Saturday, September 30, 2006

September 30, 2006--Saturday Story: "I Married Lydia"--Part Two

In Part One, Lloyd Zazlo, a Columbia junior-pre-med-English-major, reencountered Lydia Liebhaben, a Barnard student and modern dancer from East Paterson, New Jersey. The previous year they had had a disastrous date--when he tried to kiss her good night, she snarled at him, wishing he had gone instead to his “native” Brooklyn College. They met unexpectedly nine months later by the edge of Saranac Lake and immediately became lovers. Less, in truth, in pursuit of love than, for her, the perfect orgasm. Lloyd did well enough in that regard so that she allowed their “relationship” to continue through his senior year when they began to talk about getting married—for both the cash and in order to have a better bed.

In Part Two we discover Lydia and Lloyd . . . .

We were having sex when the phone rang. Panting, Lydia said, “Don’t answer it. I’m almost there.”

“I have too. It could be important.” The phone continued to ring. But I kept thrusting.

“But I just had a small one; and if you keep it up I’m sure I can get there.” That’s how she referred to it—“getting there.” The ringing stopped but began again after a moment, sounding even more urgent.

“I think I should answer it. I’m waiting for a call from one of my professors. About a paper that’s due on Thursday.” It was Tuesday and we had been at it for nineteen minutes. That’s how I referred to it—as “at it.” I had been keeping track of the duration on my new clock radio. The number tabs flipped, and it was now twenty minutes.

I reached across Lydia’s body and grabbed the phone. She held onto my hips to make sure I kept the pumping going. Which I did as I said, “Yes?”

It was my father. I covered the receiver and mouthed to Lydia, who was moving in perfect synchronization, “It’s my father.” She made a face but held onto me even more insistently.

“No, dad,” I said, “we didn’t hear back yet if your sister Madeline will be coming to the wedding.” Lydia began to moan. I held my hand over the mouthpiece so her cries would not be heard back in Brooklyn. “I know,” I said back to him, “if she does you and mom will be over the limit that the Liebhabens set for how many you can invite.” I yelped because Lydia had dug her fingers into my ass as her writhing intensified.

“It’s nothing, dad,” he had heard me, “I just bumped my head on the night table.” He asked if I was all right. “Thanks. No, it’s nothing serious.” I mouthed to Lydia again that maybe she could slow down. For Christ’s sake, I was talking to her future father-in-law! She shook her head and resumed her moaning. Twenty-three minutes had elapsed.

“I’ll ask them if you can add a few more to your invitation list. But you know, they’re paying for it so I’m not sure it’ll work.”

I heard him begin to yell at my mother, who was clearly standing near the phone, “Those cheap bastards! I told you this whole thing was a mistake. They should realize that Lloyd’s a pre-med so they’ll get a good return on their investment.” Though the connection was crackling, it was an interborough call—a version of long distance—I could still pick up his sarcasm.

Lydia began to slam her hands rhythmically against my threadbare mattress. I slipped a pillow over her face to stifle what sounded like the beginning of whimpering. But still my father asked, “What’s going on over there? It doesn’t sound like studying.” The number on the clock flipped again, signaling that twenty-six minutes had passed.

“I don’t know dad, the connection’s lousy, but the people living next door sound as if they’re having a fight.”

“I told you not to move out of the dormitory into that flophouse.” I had moved to the single-room-occupancy College Residence Hotel on Broadway and 110th Street primarily to provide Lydia and me with the privacy to do what we were currently doing. “The whole building is filled up with Puerto Ricans. The last time I was there every name on the mailbox list was Rodriquez-this or Lopez-that.”

“That’s not true, dad. There are also two other guys from Columbia living here.” I was glad not to be talking about the wedding set for June 18th, four months from now. I also hoped he was not hearing Lydia, who though she might have been suffocating, was pounding on the wall that separated us from Luis Rodriquez’s room.

“Let that cheapskate Shelly Liebhaben know that he son-in-law-to-be is going to be a doctor. He’ll know what that means.” I hadn’t as yet found the courage to tell my parents that I wasn’t going to medical school; that I planned instead to enroll in a masters program in literature. I realized that I needed to do that soon—before graduation, which was just months away.

But I was distracted again by the clock which ticked, indicating that it was about to be twenty-eight minutes—a new personal best for Lydia and me. Though she was slowing down from either fatigue or lack of oxygen.

“It sounds as if those Lopez people, or whatever their name is, have at least stopped fighting.”

Feeling as if I had again managed to hide the fact that Lydia was with me, much less what we were up to, I raced to get off the phone. “I’ll see what I can do. But Lydia tells me that her father has not been having a good year with his business.”

“Tell it to the marines,” he said and slammed down the phone.

Lydia was soaking wet. And inert. I checked to see if she was still breathing, using some of the pre-med skills I was about to jettison. Luckily she was, but quiet shallowly, considering what she had put herself through. I had begun to worry what I might say to the police. And of course to both sets of parents. Particularly mine. I thought maybe I could weave together what happened to her with the pre-med business.

I noticed that she was mouthing words but I could barely understand them. I bent closer so that my right ear was right by her mouth. Furiously, she snapped at it, biting so hard that I could feel it beginning to bleed. This was not rough love play. It was clearly from frustration and rage. “I don’t know what to do with you!” she had recovered enough to scream at me, “I’ve never had sex before with anyone like you.” This was the first I learned that I was not her first. “You’re useless! How many times have I told you it’s all about the clitoris?” She always pronounced it so deliberately, as if it was made up of four syllables.

She swung her head violently from side to side. I still lay on top of her. “Get off me!” she commanded. I literally became airborne as I unstuck myself from her pasty bone-thin body. She pulled the sheets up to cover herself and looked at me, not saying a word. Just holding me in an angry glare.

Then she said more softly, but with quietly intensified rage, “Since you won’t eat me or fuck me in the ass, which I know will get me there, there’s only one more thing you will do or the whole thing’s off. Over! Kaput!” She slashed the side of her hand across her throat for emphasis. Since I was terrified by her threats, and because so many from my family had already been told to hold the date for the wedding, I held my breath, waiting to hear what that one more thing was.

“You’re making an appointment to see my psychiatrist. Maybe after a few sessions with him you’ll know what to do with that useless thing hanging between your legs and with what’s wagging in your mouth.” I felt both shrinking to Pigmy size.

* * *

So the following week I found myself trembling in the waiting room of Dr. Arthur Luven, the city’s leading Orgonomist. The wedding invitations needed to be mailed out in a month but Lydia was holding the entire event hostage to my agreeing to have three sessions with him.

Luven had studied in Berlin and New York with Wilhelm Reich himself, who in turn had been a student and colleague of Freud’s in Vienna. Thus the pedigrees were outstanding, but the poster advertising Luven’s book, The Betrayal of the Orgasm, with the quote, “Honoring the body through the bioenergetics of cosmic energy—W. Reich,” suggested that just three fifty-minute sessions would be insufficient, considering the magnitude of the problem—getting Lydia there. But I was pledged to keep our agreement and at least show up. The wedding depended on it.

The door to Dr. Luven’s office opened. I noticed that it was padded on the inside and at once realized why since the client he was cradling in his arms, as he helped her shuffle to the outer door, was crying, actually sobbing so convulsively that if it had been just the normal door no one would have been willing to sit in the waiting room listening to it—they would for certain flee, even at the risk of jeopardizing the opportunity to, in his care, regain their sanity. On the other hand, I was also pleased to see that foam rubber tacked there since who knew what I might be going through by session two or three?

After launching her toward the elevator, the doctor turned to me. I put down Ogonomy Today, in which he was prominently listed as Senior Contributing Editor, and extracted myself from the velvet chair. I towered over him. My six-four made his five-two look insignificant. Though even thus foreshortened, I was struck by the fact that he seemed to be almost all head. Actually, all hair.

From the gray-streaked wires that sprang from the top of his skull as if it had been struck by lightening to the eyebrows which sprouted like tangled briar and, above all, because of that moustache which appeared to have been woven from a horse’s mane, from this mass of hair I, for a moment, did not notice that he was wearing a brown tee shirt with a gold Ying-Yang symbol blazoned on it, what looked like leather hiking shots, and Franciscan-Monk sandals on his bare feet. This at a time when all doctors, even when on holiday, wore suits and ties and black Oxfords.

When he ever so slowly raised that head to lock onto my eyes, his penetrating gaze radiated so much heat that I immediately began to tear. Could this be, I wondered, my first blast of Orgone Energy? But while blotting my eyes I managed to stammer, “I’m Lloyd Zazlo. Lydia Liebhaben’s fiancé. She sent me to see you.”

“Yes, I know about you.” With the tincture of a German accent that he must have acquired while studying with Reich in Berlin, from Lydia I knew he had been born and raised on Long island, on the South Shore, the I know and the you sounded ominous.

I understood of course that whatever Lydia might have told him about me would not have been positive. If it had been, why then would I be there in his clutches? I also knew that whatever help I might receive would not be assisted by my thinking about myself as in his clutches. I needed to feel I wanted to be there, that I wanted his help. But since he had gripped my right bicep so firmly that no blood was able to flow to my fingers and they thus immediately began to tingle and then go numb, I was very much literally in his clutches. Held that way, he led, perhaps more accurately, he pulled me into his chambers. And they were that—chambers. Gloomy ones.

As I became adjusted to the filtered light, I saw that everything in his office was fabricated from leather. The walls were covered in it as was the furniture, including the top of his desk. Even his telephone sat in a leather-tooled cradle. And they were a perfect complement to his shorts and sandals. So much so, as if camouflaged, that he effectively disappeared when he took his place behind his embossed and brass-studded desk. While the rest of him was absorbed into the leather atmosphere, his face was visible, in spite of the fact that it was covered with that electrified hair, illuminated by the whiteness of his teeth, which below his moustache, threw off light like a pulsating strobe.

He made a tent of his hands, leaning toward where I sat on a stool on the opposite side of his desk (I was to learn that his techniques were not about engendering comfort), saying nothing, totally still, as if he in this way was deciphering the mysteries encrypted in my soul, or psyche, or wherever.

Afraid to move my head, but using my peripheral vision, I saw that his book shelves contained not just a library of expected Orgonomy texts, including many in German, but interspersed among the books were grotesque carved wood and straw masks from Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. Lydia had told me that Dr. Luven possessed a world-famous collection of Pre-Columbian sculpture. That he specialized in Xipe effigies, charred clay figures of the shaman who presided over the ceremonies and offerings to the Aztec god of spring, priests who were always represented as dressed in the skins of sacrificed and flayed victims. Thus garbed was the one I spotted on a table that stood next to the only piece of furniture that felt incongruous—a small unmade camp bed on which there appeared to be a battered tennis racket.

I was snapped out of my reverie when Dr. Luven said, “Now I think we will begin.”

“Sure. Whatever you say.” I tried to lighten the mood by chirping, “That’s why I’m here!”

Not in any way amused, Dr. Luven directed, “Go, stand over there. Next to the light.” He pointed to side of the room by the cot and effigy. “And take off your shirt and trousers.” I looked at him questioningly before getting up. I knew he was a doctor, an MD, but he was a psychiatrist so why did I need to take off my clothes? “For now,” he added, “you can keep the rest on.”

By my rising so slowly I imagine he sensed my puzzlement and reluctance. “Don’t worry,” he snorted, “I won’t hurt you or ask you to bend over.” At that he smiled, “I want to examine your blockages.”

