Saturday, March 31, 2007

March 31, 2007--Saturday Story: Found On Staten Island--Part Five

In Part Four, Lloyd Zazlo had the first of his working lunches with President Teitelbaum. He nervously reported to Dr. T that everyone he encountered, from the members of Staten Island’s influential Italian Club to the former head of the island’s Black Panther Party, everyone said the same thing about him—that he was an opportunist who was only interested in his next job, presumably in the Ivy League, and that he would shamelessly do anything, including exploiting and coopting them, to advance his tottering career. But, in spite of this, they were willing to do business with him, especially if by “helping” him it would expedite his inevitable exit. To Zazlo’s surprise, Teitelbaum seemed perversely delighted by this report and, without a struggle, agreed to split the cash that was likely to be raised by raffling off a new Fiat convertible with those he considered to be nothing less than local hustlers. Part Four ended with Zazlo picking up the raffle books in Sal Rizutto’s print shop and receiving the promise from Sal that he would never leave his side at the upcoming Italian Culture Festival to protect him just in case there were any fireworks.

So in Part Five, Lloyd . . .

The following afternoon I took the bus south down Hylan Boulevard to Louie Randazzo’s Fiat dealership. To pick up the car that we would be raffling. It was a glorious day and even the undistinguished strip malls that lined Hylan on both sides benefited from a coating of the slanting sunlight of early autumn. As I squinted into the glow reflected back to me off the faux mansard roofs of the fast-food restaurants and carpet and auto body shops, I felt that maybe I was fortunate to have been cast up onto the shores of Staten Island after my final humiliation at Queens College. This didn’t seem like such a bad place to be after all; and maybe, I thought, I was already beginning to make a difference through my initial forays into the diverse communities that were unique to this distinctive and exotic place.

The bus bumped to a stop, snapping me out of my sun-drenched reverie, right opposite Randazzo’s. It was a typical automobile showroom surrounded by glinting rows of new and used Fiats, all festooned with banners, balloons, and signs proclaiming, “Make Me An Offer And I’m Yours” and “Nothing Down—Take 48 Months to Pay” and “Kiss Me, I’m Italian.”

It was clear, that I had found the place. And as further evidence, right there, at the center of his array of shiny cars, in an equally luminous suit, with capped teeth as radiant as the sunlight that flickered off them, there was Louie Randazzo himself, standing resplendently next to a blood-red Fiat convertible that was perched on top of a platform so obliquely slanted that it looked as if it could be launched into geosynchronous orbit if one were to gun its 300 horsepower engine, slam it into first gear, and pop the clutch. I knew that this was the car set aside for the raffle and that in a few minutes I might be blasting my way in it back up Hylan to the college.

Grinning, Louie, who towered over me, looped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him in a bone-crushing embrace. My head, as a result, became buried among the folds of his suit jacket in his hot armpit, “Can you believe such a day like this?” He squeezed me so hard that I was having trouble breathing and struggled to release myself. But he continued to clutch me to him, “You know, on days like this I don’t give a shit if I don’t ever again sell anyone a lube job.” I grunted to show that I understood and agreed that it was glorious even though I was about to pass out. “You know most of my business is not from sales but from tune ups and body and fender work. Especially because the kids here whose parents buy them these cars get drunk and drive like banshees.” I finally managed to twist out of his grip and needed to bend over to suck in enough air to keep from fainting. Louie didn’t appear to notice, “Every Monday morning when I get to work the parking lot is loaded with wrecks. There’s good money in wrecks. I make out very well, if you get my drift,” he winked at me, “with the insurance adjusters. Workin’ with them there’s enough to go around for everyone. You know—you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Finally breathing more normally, I agreed, “You said it—as long as no one gets hurt.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said, “But look, I know you’re busy what with everything they have you runnin’ around doing. So I won’t waste your time. You’re not here to learn my business. . .”

“Actually,” I broke in, “I find it very interesting. I really do. You know, I’m supposed to work in the community so the more I can learn about life here the better.”

Life here,” he bellowed, “well that’s a completely different story. Maybe one night, after a meetin’ of the club, you and me we can go out for a few belts and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about this place. Believe me, I know everything, and I mean everything, including who’s doin’ it to who. If you know what I mean.”

“I think I would enjoy that.”

“I guarantee it. For example, you won’t believe what that little pipsqueak Sal Rizutto has got goin’ on. You’d think from the size of him that he’s got nothing in his pants except that big rod of his, well don’t believe it. You know what they say about those little guys. But we’ll leave that for another time and another place. OK?”

In truth, I couldn’t wait to hear his stories and said, “Sure, any time you say, Louie. I’m yours.”

“I like that ‘I’m yours.’ I know we’ll get along just fine.” He winked again, this time in such an exaggerated fashion that I felt certain that even people all the way on the other side of the Boulevard would think we were participating in a major conspiracy. “But let’s go inside. We have a little business to transact.” He grabbed hold of me again and tugged me toward his glass enclosed office.

It was festooned with pictures of him with various members of the Italian Club, interspersed with others of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Again, I thought that I was being drawn into a living cliché.

“Like I said, I know you’re busy but do you maybe got a minute for another matter?” “Of a personal sort. If that’s OK.” From the other side of his spotless dark wood desk he looked at me with now softer eyes.

I tried to adjust to this change in tone and said, “Sure Louie. For you, like I said, ‘I’m yours.’”

He smiled, “It’s maybe not what you’re thinking. It’s not that personal. I don’t have Sal’s problem, if you want to know the truth, or for that matter his equipment. This is about my son, Louie Junior. You’ll have to meet him one day. I think you’d like him. That’s him, in that picture over there. With Frank in Atlantic City.” He was a virtual clone of Louie, only younger of course and without the moustache. “He’s a good kid. He goes to Curtis. He’s in 11th grade. And he’s smart, very smart. He gets straight As. In everything—math, English, science, even art. You name it and he gets As. And he’s on the soccer team. He’s big enough for football but he prefers soccer. Which is fine with me.”

“He sounds terrific Louie. You must be very proud of him. But what’s the problem? It sounds as if he’s pretty perfect.”

“I am and he is. To tell you the truth, I don’t have any problems with him but his mother does. We’re divorced, Marie and me. It’s all amicable and everything but about Junior we have our problems.”

“What kind? He sounds as if he can do anything he wants.”

“That’s my point exactly—he can do anything he desires. But Marie she still treats him like her baby. You probably haven’t heard but we also had a daughter. She was younger. Two years. But she got cancer four years ago and suffered something awful. It also nearly killed poor Marie. She was her dream. And it destroyed the marriage. Marie wanted to cut off everything from the past. Anything that would remind her of her Rosa. Who was an angel. It broke my heart too.”

He turned away from me for a moment to compose himself. And then he swung around to face me again. “So when little Rosa finally died Marie, wouldn’t let go of Louie. She tried to turn him back into her baby. By keeping him close to her she thought she could protect him from harm and pretend that nothing had happened. And he’s such a good kid, and since he was probably a little scared from what happened to his kid sister, he allowed her to. I have custody of him every other weekend and we get along fine. And when we’re together I try to talk with him about his future. And that’s where you come in. At least I hope so.”

He looked across at me so pleadingly that though I didn’t have any idea what he might be wanting of me, I said, smiling back at him, with arms akimbo, “As I told you, anything.”

“Like I said, Marie and I have a problem. She knows how smart he is, how talented, and that he wants to go to college. But she wants to keep him close to home. So she doesn’t want to let him go off the island to school. She feels that if he decides to go to college he should go to the community college, your place, commute back and forth and live with her. So she can take care of him. Continue to keep him safe.”

“And so you want me to help him get admitted to the college? That shouldn’t be a no problem. Not with his grades. He really doesn’t need me. He’ll get in on his own. But I’m happy to help. Whatever you want.”

“You’re missing my point here.” I gestured that I was sorry and he continued. “Like I said, he’s special and I want to see him go to a good college. Not that shithole. Sorry. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to insult you. I’m sure it’s an OK place. A good place.” I waved at him and shrugged to indicate I was not upset. “But I’m being honest. It’s not the best place for him. It’s fine for those other kids who need to figure out what to do with their lives or don’t have the money to go anywhere else. But look around you. I may not have had much education but I’m doing pretty good here. As I said, I do a lot of lube jobs.” He chuckled. “So for Louie Junior money is not gonna be a problem. But what will be a shame is if he doesn’t go to a college like the one I’m sure you went to.”

I mumbled, “I went to Columbia.”

“In the city, right? That’s the kind of place I mean. But to be honest with you, no offense, I’d like to see him go to a better place. You know, one of them New England colleges with a real campus. Like maybe Yale. I been through there once or twice on my way to Rhode Island, we have family up there, and since then I’ve dreamed about my kid going to a place like that.”

“Yale is a great school Louie. I’m sure he’d be very happy there.”

“To tell you the truth, it’s not just about him bein’ happy because he’d be happy staying here with Marie and me. He’s that kind of kid. But I want to see him in a place where he could become a different kind of person. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a wonderful person already. But I don’t want to see him turn out like his old man.” He made a gesture to take in all of his realm.

“There’s nothing wrong with this, Louie, or you.” I meant that.

“Nice of you to say. You’re a classy kid yourself, Lloyd. Like I said, I like you. But you’re wrong. There is something wrong with this, and, I gotta admit, me too. Not that I’m a bad person. I did well with my life, true, except of course for what happen to Rosa and then with Marie. But my time is passing. It’s not what you’re thinkin’, I’m healthy as a horse. Knock on wood,” which he proceeded to do as well as on his massive chest, “I’m built for the past. But I want my boy to be prepared for the future. To tell you the truth I don’t know what I mean when I say that. Which is precisely my whole point. I want him to get the best possible education so he can figure out where the world is headed to and get ready to make his way in it. Maybe even make a contribution.”

