what do I hear from that Ginny Provolone? That you guys are either sitting on your asses or taking so long to hoist a load that the mechanics up on the twenty-third, twenty-fourth floors have to sit around waiting for the tin to get to them so they can get the job done and get home to their people. No one’s complaining about the overtime money. Everyone likes a little Sweet Time; but unless you clean up your act, I don’t care, Mr. College, if Uncle Ralpie Boy is your rabbi. As I told you once, and I don’t intend to tell you again, if you get my drift, construction is a very dangerous place to work.”

With that ominous warning hanging in the dusty air, and to complete silence, in single file like a wounded platoon, Ribori lead his men to the elevator and back up to fan room on the fortieth floor.

Heshy and I were made nervous enough by Eddie’s threat and took it so seriously that we struggled furiously all morning with a full load of ducts to get them off the truck and onto the hoist in, for us, record time. We had images of Tin Knockers sitting on their asses all over the building site talking about how our laziness and incompetence was leading to an increase in the divorce rate of sheet metal workers all over the city and causing their kids to turn to drugs since their dad’s never had time any more to take them to a ball game at Yankee Stadium.

The Provolone, though, appeared to be dragging his feet even more than unusual that morning, busting our chops if there were too many ducts piled on top of each other on his hoist--the twenty dollars cash extorted by him for each truckload was supposed to help him not notice these “safety violations.” It was as if word of what Ribori had threatened had filtered down to him and thus if he could help slow things down enough so that we wouldn’t be able to get the ducts up to the men so they could get home in time to have dinner with their kids, then maybe he would be witness to just how dangerous a construction site might be for two wise-ass college boys. That would break up the monotony of his day.

But in spite of Provolone’s best attempts to hold us back, with the extra rush of adrenaline shot through our systems by Ribori’s threat, we did manage to get the load to the men before lunch and thus felt we had dodged a bullet, perhaps literally, at least for the morning.

So over lunch, which was a gulped-down pepper-and-egg hero and a can of Ballantine, I counted the number of work days remaining before the start of the fall semester. Unfortunately, though I counted three times to be sure, there were still twenty-eight very long and dangerous days to go. I couldn’t quit—forget the money, I would never again be able to face my Uncle or father if I wimped out. And there was no way I could tell Uncle Ruby about what Ribori had said. That would be worse. I needed to find a way to stick it out while not getting killed.

We made it through the next two hours and then later that day, during the afternoon break, when all the men were gathered in the street beside the hoist where the coffee wagon was set up, just as I caught myself again counting days, thinking that maybe I had missed a holiday, no such luck, Joe Muri the mechanic from our neighborhood came to squat beside the moping and exhausted Heshy and me. Joe Muri, who had told Eddie Ribori about Heshy’s nickname. Something that was still so rankling Heshy that he turned his back to him when Muri sat down.

“I hear you guys are having a few difficulties,” Joe had never spoken to us before either on the job or back in Brooklyn. He had been a semi-pro football player before tearing up his knees and becoming a Tin Knocker, and on our block the status of both was such that there was no way that he would acknowledge much less speak to losers such as the two of us. Also, as one of the few Italians in our decidedly Jewish neighborhood, he held those of our persuasion in thinly-disguised contempt. Nothing personal, or even especially bigoted, but that’s just the way it was. So it was to say the least unusual, perhaps unprecedented that he would approach the likes of Heshy and me.

“Looking at me now,” and he looked at himself as he sent a wave of flexing muscles across his body—from his bulging tri- and biceps to his astonishing pecs and on down to his famous Six Pack, “I know you will not believe this but when I was in your shoes, an apprentice mechanic just beginning, I made a mistake during my first week, also working trucks, that cost my partner an eye.” Heshy, not believing his ears, this confession of fallibility, turned back toward Joe. “I know, you think I’m making this up, but trust me this is a true story. I almost quit. Me, Joe Muri, offensive guard for the Brooklyn Mavericks thought about quitting. I, who once played a whole half on a broken ankle. Believe it. I gave it serious thought.” Heshy looked at him skeptically, as if he doubted Muri’s capacity to give anything serious thought. We Jews, also, didn’t think very highly of the Italians.

“So what happened?” Eager now to find out, we leaned closer so as not to miss a word. “I’ll tell you what happened. There was this guy, I think your uncle would still remember him, at the time, and I’m talking ten, fifteen years ago, the only one of you co-religionists on the job, this fellow Solly Shapiro, I think they called him the Weasel he was so smart and slippery, well Solly took me under his wing and showed me a few things and the next thing you know I was a full-fledged mechanic, even a crew leader.”