“My what, Dr. Luven?” I had moved over to where he wanted me to stand and was slowly unbuttoning my shirt. I did notice that it was in fact a tennis racket.

“While you’re doing that, since you are obviously ignorant about bioenergetics, I will give you a brief, a very brief lesson. We do not have that much time. You should buy the book. It’s very good. I recommend it. It’s on sale at Salters up by Columbia.”

I slipped off my shoes and began to unzip my fly. I could already feel his eyes on my chest. “Bioenergetic psychotherapists,” he began, “believe that there is a connection between the mind and the body. What affects the body affects the mind; and what affects the mind does the same to the body. The defenses you use to handle pain and the stresses of life--rationalizations, denials, and suppressions--are reflected in the physical patterns of your body.” I had dropped my pants and they lay around my ankles. I was not ready to kick them away just in case there was a fire and I needed to bolt for the street.

“I can already see in your body, even through that sweaty undershirt, that your breathing, revealed by the shallow movement of your diaphragm, exposes your, forgive me for being so direct, your inept attempts to deal with pain.” Hearing this I took two quick, hopefully very visible deep breaths but became so dizzy that I almost fainted and thus immediately returned to my normal, inepter pattern.

“These defenses, these somatic blockages of yours manifest themselves in your body in ways that inhibit self-expression. I have been trained to discover them through careful observation. That’s why I have you standing there shivering.” Through the half-light I thought I detected another smile. “I can locate these defenses from the quality of your handshake, which by the way was quite revealing: your posture, truncated and clearly adopted by you to cut your head off from your diaphragm (very common in cases such as this); the tone of your voice, totally uncertain, almost a whisper; the way you move, in your case shamble would better categorize it—to help you I need to be frank with you; and from the amount of energy you radiate, especially that, which again in your situation needs to have its wattage increased.” At that I saw his teeth throb.

As a result of my increasing nervousness, I surreptitiously sniffed the air hoping that the office next door was beginning to catch fire and the alarm would soon sound. I was sensing that I would need three years and not just my agreed-upon three sessions to deal with all of my blockages, handshake, and also my diaphragm. As if reading my mind, which I assumed he was quite capable of doing—how difficult was that to do in comparison to turning up my wattage--he assured me, just as I was about to dissolve into despair, “Do not be discouraged by my analysis. All of these things I have seen before and been trained to observe.” At that he nodded toward a photograph of his mentor, Wilhelm Reich, adding, “And cure.”

I began to breathe again. I sensed perhaps in more depth. Could it possibly be that I was already making progress? “We have time to deal with all of this. In fact, I have had a cancellation for tomorrow so please return here to me then. And after that we will still have one more time together. I know just what to do to you.”

I shuttered at the to do to you.

“And you can now please pull up your trousers.”

* * *

Back at the College Residence Hotel I immediately called Lydia who was in her dorm room at Barnard. To report to her as she had instructed me to do.

“He wants to see me again tomorrow.” I thought it wise not to initiate anything about what Dr. Luven had said about my handshake or shamble. This was consistent with what Lydia typically told me after her sessions with Dr. Luven—she shared nothing. Whenever I asked what happened with Dr. Luven, she cut me right off, saying what goes on between a psychiatrist and client was confidential.

But in spite of this, she probed, “So what did he say is wrong with you?”

“Well, you know, that’s supposed to remain between just Dr. Luven and me.”

“Look, we know why you’re seeing him. We both understand what’s wrong with you. But I also need to hear what he said so I can know what to expect from you. I don’t plan on waiting forever. You know very well what this is about. So enough with the playing coy. I don’t have all night. I have a paper due tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure Lyd that I should be telling you anything. Won’t it interfere with my treatment? I mean, it’s pretty private stuff.”

“OK,” she said, she would have none of my evasions, “So he had you take off your clothes. What’s the big deal with that? It’s the only way he can do his analysis. He always works with me in my underwear. Or naked.” I tried to block that image from my mind. “So what did he say about your breathing? I’ve always thought that was at the center of your problem. In fact, that’s what my paper’s about—somatic blockages. In your case, I’m sure that’s where the primary impediment is. He needs to break that down.”

At the thought of his breaking that down, and that Lydia might be writing about my diaphragm, I felt my breathing begin to regress back toward shallowness. I needed to tell her something so I said, “I like his office. It’s very interesting. Everything’s leather. And like you said there are all those statues. He’s so short and has all that hair.”

“Just as I imagined,” she shot back, “Now I also have to deal with avoidance. Here I am trying to save our relationship and all you can talk about are his eyebrows. Pathetic.” I didn’t respond, but she added with a dismissive sigh, “I have to go. I need to get back to work.”

I obviously needed to say more. “Wait. He also told me that he can help me. Cure me.” I heard her snort.

“I’ve been going to Arthur for five years and you think he can ‘cure’ you in just three sessions?” I could hear her laughing and muttering something to her roommate Helga. Helga had her own psychiatrist, not an Orgonomist but a Cognitive therapist; and though they had long fights about psychoanalytic theory, they were obviously now united in their amusement at my situation. “I can’t wait to hear what happens tomorrow,” she continued, more I sensed for Helga’s pleasure than out of any concern for me. “Maybe he’ll put you in his Orgone Box and bake you a little.” At that, in the background, Helga shrieked. And Lydia hung up.

Shaken by what appeared to be Lydia’s lack of understanding, I lay on my bed and fretted while watching the last light from the other side of the Hudson migrate across the opposite wall. And from next door, bleeding through that wall, I heard Luis Rodriquez playing cords on his guitar. And beginning to sing, as plaintively as was my mood—

Tu amor, tu inmenso amor me llena de alegria
Tu amor, tu inmenso amor es mas que compania

It took me some time but eventually I concluded that I deserved more than understanding from Lydia—it was not unreasonable to even expect a little sympathy. What I was going through, was being compelled to go through, was not easy for me. More than anyone else, Lydia should realize how difficult it was for me to be so exposed. With Dr. Luven, or Arthur, to be so literally exposed. To be forced to stand there half-naked, maybe next time like Lydia fully naked, while he dissected me with his eyes. That’s what it felt like—like being cut open.

OK, she was a dancer and being examined that way was familiar to her. But I was never comfortable talking showers in locker rooms. I thus thought, screw it, I’m not going back there tomorrow! Even if it means Lydia calling off the wedding. I would find a way to explain it to my parents—not about Dr. Luven of course, I was paying him with my own money. And while I was at it I would slip into the conversation that I wasn’t going to medical school. I’d get it all over with at once—no wedding, no becoming a doctor.

But just as I was becoming comfortable with my decision to end things, remembrances of naked Lydia flooded my mind. Not the Lydia in Dr. Luven’s chambers, but rather with me, right here in this room and, from earlier, under those balsam trees, in the moonlight, beside Saranac Lake. Though I had been failing to get her fully “there,” we had come close a few times.

Luis continued to sing about amor, as if he felt the turmoil just next door—

Tu amor, tu fiel amor es siempre a mi lado
Tu amor es mas que amor, tu amor es un mila

Lydia had always wanted to be with me, pushed me to keep trying to satisfy her and with that came to find me interesting and amusing. She believed in my prospects, in fact she had encouraged me to give up on the medicine fantasy, more my parents’ than mine, and to pursue my more substantial interest in literature. My passion, she called it. “Follow your passion,” she had counseled.

And Lydia had been my first fully physical lover, even more so than my German baroness, Sigrid from my sophomore year—Lydia had given herself to me with total, unquestioning abandon and had brought me into her suburban world of comfort and certainty and her city world of art and culture. Both places I longed to inhabit. And thus I wanted to do better, to find a way to make things work and get married, even at City Hall if it came to that.

So I vowed to return to Arthur’s office the next day; and if he required it, take off all my clothes and, if necessary, even climb into the Orgone Box! Whatever that was.

Tu amor es mas que amor . . . Luis whispered.

* * *

To be continued . . . .

Friday, September 29, 2006

September 29, 2006--Fanaticism XLXII--Pawn to King-Knight Four

At a time when we are distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can perhaps be excused for overlooking another struggle of epic proportions—the world chess championship match currently under way in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia. Between Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia. Not exactly familiar geography (Kalmykia?) or household names like Gary Kasparov or Bobby Fischer, but to chess enthusiasts this is their Super Bowl, their Shock and Awe.

Mr. Kramnik, by the way, leads the match by a score of 3-1, with 6 ½ points needed to win the title. 3-1, thus, is a very substantial lead since you earn half a point when a game is drawn; and for anyone at this level of play, to gain draws is quiet easy. So all Kramnik needs to do to win is arrange to have the next seven matches end in draws. Not exactly exciting chess, but a tried-and-true strategy.

As is cheating and/or psychological gamesmanship. You might wonder, if you are uninitiated, how a game so staid, something played out on a 20 x 20 inch hunk of wood could offer opportunities to cheat much less provide a venue in which to torture your opponent.

Well, wonder again. There is a long, very long tradition of just such behavior. Perhaps even at this match. It seems that Kramnik has been going to the bathroom upwards of 50 times, that’s five-oh, during each match; and Topalov has officially protested, claiming that while in the potty, Kramnik has been cheating. Presumably getting help from his seconds via an electronic device or something not obscene scrawled on the walls of the stall. (See NY Times article linked below.)

This is plausible since these bathroom breaks are unsupervised—players go to a private bathroom and are not accompanied by any officials. Topalov is demanding that Kramnik pee, or do the other thing, in a public rest room and that he be monitored while there. He has not as yet raised objections to the number of breaks, undoubtedly not wanting to call in a gastroenterologist or urologist or psychiatrist.

When Bobby Fischer won the title in 1972 at his match with Boris Spasky in Reykjavik, Iceland, he drove Spasky crazy by insisting on having a special chair, special lighting, special acoustics, etc. Sapsky was so perturbed by Fischer’s demands, antics, and the audacious quality of his play, that he almost had a nervous breakdown. And of course lost.

In 1978, during the world championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, Karpov had yogurt delivered to him during the course of individual games. Seems benign enough, particularly for Russians, but the Korchnoi people protested, contending that since it was blueberry yogurt, it constituted cheating because that particular flavor was code for certain moves.

Korchnoi, though, had some strategies of his own—he wore mirrored sunglasses during the match, claiming that he needed to do so because Karpov had the nasty habit of staring at him.

Korchnoi, by the way, lost the championship that year and then again in 1981, also to Karpov. I suppose he should have tried the yogurt scam (I prefer peach myself) rather than the sunglass ploy.

Prediction for the current match—Kramnik 6 ½; Topolov 4.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

September 28, 2006--The Fourth R: Rightousness

The NY Times reports about the most recent study, "Educating School Teachers,” that exposes how poorly teachers are being trained. A product of the Education Schools Project, it comes to virtually the same conclusion as all the other studies that have been issued during the past decade—first, that teachers in training get much too little education in the subjects they will be expected to teach and, second, because student teachers have been such poor students themselves they attend second-rate colleges and universities where they allegedly get an inferior education. (Article linked below.)

For many years poor student achievement in our public schools was attributed to inadequate parenting and “the culture of poverty,” which in combination meant that when students showed up at the schoolhouse door they were “not ready to learn.” Later, blame for low achievement scores shifted from the children and their families to the schools themselves. This included the “discovery” that teachers were ill prepared to teach a more and more heterogeneous student body.