“What do you mean by that Louie?’ I wasn’t sure what he was saying.

“To contribute to making it a better place. To give something back from all that God gave to him. As I said, he’s gifted and with that comes obligations. I know your people, the Jews, believe that, right?”

“I’m not an expert about that but I do know that Jews are thought to be very charitable.”

“I’m not talking about charity, though I believe in that too, all real Catholics do. And you know I’m Catholic. I’m talking about him maybe devoting his life, or a part of it at least, to humanity. I know what you’re thinking--that I’m goin’ soft after what happened to little Rosa and so maybe I’d like to see Louie become a priest. That would be OK by me if you want to know. But I’m thinkin’ maybe he could study literature or, better, philosophy. He loves Plato and those other Greeks. And don’t look so surprised,” he smiled. I suppose I was at the reference to Louie Junior studying philosophy at Yale. “And maybe he could even become a professor like you.”

He folded his hands on the desk and, satisfied with himself, grinned at me, waiting to see what I might say. “Well, Louie, as you say—to be perfectly honest, I am surprised.” I paused for a moment to allow that to sink in; and, as I anticipated, his expression hardened as if he was upset by this. “Really surprised. But not for the reasons you’re thinking. I’m surprised that any young person these days has any interest in Plato or Aristotle. But I’m not surprised that Louie Junior does. He sound like a terrific kid. Just as you say. And I do understand what might be at issue between your wife and you. I mean your ex-wife. But having said this, I’m still not sure what you want me to do. How can I possibly help?”

“Simple,” he resumed his beatific smiling, “Just talk to him a little. I can arrange for that. No problem. Just talk with him about colleges like Columbia and Yale and what happened to you when you went there. How, I assume, it turned you into a different kind of person. A better one.”

“I can do that though I’m not sure how much ‘better’ I am as a result. At times I wonder if it wouldn’t have been preferable if I had gone into my family’s construction business. Maybe I would have been happier.” I thought back on those days when I worked so proudly and happily on some of the company’s big jobs in the city. “But what about your wife? I mean Marie. Won’t she be upset that I, a stranger, am talking to her son about leaving home? Leaving the island? Placing him, as she would see it, in danger?”

“I can handle that. I’ll figure out what to say and how to make it right by her.” I thought I could see in the slanting light that his eyes had become dewy.

Clearly not wanting me to notice that, he jumped up and grabbed my hand, “So you’ll talk to him, right? Do we have a deal?” I nodded with as much understanding as that gesture could communicate. “Now let’s take care of the other business—the little matter of the car that we’ll be raffling. The red one out there in the lot.”

“That sounds great. I can’t thank you enough for being so generous. I see that you do believe in charity and put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.”

“Well,” he said as we walked out to the car, again with his arm around me, “it’s really no big deal. After all, we never know who’ll win the raffle. Could be a friend of the family, if you know what I mean.” He was winking again. I chose to ignore that, thinking that would be unlikely since we would undoubtedly sell thousands of tickets.

He tossed the keys to me and told me some of his men would lower the platform on which the car was propped so I could drive it off and then take it up to the college. “Won’t I need the papers for the car? You know, in case I get caught speeding,” this time I winked at him, “And so we can sign it over to whoever wins it?”

“Nah, I know all the cops on the island. If anyone pulls you over just tell them you’re delivering it for me and they’ll let you go.”

“But what about for the person who wins the raffle? Won’t we . . . ?”

He cut me off and said somewhat ominously, “I told you that’s not gonna be a problem. That I can promise you. But just so you don’t get too nervous on me, here they are. Take them along with you and lock ‘em in the glove compartment. I have to protect my investment in you, don’t I? You know, if you’re gonna talk to Louie Junior as we discussed I don’t want to have to bail you out or anything.” With a blazing grin he extracted the ownership papers from his jacket pocket and tossed them to me as I climbed into the car.

To be continued . . .

Friday, March 30, 2007

March 30, 2007--Fanaticism LXXV--Matzo BBQ

I got kicked out of Hebrew School for misbehaving so I am not much of a biblical scholar.

But I do remember enjoying Passover at my grandmother’s house, especially the food. The food, actually, was supposed to remind us of the suffering of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert for 40 years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land; and so my enjoying the food, in retrospect, feels a little perverse. Or perhaps it was just a case of underdeveloped taste buds. But then again, it might well be nostalgia for those sweet and innocent times.

Whatever. But I even enjoyed the bitter herbs--what my more knowledgeable relatives called Maror. Matzos, on the other hand, the flat unleavened bread, I hated. My father called it hem-stitched cardboard and to this day whenever out of guilt or memory I eat some that’s exactly what it tastes like—cardboard.

I do understand that it’s not supposed to be a gourmet experience. Matzo, like everything else at ritualistic meals, is symbolic. In this case it is yet another reminder, as if the horseradish-suffused Maror were not enough, of the difficult days in the Sinai. The Israelites were short of resources during those years of wandering and at times depended on God to help them out. Like when he sent down Manna from heaven to nourish them.

But when it came to bread, the staff of life, the Israelites only had the time and wherewithal to bake the original version of Matzo. And since they did not have anything with them to leaven the dough the bread that they made did not rise. Thus, when we celebrate Pesach now, for fully eight days we are not supposed to eat anything that is leavened. Or, frankly, tasty.

Considering that replicating Sinai Matzo should be a fairly straight forward affair since without yeast the dough would require little work—just mix flour and water, flatten it out, and bake it in a 400 degree oven—it might come as a surprise to you that there are dozens of rabbinical requirements one must observe in order to make religiously acceptable Matzo. For example, for weeks before the Matzo is baked families search literally every corner of the houses for any remnants of leavened products, especially cookie crumbs in their children’s rooms. They do this by candlelight, using a wooden spoon to gather the crumbs of Chametz and a feather to brush the crumbs into the spoon. Then after every scrap is found, they either burn the Chametz or sell it, yes sell it, to a local rabbi. Then, and only then, when the home is Chametz-free, can the Matzo preparations begin.

To do this, Orthodox men gather in groups called Chaburos to bake Shmura Matzo ("guarded matzo") which refers to the fact that the wheat from which it is made was guarded from contamination by Chametz from the time it was cut the previous summer.

The baking process is labor-intensive since each batch of dough can only be worked on from start to finish (from mixing the flour and water to removing the Matzo from the oven) for 18 minutes. The Chabura members must work the dough constantly so that it is does not ferment and rise. A special cutting tool is run over the dough just before baking to create the familiar dotted holes in the matzo. After the 18 minutes are up and the Matzos must come out of the oven. Thus, how could it be anything other than awful? As it should.

So what is going on up in Spring Valley, New York, where a Hassidic rabbi has converted an old school bus, that’s right a bus, into a Passover Matzo bakery? And of course getting in trouble with his gentile neighbors who are complaining about all the smoke because he is using wood in the oven in the bus to bake the Matzo. (See NY Times article linked below.)

He and his ultra-orthodox customers not only like his ecological method of heating the oven, but also can’t stop talking about how delicious his Matzo is. It seems that the wood fire imparts to it a smoky, sort of BBQ flavor. So much so that one of the rabbi’s congregants says his is “the Matzo with the taste.”

Not a bad tag line, but here I always naively thought Matzos were supposed to taste like, well, cardboard.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

March 29, 2007--Youth Week: Admissions Day--The Envelope Please

For many people April is the cruelest month, but not for the reasons cited by T.S Eliot. Some consider April cruel because it’s when we mix memory and desire or because on the 15th we have to pay our taxes. And although April Fools Day does provide some relief, then again there is no relief for those anxious high school seniors who are cringing right now by the mailbox in the hope that in a few days they will find in it a few fat envelopes from colleges upon which all of their and their parent’s hopes reside. This is why April is so cruel.

But though the mainstream press makes a big deal about this annual ritual, those waiting for letters of acceptance from Brown or Duke or other selective colleges represent maybe five percent of all applicants. Most of the rest, if they are going to college at all, already pretty much know where they are headed. In fact, the majority of next fall’s freshman will be enrolling in their local community colleges—about 55 percent of all first-year students. And an even greater percentage of the lowest-income students and minorities will attempt to complete enough credits at two-year colleges to transfer to four-year colleges and then earn bachelors degrees.

The sad reality is that though the lucky ones on route to the Yales of the world are almost certain to graduate on time and then get well launched toward graduate and professional schools, many who go to community colleges are likely never to complete even an undergraduate degree. There is a significant comparative disadvantage that affects academically-equivalent students who begin at two-year rather than four-year colleges. This community college deduction (April is after all still tax month) is variously estimated to result in about a 25 percent disadvantage. It is even worse for minorities, especially Hispanics.

One can of course make the case that though there is this downside, community colleges do not just serve transfer students. And that they do a pretty good job at their job-training and community-education functions. Granting this, they are still failing a significant percentage of students who have no choice but to go there to begin their college educations.

This cooling-out role at two-year colleges has been going on for decades and has been known about since at least the 1970s, but nothing effective has been done to correct this social injustice. Yes, some “liberal” foundations such as Ford have had programs for many years to strengthen the community college transfer function. And others, most recently and visibly the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, have seen part of their mission to be to encourage universities to be more accepting of transferring community college students. (See linked NY Times article.)

