Monday, July 31, 2006

July 31, 2006--An Army of Lovers

I've been waiting for this to happen. When some gays would say, "Enough already with this marriage business. We want to go back to having fun--to being gay. What's so 'gay' about getting married? Just look around you. Most hetero married folks are miserable and can't wait to get divorced. For example, look at poor Paul McCartney."

So I was delighted that some gay individuals and groups, responding to the recent court decisions in New York and Washington that banned gay marriage, spoke out against the very desirability of marriage itself. Bill Dobbs, for example, who is gay, says it “turns his stomach” every time he sees pictures of gay couples cuddling dogs and children (see NY Times story linked below). He and others liken this push to legalize gay marriage to be ironically similar to the conservative emphasis on “family values.” And they do not want any part of that.

To them, fighting back at the Stonewall was not about securing the right to marry, having children, getting health benefits, and winding up in divorce court. It was to assert the right to enjoy a fully open “gay lifestyle.” Mr. Dobbs and others look back wistfully to the good-old-days of free love in the clubs and bathhouses.

They wonder if monogamy is in fact normal and why gay men and women are buying into institutions that they see to be repressive. They seek “sexual generosity” or a return to the 1970s concept when many gays considered themselves to be an “army of lovers.”

Also of interest, as opposed to mainstream gay groups that resist the idea that gayness is a choice of a lifestyle, maintaining that it is biologically determined (opponents of gay rights say it is about lifestyle and gays should just straighten out), these dissenters prefer the idea that people opt or choose to be gay. This of course complicates the legal argument, which claims that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals since gayness is hardwired. But gays who oppose the agenda of traditional gay rights groups that focus so exclusively on marriage do not want to be held hostage by them or their notions of “proper” gay behavior.

The same day that a court in Washington State joined New York in ruling against gay marriage, a group of social activists that included Gloria Steinem and Cornel West published a manifesto called “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” which called for extending legal rights to marry to “extended families living under one roof” (polygamists?) and “close friends in long-term caregiving relationships.”

Reading about all of this, I realized that my cross-country meanderings are over and I’m back in New York City. As Dorothy learned, I realized that I’m not in Kansas anymore.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

July 29, 2006--Saturday Story: "The Club"--Part Four

The Club--Part Four

In Part Three, after their round of golf at Dyker Beach, Lloyd was invited to have dinner at the Traubs. From what Dicky had told him about his own woeful situation at college, the fact that he had been placed on academic probation and that his mother would undoubtedly attempt to motivate Dicky by holding up before him Lloyd’s glowing example of success at Columbia, Lloyd realized that out of loyalty to his best friend he needed to be careful in what he revealed, even though in truth he had decidedly not excelled either academically or athletically. But in spite of his best efforts, lured by the alluring Mrs. Traub, who insisted on being called “Trudy,” he wound up making matters worse for Dicky. So much so that their friendship might have suffered strain. As evidence of that breech, they only managed to play golf twice more during that endless summer, while Lloyd took a course at Brooklyn College (did poorly); taught himself the shot-put (eventually “put” it 24 feet); and wound up with a job in the Bronx at his uncle’s meat processing plant (kept Uncle Eli out of trouble with the Macy’s buyer); and then most surprising of all, found himself invited to a Labor Day weekend dinner-dance at the Traub’s club. Mrs. Traub herself doing the inviting.

In Part Four, which follows . . .

Mrs. Traub told me that I could unfasten my cummerbund and take off my rented tux jacket as we crept along in their Imperial, mired in end of summer traffic, on the Long Island Expressway, crawling toward the North Shore, Manhasset, and their club. “You’ll be more comfortable and they will be less wrinkled. We want you looking handsome when we show you off at the club,” she added with a wink that she relayed back to me via the rearview mirror.

Dicky and I were crunched together, our ungainly legs entangled in the backseat, perhaps recementing our relationship.

It was late afternoon. We had left earlier than necessary to get to the pre-dinner cocktail hour because Mrs. Traub wanted Dicky to give me a tour of the club. “The pass we have for you,” she explained when she called to invite me, “is just for dinner and the dance, not for golf. But Dicky wants you to see the course anyway. So come to our house at 3:00 so there will be time for you to see everything. I know you’ll enjoy that. Dicky will be sure to show you the locker room where he keeps his clubs and golf clothes and who knows what else. It’s very convenient.” So I did arrive as requested; and because of Mrs. Traub’s fine plan, even if it took two hours to get there, there would still be an hour for the tour.

“Sugar, why don’t you take the service road? At least they’re moving”

Dr. Traub just grunted but did begin to inch the car toward the right lane and eventually was able to exit at Little Neck Parkway. Which turned out to be a considerable improvement, even with the frequent traffic lights. We were able to move at twice the rate of those left creeping along the so-called Expressway. Looking over toward them, Dr. Traub spoke, under his breath, the only word I heard him utter during those two uncomfortable hours, “Sheep.”

Mrs. Traub, whose legendary auburn bouffant, even more splendidly assembled for this special occasion, filled the rearview mirror, sent me another complicitous wink.

* * *

The Squirrel Hunt and Racquet Club was in fact magnificent—just as Mrs. Traub had promised. Dr. Traub kindly drove their lustrous Chrysler slowly, processionally up the cobblestone paved circular drive, it must have arced for more than a quarter mile, so I could take in the full expanse of the Tudor structure. It seemed a greatly expanded version of their own house back in East Flatbush. Though it was at least another quarter mile in breadth, I recognized the similar artful integration of latticed brick, fieldstone, and half timbering.

When we finally reached the main entrance, guarded by two massive doors that had what looked like silver armor shields affixed to them, we were greeted by two footmen who were wearing full scarlet hunting outfits complete with jackets with brass buttons and tails, gleaming calf-length boots, and velvet hunting hats. All in spite of the oppressively humid weather. I was struck by the fact that even so they did not even appear to be perspiring while my dress shirt was soaking wet. So much so that I was worried that the studs I borrowed from my father would rust and stain the shirt and I would have to pay extra to clean it when I returned it to Zeller’s Tuxedos.

Tipping their hats, they simultaneously opened both of the car’s front doors and greeted, by name, both Traubs. And after helping them out, with a hand extended for Mrs. Traub who rewarded them with a glittering smile and an extra second’s glimpse of her cleavage, they proceeded to open Dicky’s door, but not mine since I had already done so on my own. I thought I caught my footman frowning, as I stood on the cobblestones, struggling to rehook my cummerbund. I though I heard the one on the other side of the car say, “Welcome Mister Dicky.”

Mrs. Traub was gracious enough to help me reassemble myself and before sending me off with Dicky whispered to me, as if reading my thoughts, “Yes Lorenzo designed the club and then made our little house for us. You have a wonderful eye, Lloyd. And be sure Dicky gets you back to us in an hour. No stops in the Acorn please. There will be time enough for that. You must be on time to thank the Silvergolds for your guest pass. And of course to meet their beautiful daughter, Jewel.”

And with that she gently launched me toward Dicky who was pawing the ground in eagerness for a little time on our own. And as soon as we were alone, he said, “Let’s forget the fucking tour. I’m dying for a drink. A green’s a green, and I can’t believe she wants me to show you the stupid locker room!”

So off we went toward the Acorn Bar. Also clearly designed by Lorenzo—I immediately recognized his unique use of colors and reproductions.

We found two leopard-skin covered bar stools down at the end of the bar that opened onto a slate terrace that swept around the 18th green, which did indeed look like fine carpet even from my perch. This assured that players would have just a short walk to the cool sanctuary of the bar and its offerings.

“My parents think I’m a moron,” Dicky said, unprovoked, while at the same time snapping his fingers in the direction of the bartender who was dressed, it seemed appropriate, in a jockey’s suit since he was so small that just his head appeared over the top of the tin bar. He bounded right over to us.

“How’s it going, Dicky? The usual—Beefeaters and tonic, hold the garbage?”

“Yeah, Snappy, and the same for my pal. Is that OK, Lloyd?” I nodded. “I’m parched. We had some drive out here.” Snappy disappeared under the bar, I assumed to find ice for our drinks. “I mean it,” Dicky turned back to me, “they think I have the brains of a hamster,” he laughed, “and though I’m sure I’m not brilliant like you,” he chuckled again, but this time with a slight touch of malice, “I’m really more of a fuck-up than a retard. That’s why they wouldn’t let me invite Betsy Sue here tonight, to the dinner-dance. My dad assumes that anyone who’s interested in me must either be after my money, which is a joke, or is a bimbo who would embarrass him to his big-shot friends. They should only meet her. She’s the real thing, not a phony like the rest of them.”

Snappy reached up toward us and placed two gin and tonics on the bar. “She’s from California, Santa Barbara, and is staying in New York for the summer with her aunt who lives on West End Avenue. In the city. I met her while riding. She’s an eventer, you know someone who competes in horse shows. Dressage, jumping, all that kind of thing. Of course she only rides English. I’m trying to learn. She’s teaching me. My horse, though, is used to my riding Western so I don’t know how it will work out. But in the meantime she has a whole trophy chest full of cups and ribbons and all my parents have is a cabinet full of pictures of themselves standing in front of the Pyramids.” I smiled at him.

“Do you want to hear the best thing yet?” He had drained his drink and gestured toward Snappy who quickly provided a refill. I indicated I was still OK; I had only sipped at it since I wanted to be careful about how much I drank. “They think Betsy Sue in Colored, a Negro,” he slapped the bar so hard that my drink jumped up off the metal surface. “Because her last name is ‘Robinson.’ When I told my parents about her my father asked if she was related to Jackie. Can you believe it? He’s such an asshole.

“And when I somehow managed to convince them that she wasn’t, and I can’t believe I even entered into the conversation with them, my mother chimed in to say, ‘Then she must be Catholic. Only Catholics have two first names—“Betsy” and “Sue,” which isn’t much better.’ At that point I just checked out. They’re hopeless.”