To solve this problem, states were pushed to raise the standards they employ to certify teachers. This included much of what the Education Schools Project recommends, minus the tweak at the poor quality of the student teachers. As a result certification standards have been raised around the country and yet our lowest-income students are still floundering. What to do? Our teacher educators say, “More of the same.” Literally—pour it on, require more and more study of, say, mathematics, before someone is allowed to be turned loose to teach a math class.

In New York State, as a not untypical example, this means that as an undergraduate you must take Calculus I, II, and III, plus Differential Equations, Advanced Statistics; and then earn a masters degree before being licensed to teach math in middle or high school. And earn $32,000 a year to start.

Simple question—where is the hard evidence that any of this is necessary to being prepared to teach Algebra successfully to 9th graders in the South Bronx? There is none. And yet these reports, saying the same thing over and over again, roll off the presses, all of them funded, year after year, by the same foundations.

One of the sad ironies about this report is that its author is Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University. In spite of its name, Teachers College is not noted for its undergraduate teacher preparation programs. Its primary purpose is more the business of educating the teachers and supervisors of teachers. So he is hardly the ideal person to be pontificating on this subject since TC has, through the years, done a poor job of even that. Just look at the results—the dysfunctional public school system in New York City where so many TC graduates go on to ply their trade.

No one seems to learn anything. And I’m especially not only talking about the children

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

September 27, 2006--Knuckleheads

The Deutsche Oper in Berlin announced it was dropping the opera Idomenoe from its fall schedule because it might present an “incalculable risk” to the performers and the audience. Usually the only risks associated with an opera are concerns about a wardrobe malfunction when some Wagnerian soprano reaches for an extra high note or a camel parading across the stage during Aida stops to relieve itself. So what’s at risk at the Deutsche Oper?

It seems that the director added a scene that is not a part of the original 1781 production—in the current version he added a tableau in which a character carries the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed. (See NY Times front page article attached below.)

Thus the concern about putting the performers and audience at risk. Recall what happened recently when a Dutch newspaper published cartoons that many Islamic people felt defamed Mohammed—just by representing him. What might happen, then, if this opera were put on the boards in a country where there are upwards of 10 million Islamic people living in conditions that make many of them feel unwelcome? Nothing good, I imagine.

But then of course there is the outcry about not allowing “those people” to scare us, much less thwart our cherished freedom of expression. It doesn’t ameliorate the situation in this version by having Idomenoe, the King of Crete, also carry the heads of Buddha, Poseidon, and Jesus, even though none of them, including the Prophet, had yet to be born at the time in which the opera was set. Artistic freedom, I suppose.

And while I’m ragging about this, how come Idomenoe wasn’t also toting the severed head of, say, Moses? How naïve of me—this is of course all taking place in Germany.

Still on the opera front, there was last night’s opening at the Metropolitan Opera. Launching it was the film director Anthony Minghella’s new, widely-publicized version of Madama Butterfly. Minghella, late of the turgid Cold Mountain and English Patient.

What was the Met thinking when hiring him to take on this new production? Concerned that the audience for opera has become decidedly geriatric and worried about who can or would be willing to pay $300 per ticket to see their repertoire of stale productions, the Met obviously went for star power. And it worked. At least for last night--the Times reports that the gala opening was “star-studded.” Though unlike Entertainment Tonight they restrained themselves from listing just which "stars" were in attendance. I leave that to your imagination. (See second Times article also below.)

They though did spend truly the first third of the review reviewing the audience’s reactions to the new production, particularly to Mr. Minghella’s “innovative” use of a puppet during the second act. Instead of the “real child” who traditionally appears with Cio-Cio-San, he used “a small puppet boy [in a sailor suit] manipulated by three puppeteers cloaked in black who stand behind him [sic]. The child [sic] moves with eerily human gestures [there are three puppeteers for God’s sake!], and his [sic] bald head has a wizened, hopeful yet anxious look.”

In the men’s room or lobby during the intermission, the Times’ reviewer quotes one patron as saying, “It was more real than any real child they could have had.”

Bravo, I say! Encore! And to the folks back at the Deutsche Oper I say, “Hang tough!” Actually, maybe I can phrase that somewhat differently.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

September 26, 2006--Europe 18 1/2; USA 9 1/2

In the good-old-days, the US Dream Team, our 1992 Olympic basketball team, would waltz through the competition, winning every game. The only suspense was how many points they would score and how badly they would trounce the opposition. But last month, at the Word Basketball Championship held in Japan, the latest version of the Dream Team lost to Greece, yes Greece, and thus didn’t even make the finals. We were left to contend for the bronze medal, yes, the bronze!

(As a side bar, the women’s basketball team lost to the Russians in their semifinals.)

Back in March, in another sport invented in America, baseball, prior to the start of the Major League season, there was the World Baseball Classic. In a sort of version of the current Survivor TV show where contestants are divided into teams by race, the WBC organized teams by nationality—there was thus a Venezuelan team, a Dominican team, a Japanese team, even a Cuban team, and also an US team. Japan beat Cuba in the final 10-6. The US won-lost record was 3 wins, 3 loses. Korea, on the other hand, was 6 and 1.

For Yankee fans, it was disconcerting to see Mariano Rivera pitching for Panama; Bernie Williams out in center field for Puerto Rico; but less of a surprise to find A Rod, Alex Rodriquez, at third base for the USA team. (He is even conflicted about his nationality.)

And at the Ryder Cup matches just this past weekend, for the fifth time in six attempts, the US golf team, led by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Jim Furyk, ranked number one, two, and three in the world, was mauled by the Europeans, losing by one of the widest margins in history—18 ½ to 9 ½. (See NY Times article below.)

There is as a result a lot of national soul-searching. What’s going on here? It’s bad enough that all of our manufacturing and half our services have been outsourced to Mexico and Bangalore; but basketball? And baseball? What could be next?

I’ll bet, if this trend continues, when you call the American Express 800 number to ask a question about your bill, someone in Mumbai will answer the phone. But thank goodness that will never happen! .

Pretty much everyone who is wringing their hands and commenting on the Ryder Cup and the two WBCs are saying we are losing because our athletes do not play well as team members—our strength is characterized by individual initiative and entrepreneurship. And individuals who excel in this way do not perform well when forced to play together. Tiger Woods, as a sort of golfing Lone Ranger, is almost undefeatable: but to expect him to team up effectively with a rival, say, Phil Mickelson, is asking too much.

Though we rue this on one level because we want our national teams to win and thereby demonstrate the superiority of our system, there is another side to this—the belief that as individuals, and to us that’s what really counts, we still dominate the world.

Maybe yes and maybe no. Even in professional sports, in our own sports of baseball and basketball, the Most Valuable Players and Cy Young Award winners are tending more and more not to be from the US.

And then, spiraling out to the larger, much more important world, how competitive are our “teams,” for example our military, on the ground? Perhaps, in the world that really counts, including in the generation of new ideas and technologies, being able to work successfully in various forms of teams is what wins.

In that world, Europe 18 ½ ; US 9 ½ doesn’t feel very comfortable.

Monday, September 25, 2006

September 25, 2006--Club Bow-Wow

I came in in the middle of the conversation. A very stressed-out friend was talking about a place he had heard about. It sounded like a spa where there was hiking, swimming, listening to music, watching TV, gourmet meals (he mentioned they were famous for their filet mignon), massages, pedicures, and, if you wanted it, they even piped into the suites every evening bedtime stories read by one of the staff members. And, I almost forgot, for an extra daily charge, someone from the staff would sleep in the room with you.

I was glad to hear that he was thinking about some well-deserved down time—he had been working hard and hadn’t had a real vacation in more than a year. But when I told him that the place he was describing sounded ideal and asked when he might be planning to go, he laughed and said he wasn’t talking about a spa for himself but rather for his dog!

He then showed me the article linked below from the Business section of the Sunday NY Times.

There I not only learned about the Top Dog Country Club but also about Club Bow-Wow and how Americans now spend $38.4 billion per year on their pets.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and cats and thus I shouldn’t have been so surprised about all of this, including how much is paid for pet food, doggy toys, and now canine country clubs.

As an owner of a coop apartment in new York City I know that the most contentious issues at our annual meetings involve which elevators dogs can use in our “pet-friendly” building, why is it that dog owners have their pooches pee in the tree pits right outside the building’s entrance rather than in the gutter or down the street, and why do our bylaws allow residents who live in 400 square-foot studio apartments to have three huge hunting dogs—shouldn't there be a limit on the number of pets permitted per shareholder or a weight allowance: 12 Chihuahuas, for example, equal one Labrador Retriever?

Within minutes, pet owners and those without pets are literally screaming at each other and fighting like, well, cats and dogs.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

September 23, 2006--Saturday Story: "I Married Lydia"--Part One

It was at the end of a disastrous and humiliating evening that I last saw Lydia. That was, until the following summer. And shortly after that, a mere eighteen months later, we were married.

This is a lot to absorb, so let me go back a bit before telling you about what turned out to be truly disastrous.

We met for the first time at the legendary West End Bar up by Columbia University. It was legendary less because of its location or tepid beer than because it was the college haunt of the founders of the Beat Generation—Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg. Especially Ginsburg who inhabited the place instead of his classes; and, since he showed more promise as both a poet and drinker than a scholar, he had a stool set aside for him at the end of the bar’s long horseshoe.

I came there some years later, a confused pre-med English major who was struggling less with Organic Chemistry than with what I wanted to do with my life. My oxymoronic drift toward thinking about medicine by majoring in English should have been a clue that I was inclining toward writing and teaching rather than dissecting cadavers and being on call all night as a cardiologist.

One chilled autumn day, while peering into my beer glass, searching there, as had so many before me, for guidance, reading the remnants of the evaporating foam for answers, as out of a movie cliché, Lydia walked into my life. Lydia Riffelstein from East Paterson. Decidedly east of the Paterson, New Jersey of Ginsburg’s early years and where his idol William Carlos Williams practiced and wrote. Practiced medicine I did not at the time know. If only I had!

But Lydia, in spite of the handicap of the mislocation of her birth, was a dancer, a modern dancer, which was evident by her cut-off black leotards, black tights, black beret, black jewelry, and black eye shadow. She was a Barnard student, which meant she was good at taking tests, but her real passion was for dance. Martha Graham’s version, where her disciples, and Lydia was certainly one of those, spent endless hours writhing on the floor, learning and practicing the pelvic contractions that were at the heart of the Graham Method.

That first afternoon, with her dancer’s feline assurance she slid onto a stool just to my left and ordered a Compari and Soda, pronouncing it as one word, CompariSoda, which from the distance of these many years should have warned me not to pull my nose up from my beer mug and not to have said, as I did, referring to Martha Graham, “I thought she was dead.”

“You should be so dead,” Lydia snorted and turned back, aggressively ignoring me, to her Dance Magazine and CampariSoda.

“I know that was stupid.” I said masochistically, “I’ve never known a modern dancer before and couldn’t think of anything witty to say.”

“You have a lot to learn,” She shot back, “about both dance and wit. That I can see.”