But these privately-funded programs have not worked at anything resembling scale--Cooke, for example is working with just eight universities. Thus, to get a few elite colleges to accept a handful of transfer students is more an illusion of progress than a solution to this daunting waste of talent. To bring fairness to the world of higher education requires states to step up and create truly integrated systems where credits are easily transferable, but very few have done so. Instead, they depend upon having more than half their high school seniors go to community college as a way of containing costs, while blithely ignoring the social costs.

So of course I wish all my friends’ children well as they wait for those bulky letters, but I hope that as they see their dreams fulfilled they’ll also think about and then later in life do something about all the others who are slipping further and further behind.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 28, 2007--Youth Week: Gay-Straight In Utah

Is it any wonder that so many kids hate high school?

A few weeks ago three students were suspended from a suburban New York high school because they uttered that obscenity “vagina” at a cultural event at the school while reading an excerpt from that pornographic play The V____ Monologues.

Last week the NY Times reported that the Utah state legislature enacted a law (which runs 17 pages) to police student groups, particularly high school clubs that might, just might be up to no good. The legislation sets rules about how groups can form, who can join; what principals are required to do if the rules are violated; and, most important, what these student clubs can discuss. (Article linked below.)

Everyone knows that this massive piece of legislation was not designed to rein in the behavior of high school Mormon Culture Clubs (which are permitted) but rather to keep kids from talking about homosexuality.

It seems that Gay-Straight Clubs are springing up all over the Beehive State, but under the new law they will not be allowed to engage in any conversations about “human sexuality.” The statute outlaws discussion about “sexual activity outside of legally recognized marriage or forbidden by state law.” Ironically, the clubs are much more about gay-straight dialogues than a place where gay young people attempt to lure heterosexuals into acts of sodomy.

Then at Wilton High School in Connecticut, kids are in trouble because rather than put on a production of something like West Side Story as they did last year, students in the Advanced Theater class this semester decided to do something different—create a play, Voices In Conflict, about the war in Iraq.

Though Wilton is in the high-rent district, a 2005 graduate enlisted in the army and last September, at just 19, was killed in combat. Among other things this prompted Wilton students to want to write a play that centers around things soldiers from Wilton and elsewhere wrote home about their thoughts and experiences—some supportive of the war, others questioning or critical. Fair and balanced—we report, you decide.

From their classmate who was killed in action, Pvt. Nicholas Madaras, they included the following from one of his letters:

I screwed up in high school, big time, but I can’t help but think that maybe I was meant to join the Army. It has changed me into a person I would never have become otherwise.

Even this was too incendiary for the principal, Timothy Canty, who cancelled the production, saying that “the student body is unprepared to hear about the war from students.”

The kids said they wanted to put on the play to show fellow students “what’s going on overseas.” Too many, they claim, care more about Britney Spears’ shaved head or Tyra Banks “community service.”

Their teacher said, “If we had just done Grease, this would not have happened.”

So when we wonder why so many of our young people are turned off by high school and fewer than half graduate from inner-city schools, think about the stultifying effect of these kinds of attempts to rein in the creativity, aspirations, and ideals of adolescents. Aren’t they the very kinds of things we should be encouraging and rewarding?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

March 27, 2007--Youth Week: Children Left Behind

Fully 15 million children are enrolled in low-performing public schools. About a third of all of America’s students. The NY Times reported yesterday that next year fully 10,000 “struggling” schools are likely to be declared “failing” under the provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Even sadder than these statistics is that this is old news. Decades after the 1983 A Nation At Risk report declared that our schools represented a “rising tide of mediocrity,” they are still mired in crisis. Ours are the most dysfunctional schools in the West; actually by every objective measure, they are worse than half the schools in the so-called developing world. And this after wave after wave of reform.

In the 1960s we had the movement to turn schools over to community control, and that didn’t work. Then we said that smaller schools designed and run by teachers, administrators, and parents would get the job done; but we now know that these charter schools also do not work. Along came the privatizers—the Edison Project most prominently—who claimed that they could transform the schools and make a profit to boot; but that also has not proven to be effective. Then there were the voucher advocates—since the public schools aren’t working give low-income parents the money they need to pay for private schools; yet this too hasn’t proven to work. More recently we were told that the problem with public schools is that their standards are too low for both students and educators; and thus to solve the problem more academic rigor was demanded of children and teachers were forced to get more specialized education in order to be certified to teach. Thus far this as well has been a failure.

This is just a short list of the “innovative reforms” that have come our way—we’ve also seen the same-sex school movement, academies where military-style discipline is imposed, mandatory dress codes, schools based on the theory of “multiple intelligences,” and a growing list of places where state education departments have taken over failing school districts—most recently in St Louis—in the erroneous belief that state control would work better than local control.

None of these approaches have proven to be effective; and, as a result, 15 million kids are still languishing while the rest of the world seems to have figured out how to do a better job with their youth.

In the same front-page NY Times article which reported about the 10,000 struggling schools, the latest panacea is rolled out—longer school days and longer school years. In desperation, more and more educators are seeing this to be just what we need to do to make our schools work. If I were a betting person, I would mortgage the house and bet that this too will fail. The problems in our schools are no more about time-on-task than they were about how kids dress or if “the community” controls the schools. (Article linked below.)

The problem is about at least three things, all of which, fortunately, are addressable.

First, good news, for the past 40 years at least there have been many more employment opportunities for women so that talented, career-minded women have had the option to become, say, lawyers rather than teachers. There was thus a flow of competence and ambition to other fields of work. It may not be politically correct to point this out, but it is true nonetheless.

Then there was the movement to “professionalize” teaching. In the past, teaching had been viewed as a craft; and, as in other crafts, one learned to teach by acquiring skills of effective practice from “masters” in practical ways. People are trained in crafts; but when teacher training (that’s what it had been called) was transformed by universities into a profession teachers were required to be educated in more and more theoretical ways. Yes, student teaching such as it is still exists, but most courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels (and now teachers must earn masters degrees to be licensed) are about theories of learning and developmental psychology. If there were evidence that this professionalized approach was producing more effective teachers this would be welcome news, but no such evidence exists.

And then there has been the media revolution—from TV to the Internet. This is where kids have been spending most of their time for at least 50 years; and it has had a profound effect on their consciousness, perhaps even on their neurobiology. Wiring up classrooms and having computer labs in schools is not a sufficient way to engage young people who have had and are leading media-saturated lives. In fact, this very reality will work against any effort to extend school days—rather, we should be looking for ways to engage children in learning rather than compelling them to spend more time in class sitting still and shutting up.

The truly good news is that there are structures and methods to engage most children and to help them acquire necessary skills and to become active learners. Some of these approaches have already proven to work at scale and at no more per-pupil cost than at present (the $17,000 per child-per year that Newark spends should be more than enough to get the job done). So money is not the problem. It’s the reluctance on the part of educators to “replicate” other people’s proven approaches. One outcome of educating teachers as professionals is that with all that theoretical preparation they then want to be creative and devise their own methods and materials.

There is, though, no evidence that that works. And thus there are still those 15 million.

Monday, March 26, 2007

March 26, 2007--Youth Week: Day Care

There is a blurb on the front page of today’s NY Times that says:

Poor Behavior is Linked to Time in Day Care:

A report from the largest, longest-running study of American childcare has found that keeping a pre-schooler in a day care center a year or more increased the likelihood that the child would become disruptive in class—and that the effect persisted through sixth grade. The findings held up regardless of the child’s sex or family income, or the quality of the day care center.

The full story on page A14 has the same disturbing headline and details some of the findings from the study which was funded, beginning in 1991, with $200 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Every year in day care, the report states, leads to a one percent higher score on a “standardized assessment of problem behaviors completed by teachers.” So, the more time children spend in day care the worse their behavior is once they enter school.

To say the least, this is very upsetting news to parents who need to work or, if they can afford it, seek some respite from child rearing responsibilities by placing their young ones in a day care program. Not to mention how the pernicious effects of day care more than offset the cognitive and social-development benefits that had been thought to accrue, prior to this study, to children fortunate enough to be enrolled in a rich pre-school environment, since even the best and most expensive day care environments seem to turn children into bullies.

And the fact that these negative outcomes of day care appear to persist until at least the sixth grade makes matters even worse. The researchers are so disturbed by the results of their longitudinal study that they sought and received financing to follow the same students through high school and all the way into their twenties. It appears that they are expecting to find that the elementary school bullying they discovered will manifest itself in criminal behavior once these kids finish or, more likely, drop out of high school.

My shift of tone here should suggest that I am skeptical about these “scientific” findings. You would be correct to surmise this. Let me thus take a closer look at the context for the study, the researchers, and even the way the NY Times reported the conclusions.

Taking the latter first—below the scary headline, the Times article, in the second paragraph, says:

The [disruptive behavioral] effect was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy children. And, as expected, parents’ guidance and their genes held by far the strongest influence on how children behaved.

So why not the following alternative headline: “Study Finds Little Effect On the Behavior of Children Enrolled In Day Care”? Or, also in line with one of the study’s findings, “Day Care Study Finds Higher Vocabulary Scores for Children Placed In Day Care”?

And what about the context for the study? Begun in 1991, it came at a time when so-called conservative family advocates were decrying the fact that so many mothers were indulging themselves by working outside the home when they should have stayed at home, as God intended, to raise their children. Remember Rick Santorum? As a leader in the Senate he was a leading spokesperson for this point of view.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that when it came time to commission a study about the effects of day care, Bush 41 political appointees would turn to someone like Jay Belsky to be one of the study’s principal investigators. Belsky since the early 1990s had been one of the most outspoken opponents of day care. So much so that back in 2001, Salon wrote:

Colleagues of the controversial child-care expert say he hogs the limelight, has an agenda and makes alarmist claims that the evidence doesn't support,

And about the methodology of the study itself—it is by no means “scientific” since it does not use the random-assignment approach required by any rigorous assessment of a social intervention such as the impact of day care on child behavior. The method Belsky and Company employed is an “observational approach” where teachers who have post-day-care children in their classes are asked to fill out questionnaires about their perception about the behavior of these children. No credible social scientist for a minute would put up with much less publish the results from such subjective reporting.

