Thursday, May 31, 2007

May 31, 2007--What Works Week: Water, Water Everywhere . . .

While many of us are shopping around to decide which bottled water we should offer our allegiance to, about a third of the world’s population—two billion or more—do not have access to potable water, bottled or otherwise. This is one of the planet’s most intractable problems. Without drinkable water it is impossible to eradicate water-bourn diseases, some of which are virulent and deadly. Some who know best say that this global lack of clean water is the world’s leading problem and thus needs to be solved or tens of millions, especially children, will soon die.

Understanding that life depends on clean water, aid agencies and governmental and NGO organizations struggle with how to be helpful, while many major philanthropies devote a large percentage of their assets to fund projects to clean up polluted lakes, rivers, and wells. In general, understandably, they seek large-scale solutions that focus on improving basic infrastructure. But since so much of the problem is local and rural, these kinds of projects will not get the job done.

Fortunately, there are some promising solutions that are scaled appropriately, cost-effective, and have generated evidence that they work. They’re not sexy, but again they work and can be generalized.

Some of these solutions are currently on display at an unlikely place—the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. There you can see some of the inventions, all designed well and thus at the Cooper-Hewitt, that offer so much promise.

“A billion customers in the world are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house,” claims Paul Polak who runs an organization that helps poor farmers become entrepreneurs, but most of our leading designers devote themselves to creating high-end clothing, fancy cars, and furniture that is within reach of perhaps 10 percent of the world’s population while the remaining 90 percent have very different, much more basic needs. He says, “We need a revolution to reverse that silly ratio.” (See linked NY Times story.)

In regard to water, anyone who grew up reading National Geographic magazine or ventured into rural Africa, Asia, or Latin America is familiar with how many hours a day women and girls spend fetching water in jerry jugs balanced on their heads. On display at the Cooper-Hewitt, and available worldwide for a few dollars, is a 20-gallon Q-Drum, a circular jerry can that can be pulled along so easily by a rope over even rough terrain that even a child can use it.

Also at low cost and on display is a Lifestraw drinking filter that kills bacteria as water is sucked through it. Using one allows a person to drink water from all too commonly polluted ponds and streams.

Neither of these products will solve the entire potable water problem, but their widespread use would make a huge difference in the lives of millions. It’s difficult to justify sucking on an Evian, still at a higher price per gallon than gasoline, while everyone who needs a Lifestraw is without one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30, 2007--What Works Week: Educating the Poor

If you’re poor, sometimes it takes more than help with the tuition to be able to go to college. Sometimes, if your hometown is, say, Miami and you want to go to Amherst up in northern Massachusetts, you need money to buy a winter coat. Scholarships for tuition, room, and board, even full scholarships, do not cover that and this can mean that even if you are fortunate enough to get admitted to a highly-selective college such as Amherst, for the want of a warm coat you’ll have to turn them down.

If elite colleges and universities are serious about wanting to have a diverse socio-economic student body, something they have been been expressing an interest in for at least four decades, they will have to deal with issues beyond the high cost of tuition to bring their reality into alignment with their rhetoric because, in spite of all these good intentions (even granting that they have been sincere—though I am reluctant to do so), to truly diversify their enrollments they will need to find ways to pay for winter coats, travel costs associated with going home for school holidays, and other things of this kind that their more economically fortunate students and their families routinely take for granted.

These colleges had better think about matters of this kind since there has been very little progress during all this time. A 2004 study by the Century Foundation found that three-quarters of students at leading colleges came from families that were in the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth coming from the lower half and a mere 3 percent from the lowest quartile. (See linked NY Times article.)

Additionally, in a 1998 study of 28 of the countries most-selective universities, it was “discovered” that 86 percent of their African-American students were middle- or upper-middle class. Further, a disproportionate percentage were not African-American at all but rather were children or grandchildren from Afro-Caribbean families.

That’s the bad or hypocritical news. But there is also good news—this seemingly intractable social problem, gross inequality in higher education, is not intractable. To make a difference, there are things colleges can do. Helping their poorest students with living expenses (pizza and haircut money); removing the burden of massive debt by replacing loans with grants; and eliminating early-admissions programs that favor richer, savvier students. In fact these are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. Colleges such as Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Williams, and the University of North Carolina are already doing all of this and it is working—their student bodies are much more economically diverse than in the past.

What is a little frustrating is that what they have “discovered” about the needs of very low-income students has been known for as many decades as these colleges have been attempting to act affirmatively. As a very young higher educator back in the 1970s, with colleagues, I “discovered” that our poorest students had needs that went beyond help with tuition. For example, since back in the “hood” it wasn’t “cool” to go to college, friends of our students who were hanging out on street corners hustling and selling dope would snatch and destroy their books. So we needed to raise money to pay for two sets—one to be kept at the college and another to be left at home. Problem solved and most of our students did quite well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

May 29, 2007--What Works Week: "If You Can Make It Here . . . "

New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg got quite a lot of press recently when he announced that the city would require all new taxi cabs to use biofuels. Much less noticed was an emerging plan to have a good deal of that fuel produced right here in NYC.

The NY Times reports that a family-owned company, Metro Fuel, will reopen two of its old refineries, both of which are located in Brooklyn. Until the 1960s there were quite a few local facilities but they were all shut down for economic and environmental reasons. But by next year, two will be on-line again and they will produce 110 million gallons of fuel a year from raw vegetable oil. Much of it recycled grease to be collected from 400 restaurants in the city. This is enough to power the city’s entire heavy truck fleet (thousands of vehicles) and eventually all 1,100 public school boilers. (Article linked below.)

You might imagine that people living in the gentrifying communities where this biodiesel will be produced are up in arms, decrying all the pollution and the stench that will be a byproduct of the refinery process. But they aren’t. Perhaps because they are wanting to be good citizens of the city and the planet; more likely, because these plants are clean and safe—the refining is emission-free and produces little odor. And the resulting fuel does not have to be piped or trucked in—which is a further savings.

This is a good story and one additional example that some of our seemingly intractable problems need not be so intractable. To solve some we do not have to invent much or anything that is new. All we need to do is look around to find what might be working elsewhere, perhaps at small scale; and if it’s working, scale it up by adopting or adapting it locally.

And as the song goes, “If you can make it here [in NYC], you can make it anywhere . . . ”

Monday, May 28, 2007

May 28, 2007--Gone BBQing

Actually, I'm just taking a day off from blogging. See you Tuesday.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

May 26, 2007--Saturday Story: "Crazy Rona"--Part One

Midnight Monday

My Darling--

Remember yesterday morning, looking out at the Sea from the edge of our terrace, the clearest day of this February visit, how you said, “If you wanted to commit suicide, this would be the place and the time to do it. To enter the Sea, just as it is.”

Tonight my deepest love is that time and that day.

I will be leaving to seek the final light, along the now moonlit path. I will be waiting for you then, over the horizon toward where Africa rests, where we began, exhaling now its Saharan sands toward Europe, coating our sun beds with the first brown rain of the year. Along the path that just this morning I said was only the sun’s reflection. You though knew it was more than just the mirrored sun but was phosphorescence full of ancient life.

The only question, then, is should I plummet South toward those African origins or North toward where we wandered. It comes to such a quotidian question. Like with which coffee should we begin the day—a
cortado or a café au lait?

How did it finally come to this . . . ??

* * *

On my 60th birthday, Dr. Michael Weinstein did not send a card. Rather, he wrote:

1. Enter peritoneum
Midline incision / transverse incision

2. Mobilise caecum and terminal ileum
dividing lateral peritoneum clockwise and upwards
Dissect off right colon
Identify and protect the gonadal vessels, right ureter and duodenum

3. Divide bowel
Transilluminate the mesentry; ligate vessels close to origin (as close as possible) Place non-crushing clamps on transverse colon and ileum and divide bowel between crushing clamps

* * *

After five years, she emerged from the garment bag in which she had been living. She did come out for meals, to go to school, and occasionally to see friends; but whenever she felt lonely, which was often or fear, which was frequent, or was called “Crazy” by her parents, which was all the time, she retreated to the security and retreat that the garment bag provided.

She would unzip it, crawl in, settling herself on its bottom, then close it, and find comfort there as it swung gently, just off the floor of the closet, on its hooks.

* * *

During my only year at Staten Island Community College, I had became so interested in the world of community colleges and the lives of the students I had encountered there (including a series of affairs with both colleagues and, truth-to-be-told, students—a story perhaps to be told at a later time) that I wrote and published a book about community colleges (excluding the liaisons) and their place in higher education history, a book with a thesis so “revisionist” that some of the national community college leaders excoriated me in their published reviews, one even calling me a “left-wing subversive.” It could have been worse.

I brought that wrath down upon myself because I dared to suggest, actually claimed that the original Junior Colleges and their descendent Community Colleges were less Democracy’s Colleges, as had been boasted by their founders since the 1920s, but rather functioned as social safety valves, serving in fact to manage and control the aspirations of the children of the working poor and minorities—they opened their doors widely to admit all and proudly proclaiming that they were thereby offering opportunities to the marginalized; but, I attempted to show, those open doors soon became revolving doors as less than a quarter who entered ever managed to earn a degree much less experienced even a taste of upward social mobility.

Suffice it to say that the book, The Crisis of the Community College, and its “radical” theme propelled me into considerable notoriety, in the small world of traditional education historians. But to others who were looking for ways to change or overturn the system, I became something of a hot property, in demand as a speaker at progressive organizations and colleges across the country. So much so that this exposure eventually helped bring me back across the Verrazano Bridge, this time not to Brooklyn but rather to Manhattan, to New York University where I broke into higher-education’s big-time world when I landed a job as dean of its Evening College for Adults. Just at a time when NYU, like me, was aspiring to self-transformation. . . .