Benevolent fate, clearly, was not on my side, then or later; and so, without recounting any of the sordid details of why she would have thought to invite me to accompany her to a Merce Cunningham dance concert or why I would have accepted or more perversely why, never having been to a French restaurant, I would have made a reservation for us to go to La Cave Henri IV after Merce’s performance, she referred to him as Merce, let me bring you directly to the end of that fateful evening, after Lydia conversed with the waiter in flawless French after I did not know to taste the wine to test if it had turned (I thought it strange that le garcon had “served” me first before pouring a glass for Mademoiselle Lydia), let me take you to the entrance to her dormitory where, after my pathetic performance (I will spare you my fumblings with the escargot holder), I certainly was not expecting to “get any,” but I was hoping for at least a kiss, perhaps a French version, in the spirit of le soir, how, when I leaned toward her face, knowing in the dark, without being able to see, that that was where I would find her lips and perhaps, perhaps her mouth, at that very moment I could feel her turn toward me and heard her spit, “I hope I never see you again. Too bad you didn’t go to Brooklyn College, where you belong. Just my luck--now I have two more years to get through with you prowling around just on the other side of Broadway.”

From this you would undoubtedly imagine that when we unexpectedly encountered each other during the summer, nine months later, at a children’s camp on Saranac Lake up in the Adirondacks, she would have shunned me and I would have dived for cover into the huckleberry bushes. But rather we feel into each other’s arms like long-lost lovers. And within forty-eight hours I had claimed that French Kiss. Many in fact. And much more. In fact, I even “got some” on a lawn of balsam pine needles, under the bows of a hundred year-old tree, with a trite half-moon cradled by the far edge of the lake.

The coincidence of our meeting so unexpectedly, and there of all places (the son of the camp owner was a classmate of mine and I drove up for a visit--Lydia was employed as the dance counselor and in just weeks had transformed her minion into tiny Graham acolytes) made us think we were star-crossed. Destiny had brought us together. And the fact that we had both just finished reading Winesburg, Ohio and were halfway through The Bothers Karamazov, equally loving the dark and the darker, overcame whatever residual feelings there were about that night on the town and her wishing me banished back to my native borough.

It also didn’t hurt that Lydia, also a student of Wilhelm Reich and his theories of orgone energy, had not to that midpoint of the summer gotten any, at least none that took her to the perfect orgasm about which Wilhelm wrote so eloquently. And so I, in splendid shape from all my working out with the Columbia crew, puffed up with energy and rippling with muscles and flexible sinew, became the beneficiary of the other use to which the Graham contractions could be applied. I learned that fist night that they were good for use both on stage and off.

They were put to that use for me, but not entirely for Lydia. As it turned out, Lydia alas informed me, that my energy was more of the athletic than orgone sort. But I came close enough, rather Lydia came close enough, so that I continued to be useful to her at the end of the summer, back in New York City, where being separated by just Broadway turned out to be an asset rather than the liability she had earlier perceived it to be. Prowling was now encouraged.

And during my senior year, as we got to know and like each other while pounding away relentlessly in assorted sordid places, perhaps even once approaching that perfection, Lydia agreed to talk about the possibility of getting married. We could use the cash, I said, as well as a better bed, she replied.

To be continued . . . .

Friday, September 22, 2006

September 22, 2006--Fanaticism XLXI--Mucous Slime

Pope Benedict for the fourth time either clarified his remarks about Islam or apologized. His first attempt did not have the effect he was seeking—it set off even more rioting on “The Arab Street,” including effigy burnings and death threats. Perhaps because his “apology” was in truth not about what he said but rather about “the reaction” to his lecture. Thus, it was viewed by many as inflaming an already incendiary situation.

Now, the NY Times reports, his series of clarifications/apologies are setting off dissent within the Catholic and Jewish communities. (Article linked below.) Some are saying that his comments about The Prophet and militant Islam were in fact true and that rather than backing down he should affirm what he said, albeit indirectly by quoting the words of a medieval emperor.

Out in Saint Peter’s Square, for example, someone said, “What should he apologize for? There is freedom of speech.” More suggestively, another added, “What he said in Regensburg was very carefully calculated, and the message still stands. He was challenging the Islamic world to take a seat at the table of reasoned religions.”

I’ve convened many meetings around various tables and what the Pope said did not seem to me to be a very enticing invitation. Nor by contrasting “reasoned Christianity” with “unreasoned Islam” is it likely that the Pope will engender a useful dialog. As we can see, it has led to quite the opposite. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy—how his words about Islamic violence contributed to violence which in turn right-wing commentators claim shows how violent Islam in fact is.

Though there is as yet no evidence that the Pope’s words have led to any additional physical attacks against Muslims, I have been shocked to see how violent and ugly the anger and bigotry is, how close to the surface.

I need to protect his identity quite carefully since he is a very well known public intellectual here and in Europe and he would be mortified to have me quote from what he assumed was a very private conversation. But when in the midst of a fairly reasoned discussion about “religions of the sword,” acknowledging that all three of the Religions of the Book during their long histories have records of considerable violence, all three have experienced genocide—as both victims and perpetrators, in the middle of that historical review he began to sputter about how Islam was the worst of all, the most violent, the least tolerant, the most bigoted, the most ignorant. He said that rather than clarifying and apologizing the Pope should reiterate what he said since it was true—“Islam is a despicable religion.”

“In fact,” he added, “do you know what ‘Muslim’ means?” He paused and then spat, “Mucous slime.”

Thursday, September 21, 2006

September 21, 2006--Peeing Together

Richard Nixon forged his reputation by railing against Communism at home and abroad. There was no harder liner during the Cold War. In his debates with John Kennedy prior to the 1960 presidential election, he spoke out fiercely against the “Red Chinese” threat, the “Yellow Peril,” vowing to defend the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu if they moved to attack them. But then, a decade later, after he had been elected president, he made a surprise trip to Red China, met with the evil Mao Zedong, and made a series of deals with him that less than ten years later led to the exchange of ambassadors and the now “Peoples Republic of China” becoming one of our leading trading partners and principal underwriters of our national debt.

How did the unthinkable happen? It all began, was catalyzed, by a visit to China by an American ping pong team. After that seemingly innocuous event, step by step, the two countries which had been bitter enemies and had fought against each other in Korea, moved into a covert dialog that led to a normalization of relations and Nixon’s legendary visit, which was subsequently memorialized in an opera by John Adams, Nixon In China.

Also during the Nixon administration, we were at war with North Vietnam, another embodiment of evil. Nixon fought ferociously, authorizing the “illegal” CIA-led war in Laos and Cambodia, to intercept the Ho Chi Min Trail and to prevent those countries from becoming Communist as the dominos fell. While publicly refusing to talk with much less negotiate with the North Vietnamese, he had his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger meet secretly in Paris with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho. They made a deal to end the war and as a result both shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

Are there contemporary parallels? We find ourselves again contesting with evil doers, including Iran. Our current president, like Nixon, publicly refuses to have anything to do with them. He will not allow any sort of even covert diplomatic contact. (See attached NY Times article.) Though we can hope that Condi Rice is not just shopping for shoes during her visits to Paris. But in case she is just shopping, how about another scenario—one in which Bush does something equivalent to what Nixon did?

During this week’s UN meetings, Bush’s handlers went through a series of Kabuki moves to assure that he would not inadvertently wind up in the same room with Iran’s president—God forbid someone might snap a picture of the two of them together. What would voters in Kansas think if they saw that splashed across their TV screens? They even went so far as to be certain that they did not wind up in the mens room together!

I, on the other hand, saw that latter circumstance as an opportunity. What might have happened if they had found themselves peeing at side-by-side urinals? Of course this might have led to late night jokes about pissing contests or comments about mine being bigger than yours.

I can, though, imagine a dialog in which Bush begins by saying to President Ahmadinejad, “Got your letter the other day about getting together to talk. So here we are.”

“I’m glad it got to you. I had been told that you don’t read the newspapers and I thought your aides would never pass it along to you. After all, we are a part of ‘the axis of evil.’”

“Well, I’m not as isolated as you think. I try to appear that way. It’s a way of disarming my opponents. To make them think I’m dumb. Present company excluded of course.”

“Since we’re alone here,” President Ahmadinejad might say, “and there are no photographers around, let me ask you something—why is it OK for the Israelis to have the bomb but not Iran? Not that we’re building one of course.” At that he probably would wink at President Bush.

“It’s simple—because you would either give one to the terrorists to use against America or would launch one toward Israel. You do want to see them wiped off the map, don’t you?” Bush would likely turn to him when saying that, being careful not to look down to check him out.

“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. Or everything I say for that matter. Like you, I make things up for local consumption.” He’d probably wink once more.

“OK, we’re alone, so why do you want to build one?”

‘Would you believe me if I said it’s for national pride? Again, I’m not saying that’s what we’re up to; but if we were, it would be for that reason. To show the Iranian people, as well as the rest of the world, that we too are a powerful nation. If we were to be so stupid as to actually use one we know, as the Russians did, that you would, how did you put it during the Cold War, ‘bomb us back to the Stone Age. And as you know, Iran, when it was Persia, came out of the Stone Age long before anyone else. So we don’t want to wind up back in that situation.”

“But how could we trust that that’s true? My CIA boys tell me, forgive me but we’re being frank here, that you’re a crazy person. And it’s not smart to trust crazy people.”

“I’m not the least bit offended. Nor should you be when many in my region of the world say the very same thing about you.” Maybe they would smile at each other.

I don’t know. This sounds awfully dangerous to me.”

“Again, Mr. President, or can I like Putin call you ‘George,’ in the spirit of being frank, what real choice do you have? Are you really going to bomb our nuclear facilities? Are you going to invade my country? Wouldn’t that make an even bigger mess than what’s happening in Iraq?” Maybe Bush would think about that for a moment.

Ahmadinejad might add, “I’m about done here,” he would begin to shake himself off and zip up, “but please remember one thing--we Persians are also the world’s foremost deal makers. I think we invented deal making right after we emerged from the Stone Age. So perhaps we should look for a way to make a deal. Maybe it’ll work; maybe it won’t. But what have we got to lose?”

Bush too by then would be all zipped up and might say, wouldn’t it be good if he would say, “All right. Have your guy call Condi. She’s gonna be in Paris next week to do some shopping.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

September 20, 2006--And They Used to Study the Kwakiutl

Before it became politically incorrect, anthropologists engaged in "field work" among American Indians and other Indigenous Peoples. More recently this kind of ethnographic research has taken on the feeling of cultural imperialism--it no longer seems appropriate for an outsider, say a German-American Jew such as Franz Boas, to roam among and study the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest.

But the field of anthropology is still booming, in part because anthropologists in the Pacific Northwest are now doing field work in more accommodating places. Places such as OfficeMax. They do so in order to help lure shoppers into buying more index dividers and staple machines.

And of course the living conditions and remuneration for the anthropologists are much, much better.

The NY Times reports about one such study—watching over the shoulder of a sort of anthropologist of shopping as she observed and diagramed how a male shopper first picked up a shopping bag and then proceeded to the pen display. She made a schematic drawing of every step he took, which displays he lingered over, and noted how unusual it was for a man to use the OfficeMax-supplied canvas shopping bag. They appear to be gendered items. (Article lined below.)

OfficeMax is very happy with what was discovered—“Scientifically understanding how customers interact with our stores can make a big difference.” Paco Underhill, CEO of the firm OfficeMax hired to do the study is the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. To give you an insight about the filed of science he is developing, note how he expounds on the subject of “butt brushing”—he has found that if a store’s aisles are two narrow and people thus brush up against each other when negotiating them, they tend to leave the store without buying anything.

Obviously not a good thing--though I can think of reasons why brushing the right butt might make it appealing for me to remain in the store—though maybe not to shop.