The irony is that she’s really Jewish!” He grinned at me in the radiant way of the old Dicky I knew so well. Her family name is ‘Rabinowitz.’ Her grandfather came from Russia, from St. Petersburg where he was a violin teacher. A famous one. His best friend was Jascha Heifetz’s teacher. I think his name was Leopold Auer. So many Jews studied the violin there. It was a ticket out of the ghetto, to respectability and a way, they thought, to avoid discrimination and worse--pogroms. For those who got out, like Betsy’s grandparents, it worked. We know what happened to the rest of them.” He sighed. This was not the familiar devil-may-care Dicky. I had no idea he knew about much less cared about any of these subjects.

“So they became ‘Robinsons,’ also to avoid anti-Semitism, here in America, which was then widespread, especially during the Depression when no one had jobs. Can you believe it, my parents, whose families crawled out of shtetls in Poland, really more peasants than scholars,” he laughed again, “they look down their big noses at Betsy’s people.” He gestured toward the entrance to the Acorn as if to dismiss them.

“Then they make fun of my interest in horses, which is also ironic considering my father’s reputation as a ‘sportsman,’ his so-called involvement with the ponies. I’ll tell you what that really means!” He looked around then to make sure we were alone and not being overheard. “One day I’ll tell you the whole story, the truth.” He didn’t remember that as a kid I had worked at Augie’s barbershop, sweeping up the cut hair and running errands, and knew about what went on in the back room, and about his father. But I decided not to say anything, to let him talk.

“I wish they’d just get off my back and let me do what I want to do, what I’m good at. I can make a good life for myself. I tell you if I got a little encouragement from them I could do well enough in college to get into veterinary school. I know you also don’t believe me, you think I don’t have the brains or discipline to do that.” I shook my head, “But you don’t really know me either. You only know the fun-and-games Dicky. Dicky the empty-headed cut up. Well, there’s also another Dicky. Again, not brilliant, I admit that, but fucking smart enough.” He downed the last of his second gin and tonic and Snappy was right there, unsummoned, to get him another.

“You can ask me anything you want about horses, and I don’t mean handicapping bullshit. About that you can ask the great Dr. Traub. And I also don’t mean bridle and saddle talk, though I know that too. In fact, I made my own saddle, and not from a kit, which anyone who knows anything would say is impressive. But I’m talking about equine medicine. I’ve been studying that on my own and when the vet comes to the stable to treat any of the horses he asks me to assist him. I’m not there just shoveling shit, though I do that too and groom all the horses without anyone asking me to. The vet, Dr. Jencks, thinks I’d be a strong candidate for veterinary school, but I’d be crazy to even think about applying unless my parents would be willing to help with the tuition. It costs a fortune and there is very little scholarship money for people from east coast cities whose fathers are rich dentists.”

The bar was filling up. It was close to the time when the dinner was scheduled to begin and other club members were trying to get in a few quick drinks before sitting down in the club’s restaurant. “Just the other day Dr. Jencks was there and one of the horses suffering from constipation.” He winked at me, “You’d think that with all the roughage they eat, their basic diet, that this would be unheard of, but it’s actually quiet common, especially for stabled horses. The treatment is to give the horses laxatives.” He smiled at me, “You know, horse-size suppositories about the size of a big lemon. And guess how they are inserted in the horses’ anus?” He paused, “Right, by hand. And guess who did that the other afternoon?” He waited for me but I just smiled back at him, “Right, your best friend Dicky boy got the assignment.” He again waited for my acknowledgement, and I nodded at him to show that I was impressed.

“So I took that friggin pill in my hand and shoved it, way past my wrist, up that horse’s ass and held it there, waiting for him to relax and suck it in. Which he did.” Now I was indeed impressed.

“It was awesome.” He turned away from me and took a long look out over the steaming golf course.

“That’s what I want to do with my life. And they would love to see my horse sent to the glue factory!”

“Oh there you are, Dicky.” It was Mrs. Traub yodeling to us from the waterfall end of the bar. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere—the Pro Shop, the putting green. I almost went into the men’s locker room.” And with a trill, she quickly added, “But of course I didn’t.”

Hearing that, one club member who must have known her quite well hopped off his barstool and, wrapping an arm around her waist, pulled her to him, grinding his hip against hers, and whispered something right in her ear that so amused her that she squealed with laughter. And she, as if to admonish him, squirmed out of his grasp and gave him a soft punch in the shoulder and a kiss on the cheek while saying, for all to hear, “Oh, Larry, you’re such a bad boy.” All the other men along the bar joined Larry and Mrs. Traub in good natured laughter.

“And Lloyd, darling,” she then turned to me, “the cocktail hour is starting and the Silvergolds are just dying to meet you.”

To be continued . . .

Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28, 2006--Summer Re-Blog III

I am posting this from Dayton, Ohio. Do you know that in this fine place, and it is, there have been more patents awarded per capita than any other city in America? You know that the Wright brothers had their bicycle shop here and that it subsidized their initial experiments; but do you know that the cash register was invented here as well as the step ladder, pop-top cans, microfiche, cellophane, gas masks, parachutes, and of course parking meters?

I know, ReBlog. Here then follows “Bitch Betta Have My Bar Mitzvah” from November 22, 2005:

One of my father’s best jokes was the one about the Cohen family's Bar Mitzvah. It goes on forever but let me get to its essence—It seems that the Jews of Great Neck, Long Island were competing with each other to see who could have the most elaborate Bar Mitzvah. So Schwartz had a Rodeo Bar Mitzvah which included horse rides and food served from a chuck wagon. To top him, Ginsberg had a French Revolution Bar Mitzvah where everything was very Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, excluding the guillotine of course. What then could poor Cohen do?

He thought—I’ll have a Safari Bar Mitzvah. No one will ever be able to outdo that. Thus, he flew all 200 guests to Africa and they began to work their way along the trail into the heart of the jungle, with hundreds of porters carrying the luggage on their heads. After 12 hours of trekking and swatting mosquitoes, they came to a halt. Cohen was at the back of the line and wondered what had happened.The word worked its way back along the trial, from person to person, from the front of the line to where he was.

“The reason we’re stopped,” he was told, “is because we have to wait our turn--there's another Bar Mitzvah ahead of us.”

Though Mr. Cohen didn’t manage to top Schwartz or Ginsberg, the Ridingers of Miami probably have superseded even those Great Neck religious rites. As the NY Times reported, at their 215-guest Bar Mitzvah the other day, the Ridingers had Ja Rule perform for the 13 year-olds and their families.

You of course know who he is—the rapper—but have you ever understood much less read any of his lyrics? Since I suspect not, I thought to share some excerpts from his hit, "Bitch Betta Have My Money."

I peep you at that strip joint
You and that little black chick
Acting like you so innocent . . .
Usually that bring the freak right out of a bitch
I knew something was wrong
Lesbian I go on
And nothing wrong with bump n’ grinding right
I like mines tight
You like yours licked
And we both have bitches to get high wit . . .
My hoe . . . got a hot little co-op
Rock a Cuban link with JesusLord have mercy
Let me touch this
Tease it
For reasonsI can’t explain to you lord
Cause you know my actions are censored
Don’t diss chips to fuck with no broad

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr. Rule performed after Zaidi Ridinger said the barucha over the challah or before they danced the hora or perhaps while they passed around the chopped liver and pigs-in-blankets.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

July 27, 2006--ReBlog II

Driving east today across upper Missouri, first past the town of Laclede where General Pershing spent his boyhood, then to Marceline where Walt Disney grew up, and then finally, along the same road, on to Hannibal, Mark Twain’s hometown, we wondered what in that less-than-one–hundred-miles of flat, seemingly textureless landscape so fired their imaginations. And decided it was just that—the flatness and lack of apparent texture were just the ingredients needed to spark them to imagine the worlds that they then moved to inhabit.

The ReBlog for today is “Xena the Warrior Planet”:

I don’t know about you but it has been an ongoing comfort to me to “know” that there are nine, just nine planets out there in our solar system—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Mercury. You see, I even know their names and their “order.” It was also reassuring to know that just Earth and Jupiter had moons and Saturn that amazing ring. In a universe that might be 15 billion years old, with cosmic distances of 10 to the 18th power light years (with one of those years being the distance light travels in a year at 186,000 miles a second), in other words, in a cosmos of such incomprehensible distances, how cozy and secure it has felt to know the manageable reach and structure of our own stellar neighborhood.

True, things were even cozier when some of us thought everything was created in just a few days and we were ensconsed at the center of the universe. We could even handle the emerging evidence that the universe was merely a few hundred thousand years old and the sun was at the center of the universe. Still secure; still reassuring. But then things began to fall apart, got more complicated and unnerving. I don’t know who to blame for this, but I am not at all happy about the changing view of the inner structure of the atom. I am not a hundred years old (just seems that way some days) and remember from high school physics the planetary view of the nucleus of the atom—with Protons and Neutrons at the very center, like a sun, surrounded by circling planetary Electrons.

That picture has been shattered just as the heliotropic view of the universe was. Now we have 12 fundamental particles to contend with—divided into two classes consisting of Leptons and Quarks. With the Leptons themselves consisting of six fundamental particles—Muons, Taus, Electron Neutrinos, Muon Neutrinos, Tau Neutrinos, and, thankfully, Electrons. Don’t ask about the Quarks (the name comes from Finnegan’s Wake—need I say more?) which contain Up and Down Quarks, Charm, Strange, and Top and Bottom Quarks. I’m not making this up and I’m not at all sure that this picture of things makes a strong case for Intelligent Design!

But back to the planets. No longer can we continue to believe that there are just nine planets. In fact, out beyond Pluto, a Cal Tech astronomer this past July discovered a 10th planet, larger than Pluto, that he named Xena. The name thankfully will not survive. If it is agreed that Xena is in fact a new planet, there is an international committee that has the power to come up with the official name—maybe they can auction off the right to name it on eBay, the way there was a recent auction to come up with the name for a newly discovered primate. Notwithstanding, whether we like it or not, Xena (or 2003 UB313—its current astronomical name) is out there looping around the sun.

Worse still, as reported in the NY Times, scientists are even debating that maybe we should junk the very concept of “planet” itself because there are so many other objects and so much space junk circling our sun that the notion of planetness may be obsolete! For example, there is the Oort Cloud, a halo of cometary scraps in deep space, the Kuiuper Belt, a ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit, not to mention dozens of moons circling the planets.

