Friday, August 31, 2007

August 31, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXVIII: Waiting

1,033 years is a long time to be waiting. But the Shiites are a patient people.

Since 974, after a villager in Qum reported that in a dream Imam Mahdi told him he would be “returning,” including where that would occur (in Qum of course), every year on the Imam’s birthday current-day Shiite Iranians hold a fun-filled celebration. In a carnival-like atmosphere they set up booths to distribute food, picnic, receive personal advice from clerics, and enjoy elaborate fireworks displays. There is even a stall near the mosque that marks the spot the Imam pointed out as the place for his return that warns people about “Satan worship.” There over the entrance to welcome visitors is a Star of David mounted atop a replica of the Washington Monument—that familiar obelisk-shaped satanic symbol. (See NY Times article linked below.)

But back for a moment, to the religious significance of the festival. Imam Mahdi is claimed to be the 12th imam in a direct genetic line to the prophet; and to Shiites, who are Shiites because they believe this makes him the inheritor of the founder of Islam (Sunnis reject this lineage) his birthday is worth celebrating.

And waiting for, because they believe that he is in fact not dead. He has chosen to remain invisible since the 9th century. To the faithful the time is not yet right for his reappearance.

This sounds familiar to anyone who follows the beliefs of the most-orthodox Jews who have been waiting for millennia for the appearance of the Messiah and to millennialist Christians who for two-thousand years have been looking forward to the Second Coming. Both groups, just like the Shiites, have been making preparations for these various returns. Fundamentalist Jews, for example, to pave the way for a return to ritual animal sacrifice at a rebuilt Temple (unfortunately this must be at exactly the spot where Muslims have their Doom of the Rock) have been looking for an appropriate red heifer, one without even a single white hair, to sacrifice and burn so they can use its ashes to purify the new Temple; and they have been sewing special sanctified garments for the priests of that temple to wear.

Fundamentalist Christians, in order to smooth the way for the Second Coming, have been working to encourage and help all Jews in the Diaspora to return to Israel so that once there they can convert to Christianity, which is required, and then proceed to convert everyone else. Those who fail to do so, Jews first among them, will be slaughtered and condemned to hell once Christ is again enthroned.

Thus, these three religions of the Book have much in common. Not only are they each waiting for the return of their messiah, but in all cases, as with Imam Mahdi, these returns will not occur until and unless corruption and injustice reach their zenith. As I look at the world situation, that should be by next Thursday.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

August 30, 2007--The Queen of Mean

That would be Leona Helmsley, wife of billionaire real estate magnate Henry Helmsley. She was the self-anointed Queen of his string of luxury New York City hotels and appeared in hundreds of print ads, wearing a gown and tiara, while reputedly checking to see if the towels in the bathrooms were clean and properly folded.

The tabloids added the “Of Mean” to her title when she was convicted of a series of crimes which included ripping off hotel furniture for her personal use and cheating the city out of sales taxes when she bought jewels for herself by using phony out-of-city addresses. During her trial a parade of employees testified not only about her felonious behavior but also about how abusively she treated them. Clearly she had “issues,” but still she did do hard time in the slammer.

New Yorkers, yours truly included, couldn’t wait to get their hands on the NY Post every morning (in my case clandestinely since I didn’t want anyone to know it was my favorite guilty pleasure) to delight in the latest juicy detail—how she tortured gay hotel workers, maltreated members of her family, and how she reinvented the history of her hardscrabble upbringing to make it appear she was a grande dame.

Now she has departed. She died last week and yesterday her will was made public. Once again the tabloids are aflame, not knowing whether to put Senator (“I’m not gay”) Craig or Leona on the front page.

Leona was the obvious choice because her will is one of the great ones of all times. Jumping out is her $12 million bequest to her 8-year-old Maltese dog, the well-named Trouble. The fact that he or she received more from the billionairess than any of her grandchildren (two got zero for “reasons which are known to them”) is just the beginning of the good stuff.

Speaking from the grave, Leona also required that—she be buried wearing her wedding ring and that it never be removed (tell that to the grave robber who was convicted yesterday on Long island for robbing the dead of their jewelry and gold teeth); that her tomb be “acid-washed or steam cleaned” once a year; that the grandchildren who did get money (albeit $2.0 less than Trouble) must visit their father’s grave in order to receive it; and that to make sure that they really do show up, that there be a registration book placed in the mausoleum so they can sign in. The will did not stipulate who would be checking the book or the authenticity of the signatures, though it is assumed that she herself will take on that responsibility.

All this from the NY Times (linked below) which prides itself on not trafficking in celebrity gossip. But here they are again doing just that; but once more pretending to turn it into something "significant" by putting it in historical context. In addition to quoting from the Queen’s will, they tell us that Napoleon also attempted to control things after he died; that, in fact, this need to exert oneself after death is not that uncommon. They even quote a Harvard professor who has made a study of such things: “These are efforts by people to avoid profligate, wasteful, slothful existences among their children.” This sounds as if he has been reading up on the Seven Deadly Sins when all we really want is the dish.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

August 29, 2007--"Even Toilet Paper"

Well that’s good news.

The schools in Roosevelt Long Island are about to reopen and this year not only do they have text books but, to quote the NY Times, they have “even toilet paper.” (Article linked below.)

In previous years, both have been in short supply. Also in short supply have been doors on the toilet stalls, science labs with running water and gas lines, experienced teachers, capable school administrators, and, no surprise, student achievement. Things had gotten so bad out there that for the first time in history the state of New York took over a school district, appointed a series of superintendents, and ran the schools from the state education commissioner’s office.