It is really rather simple, routine—how the body inevitably turns upon itself. You have had many hints of this, my dearest. You have seen me quivering at midnight, my pajamas drenched with sweat. You heard my predawn cries and did all you could to rouse me—from that tortured sleep and from my own fears and, yes, inaction. At the first symptoms I had simply given up—my life and my love. Not wanting to know the diagnosis, unwilling to fight for my life. All inexplicable. Yet now too late.

But it was not so simple, not so routine since I also betrayed you—my deepest love and closest friend. Threw all that away at the initial encroaching symptoms that to me foretold the end.

So while you fitfully rest I stand here at the Mediterranean’s edge, at the literal middle of the earth, composing this with more arrogant care than I have come to be worth, pretending that my plunge, my end will have lasting meaning. And that if you do not destroy this, as you instantly should, there will be curiosity and interest in what I had to say at my final moment. As if there were (or “was”?) something worth considering or my life had any meaning or . . . .

In his notes, Dr. Weinstein continued:

4. Form end to side anastamosis (along taeniae)
Close distal end of colon (by hand) or stapling device
Approximate ileum with colon and commence posterior wall by inserting seromuscular (Lembert suture)
Open colon along taeniae and insert full thickness absorbable suture
Continue to midline anteriorly and tie off sutures

To be continued . . .

Friday, May 25, 2007

May 25, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXIII--We Need A Break

On schedule the weather has turned summery and we’re all looking to get away from whatever it is that we feel the need to get away from. So the last thing you’re undoubtedly not looking for is one of my Friday Fanaticism rants.

So I’ll spare you any commentary about the NY Times report—I can’t help myself: it’s linked below—about the emerging movement to issue birth certificates to the stillborn. When this tragically occurs parents are issued death certificates but not birth certificates, which to them feels contradictory and cruel. But now 19 states will issue them even though the babies never lived—except in the womb.

And I’ll force myself not to say a word about the need historic cemeteries have to raise money to preserve existing tombs and grounds. Since pretty much all of their spaces are occupied by eternal residents they do not have the ability to raise cash by offering new plots or services to contemporary customers. So the most enterprising among them are sponsoring various fun events—jazz concerts, brunches with famous chefs and even Halloween parties in under-used crematories.

Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC had so fallen into disrepair that until recently it was populated by wild dogs and prostitutes. But now, also reported in the Times, for an annual fee of $125 and an additional per-dog charge of $40, your pooch can have the run of the place. If you think there would be a limited market for this privilege, think again—Congressional has thus far taken in $80,000.

And under no circumstances, it is the beginning of summer, there is no way I will report about the number of times a jaunty George Bush evoked the specter of Al Qaeda during his brief news conference yesterday after the Democrats rolled over for him and authorized an additional $125 billion for his Surge. Let’s just say it was more than 60 times and leave it at that.

Enjoy the weekend! And if you have the time, come back here tomorrow for the first part of “Crazy Rona.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

May 24, 2007--Fill 'er Up

With the average price of regular gas now at $3.22 per gallon, this will make the cost of driving this Memorial Day weekend the most expensive in U.S. history.

But relief is on the way, right? President Bush is pushing for dramatic increases in ethanol made from corn; and though it will take some time for enough to come on line, this will mean, right, less dependence on “foreign oil” and cheaper fuel for our cars. Yes? Well, not really. Here’s the problem. Actually, here are the problems.

First, according to a report in the NY Times (linked below), oil companies, expecting more ethanol to be required and eventually available, are not building any more oil refineries—why do so if less, not more gasoline will be required? So this means that while demand for gas continues to increase--in spite of fuel costs and alleged concern about the environment, SUV sales continue to increase--the supply for oil products will not be able to keep pace and prices will thus continue to rise. (Price increases are not just related to Exxon-Mobil’s greed but also to the supply-demand curve.)

Second, though various subsides to the corn-ethanol industry are making it profitable for them to build ethanol production facilities, there is growing evidence that ethanol will not prove to be the solution to our energy addiction. It is expensive to produce and the availability of corn depends on the weather as much as anything else. And we can already see what global warming is doing to our and the world’s weather patterns. If we become as dependent on corn-ethanol as we are on gasoline, one good drought in the Midwest and we’ll be paying $10 a gallon for whatever it is we pump into our tanks.

Then of course there is the even more fundamental question—if we are to move to biofuels, is ethanol derived from corn the best way to proceed? There is evidence that it is not. Among other concerns, is it true, as I heard Jim Cramer claim this morning on CNBC, that ethanol is corrosive and thus not easily shippable through pipelines?

I’m quickly moving beyond what I know about this. But I suspect that the push to produce ethanol from corn, rather than requiring more conservation, is likely to be our current administration’s priority because of its desire to pander to the agribusiness lobby as it does to the petroleum industry.

In the meantime, in addition to paying 60 bucks to fill my gas tank, Con Ed in New York is looking for a 17% rate increase, and have you checked the price of corn-fed beef? Not only will it cost a fortune to drive to the shore this weekend, but who will be able to afford to turn on the AC much less make a barbeque?

I’m staying home and ordering in.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

May 23, 2007--Virgin Births

On the very day that Reverend Jerry Falwell was laid to rest, Dr. Stanley Miller died.

Who, you might ask, was Dr. Miller? He became famous in 1953 when, as a mere graduate student, he carried out a stunning experiment in which he demonstrated how amino acids could be easily generated from the simple soup of chemicals that were presumed to be present on the early earth. And since amino acids are the building-blocks of life as we know it, his discoveries offered a plausible theory about the emergence of cellular and than more complex life forms. Which ultimately would include us. (See linked obit from the NY Times.)

Though he spent the rest of his life elaborating his early work, neither he nor his colleagues were ever able to go to the next step—building DNA and other proteins from these acids. Somehow, though, in nature that occurred and here we are.

Also in today’s Times there is a shark story. Not about an attack on a swimmer in Fort Lauderdale, but rather about a baby bonnet-head shark which died in a Nebraska aquarium. What is newsworthy are the results of the autopsy--scientists who performed it discovered that the baby had been conceived without, in their words, a “male contribution.”

The mother had been kept for three years in a tank without ever having shared it with any males. Thus, there was no chance for her to fool around. Some might wonder if late one night, an aquarium keeper, feeling sorry for the lonely bonnet-head, allowed a male into her tank so they might tryst. Always a possibility. But the autopsy showed that the baby had no male DNA at all in her body.

This pathogenesis (asexual reproduction) has been found in other vertebrate species such as some snakes and lizards, but never before in cartilaginous fishes such as sharks. So whatever might have happened after hours out there in Nebraska, this was a birth that occurred without evidence of a normal kind of father.

Thus, and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me in putting these three stories together, though I suspect that Jerry Falwell, who was known to be an opponent of evolutionary theory and much of modern science, in spite of that he could have handled the evidence of pathogenesis in snakes; but he certainly would have been quite upset by Dr. Miller’s work since it doesn’t sound all that biblical.

But I’m sure he would have liked the shark story. Virgin births, or at least one version, were something about which he could get quite excited.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

May 22, 2007--Shrek the Third?

Each Monday, in the business section, the NY Times publishes its “Most Wanted” column. It lists the past weeks top-ten broadcast and cable TV programs, the highest grossing movies, the most rented DVDs, and the leading music albums and downloads.

As an avowed elitist, I take considerable pride in not having seen or listened to any of the TV shows, movies, or albums. In regard to downloading, I of course do not own an iPod; and if I did, would have not idea how to download music or anything else for that mater.

So it was no surprise that this week was no exception—can you imagine me racing out to see Shrek the Third which took in $122 million at the box office? Or for that matter Spider-Man 3 or Disturbia? And there is no way I would walk the even half-a-block to my nearest Blockbuster to rent Night at the Museum. And would you expect me to be glued to the set to watch WWF Raw, SpongeBob, or Finding Nemo, three of the top-ten cable shows?

Then there are American Idol Wednesday, American Idol Tuesday, Dancing With the Stars (Monday), and Dancing With the Stars (Tuesday) dominating the most-watched broadcast TV listings. And please don’t ask me to explain what all this Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday business is. The last time I watched network television I Love Lucy was on on just Monday night.

Forget the top album—Michael Bublé’s “Call Me Irresponsible” and the most downloaded Maroon 5’s “Makes Me Wonder.” But to tell you the truth the two titles did prick my curiosity as did the é in Bublé’s name—neither the titles nor the French spelling suggested Gangsta Rap--so I looked them up and even managed to see their videos on my computer. (Is that “downloading”?)

Bublé, it appears, is a Canadian big-band singer and Maroon 5 is anything but rap—they’ve been together since junior high school (from which they graduated), have haircuts sort of like mine, wear sports jackets sort of like mine, and their music is more bluesy than hip-hop. Live and learn.

Lesson? Maybe I need to get out more.

So to get me started, what time is Shrek the Third showing this afternoon? And to tell you the truth, on Idol tonight I’ll be rooting for Jordin and, who know, on Dancing will it be Apolo Anton Ohno or Laila Ali???

Monday, May 21, 2007

May 21, 2007--A Uniter?

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals, a feature of the Lincoln administration was his decision to appoint many of his leading political opponents to the cabinet. From her book and the other traditional accounts of his presidency this was a political and practical master stroke at a time when, to say the least, the country was fundamentally divided.

Sound unfamiliar? You say that was then as this is now and that in the U.S. and, say, Europe, where politics has become a blood sport, with everything seen through a ferociously partisan lens, doing something of this kind now would be unthinkable.

Well, think again. All we need to do to find an equivalent political model is to look east toward, sorry, France.

Lat week, their version of a divider, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sworn in as the new president of France; and the first thing he did, contrary to any sane expectations, was to construct a Lincoln-like cabinet of fierce opponents. And not just to insignificant positions like Minister of Culture. (See linked report from the NY Times.)