What a mess. And do I ever feel obsolete.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

July 26, 2006--Summer Re-Blog I

Since I'm on the road and out of range of the NY Times or any other reasonably reliable source of news--how reliable can it be here in Casper, Wyoming where the Federal office building is named for Dick Cheney--I thought that like the TV networks that run summer reruns, I would post a few ReBlogs.

On Saturday I'll post part four of the story, "The Club," if any of you want to keep up with Lloyd and the Traubs. When I get back to NYC next week I'll have the Times and who knows.

Here then is Parking Wars:

In New York City, actually in Manhattan, so much revolves around parking. Street parking for you car. We have Alternate Side of the Street Parking rules that require moving cars from one side of the street to the other at least four times each week so the streets can be cleaned. Street parking is at such a premium (monthlies for garage parking can exceed $500) that some have even been known to hire car movers who will sit in their car all day while waiting for a space to open up.

But as with so much else in the Big Apple, parking is about a lot more than a space in a No-Tow Zone. It’s also about ethnic and religious identity.

Take Diwali, for example. For Hindus, Diwali is an annual festival of lights and the latest parking cause in the on-going Culture War. There are 33 holidays in New York when Alternate Side of the Street Parking rules are suspended, days when cars do not have to be moved. For holidays such as Yom Kippur, Christmas, Immaculate Conception, Asian Lunar New Year, Shemini Atzeret, and Id al-Fitr among others. Most of the world’s major religions and ethnic groups have a parking day of their own. But not Hindus. Therefore, the battle in the City over Diwali.

The City Council unanimously passed a law to include Dawali; but Mayor Bloomberg, in spite of being in the thick of a reelection campaign, has indicated he will veto it, risking the lose of the Hindu vote (though probably assuring at least 90 percent of the Staten Island vote). Not that he is anti-Hindu; it’s just that the streets have to be swept (we should be so lucky).

Hindu business leaders showed up at City Hall the other day to demand “respect and equal treatment.”

I say amen, or whatever.

July 26, 2006--Wednesday In Wyoming: "Life or Meth?"

Though there is effectively no speed limit, everything says slow down. On the back roads it says, yield to tractors, yield to hikers, yield to bikers, and of course yield to horses. In the State of Wyoming, everything yields to horses. Even babies in strollers. In their mind, it’s still the cowboy state. Check out the license plate.

And when you do that yielding, when you do slow down, you begin to notice smaller things that are invisible at 70 or 80 or more than 90 miles per hour, which the roads and local practice allow. The quake of Aspens, the hawks riding the thermals, the just-beginning-to-redden Thimble Berries, the squadrons of grasshoppers and butterflies living a full mad lifetime in just three days, and the signs that ask, “Life or Meth?” At just 60, I had thought they read “Life or Death?” So you see what you can miss when you rip along?

In town after town, homemade signs and murals that look as if they were painted by high school kids, all including images of gaunt, haunted faces, pose the same question. Not just in Dubois or in Afton or, yes Cokeville, but everywhere: “Life or Meth?”

When we began to notice how widespread these ominous signs and murals were, we assumed that they must be the work of some End-Of-Times fundamentalist group that had conjured up yet another boogeyman to scare people into their broken-down, heat-baked churches. After all, who would need all this Meth, this Speed in small-town Wyoming? How could there possibly be this big-city epidemic here where most towns have populations in the hundreds? And where you can drive 100 MPH without amphetamines.

So without having figured this out, we settled into our cabin for ten days, right up against the Teton range, that perfect set of mountains so massive and peaked yet also so compact that they bring comfort as much as awe. You can hold them all in one view and believe you can embrace them as they in fact embrace you. Just the right kind of mountains for city folks who want to know and see in advance just what they’re getting.

Here we take to horses more than our rental car and walk the same trails we ride. In this way we get a chance to slow down in a place that also allows for speed. There is thus a kind of triple perspective that can be gathered—the first, that which you can take in from a hurtling car; the second from horseback on mountain trails that loop around lakes and amble across streams; and then that which you can see right there on the ground in front of you on foot at one mile per hour.

In this latter mode, especially if you seek variety in the familiar and do not insist on a new and different trail every day (we have been shunning that—trolling for serial experiences alas awaits back in the City), you get retrained to, like children, notice minute differences and changes. So along the Jenny Lake Backside Trail, which we have now ridden and walked three times over four days we have identified a favorite huckleberry bush, not a grove but just one bush, on the north side of the Lake that gets more sun than most (it has been the beneficiary of a 1995 fire that cleared away a growth of Lodgepole Pines that previously had allowed just dappled light), and thus its berries have been ripening at a faster rate than most. On our first pass, when we first noticed the bush, the berries were still quite green; two days later they had reddened; and today we found them beyond red toward their final purple perfection. Knowing the local bears have also been monitoring this bush, we preemptively today picked a few handfuls and made them our Trail Mix snack. Just as Wine Nazis can make distinctions in Pinots at which the rest of us can only wonder; we are now self-confessed Huckleberry Nazis—feeling adept at describing the nuances of flavor that get released from the berries from our bush.

Back in the cabin, after a lunch of grilled fresh trout, we picked up the paper at the Lodge and found another, very different kind of Wyoming story—about a horrendous and shocking murder-suicide in Laramie in which three students at the University there were found shot to death in an apartment just blocks from campus.

The Laramie of big cattle drives and wide-open spaces is now feeling it’s not so different from Detroit or LA. And, the people there, who are speculating about what happened, before having anything definitive from the coroner or police, are talking about “the scourge of Methamphetamine.”

They are saying that even if Meth was not involved in this crime, nonetheless it has become a plague across the state. They blame it on, yes, the, immigrants who are here to take advantage of the economy that is booming because of the ballooning value of Wyoming’s natural gas and oil reserves.

So the whole world is here to mess with our huckleberries—the instability in the Middle East reaches right to here, as does what one finds more and more on the streets of Miami and New York.

I guess that too awaits us in a week or so.

Monday, July 24, 2006

July 24, 2006--With Or Without Sprinkles?

When it’s 110 degrees out there and for each of the past three days you’ve driven 300 miles into the sun and have spotted all but one license plate (still missig Delaware) and listened to the same five CDs at least a hundred times (particularly Neil Young’s terrific road music album After The Gold Rush), it’s only natural that Rona would ask, “Do you think about death a lot?”

I didn’t answer right away since I was listening to Neil singing, “Ask me why-i-i. Ask me why-i-i.”

“Really, Steven, I’m serious, do you?”

“Actually,” I finally responded, “I’ve been thinking maybe I want to be cremated and for you to scatter half my ashes in the Grand Tetons and the rest off the balcony of our flat on Mallorca, into the Mediterranean. I love both places so much. Though the wind on Mallorca would probably blow the ashes back at you. So you’d have to hike down to the water.”

“That’s not what I’m asking about,” it was hot even with the AC going full blast, and Rona was annoyed with me. “I am asking if you think about your death. Your dying. Not the arrangements after you die.” (In the background Neil Young had moved on and was singing, “Can you make arrangements with yourself.”)

“Not that much. In the family I come from, with both sides so involved with their cemeteries and family plots, it’s hard for me not to think about the arrangements side of death. I’m not really that much into the dying part.” I paused and then added, “Sorry. But I’ll think about my death if you want me to.”

Rona simply responded by turning up the volume.

We then found ourselves in a place where you could get the NY Times, albeit from a few days ago. And can you believe it, right there at the top of the Thursday Style section was an article (linked below) about, you guessed it, nouveau styles of arranging for one’s funeral. How folks are hiring party planners, what some call “funeral concierges,” to organize and carry out all sorts of new and exciting ways to have funerals so the bereaved can even have a good time right there at the grave site.

I’m not making this up.

Of course, this has social implications, read this is another manifestation of Baby Boomer behavior. Since BBs want to control all aspects of their lives, they also want to control all aspects of their deaths. So now, beyond the traditional prepaid funeral arrangements in which you choose a gravesite and coffin, paying for them and all other arrangements in advance (limos, flowers, the small or large chapel), you get to select the catering and tribute video to be shown at your funeral.

One fellow who loved golf more than anything else asked in advance that his service be conducted on the 18th hole of his favorite golf course. (It is not known if he asked for a final postmortem Mulligan.) Another chap who drove an ice cream truck had it pulled up next to his gravesite and arranged (again in advance) for everyone to have a Mr. Softee after the prayers and burial. It does get hot out there in some of those cemeteries.

And to think all I had come up with thus far, in addition to the ashes distribution plan, was for Rona to arrange for Roy Rodgers’ version of Happy Trails to be played at my sent off. It’s obviously time for me to get with the program!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

July 22, 2006: Saturday Story--"The Club"--Part Three

The Club--Part Three

In Part Two, Dicky and Lloyd hacked their way around Dyker Beach Golf Course--Dicky keeping the other two men in the foursome distracted with chatter while winning five-dollar-a-hole bets from each by besting them on almost every hole; while Lloyd provided most of the laughs—beaning assorted golfers with his hooked and sliced drives and losing all his balls in the pond or over the fence. But then on the way home, the mood of bonhomie changed. Dicky confessed that he been messing up at college, spending all his time drinking and philandering and was thus in danger of being expelled. He told Lloyd that he had been instructed to insist that he join the Traubs for dinner so his mother could ask him all about how well things were going at Columbia in the hope that Dicky would be inspired to also become, what else, a pre-med.

In Part Three which follows . . .

“And sure, I can stay for dinner. When we get to your house I’ll call to let my parents know. They’ll be fine with that.” I knew they would be—they liked me to spend time with the Traub’s. Just as Dicky’s mother thought I might set a good example for him, my parents thought some of the Traub “class,” as my father put it, might rub off on me.

* * *

As Dicky pulled the Fiat into the basement garage we could hear Mrs. Traub’s fluttering soprano from two floors above, “Not those glasses, Ella.” She was directing her maid up on the second floor where the Traub living and dining rooms were placed by their architect, Lorenzo del Pesto (Dicky said “Yeah, I know,” when he spotted my raised eyebrow when he mentioned his name), expressing what Dicky told me del Pesto called an “upside-down motif,” with the bedrooms below, on the first floor, in order to emphasize, in his words, “the living over the sleeping.”