I was puzzled, wondering why he was even talking to us at all much less telling us these things about himself—this neighborhood legend who was reputed to have been shot in the stomach once but not wounded because the bullet couldn’t penetrate his rock-hard solar plexus and had thus that day earned, not been given, but earned the nickname Superman. “I’ll tell you why I’m telling you these things,” it was as if he had read my mind—even in that he had Man-of-Steel powers, “It’s because one time Lloyd,” he even knew my name! “after I was injured and down and out and feeling sorry for myself,” he peered at me; were there tears inconceivably forming in his eyes, “It was during that time when your father and his Uncle Herman owned that parking garage in Park Slope, remember that, well he took me on and gave me a job just when I needed it more than anything. I’ll never forget him for that. And then later, when I was all healed up, your father, without me asking him, talked to his bother about helping me get into the Tin Knocker’s union.” I had not known any of that.

“So now I’m going to return the favor and help you out. And him too,” he said, tossing a gesture in Heshy’s direction. He had regained his composure and was Joe Muri again. “I’m going to show you a few tricks about how to get a truck unloaded and the stuff up to the guys in time for them to get the job done. And I guarantee you that this’ll also get that clown Ribori off your back.”

And he did. After work that day he took Heshy and me to a workers bar back in Brooklyn and gave us the orientation that we had craved that first day.

He told us that as an old Bull Gang guy he had been observing how we worked. Our problem, he said over his second beer, was that we were working separately, as individuals and not as a team. He put his arm around my shoulder. It was so dense with bands of muscle that I almost collapsed under its weight. “The one thing I learned from being on the Mavericks is that no matter how good you might be what really matters is how you play together as a team. I know, you’re thinking right now, ‘Big deal. To tell us such obvious bullshit he sat us down in this ginmill.’ Well, you may think you know that but, from what I seen of you, you sure aren’t putting it into practice. You’re working like you don’t even know each other.” And during the next half hour he critiqued our truck and hoist techniques and gave us a dozen pointers about how to work as a team.

After Joe paid and left, thinking further about what Joe had had to say about our shortcomings and what he told us was required to do the job well, I had to admit that I should have perceived on my own that what had seemed such a simple, even menial job was actually quite complex and to be successful not only required coordinated effort but also considerable thought. Having seen myself as existing in a higher plain being than the other men, analytical thought, was not something I had assumed working on a Bull Gang required. In my mind it had simply been about fifteen-dollar-an-hour schlepping. Heshy, enigmatically, simply smiled at me when I made this confession. I needed another beer.

The next morning we began to implement Joe’s suggestions. One involved my no longer working on my own up on the truck disentangling the ducts and then one by one tossing or pulling them to the open end where Heshy, standing on the street, waited for them before walking them to the hoist where he, by himself, would stack them. Now we both jumped up onto the truck and did the disentangling together; and then, after having pulled aside enough to constitute a full hoist-load, hopped off and together carried the ducts, three at a time to where Provolone stood, no longer smirking since even he had to acknowledge that we were working together like a real crew. And since we carried the ducts to the hoist also as a team of two, by selecting which to bring we could pick three--a large one which we carried between us, and two smaller ones which we each could carry with our free arms. Three for the price of two!

We were feeling quite proud of ourselves as it was clear as immediately as lunch beak that day that by working as Joe had taught us we had increased our production so that even Provolone was off our backs. And by the end of the day, when we returned to the shanty to change into street clothes, for the first time since we had begun, now a month ago, Eddie Ribori and his men ignored us. Which we took to be a good sign.

* * *

Most evenings after work I was so exhausted from laboring in the boiling air, it was turning out to be the hottest, most humid summer on record, I devoured a quick dinner (“He’s still a growing boy,” my father would proclaim), watched a ball game on TV, and fell asleep on the sofa before the fifth inning.

But on the weekends, I would take the subway to the City to be with Sigrid. Heshy remained in the neighborhood to help out in his father’s store—Perly’s Glass Works, he was a glazier—and to see his voluptuous girlfriend, Rochelle, one of the Siegel Twins, who lived around the corner. She was someone Heshy had had his eyes and hands on since elementary school.

Sigrid was a year ahead of me at Barnard, studying Existential Philosophy, and had a job working with her professor assisting him with a paper he was preparing to be delivered in French at a conference in the fall, in Fontainebleau, on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (L’Etre et le Neant). Something about how consciousness is transcendent. She did not need the five dollars an hour he was paying her—she had all the money she required for her apartment on West End Avenue; her twice-weekly riding lessons in Central Park; her British Racing Green MG; her devotion to fine wines, exclusively French; and her much-celebrated dinner parties, soirees, for which she did all the cooking and featured, at the end, her famous Chocolate Bavarian, which she served in a dark mountain in her great-grandmother’s silver tureen.