Most startling was his appointment of Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister. To begin, Sarkozy is a creature of the extreme right while Kouchner was a leading figure in the Socialist Party. “Was” because when he accepted Sarkozy’s offer, the party immediately expelled him. Kouchner is the founder of Doctors Without Borders and has not been shy in his criticism of his new president, calling him a “man who feels no shame” for pandering to the extreme right. But here they are working together. Of course we’ll have to see how things work out, but in the meantime they view themselves as partners in the effort to restore France’s rightful place in the world.

So I have this fantasy—

Hillary gets elected President and rather than turn foreign policy over to her husband she appoints James Baker to be her Secretary of State. And Rudy Giuliani, why not, to head the Defense Department. While she’s at it she selects Arnold Schwarzenegger as her Secretary of Commerce.

Most radically, and potentially transformative, she figures out a way to lure Chief Justice John Roberts off the Supreme Court to become Attorney General—to return America to the Rule of Law, or whatever. I know I’m stretching the fantasy further with this one, but you may recall that Lyndon Johnson got Arthur Goldberg to step off the Court to become his Secretary of Labor.

Vive La France!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

May 19, 2007--Saturday Story: "Found On Staten Island"--Final Part

Part Seven brought us to the last evening of the college’s Italian Culture Festival. Lloyd had managed to secure the services of just the sort of tenor Italian Club president Al Moroni had requested—one who specialized in the arias of his mother’s favorite composer, Gaetano Donizetti. But the highlight of the evening was the raffle—all in the vast crowd tensely awaited the drawing of the ticket that would determine the lucky person who would drive home in a new Fiat convertible. But before President Teitelbaum could do that, Al Moroni seized the microphone and spoke passionately to his constituency about not allowing anyone, especially someone the likes of Dr. Teitelbaum, to make them feel inferior to anyone else here in America. It was time to stand up and be proud of their heritage. As might be imagined, President Moroni’s public criticism of the college’s president, right there in his very own quadrangle, required Teitelbaum to respond. Which he did in an entirely surprising way: when he took the microphone, he spoke seemingly from his heart, telling all assembled that they were like him and he was like them—all victims of bias; and that if they were to succeed in the world, they needed to do so as allies. Some in the crowd seemed to respond to his plea but most chanted, “Raf-fle, Raf-fle, Raf-fle”; and so Teitelbaum promptly drew the ticket and announced that the winner was one of the college’s two African exchange students, who was immediately advised by Ed Paradise, chief of campus security, to get into the car and drive off the island as fast as he could. Otherwise, he couldn’t be responsible for his safety.

Part Eight at long last brings us to the conclusion of “Found On Staten Island,” and we learn that. . .

Teitelbaum had asked me to meet him for lunch the day after the raffle. I suspected he wanted to debrief, perhaps get my impressions of that astonishing evening. It turned out to be our last lunch.

As usual he was down at the end of the bar, smoking and already well into his Scotch. Before I fully made my way to him, unable to contain myself, I blurted out, “That was remarkable. I mean, what you did, particularly what you said was remarkable.” He didn’t move. He sat there seemingly ignoring me, perhaps not hearing me, the TV was blasting away, as if lost in troubling thought, sipping his drink and puffing away on his Lucky Strike. I settled on my stool and took the liberty to lean close to him, seeking to pull him out of his sullen mood. “It was amazing. After what Moroni said about you. In public in front of thousands of people. On your campus. Virtually mocking you. But you found a way to be so transcendent, to not take it personally, and to find a way to reach out to connect with that part of the community from which you had appeared to be estranged. And I think it worked.” He shrugged. “They were moved. Really! You found common ground. It’s exactly what you wrote about in your book. It was living proof of how a college, embodied or symbolized by your example, can connect to the community it is endowed to serve.”

Since what I was saying did not appear to be reaching him, I stopped blabbering and nodded to Andy to get me a Scotch of my own. After a moment, Teitelbaum snubbed out his cigarette, pivoted slowly in his seat, and turned to face me full on. I could hear him clicking his tongue. Coldly, he said, “You are so naïve.” Instantly deflated, I dropped my eyes to my drink and began to roll the icy glass in my hands. “And here I thought I had hired a mature operative. One who understood the world. And what do I find? Someone who is still clinging frantically to innocence. What is charming in a child is an embarrassment in an adult.” I did not attempt to respond. “Have you learned nothing from the world, much less from the experience of you own life? Listen to you, gushing like a girl. Look at you, all puffed up with self-satisfaction.” I allowed myself to imperceptibly shrink on my stool.

“Speaking of ‘looking at you,’ what do you think I was up to last night when that Yahoo Moroni,” he snickered at that reference, “when he had the audacity, the gall to do that to me. Me! After all I have done for this ridiculous and undeserving island. Bigots are what you find here. And bigots I know all about. That was the one thing from last night about which I spoke the truth. The rest was theatrics. And cheap theatrics at that. But it was all that was required there to turn things in my direction—cheap tricks”

He snorted with obvious contempt and, reaching out with his thick finger, stabbed me in the chest. “For them it was more than enough, as you witnessed; but it apparently was enough to take you in as well. Well I never . . . ”

Enraged by his mocking, perhaps as a way to avoid the truth of what he had said about me, I smacked at his hand as he attempted to poke me again. With the back of my hand I brushed my drink off the bar and it crashed to the floor. I did the same to his. Andy moved toward us but then thought better of it. “I came to this island, to your college,” I screamed with a pounding heart, “because of what you wrote. I believed in your ideas. I still do. But from everyone I met I heard that you were full of shit. That you were using the college and your presidency as a means to promote yourself. I attempted to defend you. Actually, in truth, maybe not defend you but to indicate that they could use you as they thought you were using them. To quote you, there were many quid pro quo opportunities out there. They came to understand that and we do, did make some new deals with them. Through these deals that I made we would be able to deliver, another favorite idea of yours—delivery--the kinds of services you have made a career of advocating. To bring thought to action. Sound familiar?” I was so angry and on such a roll that I allowed myself to mock him. I even found myself imitating his cadences.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was studying me carefully. “I have one more thing to say and then I’m finished. Really finished. You knew when you came here to be president that the college was not in and of the city. More of your rhetoric. Look at this place—it’s more like where you grew up in Nebraska than the South Bronx. But you needed it to be of the city—to put your ideas into action. So you hired me to help you create a narrative for the college. In effect a fiction. You had to import a few minorities, even two from as far away as Africa like that Kwame,” I saw him smile at that, “You had to create a mechanism to reach out to the local community—especially to your favorite part where the few dozen blacks on this island live. And by doing that you could claim to the larger world that you had torn down the walls that separate gown from town. Well, on a clear day, if you go up to the top of that hill over there, and stand on your toes, if its winter and there are no leaves on the trees, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the buildings on Wall Street. That’s your city. All the way out there. And you know what?” I couldn’t stop myself from concluding, “If you were the president of a college in a real city I suspect you’d spend the whole day hiding behind your desk curled up with your bottle of Scotch.” I was through.

After a few seconds of silence, Teitelbaum signaled to Andy that it was all right to approach us and to be sure to bring him a double. When he did, Teitelbaum turned to me. He reached out to me again; and as I begin to cringe, wondering what he would do to me, he took hold of my chin and forced me to face him. “Are you through? Do you feel good about yourself?” He held me so firmly that even if I were inclined I would have not been able to do more than grunt a response. “Let’s assume you do.” He squeezed my face even harder and it brought tears to my eyes. “And let’s assume that I do as well.” He saw my puzzled look so he added to clarify, “That I do as well feel good about you. For the first time. At last. Because everything you said is true. Don’t look so surprised. You think I too am naïve? Don’t underestimate me. I know exactly, exactly what I’ve been and what I’m doing. You think it’s by accident that I am who I am? It’s time for you to understand that. It’s not important what you think about me, but it is essential that you never misperceive the truth in all its splendor and contradictions. This may not set you free but it will set you in motion. And once you are thus mobilized, who knows, maybe you too will have you own university in the city.” He was grinning.

He let go of my face. My cheeks were throbbing. Then he reached out toward me again, this time to place his hands on my shoulders. “And so when I leave in a month to become president of San Francisco State University, you will be fine.”

“You . . . what? I will be . . . what?”

“Just fine. I assume you may need to begin looking for a new position,” he said casually, “because you will be vulnerable when they name a replacement for me. He will undoubtedly want his own representative to the community. And I assume he will be from that community. Don’t think your becoming an Honorary Italian will protect you.” He was reading my mind yet again. “That was too much, wasn’t it? I never saw anything funnier in my life.”

In truth I hadn’t thought about it that way, but in any case I got up off my stool and took Teitelbaum, who remained seated, in my arms.

“Get out of here,” he snapped. And I did.

* * *

Thus anointed, I left the bar and Teitelbaum to get to my appointment with Sunny Russell. We had agreed that I would come to the Jersey Street Community Center where we would debrief and divide the cash.

“Did you ever see one of those African dudes move so fast?” He was again ensconced behind his desk and tipped all the way back roaring with laughter. “I always thought that those robes were not built for speed. But they didn’t hold him back! He sure was flyin’.” He was so amused, smacking his thighs and pitching back and forth, that I feared he would tumble over backwards.

“So what have you brought for me, my man? I see you have a nice size bag with you. I assume we are still talking about cash?”

I was exhausted from the past few days’ events, particularly what I had just learned from Teitelbaum, that I wanted to make this quick. I was hoping that he was right, that I would be fine. But though I felt that I would be I needed time on my own to sort things through. So, deciding that I wouldn’t tell him about Dr. T’s departure, I merely said, “Yes, it’s all here and, as we agreed, it’s cash. You can count it, but your share, the center’s cut is a little more than fourteen-seven.”

With a wave he dismissed my suggestion, but I knew that once I left he would be certain to count every dollar. Twice. “So tell me, what else is going on?” He rocked gently in his chair, grinning at me like we had just pulled off the Brinks robbery.

“Nothing much. To tell you the truth I need to get some rest. I’m beat. We can talk about the other parts of our deal later this week or next.”