“We’re having company for dinner, Ella,” I could hear Mrs. Traub sing, “Dicky’s friend Lloyd. So let’s put out the crystal.”

“Take off your shoes,” Dicky told me with a shrug, “My mother doesn’t want anyone walking on her carpets in shoes. Once we get upstairs she’ll give you some slippers to wear that she bought on one of her trips to Morocco.”

And immediately I could see why I needed to remove my shoes. I had never entered the Traub’s house this way. I had always used the side door which led directly to the wing of the house where Ella’s and Dicky’s bedrooms were. The rest was off-limits to his friends—it was Dr. and Mrs. Traub’s private preserve.

These stairs, as Dicky opened the door from the garage, admitted us to a landing that ran the full length of the bedroom floor. Everything was carpeted with a deep white wool shag, into which my shoeless feet sank almost to the ankle. Everything was immaculate and hushed. Clearly Ella was as good at vacuuming as she was at baking—Dicky had brought to Dyker some of her memorable pecan and Bourbon Brownies which she made especially for him.

I was in awe of this silent splendor. But couldn’t help noticing the Traub’s “master suite,” again del Pesto’s words, looming before us, its two brocade-covered pocket doors almost completely hidden within the walls. It was almost as large of my family’s entire apartment. Not only was there the largest bed I had ever seen but also to one side there was what looked to me like a full living room—a magenta silk sofa, two matching side chairs, and a crystal coffee table, though I was not sure if it was appropriate to call it that since it was unlikely that coffee of any other form of food or drink would be served there. There was, though, a small stack of worn leather bound books, one of which lay open with a pair of antique Ben Franklin spectacles serving as a sort of bookmark, to note the place where Mrs. Traub had probably left off reading the night before.

However, it was the bed that most captured my attention. Though it was at least the size of two double beds, most remarkable was not the unimaginable comfort that that sumptuousness alone would provide, but rather the headboard. It appeared to be made of solid gold. Literally. Though there was just the light from two small brass side lamps it was enough to set it glinting as if bathed in full daylight.

It was also unusual in its shape. It was a huge semicircle that almost reached the ceiling and on it were embossed what appeared to be the markings of some forgotten language or pictorial alphabet.

Dicky saw me involuntarily drawn to the foot of the bed as if to an ancient temple. “It’s not real,” he said. “It’s only a reproduction. Lorenzo designed it and had it made in Mexico.”

I stood mesmerized in the dim red light that was a blend of that golden bed and all the magenta furniture, window treatments, and wall fabrics. Even the air in the room felt tinted. I could barely speak. “What is it?” I asked with a hushed voice so as not to disturb the atmosphere.

“You know, it’s the Aztec calendar. Half of it anyway. The real one’s in Mexico. It’s a full circle so it wouldn’t fit in a room this small. But Lorenzo thinks even half of it is a good thing for my parents. He means it to bring them many years of happiness.” I thought I heard Dicky snicker. “He told them that the Aztecs believed that the world goes through something like 52 year cycles, and they built this calendar to keep track of them. Since the cycles last for so many years they needed a really big calendar. Not like the ones we use.”

“I seem to remember reading about this. Though I think it was the Mayans who believed in these cycles. But either way the headboard seems like an incredible idea to me.”

“Yoo-hoo, Dicky,” it was Mrs. Traub calling from the floor above. “Where are you? Dinner will get cold.” She snapped me out my trance and we turned back to the steps, still carpeted, which now swept in a glorious arc up to the living floor.

* * *

Mrs. Traub was wearing an elaborately embroidered crimson caftan which I imagined she must have also brought back from Morocco. It billowed like a sail in the breeze she generated as she glided across the shag toward us. She reached out to me as if I had returned from a long voyage, “Oh Lloyd, darling, did you make any birdies?” And without waiting for a response, said, “Here, take these and put them on your feet. They will make you feel so good after so much walking.” From an ivory-inlaid cabinet she retrieved a pair of Moroccan slippers, as Dicky promised, the ones with the tiny mirrors embedded in them and the turned up toes. “Oh they fit perfectly. You look so adorable. Doesn’t he Dicky?” Dicky grunted.

“I only made one birdie, Mrs. Traub; I’m not a very good golfer. Not like Dicky. I think he shot an 82 today, which on a city course, which don’t have the kind of greens he’s used to, is an excellent score.”

“But enough about that. Between you and I,” she pulled me close to her and whispered, “I hate golf.” I could smell her scent—either something exotic, also brought back from the Middle East, or the faint residue of the hairspray from her twice-weekly visit to the Elegant Lady Beauty parlor across Church Avenue from their house.

“All that chasing after that silly ball. I go to the club to see my friends. If Dr. Traub would only leave me alone I wouldn’t ever set foot out of the Acorn. That’s the bar you know.” She quickly moved to correct herself, “But of course, I’m sorry, you don’t. We haven’t had you to the club. We must one day soon. They give us so few guest passes. I’m sure Ducky explained. It’s a scandal considering what it costs to be a member and how much we have to spend every year in the Acorn Bar and Tack Room, the restaurant.” She looked over to Dicky, “Go fetch your father. He always has his nose buried in the paper, the sports section, when he isn’t looking into someone’s mouth. He’s such a sportsman.” I thought I sensed she was being ironic, but quickly realized that I was wrong considering their magnificent life.

“Come, Lloyd, come over here and sit by me,” Dicky had left to look for Dr. Traub. She had swooped over to the love seat in the living room, whipping her caftan in waves as she moved, which was a duplicate to the one in her master suite on the floor below. Patting the swollen cushion next to her, she trilled, “I want to hear all about Columbia.”

Though Ella was hovering in the dining room end of the “living suite,” again how Dicky told me del Pesto designated it, I felt uncomfortable sitting so close to Mrs. Traub, especially since, as she beckoned me to join her, the neckline of her caftan fell away from her voluptuous chest.

“Is it OK, Mrs. Traub, if I sit over here?” I stammered with diverted eyes, “I hurt my back during crew practice, and the orthopedist wants me to sit only on straight-back chairs.”

“Of course darling. I’m so sorry you hurt yourself. Anything you want. You must be careful. But please, you must call me Trudy.” Her smile was radiant. She too had perfect teeth.

Dicky reappeared to announce that his father was still involved in reading about the upcoming Belmont Stakes and would join us shortly. Dr. Traub was also known as the neighborhood’s foremost horseman. Rumor had it that he even owned a “string of ponies,” or at least was part of a “syndicate” that did. Mrs. Traub frowned but told Ducky to sit in the other straight-back chair on the other side of the love seat which she now was fully occupying—after I had declined her offer to join her she pulled her legs up under her and sat on them so that only her ruby-lacquered toes were peeking out.

“Dicky, Lloyd was just about to tell me about Columbia.” Dicky squirmed in his chair. He too tried to sit on his legs but the chair was too small to accommodate his muscular calves and thighs. “Weren’t you Lloyd?” I knew from what Dicky told me when we drove to his house that I needed to be careful not to make things worse for him. It was not so much that I had done well or fit comfortably into campus life—quite the contrary (I was one of the few freshmen not to have been invited to join a fraternity, not even a Jewish one); but at least I had passed all my courses and wasn’t on probation.

“Well,” I began, though my father always slammed the table whenever I began a sentence that way, “Well, to tell you the truth I just managed to squeak by, and as I mentioned I got injured before the rowing season began and didn’t even get to row in any races.” I stopped hoping that would deter her from asking further about my studies. Maybe, even though she hated it, she’d want to know more about our golf game, and then I’d be able to tell her more about how well Dicky had done. Of course, not about the betting.

“Dicky isn’t Lloyd just so modest?” He sat staring at his mirrored slippers. “Why just the other day, at the hairdresser’s,” I noted that she didn’t refer to it as the “beauty parlor,” “Lloyd’s mother was telling all the girls about how well he had done at college. How his advisor said if he kept up his grades he felt certain he would be admitted to a very good medical school. Maybe not Columbia or NYU, forget Harvard, but a very good place nonetheless. Accredited and in the United States. He wouldn’t have to go to Mexico to medical school. Like your cousin Phil had to do. And she told us how hard he studies. Even on the weekends. And how many books his father had to bring home when he picked him up at the end of the year. Books that he had to buy and read for his required courses.” All of this had been directed, like arrows, at Dicky, both of whose legs and feet were vibrating so violently that I thought that the chair might tip over or shatter—it looked fragile, like a real antique.

And then, again to me, Mrs. Traub continued, “Your mother said there were so many books your father had to build more shelves. Is that true? You know, Dicky, that Columbia has very difficult requirements. In, what is it Lloyd, your mother mentioned something about ‘civilization?’”

“Contemporary Civilization,” I muttered. “It’s a requirement for everyone.” Dicky appeared ready to explode. I should have just nodded.

He jumped out of the chair almost shouting, “I’ll go get dad. Look at Ella, she’s going crazy. She probably burnt the roast already,” and with that he again bolted down the stairs, three at a time.

Mrs. Traub leaned further forward. Again I looked around the room, noticing for the first time something in the distance that looked like an antique piano. Mrs. Traub noticed that my attention had drifted in that direction. “That’s a harpsichord.” Thankfully we had moved on to another subject. I could resume normal breathing. “It’s not an original, it should only be, but a reproduction. My architect insisted I have one, knowing my interest in music,” she sighed.

“Of course, sorry, I should have known that. In my required Music Appreciation class, at Columbia, we studied Baroque music and some of Bach’s harpsichord music. We listened to records of Wanda Landowski, and . . .” As I uttered these words I realized that in my eagerness to accommodate and talk about anything but Columbia, I had taken us right back there!

“I do know her playing very well. I tried to get Dr. Traub to take me to St. John the Divine Cathedral, actually right up by Columbia, to hear her play Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But as usual he was too busy with his horses.” I knew for certain that this time she was being critical of him.

“I’m sure he was so tired from all his work,” here I was now making excuses for him as I had been attempting to do for Dicky. I should never have agreed to have dinner with the Traubs. Minimally I should have just sat there and kept my big mouth shut.

And with that, as if on cue and to rescue me from myself, Dr.Traub appeared with Dicky, hang dog, right behind him. He mumbled something inaudible, which I assumed was some form of greeting, and gave me a limp hand to shake. The very hand that had been so forceful and confident when it spent hours in my mouth exploring, palpating, and drilling on my juvenile and adolescent molars and bicuspids.