And so, for this and other reasons OfficeMax has been redesigning how it lays out its aisles, breaking up the familiar grid and replacing it with what they call a “racetrack,” where the main wide aisle (note, alas, the wideness) loops around the store, dividing it into “comfort zones” where no butting can possibly occur, which in turn leads to specific areas where “destination products” are on display—all things that are needed for filing or where you can find expensive electronic gadgetry.

It works! Electronic cash register data reveal increases in sales of related office products. Customers, I imagine, no longer just buy the staple machine, they also buy staples.

And all poor Franz Boas ever did was study the Kwakiutl’s potlatch ceremonies where individuals effectively bankrupted themselves by giving away everything they owned in order to appear more prosperous than their neighbors. Who ever heard of anything as crazy at that?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

September 19, 2006--"Roosevelt, Roosevelt--Sis-Boom-Ba!"

Roosevelt, on the Gold Coast of Long Island, came into existence in the 1930s as a town for Negroes who were servants at the large estates of Old Westbury and King and Sands Points. God forbid that they should live in the same jurisdiction as their masters. Even worse, imagine how unacceptable it would have been if their children went to the same school as our children.

Thus things have remained. Actually festered. The minute you pull off the Northern State Parkway at the Roosevelt exit, though you have been driving through some of the most expensive and luxurious real estate in America, it is as though you have been immediately transported south to Tunica County in Mississippi—Black youth are hanging out on street corners in front of abandoned and boarded-up stores. The only viable business appears to be Western Beef Discount. If you then drive to the high school, along streets with similarly burnt-out and boarded-up houses, you will find labs where neither the water nor the gas works so that the students can’t do real science and thus cannot meet the NY State academic requirements; and if you take an even cursory look at student records you would find many fewer than half graduate and almost none go on to college.

While virtually every other high school in the US has a list of illustrious graduates, even if the school is currently in decline, at Roosevelt High they tell you about just three graduates—Julius Erving (Dr J), the basketball great, Eddie Murphy, and surprisingly, since the school is 99 percent Black and Hispanic, Howard Stern.

But when the NY Times writes about Roosevelt High School, even placing the article on its front page, it’s about the football team.

Most recently, the Times reported about an unusual act of sports charity—how one of Roosevelt’s traditional rivals, the white and affluent Cold Spring Harbor team and citizenry, raised $20,000 so that the Roosevelt team would have enough money to get their season started, including last Saturday’s game against Cold Springs Harbor. (See article linked below.)

It was just four years ago that Cold Springs refused to play Roosevelt because there was an off-campus shooting in “downtown” Roosevelt. So wasn’t it nice that the Cold Springs folks, screwing up their courage and generosity, did this for the poor of Roosevelt?

Well, sort of.

I have an insider’s perspective on the situation because four years ago, and until more recently, I worked with an education reform program that was underway in Roosevelt that was designed to help more students graduate, go on to college, and with the help of the scholarships we provided earn college degrees.

I will tell you a little about what happened there as a cautionary tale about why so much of our public education system is failing some of our country’s lowest-income students. Also, why what Cold Springs did was less than truly helpful. Plus how irresponsible the NY Times was and has been in its reporting about Roosevelt.

Things had gotten so bad with the schools in Roosevelt that New York State’s Education Commissioner, Richard Mills, took control of the district and appointed a new superintendent, Ronald Ross and a new school board. When Ross arrived, using his unregulated power, he arbitrarily tossed out the reform program that was already producing measurable results--many more students than in the past were on track to graduate from Roosevelt High School, a dramatically increasing number were taking a college-prep academic program, and the scholarship money for them was already set aside and in the bank waiting for them to enroll in two- and four-year colleges.

Without taking a careful look at the program, Project GRAD, Superintendent Ross declared it ineffective because, and I am not making this up—he said all of this in public, because it had been developed in Houston during Governor George Bush’s time (so it had to be regressive), it had originally been offered to Hispanic students and was thus inappropriate for Roosevelt’s blacks (ignoring the fact that by that time it had as many black as Hispanic students enrolled and was doing as well for Blacks as Hispanics), and since the program was invented by White folks it was thus, by definition, racist. (Ron Ross, by the way is African American.)

Rick Mills stood by and let all this happen even though he had declared the Roosevelt take-over as a personal priority—it was the first school district in NY State history to have been taken over by the Commissioner.

None of this was ever reported in the Times—not the success of Project GRAD, not Ross’ reverse racism, not the outcry from the local parents, community leaders, business community, and local, state, and national political officeholders—all Republicans and Democrats were outraged and supported GRAD’s continuation.

Nor has the Times said a word about what happened as a result of Ross’ “leadership”—the millions of dollars of misspent money (the district is back in the red—up to $6 million this year) nor the return to low student performance. In fact, there has not been one sentence in the NY Times about the rising clamor among the same community and political leadership calling for Ross’ resignation. Commissioner Mills, when pressed last week about the situation by NY Newsday “declined to comment.”

But we did have extensive reports in the Times about the shooting four years ago, the subsequent cancellation of the Roosevelt-Cold Springs Harbor game, and the recent fundraising in support of the Roosevelt football team wound up on the front page. What priorities!

How much better it would have been if the Cold Springs community had raised money to replace the GRAD scholarship money Ross so casually tossed away “for the sake of his students.” How much better it would have been if the Times covered the real story—about the educational malfeasance in Tunica County, Long Island, New York.

Monday, September 18, 2006

September 18, 2006--"Shopping? Duhh!"

“Hi. What Do You Own?”

Thus are greeted the four million youngsters who have in just a few months joined and logged on to a new Website, Not unlike MySpace, Zebo members have their own Web pages and on them all they are asked to do, expected to do, allowed to do, is make a list of all the things they own. That’s it.

So, for example, Brianna W has listed:

A car (Pontiac)

A phone (Samsung)

A digital camera (Nikon)


Straightener (Chi)

Lots of Jeans (The Buckle)


Zebo’s founder, Roy De Souza, quoted in the NY Times, says, “For youth, you are what you own. They list these things because it defines them.” (Article linked below)

It will come as no surprise to you that Mr. De Souza contemplates that he will soon sell ads on Zebo and may even figure out a way for merchants to sell directly to Zebo members. This should work very well because, in addition to listing what they own, sorry, how they define themselves, members are also encouraged to make a list of stuff that they want, i.e., would like to get as gifts or, if necessary, buy for themselves. Things which, I suppose, would then move from their “I Want” to their “I Own” list.

Though I do not exactly fit the Zebo demographic profile, virtually all members are between 16 and 25, I was thinking, if I did join, what would I list??

Reading glasses (Lenscrafters)

12 pairs of Support Hose (GoldToe)

A watch (Timex)

After Shave Lotion (Aqua Velva)

Hair Dye (For Men Only)

Medications (Zoloft, Lipitor, Novartis)

And in case you’re wondering, my “I Want” list includes—

CDs: Paul Simon (“Surprise”)
Andrea Bocelli (“Romanza”)

A muffler for the upcoming winter (Burberrys)

Medications (Cialis or Viagra)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

September 16, 2006--Saturday Story: "A Matter of Factoring"--Concluded

In Part Two, Lloyd revealed that he had so much difficulty understanding the most fundamental and elementary aspects of Algebra that he attempted to convince his parents to allow him to drop out of school and get a jumpstart on a career as a carpenter. His father countered by suggesting that he consider becoming a pre-med once in college and use his woodworking skills as a plastic surgeon. Lloyd’s mother quickly intervened and arranged for Cousin Chuck to tutor Lloyd. He did such a good job that Lloyd was able to unlock the mysteries of “x” and "the power of equations," and Chuck, also known as “Charlsy,” was rewarded with slice after slice of Icebox Cake.

In the Third and Final Part, we find Lloyd back in Algebra class at Brooklyn Tech, no longer plagued by migraines and . . . .

Back in class at Brooklyn Tech, with my headaches cured and my ‘x-problem’ overcome, I became a demon at solving all kinds of algebraic problems—those involving negative numbers, square roots, adding and subtracting polynomials, and of course factoring.

When Dr. Kaufman asked Aaron Bernard, Joey Lombardy, and me to come up to the blackboard to factor a series of quadratic equations, I did not fear public humiliation. In fact when he wrote--

x2 + 4ax + 3a2

--almost as fast as I could move the chalk across the board I factored it to yield—

(x + 3a)(x + a)

“Well done Dr. Kaufman said even before Aaron much less Joey, unaided by his accomplice Charlie Rosner, were able to write two sets of empty parentheses.

And then when Dr. Kaufman scrawled--

n2 – 12n – 35

--as the second quadratic for us to factor, as Aaron picked perplexedly at one of the pimples on his cheek, I grinned toward Dr. Kaufman, my braces glinting in the fluorescent light, and said, “It can’t be factored because it’s a Prime, and Primes can’t be factored.”

“Excellent,” he said. “Along with Mr. Rosner, please see me after class so we can talk about the Math Team. The JV of course.”

Behind me I could hear Milty Leshowitz begin to hyperventilate. “It’s my asthma,” he gasped and ran out of the classroom toward the nurse’s office, which up to then had been my refuge.

* * *

Charlie and I remained uncomfortably at our desks, averting our eyes, as the rest of the class scattered at the first sound of the end-of-period bell. Though we craved the distinction Dr. Kaufman’s invitation to remain bestowed upon us, we had mixed feelings about being thus set apart from our fellow classmates.

This was to be a perpetual struggle at the highly competitive Brooklyn Tech, where at the end of each term everyone’s cumulative grade point average, down to the third decimal point, was published, in bold type, for all to see and compare in the Tech student newspaper, The Survey. We struggled to both compete with classmates, who literally sat to our left and right, while at the same time attempting to remain friends. Against these “friends” we contested to place higher on the class-standing list where the difference of just one place would determine if you got a free ride upstate at Cornell while they were reciprocally exiled to the concrete campus of City College.

And, of course, the friend on your right was eyeing you in exactly the same way—he saw your crawling up out of the subway in Harlem as assuring that he would frolic on the green hills of Ithaca. It was all an equation, a balance—to rise on one side, something on the other had to descend.

The one thing our English teacher, Miss. Ryan, was able to get us to pay attention to was her warning not to help anyone with homework. If we did so, and as a result a classmate got one point more than you on the grammar exam, that measly single point might mean that he, and not you, would wind up in the top ten or highest hundred on the GPA list.

“And you know the implications of that,” she would intone portentously. If we did help a fellow student, she warned, and he as a result surpassed us as “the beneficiary of that selfless generosity,” there could still be lessons to learn since that benevolence and its “ironic” consequences” could serve as “a metaphor for life itself.” Though as an English teacher she was always talking about things like “irony” and “metaphors,” since these were concepts that very few of us understood, we didn’t think too much about the “irony of benevolence” but rather continued to focus on something we could grasp--how to avoid splitting infinitives, an unforgivable transgression to her. Life metaphors could wait until our junior year.

When all our Algebra classmates had departed, Dr. Kaufman summoned Charlie to the front of the room. I did everything I could to force myself not to listen in on what they were saying, feeling whatever it might be was private and should thus remain between them. However, in spite of these noble intentions, I still found myself inexorably straining forward in my seat so I could take in every single word.