Roosevelt as a town came into existence in the 1930s as a place to segregate blacks who worked as servants in the mansions of Long Island’s white gentry. It was all right for the colored folks to come to the houses to work in the kitchens and gardens, but they needed to go home at night to a place at an appropriate distance and, at least equally important, their children had to be kept out of the exclusive north shore public schools. Thus, for decades, Roosevelt, as a town, and its schools languished.

To get there you drive through rolling estates worth many millions and immediately, after turning off the Grand Central Parkway, if you didn’t know you were still on Long Island, you would think you had been time-warped to the Mississippi Delta. There is no sign of local economic life except the drug dealer entrepreneurs hanging out on street corners in front of burnt-out or boarded-up stores.

The district’s schools are equally grim. So bad that some years ago the high school was condemned. (Though it is to be replaced it is still in use after a cosmetic fixing up.)

None of this is necessary. I know from painful personal experience because during my years at the Ford Foundation we worked with all of the schools in Roosevelt, bringing to them enough money ($5.0 million) to improve their math and literacy programs, increase high school achievement and graduation rates, and provide college scholarship to all students who enrolled. Millions more in federal and corporate money were poured into the district through the leadership of Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Hillary Clinton. In less than two years, by independent measures, test scores began to rise and many more high school students than in the past were on a trajectory to earn academic diplomas and go to college.

So what happened? Why has there been a parade of failed superintendents? Why is the district bankrupt again and unlikely to be able to pay teachers salaries by later this fall?

The plug was pulled on the programs we were funding, in spite of their emerging effectiveness, because the first of the state-appointed superintendents, Ronald Ross (a failed district leader from Mount Vernon), threw the well-funded project out because, to quote him, it was the creation of “white folks” and “businessmen” and thus, by definition, was “patronizing” and “racist.” He claimed that he would bring much more money and effective programs to the district. Once again he failed—student achievement rates at the middle and high schools again stalled, he ran up an $8.0 million deficit, demanded and got all sorts of perks (including a $200,000 salary and car), and was eventually fired, with a generous pension and a pocket full of cash.

All of this was known to Richard Mills, the state education commissioner but for years he ignored the situation. I know this because I attempted to fill him in about what was going on, but he never returned my phone calls or respond to my emails. He now says, after it is no longer possible to cover up their and his malfeasance, that “I should have seen the problems earlier.” If he had read my correspondence three years ago he would have. But there he still sits, not fired, as he should have been, by the new governor, Eliot Spitzer.

Worse, there the children of Roosevelt sit with little hope and no sense of their future.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

August 28, 2007--Death By A Thousand Cuts

Yesterday it was Fredo’s turn. Last week, Turd Blossom left “to spend more time with his familiy.” Last November, Rummy departed. And then of course there was Brownie, who was doing such a good job.

Though it may really be that during the last throes of every administration senior staff leave to sign big-bucks book contracts and/or to take lucrative consulting jobs while they can still get their calls returned, in the case of the Bush administration these staged departures appear to be suspiciously timed to correspond with the need to throw someone to the sharks in order to defuse mounting political criticism and pressure.

It should not be surprising that our patrician frat-boy president should behave this way, including with regard to his “friend,” Alberto Gonzales. To him they are all employees and servants. Can any of us picture W hanging with Alberto? Yes, there was that White House photo of them and their wives having a last supper on Friday in Crawford; but out in the yard and in the kitchen of the ranch were the Mex’s compatriots and, who knows, relatives. (By the way, has anyone checked their Green Cards?)

To employ the sports analogy that is being applied to Bush, he is attempting to “play out the clock” and escape from Washington without having to take responsibility for anything. Let the next president clean up his mess just the way the family consigliore, Jim Baker, has been called in periodically to get his DWI record fixed, his National Guard service arranged, his presidential election certified, and his Iraq policy salvaged . . . . Well, that didn’t work, did it?

But it’s one thing to sneak into Yale as a legacy and have your transcript doctored, and it’s one thing to fall into a no-show job with the Texas Rangers baseball team and walk away with unearned millions; but you can’t walk away from history.

Brownie will haunt Dubya’s legacy as will Fredo and Rummy and Kenny Boy and, yes, Big Time, our erstwhile vice president. You’re not at Yale anymore, Mr. President. You’ll need a lot more than the services of the Silver Fox and the Boy Genius.

Monday, August 27, 2007

August 27, 2007--Chaos

A persistent theme of many of the previous 599 Behind blogs has been how at our peril we ignore the promptings of culture, emotion, and the “irrational” on individual, group, and national behavior.

Friday postings have been unabashedly devoted to how these urges, perhaps welling from the prehensile depths of our DNA, can lead to various forms of fanaticism. From the relatively harmless—going into deep debt to pay cash for liposuction, to the immeasurably dangerous—attempting to bring God-ordained “freedom and democracy” to the Middle East. If looked at “rationally,” taking into account the full measure of history, none of this would make “sense.” And yet we persist.

I have placed quotation marks around rational and irrational and sense to signal not only their socially-constructed nature but also to indicate, because of these cultural sources, how value-suffused they are. Each, as they say, exists in the eyes of their beholder. I suppose I have been attempting here to urge, as we lunge so assuredly forward, that we pause to look into these beholder’s eyes in an attempt to understand the inner logic of what often appears to us to be conflicting and contrary motivations.

Let me again use the situation in Iraq as a critical illustration.

Looked at reasonably, though Iraq is a geopolitical fiction, created by the western colonial powers that drew proverbial lines-in-the-sand, one would expect in the current desperate circumstances that regardless of their historical differences the people who live within these artificial borders would at the minimum see their best interest to be in establishing a tense form of order. So people could live something resembling “normal” lives. All right, lives that they themselves would define to be normal.

The neo-cons had at least this much right—it was not irrational to expect that after, and as a result of, the devastation this would be what people would see to be in their interest.