Ella simultaneously announced, “Miss Trudy, dinner is finally served.” And with that we marched over to the dining end of the floor, with Dr. Traub, Major Traub in the lead. And then, surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling smoked mirrors, none to be sure fabricated by Mr. Perly, the local glazier (Mrs. Traub said Lorenzo had them made in Murano, in Venice), we proceeded to eat dinner in almost uninterrupted silence, broken only but Dr. Traub asking Dicky or me to pass the platters of whipped yams or creamed spinach.

He sat at the head of the table, reflected by the mass of mirrors into smoky infinity, so bent over his plate that his nose almost touched the mound of potatoes. He leaned both arms, to the elbows, on the table so that they surrounded his dish so completely, like battlements, that even an advancing enemy could not breech those arms to attack his food. Which he gobbled down, swallowing without any sign of chewing in just minutes.

Mrs. Traub did attempt to bring a conversation back to college, but Dr. Traub’s massive, silent presence overwhelmed her efforts. As a consequence I could see Dicky relax and even manage to banter a bit with Ella who was kept busy literally running back and forth to the kitchen to bring evermore helpings of her special yam and marshmallow casserole, clearly Dr. Traub’s favorite. It was now obvious to me how he had earned his nickname--Sugar.

I counted the minutes until I could escape. But not before downing an enormous slice of Ella’s peach cobbler, her grandmother’s recipe she said, which was so delectable that it was worth delaying that escape and risking more talk about Columbia or Bach. Some risks are worth taking.

But very soon, after the cobbler and all its crumbs disappeared off everyone’s plates, I said a quick goodbye and thank you and raced across Church Avenue back to the sanctuary of my bedroom. But not before Mrs. Traub, hugging and kissing me, again saying, “We must try to get you out to the club. Before the end of the summer. Promise?”

I was glad my parents were visiting relatives so I could also escape the grilling I would surely have received about everything that happened at the Traub’s. My father would ask, “So you pulled her Fiat into the garage, and . . . .?” And I would be expected to report on everything, every minute-by-minute detail, including everything about the décor and especially the food.

* * *

The rest of the summer was by comparison uneventful. I had trouble finding a job so I enrolled as a visiting student at Brooklyn College to occupy my mornings, taking a course in Modern American Drama—lots of Odets, Miller, and especially O’Neil. The instructor was quite inspired and expressed open pleasure in having a Columbia student sitting in among his regular public college students. He quickly lost interest in me, though, as soon as he discovered that their papers were superior to mine. At least I wouldn’t have to experience the further humiliation of receiving a grade—as an external student I had opted for a simple pass/fail.

To compensate, and as a way to prepare myself to go out for the track team if my crew injury didn’t heal properly, self-taught, I took up the Shot Put—a field event in which you compete by “putting,” or hurling, a 16-pound steel ball. The world’s record at the time was about 60 feet, set by Parry O’Brien, a mass of a man. By the end of the six-week mini-semester at Brooklyn College I had passed 24 feet, almost halfway there. Who knows? Not bad, I thought, for someone learning on his own and himself weighing but 175 pounds.

But from the pressure my mother applied to her sister, my Aunt Tanna, who in turn exerted pressure on her husband, my Uncle Eli, I was given a job up in the South Bronx in his meat processing plant. Where the most orthodox of my relatives smoked hams, pork loins, and pigs knuckles, as well as more traditional Jewish fare—pickled tongues and pastramis. After dragging myself up there via an endless subway ride at six in the morning, I spent eight hours a day unloading trucks. The hams, for example, arrived semi-frozen packed into the body of huge trailer trucks. I stood on the back of those trucks and with a meat hook, shades of On the Waterfront, I tossed them into huge stainless steel tubs which we then wheeled into one of Eli’s enormous walk-in refrigerators. At least that supplied some respite from the scorching heat.

Actually, there was some excitement—Eli got a large order for tongues from Macy’s meat buyer (at the time Macy’s had a gourmet meat market at its flagship store on Herald Square); and to make what he thought would be a reasonable profit, Eli had us pump so much pickling juice into each steer tongue that they ballooned to three-times their normal size. Needless to say that when Macy’s customers cooked them at home they shrank down to their original puny size; and as a result of an avalanche of complaints Macy’s buyer came looking for Eli, who we effectively hid between racks of pork butts in the smokehouse.

At least I made good money which would help offset some of the tuition that was burdening my parents.

Dicky and I did get in a couple of rounds of golf at Dyker Beach. Nothing much to report about that. Joeboy did show up each time to caddie and Dicky did manage to hustle a podiatrist and limousine driver one time, and a high school teacher and building superintendent the second time. So there was no problem keeping me supplied with balls since the pond at the Eighth hole and Brooklyn Poly Prep’s campus alongside the Ninth continued to serve as fairways for me.

But then, in late August, just as I was beginning to think about what I needed to do before returning to college, something remarkable occurred: Mrs. Traub called. Me!

It was a Saturday morning and I was still sleeping so my mother answered the phone. I could not think of any reason why she would wake me from a deep and healthful sleep—maybe if the air raid sirens went off and it was “the real thing”--but wake me she did, shaking me to tell there was an “urgent” call for me. In my drowsiness, half-emerged from a nightmare, I imagined it must be something like the Dean at Columbia calling to say they recalculated my grade point average and were expelling me, advising me that I had better secure my job with Uncle Eli and begin to reconcile myself to a life of pumping pickling juice into cow’s tongues.

“Who is it?” I mumbled.

“Dr. Traub’s wife, Mrs. Traub,” my mother whispered as if it were a call from the White House or the Vatican.

As I stumbled into the breakfast room where our one phone was located, I asked again in total bewilderment, “Mrs. Traub? Dicky’s mother?” thinking now that maybe he had been paralyzed when riding his horse.

“Yes. Her. Pick up the phone before she hangs up,” she admonished me for moving so slowly.

“Hello,” I said, attempting to be matter of fact and to mask my nervousness. “How have you been?” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Lloyd, I have wonderful news for you. Do you know the Silvergolds? How silly of me. Of course you don’t. They are members of our club and have given us a guest pass for the Labor Day weekend.”

The what? I thought. “Ugh,” I stammered. “That’s great. Very nice of them.”

“And Dr. Traub and I thought you might join us there that Saturday night for the annual end of summer dinner dance. It’s formal you know. Dicky will be wearing his tuxedo with the white jacket. You of course would have to rent one”

In my half-sleep I still didn’t understand why she was calling me. “I didn’t know he had a tux.”

“I think you’re confused—I’m calling to invite you. Can you make it? It would be so wonderful if you could. Dicky has so much wanted you to see the club.”

“I know, he keeps telling me that.”

“And the Silvergolds have a wonderful, actually, a beautiful daughter, who is about to go to college, who they would like you to meet. So please, darling, just say ‘yes,’”

Which I did. And went back to bed, dreaming now about the Silvergold daughter and her . . .

To be continued . . .

Friday, July 21, 2006

July 21, 2006--Friday Fanaticism XLIII--Honor Thy Sister

This one requires little comment from me. It just needs to be stopped.

No one, no cultural relativist, no post-modern who sees all social behavior as “constructed” and therefore neutral will be able to engage in “discourse” about this except to say it is a human, sorry, universal abomination. Honor killings.

The NY Times recently reported on them, Turkish style (see article linked below.) Since Turkey is under consideration for membership in the European Union; and a number of EU members, most notably France, are reluctant to admit an Islamic country (there has even debate about including language in the ill-fated EU constitution that affirms EU members are Christian states) observers of the process have been keeping a close eye on just how secular Islamic-Turkey in fact is. The continued widespread practice of honor killings, which the government has been dragging its feet about, is not helping Turkey’s candidacy.

However, considerably more important and urgent than the EU situation is the need to not only decry this practice but to eradicate it.

Typically, these so-called honor killings occur when a young woman is thought to have done something that is considered anathema to “orthodox” Islamic law. Something like wanting, just wanting to go to the movies, stealing a glance at a boy, wearing a short skirt, and even having been raped, not having had sex, but having been raped by a stranger or even a relative.

In any of these circumstances, because her family has been “disgraced,” the girl needs to be dead. I didn’t say “killed,” because there are two ways to deal with this “problem.” Most traditionally, a brother would be called upon to kill her. But there is this need for a second option because there is the possibility, just the possibility that he might be prosecuted for the murder. So the second option is for the girl simply to kill herself. It’s a brilliant solution since this both gets the job done and the beloved son gets out of jail free.

This solution is brilliant in another way—let’s say the girl doesn’t agree to kill herself, saying, “Dad, I just wanted to see a movie.” So what’s the loving father to do—if he has one of his older sons kill his sister, if he’s over 18, he could go to jail for life. But, if the fratricidal brother is younger than 18, because he is “under age,” he’ll just get a legal slap on the wrist.

But the Turkish government figured out this scheme and officially claims brothers, regardless of their age, can also get life sentences. This means, then, if the father doesn’t want to lose both a daughter to death and a son to life imprisonment, it’s back to forcing these wayward daughters to either kill themselves or murder them in a way that to investigators, assuming there are any, it looks like good-old suicide.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20, 2006--Geopolitical Jujitsu

Trying to understand what’s going on in the Middle East is never easy. It’s even more difficult in Wyoming at 7,000 feet with no radio that works, no TV, and the NY Times that gets to you two days late. When it gets to you at all. Which is only occasionally. About as often as the rain. It’s very dry here.

The Casper Star Tribune does arrive but it’s filled with news about forest fires, churches’ fried chicken dinners, and the latest rodeo results. Just about all the news any sane person should ever be asked to handle. But since I have to get back to New York, eventually, I feel an obligation to attempt to keep up with things my friends are right now, in the heat, obsessing about. And what I too too soon will need to join in about. So here goes what I think, without the benefit of any articles from the Times to link below.