The money arrived discreetly each month from Düsseldorf, transferred to her personal banker on Madison Avenue by her widowed mother, who carefully nurtured the family fortune which, Sigrid hinted, was largely derived from ancestral lands. Though Sigrid may not have needed his money, Professor Evan Anthony needed her to translate his academic English since, she told me privately, he barely “had” French because, like me, he was from Brooklyn and originally had a name that had as little to do with an Evan and even less an Anthony than my newly acquired ability to pronounce Long Island as two separate words.

I met the Baroness Sigrid von Hauptmann after my roommate Jerry Tuba ended his torrid affair with her and disappeared. She had remembered me as Jerry’s friend when she found me one afternoon in the Columbia Music Library, struggling haplessly with the score to one of Beethoven’s late quartets. Without Jerry to guide me I was pretty much lost.

A cappuccino (she took me too her cafe) quickly led to dinner (she picked the restaurant, Le Cote Basque); chose the wines (a lovely Sancerre Sec to begin followed by a properly aged Puligny Montrachet); paid for the two of us (les escargots et entrecots were both tres cher); took me to her apartment (with the sweeping views Jerry had languidly described); which in turn, before that glorious first day was over, led to her taking me into her arms, her bed, and to erotic places I had up to that time only imagined during endless adolescent nights of self-administered release.

Throughout that year with Sigrid, she seemed more interested in my, to her, exotic life than in any of my ideas or interests, much less anything I was capable of doing for her or to her in what she referred to as her “chambers.” As we lay together, smoking Galoise, in what was now my moonlight, not the moonlight of Jerry’s stories about his nights with Sigrid, she would ask me, “Lloyd,” my name never sounded so luscious as when Sigrid rolled it out in two syllables, “when Ll-oyd vil you take me to see your Brooklyn. You always promise but then, my sweetie, you never do. You are teasing me, no? I want to see that baseball field where the Dodgers play and Coney Island where I want to ride on the roller coaster. I never did that as a girl in Germany, it was so terrible there. And I want to see your house and meet your friends. Not your Columbia friends. They are such boys. I want especially to meet that Heshy, is that his name, the one about whom you tell such funny stories. Did you really, in your school, have a class in how to shower? That is so amusing.” She, all of her, as she lay against me, quivered with laughter.

* * *

And so we picked a weekend for her visit. Though she pressed me to use her MG, even generously saying I could drive it, I preferred to take my father’s car into the city to get Sigrid. It was respectable enough, a two-year old 1957 yellow, black-topped Chevrolet convertible. And I thought Sigrid would be all right about being seen in it with me, even with the top down. I was, as might be expected, nervous about bringing her into my world since I was interested in getting as far away from it as Manhattan and Columbia would allow. But she was so eager, so casually calm about what might be awaiting her, and I was so giddy from infatuation, that I put aside my doubts and, after picking her up, drove us proudly back over the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Baroness by my side, with the Brooklyn wind whipping her incredible, blonde German hair.

This was to be quite a different day than those on the Bull Gang.

To be continued . . . .

Friday, June 16, 2006

June 16, 2006--Fanaticism XXXIX--Off With His Head!

Did you read about the professor who stumbled upon the fact that he was a descendent of Genghis Khan’s?

Tom Robinson, a mild-mannered professor of accounting who lives in Florida, was identified as the descendent of the fierce Mongol warlord.

A British company, Oxford Ancestors, searching its client database to find matches with Genghis Khan, discovered that Robinson is one of his long-lost relatives. He is also the first man of European or American background to be so designated. Robinson had contributed a sample of his DNA to the company for another purpose and his genetic history popped out unexpectedly when Oxford widened its search for Khan relatives.

Apparently, Genghis Kahn’s seed was widely sown when he was out and about conquering the world and pillaging and raping. He was reputed to have also had the largest harem in the history of the world so there are literally millions of individuals in, how shall I put this, his extended family.

The DNA-based science that has reshaped our knowledge of when humans came out of Africa and when and where they went next is now being used for other, very different purposes. According to a report in the NY Times, for a few hundred bucks you can send a swab of cells from your inner cheek to places such as Oxford and, viola, before too long may also discover you are one of Kahn’s descendents. (See full article linked below.)

This form of commercial DNA genealogy is still in its infancy but already patterns are emerging: In England, for example, where class and status have for so long been associated with one’s ancestors, few are happy when the test results come back indicating you are, say, a descendent of Jack the Ripper. Rather the more popular is to find that you have William the Conqueror in your gene pool. Or at the very least, one of his barons. In the American South, being a descendent of Robert E. Lee trumps anyone else. No matter that the South lost the war.

And then of course there is the ever popular Marie-Antoinette who, though she lost her head, did leave some hair behind which was used to map her DNA, and so in this way she is giving everlasting pleasure to her descendents ten generations later.