But instead we find as much aspiration to what we consider to be chaos as we do to unity. Wouldn’t it make much more sense, we think, for them to be looking for the compromises that would permit a measure of safety if not a feeling of national identity? That people there would be seeking to draw their own lines in the sand that this time were guided by religious and cultural differences?

There is, though, a different logic at work. To quote a recent column in the NY Times (linked below):

Iraq has become a cellular nation, dividing and redividing into competing constituencies that have a greater stake in chaos than compromise.

Thus, what we think of as a central government, a goal we see to be desirable, to many there it would be a threat to their autonomy because they derive power from the ongoing crisis. This then may be more the local logic which, though we see it not to make sense, will more determine the final outcome than all our money and seeming power.

Friday, August 24, 2007

August 24, 2006--Fanaticism LXXXVII: The Bust Bust

About a third of the people who go under the plastic surgeon’s knife earn less than $30,000 a year. This is astonishing considering that, even if you are lucky enough to have medical insurance, you need to pay cash to have your face lifted or tummy tucked. A halfway decent lift these days will set you back about $20,000. It used to be that only the rich and famous could afford to have “a little work done.”

How then are all these lower-middle-class folks scraping together all this cash? Like everyone else who goes for a European vacation, BMW, flat-screen TV, or Hermes bag, according to the NY Times, they are borrowing the money. (Article linked below.) And the plastic surgery industry has risen to meet the demand by marketing their services as if they were in the consumer products business. Some doctors are even extending credit to their patients, allowing them to pay off their nose jobs in monthly installments as if they were BMWs.

And if you think this is all just about vanity, think again. According to Laurie Essig, a sociologist who is writing a book about the economics of cosmetic surgery, “In a bosom-obsessed society where you think you can earn $20,000 more with bigger breast, is it insane to consider taking out a loan to have surgery?”

Another way to think about the cost-benefit of a nose job is to amortize its cost over its useful lifetime. One Beverly Hills plastic surgeon estimates that if thought about it this way it costs only 30 cents a day and, unlike a car, you don’t have to get it serviced and it doesn’t have to be traded in after the three-year lease runs out. That is, unless you’re Michael Jackson.

But here’s something no one is talking or worrying about. A decade ago we had the Dot-Com Bust when investors overextended themselves by investing in companies whose stocks were soaring in spite of the fact that the companies were losing money. Now we are feeling the roiling effect of the sub-prime mortgage industry collapse. With banks willing to lend money to anyone who walked through the door, not even requiring them to make down payments, with interest rates rising and incomes falling, the real estate market is in danger of also going bust.

Thus, shouldn’t we be concerned that the same thing could happen to all those folks who went out on a financial limb by borrowing thousands to have their boobs boosted? What will happen when they can’t make the payments on their loans? Are we in danger of, forgive me, a Bust Bust?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23, 2007--9/11 Redux

The CIA two days ago released a hitherto classified report about the Agency’s pre-9/11 failures. They fessed up to all their missed opportunities—how they had hundreds of reports that they did not share with the FBI about al Qaeda activities prior to the attack. We can only hope that our various security agencies are working together by now and that if and when there is similar intelligence they will function in a coordinated and effective way.

After this week’s fire at the Deutsche Bank and the deaths of two firemen, I am less sanguine about the preparedness of New York City officials and first responders.

As Rudy Giuliani continues to loom as the favorite to win the Republican nomination, we will learn more about his failures prior to 9/11. How after the first bombing at the World Trade Center he failed to take steps to require that police and firefighters could communicate with each other in an emergency; how he failed to require that the men’s radios would work when they rushed into a flaming skyscraper; how he failed to build a command post in a secure location, opting instead to set up one that was convenient for philandering with his girlfriend Judy Nathan (now Rudy’s third or fourth wife, depending on whether or not you count marriages to cousins as marriages).

But one would suspect that a mayor with an extraordinary business background such as Michael Bloomberg, after his predecessor’s malfeasance, would have assured that in a similar situation the police and especially the fire department would have learned important lessons and would have taken steps to protect their men and women.

From the evidence already emerging from the Deutsche Bank fire, it is clear that very little was learned, and now there are two more men who lost their lives.

Putting aside for the moment that the company hired to take down the bank building that was seriously damaged on 9/11has a shady record full of past failures and safety violations; and the fact that that company’s ironically appropriate name, John Galt, is the name of the unfettered capitalist hero in Ayn Rand’s rant of a novel, Atlas Shrugged; forget for the moment that it has taken almost six years to get the demolition job started; forget that the Galt folks are getting an astonishing $150 million to do the work; but do not forget that after September 11th the City had the consulting firm McKinsey & Company study the systems and actions of first responders on that fateful day and make recommendations about what to do in the future to better protect citizens and police and firefighters.

That report, which undoubtedly also cost many millions, is full of no-brainer recommendations such as: do not have masses of firefighters rush into a building until and unless it is determined that there is a good reason to do so (to rescue trapped people) and that the risks to the men are reasonable; of course make sure that those on the ground can communicate with those who are in the building; and be sure that the standpipes to which firemen attach their hoses so they can pump water into the building are in good repair and operating.

At the Deutsche Bank fire according to the NY Times (article linked below), none of these basic recommendations had been carried out. Though there was no one in the building who needed rescue, 100 firefighters entered the building; on the ground, none of the standpipes functioned and thus no water could be pumped to the site of the fire; and it appears there was no adequate way to communicate with the men who rushed to their deaths.

As the fire raged and it was clear that his men were in danger, a chief at the scene cursed and said he didn’t care about the building. Instead he cried out into the void, “Where are my men?”