Up to now, when attempting to understand what is going on in that region, I’ve been OK with The Law of Unintended Consequences. You know, when you do something, trying to achieve some sort of result, and something you didn’t intend happens. You could say that a lot of what is going on in the Middle East could be thought to provide proof of this Law,

But not enough, it seems to me. I suggest we think about a different kind of law for that complicated and maddening piece of global real estate—The Law of Jujitsu. According to this law you do something and you get the opposite of the result you’re seeking. Furthermore, you get an equal and opposite result, like in one of the laws of physics, where the force that you exert in the situation comes right back at you at at least the level of intensity originally applied. And further still, jujitsu-like, ironically, you are defeated as the result of your opponent using your own strength and tactics against you.

Here’s one generic example—folks in the West invented all sorts of and the Internet. All very powerful things about which we are proud and which we have been very good at turning into desirable products that are in great demand globally. In fact, because they are so pervasive, and some feel subversive of local values and cultures, in those places they are forbidden. But, and here’s the jujitsu example, those very people doing the banning of these instruments of Western penetration and influence use these things to retaliate against us—cell phones not only allow people like Bin Ladden to communicate with his followers but they are also used to detonate bombs on trains; TV and DVDs that are not be used to watch Western programs such as MTV allow images of American “occupiers” of Islamic lands to be seen in every village and hut in the Moslem world (and they also allow leading mullahs to get their messages directly to the people they want to mobilize as well as provide the means to show hostage tapes and beheadings); and suicide bombers use video cameras and tape to record and distribute their final words and messages in an effort to recruit others to their cause. Jujitsu!

Applying this Law to the current situation may also be useful in trying to understand what’s going on. I know my New York friends won’t like this, but let me here claim that Bush and his administration went into Iraq to remove a tyrant, bring freedom and democracy to millions of Iraqis, and from that successful example to set off a Democratic Domino Effect throughout that region—Saudi women would be driving cars, Kuwaiti women would be voting, and even in Lebanon and Gaza there would be free elections.

So, according to the Jujitsu Law what happened? The US did get rid of Saddam and helped bring about democratic elections which, to no one’s surprise who knew how to count, led to a government (allow me for the moment to call it that) dominated by Shiites. You know, the folks who run Iran. Beginning to see the jujitsu point?

Next the US got bogged down in Iraq. No matter what Bush, Rummy, and the generals claim, in that part of the world the fact that we are stuck there, hiding in various Green Zones, suggests weakness, not strength. With all our high-tech equipment and magnificent young people on the ground we are being pinned down, some would say defeated, by Improvised Explosive Devices—homemade bombs. Sounding familiar? Echoes of, sorry but it’s true, Viet Nam? Paper Tiger in fact.

This perception of US weakness (and I’m not talking here about “resolve” which for the moment we’re good at) has had the further jujitsu effect of emboldening the Shiite leaders of Iran, who have exerted more and more influence in the southern, Shiite slice of Iraq—where the democratically-elected government is largely located. So arguably, when the US leaves, whenever that is and no one there is in a hurry—they are comfortable waiting centuries to settle scores—isn’t it likely that the Iranians will control whatever is left of the old Iraq?

Then, back to the jujitsu theme: we did have a democratic election in Palestine—the first Domino. And what happened? The hated and feared Hamas won a solid victory. Again, the total opposite of what we wanted (and expected?). That result too should not have surprised anyone—the Arafat remnant was corrupt and Hamas did a much better job among the people in supplying services such as schools and health clinics. Wouldn’t you, if you lived there, have voted for Hamas? At the risk of getting my phone tapped and bank account spied on, I confess I would have.

So what have we been doing about the results of that free election? The usual--attempting to undermine the winners, including I contend encouraging, at least tacitly, the Israelis to reinvade Gaza.

Finally let me apply the jujitsu law to Hezbollah and the recent Israeli attacks on them. First, who unleashed Hezbollah? It would appear to be Iran. Their chief supporters and weapons suppliers. Why? Again seeing the US weakened by the boomerang effect of its own strength, they think there is an opportunity for the Shiite Hezbollah to expand their power throughout all of Lebanon. They already have a significant number of seats in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet (again, thank you democratic elections); and with the US reluctant to become directly involved in another part of the region, Iran unleashed its surrogates, thinking, if America can’t seem to figure out what to do about Iran’s move to build atomic weapons, seeing the powerlessness of all our power, it looked like a good time to say “Go.”

So Israel, understandably, bombed Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon and, to teach the government a lesson, significant parts of Beirut, and for good measure the roads and bridges connecting Lebanon and Shiite-led Syria.

In Jujitsu terms Israel will “win,” they have the weapon systems and know-how to do that; but in the winning, they, with us, will be the losers: Islamic people world wide will see images of Israeli bombs killing Arab women and babies on TV or via the Internet and there will be more terrorism, more flare ups that we will not be able to respond to or control.

The best evidence that this jujitsu approach is a helpful way to think about this horrendous situation is the fact that just a few days ago leaders of corrupt Arab governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc., rather than doing what they would be expected to do—condemn Israel for their incursions and bombings—actually publicly condemned Hezbollah and its external sponsors. Why? Because these leaders are shaking in their boots, afraid they are the next to go as this jujitsu works its way around the region.

The only ones happy about this mess are the Shiite radicals and Islamists. And of course my good friends the Rapture folks who are looking forward to the imminent end of the world.

But if you have to be someplace when Armageddon comes to your town, I recommend Wyoming. The news may never even reach you. Or at worst it will be a few days late. In any case, you won’t care because you’re already in heaven.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

July 19, 2006--Wednesday In Wyoming: One Brief Moment

The sun was setting over the Tetons. A small crowd of visitors with drinks in hand gathered outside the Jackson lake Lodge to watch the sun roll behind those magnificent mountains before dropping off the edge of the earth and plunging us all into instant darkness and chilling breezes.

“I take a lot of pictures but never develop any.” Rona and I were snapped out of our contemplative end-of-day reverie by a decidedly overweigh man with a camera hanging from his neck that was so large with its protruding lens that only his amazing stomach could support it. He was obviously from the middle of the country and from his tractor we imagined he had seen enough sunsets in his life to satisfy him. What was the big deal about another even in a place such as this?

Being from New York City, we of course could never get enough of these sunsets and are additionally expert at extracting the full meaning from every degree of the sun’s decline. Thus, we ignored him.

But he persisted, “I’ve been coming here every year since 1987. Sometimes even twice a year. Me and the Mrs. drive our RV here all the way from Georgia, where we’re from.” Since things were slipping from bad to worse, I tried turning my back on him. Rona looked into her glass of sweet Vermouth.

“You see my son over there? Well he was three the first time we came here. He also had a camera. He spent three whole days taking pictures and carefully advancing the film. They still used film back then. Well, when we about to leave he took the film out of the camera and just threw it in the trash. In one of them cans over there. My wife, Rosie, she was fit to be tied and while she rummaged around in that can looking for the film I asked Billy, whose over there by the bench, why he did that. He said to me, exasperated like, ‘Dad, I’m done taking those pictures.’ He was puzzled why I was asking him about it. You see, to him just taking the pictures was what was important. Not the pictures themselves. I think there’s a lesson there.”

That got our attention. We’re always interested in anything that yields lessons and this one seemed pretty good. So I ventured, “What keeps bringing you back here every year? It’s a long drive.”

“Well, you see I’m a forester, a freelance one, and I keep coming here to check on this place. To see how things are changing. And they are, ain’t no doubt about that. And I don’t mean the result of them fires up in Yellowstone. That’s a part of nature. A good thing. It’s the other thing that worries me.”

“The ‘other thing?’”

“Yeah, you know what the scientists have been saying. I’ll show you what I mean. Look over there at Mount Moran. You see that glacier over there?” We looked across Jackson Lake and nodded. “Well, when I started coming here that glacier was twice the size it is now. Don’t take me for a tree-hugger. That I’m not. But it seems to me that we have this one brief moment. For me it’s almost over, my heart’s not been right, but for Billy, who’s only twenty-two, I’m worried. You know, in the past it was religious fanatics and cult leaders who predicted the end of the world was coming. They even came up with this date or that. Of course it never happened. But what’s different now is that we have every scientist agreeing that things are not heading in a good direction for us. So that’s why I keep my eye on that glacier.”

This was not a lesson we had driven all this way to hear, so I changed the subject, “You mentioned that you do forestry work freelance. I always assumed that guys in your field would have to work for the government.”

“Well, that’s true. Everyone else I went to school with does work for the Forestry Service or some other government aging. I though saw a niche for myself so I’ve been doing it on my own.”

“How’s that? How does that work.”

He suddenly turned silent; but since he started this I pressed on him, New-York style, “You worked for developers or something?”

After a moment he said, “Sort of like that.” I held up to give him a minute. It was clear that he really didn’t want to talk about this. But he added, “You’ve driven around this area, right?”

“Yes, just yesterday and today through eastern Washington and then across the panhandle of Idaho to get here.”

“And what did you see?”

“Most of it was amazingly beautiful,” Rona said, “We followed the Clearwater River for more than 200 miles.”


We didn’t get where he was going so we just looked back at him. He hitched his pants up over that huge belly, “Did you see all those developments closing in?” We nodded again.

He didn’t answer his own question. He just stood there staring off at Mount Moran.

Then he looked around to catch Rosie’s eye, she had been circling us, never coming closer than twenty feet, “There she is. I better get going before I catch hell. Nice to talkin’ to you.”

And he was gone.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

July 18, 2006--Get A Real Job!

All of a sudden the NY Times has discovered that big-time college athletes who need to stay academically eligible are taking meatball courses. Or worse—no courses at all. (See full story linked below.)

They “discovered” that at Auburn University where there are, can you believe it, football players “doing well” academically. Some earning academic honors without even have to go to class. Mercy!

How could that be? Didn’t the NCAA, the governing authority for college athletics, recently require higher admission and academic standards for even the sports elite Division I schools? Well, yes. But as the Times “uncovered,” again at Auburn, there appears to be a professor of sociology single-handedly undermining these valiant efforts to enforce academic quality. He appears to have made it a sub-specialty (in addition to criminology--his other specialty) to “teach” what seems to be pretty much the entire football squad. And he’s a very senior guy without an apparent gambling problem, if you were wondering. (Though I suspect he has great seats on the 50 yard line for home games.)