One more thing—this study cost $200 million? I’d like someone to take a look at the books.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

March 24, 2007--Saturday Story--??

I did not have time to work further on Found On Staten Island. I promise more next week.

Friday, March 23, 2007

March 23, 2007--Guest-Blogger: SpeedyFixit--Pot Shot

Despite a vast amount of research and personal accounts showing in no uncertain terms that the use of marijuana can be a great help in coping with any number of illnesses, both terminal and chronic, lawmakers continue to deny access to it to those in need. Several states have passed legislation making it legal for patients to possess and consume cannabis with a prescription from their doctor; however, state law does not overrule Federal law, and anyone following doctors orders and state law can still be denied treatment and prosecuted.

The spark that ignited this discussion was the case of Angel McClary Raich as reported on March 15 in the NY Times. (Article linked below.) Ms. Raich, who is terminally ill with a brain tumor, as well as a battery of other ailments, went before the federal appellate court to get legal permission to continue the course of treatment, marijuana, which had been helping her to maintain her appetite, suppress nausea, and relieve her pain. The court said that neither her condition nor situation gave her the right to violate federal law. Treatment was denied.

If Ms. Raich, had been prescribed opium, a schedule 1 narcotic, her local pharmacist would be able to hand her a bottle of opium tincture on the spot. This despite the fact that opium has in the neighborhood of 40 different addictive or psycho active compounds and the difference between a therapeutic dose and a lethal dose can be just a few drops. Had her doctor prescribed methamphetamine, the drug behind the newest and fastest growing addiction epidemic this country has ever known and has also caused peoples hearts to actually explode, Ms. Raich could have a bottle of pills covered by her HMO, assuming she went with a generic brand. Even cocaine has its place on the pharmacy shelf, just ask your ear nose and throat doctor. The humble marijuana plant on the other hand, has been relegated to the shadows of complete illegality and the black market. Ironically is has also become one of this country’s largest cash crop. Untaxed at that.

I can not name a single person I know that has not, at the very least, tried marijuana, including the last president of the United States, and (I believe) our current one. I have not been able to find a single incident of a lethal overdose in the entire history of the world, I have never heard of a pot induced crime spree, and I can find no direct links to cancer of any kind. This begs the question: Why is the position taken by the federal government so absurdly rigid, that it would consider incarcerating a terminally ill patient for utilizing an effective treatment with very low risks and no side effects other than increased appetite and mild euphoria? What would be the worst case scenario if this law was relaxed or abolished all together? If Amsterdam is any indicator, we will end up with superior roads, public transportation, and public education, while lowering crime in a society tolerant and respectful of personal freedom. Imagine how that would tarnish our image abroad.

There seems to be a prevailing attitude that it is more important to maintain the status quo than to reexamine the decisions made by people that had not yet seen fit to outlaw child labor, in a time before penicillin, television, and the ball point pen.

We tend to believe that we are an enlightened society. We act as though we are the final result of years of evolution, and are near perfect. Everybody now knows the difference between good and evil. Well the war on drugs has put people in jail for years for owning a plant –the kind God makes--as well as prevented sick people from getting relief from agony. I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Raich, between her sobs at being denied treatment for her terminal cancer, had any sense of the morality and justice being imposed on her for the greater good. It seems drugs do ruin lives, but not always in a good way.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

March 22, 2007--Gay DNA

Talk about complicated.

The NY Times headline, “Homosexuality May be Based on Biology, Baptist Says,” of course made me instantly crazy. Anything a Baptist minister has to say on the subject, much less the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the nation’s leading Southern Baptist seminary, by definition is certain to be ignorant and biased. (Article linked below.)

True, there is debate in the scientific community about the possibility that homosexuality is biologically based and therefore is not a choice of life style as virtually all Evangelicals claim. But what’s this about Mohler weighing in on the side of being reasonably open-minded on the subject? What’s going on here?

If gayness is as inborn in humans as it appears to be in other animals, in what way can it still be considered a “sin” since all men (and women) are created in God’s image? And since through DNA research treatments are beginning to emerge to correct genetic “defects,” something even most conservative Christians do not oppose, what if, just what if a Gay Gene is discovered and a method is developed to “treat” gayness in the womb so that an initially gay fetus pops out as a straight baby?

Rev. Mohler recently wrote about his musings on the subject and they elicited a firestorm of angry responses from many in the gay community (no surprise) and equally from many on the Christian Right (again, no surprise).

On the Right, much of the criticism was based on the assertion that in spite of suggestions from DNA research that there might be a biological basis for homosexuality, gayness is a sin of choice and can therefore be overcome through counseling and prayer. We have seen how effectively this approach works in the case of the Rev. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Evangelical Association, who got caught seeking the ministerings of male prostitutes but was quickly “cured” through such methods.

In the gay community, the Rev. Mohler was attacked because of his claim that even if homosexuality is inborn it is still a sin, one consequence of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. And, he was called a hypocrite when he wrote that if it is DNA based and if a prenatal treatment can be found to “correct” it, such medical intervention would not be against God’s word.

But then when I turned from the Times article to Mohler’s Website where he laid out his thinking, I was shocked by how reasonable he seemed. Though I still cringe at his idea that it would be acceptable to “correct” biological homosexuality if it turned out to be DNA-based or that it is somehow a defect or sin, in the context of the world in which he operates, I found his explication of the issues to be less emotional than those of many of his critics; and his writing is sufficiently couched in genuine-seeming conditional language to actually contribute to open discourse about this immensely complicated subject.

Here’s a sample from his blog, but I urge you to look at it in its entirety. (I’ve included its Web address below.)

What makes the sheep "sexual partner preference testing" research so interesting is that the same scientists who are documenting the rather surprising sexual behaviors of male sheep think they can also change the sexual orientation of the animals. In other words, finding a biological causation for homosexuality may also lead to the discovery of a "cure" for the same phenomenon.

That's where the issue gets really interesting. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for an end to the research, while tennis star Martina Navratilova called the research "homophobic and cruel" and argued that gay sheep have a "right" to be homosexual. No kidding.
Homosexual activists were among the first to call for (and fund) research into a biological cause of homosexuality. After all, they argued, the discovery of a biological cause would lead to the normalization of homosexuality simply because it would then be seen to be natural, and thus moral.

But now the picture is quite different. Many homosexual activists recognize that the discovery of a biological marker or cause for homosexual orientation could lead to efforts to eliminate the trait, or change the orientation through genetic or hormonal treatments.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007--A Little Help From Mommy & Daddy

I’ve been a member of my building’s coop board for a number of years and among the things we do is review applications for the sale of apartments. Recently it became apparent that at least half the sales were to parents buying apartments for their children. For a time I thought our situation was anomalous because we have quite a few studio and one-bedroom apartments and are located near New York University. Instead of paying $1,000 or more a month for a dorm room, parents were opting to use that money to buy a place.

Studios in downtown Manhattan sell for at least $500,000 so we are talking about a significant expenditure to relieve Junior of having to be squished into an 8x10 dormitory room.

Pretty soon, as older shareholders left, our building began to resemble the very dorms these young folks and their parents were attempting to avoid. Not so much the squishing but the culture of the place.

But then we began to notice that in fact most of the people who had had apartments bought for them were not students but rather individuals in their 20s and 30s who were still early in law or financial or media or arts careers and couldn’t on their own even begin to think about buying into the still very hot NYC real estate market. So mother and father were stepping in to help subsidize their life styles.

Our experience did not appear to be generalizable but then the NY Times in its real estate section reported that this indeed is a trend. More and more parents are buying apartments for their children in New York and other cities where costs are high. And we are not just talking about just half-million dollar studios but also $1.0 million penthouses in the newly hip parts of Brooklyn. (Article linked below.)

I recall a time when parents scraped together a few thousand dollars to help a married daughter or son make a down payment on a “starter house,” but this bull market in buying places outright and giving them to children is something quite new.

Some see it as another manifestation of the dramatic increase in wealth among the formerly middle-middle class. Others as an extension of overindulging children well into adulthood. Then still others perceive something less savory going on—a way to delay separation from children by intervening and controlling their lives well past the time when one would expect progeny to be launched into independent lives.

I am of course am most interested in the latter situation out of concern for an America where there is a growing resistance among both adults and children to take responsibility for their own behavior. We see this as well sadly played out on the political and world stage where our leaders take action and then do all they can to evade even acknowledging responsibility for the consequences.

The Times reports that it is common for the parents buying the apartments to pay less attention to the financial arrangements—who will pay the monthlies, who will keep the profits if there are any when the place is sold—than to how often they get to visit and stay with their children, who will or will not be allowed to live in the apartment with their child (daughters appear to be more restricted—no boyfriends--than sons), and even what kind of furniture their children are allowed to buy—nothing from thrift shops

In some cases things get so contentious about these kinds of continuing entanglements that mommy and daddy and their kids are turning to family therapists (hey, it’s New York!) to help them “work through” the specific details of the arrangements (the decorating plans) and the emotional issues (how does it make you feel to be a dependent 30 year-old?).

Clearly, nothing is for nothing. Strings and umbilical cords are more enduring than one might imagine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 20, 2007--12:07 a.m. Universal Time

I’m so confused.