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

August 22, 2007--$1,200

Over coffee one morning a big fight broke out over pocketbooks. We had by then figured out who would be the Republican and Democrat candidates for president, and before scattering one breakfast regular said she was going over to Prada to check out their new bags.

Rona asked if they were on sale. She said no. Rona then said, “You mean you’d buy a Prada bag that’s not on sale?” She said, “I never buy anything on sale.” Noticing everyone’s puzzled look, she continued, “I like to pay full price. I hate sales. First of all, paying full price means you’re getting the latest models, and it also makes me feel good about myself to know I don’t need to look for bargains.”

That’s when the fight started. Everyone spoke at once—“I can’t believe you’d let yourself be so manipulated by fashion”; “You’d spend $1,200 on a pocketbook??” [“It’s a ‘bag,’ thank you, not a ‘pocketbook.”] “Don’t you realize that Prada bags are no longer exclusive—everyone has one and there are knockoffs everywhere--and they are made so poorly that the hardware will fall off before the end of the year.” [“And that’s when I’ll buy next year’s bag.”]

The next day she showed up with her new Prada. Though everyone noticed, no one acknowledged it or commented. Undeterred she said, “When I told my friend Simon about what you all had to say yesterday, you know Simon who was a senior editor at Women’s Wear Daily, he said, ‘What kind can you get for $1,200?’ He thinks you’re all very funny.” She roared with laughter and excused herself. She had an appointment for a cut at Bergdorf’s.

Later that day, we walked down to Chinatown for a dim sum lunch. It was a bright and warm and Canal Street was jammed with young women even though it was a Monday. I asked Rona what she thought they were all doing—most appeared to be from out of town. Rona said they were shopping for watches, perfume, and handbags.

“On Canal Street? In Chinatown?” I said. “It makes no sense to me.”

“Take a closer look,” Rona said. I did and saw in the tiny stalls that passed for shops hundreds and hundreds of well known perfumes—Chanel, Dior, Givenchy; and designer bags—Guccis, Hermes, and even Pradas.

“What’s going on here?” I wondered out loud though of course I knew. These were all knock-offs, counterfeits. And to the untrained eye—mine—they looked like the real thing. Obviously they also did to the thousands of girls and young women who were pushing their way through the crowds to get their hands on versions of this year’s latest models. I imagined that they were in New York on vacation and would take these trophies back with them to Topeka and Waco and Spokane where they would easily pass for authentic. And thereby signify the risen social standing of the proud owners.

Having witnessed this so recently I avidly read Michiko Kakutani’s book review of Dana Thomas’ Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster since I had had an up close look at some of that decline. (NY Times review linked below.) The book is an examination of the intentional morphing of luxury and high status goods from when they were of actual quality and available exclusively in limited numbers to an economic and social elite into the widely marketed items we see today, including on Canal Street, all offering at cut-rate prices the illusion of class to the masses.

But even though anyone who wants a Prada can get one in Chinatown, there are still enough fashionista illusion-seekers with money who are eager to race over to Prada in Soho every fall to be the first to plop down $1,200, or much more, for the latest.

Then again, remember what I suspect Simon actually meant—There is no way to get what you really need if a pocketbook [or a suit or a car or a boat] is the object of your desire.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August 21, 2007--Requiem

The first sign of the end—

Marie, whose people have lived in the area since the mid seventeenth century, complained to us one day that her son was moving up-island since, with his growing family, he could not afford to buy a house. We took this personally since we had a weekend home in the area and were thus in part responsible for the inflation in real estate prices.

The second sign—

Others who had fished the ocean and bays, also for 350 years, were being pushed into bankruptcy and despair when the state forbid them from pursuing their ancient craft of ocean seining—fishing for striped bass from the beaches by rowing nets out into the open ocean and then pulling them and their catch back to the strand. It was claimed that the baymen were depleting the fishing grounds out of an excessive desire to bring these valuable fish to market. They in turn claimed that they were being forced from their livelihoods because real estate interests wanted to clear the beaches of their battered lorries and boats so that surf casters could have unimpeded access to the water and beachfront property owners could have clear views of the sunrise.

The next sign—

Where there had been a smoke shop for generations, a morning gathering place to get a cup of coffee, buy cigarettes, and pick up newspapers the proprietors were pleased to set aside for you, when its final lease expired the building’s owner quadrupled the rent and it was quickly replaced by a Ralph Lauren store where knitted sweaters start at $500 a copy.

And after that—

The Springs Country Store, which was just down the road from Jackson Pollack’s house and where he could get his beers on credit, changed hands and soon began to sell pâté for $12 a pound and in place of Jackson’s Pabst Blue Ribbons stocked the latest in designer lagers and ales.

Another sign—

Farmers who found themselves so mired in debt when it came time to pass 40 acres to sons and daughters were susceptible to offers to subdivide so that faux shingle-style quickly came to replace potato fields. Who could blame them when the going price was more than a half a million per acre?


The hedge fund guys showed up, wouldn’t look at a place unless it was listed at at least $10 million, and transported to the area their New York crowd, their New York taste in restaurants and shops, and their New York parties so if they forgot to look out their oceanfront windows they would think the were still on the Upper East Side.

We learned—

That Courtney Ross, widow and heir to former Time-Warner CEO Steve Ross bought up all the remaining one hundred burial plots in the fabled Green River Cemetery so that she could parcel them out among her friends who wanted to be laid to eternal rest in close proximity to Jackson Pollack, deKooning, and other New York School worthies.

So now the NY Times reports (linked below)—

The town crier, and there still is one, instead to passing along the news of the day tells shoppers on Main Street about the genealogy of village real estate: where Tiffany’s is there was for many years Whitman’s Gallery; where London Jewelers is was the Masonic Hall; where there was Dressen’s Meat Market there is now a Calypso shop; Cole Haan used to be Rowe’s Pharmacy; and the Bonne Nuit lingerie store use to house the 5&10.