“Come, come my friend. Partners don’t hold things back from each other. Especially if it’s important. We have a lot to accomplish together during the next month.” His grin widened even further, if that were possible.

“As I said I got to get out of here and catch up on my sleep. I’ll be good for nothing if I don’t do that soon.”

“OK, I hear you. So I won’t play with you.” He stopped his rocking and shifted forward so that his stomach was pressed right up against the desk. “Your man Dr. T, that’s what you call him right? I don’t know if he told you, but him and me we go back a bit together. I see that he did. Good. So I can cut out the preliminaries. He called me last night after he got home from the festival and told me about San Francisco. Ain’t that a trip—Dr. T finally in the place where he belongs all the way out there.” He laughed to himself at that. “That shouldn’t surprise you that I’d be the next to know after he told his wife. You’ve still got a few things to learn Lloyd.” So he too was going to pass along some lessons in life. Go on, I thought, I can handle it.

“Did he tell you about what happened when we met? I’ll bet he did—it’s one of his favorite stories. About me trying to hustle him in One-On-One and how he conned me into wrestling with him? He tells everyone that story. He even told Len Trout from the Advance! And he’s the definition of ‘everyone.’ I’m surprised they haven’t printed it yet in the paper. In any case I’m sure Bill told you about how I laid my butts and brains spiel on him? Ah, I can see from your expression that he did that too. Perfect. And did he tell you that he and I have a so-called secret pact not to tell anyone what happened when we wrestled?”

At that I nodded, and in spite of my tiredness leaned forward to get closer to him. “We’ll I’ll tell you what—again since I said before that partners should tell each other everything, I’ll tell you what happened.” I must admit I was curious.

“This nobody else but Bill and I know.” I believed him. “He took me over to the wrestling room and had me put on a wrestling outfit that he kept in his locker—tights, jock, headgear. He had quite a few in there, all sizes, so I assumed he tried to pull this trick with everyone. Anyway, as you know he’s an old drunk not more than five-five, and you can see from when we played that I’m big and still in pretty good shape. So when he said it would be two-of-of-three falls I thought I’d be back in my car in fifteen minutes. At the most.” He paused and swiveled in his chair to look, away from me, out the window.

“So what happened? I need to get going.”

Not turning back to me, snapping his fingers, he said, “Well it was over in much less than fifteen minutes.”

“And?” I asked.

“That fucker pinned me twice in a row.” Then he turned to look at me again and said, shrugging and grinning in a manner similar to Teitelbaum, “No big deal.”


Friday, May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXII--R.I.P. Jerry Falwell

Though always reluctant to speak ill of the departed, allow me to make an exception in the case of Jerry Falwell. Much has been said about the trajectory of his life--how he, a small-time preacher came to give voice to the resentments and feelings of dislocation of the so-called Silent Majority in America who, through the 1960s, became increasingly fed up with the cultural shifts that occurred, among other things, as the result of various rulings of the Warren Supreme Court. Decisions such as the one that cited the Constitution's provision that church and state must remain separate and thus prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, or that the right to have an abortion was protected by the Constitution guaranteeing citizens the right to privacy, including, in this case, to one's body.

And in this presidential election season even more has been said about how he was able to mobilize his followers into a potent political force--how Evangelical Christians came to form the famous "base" of the Republican Party. It is, for example, generally agreed that if it weren't for the Rev. Falwell, there would be no President George W. Bush. (Below, see the NY Times obituary as one example of how he is being remembered.)

Not enough, though, has been said about Falwell's pernicious impact on our foreign policy--particularly in the Middle East. In spite of the fact that Falwell periodically was known to vent anti-Semitic views, he was known to be among Israel’s most fervent supporters. Why would such a bigot be one of America’s most influential friends of the State of Israel? So much so that he was widely and frequently honored by the government there and organized Jewry in the U.S.
This is because, as a Premillennialist, Falwall saw Israel to be an essential part of his version of of how life on earth will resolve itself. In this view, Israel not only needs to exist within its current borders but, to assure the Second Coming of Christ, it needs to expand its territory to include all of Greater Israel—from the Nile River on its west to the Tigris and Euphrates to its east. In other words—from Egypt through Iraq.

In order to fulfill this End of Times agenda, and to assure that Armageddon will occur and true believers will then be able to ascend to heaven, all Jews are required to return to Israel and become the vanguard for the conversion of all non-Christians, including the Jews, to Christianity. To help bring this about, Falwell joined forces with equally millennialist Jews, who have their own end-game ideas--they are still waiting for the first coming of their Messiah—to bring Jews in the Diaspora to Israel.

To help accomplish this repatriation, he was one of the founders of the Wings of Eagles Program, which raises money ($450 per Jew) to buy one-way tickets to Israel for the left-behind Jews of Russia who do not have enough rubles to pay their own way. Thus far, thousands have benefited from this program.

While Falwell saw the need to use Jews this way, conservative Jews thought they would have the last laugh by playing along with him, drawing upon his willingness to be their best political friend.

For the rest of us, we are left with the messy residue of the Bush administration’s reckless crusade in the Middle East. Maybe Bush, too, is one of Falwell’s dupes.

And so I say, Rest in peace, Jerry.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

May 17, 2007--Where There's Smoke There's Bono

Like Bono, I too live in a Manhattan co-op. He in the San Remo on Central Park West (along with Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin); I on Broadway and 9th Street (on my floor, along with a Rikers Island Prison guard and a kid whose parents bought him a studio who sits in it all day smoking pot). Bono inhabits Steve Job's old apartment, a duplex penthouse in one of the legendary San Remo towers that he bought for about 14 and a half mil; I also have a penthouse, but mine is just 850 square feet—the size of Bono’s sunglass closet. But we got a good deal when we bought it 16 years ago and it's now worth a gizzilion dollars, though not yet quite $14.5.

At the San Remo they are fighting like cats and dogs over fireplace smoke while we are battling, because we do not have fireplaces in our building, over cats and dogs. Of which we have plenty. (See linked NY Times article for all the bloody details.)

These are just two of 8 million stories from the Big Apple, where folks like Bono and the Zwerlings are so fortunate that they shouldn't be fighting about anything. Except maybe over what to do about world hunger.

But Bono has his pants in a bunch and I can not longer stand the howling of the prison screw's three hunting dogs. Bono sounds ready to kill someone; all I want to do is put a couple of dogs to sleep. Or, better, get them an appropriate new home in England's Cotswold’s where they can hunt to their little hearts' content.

In Bono’s case another rocker, Billy Squier, famous for 1980s hits such as Rock Me Tonight and, my favorite, The Stroke, lives in the San Remo, has a fireplace, and when he uses it the smoke drifts into Paul (Bono) Hewson’s place where it is felt to be unhealthy for the Hewson’s four children. In my case, the midnight howling interferes with my sleep. This makes me cranky the next day, which you know is often if you are a regular reader of this blog. Like today.

At the San Remo, the co-op board, which is the last example of absolute monarchy remaining on earth (to prove my point, they rejected Madonna’s offer to buy a flat) the board voted to forbid the use of fireplaces because smoke pouring into apartments was a widespread problem, not just Bono's. But not everyone, clearly, is following the rules. In our building, which legally has a weak board, no one is willing to deal with the proliferation of pets—for example, pass a by-law that says that no shareholder can have a dog (or dogs) which in the aggregate weight more than 10 pounds. That would take care of my problem, and keep me out of ASPCA court.

Back at the San Remo, 95 year-old Sing-Along musical conductor Mitch Miller, another resident, got it right when he said, “If people want fireplaces, let them go live in the country.” In our place, the other day, the guy with the Springer Spaniels said, “Get out of my way or I’ll bust your face.”

Maybe I’ll get lucky and Bono will decide to move here where there are no fireplaces. Better yet, I think maybe I need Mitch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May 16, 2007--BIG Science

If you’re wondering what we might be doing if we weren’t spending about $1.5 billion a week on the war in Iraq, we could use less than a month’s worth, $8 billion, to compete with the Europeans in the field of Big Science. While we have been frittering away our national treasure, not to say the lives and bodies of too many of our young people, for the past 13 years, unburdened by military spending, Europeans have been building the largest piece of scientific apparatus in history—the CERN particle accelerator which at 16.8 miles in circumference is so large that the underground circular tunnel that contains it spans the French and Swiss borders.

After they switch it on next summer, it is expected that the subatomic particles that will be accelerating around and around in it at nearly the speed of light, when they smash into each other, they will simulate the primordial energy that existed less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang spawned the universe 14 billion years ago. With a nod to the departed Jerry Falwell, that’s pretty much Creation time. See NY Times story linked below.)

Up to now, using much less powerful particle accelerators, scientists have been able to turn the clock pretty far back toward that Big Bang moment—to millionths of a second. But as far as cosmology is concerned, in small-c creation time that’s already ancient history. To figure out how this earliest energy began to differentiate itself into the forces and particles with which we are already familiar, we have to get to trillionths of seconds after that Bang. For example, we still do not know the composition of the Dark Matter or Dark Energy which together make up 96% of the mass of the universe. So if the CERN machine can help answer those and other questions--is String Theory just a theory or is it verifiable--all the time and money will have been worth it. Right?

Thinking about these possibilities inspired me to recall my own little experience during the early days of Big Science. It was the summer before my senior year at Brooklyn Technical High School, and since I was quite good in both math and physics, I was shopping around for a college to go to that would allow me to major in one or both. Unlike today when parents drive their kids around to a dozen or more colleges for campus visits to see how each “feels” before applying, with a chum, Gene Hecht, I got into the subway and went up to Morningside Heights to visit Columbia. We found Pupin Hall, the location of their at-the-time world-renowned physics department—famous because there were two Noble Prize winners on the faculty.