Even if less-than-conscious, I felt impelled to do so, as if by a force outside myself, thinking that whatever might transpire between Charlie and Dr. Kaufman would be similar to what would be expected of me; and, in my competitive mode, after all wasn’t I being trained for that at Tech, I wanted to take advantage of anything that came my way that would give me even the slightest edge.

It was, though, not so easy to hear them since Charlie, tall enough for the basketball team as well as smart enough for the Math Team, Charlie towered over and shrouded the seated Dr. Kaufman, who, behind his battered desk, thus seemed so reduced in size and shrunken in stature. But it turned out not to matter since Dr. Kaufman did not ask any questions or quiz Charlie in any way; he simply told him to show up for the tryouts next Wednesday, at 4:30, in the Math Team office on the first floor, right next to the nurse’s office. About this, I would not need directions.

And so, when he signaled to me, I approached him without trepidation, assuming that he would simply tell me as well about the time and place for the tryouts. But Dr. Kaufman nodded at the old library chair beside his desk, and I sat down. My heart began to thump. I felt it throbbing all the way up in my throat. He looked at me without saying anything for what felt like fifteen minutes. I was beginning to experience palpitations.

“Lloyd,” he said, using my first name—prior to that he had only once before called any of us by anything but our last names, except when exasperated with Milty, when he called him “Morty”—“Do you remember the other day when I quoted Don Zagier’s thoughts about Prime numbers? From, I think it was, from his inaugural address at Bonn University, when he became one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute?”

“I remember, what you said Bernhard Zagier wrote about them. About their distribution.” I couldn’t believe, without restraining myself, I had appeared to be correcting Dr. Kaufman.

Ach, good,” he laughed, “I forgot I called him that. We in the field know him more familiarly as ‘Don.’ He’s an American you know.” I nodded as if I did. “Well, Don had more interesting things to say about Primes than almost anyone. And I am telling you this because you appear to be interested in them and are even beginning to show some signs of promise. Talent I do not as yet know about.” I began to fidget. Which he noticed. “That is all right. We will know soon enough. That is why you are here—for us to find out.” This sounded both encouraging and ominous.

Without waiting for me to say anything, he continued, “Don, I felt, was always too optimistic, perhaps even a little arrogant when he claimed that ‘though they grow like weeds they exhibit surprising regularity.’ Do you remember that?” I did. “Good. Most mathematicians through the centuries struggled to find that regularity, what Don called their ‘precision.’ From the earliest days in Greece and Arabia.” Inexplicably, images of Cousin Chuck gobbling Icebox cake flashed through my mind. “Struggled unsuccessfully, I should add. Don as well. Indeed, I understand that he is still trying and continues to write elegantly on the subject.” Dr. Kaufman had again returned to the subject of mathematical elegance.

“For example, though numbers are the simplest of mathematical elements they, perhaps for that reason, do you understand, have inspired the lushest prose. You find mathematicians referring to them as ‘mysterious,’ ‘stunning,’ ‘diabolical,’ ‘harmonious,’ ‘the Holy Grail,’ ‘divine,’ even, yes, ‘glamorous.’” His eyes sparkled as he pulled these words as if from the air surrounding us in that barren room.

“This may still be unfamiliar to you, but mathematicians, when considering Primes, they often employ the vocabulary of first love. To them, they are objects of great beauty.” He paused to look at me in a way that made me quiver with excitement and nervousness.

“One day, we can hope, soon, we expect, you will participate in the exploration of these mysteries and taste this chaste form of love.” I was glad to hear him describe it that way, and began to calm down. “You may have already begun to do so, to have touched some of this, instinctually. We will discover, together, if you share some of this gift. When you so quickly, earlier today, perceived that n2 – 12n – 35 is indeed a Prime, a very special Prime, exhibiting its own mystery, its own beauty, I thought, if you are patient and work hard, you will find out.”

I pledged to myself that I would do both.

“Of course, along with Mr. Rosner, you will tryout for the Team next week.” I indicated I wanted to. “But before you leave,” I saw under the desk his hand with the chalk begin to twitch, “I need to tell you something that the great Tenenbaum and France said about our numbers. I cannot recall it exactly, but since it is very important I wrote it down and hopefully have it here in my desk.” With his right hand a claw clutching the chalk, he rummaged around one-handedly searching for it.

“Ah, here it is.” He looked up at me with a broken-toothed smile, and read, ‘As archetypes of our representation of the world, numbers form, in the strongest sense, part of ourselves, to such an extent that it can legitimately be asked whether the subject of study of them is not the human mind itself. From this a strange fascination arises: how can it be that these numbers, which lie so deeply within ourselves, also give rise to such formidable enigmas? Among all these mysteries, that of the prime numbers is undoubtedly the most ancient and most resistant.’”

He peered at me again as if he might find within something worth understanding or knowing. As yet, though I too had recently begun to search, there was nothing worth noting.

Friday, September 15, 2006

September 15, 2006--Fanaticism XLX--God's Plan

While on a sentimental journey to his hometown in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about "God's plan." Specifically, how the Muslim idea of Jihad is contrary to it, and to "reason."

Though he was also in Germany to try to convince European Catholics who have drifted away from the Church (less than a quarter of Catholics in Germany attend services), and as one way to accomplish this he wanted to present himself as human and approachable, to overcome his dour Cardinal Ratzinger image, to be more Pope John Paul II like, this harsh speech was not helpful.

Nor was it historically accurate. He was attempting to reshape reality with techniques right out of Carl Rove’s playbook.

The NY Times reports that he said such things as –

Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.” I guess the Crusades slipped the Pope’s mind.

And, he went on to say, that violent Islam was contrary to reason and thus “contrary to God’s nature.” (See Times article below.)

And Pope Benedict is quite an expert on “reason,” as former Prefect of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That Congregation, you know, is the extension of an earlier Congregation—this one “Of the Universal Inquisition.”

Under Cardinal Prefect Ratzinger, reason was hardly championed.

Among its other responsibilities, the Congregation was and is responsible for scrutinizing publications and individual Catholics for any evidence of deviation from doctrine. And when it finds something unacceptable, new ideas for example, it administers punishment—no longer burning at the stake, another rational activity, but rather excommunication and other forms of discipline.

If you have a moment, let me quote from one of the Congregations publications so you can see this Apostle of Reason at work:


When the discussion [about a text under question] has finished, the Consultors alone remain in the room for the general vote on the outcome of the examination, aimed at determining whether doctrinal errors or dangerous opinions have been found in the text, and specifically identifying these in light of the different categories of truth-propositions found in the Professio fidei

If the author has not corrected the indicated errors in a satisfactory way and with adequate publicity, and the Sessione Ordinaria has concluded that he has committed the offense of heresy, apostasy or schism the Congregation proceeds to declare the latae sententiae penalties incurred; against such a declaration no recourse is admitted.

Disciplinary Measures

If the author has not corrected the indicated errors in a satisfactory way and with adequate publicity, and the Sessione Ordinaria has concluded that he has committed the offense of heresy, apostasy or schism, the Congregation proceeds to declare the latae sententiae penalties incurred; against such a declaration no recourse is admitted.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 1997, the Solemnity of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

+ Joseph Card. RatzingerPrefect

In the past, some of the following made the list of banned authors—Erasmus, Voltaire, Descartes, Kant, Copernicus, Sartre, and of course Harriet Beecher Stowe—her Uncle Tom’s Cabin was considered too revolutionary.

After all, what would the world do without slaves?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

September 14, 2006--Mayor Nagin Was Right

Mayor Nagin of New Orleans was right about one thing—to point a critical finger at New York, the real estate capital of the world, tweaking us for still having a hole in the ground at Ground Zero.

To bad he whisked up here to apologize. He should have stood his ground when chastised for his Sixty Minutes comments; and said, “Get on the PATH train and take a look; five years after the fact, it’s still a hole in the ground.”

There is blame to share—the impossibility of coming up with an architectural plan when it has to be vetted by a large committee of aesthetically challenged fat cats and posers (to see what I mean check the latest tasteless designs for three more towers that were unveiled last week);

The battles among and about those cultural institutions vying with each other to be included in the rebuilding (the Drawing Center, for example, one contender, was told that there would have to be restrictions on what they would be allowed to display—God forbid anything too controversial—read political or sexual);

Then there have been struggles between politicians, civic leaders, and real estate moguls over who will be front and center when the news media show images of symbolic groundbreaking ceremonies and ribbon cuttings. See how presidential aspirants George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani push and shove each other, seeking face time when the cameras are rolling.

And of course, closer to the truth, how much will it cost; where will the money come from; and, now the real story, who will profit.

We do know the answer to this latter question—real estate developer Larry Silverstein who has the lease on the property and all the insurance money from the destruction of the Twin Towers.

A deal was struck recently to take control of the project away from him since it was suspected that all he cared about was how much he could make from this national tragedy. For example, to assure him that at least some space in the Freedom Tower would be rented, the owners of the land, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, agreed to lease 600,000 square feet.

We should thus be on our way, no? Guys in hard hats should be swarming all over the site, and we who live in lower Manhattan should be awakened each morning by the sound of rivet guns, right?

Wrong. According to a report in this morning’s NY Times (linked below), things are still stalled because Larry wants more rent than the Port Authority can pay--$78 rather than $68 a square foot. This extra $10, if you are wondering, over a ten year lease would net good old Larry an additional $240 million!

One might think that Larry, well into his seventies, with his fortune and toys assured (he has had a series of hundred million dollar yachts and lives lavishly on Park Avenue and elsewhere), with his children secured with trust funds and employment in his real estate empire, and as an avowedly observant Jew who believes in Tikkun, healing the world, one might think that he would see the fact that he signed a 99-year lease for the Twin Towers just a few months before 9/11, that he would see what happened there to be a calling to him from God (George Bush did!) and do the right, or Tikkun thing.

But, no, all he can see are the dollar signs dancing before his greedy eyes. Just think what kind of yacht he will be able to build for that extra $240 million.

I just hope he names it the Titanic.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

September 13, 2006--Peter and Condi

At a time when US diplomacy is at an all time low, when even the Tories in England, who should be great allies of our conservative administration are saying that the British should not be so much in thrall to the US, what State Department news is the NY Times covering? Gossip about Condoleeza Rica’s alleged love life.

At a time when profits at Times Corp, the Times’ parent company, are also heading toward all time lows and they are not just cutting staff but even the literal size of the paper itself (it will soon be an inch and a half narrower to save on newsprint), perhaps in a desperate effort to increase readership, especially among those who are more interested in Suri Cruise than Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, we are hearing about Condi’s stepping out with Peter MacKay, Canada’s Foreign Secretary. (Story linked below.)

This is not the first time that Condi has been spotted out on the town, including by the NY Times. There were her “dates” with Italy’s staid Foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema (forget for the moment how she would have managed to locate a “staid” Italian) and of course with Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign minister. The Time’s sister paper, the Boston Globe took delight in headlining how she gave him the pullout bed on her plane (get it—her bed?) as they flew to Baghdad from Blackpool, his hometown.

The Paper of Record reports that Foreign Minister MacKay “has a tan and the build of someone who spends his time on the rugby field,” which is good, considering how much time Condi spends working out with our president on the Stair Master.