And finally—

Calvin Lester, age 54, the last of the legendary baymen, died. He was so good at his work that, as someone at his funeral said, “He could drag a scallop dredge down a driveway and come up with it full of scallops.” In his prime, before the real estate interests ate him alive, there were 150 working the waters; now there are fewer than 20, and there are no young ones among them. So when the last one dies that will be the end of more than a way of making a living; it will be the end of a way of life. And a metaphor for what happened to the Hamptons of these Bonackers and Jackson Pollack and for much of America when money and greed have their unfettered way.

Monday, August 20, 2007

August 20, 2007--Snap-Apps

Dog are not eating dogs on just Wall Street these days. The competition is as fierce in college and university admissions offices. And the ethics that rule behavior in both settings are not all that different.

The veil that obscures what really goes on on campuses around the country is lifted each year at this time when U.S. News & World Report issues its annual rankings of America’s top colleges. Though no one reads U.S. News anymore, this issue is a best seller and very influential among upwardly-aspiring high school seniors and their families who shortly after the rankings are published will be firing off applications to their dream schools.

The reason why so much cheating goes on in the process of establishing the rankings is because of the methodology employed by U.S. News. Much of it is peer-based, which means that college officials themselves, who have a big stake in the findings, are asked to judge their competition. What can one expect a surveyed college president to say and do if his contact guarantees him a $10,000 bonus if he can raise his college’s standing, which is the case at Arizona State University (see NY Times report linked below)? Do you think he will say good things about his closet competitors?

Worse, in order to give the ultimate rankings the appearance of quantifiable validity, a basic metric U.S. News uses to compare institutions is the percentage of applicants who are accepted. This so-called “selectivity index” rates an institution highly if they reject the vast majority of their applicants. If they accept 80 percent they wind up on the bottom of the list; if they reject 90 percent their college enters the charmed circle.

If the institutions played by free market rules, where the Blind Hand of supply and demand prevailed, this might not be such a bad way to compare colleges. But with so much at stake, the vast majority of colleges that allowed these “natural” forces to operate would find themselves struggling to compete with the big boys. The Amhersts and Harvards would continue to get more than a thousand applications for every hundred they accept while the bottom-feeders would have to take virtually everyone who applies; and to get them to actually show up, enroll, they would have to lure them with no-need scholarships—in other words, using the term colleges and universities employ, they would have to “buy students.”

So what do these struggling institutions do to boost the number of applicants so they can have a competitive rejection rate—and understand, the name of the admissions game is all about rejecting people. It is through rejections that they prosper.

Here are a sampling of scams that they employ:

To boost their applicant pool, to build the denominator in the application/admit/reject equation, many colleges strive to make it quick and easy for students to apply. More and more colleges thus buy mailing lists of high school seniors (the not-for-profit College Board is only too happy to hustle their lists) and email to them applications that are already half-filled out. Basically, all a senior needs to do to officially apply is click Reply on her computer. There is no requirement to write any essays or personal statements (very few colleges that ask for them read these anyway). They can get it all done in a few minutes.

These e-mail applications are called “snap-apps” or “fast-apps.” The colleges that use them frequently waive application fees (which is a rich source of cash for many selective colleges) so as not to get in the way of an indifferent student applying. Since it takes only five minutes to apply and doesn’t cost anything, what the hay, I might as well zap it in.

Another measure of institutional “quality” is the number of alums who send contributions. It is felt that the higher the percentage of contributors, the greater the evidence that graduates felt they had a good experience while enrolled. By this calculus, a $5 gift equals one for $1.0 million. Thus, St. Mary’s College of California sent its graduates a five dollar bill and asked them to return it so that it could be considered a donation. To inflate the percentage of annual giving, they could even claim that it was to be banked a dollar a year for each of the next five years. Now this is something the fellas on Wall Street can understand.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16, 2007--Heading North

I'm on the road this morning but will be resume blogging tomorrow. See you then.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August 15, 2007--"Holly Cow!"

Just two weeks after meta-size Barry Bonds made his version of homerun history, the diminutive Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, best known for his ability to bunt the ball, died at age 89. (See NY Times obituary linked below.)

But in his era there were many players who distinguished themselves by playing what we today call “small ball.” There were legendary “slap hitters” such as Enos Slaughter and some who made names for themselves by stealing bases. Yet others were known more for “doctoring” the ball by applying spit to it than doctoring their bodies.

And many were legitimate characters who smoked and ate hot dogs in the dugout while the game was underway or were even more famous for their off-the-field escapades. (Various incidents in the Copacabana nightclub come to mind.) They had authentic nicknames like “Stinky” or “Yogi” whereas today they are more benign or flattering like “A Rod” or “Boomer.”

The Scooter was pretty much the last of that now literally dying breed.

The Yankees unceremoniously cut him from their roster in 1954, but he quickly resurfaced as a Yankee announcer where he became a different kind of legend, holding down that job for nearly 40 years. He was especially wonderful on the radio (the best medium for experiencing the game—in many ways even better than being at the ballpark itself) and was at his very best when one team or the other was so far in the lead that what was going on on the field no longer mattered. It was at these indolent times when he would free-associatively opine about whatever was on his mind—frequently it was the birthdays and anniversaries and illnesses of lifelong friends and Yankee fans or the comparative qualities of different kinds of cannolis.

At a time when even public discourse coarsened and civility became obsolete, the Scooter reminded us of other ways to express upset and elation. The worst thing he could say about anyone was to call him a “Huckleberry”; and when someone did something special on the field we smiled to hear his signature “Holy Cow!” Something extra special such as Roger Maris’ 61st homerun brought forth three such Holy Cows!