Of course his colleagues are “outraged.” Among other things he’s making them look bad. This professor is working so hard “teaching” so many athletes that he claims it’s equivalent to the normal work load of three and a half regular full-time professors. He breathlessly told the Times, “It was a lot of work, and I basically wore myself out.” However, he didn’t require any of the athlete-students to wear themselves out by attending class. He basically “worked” with them “independently.” What that involved is still not clear. Suffice it to say, not very much.

Actually, there are some other things his colleague professors might want to consider being outraged about. First, how hard are they working? If Professor Petee is doing the work of three-and-a-half of them, maybe they’re not doing very much to earn their comfortable salaries and nine-month work schedules. Do you know that most senior university faculty members teach just four to six courses per year? Of course, I forgot they do committee work. Sorry. That adds maybe two hours a week. Reading and grading papers, you say? Well, that’s what graduate assistants are for. Office hours to see students you are wondering? Typically that’s another two hours a week.

I raise this professorial workload reality not just to beat up on whining faculty, but to point out how hypocritical it then is for them to, in effect, criticize from on high the work life of athletes. Because that’s what it is—work. They are recruited from high school to do a job for the university, and they are paid with scholarships. In order to keep the scholarships/pay flowing they have to play on a varsity team and stay academically eligible—"complete" a certain number of “courses” each semester. That’s where good-old professor Petee comes in.

The teams they play for are businesses, big businesses, not “student activities,” and earn tens of millions of dollars a year in cash for their host institutions of higher learning. The money these athletes bring in, especially if they have a winning season, get on TV, and invited to a Bowl Game, helps pay for the salaries and the every-seven-year sabbaticals of the very professors who now have their pants in a bunch.

Athletes can be declared ineligible if they accept just one free pair of sneakers from Nike; while professors earn professional Brownie Points, and "extra remuneration" (read money), for ignoring their classes so they can do consulting.

The demands on the athletes to practice travel, and of course play makes it virtually impossible for them to successfully work two full-time jobs—being a student and being a big-time athlete. One has to give. Guess which one? After all, not every one is as adept at handling multiple full-time jobs as Professor Petee.

And tell me that the other professors at Auburn and elsewhere were unaware, until the Times article, that this was going on in their midst. In fact, many years ago I went to an Ivy League college where studies not sports were at the center of campus life. Our football team was famous for losing all of its games. Yet, even at Columbia, there was all sorts of hanky-panky going on to keep of our lunk-head athletes eligible. Even bandy-legged undergraduates such as me knew who in our classes were just being passed along. It was not a coincidence that all were either on our football or baseball team.

And an occasional rich kid whose family gave the college a million dollars to refurbish the football stadium. And to get him admitted.

Monday, July 17, 2006

July 17, 2006--Hide the Dead

Again there is controversy swirling about a political ad. This one is about an advertisement that is being shown on the Web site of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The part the Republicans are objecting to shows rows of flag draped coffins of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq. This image is one of a number in the ad that has as its tag line, “Things have taken a turn for the worse.” Other images are of Katrina victims outside the Superdome and signs showing gas prices of $3.25 a gallon. (See NY Times report about this linked below.)

It seems to me a fair enough political representation. It hardly compares with the infamous ad run by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, attacking Goldwater’s alleged warmongering—it included images of a very young girl holding a daisy while an atomic bomb was exploding in the background. Or the ad the Republicans ran against Michael Dukakis; this one showing an image of a very black convicted murderer, Willie Horton, who Dukakis as governor of Massachusetts, it claimed, released from prison. Or one Democrats objected to two years ago when our current president authorized an ad in support of he reelection campaign that showed firefighters carrying a body from the 9/11 wreckage. This later one attempting to remind voters of Bush’s leadership during that horrific time. And of course there were the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry’s credibility.

In my contrarian view, I am OK with all of these ads, including the current one under attack—

Goldwater was a shoot-from-the-hip personality and probably would have been as much of a danger to the world as George Bush has turned out to be. Dukakis was a wimp—recall his pathetic response in the debate when someone asked him how he would feel and act if his wife were raped and murdered (Horton’s crime). After pausing for what seemed like 20 minutes, he said, “I’d have to think about it for awhile.” And of course we know about Bush and Kerry.

The Republicans’ objection to the current ad raises another issue—why the Bush administration is so loath to have any images at all, not just in ads but in the media as well, of any coffins, any funerals. If these men and women have made the supreme sacrifice defending freedom and democracy why do we hide their final moments from public view? I know that the Bush people don’t want to try to out-Clinton Clinton who was frequently shown publicly comforting grieving families, claiming that Bush meets regularly, but in private, with the families. That’s fine, but what about the rest of us who perhaps also want to honor those who have fallen? Why are they kept hidden from us as if we should be ashamed of them and what they experienced?

Of course the administration has this policy because they do not want us to become too emotional about the consequences of their policies and maybe, as a result, join the opposition to the war.

But then again, maybe they are the ones who might be feeling ashamed of their own policy and its failures and don’t want to be reminded of its human toll.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

July 15, 2006: Saturday Story--"The Club"--Part Two

The Club--Part Two

In Part One, Lloyd and his best friend Dicky Traub made a date to play golf at one of the public courses in Brooklyn. Dicky, the golden child off the neighborhood’s war-hero dentist, Dr. Sugar Traub and the glamorous Mrs. Trudy Traub, continued to be apologetic that his family had run out of guest passes for the summer because he was so eager to invite Lloyd to their Club on the North Shore of Long Island where the greens were like carpets and all the girls wore tight skirts. So when Saturday arrived, they would have to put up with the crab grass fairways and greens endemic to the municipal links in the southern reaches of Brooklyn. But at least they would have access to Dicky’s mother’s glistening Fiat convertible. And Dicky promised they would not have to wait on an endless line to secure a tee-off time—the man in charge, he claimed, was a close friend. When we left them, they were tooling down Fort Hamilton Parkway with the top down and the radio blasting—How sweet it is to be loved by you . . .

In Part Two, which follows, we . . .

In his mother’s gleaming red Fiat, Dicky and I raced south across the heart of Brooklyn with the top down, the wind slapping at our faces, and the radio blasting. A lot of heads turned as we sped along Fort Hamilton Parkway, leaving behind in our wake a stream of the latest from Motown—

How sweet it is to be loved by you.
How sweet it is to be loved by you.Feels so fine, how sweet it is to be loved by you.

When we screeched into the parking lot at Dyker Beach, Dicky saying how he loved “burning rubber,” it was obvious to me that we would never get a tee time—it was a beautiful day and as I suspected the line of cars with guys still asleep in them stretched all the way out onto 89th Street. Reading my mood, Dicky said, “Not to worry Lloyd, be cool, the starter is a personal friend of mine.” He winked at me. “So just wait here buddy,” he hopped out of the car without opening the door, “put on your spikes and I’ll be right back. As I said, trust me.” And with that he darted toward to clubhouse.

I decided to wait before doing anything; still certain there would be no golf for us that day. Thinking, though, that since we had that car we could have quite a good time tooling around the city, maybe even going over to Rockaway of perhaps all the way out to Jones Beach.

But he was back before I could finish making my list of possible alternative plans, the familiar bounce in his step now more a skip and a hop, his face cut even more deeply by his irrepressible shit-eating grin, displaying those perfect teeth to which his father had shown so much devotion.

No problemo, buddy boy. We tee off in half an hour. Just enough time to get in a little putting practice.”

“Half an hour?” This was even more than Dick’s usual magic. “But look at all these fellows still lined up. You really do know the starter?”

“Well he knows me now. It’s amazing how a twenty can help make friends!” He roared with laughter so loud that two guys slumped in their cars were jolted from their sleep.

* * *

And in just that half hour there we were perched on the first tee with Dicky and Melvin, the starter, his newest friend, dancing around together, jabbing each other in the ribs with their elbows.

“Give these other two guys a chance, Dicky,” Melvin said with a grin, “I put them in your foursome because they also belong to a country club and thought they’d give you a little run for your money, if you know what I mean.” I couldn’t believe that Melvin already knew so much about Dicky.

Dicky strode over to the other two players to introduce himself. I couldn’t hear what he said but they were already bent over with laughter, exchanging high fives. He then pulled me toward them and told me that Todd was and insurance broker and his “buddy” Herb a cardiologist. “Lloyd here will probably need both of your services before we’re done with our round.” More laughter, now directed at me. “So what were we saying, five dollars a hole; and if we half it we carry that five over to the next hole?” Todd and Herb nodded.

“Dicky,” I whispered to him, “I thought you said it would be only a dollar a hole.” I was thinking how much nicer it would be if we were on our way to Jones Beach.

“I got you covered Kemo Sabe. Just try to keep your balls in the fairway, or in your pants. OK? I’ll take care of the rest.”

“But Dicky,” I sputtered just as Melvin announced, “All set to tee up?”

“Not yet,” Dicky said, “Let the next party pass through. I’m waiting for my caddy.”

“But they don’t have caddies here Dicky,” I again whispered, “You know that. This is a city course, not your club,” I was beginning to feel a little annoyed in general at his breezy behavior. I had been taught by my parents that when in public to be as undemanding and inconspicuous as possible—they saw that as a sign of “good breeding.” And even though I saw it more as their way to preclude disappointment, which in their lives was always lurking, in this circumstance, when paired with a broker and a doctor, as two nineteen year-olds who had barely finished a year of college and had not as yet accomplished very much, I felt it would be more appropriate for him to rein in some of his relentless exuberance and just play golf.

As I was struggling with these thoughts, Dicky’s caddy arrived, saying, “Sorry I was late, Mr. Traub. The busses are slow Saturday mornings.” He looked to be about sixteen. His black skin was already damp from racing to get there.

“That’s all right Ralph.” Dicky knew him too. It seemed as if he knew everyone. “Here, take my bag. The other fellows will tote their own.”

“I don’t mind doing a double. I do that all the time at the club for Dr. Traub and Mrs. Traub, when they play together.” Then he added quietly to Dicky, “I could sure use the money.”

“Not a problem. Here, take Lloyd’s bag. Let him live a little.” He tossed one of his classic winks at me.

“But Dicky,” I protested, “I’d rather carry my own bag. I’m not comfortable . . .”