Gene and I wandered around the empty hallways wondering what we should be looking for. We were that naïve and unprepared! There was in truth nothing to see—no labs to poke our noses into, no one in any of the offices. Feeling lost and a little depressed, we turned to leave when a very tiny man with a thick German accent emerged from what was clearly his office and asked if he might help us. We stammered that we were about to be high school seniors, liked physics, and were there to see if Columbia might be a good place for us. He introduced himself—neither of us caught his name—and offered to show us around.

After a tour of some of the undergraduate labs, which looked unimpressively like ours at Tech, he asked if we would like to go down to the basement to see his lab. Though a little anxious about going down to an abandoned basement with a stopped-over man with a German accent, we screwed up our courage and said, “Sure.”

So he took us down to see his Cyclotron—a Rube Goldberg mass of wires and magnets and cables and pipes and tubes and gauges. Gene and I stood there with our mouths literally hanging open while he told us about how each part worked, what he was studying, and showed us pictures of particle collisions that occurred in the Bubble Chamber. He implied that some of this was Top Secret. We were after all fighting the Cold War and the Atomic Bomb was, we incorrectly thought, invented in New York City—maybe right here. Why else would it have been called the Manhattan Project? (You’re on your own to look up why.)

Gene went to NYU and actually became a physicist; I went to Columbia and, after discovering I was neither a math nor physics genius, majored in comparative literature. And, I should add, that as we were leaving Pupin Hall our guide offered to help us with our applications. He gave us his card. I still have it—I. I. Rabi was his name and he did in fact work on the Manhattan Project (up at MIT) and did win a Noble Prize in 1944 for his work with crystals.

One final thing about the CERN accelerator, a descendent of the kind of Cyclotron I saw back then—as best as anyone can say, in spite of the decades of effort and the billions spent on its construction, the things it will hopefully help us understand about that first trillionth of a second are likely to have no practical value whatsoever.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

May 15, 2007--Chopping Lettuce

What I am about to report is (1) methodologically dubious; (2) is of admittedly limited scope and duration; is further compromised by my (3) reluctance to and fear of interrogating the subjects of my “study”; and (4) is based on my extraordinarily circumscribed quotidian experiences wandering in one of the most idiosyncratic pieces of world geography—lower Manhattan.

But from my past 24 hours of (1) shopping; (2) eating out; (3) dealing with the staff of the building in which I live; and (4) again just wandering about, I do not for the life of me know how I would have been able to get anything done in my apartment; been able to buy anything at Bed, Bath, and Beyond; figured out what to do with, yes, my garbage; secured my morning coffee; had my egg salad sandwich at the corner luncheonette; dined last night on Rigatoni Melanzana; or after that bought my Häagan Dazs at the local convenience store--none of this would have been possible, I feel certain without checking for Green Cards, except for the good fortune we have to have illegal (and legal) immigrants wanting to be here in our country.

I’m not just talking about cheap labor—though that certainly assured that the egg salad and Rigatoni were affordable for me—I’m talking about our being able to find enough native-born people or naturalized citizens willing to do most of these low-status things for what barely approaches living wages.

Let’s be frank—how many of my or your children, nieces, or nephews just staring out are being displaced in the dish-washing-gardening-lettuce-chopping-gas-staton-attendent-short-order-cook-cleaning-person-hotel-worker-car-repair-day-care-taxi-driver-news-dealer sectors of our economy? No one that I know. But then perhaps you may be aware of others who are in a rage about immigration because they can’t get a job picking strawberries.

The Congress, as I post this, is struggling to come up with a compromise immigration reform bill (see linked NY Times article). As they do, I hope they too will take an honest look at what they were up to during the past 24 hours (including perhaps employing the services of the DC Madam’s immigrant sex-workers). If they do that a good bill should zip its way along and we can maybe begin to get over this paranoia about how immigrants are making us less secure and taking jobs away from us Real Americans.

Monday, May 14, 2007

May 14, 2007--Publishing And Perishing

When I read about the Harvard Taskforce On Undergraduate Teaching, I felt as if I had fallen into a time warp. Could it be 1974 again when Harvard’s Dean Harry Rosovsky’s legendary Letter to the Faculty called for reforms in the undergraduate curriculum in order to make it more intellectually coherent, and which also saw a pressing need to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching? It found that very, very few of the Great Men (and at the time there were few of the other persuasion) were to be found anywhere near college students--they were either not teaching much at all (having been granted "release time" to engage in cutting-edge research or, like Henry Kissinger, to serve U.S. presidents) or they were devoting themselves to a cherished few high-flying doctoral students.

But here we go again--this time it's 2007--and the latest taskforce is pretty much calling for the same things. To quote the current dean’s comment about the state of teaching at Harvard, “We need to put our money where our mouth is. We can’t just mention excellent teachers occasionally. We have to notice and reward their efforts consistently.” (See linked NY Times article.)

If Harvard or other universities with great reputations were to do this, they would have to radically transform themselves because no university has ever gained its reputation because of the quality of undergraduate teaching—rather they gain status by the research production of their faculties. It’s this that leads to tenure, promotions in rank, and ultimately the way universities are viewed among their academic colleagues. In fact, at virtually all upwardly-aspiring research institutions, faculty members perceived to be in any way interested in undergraduates (including in unprintable ways) are felt to be suspect—why are they wasting time with “them” when they should be chasing grants to fund their scholarship and sabbaticals, getting articles published in “refereed” journals, or slinking around hoping to be appointed Secretary of State?

Columbia University’s provost acknowledges that they are paying close attention to the Harvard report. To quote him, “If we’re going to ask undergraduates to pay $47,000 a year to come to these elite universities, then we have an obligations to make sure they get a great education.”

What he stopped short of saying is that at most of these places (and I am here excluding Liberal Arts colleges which are a whole other subject) the undergraduates are one the institutions’ cash cows. Though if you surveyed the faculty a majority would prefer not to even have undergrads on campus so all resources (and their time) could be devoted to graduate students), they also realize that undergraduate tuition income helps offset the deficits run up by their more expensive work with graduate students.

And since in cost-benefit terms the most desirable undergraduates are the so-called “full-pay” students (the one’s ineligible for any forms of financial aid and whose parents are thus capable of writing checks each year for the full 47 grand), universities competing with each other for these students are slowly realizing that, when it comes to teaching, they had better come up with an improved product. Because currently what the students get for their parents’ money at Harvard, in addition to the status buzz, is an occasional glimpse of a Noble Prize winner racing across the Yard while most of their classes are taught by ill-paid, uninspiring graduate students.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 12, 2007--Saturday Story: "Found On Staten Island"--Part Seven

In Part Six Lloyd had two significant encounters—the first with Lonny Russell and then a second working-lunch with his president, Dr. T. As a contest of will, former college basketball star and lapsed lawyer Russell drew Lloyd into a game of One-On-One and it took little time or much effort for him to trounce Zazlo. But just as Lloyd was expecting him to issue the coup de grace, Lonny, perhaps feeling that Lloyd had disposed himself well or, more likely, that he, Lonny, had Zazlo already defeated, he declared the game a draw; and, over drinks, they worked out a deal to split the proceeds of the car raffle. They also hinted at certain painful parallels in their life stories and thus became secret sharers. And, as part of the deal they struck, the quid pro quo, Lonny agreed to cosponsor some community projects with the college and its president. After that, feeling quite good about what he had accomplished, Zazlo resisted his employer’s entreaties to report about what he had worked out with Lonny Russell, contesting with him as he had in the gym with Lonny, forcing Teitelbaum to pull the information out of him. But, of course, Dr. T had the last laugh when he revealed that he and Lonny had wrestled with each other, literally, and were also, as a result, secret sharers.

Part Seven brings “Found On Staten Island” close to a conclusion . . .

It didn’t rain Friday night or at any time through the weekend. So all tolled, we sold more than 44,000 raffle tickets. At a dollar apiece, we had done quite well. There was much to share. Literally.

Ed Paradise, the head of college security, told me that by 8:00 Saturday night nearly 3,500 were squeezed into the quadrangle and that the concession stands were concerned because they were already running out of zeppolis. This was more than 2,000 more than the night before. Ed attributed this to the fact that at precisely 9:30 we would be raffling off the Fiat. Teitelbaum himself insisted on doing that. Moroni had wanted to pick the winning ticket but Dr. T was adamant. So they made a deal—before the raffle, Al would be allowed to offer a few comments of his own to the crowd. And then Teitelbaum would pick the winner. Deals were breaking out all over.

I was able to arrange for a tenor, as had been requested by President Al Moroni; and he was set to sing Lord Percy’s aria E me si vale ei tene from Donizetti’s popular opera, Anna Bolena, which was reputed to be Al Moroni’s mother’s favorite. Though she had died decades ago, it was reported that her son was very devoted to her and that hearing this aria again would mean a great deal to him.

As I looked around at the happy throng, at the gleaming ragtop still secured to its tilted platform; as I gazed at all the college buildings and lampposts festooned with green and white and red balloons and streamers (the colors of the flag of Italy), I could not resist the impulse to swell with self-satisfaction—I had helped make all of this happen. And then with the cash we had collected, I would be able to parlay what had initially been a cynical plan of President Teitelbaum’s to pander to the Italian-American community, I would be able to direct the money to some programs on the ground around the island that would benefit a whole new generation of students.

As I was surveyed my good deeds and contemplating their long-range implications, slipping stealthily to my side, a full head shorter than I, was Sal Rizzuto, who had been generous enough to print the raffle tickets at no cost to the college. While I was glowing with pride he looked all agitated. So much so that he couldn’t stop his head from twitching from side to side. By my jacket lapels, he pulled me down to him so he could whisper directly in my ear. It was also evident that with his other hand he was clutching the massive gun that was stuffed in his belt.

“Just like I told you when you were at my printin’ plant. There’s some bad things about to go down here. You know Al, my president, has all sorts of connections on this island. Contacts that run deep into all the communities. I mean all of them. Including among the Colored people. And he heard, Al, that them Moulinyans are lookin’ for trouble here. Well, trust me--trouble is what trouble does. You know what I mean?” He patted at his side to make sure I knew what he was packing.