The Scooter, well into his 80s, remained a man-child, reminding us that baseball is after all still a boy’s game even as players earn millions and hotdogs at the ballpark cost five bucks.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

August 14, 2007--Aging In Place

In the old days almost everyone remained at home while growing old and eventually dying.

If the family was fortunate they had a big house with a room upstairs where mom and dad continued to live surrounded by and taken care of by their children and grandchildren. I do not mean to romanticize this. In many cases having aging and sickly parents living with you was a daunting responsibility. At times their presence was so disruptive that it tore families apart, but for most people it was either how they wanted to live or they simply had no other choice.

Now we have so institutionalized old age and elder care that most seniors (even that appellation is a patronizing euphemism) who need assistance have a many-tiered series of places to which to go or be sent. From “retirement communities” to “assisted living facilities” to “nursing homes” to “hospices.” For too many they wind up in all four, what Anne Tyler in a novel that has this title calls “the ladder of years.”

I am of such an age now that I have visited many friends and relatives in such places. Some are clean and cheery and well managed. Others, too many, are so grim and uncaring that it breaks your heart to find a loved one warehoused in such circumstances. In too many cases this indignity is made worse by the guilt and financial burden placed on families. Even if inclined, with everyone needing to work and for most people living in modest-sized places, there is no good alternative to institutional care. And the prohibitive costs of care are such that families are frequently bankrupted in the process. Minimally, before Medicaid kicks in a resident in a nursing home needs to be “pauperized” (that’s literally the official word for this) before she or he become eligible for federal assistance.

Of course this is a national disgrace and needs fixing. No other developed country treats its old folks so cruelly. But we know that there are so many corporate and governmental forces aligned against systemic change that we had better figure out some alternatives to any dream of national health care—what opponents slander with the epithet “socialized medicine.”

There are some encouraging, still small-scale citizen-organized approaches that are reported about in today’s NY Times (article linked below). One has elderly neighbors forming nonprofit corporations that provide for them transportation, home repair, security, and other services so that they can remain where they are. Nine in ten Americans over age 60 say they want to live out their lives in their own homes.

This notion of neighbors coming together to help each other out through good and hard times has its roots in the earlier rural tradition of things such as barn-raising and farming cooperatives--I’ll help you build your place and loan you my harvester if you one day do the same thing for me.

We have gotten used to governments taking care of more and more of our needs while at the same time discovering in frustration that they are not very good at it. Our schools are failing, our infrastructure is crumbling, and when we have a disaster (Katrina) even our first-responders are incompetent and uncaring. Of course we shouldn’t give up on trying to hold public officials accountable; but while waiting for that millennium, figuring out how to take more control of our own lives so we can live the way we want to live sounds smart.

Monday, August 13, 2007

August 13, 2007--Voldemort

Though I am one of the few who has not as yet read even one page of a Harry Potter book, I have an interest in how they are doing since I have a friend who has a considerable stake in their publication. And so while driving around out west a few days before and after July 21st, I sent him very informal reports about how The Deathly Hallows was doing.

On the morning of the 22nd, less than ten hours after the book went on sale, at a small guest ranch in remote Wyoming, I spotted 15 copies in the hands of avid readers. I knew exactly how avid by the placement of their bookmark (deep into the bulky volume), and how relatively tattered the dust jackets appeared to be (quite).

The next morning, at Stella’s Kitchen in Billings, Montana there were two in evidence—one in the work-stained hands of a rancher who was on about page 200 and didn’t put the book down while working on his biscuits and gravy; another was being passed around among a group of a dozen mainly Koreans who were at a nearby summer camp for evangelicals.

The day after, when checking into a hotel, there was a decidedly-middle aged woman clutching a copy to her ample bosom. When I asked her how she was enjoying it she said, “I looove it! That is, if it ends the right way.”

And so in my reports I noted that though I had spotted up to two dozen books all were being devoured by adults. When I returned home my friend confirmed that the majority of Harry Potter readers were in fact adults. Thus I was surprised when I got my hands on the the NY Times Sunday Book Review not to find it at the top of the fiction list. I knew Scholastic printed 12 million copies and sold more than 8 million during the first 24 hours. With all due respects to Khaled Hosseini, his Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t selling quite as well.

I did though find Harry Potter on the list of children’s Best Sellers (linked below) under the category Series. Described in this strange, Hogwartian way—

HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling (Levine/Scholastic, hardcover and paperback.) Trouble at Hogwarts. (Ages 10 and up)

Over coffee, when I asked my friend about this—Since readers much older than 10 are the majority of Rowling readers, why aren’t her books eligible for adult best seller status?

He smiled in a way that alerted me to the likelihood that I would not like his answer since he knows I am a devotee of the NY Times. He said, if they including Rowling’s books, stressing the plural, all seven of them would appear on the 15-book best sellers list. He suggested that I look at the USA Today list—there, he said, since the first six books continue to sell very well, I would see that all of the Potter books are among the top twelve.

“Why then,” I naively asked, “does the Times do this?”

“Simple,” he said, “many authors have clauses in their contracts that guarantee them a bonus if their books become best sellers, and with only 15 places on the Times list they don’t want to see so many taken up by Harry Potter.”

“But wouldn’t the publishers,” I pressed even more innocently, “be happy about that—they wouldn’t have to pay so many authors extra?”

“Actually, publishers are eager to have more of their authors listed and they are more than happy to pay them bonuses because if one of their books gets onto the best sellers list they get better shelf space at chains such as Barnes & Noble and this in itself leads to more sales. Success breeds success.”