Here I was, still shivering from last weekend’s ice storm, eagerly looking forward to the beginning of spring, thinking today’s the day—March 20th. But then, thank you very much wise-ass NY Times, I learned that spring will be a little late this year, a little slow arriving: it will begin early in the morning of March 21st. At 12:07 a.m. to be precise. (Article linked below.)

But adding to my confusion is the fact that that will be 12:07 a.m. Universal Time. And since Universal Time is the old Greenwich Mean Time, it means that since Greenwich is in England and four hours later than it is in New York, spring will still arrive here, on schedule at 4:07 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, today, March 20th as it was meant to be. (Incidentally, it really should be arriving at 5:07 a.m. if we hadn’t tampered with our clocks here in America to start Daylight Savings Time a few weeks before the rest of the world.)

You of course know how the seasons work? But in case you missed Earth Science class the day it was taught, here’s the scoop. In spite of what some Fundamentalists claim, the earth revolves around the sun, taking a little more than 365 days to complete a circuit. But the Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the plane of its orbit. This means that at different times of the year the northern half of the globe is more or less tilted toward the sun. And because of that, above and below the equator (where things are always the same in regard to the tilt) we have the seasons.

Spring in the northern hemisphere begins when there are exactly 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. It is the vernal equinox, Latin for “equal night of spring.” Precisely six months from now we will have the autumnal equinox which will signal the beginning of fall.

So we’ve got that straight, but still I’m confused.

First of all whatever happened to good-old Greenwich Mean Time? It was “created” in 1847 with the mean part of GMT the time the sun more or less crossed the longitudinal meridian in Greenwich, England, a few miles north of London. Since England soon became the world’s hegemonic power, remember “the sun never sets on the British Empire”?, they had the power, in effect, to set the world’s clocks and thus, GMT, which originally served the English railroad system, was universally imposed, as was the time zone system.

But the old system of keeping time, which was done by astronomical means, became obsolete as advances in science, technology, and globalization required a much more precise way of keeping time. One problem is the fact that the earth’s daily rotation is irregular—we wobble a bit on our axis and, more metaphysically interesting, the Earth’s rotation is slowing down (don’t ask what will happen when it really slows down because you won’t like the answer). So in 1972, with England stripped of its empire, GMT was replaced by Coordinated Universal Time and atomic clocks replaced the astronomers of Greenwich.

I understand, but still this feelse sad—the world lost a little of its charm.

But I’m still confused—if as the Times says the vernal equinox occurs on that day when we have equal portions of light and dark, that should mean that the sun must rise at say 7:00 a.m. and set at precisely 7:00 p.m. (or in another year, 7:06 a.m. and 7:06 p.m.). Yet today, also according to the NY Times, the sun rose at 7:00 a.m. but will set at 7:08 p.m. To me, this sounds as if this vernal equinox will have 12 hours and 8 minutes of light, not the 12 it should have.

Does this mean the Earth’s rotation is slowing down even faster than expected? If so, who needs to worry about Global Warming? But then again, maybe all of this confusion is why the Egyptians build the Giant Sphinx to face the sunrise on the vernal equinox and the Druids arranged the monoliths at Stonehenge to serve as their way to know when to start planting their crops.

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 19, 2007--Tim Robbins?

I know it was a nasty weekend in the Northeast, but was that the reason why only a few thousand showed up in Washington for the anti-war demonstration? I confess, with considerable guilt, that I didn’t even know it was scheduled. Maybe the NY Times also wasn’t aware of it and thus did not publish even a two-inch report about who was and wasn’t there. Me included, is this the best we as a nation could muster to mark the fourth anniversary of Iraqi Freedom?

But I did see some video about the protest on CNN. And who was there, front and center, leading the march, none other than Tim Robbins. Now I have nothing against him, quite the contrary because he was there and I wasn’t; but is he the best person to be the celebrity presence to help assure a huge turnout? Though I’m too old and uncool to think about which current stars might attract a crowd, where was Jay-Z or Beyonce or Scarlet Johanson or Leo DiCaprio? The Dixie Chicks got blackballed after they criticized President Bush but that was then and this is now and they recently won five Grammies. So the risk to one’s career for speaking out would be minimal. It actually might even help.

It’s of course unfair to single out celebrities when the rest of us stayed at home, keeping warm under our comforters. But how come everyone I asked today told me that they, like me, did not know about plans for the demonstration? How did millions learn about and show up for the March on Washington in the 1970s? Before the Internet and text-messenging? Is it all because there is no draft now for any of us to worry about? In other words, there is no direct self-interest, that our concerns about U.S. foreign policy is thus abstract and abstract issues do not bring out a crowd? Or is it that most of us are so sated by entertainments and diversions that it’s more important to stay glued to the TV to watch March Madness or get the latest news about Anna Nicole Smith or Attorney General Gonzales? Are we, in the words of media-ecologist Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death”?

While glued to my set yesterday I tuned into Meet the Press. Tim Russert marked the war’s anniversary by having a panel that included Richard Perle, perhaps the leading pre-war strategist who saw invading Iraq as an easy opportunity to bring democracy to the region; and former exterminator and Congressman Tom DeLay. Also there was retired Vice Admiral Joe Sestak who is now a congressman from Pennsylvania, someone who actually served in the military.

Among other things Sestak challenged Perle’s account of his own role in beating the war drums, asking if he didn’t predict four years ago that by now the Iraqis would be so grateful that George Bush “liberated” them that they would have named their main street George Bush Boulevard? Perle of course ducked the question and no one pressed him to answer. He continued to tap dance around it so that it became a metaphor for his unwillingness to take any responsibility for the fiasco; but it became equally a metaphor for the irresponsibility of the mainstream media not to hold anyone accountable for their past actions. Why didn’t Tim Russert insist that DeLay answer the congressman’s legitimate question? And further, why was the disgraced Tom DeLay there in the first place, and why did Russert repeatedly hold his book up to the camera, giving him free advertising?

I think we all know the answers to these questions.

But I forgot, one more question—how are you doing in your office basketball pool? At the end of the first week, how many of your teams are still alive? I’m down to only six. Bummer.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

March 17, 2007--Saturday Story: Found On Staten Island--Part Four

In Part Three, during his first week as an assistant dean at Staten Island Community College, in his new role as the college’s representative to the community, Zazlo participated in two very different kinds of meetings: the first in the evening with the Executive Committee of the Italian Club, the second the following afternoon with the Director of the Jersey Street Community Center in Staten island’s version of the ghetto. Both had one thing in common—all with whom he met with expressed considerable unhappiness with, actually despised Zazlo’s boss, the college’s president, who they believed held all of them in contempt and was only seeking to have a relationship with them in order to advance his own career. As one put it, to get the hell off the island as quickly as possible for a cushy position in the Ivy League. Lloyd nonetheless, who needed to do well in his new job if he was to advance his own career, stove to find ways for them to work together. By good fortune, under pressure from the Italian Club’s leaders, who insisted that to make the college’s upcoming Italian Festival a success it was essential to raffle off a Fiat sports car, Zazlo stumbled on a way to assure that the community the Club represented would participate; and, since he was assured that there would be no expenses for either the raffle books or the car itself, the raffle would also net the college up to $15,000--in cash. And with that profit already “banked” in his mind, Lloyd then struck a deal with the ex-leader of the island’s Black Panther Party, promising to “share” some of it with him to demonstrate that there was mutual interest in working in partnership with the college.

So in Part Four, which follows, Zazlo will need to convince Dr. Birenberg that they should agree to participate in sponsoring the raffle and sharing most of the profits with the Panthers . . .

“Andy,” President Birenberg said to the bartender at the Staten Island Rathskeller even before reaching out to shake my hand, “make sure you give my new dean a generous pour.” I was a little late for our meeting, having gotten lost again among the roads that twisted through the island’s highest hills; and clearly Birenberg had arrived early since it was obvious that he was already well into his third Cutty Sark.

Dr. B patted the stool next to his at the end of the long bar. It was clear from that that we would have lunch there and that there would likely be more drinking than eating. Noting that, I realized it would be wise to nurse my drink out of concern that if I bolted it another and then another would follow and I would quickly come to be more under Birenberg’s control than I already was. Knowing how Birenberg was sure to react to what I had to report—badly—and what I had promised I would try to get him to agree to—negatively--I needed to keep as many of my wits about me as possible. I would need all of them and then some.

Behind us, as well as surrounding the mahogany bar, there was an array of stuffed animal heads that featured a full family of seemingly salivating wild boars, one of Germany’s most common game animals, which seemed to me at a glance to be appropriate for a place on Staten Island that was attempting to present itself as authentically Teutonic.

“So what did you learn? Everyone thinks I’m a hypocrite who only cares about my next assignment. Right? Preferable one at Harvard.”

Caught off guard by this bold thrust, thinking I would have had to find a subtle and indirect way of my own to report some of this to him, I gulped down more of my bitter drink, even before I was fully settled on my stool, than I intended to consume during our entire lunch. My wits might no longer be as useful to me as I had anticipated since he had already, by leaping to this raw but accurate conclusion, propelled me into cognitive freefall where I would need something other than wits to keep me from crash landing. Attempting to drink along with him might actually be much more of what was required.

“Look, Lloyd, I’ve been on this godforsaken island for more than a year now and it shouldn’t surprise you, as it appears to have, that they would regard me this way. In fact,” he added with a wicked smile, “I would be disappointed if they didn’t. I would question if I wasn’t being responsible.”

“No, no Dr. B,” I said too quickly, not fully understanding him, “It’s not what you think. They really respect you and believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.” Within thirty seconds all my plans to find a way to report a version of the truth to him evaporated. He was eyeing me skeptically, with a wry look, not for a moment lowering his glass from his lips. “You probably would be surprised to learn that they even quote the book. Your book I mean. About the college being in and of the community.” He continued to look at me curiously as if I were a laboratory specimen squiggling in a Petri Dish.