And the Times informs us, he is available, because he was “recently dumped by his girlfriend,” who is also a Member of Parliament. But is it just a rebound thing? Or is it the fact that Condi’s plane is so much better than his? I ask because we also learn from the Gray Lady that this whole affair, sorry, budding relationship got started after the July diplomatic meeting in Rome when Ms Rice gave Mr. MacKay a ride aboard her plane to their next meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Even though that’s quiet a long flight, the Times, ever discrete, said not a word about any beds or sleeping arrangements. Though, they did report, after she visited Nova Scotia recently, that the foreign minister said that she “left the window open last night” to enjoy the cool Atlantic breezes. How would he know??

All-the-news-fit-to-print indeed!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

September 12, 2006--Moonachie?

Sitting here in Soho at Balthazar, reading the NY Times while sucking down the last of my $7.00 double espresso and my $2.50 tartine, I came upon an article about a report from the Harvard Institute for Global Health which finds that of all the cities and towns and counties in the northeast, residents of Bergen County, New Jersey have the longest life expectancy—79.9 years. (Story linked below.)

The lowest, 74.7 years, is Essex County which is not surprising because the largest city in Essex is Newark, which also has the highest murder rate—both statistics are of course related.

Just as I was about to call the real estate agent at Corcoran to put my 9th Street coop on the market while simultaneously asking what might be for sale in Hackensack, Englewood, Teterboro, or Moonachie, I caught myself, thinking, “But where in Bergen County would I get my morning tartine?”

So I did some Googling and here’s what I found—

In Teterboro there is a very fine airport for private planes (the runways though are a little short and at times the jets run off them and onto nearby highways) but no good place for espresso. Moonachie, though decidedly in New Jersey, is home to Giants Stadium and the Continental Arena where the New York Giants play as do the New York Jets and the New York Nets. So since folks from New York will come frequently to watch their teams play, I’ll be a little less homesick in Moonachie.

And there are other things that make Moonachie attractive—since 2001 there have been no homicides, and historically the town has a very low rate of tornadic activity. And at Berta’s Chateau they appear to serve pretty good cappuccino.

But above all, there are 41 cemeteries in Moonachie, including the B’Nai Israel, so I’ll be set after living out my 79.9 years.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11, 2006--The Path From 9/11

Yesterday, after placing a wreath at the site of the World Trade Center, President Bush, “visibly moved,” said, “You know, you see the relatives of those who still grieve—and I just wish there were some way we could make them whole.”

Amen to that.

So what’s my problem on this solemn and terrible day? A number of things that you may not want to read about so click “Delete” and move on to whatever will help you get through this fifth anniversary.

First a quick word about our president for whom 9/11, for good or ill, has been his defining moment. Oh, indeed if we could make them whole. But wouldn’t it be good if he would hold onto that wish and tonight, from the Oval Office, when he speaks to the nation he might take the opportunity to speak as well to the entire world—especially to those, even among our “friends,” who now disrespect and have come to hate us. Maybe say that what he wishes is that all in the world who grieve can be made whole. Not just the families of those who died on 9/11. And then announced various things that he will attempt to do during the next two years to help heal the world, including and particularly those parts of it that we, in one way or another, have injured.

Now about the rest of us—there was that controversial “docu-drama” on ABC last night, The Path to 9/11, which was unwatchable, not just because of its historical distortions (incidentally as much about the Bush administration as the Clinton) but because of its pandering to the endless national grieving that has been a consequence of what happened on that monstrous day.

It is perhaps unkind and even a little cynical to, on this day, say “Enough.” But what better time might there be to do so when we are so focused on what happened and what it has done to us as a nation?

We need to stop wallowing in collective grief. Maybe, especially for the families who have to move on with their lives. Are we helping them do that by insisting that they remain perpetual “victims”? When we have a tragic loss in our own families (and literally thousands of these happen every day)—from a sudden car accident, from a cruelly untimely illness, from a crime—what do we do? We express anger or outrage, we grieve, and we are encouraged by all of those who love us to heal as best we can and continue living. We are not hauled into public view each year and pressured to relive the feelings of our loses.

This is the one-by-one human dimension of this. Then there is the truly cynical public and corporate use of 9/11—The Path to 9/11 is a case in point; all the networks, knowing it will garner ratings, are reliving and replaying the tapes of that day; the President, whatever he in truth may have felt, is again using the Pit as his great political stage; Mayor Rudy front and center in full campaign mode said matter-of-factly this morning on the Today Show that we will be attacked again, while implying that since that is certain who is best to lead us from the White House; and the “developers” and memorialists are posturing and contesting over what to build where and how it should look.

On this latter point, memorials, nearly every day another one gets dedicated. One this weekend in Westchester County and another in Bayonne, New Jersey. That latter, a 100-foot high sculpture, includes the names of all who died on 9/11 and during the earlier, 1993, attack on the WTC. The good folks in Bayonne were so motivated to get it done and unveiled in time for the fifth anniversary that they included the names of 40 people who did not die during either attack (NY Times story below).

I cite this less to chide the New Jersey officials than to suggest we have so immersed ourselves in the grieving and remembering part, it has become so commodified, that we are in danger of losing sight of how to live our individual and national lives. The commercial hucksters certainly have focused on the emotions, so what else is new; but what is dangerous is that our national leadership has as well.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

September 9, 2006--Saturday Story: "A Matter of Factoring"--Part Two

In Part One, our 9th grade hero finds himself proudly placed in Dr. Herman C. Kaufman’s Algebra class. Proudly, because this suggests that he might eventually be invited by “Doctor-Doctor”’ to join the city’s winningest Math Team. (Forget football—the Brooklyn Tech team was a perennial loser.) The subject at hand was Factoring—the ancient art of seeking all possible combinations of numbers or, in the segment that follows, polynomials, which when multiplied produce the same result.

Let us then, without pause, proceed directly to Part Two, where Dr. Kaufman is about to introduce the subject of . . . .

“And now,” Dr. Kaufman said, emerging from his seizure, “now we can move on to the factoring of polynomials.”

Joey Lombardy pleadingly glanced over to Charlie Rosner as he did every time Dr. Kaufman brought up a new topic—Joey knew he would need all kinds of help, especially on pop quizzes when he hoped Charlie would slide his answer sheet to the left side of his desk so Joey could catch glimpses of it.

“Polynomials, of course, are sums of expressions and numbers such as 4x4 or 3x. or 7.” He wrote these on the board with the same chalk he had sharpened on his moustache. “We can make a polynomial from these expressions. For example,” and he then wrote 4x4 + 3x = 7. But factoring polynomial expressions is not quite the same as factoring numbers. The concept, though, is similar. In both cases, you search for things that divide out evenly. But in the case of polynomials, we will be dividing numbers and variables out of expressions, not just numbers out of numbers.” He smiled at us again, pleased with the clarity and elegance of his explanation. He always stressed that these two qualities, particularly the latter, were essential to what he called “true math.”
Squirming in his seat, Milty excitedly waved his hand, virtually in Dr. Kaufman’s face. “Yes?” Dr. Kaufman asked in a tired voice, looking up at the buzzing fluorescent lights.

“They can be, polynomials I mean, they can be things like, I mean expressions like two, open-parenthesis, three-x, plus three, close parenthesis? I mean.” Thankfully he remained seated and merely traced the expression in the air.

Dr. Kaufman stared out the window for a moment as if searching there would help him find the answer to when he would have enough money saved in his pension so he could escape from this burden. Then, without turning back to us, in a tired voice he said to Milty, “Yes Morty, that too would be a polynomial.”

Milty clapped his tiny sausage-fingered hands together in celebration, most likely thinking that all for him was still not lost—the Math Team, MIT . . . .

“May I continue?” Dr. Kaufman asked with some sarcasm, of course not pausing for a response.

On the board he wrote: 2(x + 3) = 2(x) + 2(3) = 2x + 6.

“Previously, remember, we simplified numbers by distribution. Now we will do so with algebraic expression such as this one, 2(x + 3),” he pointed to the blackboard. “So much of Algebra is about such simplification. Here the simplified answer is 2x + 6. Factoring polynomial expressions is the reverse of distribution. That is, instead of multiplying something within a parenthesis, you will be seeking, through factoring, what you can take back out and put in front of a parenthesis, such as, in two steps:

2x + 6 = 2(x) + 2(3) = 2(x + 3)

“You see how when we distributed,” he nodded toward the first equation, “we began with 2(x + 3) and wound up with 2x + 6; but when factoring,” he pointed at the new equation, “we began with 2x + 6 and reversed the process, winding up with 2(x + 3).

“The trick is to see what can be factored out of every term in the expression. Don't make the mistake of thinking that factoring means ‘dividing off and making something disappear.’ Instead, remember that factoring in fact means ‘dividing expressions out to be placed in front of the parentheses.’ Nothing disappears when you factor. Things merely get rearranged.”

Again he turned to face us. The hand that held the chalk was beginning to twitch. “You understand?” He had presented this so clearly that even Joey was grinning.

* * *
Though from the fact that by the second month of my first year I too understood factoring you might be imagining that I had gotten off to a good start, assigned to the fast track Algebra class on the basis of my admission test scores and was making rapid progress in my ability to quickly solve various algebraic problems, you would be only partly correct.

True, I had done well on the test that determined if I was to be admitted to one of New York City’s elite high schools (I had chosen Tech over Stuyvesant because it was in Brooklyn), but by the middle of just the first week in class, I asked my parents if I could drop out of school, forget about high school altogether, and get a job because, when, during that first week, Dr. Kaufman introduced the concept of “x,” I did not have any understanding of what “x” meant and, as a result of the fear and anxiety that that produced, developed an instant case of literally blinding migraine.

Dr. Kaufman had begun deliberately enough, as if understanding that for many of us coming to Tech in central Brooklyn, on our own, from the security of our families, neighborhoods, and nearby elementary schools, though we were presumably talented, or we would not have been admitted to Tech in the first place, from his decades of experience he knew that we were still quite tender and innocent and scared and, in truth, unsure of our abilities. We had been the academic stars at our nurturing public schools, but once at Tech found ourselves just one of nearly 5,000 others who had done equally well who had been gathered in the cool anonymity of that ten-storey brick mountain of a high school on Fort Greene Place. It was as easy to get lost in Tech’s hundred-yard-long hallways and impersonal classrooms as in the IRT subway.

But though on the first day of class he ever so gently began by introducing us to the abstract concept of “x,” I was immediately lost. In my previous schooling, I had been the master of the specific, the concrete. Anything that could be seen, touched, measured, or hammered on had instantly revealed its mysteries to me. Wood shop thus had been my special preserve. I fabricated shelves there for each of my eight aunts that were so cleverly fitted and glued that in every instance they survived moves from New York to Florida and in spite of the heat and humidity continued to support for decades their crystal goblets and porcelain dolls.

But when Dr. Kaufman led us into the ephemeral, impalpable world of “x,” I began to tremble in my seat and needed to run out to the boy’s room where I promptly threw up in the toilet.

After I returned to class, when Dr. Kaufman said that not only could “x” stand for any unknown, not just a specific one, we would soon also see how by employing “y” and “z” as well we would be developing the tools to search for multiple unknowns, simultaneously, when I heard about these multiple unknowns, all in concurrent motion, stuck in my literalness, I found myself overcome by the onset of, what was for me, a new kind of headache, one that felt as if it had been caused by a tomahawk having been driven into my skull, splitting it in half, with the left side on fire.

For that I needed more than the boy’s room, I required the nurse who, after she took just a quick diagnostic look at me, realized what I was experiencing and sent me right home in a taxi, knowing there could be no more school for me that day. But from the thumping in my head, I realized there could be no more Brooklyn Tech for me. My problem was not going to be solved by a day of rest in a darkened room.