He got up to leave and, smiling, added, “But there’s no need to feel badly for Jo Rowling. Or, for that matter, me.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

August 10, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXVI: The B-Word

It used to be said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But there are certain words that are worth many more. “Nigger,” for example. More words, more blood have been spilled over its use than perhaps any other word or epithet. So much so that one cannot use it comfortably even, like here, when attempting to write about it analytically. Books such as Huckleberry Finn have been banned because they include the N-word, albeit in the case of Huck affectionately and satirically. And its use has been legislatively banned in many places, of course, including New York City where earlier this year the City Council passed legislation forbidding its use.

That initiative, which I suppose was so effective in stamping out bigotry and discrimination, is now leading to a move to ban other linguistic slurs. Councilwoman Darlene Mealy is pressing for the passage of a law that would forbid the use of Bitch, “the B-word” as it is referred to in her bill. She claims that it represents “a vile attack on women.” She is quick to add, though, that the word as it applies to female dogs--its classical meaning: they use it all the time at the elite Westminster Kennel Club Show--will be “grandfathered in.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

Thus far nearly half her City Council colleagues have signed on; and while they were at it added “Ho” to the list of banned words, citing its corrupting use, as well as “Bitch,” in hip-hop music. In fact, they cited ten rappers by name in the legislation as especially guilty of committing these linguistic crimes.

This by the way is occurring in the same city that was virtually shut down on Wednesday by two inches of rain. While the City Council and the Mayor were engaged in this noble effort, nearly all the subways were shut down for the entire day and there was no system to inform riders of what was happening. In a post-9/11 world, almost six years after the fact, unlike other cities, we have no way to alert people to subway delays much less acts of underground terrorism.

Rather, our leaders have turned their attention to protecting women from the wounds of this word, again quoting Ms. Mealy, because it creates “a paradigm of shame and indignity” for all women.

While we’re at it, how about banning the P-word? I’m paradigmed out.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

August 9, 207--Cultural Intelligence

What an irony. The U.S. is by far the most religious of Western countries and thus most guided by these and related kinds of cultural forces. But when it comes time to assert ourselves in the larger world we over and over again forget the power of culture and as a result blunder into situations where we do not belong and once there wind up making a mess because we ignore the very kinds of things that characterize us as a people.

There is a dissonance between what our policy and media elites see to be motivating people and the actual ways in which Americans behave. These elites, which by and large are secular children of the Enlightenment, distrust emotion and belief and thus argue that people and societies will behave "rationally" if only given the opportunity to do so. "Rationally" to them means that all people will aspire to be like us--to have our values and seek lives similar to ours--if they are freed to make that rational choice. This in spite of the evidence that most contemporary Americans, by this definition, opt not to do so and instead choose to lead belief-driven lives.

So when we find ourselves frustrated with our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan or Iraq we do not know where to turn to understand the sources of our failures or what to do in order to behave more sensitively or effectively. Many (most by now) would likely say we shouldn’t have embarked on these misguided adventures. But here we are, and thus what to do?

In the past, when we were at war with people from cultures very different than ours we turned to anthropologists for their help in understanding the enemy. A classic case is Ruth Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a study she was commissioned to undertake during the Second World War when our troops were seeking strategies that would work against Japanese soldiers who behaved in ways that confounded our notions of “rational warfare.”

We would do well, then, to listen to what scholars today might tell us about the peoples we are ostensibly attempting to liberate. For example, part of our ineffectiveness in bringing some form of democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq is impeded by the fact that both of these countries are populated largely by descendents of nomads for whom the customs and institutions of family, clan, and tribe are the governing cultural realities. To not take this into consideration when working to impose centralized governments on people who are fiercely independent dooms our efforts to failure.

As one telling example, Michael Frachetti of Washington University has been studying nomadic traditions in Kazakhstan and contends that contemporary policy makers who ignore the importance of “cultural intelligence,” the critical roles that the cultural echoes of that ancient way of life play in contemporary society, will fail in any effort to simply graft onto these traditional institutions our notions of nation-state, parliament, a judicial system, and other kinds of governmental agencies. (See NY Times article linked below.) He says, “Some of our foreign policy complications [in Afghanistan] derive from our inability to locate a nomadic dynamic within contemporary political structures.”

I know well that scholars helped get us involved in Vietnam (remember “the best and the brightest”?), but perhaps if we are careful about who we listen to some of them can help rescue us from ourselves.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

August 8, 2007--Number 756

Why all the fuss about Barry Bonds breaking Henry Aaron’s homerun record? (See NY Times story linked below.) Would we feel the same way if someone broke Wilt Chamberlain’s lifetime basketball scoring record or Gary Anderson’s lifetime NFL scoring record? I even wonder how many non-sports-enthusiasts know that Wilt and Anderson own these records. Until I looked it up just now I never even heard of Anderson who scored all his 2,434 point by kicking field goals and extra points.

Some assert that the fuss stems from the credible allegation that Bonds cheated by bulking up on steroids and human growth hormones that are banned by Major League Baseball. Just take a look at the size of his head if you have any doubts about that. There was a version of similar complains when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record because Hammerin’ Hank played during the era of the lively ball which made it easier than in the Babe’s day to hit them out of the park. The fact that Aaron is black and Ruth was white undoubtedly also played a role in some baseball aficionados resenting his achievement.

But Aaron wasn’t personally responsible for the kind of baseball used while Bonds took it upon himself to cheat. That of course is a critical difference.

This, though, doesn’t deal with the question as to why records and statistics are so central to fans’ involvement with baseball. Yes, there are basketball heroes such as Michael Jordan and football stars who everyone knows such as Joe Namath; but hardly anyone knows Joe’s lifetime pass completion record or the most points Jordan ever scored in a single game. Or for that matter, how many major championships Jack Nicklaus won. Much less how many soccer goals David Beckham has thus far scored. Or the record in the 100 meter dash. And how many remember how many gold medals Mark Spitz won in the 1972 Olympics?