“Like I told you,” he cut me off, “I got you covered. Come on time’s a-wasting. Let’s get started.” He then rubbed Ralph’s head, for good luck he said. His father always said having Ralph caddy for them brought them good luck.

I was so agitated that I hooked my first drive so severely that it shot to the right at such an oblique angle that it screeched toward the 9th fairway right in the middle of a foursome struggling up the hill toward the green. They needed to scramble to get out of the way as I, with considerable embarrassment, screamed “Fore!” Dicky and Todd and Herb and even Ralph thought it was just about the funniest thing they ever saw and knew immediately that I would keep them entertained all morning.

I didn’t disappoint them.

After nearly beaning with my drive off the First tee, I did manage not only to slice my drive on Three but did so with such perverse precision that my ball did hit someone coming up the Sixteenth, luckily on a bounce so no visible damage was done. Though Herb, the ever-responsible insurance broker insisted that the fellow I hit, Dicky said he worked in a bank, take my name and address in case overnight he developed a headache (I hit him in the leg) or the effects of whiplash from trying to dart out of the way. Dicky assured me again that he had me covered, which prompted more gales of laughter.

And on the short par three Eighth, the only water hole on the course, I drove four balls into the algae-crusted pond, depleting my supply so I had to borrow more from Dicky when I hit one over the fence on the Ninth, almost onto the campus of Brooklyn Poly Prep where Dicky had gone to high school; and when attempting to hit out of a sand trap on Fifteen, thankfully with only three holes remaining, rather than scooping under it so as to explode it onto the green, I slashed my Wedge into the side of the ball with such frustrated force, that I cut the cover so severely that it was useless. Dicky assured me that it was no problem letting me have another ball since he was going to buy two dozen more of the most expensive Pro Titlists with his winnings as he was “taking these guys to the cleaners.”

Herb and Todd did settle up with Dicky and promised to come by the Traubs’ club before the end of the summer to take up Dicky’s offer to meet Dr. Traub—“You know, with the way things are these days dentists can’t have too much insurance.”

* * *

“My mother told me that you have to stay for dinner,” Dicky was behind the wheel again as we retraced our route of the morning, now north up Fort Hamilton Parkway, passed all the Italian pork stores and then, as the neighborhood morphed, the Kosher butchers. “She wants to hear about everything that happened to you at Columbia. She thinks it will inspire me. I nearly flunked out of Muhlenberg. I spent the whole year drinking beer and getting laid. They put me on probation, and if I don’t do better in the fall they are going to kick me out. So she wants you to help motivate me by telling her how wonderful it is to be a pre-med and be on the crew and all that other rah-rah bullshit crap.”

This was the first I heard about Dicky’s troubles at college. He was sounding agitated and cranky, not his usual ebullient self. “I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to straighten things out. You’re good at fixing things. Look how you did again today. You had everyone eating out of the palm of your hand—the starter, those two other guys, everyone.” I didn’t know what else to say to help restore his spirit. “And sure, I can stay for dinner. When we get to your house I’ll call to let my parents know. They’ll be fine with that.” I knew they would be—they liked me to spend time with the Traub’s. Just as Dicky’s mother thought I might set a good example for him, my parents thought some of the Traub “class,” as my father put it, might rub off on me.

* * *

As Dicky pulled the Fiat into the basement garage we heard Mrs. Traub’s fluttering soprano two floors above, “Not those glasses, Ella.” She was directing her maid up on the second floor where the Traub living and dining rooms were placed by their architect, Lorenzo DePlano, expressing what Dicky told me he called an “upside-down motif,” with the bedrooms below in order to emphasize, in DePlano’s words, “the living over the sleeping.”

“We’re having company for dinner, Ella,” Mrs. Traub sang, “Dicky’s friend Lloyd. So let’s put out the crystal.”

To be continued . . . .

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006--Nebraska??

Looking for a little peace and a sense of security, Rona and I made plans for a cross-country trip—we planned to fly to Seattle and then drive east all the way back to New York City, passing through Washington State, Montana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Virginia among other places, thinking that not only are these beautiful and interesting states but in a world gone mad they would be safe—while there we wouldn’t have to think about terrorist threats, bombings, and the like.


Thanks again to the NY Times for staying on top of such matters, but no thanks for reporting how unsafe our route turns out to be. Their story about the Department of Homeland Security’s just published National Asset Database, with “assets” defined as potential targets for terrorist attacks, reveals that Indiana is home to more of these kinds of assets, 8,591 to be precise, than any other state in the Union. New York, for example, has “only” 5,687. (Article linked below.)

So Indiana no longer feels like fun; and in fact neither does Washington State, which has 3,650. But since, as I write this, we’re already in easternmost Washington, in Walla Walla, we don’t have to worry too much longer about Washington. Unless of course the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, going on right now, is on the asset list. It probably is since the Mule Day Parade in Columbus, Tennessee is listed. If mules aren’t safe I’m sure neither are onions.

Montana, where we are supposed to be tomorrow, has 1,385 targets; probably all where we plan to be, so maybe we should drive right to Wyoming, which has just 360. But then in the 2004 election a greater percentage of Wyomingites voted for George Bush than any other state and so who wants to be there. But then again we do love the Grand Tetons and you can get the NY Times in Jackson. We'll just avoid talking to anyone while we're there.

Wisconsin on the other hand has 7,146 targets so maybe we should drive south of there to avoid them. I was, though, feeing especially good about Nebraska—never having been there, how bad a place can it be? Corn fields, cattle ranches, Omaha. Sounds perfect, sounds safe—just what we’re seeking. But then I learned that it has almost 3,500 terrorist targets! So I guess we can dart east through Iowa—a mere 455 assets there. I wonder what they might be? Our luck, all the Motel 6s where we plan to stay.

OK, we’ll also forget Virginia, we have people there we’d like to visit but with 4,231 terrorist targets, forget it.

So maybe we should just fly home. . . .

But just as I was about to call Continental Rona reminded me that we bought some new cutlery in Seattle and they’ll confiscate the knives at the airport.

So perhaps we should avoid the entire US and come home through Canada. But didn’t they recently arrest a bunch of terrorists there? And we didn't bring our passports with us.

The more I think about the situation, the more I think we’ll look for a place to live right here in Walla Walla. Real estate is cheap by New York standards and the Onion Festival is only two days a year. And for those two days we can always go to . . . ?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

July 12, 2006--The Real Thing

Some of the most under-reported news concerns Somalia. Yet another place where the Bush policy to bring freedom and democracy to the Islamic world has turned into a disaster.

While we have been concentrating on Iraq, Afghanistan again, and of course Iran and North Korea, after the 1993 tragedy of Black Hawk Down, when 18 American troops were captured in Mogadishu and publicly slaughtered by Islamic insurgents, we have been backing a series of warlords in Somalia thought to be secular and Western tipping. Well, they just lost control of the city and the country, and a fundamentalist government similar to Iran’s may be coming into existence. Well done George and Dick and Rummy.

But the NY Times is attempting to catch up with the news, albeit on page six. One finds two stories there—the briefer one, physically situated below Marc Lacey’s “Mogadishu Journal,” tells of the 60 Somalians murdered by Islamist militias over the weekend. Not so different from last weekend and the one before that. The featured story, on the other hand, is a little unusual—it’s about the fate of Coca Cola in a Somalia going fundamentalist (articles linked below).

It seems that a number of local investors, during the good-old warlord days, put together enough money to secure a license from Coca Cola in Atlanta to open a bottling plant. It proved to be a good investment because Coke caught on quickly and they were beginning to make some real money, even though a Coke costs about what a typical employed Somalian earns in a day.

But then along came the Islamists and they saw Coke as an expression of “the devil’s alliance with the warlords.” A leading Imam railed against Coke, proclaiming it “an un-Islamic beverage” that should not “go down a proper Muslim’s throat.”

In these circumstances the Somalians who love Coke and want to buy and drink it may need to risk their lives to do so. And the owners of the bottling facility have had to assemble their own private militia to guard their plant and themselves.

And to this point I naively thought we were involved in a 21st Century crusade in the Middle East. Now I know better—it’s to make the world safe for Coke.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

July 11, 2006--Father Fay Redux

You may recall Father Michael Fay. I wrote about him two months ago. He was the pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church in Darien, Connecticut and allegedly used his wealthy parishioners’ Sunday donations to support a lavish lifestyle that included trysts with a “friend,” Cliff Fantini aka Cliff Martell, in his Upper Eastside apartment and $449,000 condo in Fort Lauderdale.

His transgressions came to light when his assistant pastor, Father Madden, who was rebuffed and demoted by the bishop when he brought his suspicions to the diocese’s attention, hired a private investigator to look at the books. The PI discovered that at least $400,000 of church funds was redeployed to underwrite Father Fay’s lifestyle. The NY Times, which originally broke the story, recently returned to it in order to fill in some details (article linked below).

First we discover that the good Father liked to have blonde highlights applied to his hair—at $85 per treatment, billed to the church. He also threw a lavish party for himself to celebrate his 25th year in the priesthood—at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. Also billed to the church. And he was such a good son, that he even used church money to paint his mother’s house.

He was very good at urging congregants to be generous to the poor and on average gathered $10,000 a week in the collection baskets. He would not deposit that money in the church’s bank account but rather stashed it in his desk drawer. To quote one parishioner, a deli owner, “He was the most high-class priest I’ve ever seen.”

Yet as with so many, having money changed him. When he was struggling along on just his $28,000 a year salary he reputedly was always available to his flock and was noteworthy in his compassion. But after he became high-class, as reported by his devoted secretary, whenever anyone called to discuss a problem he would “just roll up his eyes.”

Over time, a few of his parishioners began to grow suspicious—for some the affair at the Pierre was a “warning sign.” Indeed. So how did Father Fay respond? By claiming that he had prostate cancer and that in his condition he couldn’t tend to them as he would like. And of course, since everyone felt sorry for him they were reluctant to bring him more suffering by raising questions about where all the money was. One called this tactic on his part his “cancer card.”

In spite of all of this, many continue to think well of him. One thing frequently noted is the pleasure he brought to his congregation through the musical productions he staged. Many are still talking about his My Fair Lady and, especially, his ecumenical Fiddler on the Roof.