Later that day, when I recovered enough to tell my parents about what had happened, I began to make my case to become the family’s first school drop out, arguing hopelessly that although I was too tall and flatfooted to join the army, in my heart I always wanted to be a carpenter and that this new affliction, which was making it impossible for me to continue my education, was really a “blessing in disguise”—it would help launch me in my career installing drywall well before anyone else who might turn out later to be my competition had moved on to become high school sophomores.

They of course would have none of this. If I wasn’t going to be successful at Tech, where they had dreams that I would be transmuted into a nuclear physicist, then I could always switch to Tilden High School, just three blocks from our apartment, which would be a good backup, since many who had gone there went on to become pre-meds in college.

Not such a bad fate for his son, my father claimed, considering his carpentry skills. He was as usual explicit, “You have wonderful hands. Show them to me,” which I promptly did, “So instead of slicing up lumber, you’ll slice up cadavers.” I cringed at the thought. “And,” he added, “you’ll make a good living.” The idea of making a living by dissecting dead bodies sent me reeling toward the bathroom where I again, as at Tech earlier in the day, fell to the floor, having to retch in the bowl.

When I got myself back to the kitchen table to pick up my plea to be allowed to get a job, my mother was ready with another suggestion. Before giving up, she said, and my father chimed in in the background, muttering about the need for me to be a man and show some “intestinal fortitude,” my mother suggested that she see if my Cousin Chuck could come by to help me with the Algebra since he had been a very successful math student at both Tilden and later at Columbia. Though dropping out altogether was still my plan, there was no way that I could ignore this one last suggestion. I knew that he had a way with numbers since he had supported some of his extravagant youthful habits while in junior high school, by serving as the schoolyard bookie—“Three-Batters-Six-Hits” was his specialty during baseball season.

He lived three blocks away; and while waiting for him to arrive, my father made his case that, yes, maybe I was right in seeing my problem with “x,” “y,” and “z” as good fortune. I should “seize it,” seizing was a favorite theme of his, and become a plastic surgeon. His argument was strong, he felt, because I had the hands for it and unlike pediatricians, obstetricians, and other kinds of surgeons I wouldn’t have to work nights and weekends. “Who ever heard of a plastic surgeon having an emergency?” he asked rhetorically.

In addition, he claimed, there was quite a bit of opportunity to practice right in our own family, considering the condition of most of the inherited noses, chins, and breasts. He even volunteered to be my first patient, indicating that in addition to his nose and “turkey throat,” he could use some work on the scar left on his abdomen after his prostate operation. Thankfully, before he could unbutton his shirt to again show me “the shelf the surgeon built down there,” Chuck came bounding up the stairs, which for him was a great effort since he was always overweight and misshapen. But that evening he took the stairs two at a time because my mother had lured him away from the Yankee game on TV by telling him when she called that she had just finished making a chocolate Icebox Cake, his favorite, and maybe after tutoring me he could have some of it.

Always the negotiator, he said if he could have a piece in advance, “just a slice,” to give him energy, he felt certain he could make rapid progress with me. So with a quarter of the cake and a glass of milk in front of him, we sat together at the dining room table, where Chuck inhaled the slice without chewing and drained the milk before lifting his head from the plate and asking me, “So what’s going on?”

In a single breathless and tearful sentence I told him that I-was-already-failing-Algebra (“After just one week?” he asked with more than a little skepticism) –because-I-didn’t-understand-what-Dr.-Kaufman-was-saying-about-“x,”-much-less-“y”-and-“z”-and-beyond-that-I-couldn’t-figure-out-why-he-made-such-a-big-deal-out-of-‘the-power-of-the-equation.’”

“I think I need another piece,” Chuck said, “This will take some time. But don’t worry,” he added as he got up with his empty dish, pushing his way through the swinging door into the kitchen, “Don’t worry,” I could still hear him, “I know just how to help you.”

My mother must have been encouraged by what she heard him say because when he returned he had a full half of the cake and another glass of milk. She was holding very little in reserve.

“I suppose your Mr. Kaufman,” Chuck began after once again cleaning his plate and licking his fingers, “I’m sure he said very little to you about Algebra itself. About its history and why it was so important in advancing civilization and why it is still significant today”

Since Dr. Kaufman hadn’t done that, I felt the need to come to his defense, “But he’s the coach of the Math team.” I said, “They’ve been undefeated for three years in a row. And he is ‘Doctor,’ not ‘Mister.’ So it’s me. I don’t understand anything,” I whimpered, “Algebra makes my head spilt open, and I just want to be left alone so I can quit school. I’ll never learn what ‘x’ is or what he is saying about equations.”

Chuck reached over to me and, as a form of assurance, put his lumpy hand on my shoulder. Perhaps for the first time in our lives he looked directly at me and confessed in, for him, and unusually hushed voice, “I had the same problem when I began Algebra. I too was good in Arithmetic but struggled at first with equations. But I had a friend on the block who helped me. He began, as I should with you, by telling me that Algebra has a history that stretches back more than 2,000 years, to the ancient Greeks; but it didn’t begin to become the Algebra that we have today until the 9th century when the most important developments were recorded in the book al-Kitab al-muhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa'l-muqabala , I think I have it right, written by the Arabic mathematician Al-Khwarizmi .”

I stared open-mouthed at Chuck, who, though his pronunciation of the Arabic words was clearly a Brooklynese version, was nonetheless amazing—how did he know all these things? “In English, the title of his book is Compendium On Calculation By Completion and Balancing. That I know I’m right about. In fact, the English word ‘algebra’ is derived from al-jabr, or ‘completion.’ And that is where we will begin—with completion through balancing.”

He looked around over my shoulder, and wondered out loud, “Do you think I might get that last slice of cake?” And as if on cue, my mother slid through the swinging door with yet another glass of milk and the remaining slice on a clean plate, shrugging as if to say, “Sorry, Charlsy, but this is the final piece.”

And almost as quickly as she placed it before him it was gone. As was his third glass of milk. He drained the glass, sucked out the last drops, and then emitted a three-toned belch before he continued, “Next, let’s talk about Dr. Kaufman’s famous ‘x’s’ and ‘y’s’ and ‘z’s.’ OK?” I nodded though I was still distracted by thoughts about how Chuck knew so much Arabic and how within fifteen minutes he had managed to gulp down the entire Icebox Cake and nearly a quart of milk.

“I know why you are having a problem with this. You are used to the numbers in Arithmetic that have distinct and specific meanings. A three is always a three. You can count on a 17 always being just that—17. And you can relate those numbers to things you can see and touch in the world—three oranges, 17 points in a football game. But though you have always thought about those comfortable numbers as representing things that can be found in the world, they are a little more complicated than you might have imagined. They in some ways are closer to what you are struggling with in Algebra. For example, that solid 17 can be used to denote any number of things, pardon the pun--a football score, yes, but it also can be applied to the number of students in a class or how many from our family are huddled around the table during Passover.”

This I was understanding, but not its connection to “x.” “You may not see any connection to your ‘x-problem.’” Chuck said, he also seemed to be able to read my mind, “but it does. If you think about ‘x’ for a moment as if it were like 17, as having multiple applications, you might be able to understand ‘x’ itself. All ‘x’ is is a mathematician’s way of representing the answer he is seeking. What I suspect Dr. Kaufman calls the ‘unknown.’ All that means is that the answer we are seeking, symbolized by ‘x,’ is unknown.

“But only until we find it. Then it’s known! ‘X,’ the unknown is now known! The problem is solved! We have an answer!” He was so excited, or riddled with sugar from all the cake, that he slammed his hands down on the table with enough force to topple the milk glass. It was good that he had done such a thorough job of draining it or he would have stained the tablecloth, which was from my mother’s mother. She had crocheted it and brought it to America from Poland; and my mother would have very upset to see it stained, even if it was a consequence of my algebraic awakening.

“However,” he said, “here’s what’s special about ‘x’ . . . .”

But before he could continue, as I was beginning to understand, I blurted out, “Like 17, which can refer to many things, ‘x’ can be used again and again since it does not have a fixed meaning!”

Chuck smiled, correcting me by interjecting, “’Value,’ not ‘meaning.’”

“And,” I raced on without stopping to catch my breath, “it can be used over and over again, like 17. Each time standing for whatever the unknown is that we are searching for.”

This time when Chuck pounded the table the glass rolled off and shattered on the floor. My mother, still listening from the kitchen, said, “Leave it. Don’t touch it. You’ll cut yourself. I’ll sweep up the pieces when you’re done. And Charlsy, I found a Danish which I’m saving for you.”

Chuck did not respond, though I noticed that he made note of the treat that awaited, but pressed on with my lesson, “You now have ‘x’ figured out. Let’s talk next about ‘the power of the equation.’” Though he did not know Dr. Kaufman he pronounced that with what he clearly thought was an exceptional German accent. But again, tinctured with Brooklynese.

“You must think about equations as just a tool to solve problems or manipulate information. They are nothing more complicated or mysterious than that. Really. A tool, for example, to use to find or solve for ‘x.’ Though mathematicians think about an equation as a form of statement written in numbers and symbols and having two sides connected by an equal sign, for you it will be more useful to think about it as if it were a balance scale. The equal sign is merely the pivot point or fulcrum in that kind of a scale. And to use it like a tool, as if you were, say, weighing gold dust, you must always keep the scale in balance. In Algebra, you always keep what is on the left side of the equation, all the numbers and symbols, the ‘x’s,’ ‘y’s,’ and ‘z’s,’ equal to, or balanced with what is on the right side. If you add something to one side, you must add the equivalent to the other. The same if you subtract.”

I was getting this too and wished my mother had saved a piece of the Icebox Cake for me. He went on, “Let me show you how an equation can be used as a tool. Using a very simple example that can serve as an introduction to how to turn on its full power.” He reached for the pad that my mother had provided, and on it wrote:

x – 4 = 10

“It doesn’t get any simpler than that. And to solve for ‘x,’ as Dr. K would pose it, using the equation as a balance, as a tool, you subtract 4 from each side which gives you the answer, x = 6. Voila, QED, solved! And though, of course, all the equations you will deal with during the rest of your life, even those that fill a whole room of blackboards, they will all work exactly the same way. Get it?”

As a now potentially reborn nuclear physicist who now understood these principals of Algebra and could thus contemplate returning to Tech on Monday, I could feel my migraine subsiding and my peripheral vision clearing. I still, though, needed to ask one last question, even if it led me back into hopeless confusion, “But isn’t E = mc² also an equation? It seems very different from what we’ve been discussing.”

For a moment I thought I had him stumped because he sat there tearing at his cuticles, making them bleed—something he always did when he was nervous or under pressure. But he quickly said, “Yes, it is. Some equations, like that one, express ‘laws of nature.’ We’ll deal with those when you take Physics next year.”

Twisting in his chair he mused, “In the meantime, I’m wondering about that Danish your mother mentioned.”

She was halfway into the dining room as Chuck uttered these words, and asked, “Charlsy, I have two kinds, cheese and cinnamon. Which do you prefer?”

He said, “If you have another glass of milk, I’ll take both.”

* * *
Back in class at Brooklyn Tech, with my headaches cured and my ‘x-problem’ solved, I became a demon at solving all kinds of algebraic problems—negative numbers, square roots, adding and subtracting polynomials, and then of course factoring.

To be continued . . . .