“I can see that we have a lot of work to do.” He sighed and signaled to Andy to bring us two more Scotches. “I though from your experience in Queens that you would be further along. More seasoned and developed.”

I slumped on my stool and was happy that Andy placed leather-bound menus before us. Birenberg pushed his away and said he would have just a piece of grilled fish. Nothing on the side and no butter. I muttered that I would have the same, though I knew I would choke if I attempted to eat anything. Mine too would be a liquid lunch.

“Moroni and his cronies at the Italian Club told you I have contempt for them, thinking they are no better than Mafiosi who not only control politics on the island but are in bed with the developers who want to cut down the last of the trees and replace them with out-of-code houses for their landsman who want out of Brooklyn to get away from the Colored folks who are beginning to encroach on their territory.”

“Actually, they didn’t talk about that at all when I attended their meeting the other night. They . . . “

Birenberg simply ignored me and continued, “We’ll they’re right about that. About the way I regard them. They are a bunch of bigots. And I’m sure they told you that they want me off the island as soon as possible so they can cash in some political chips and name the next president. To make sure the college doesn’t open its doors too wide and doesn’t put any crazy ideas in their kids’ heads. Especially their daughters who they worry about the most—that they might stray too far. Maybe even wind up fucking some of the Black boys I’ve been bringing to the college. When that happens both you and I will have to get out of here, and fast.”

He emptied his glass all the while not taking his blazing eyes off me so he could savor and evaluate every aspect of my reaction to this last point. I thought, assisted by my own drink, that I managed to do a satisfactory job of holding onto his gaze.

“And then you met with Mister Russell, in that so-called community center of his.” I continued to look right back at Birenberg, trying not to offer any reactions to what he might be about to say. I suspected from the way he strung out “mister” that it would be less than flattering. “I directed you to him, did I not?” I didn’t move. “Well, what did you think?” He paused for more than emphasis and so I thought he actually wanted me to say something.

“He seemed all right to me.” I tried to leave it at that—noncommittal, but Birenberg clearly wanted to hear more. “I mean, Staten Island isn’t the easiest place to be black.”

Birenberg shot back at me, “Where the hell do you think it’s easy to be black, as you put it? You think that Harlem is any better?”

“Well I mean . . . I mean he said to me that here are so few of them here that they slip off the screen. You know, when they try to mobilize the Staten Island Advance doesn’t publish anything about them. They only time they do, Sonny claims, is when a black guy rapes someone or, you know, wins a track meet. The usual racist bullshit.”

“So he took you in with that line? I’m not surprised he tried that; but I am surprised, after your experience at Queens College, that you fell for it.”

“I don’t know if that’s fair. There are only a handful of Blacks here. I looked up the last Census data. Only about ten percent of Staten Islanders are Black or Hispanic. The lowest in the city. . . . “

“You think I don’t know that? What do you think I’ve been doing here? Scratching my ass? Haven’t you been paying attention to what I’ve written? And what I’ve already accomplished at the college? Surrounded by all these Yahoos.” He looked around the bar. Fortunately it wasn’t crowded because his voice, freed by drink, was by then booming.

“Did Sonny tell you anything about his background?”

“Well, that he had been in the Panthers. That he had been the president of the local chapter.”

“Not that crap,” Birenberg snorted. “I mean his real background? That he graduated from St. Johns, on a basketball scholarship, and then went to Brooklyn Law School, passed the Bar Exam, and after that took the ferry to Manhattan every day in a three-piece suit where he worked for a white-shoes firm?” I’m certain my eyes widened a bit at this unexpected news. “Yes, that’s your Sonny Russell for you.”

“So what’s he doing here,” I mumbled, “in that broken down community center?”

“I’m sure he didn’t tell you that either. Well, he didn’t get past his probationary period as a law associate, and they tossed him right back here from whence he came. And that’s where he landed. In that center. Full of bitterness, which I can understand, but no longer with any noteworthy ambition. He’s now known as the type of hustler who sits around spouting rhetoric in an attempt to scare white people into giving the center, really him, guilt money.”

“Well, I thought . . . .”

“Tell me again what you were up to in Queens? Obviously not very much. Certainly not enough to teach you anything of value.” He was sneering at me.

“But that’s all right,” his tone softened and he reached out to pat me clumsily on the back. “You can tell me. What did he hold you up for? He’s good at that. He even tried to do that to me. Me! A Jewboy from Nebraska! Can you imagine? What chutzpah.” At this, he allowed his body to swell with pride. “So what did he get you to promise?”

It felt to me that all was probably lost. That I had failed with the Italian Club; with perceiving what Sonny was really about; and, most important, I had failed to bring back anything for Birenberg, for my boss and patron. I had failed to deliver.

So with my head reeling from alcohol and what felt like Birenberg’s assault, I let it rip. Or at least my still-tepid version of letting something rip, “You’re right. They all think you’re full of shit and are only here to take advantage of them while showing them nothing but patronizing contempt. Take the festival for example—they think you’re doing it in a way to show them how your own awareness of Italian culture is superior to theirs. As they put it, to rub their noses in it.” Birenberg, perversely, seemed to enjoy that. “And Sonny, whatever his real background, says that the Black community believes you’re only interested in using them so you can show yourself off as some sort of liberal savior. To promote yourself. To get your picture in the paper surrounded by Black folk to make you look like you care. That in truth you’re such a small-time operator that you think it’s a big deal to be mentioned even in the Advance. And they all think that . . . .”

Birenberg cut me off, “What about you?”

“What about me what?”

“You. What do you think?”

“About the situation . . . or you?”

“Both. After what you observed and heard about me”

Again, he had thrown me off stride and so I said, stalling for time so I might regather my thoughts, “Before I try to answer, can I have another drink?” Birenberg signaled to Andy who trotted over and filled both of our glasses. I drank half of mine in one swallow before responding. In a whisper I said, “I think you’re both right.”

“Both? And about what?”

“They’re right that you are using them to promote and advance yourself. And they have their own agenda that reaches way back to before you showed up and which has to work for them well after you leave. Which I would say will be in less than two years.” I paused to see how Birenberg might be taking this. He continued to smile enigmatically back at me. “So they want to be sure that whatever they might agree to do with you will not unduly compromise them in the eyes of their constituencies. That they will derive some benefit by seeming to cooperate with you. In that way, they perceive they will be in a stronger position to influence the selection of your successor once you bail out for something better.” His smile narrowed and so I hastened to add, “Now, you need to understand, that’s what they’re saying. I’m merely quoting them. Actually, interpreting where I think they’re coming from.”

“All right, this is your view about them, about their agenda. Say more now about how you view me in all of this. That’s of course what interests me the most.” He turned his full grin back on.

I gulped some more of my Scotch and said, “Well like I told you, I think they’re right about how they view you. Which doesn’t mean that while you’re feathering your own nest,” I wondered where that image came from—must be from the whisky, “you won’t get some things done that are good for the island. They, both the Italian-Americans and the African-Americans are living isolated lives. The larger world around them, beyond the island, has changed and will do so at an accelerated pace.” Here I was my old lecturing-self, “They’re all in danger of getting left behind in their physical and cultural ghettos. You can maybe help them see that. Some of them perhaps. And in that way leave something good behind. As a legacy. But,” and here I knew I was about to take a considerable risk, “But, as I see it, you’re at least as big a hustler as your Mister Sonny Russell.”

I was done, closed my eyes, and held my breath. Expecting an explosion of outrage and again my walking papers, I thought once more about alternative careers.

But after what felt like many minutes, Birenberg finally said in an eruption of laughter that nearly knocked me off my stool, “That’s better. That’s my Lloyd. That’s the Zazlo I thought I was hiring. Maybe out in Queens you learned a little more than I gave you credit for.” He smiled radiantly at me as if he were proud of me. As if I was his son.

“And so, what do they want? I mean the Italians and Sonny.”

I plunged ahead and proceeded to tell him—about the opera stuff, the raffle, and all the money they said we would make, cash profit for him to use in any way he saw fit. But I also let him know that I told Sonny about the raffle and the money and that I promised Sonny that I would try to convince him, Birenberg, to share most of it with the center. Of course I now realized it would be shared with Sonny himself. That it also would be in cash and that Sonny and the center, such as it was, could do pretty much anything with it that they or he wished. And in return the Italian Club would agree to transact some business with Birenberg, including getting off his back during his remaining time here. And that Sonny would stop jumping up and down about how Birenberg was out to hustle the Black community and how he might even be willing to enter into some very public joint ventures with the college. Even with Birenberg himself.

I presented all of this in a breathless monologue and Birenberg said, still very much smiling, “Done,” and patted me on the ass as I stumbled toward the door and daylight.

* * *

Two days later, back in Rosebank, I met Sal Rizutto at his printing plant. I was there to pick up the raffle books. I found him, almost buried behind luridly-colored brochures which were stacked in precarious heaps on his tiny metal desk. His office, if it could be deemed that, was so dank and ill lit that I could barely find him squatting there amidst all the clutter.

“Yeah, I’m over here. Come in, come in.” He didn’t get up as I pushed aside an overflowing carton of Sunday newspaper supplements in order to get the door opened enough to allow me to squeeze through. “Sit down a minute. Take a load off. Make yourself comfortable.” I tried to on the broken folding chair that was pressed right up against the desk. “Can I get you something? I’ve got anything you want. All the best brands.”

“I’m OK. Thanks Mr. Rizutto. I just came from a cocktail party over at Borough Hall.”