Professor Robinson, though he wasn’t given a DNA test as a birthday present (this is now quite popular), is sort of pleased to be related to the great Genghis—he is quoted as noting that he, Robinson, has some pretty good administrative skills which after all Khan needed to manage his vast empire, not to mention his harem.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

June 15, 2006--Multiple Choice

This one should be easy—is the answer (a); (b); (c); or (d), all of the above? Though there is no prize this time for the right answer.

From a story in the NY Times (linked below) about financial corruption, we learn that one person stayed more than two months on the government tab at a luxury hotel in Hawaii; in another instance someone was given money to buy NFL football tickets, used government money to run up a restaurant bill of more than $200 that included a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne (must have been non-vintage), and on the government tab had at an “all-inclusive, weeklong Caribbean vacation.”

So, were the perpetrators (a) Members of Congress; (b) Halliburton executives; (c) New Orleans evacuees; or (d) all of the above?

Would it help if I added, from the same article, that there were gross overpayments made to the individuals or company that government auditors missed for more than a year? And that the government still does not know the full extent of the fraud and/or over billing? It is though estimated that it could total as much as $1.4 billion.

All right, I’ve tortured you enough. The answer is (b) Halliburton. Actually, I’m lying; the correct answer is (c), New Orleans evacuees.

But isn’t the real story that an almost equally good answer is (d), all of the above. Actually, isn’t the real story that even today, after being pounded upon relentlessly, the Office of Homeland Security and FEMA still don’t have their acts together? I think though that the really real story is how FEMA and Homeland Security and Halliburton have slipped off the screen and that the headlines are now not about them but about “welfare cheats” getting away with murder in New Orleans.

Obviously it is outrageous that people are scamming the government in this and worse ways, but at least in some perverse manner we can at least understand why desperately poor people might try to get away with whatever they can. Again, this is not to excuse this behavior but simply to point out that there are more despicable felonies being committed and ignored by those who are supposed to protect and represent us. But from that we’ve moved on.

I’m out of range of Fox News, thankfully, but I can only imagine what I might be hearing nightly on The O’Reilly Factor.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

June 14, 2006--Le No Makeup

I’m back in Europe again. I’m getting nice and relaxed—mucho vino helps with that—and since it’s summer and the French have to wait yet six more weeks for their vacances, I thought I’d leave them alone. But then I came across an article in the NY Times that set me off (it’s linked below).

It’s about makeup, yes makeup. I know you’re saying “Relax, you’re on vacation, they aren’t. So just calm down. Don’t get your pants in a bunch about, of all things, cosmetics.” I ask, though, for a little indulgence, to make my case, and then let’s see if you still will be urging me to be cool.

The piece starts off benignly enough—it seems that French women don’t wear makeup. Or at least they apply it in a manner so as to make it appear that they aren’t wearing any. Sounds good. I think it’s working. Don’t you agree that French women look great?

But in the very next sentence, Laura Mercier, the French creator of a line of cosmetics is quoted as saying, “It really astonishes me the way American women wear so much makeup. Even teenage girls are overly made-up.” She could have stopped right there—no foul, no offense, but she can’t resist and continues, “And when you’re overly made-up, you send out the message that you are overly sexual, that you want to attract men.”

I am far from an authority on the history of cosmetics—why women from prehistoric times have adorned and painted themselves. I assume, no, to attract men. Darwin, help me here?

It gets worse—OK, even most Americans think Paris Hilton is “too much,” and Britney Spears is everyone’s favorite Schadenfreudian personality—sorry I missed her weepy appearance with Matt Lauer. (You see even I can’t resist making fun of her.) But come on, the French the Times reports, give Madonna a pass because she is viewed as “a hardnosed businesswoman”? And Jennifer Lopez “doesn’t count” because she is Hispanic? Give me a break--she was born in the Bronx!

No wonder all those Islamic-French, excuse-moi, those French, are rioting in the streets. Of course I am transgressing here by creating this hyphenated Islamic-French identity. No such concept exists in France. So drop the “Islamic” part since the French have a fiction that everyone who is a citoyen is just French—those from Gabon as well as those whose families have been in France since Charlemagne. Sure.

But to be fair, the French also have it in for Catherine Deneuve. She is mocked because ff her descent into “facial intervention” (i.e. plastic surgery) and painted face. “Poor Catherine,” moans Terry de Gunzburg, also the creator of a line of cosmetics, “She let herself get hooked by the syndrome of Dorian Gray, of eternal youth. It’s sad.

Speaking of sad, I need to do a little research about “name intervention”—Terry de Gunzburg, indeed. Not in my neighborhood.

On the other hand, “Vino mas, por favor.”