“I don’t know, Sal, to tell you the truth, everything is feeling peaceful to me.” I wanted to get away from him and enjoy my triumph. But he held on to me, still causing me to be bent nearly double.

“I know you liberal types. Always trustin’ the downtrodden. Well, when Al was Borough President he made sure to spread things around. If you know what I mean. You know the porters on the ferries?” I couldn’t say that I did. “Then you know all of them are Colored. Al did that. He made sure of that. And so those boys trust him and that’s where his information comes from.” He had my attention—maybe, just maybe something was in the wind. “So like I told you the other day—stick by me. In fact, be sure to stand behind me because that way I can shield you.” That didn’t make me feel very secure because Sal was no taller or wider than an underweight jockey. Sensing that I might be feeling thus concerned, he said to assure me, “Remember kid, this here rod,” again he touched the side of his windbreaker, “how did they used to say it? It’s the great equalabrator.” He smiled at me and, involuntarily, I found myself falling into step behind him.

“And be sure to keep an eye on him,” Sal warned, “That big buck over there with that wool hat on his head.” He was pointing to Lonny Russell who was sitting peacefully on the steps of the library. I had made sure he would be there so I could give him his cut of the proceeds right after the drawing. “Al says he’s done a lot of time. For manslaughter and whatnot. And he’s one of them Brown Panthers.” I couldn’t contain a smile. “But if you stay close by my side, I’ll take care of everything.”

“I’ll be sure to do that Sal. Thanks.” But if Lonny was the greatest threat, I knew everything would be fine.

“One more thing Larry,” I didn’t correct him, “Remember I told you about my little Angie? The one who’s a student here? She’s studyin’ the liberal arts?” I did recall that--the daughter whose head we were filling up with “fancy ideas” and who, as a consequence, Sal was afraid would soon be burning her bra. “Well there she is over there. Come on, let’s go say hello to her. I want you to meet her so you can talk some sense into her head. Not tonight, but maybe next week. That she should take a business program.” He was dragging me in the direction of a statuesque young woman who, even in the gathering dusk, was radiant.

And when he introduced us [“Angie, this is a teacher here who I know—Larry Something (I said to her, extending my hand, which she took, setting it on fire, “Lloyd Zazlo”); and Larry this is my little girl, Angie.”] She was nearly my height and because of that I could see that Sal was right—though he was wrong about the timing—Angie had already burned her bra. If it I could figure out how to arrange it, I would have been eager next week to meet with her, over coffee, and try to talk some sense into her. But in any case, I knew in an instant that for her the liberal arts were the perfect course of study.

As I stood there transfixed by her beauty, and sexuality, having out-of-control thoughts that if even minimally carried out would have put my life in serious jeopardy, Louie Randazzo, thankfully, approached, pulling along by his hand what could only could be his son.

“Just the guy I’m looking for.” He reached out to clamp hold of my shoulder and gave it a couple of affection squeezes. “This is my kid, Louie Jr., who I told you about. The one in the family with the brains.” Junior stood slumped by his father’s side, looking down disconsolately and shifting his weight, which was considerable, from foot to foot. “After you and me take care of a little business you and him will have a few minutes to talk about what we discussed the other day. Right?” He winked at me and gave my shoulder another, much firmer, painful squeeze.. Louie Jr. did not seem to notice; he kept his eyes riveted to his sneakers. “Be a good and wait over there,” he pointed to where Sal and Angie were standing. “Dr. Zazlo will be with you in a moment. But first, I have a little somethin’ for him.”

Again he winked and me and signaled for me to follow him to a quiet and half-lit spot to the side of the entrance to the administration building. When we got there, he looked around to be sure no one was in earshot and, as if we were conspirators, huskily whispered, “I got this for you.” He patted the large attaché case he was holding. “You can count it for yourself later, but Sal swears to me that we took in forty-four and change.” He passed the case to me.

”I’m not following you Louie,” I was but wanted to milk every drop of excitement and drama from the situation—it was not every day that anyone slipped me so much case, and in the shadows at that. “Forty-four what?”

“Where do you come from? Here on the island that’s how we talk about thousands. Forty-four grand plus. Right there in that briefcase. Al told me to tell you you can use it any way you want. Any way because only you and us know how much we took in. If you get my drift.” With that he winked so exaggeratedly that I could see it in the dark and he simultaneously slapped me so hard on the back that I stumbled into the bushes. But I certainly got his full drift.

When I climbed out from the rhododendrons, I said, “I don’t know what to say, how to thank you Louie. You have no idea how much this means to the college and, more important, the community.”

“I don’t give two-shits about the community,” he barked, “I’m talkin’ about what this can do for you. I see you didn’t get my drift.”

“I did. I really did,” I said. “I appreciate that to.”

“Make sure you do. Especially when I draw the winning raffle ticket in, what,” he checked his watch whose dial glowed in the dark, “thirty minutes. You get my drift?”

I decided not to say anything about the deal I had made in Dr. Teitelbaum’s behalf to have him draw the winning ticket.

“Enough of this mercenary stuff,” Louie said, now taking my hand as he had his son’s and pulled me behind him back into the triangle. “Where’s that kid of mine? I want you to talk with him. You know, help him with Yale and philosophy and that kind of thing. His mother’s got him all mixed up.”

Louie Jr. remained where he had been assigned to wait. I could see he was a young 16 or 17 because he seemed totally unaware of Angie’s sultry presence. “You two,” Louie Senior said, “go off over there together and get to know each other. OK?” Junior did as he was told and I followed half a step behind him. He sat down on the steps of the library, near to where Lonny had been. He stared straight ahead, rocking gently back and forth.

I said, “He seems like a good man. Your father I mean.” Louie Jr. did not acknowledge that he heard me. “From what he told me,” I took a chance, “things have been rough at home for all of you. Especially after Gina.” I looked over at him out of the corner of my eye. He continued his rhythmic rocking, which to me looked like a Yeshiva boy davening. “And I gather,” because of his generosity I felt I owed it to Louie to keep trying to reach his troubled son, “I understand that your mom and your dad are not on the same page about your future.” There was still no response. “About college I mean. Where you should go. Things of that sort.”

This seemed to activate him, really get to him because, seemingly out of nowhere, considering how he had thus far been so inert, he shot back at me, looking me straight in the eye, “I can’t believe he talked to you about that. To him nothing is sacred, nothing is private. Who the hell are you for him to be sharing these kinds of private matters with. I could kill him.”

This last thought sounded to me, as I clutched the attaché case full of cash, more than theoretical and so I tried to say, “He didn’t tell him that much. Just that . . .”

“Look, I know him,” he spat, “I know all about him--what he’s about, how he really makes his living. You think he sells that many Fiats in a place like this where all the ‘natives’ dream about Cadillacs? And I know about his so-called business associates and ‘friends.’ I even know about his women. While he and my mom were still together he was fucking one of my best friend’s mothers. In my mother’s bed, while she was doin’ volunteer work at South Beach Psychiatric Hospital! So don’t try to bullshit me. As I said, I know him.” He dropped his head again to almost fully between his legs and resumed rocking.

“I had not idea.” I truly hadn’t. “I thought he was interested in only the best for you. He has a very high regard for you. He told me you’re an excellent student and are interested in philosophy, which is very unusual for a high school student. I didn’t really get interested in philosophy until grad school. . . .” I caught myself rattling on mindlessly since I did not know what to do or say to him. Actually, I wanted to put my arm around him and comfort him, to show I understood; but all I was capable of doing was chatter and offer platitudes.

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go off on you. He’s using you too. Just like he uses everyone else to get his way.” He reached out to shake my hand. “No hard feelings, OK?”

I was relieved. I felt emotionally rescued by him. I had underestimated his maturity—it was not important how he had not reacted to Angie’s heat. “Of course not. But if you ever want to talk about things, I mean college plans, you know where to find me. Right here.” For the moment I had forgotten that I had neither an office nor a reserved parking place.

“To tell you the truth,” he looked over at me once more, “I hate school, I always have; I don’t even know what philosophy is; and in spite of what he told you, I plan to join the Air Force once I graduate. Which won’t be too soon for me.”

And with that Louie Jr. jumped up and ran off, disappearing into the crowd near where the Fiat was perched. I noticed that while we had been talking the platform had been leveled and the ramp which would allow the car to be driven off had been put back in place. It was getting close to time for the drawing.

Signaling that, the huge speakers that surrounded the campus were switched on and they immediately emitted a series of ear shattering whistles and shrieks that also served to silence the crowd and focus their attention on the stage that had been constructed by the student center. On it was a lone of chairs and in them were the members of the executive committee of the Italian club and the sole representative of the college—Dr. Teitelbaum. There was podium and a small table beside it on which rested a huge wire drum in which there were packed the forty-four plus thousand raffle tickets.

As I had worked out in advance, Al Moroni was to be the first to speak, and at the stroke of 9:30 he rose deliberately and waddled toward the microphone. When he was settled there, almost entirely obscured by the wide podium, and like the mayor of a small Sicilian town, he raised both of his arms above his head to acknowledge the ripples of applause. And then, in a booming voice that blotted out the electronic feedback, he intoned, “Buena sera! Buena sera to you--Yahoos of Staten Island!

I felt my sphincter slam shut. From all the squirming in his chair I knew that Teitelbaum’s had as well. I saw Sal Rizzuto adjust the bulge at his side.

Moroni turned to face Dr. T; and pointing at him, said, “That’s what he calls us you know—Yahoos.” Teitelbaum looked down, rustling the papers that contained his prepared remarks. Then turning back to the crowd, many of whom appeared confused and were beginning to murmur, Al continued, “He probably thinks we don’t know about Yahoos—he sees calling us that is as his way to insult us, to show us disrespect.” Some nearest the platform were nodding in agreement; a few were shaking their fists. I looked around to catch Ed Paradise’s eye. Trouble was clearly brewing and I was please to remember that he was a retired police captain from the 122nd precinct on Staten Island. One call from Ed and his boys would come racing to our rescue. They had a reputation for enjoying the occasional opportunity to break some heads.