“Glad to hear you’re getting around town and rubbin’ elbows with all them big shots. But if we’re gonna do business together, the first thing is to drop that ‘Mr. Rizutto’ stuff. That’s my father, ‘Mr. Rizutto.’ I’m Sal, from ‘Salvatore.’ My family’s from Italy you know.”

“I thought that might be the case Sal, since you’re vice president of the Italian Club.” And I added, trying to establish rapport, “Any relation to the old Yankee shortstop, Phil Rizutto, the Scooter?”

“Nah, we hate the Yankees here on the island. Though I understand his people came from the same town in Sicily as mine. But look,” he said, cutting off the banter, “we’ve got a lot of work to do. In a minute I’ll take you to the back where we do the printin’ and get some of the boys to load the raffle books in your car. You brought a car like I told you to?”

“Yes, I took one of the college’s station wagons. I hope it’s big enough. I parked it right out front.”

“No problem. I printed up 50,000 tickets. The Club is keeping 10,000 and the rest is for you. At a buck apiece, if we sell even half of them we should make out all right. There’ll be enough for all of us to be happy, if you know what I mean.” I nodded and smiled, now knowingly.

“But look, before we get started there’s something else I want to talk with you about. If that’s OK.”

“Sure, Sal. Anything.” I leaned forward to get closer to him, having no idea at all what might be on his mind. Perhaps he would share some off-the-record information about the inner workings of the Club. That could be very useful to me as I attempted to build a relationship between them and the college.

“It’s not about the Club or anything like that; it’s about my daughter. Angie. Maybe you know her. She’s a student at the college.”

Disappointed, I said, “Unfortunately, I don’t Sal. My job is to work out in the community. I don’t even have an office on campus. Birenberg wants me here with the Club, working on things like the festival.”

“Whatever,” he said dismissively, but continued, “Well you see she, Angie, my kid, she just turned nineteen last month—you’d love her if you knew her. I’m usin’ a figure of speech here.”

“I think I know what you mean Sal. She sounds great.”

“But I haven’t told you a thing about her yet.”

He sounded annoyed. I was only trying to sound interested, to bond with him. “I just meant that I’m sure she’s a terrific person. She’s your daughter after all. Right?” I flashed a smile at him, hoping it would smooth things.

“Well, my wife and me don’t like what’s happened to her up at the college. I mean we thought she’d get a two-year degree in business, or something like that. So she could get a job until she gets married. You know, to get her out of the house and maybe earn some money. Then she’d meet a guy. Some nice Italian guy from right here on the island. From a good family. Business people. Maybe professionals. We have a basement apartment in our house. It’s a clean place with an entrance of its own where Angie and her husband could live until they had a kid. Then they’d need a bigger place. We’d of course help them with the down payment. I’m doing pretty good here now and could do that. You know, maybe one of them new places down in Great Kills. Not far from the water. In a safe place. A good place to raise kids. There’s even some good Catholic schools there.”

“That sounds very good, very generous Sal. I’m sure Angie and her husband would be very grateful.”

“It may sound good to you, but to tell you the truth, that college of yours is filling her head with all sorts of fancy ideas.”

“I’m not sure what you mean Sal.”

“She tells me she doesn’t want to take the Office Assistant Program. She wants to study Liberal Arts.” He pronounced all three syllables of “liberal,” mockingly, as if each were a separate word. “How you make a living studying that bullshit is beyond me. You know—lit-er-at-ure, soc-i-ol-ogy, Russian his-tor-y. Russian of all things. Not to mention all the faggots she’s meetin’ in those classes. No offense, but she tells me they’re full of Jews from St. George and across the bridge in Brooklyn.”

“Well, I’m not too offended, but, you know, the liberal arts are good preparation for life—both to prepare one for many kinds of work and also to make you a well-rounded person.”

I couldn’t believe how pathetically pedantic I sounded, here with Sal Rizutto in his printing plant, but he didn’t seem to notice or mind “Angie is already well-rounded enough, if you ask me. She’s got a lot of gavones sniffing around our door. I don’t want her marrin’ one of those creeps either. But I don’t want to have arguments with her every night when we’re watching the 6 o’clock news. She tells me that the president is lyin’ about this and he doesn’t know shit about Russia (she doesn’t say ‘shit’ of course) and all they suffered in W.W. Two and whatnot. You guys at the college are turnin’ her against her family and into a Commie.”

I couldn’t restrain myself from smiling back at him. “I’m not makin’ this up. I wouldn’t be surprised if she burned her bra one day and started marchin’ around with those moulinyans over on Jersey Street. You know, screaming about peace and justice and bullshit like that.”

Realizing there was nothing I could say to convince Sal that what he was experiencing with Angie was not unusual, that most 19 year-olds those days were up to the same thing, and that I for one saw that to be hopeful, and wanting to get us focused on the festival, I asked, “Do you think maybe we could get the raffle books? I’d like to bring them back to the college before evening so I can put them away in a safe place. The last thing we want is for them to get into the wrong hands, if you know what I mean.”

“You’re right kid,” Sal said extracting himself from thoughts about his daughter and his chair, “This island is full of all kinds of hoodlums. In fact, the Club is plannin’ for what might happen the night of the festival. It’s gonna be open to anybody, right?” I nodded. “So we ourselves will take the responsibility that there’s no trouble from the Coloreds and other agitators who might want to disrupt things. Right?” I didn’t say anything. “Al, who’s our president you remember, he told me to tell you not to worry.” You can imagine that’s exactly what I was doing as the result of what Sal was telling me.

“He wants me, Al wants me to be sure to take care of you. Not just not chargin’ you anything for the raffle books. That’s my pleasure. My contribution. But at the festival too. He wants me to shadow you wherever you go. Never to let you outta my sight.” He had come around from behind his desk and in his cramped office was pressed quit close to me, the top of his head just reaching to my armpits he was that short, “So that in case anyone tries to pull any funny shit,” he opened his suit jacket to show me an enormous pistol stuffed in his belt; and he patted it, saying, “I’ll be ready for them.”

He turned his hand into a gun and blasted away at an imagined outside agitator, “Bam, bam, bam.” I lurched back out of the way of the recoil. “Like I said, I’m ready for them.”

Seeing my reaction, he slapped me on the back. “I’ll get Ralphie to load up your car. And one more thing. Do me a favor and keep an eye open for my Angie. Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”

He then led me to the door that opened into the print shop, “Let me know if you need more raffles. I can make you a million of ‘em if you want.”

To be continued . . .

Friday, March 16, 2007

March 16, 2006--Fanaticism LXXIV: Ready, Aim, Click

For years I’ve wondered why men who hunt are called “sportsmen.” My notion of being involved in sport includes the concept of winning and losing. Thus, stalking the woods with a high powered rifle in search of deer or squirrels, by that definition, doesn’t sound to me like much of a sport. Unless it’s very cold out and the hunter-sportsman is in danger of getting frostbite and losing a few toes.

If even this sounds a little rough for you, then, for the high-end sportsman there is always the hunting ranch. These are places, usually in Texas, where he checks into a fancy lodge; gets someone to serve him an eight-course dinner of grilled game; and, surrounded by his buddies, downs lots of high-octane fluids. Then, the next morning he is driven out to the hunting grounds in a Land Rover, gets comfortably settled in a blind, and then blasts away at the grouse or whatever that the staff release from their nearby cages. Sort of what Dick Cheney did last year when he shot his friend in the face. You know, a fellow sportsman.

Now I like a good steak as much as anyone else and also a nicely roasted piece of grouse, but why various versions of this “manly” behavior are held in such high esteem is totally beyond my comprehension, though I do know there is a hierarchy among hunters that places those who hunt the old-fashioned way with bows and arrows and eat what they kill at the top of the heap.

But since this is the 21st century, for real men who would otherwise be out in the woods if they didn’t have to sit at their computers all day outsourcing the manufacture of porcelain tooth caps to China (I learned about this very thing today from my dentist), there is now a way for even them to get in some hunting—right there at their computer.

For them, a, yes, Texas entrepreneur has set up a Website where they can hunt on line. Not via a computer game, where you "hunt" virtually for humanoids, but literally.

Here’s how it works—

All you need is a high-speed computer connection. Using it, from anywhere in the world, you can “stalk” an antelope or wild pig on his 220-acre spread on your home or office screen. At the Texas end, with your mouse, you control the motion of a video camera that tracks the animals. And then when you are satisfied that you have your prey in your sights, in the crosshairs on the screen, with just the click of the mouse you fire a real gun which is rigged up to the on-site camera. It’s as simple as that.

John Lockwood, who figured all this out, provides two extra services—if you only wound the animal, he is humanely right there to finish it off; and if you’d like, he’ll have the trophy head shipped home to you.

As you might imagine, there is a hue and cry of opposition to this growing phenomenon, not just from the PETA folks but also from the NRA which opposes remote-control “hunting.” To them, in the words of the NY Times which reported about this, it “violates the spirit of fair-chase hunting,” whatever that is. (Article linked below.)

But Lockwood, ever politically correct, asserts that he is helping disabled people to hunt and also enabling men and women serving overseas in the military the chance to bag a buck. Assuming they’re not otherwise getting in enough shooting.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007--100 Percent of Nothing

My father had a short list of axioms that he believed expressed the truth about the world’s major problems and what was necessary to do to solve them. He was not reluctant to share them with us, or anyone within earshot, over and over and over again.

At the time, I resisted being influenced by anything he had to say about such weighty matters, feeling that things were much more nuanced than how he summed them up; and of course I was attempting to escape his influence so that I could become an independent person with my own view of the world. Sound familiar?

But now that he is gone and I have had about as much independence as I can handle, I am coming around to seeing things in remarkably similar ways.

For example, he saw religion, not money, to lie at the root of many of our most intractable disputes. That belief systems and the closely-guarded nationalisms that religions foster are responsible for most of the world’s hatred, violence, and barbaric behavior.

He argued that the only hope for human survival would be through inter-religious, inter-ethnic, and inter-racial marriage, where future generations of children would have blended identities. Thus, it is sad that he did not get a chance to see the article in yesterday’s NY Times about a remarkable family reunion in New York City where seemingly-Black and seemingly-White folks, who did not know either existed, discovered that they are all members of the same family. (Linked below.)

This came about through the increasing-popular ethno-ancestry testing where individuals’ DNA can be analyzed to discover their racial history. African-American Vy Higginsen, searching for her “roots,” discovered that in spite of the way she appears, her “blood” is 28 percent European and 8 percent Asian. At about the same time that Ms. Higginsen was being tested, out in Missouri, Marion West, a White cattle rancher, whose family owned slaves, found out that he was in fact partly Black. Furthermore, when he submitted his DNA test results to the West Family DNA Project, he learned that the same Vy Higginsen, who has an uncle named James West, is a genetic cousin. He also found out that she is “Black” and lives in Harlem.

At the tearful reunion in Harlem, the Times quotes rancher West as saying, in his heavy drawl, “Dear God, thank you for this beautiful night and this great family we got here.” During her visit to his ranch in Missouri, he took Cousin Vy out to where he prays each day. They knelt together under a pine tree and thanked God for each other.

We now know, as well, that family members of the Rev. Al Sharpton were slaves who were once owned by ancestors of segregationist Senator Strom Thurman, and that members of Barack Obama’s White mother’s family were also slave owners. So as Ms. Higginsen said, “There are no thoroughbreds among us, and nobody’s 100 percent of anything.”

I suspect that the worst fights in this newly-reunited West-Higginsen family are likely to be about where to have next year’s Thanksgiving dinner. And wouldn’t my father feel good about that!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March 14, 2007--"Mistakes Were Made"

In “taking responsibility” for the latest scandal to rock the Bush administration, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that “mistakes were made.”

By taking responsibility in the passive rather than the active voice, a grammatical construction where the objects of action become more important than their performer—“mistakes were made” as opposed to “I made mistakes”—he was attempting to deflect responsibility from himself while taking it. As if the mistakes somehow manifested themselves on their own momentum, without the initiation of an actor.

And for good measure, if he couldn’t get away with that, he had two ready fall people on which to blame the whole thing—his now-resigned deputy, fall-guy Kyle Sampson, and a fall-gal, the almost-Supreme-Court-justice Harriet Miers. (See NY Times article linked below.)

The administration is now seeming so universally inept that I am beginning to suspect that something other than incompetence and feloniousness is going on.

To illustrate, the list of fiascos and scandals from just the past two weeks leaves one breathless. I’m not sure I have them in the right order since they rolled out so rapidly—Scooter Libby was convicted of four felonies; the shame of Walter Reed Hospital and the unconscionable treatment of veteran “heroes” was revealed; Halliburton announced that it would move its headquarters to Dubai--I assumed to get closer to its money, others accused them of attempting to avoid taxes and dodge Congressional investigations; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called homosexuality “immoral”; and now we are learning about the shamefully political way in which U.S Attorneys were summarily fired.

Of course this comes on top of even greater examples of incompetence and malfeasance—the inability to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, the quagmire in Iraq (we are about to “celebrate” the fifth anniversary of that war), and of course the failure to win the so-called War On Terror.

But the more I think about all of this, the tectonic failures and the reprehensible political machinations, I am coming to see them as interconnected. Not in the fact that they are all manifestations of a contemptuous, overreaching, and inept administration that is eager to snatch power back from the other branches of government, but rather as a strategy of distraction.

The media helps to distract us from critical and disturbing issues by devoting so much of its print and air time pandering to our appetite for salacious things such as Anna Nicole Smith’s death and autopsy; but the administration is brilliant at distracting us from its failures by overloading us with a relentless wave of . . . failures.

The Scooter Libby trial and verdict distracted us from the war that he helped get us into; Walter Reed pushed Libby into the background so that we forgot about whose fall guy he in fact was; Walter Reed then slipped off the screen as we debated again the army’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; and now that, after just one day in the “news,” has been subsumed by Congress sensing that the Attorney General’s blood is in the water.

What will tomorrow bring? What mistakes will be made? Stay tuned since I promise you there is more to come.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

March 13, 2007--Perchance to Snore

I always thought it was the height of sophistication for husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms. You know—Nick and Nora Charles style. Fool around in the living room, smoking and drinking and bantering playfully, and then go off to one’s own bedroom when it came time to do that biological thing called sleep, an unfortunate human condition where it’s difficult to either look good or, while tossing and turning, be cool. Unspoken—it was also a way to avoid that messy thing called sex and served as an ideal form of birth control.

And now I learn that there is a growing trend for even middle-class spouses to want their architects and interior designers to arrange for bedrooms of their own. (See NY Times article linked below.) From Census data we know that a majority of adults are now living singly; but according to the Association of Home Builders, if current trends continue, by 2015 fully 60 percent of the minority who are living with spouses or partners will have what they call “dual-master bedrooms.” (Maybe to be politically correct they need to rename this feature “dual master-mistress bedrooms—though that too presents problems.)

But the reason for this sleeping alone business is not about pretending to be Myrna Loy and William Powell or sexual incompatibility. It appears to have more to do with one spouse wanting to get some sleep when children are crying or wanting to get up before dawn to hit the gym or feeling the impulse to do middle-of-the-night emails or just because his (or her, to be fair) snoring is as loud as a chain saw.

The Times quotes one wife as saying that her husband’s restlessness is so bothersome that if they hadn’t set up a cot in another room for him, “I would have killed him.” Before they could afford a second room she tried other solutions—even cutting the linens and blankets in half so his side of the bed could have them untucked to accommodate his restless legs and hers could be snugly tucked in, which she required in order to get a good night’s sleep.

But though that helped with his twisting and tugging at the bedding, it didn’t curtail his snoring. Yes, he was a snorer too. Trying to make things work until they could either get one of the kids off to college freeing up a bedroom or saving enough to be able to buy a bigger house, she bought a pair of those sound-muffling headsets they wear at shooting ranges. But as you can imagine, though they did manage to block out the sound of his snoring, she found it difficult to sleep with that bulky over-ear apparatus.

In case you are concerned about the effects of this trend on couples’ sex lives, some are actually finding it quite stimulating. After years of marriage when, how shall we put this, the flames of ardor alas have diminished, getting together on weekends, as many seem to do, is like a return to the old dating-days. In this case, after a candle-lit dinner in their one dining room, with two bedrooms, it’s a natural, after finishing a couple of bottles of wine, to leer across the table, and seductively ask, “Your room or mine?”

Monday, March 12, 2007

March 12, 2007--1 in 175,711,536

Again we’re in the market for a new sofa. So on Saturday we schlepped ourselves down to Pier 94 to see what we might find at the annual Architectural Digest Home Furnishing Show, and to our surprise we came upon on one that might work in our tight living room space. I even tried it out for its potential as a place to take a nap. Before lying down, I took off my shoes and was thanked by the salesman who told us that the women who just bought it would appreciate that. Since it passed the nap test, we made our way down to lower Wooster Street in Soho to visit their New York showroom, thinking we should look at fabric samples.

At the store, we ran into friends who were also shopping for a sofa and wouldn’t you know it, incredibly, they are the ones who bought the floor sample from the show!

Later that day, Rona and I, neither one of us good statisticians, attempted to calculate the odds of this remarkable happenstance. We started with an estimate of how many people we know, even casually, and came up with a very generous 500. Of that 500, we guessed how many might be looking for a sofa right now? Again generously, maybe two. Of those two, what are the odds of one of them going to the show at all, much less being attracted to that particular sofa when there were dozens of others to fall in love with?

Then, what are the mathematical chances of this friend being the very person who bought the floor sample? And, finally, what is the likelihood of all of us converging on the store at exactly the same time?

We “calculated” that the odds of all of these things happening were maybe something like hundreds of millions to one. Rona said, after losing out on the recent $390 million Mega Millions Lottery (no, we are not the folks who bought the winning ticket in New Jersey but have as yet not revealed ourselves), that the odds of Susan S ____ buying “our” sofa are probably higher than the likelihood of winning the lottery.

Probably wrong. The NY Times reports that the odds of winning that recent lottery were one in 175,711,536. (Article linked below.)

Frustrated by having been beaten out for the sofa and not winning even half the $390 million, I grumbled a bit at Rona for “wasting” her money on the lottery—“For someone with an MBA, don’t you know lotteries are for suckers?”

She shot back, “But it’s fun!”

It must be because 66 percent of all adults in America played the lottery last year, with 13 percent doing so on a weekly basis. Never mind that households with regular players spend about 2 percent of their annual income on lotteries and this percentage is considerably higher for low-income folks. And if you are among the 66 percent or the 13 percent, when standing on line to buy your ticket it is obvious that most of the people purchasing 20 bucks worth could use that money for rent or food.

Psychologists and neurobiologists who study lottery players claim that it’s not just the possibility of winning that hooks people—it's at least equally the anticipation of winning. The same area of the brain that lights up when someone wins is the one that fires when players fantasize about what they will do with the money if they win. Which is a good thing considering the odds—a cheap thrill seems to work as well as the real thing.

That of course is not true when it comes to sofas.

(By the way—it turned out that the sofa is too big for our living room. So the search continues.)