“Look, we know what he’s up to—to use us, to pander to us as his ticket out of here. We aren’t being fooled. We even know why he arranged for this festival, which by the way we think turned out pretty good. Don’t you?” There was some cheering form the crowd at the rear which obviously had had more than their share of beers. “but you know what—this is fine by me, by us,” he swept his hand in the direction of his fellow club officers. “We know a little about doing business. It’s in our heritage, which we are here to celebrate. And, as we all know, it’s doing business is also in the heritage of his people.” There was some vocal guffawing at that. “So I say,” he boomed, “let’s do business together! We can all win!” Again pointing in Teitelbaum’s direction, who had resumed looking toward Moroni because of this change of tone, he continued, “Here’s how I see things—we help him with his agenda, which is to get the college out into the community, and this helps him get the job he really want. The sooner the better, I say.” There was some cheering. “And then we will pay a little more attention the next time around when the trustees look for his replacement.” Everyone got the implication that and here was then widespread applause and whistling. “Right, we’ll keep this in the family. We are famous for that, right?”

He had more to say. “OK, now that we have that settled let’s get back to this Yahoo business. You know where he got that? From Jonathan Swift, from his book, a very famous one called Gulliver’s Travels. He wrote it more than 200 years ago. I remember when my kid Joey was reading it in college. We had long discussions. It was one of his favorites. You know he’s a professor too. At Cornell. Who knows, maybe he,” referring to Dr. T again, “will turn out to be his president. That I’d love!” He laughed into the mike. “Anyway, when Gulliver does his traveling he gets to the land of the Houyhnhnms, I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that right, you’ll have to ask Joey, which means ‘the perfection of nature.’ You know the book is satirical and the Houyhnhnms are horses. That’s right. And they are in charge of the humans there. Who are called Yahoos. Get it? The horses are the civilized ones, and the humans are the animals. That’s the satirical part. Swift was very upset with the state of the world and he felt that humans were responsible. So he turned them into Yahoos who all the time the Yahoos felt superior to everything and everyone even though they were the ones causing things such as wars and starvation.

“Why am I telling you all of this on such a wonderful occasion?” In the crowd there were a considerable number of puzzled looks and much shoulder shrugging. Everyone was clearly ready to get back to the festivities, especially the raffle. “Well I’ll tell you and I promise to be brief—it’s because I want you to understand, especially all the young people here, that we should never let anyone define us, tell us who we are. That’s our job, our responsibility. And, above all else, we let the world know who we are by what we do—not what we say about ourselves, because that’s no better than him calling us Yahoos.

“Listen to me,” he caught himself, “saying these kinds of things when you want to get back to having fun. But, I apologize, before I forget, there’s one more thing I need to do. You all know that Italy’s greatest son, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who unified Italy, he lived for a year in 1850 right here on Staten Island. With Antonio Meucci, the real inventor of the telephone. In Rosebank. If you don’t believe me, you can look that up. Well, the boys and I want to thank Dr. Lloyd Zazlo,” I snapped to attention, “who represented the college and helped make all this possible. Sal said to me at one of our meetings, ‘Doesn’t the kid look just like Garibaldi?’ And you know, Sal was right. Look at him, he does. With that beard and nose and everything. Lloyd, wave your hand so people can see you.” I did as I was told, and there was a smattering of applause. “Well, we took a vote for both of these reasons—that he did good work for us and because of how he looks--and therefore tonight we’re making him an Honorary Italian!” To that there were genuine cheers, mainly because everyone knew Al Moroni had finally come to the end of his remarks.

Teitelbaum was next. It was time to pick the winner of the raffle and he proceeded to the microphone. Right behind, as if shadowing him, was Louie Randazzo. Dr. T plucked the microphone from its stand and with it came out from behind the podium so that he faced the restive crowd. There was thus nothing standing between him and them. He cleared his throat and it boomed through the sound system, echoing off the façade of the administration building where his office was located. In a voice made husky by years of relentless smoking, but sounding calmer and more conversational than was characteristic of him at public occasion where he always opted for drama and even bombast, without introduction, President Teitelbaum simply said, “Look at me,” people down front started to stir. “Yes, look closely at me, and tell me what you see.”

Others in the crowd who had been shifting about and talking among themselves turned back toward the speakers’ platform and looked up at him as if responding to his plea to look closely at him. For it was that—a plea—which he repeated, and then he just stood there, staring out over the heads of the people in the quadrangle with the microphone still in his hand, which he allowed to drop limply to his side as if he were exhausted from bearing all the world’s burdens. Louie who had remained behind the podium craned his neck as if to get a better look at the diminutive Teitelbaum—to see what he was up to.

After what in the circumstances felt like a half hour of silence, but was probably not more than ten seconds, Teitelbaum walked forward to the front edge of the stage and said, still almost whispering into the mike, “You see just a man. Someone very much like each of you. Yes, though I may be your president,” most gathered there were neither students nor faculty members, “if you look closely at me, you will see yourselves. Though you may feel, as was implied by President Moroni, that at times, because of your background, because of things that you feel may be lacking in your lives, for these reasons, the world looks down on you. Perhaps you feel I also do that.”

I couldn’t believe he was saying these things so shamelessly. “Well, I have been known to be careless about some of the things I say. But make no mistake about it, I know from my own life what you may been feeling, what you may be thinking about yourselves—especially as you listen to what is whispered about you in certain dark corners of the world. I too have heard those murmurings. And I too have absorbed those wounds.” His voice cracked for a brief moment and I was inclining to believe that he was actually speaking from his heart. “So I have devoted my life, elsewhere and here, to people just like you. If I may say so, to people just like me. And to some about whom I know you at times have been skeptical and even hostile. But we’re in this together, you and I. Like it or not. And like it or not, if we are to make it through, we had better figure out how to do it together.” With this he ended and turned his back to them.

There was a smattering of applause and a few shouts of “Right on.” Mainly from among the few blacks who were there, but also from some members of the island’s Italian-American community.

While this was happening, Louie Randazzo had imperceptibly emerged from behind the podium and took up a position beside the table on which the drum of raffle tickets stood. He folded his arms across his chest as if he were a member of the ancient Praetorian Guard. Seeing this, Ed Paradise came up on stage so as to be available if needed and signaled with a nod of his head to one of his security guards who, on cue, hopped onto the catafalque on which the Fiat was parked, quietly started its engine, and carefully backed it off. He turned it around so it was facing the roadway that ran past the administration building. He came to the stage and tossed the keys up to Ed who snatched them out of midair in a swipe of his hand.

It was time for the drawing. All in the crowd pressed forward to get a closer look. To most this was to be the highlight of the festival. Teitelbaum had moved to the table and still remained with his back to the quadrangle. Louie was right next to him and bent over to say something to Dr. T. With a puzzled look President Teitelbaum glared over to where I was standing, by the steps to the stage, and impatiently waved to me to come up, which I did. When I reached his side he growled, “What does this monkey Randazzo think he’s up to? You told me you made a deal with them and that I would do the drawing. He tells me that he’s supposed to do it.”

“I did make that arrangement. They told me that Al Moroni wanted to speak and that if we allowed that you could handle the raffle.” Ed Paradise, sensing trouble, had inched toward where Louie and Dr. T and I were clustered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sal Rizzuto fingering what I knew to be his gun. With another gesture Ed had five of his men leap onto the platform and take positions imposing themselves between the seated members of the Italian Club and the now four of us standing by the table. They turned their backs to the crowd and faced the club’s executive committee. No one moved.

The crowd began, at first slowly and softly, to clap their hands rhythmically as if to start a rally at a baseball game. Quickly the chant became a roar, “Raf-fle, Raf-fle, Raf-fle.” Everyone on the stage remained frozen in place—a virtual tableau vivant.

Then Teitelbaum turned to the crowd and raised his hand, calling for silence. Quickly, a hush settled over the packed campus. Ed Paradise moved to wedge himself between Louie and Dr. Teitelbaum. As huge as Louie was, Ed was that much larger. His line of men stared down at the club members who remained rooted in their chairs. Sal also was motionless.

With a squealing sound, Dr. T began to turn the crank that was attached to the drum. The raffle tickets, tens of thousands of them, tumbled on top of each other. He gave it three dramatic turns and stopped its rotation when the trap door came to rest facing him. With a broad magician’s gesture, as if to show he had nothing up his sleeve, President Teitelbaum snapped open the wire door. He plunged his shot arm up to its elbow into the mass of tickets. Louie’s agitation increased as he looked with distress toward his colleagues. None of them made eye contact with him. It was clear he was on his own.

Dr. T extracted a small handful of folded tickets from the drum and tossed all but one aside. Holding the hand mike, he turned back to the crowd and, deliberately unfolding the winning ticket, again approached the front of the stage. He took his reading glasses out of his jacket pocket, flipped them open, and placed them on his prominent nose. Only then did he peer down at the slip of paper. And after that, into the microphone he intoned, pronouncing the winner’s name with full oratorical flourish, “Kwame Olatunji. K-wam-e O-la-tun-ji." He took obvious relish in drawing out all the syllables. “Are you here Mr. Olatunji? Are you in the house K-wam-e?”

I heard someone standing in the front row say, “Kwame what? What the fuck’s a Kwame?”

The crowd began to part as a man in flowing tribal dress pushed his way toward the stage. I had moved to stand next to President Teitelbaum. I am certain that my mouth was hanging open. I am also certain that I heard Dr. T quietly chuckling to himself. I suspected that Kwame Olatunji was one of the college’s two African exchange students, students on campus about whom Teitelbaum was particularly proud, in part because of their rarity, and about whom who spoke endlessly.

While I stood there agape, Ed had slipped me the keys to the Fiat and whispered, “Tell that clown to get right in the car and drive away as fast and as far as he can. Right across the Verrazano Bridge. And if he has any brains in his head, he shouldn’t stop until he reaches Africa. Or wherever the fuck he’s from.”

To be continued . . .

Friday, May 11, 2007

May 11, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXI--Men Will Be Men

While we’re preoccupied with the effect of Hip-Hop culture on our youth, in Iran the Religious Police are stopping women in the street to see if they are wearing makeup and to check if they have too much hair peeking out from their head scarves. And in Saudi Arabia, which is still a very, very conservative country, in spite of the proliferation of Starbucks and McDonalds and affluent youth regularly jetting off to Dubai or London to haunt the discos and bars, there is a version of a debate raging about how far is too far and how much fun is too much fun. (See NY Times article linked below.)

They’ve at least got McDonalds figured out—woman are allowed to slip in for a Big Mac, but they must stand on a line separated by a wall from the one on which men are required to stand. Though they are still forbidden to drive themselves home.

Have you noticed that the fundamentalist strains of all the world’s major religions spend an inordinate amount of time making and enforcing restrictive rules for women? In all, women are relegated to limited roles with much of their time directed to serving the various wishes and needs of men.

As a young boy I vividly remember watching in fascination how the orthodox Jewish men in my family spent so much of their time studying or praying while the women were excluding from participating in these most exulted of activities. At the schul the women had to sit in the balcony which was surrounded by a curtain so that if the men looked up they would not be distracted (or get excited) by their presence. Versions of this ceremonial segregation are also common in most other religions

And later in life I began to observe how male-centric and arbitrary the rules were when it came to sexual practices--more accurately, sexual services. These rules appear to be at the heart of the matter—they enable men to have their way with women—frequently many at a time since multiple marriages and concubineage are religiously permitted. In fact, often encouraged.

I had a fantasy recently about how this came about: Some millennia ago a group of aging men gathered in a tent in the middle of a desert to come up with rules for life that would assure their dominance and good times. They quickly came to realize that all they desired required that they impute to God immortal rules to guide the separate and distinct behavior of men and women—with, in all instance, women literally and figuratively on the bottom.

I saw the results of this fantasy played out regularly in the homes of my relatives where the men sat around the table pouring over their ancient texts, ignoring all that was going on around them, while the women scrambled to hush the children and, hand and foot, waited on the men.

I decided to then and now to go no further—stopping myself from wondering what was permitted behind closed doors after we left . Too much information.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

May 10, 2007--Playing Hooky

I got a little behind schedule and need to take a day off.

But I will see you Friday with the Fanaticism of the week.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9, 2007--Mother's Bad Boy

There have been so many Bush gaffs and malaprops that my mother-in-law has a 365-page calendar that has one listed for each day. He teed up another one the other day when he appeared on the White House lawn with Queen Elizabeth and said, “You helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17__.” The crowd and the press went wild after he corrected himself. It was 1976, silly, not 1776.

He then turned to look directly at The Queen and, after a moment, tossed her a wink. Yes, a wink. Check YouTube if you don’t believe me. And then she appeared to say something back to him. Turning to the assembled grandees, he retorted, “She gave a look that only a mother could give a child.”I thought that was very funny but from press accounts here and in England, we appear to have a new international flap. (See linked NY Times article as one example.)

Let’s deconstruct this to see what might be at issue—It couldn’t be his innocent slip of the tongue. That was both familiar and innocuous enough. But it could have been the fact that he turned to look directly at The Queen—people don’t just look at The Queen. That is unless she looks at them first. Even worse might have been the wink. Nobody, and I mean nobody, ever winks at her. I suspect that no one ever winked at her, even when she was just a girl. So that could be his worst transgression.

But then again, as I'm doing here, his capital crime might have been his referring to her as “she.” Who is he to do that? And in public no less. Nobody, and I mean nobody refers to Her Majesty as a mere “she.” She’s called, sorry, The Queen or Her Majesty.But I suspect that even though The Queen is old enough to be his mother, for President Bush to imply he was still like a child and to say that she treated him as if she were his mother, that could be the ultimate no-no. After all, when in 1991 she, Her Majesty visited his father, Bush 41, Mother Barbara made sure not to seat him at the Queen’s table for fear that he might make a wisecrack. But in spite of her best efforts, he did make one, managing to get close enough to The Queen to ask her, after telling her he was his family’s “black sheep,” who her family’s black sheep was.” She reportedly snapped back at him, “None of your business.”

Now I despise George W. Bush as much as the next fella, but this irreverence of his is refreshing. Even a tonic. With all the phony genuflecting going on during The Queen’s visit, and the unfathomable guest list for her state dinner, which included Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View, I love the fact that my president is treating her in such an American way.

Now if we could only get him to end our involvement in Iraq . . .

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

May 8, 2007--Your Cheatin' Heart

Has there ever been a bigger tease? As part of her defense, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, CEO of the Washington, DC “high-end erotic fantasy service,” has been leaking the names of a few of her clients. Thus far, though a couple of Bush administration Johns have been outed and forced to resign, it appears that though she has thousands of names in her little black book, ABC News, which purportedly has access to most of them, hasn’t as yet aired any—I suspect less out of a sense of discretion than because few of us would care since none appear to be Big Names.

Tell the truth, though Paul Wolfowitz appears to be otherwise erotically engaged, wouldn’t it be just too, too delicious to find him in Palfrey’s book or Richard Perle or, even better, Rummy or Karl or Condi?

So while waiting for another slipper to drop, those of us who are too uptight to admit we can’t get enough of this kind of gossip, we are left with talking and writing about the meaning of “is.”

You recall that, yes? When Bill Clinton was nailed, sorry, confronted with the accusation that he had had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he denied it, saying, “I never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” And when her infamous blue dress showed up with that notorious stain on it, he persisted in saying that he never had sexual relations with her because fellatio (bj's) did not constitute sexual relations in his jurisdiction, Washington, DC. He was technically correct—as he said, “It all depends on what you definition of ‘is’ ‘is.’”

Not to be left out, while dancing around how salacious they should be when reporting the current story, the NY Times has taken to covering the definition and consequences of infidelity (see linked article).

In an attempt to find the appropriate tone and level, The Times quotes Patti Britton, president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, who says, “What I coach my clients to consider is, what is cheating and what is the ranking order of the violation to their agreement as a couple?”

Is an erotic massage cheating? Is it worse to carry on an affair with a neighbor than to have sex with a prostitute? How about sleeping with the nanny as opposed to a co-worker? Do you consider or define each of these to be cheating, and if so how do you rank order them? All the same? Do you see one to be the absolute worst? And of course, what then do you think the cheated-upon-one should do?

While switching back and forth between Inside Edition and Larry King to get the latest, if you want to explore these issues at this abstract (and boring) level, check out I think you’ll like it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

May 7, 2007--The Latest Panacea

To fix our broken public schools some educators over the years have insisted that we dig in and work on the hard stuff—improve the quality of teaching by requiring that teachers major in the subjects that they teach, to be certified have all teachers earn masters degrees, improve the quality of what is taught by imposing higher curricular standards, hold students and their educators accountable by administering annual academic achievement tests, dramatically reduce class size so that instruction can be more individualized, break up large high schools and replace them with smaller versions, decentralize large school districts to give educators and parents control of their schools, and so on.

For each of these innovations and mandated reforms there has been one significant problem—they do not get the job done. Even when versions of them have been implemented there appears to be little impact on improving student performance. Especially for our low-income students there has been scant reduction in academic progress, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment and completion.

Partly out of frustration with the lack of progress, on a parallel track to these calls for deep, systemic reform there is another stream of activity that seeks quicker fixes—a series of initiatives whose proponents claim will make things much better if the schools would only ______.

Examples of these magic bullets are numerous—some of the more recent ones include calling for parents to be given tuition vouchers so they can opt out of the public schools and with them purchase a private education for their children, allow teachers and principals to form their own charter schools free of traditional bureaucratic requirements, give successful teachers cash bonuses to reward them for their accomplishments, teach literacy via “whole-language” instruction and math via the “new math,” extend the school day by an hour, add a few more days to the school year, require all students to wear uniforms, organize same-sex schools, and so on.

Again there is one significant problem with each of these panaceas--they also do not produce the desired results. And so on a third track there has been a series of innovations that are technological. These are touted (and resisted) because they are viewed to be “teacher-proof.” Some of you may remember “programmed instruction,” initially books which were designed like computer software that thus purported to allow students to proceed at their own pace without the direct intervention of teachers. A bit later, with the first introduction of computers in schools, this software was loaded into the computer so that students could learn via these “teaching machines.” Later still, with the introduction of PCs, the solution to failing schools and inferior teaching called for the “wiring” of all classrooms so that students could access the Internet and through that become effective, self-directed learners.

And more recently, embraced by many foundations and philanthropists (as have been the other schemes) there has been the call to equip all students with laptops so that on their own they could access the Internet for learning. Those schools and districts that raced ahead with the acquisition of laptops are now making a quick U turn because, again, this is not proving to solve the problem of poor student achievement. In fact, as reported in the NY Times, no real surprise--many kids are using their laptops to download pornography, cheat on tests, and hack into local businesses. (Article linked below.)

Not to be deterred, and as a sad paradigm for why unproven but theoretically and ideologically attractive “solutions” to our school woes persist in spite of negative outcomes, perhaps the leading advocate for the use of laptops in schools, Professor Mark Warschauer of UC Irvine, though he too found that laptops do not produce any evidence that they improve student performance, in spite of this, he continues to call for their widespread use because they contribute to student “innovation, creativity, and autonomy.” Though laptops, he says, “may not be the tool to bring kids up to basic standard levels, if the goal is to create the George Lucas of the future, then laptops are extremely useful.”

Forget reading, forget educating teachers, and forget preparing students for business careers or the professions, if we can only produce one more version of Star Wars we’ll be able to sleep better at night.