With the exception of Nicklaus’ record (18) I had to look up the answers to all the others. But I can tell you from deep memory how many homeruns Ruth hit (714); how many consecutive games Cal Ripken played (2,632, breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 ); how many games in a row Joe DiMaggio hit safely in (56); how many wins did Cy Young have during his lifetime (511 ). Pretty much any semiserious baseball fan knows these records by heart (I almost wrote “by DNA”) and dozens more.

Baseball is of course mainly about the day-to-day games themselves, but it is almost equally about season-long and lifetime records. This is in large part because baseball is about time. Which is ironic since baseball is the only major sport that is not ruled by the clock—to quote Yogi, “It isn’t over until it’s over.” And as such, with its long season of ebbs and flows and slow unfolding drama, is an ideal metaphor for life itself. Just as we keep track of our own lives’ statistics and records (births, anniversaries, deaths) so does baseball. It is thus also a game that in its essence thrives on the associations forged by memory and shaped by the passage of time.

Note, as well, how many idioms that enrich the vernacular side of American English come from baseball: I can’t get to first base with you; I struck out on that deal; I felt relegated to left field; I went to bat for you; I’ll take a rain check; It’s time to step up to the plate; He threw me a curve; I had two strikes against me; etc.

So when a Barry Bonds comes along and for the sake of personal aggrandizement interferes with these powerful archetypical forces that surge through our cultural bloodstream, he is doing much more than just stealing a record. He is tampering with one important way in which we keep track of and understand the meaning of the trajectory of our lives.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

August 7, 2007--The Monkey

We were turned around. Not lost exactly, but confused and disoriented. The Brock Hotel was supposed to be holding a room for us that was guaranteed to have a “full view of the Falls.” It was getting late and we were worried about the dependability of the guarantee. We had driven 300 miles through 100 degree temperatures to get here, and what else was there to do in Niagara Falls other than look at the Falls. Thus, to wind up in a room with a view of the parking lot would be a considerable disappointment. So, against my usual instinct, I said to Rona, “Maybe we should ask someone for directions.”

We had turned into a cul de sac that was in reality a road that led to a parking lot which advertised that it was a “only a short walk to the Horseshoe Falls.” At its entrance, seemingly camped out on a beach chair was the attendant. He rose to wave us in and to collect the six dollars Canadian. I rolled down the window, letting the heat blast away at us, and indicated that we didn’t want to park but rather, I said, “We’re looking for the Brock Hotel. I think it’s nearby because it’s supposed to have a full view of the Falls; but we’re sort of lost and thought you might be able to give us directions.”

“I’ve been working here for 40 years and have seen them come and go. The hotels I mean. And you’re right, the Brock is not more than five or six blocks over that away.” He pointed north up toward where I remembered the American Falls to be. Now I was concerned about exactly what the hotel’s website meant by “full view”—the falls on the American side, as I remembered them from years ago, were by comparison nature’s afterthought.

“So, what do we have to do to get there? The streets around here look a little complicated to me.”

“Oh, you won’t have a problem. As I said, I’ve been working this lot for a long time and can tell you just what to do.” And with that he said to Rona, sensing correctly that she was more likely than me to comprehend and more important remember even simple directions. To do so, he rested his elbows on the sill of my opened window and ducked his head into the car. This allowed me to get close-up look at him and the effects of sitting out there in all weather for 40 years.

Since his head loomed right there in front of me I was struck first by the duct tape that was wrapped around its crown. The silver tape covered the tops of his ears as well as half of his forehead; and I thought he would only have done this to cover some terrible disfigurement or, could it possibly be since a kerchief would suffice to do that, to hold shattered fragments of his head together.

He must have read my mind or noticed my staring because he turned from Rona to me and, lifting from his head his sweat-stained canvas pith helmet, said with a chuckle, “I know what you’re thinkin’, everyone does, but I use this here tape inside the rim of my hat to keep it from falling apart, and after a long day in this heat it tends to slip down on my head and looks kinda funny don’tcha think?. You see, I have this here hat for more years than I can remember; and since I’m reaching retirement age soon, don’t want to have to buy a new one. So this works out fine for me and does bring about some good laughs. Don’t you know, it gets kind of boring sitting out here day after day. Did I tell you I’ve been working this same lot 40 years when it was the place to come for your honeymoons? I think I did. I remember it when it was just dirt and gravel. This lot. When it was dry like that you had to wear a wet rag over your mouth to keep from chokin’ to death. But it was OK. It paid the rent and put food on the table for Teresa and me, bless her soul. Did I tell you she passed on? I get so mixed up these days. Must be the sun. And they say the earth’s warming up. I can tell you there’s a lot less water then ever comin’ over those falls out there. But what are you gonna do?”

We didn’t respond even though we had seen more evidence of that during our drive around the Great Lakes. “By the way,” he added touching the brim of his hat, “I’m Johnny.” We both smiled back at him. “Nice to meet you folks.”

We told him our names and, not wanting to prolong this, I said, “Well, it sure is hot,” I was eager to get the window closed to allow the AC to cool us down. “Like I told you, we’re a little confused about how to get to the hotel. I think you said it’s right back over there on the other side of the overpass, then another right, and a final right at the first traffic light.”

Ignoring me, he smiled at Rona, and said, “As I told you, it’s a left at that light. If you go right you wind up in the big parking light by the Canadian Falls, that’s what we in the business call them, and they’ll charge you 18 dollars just to turn around. If you want to park, here it’ll only cost you six.”

“Thanks very much, but as I said we’re eager to check in since they’re supposed to be holding a room for us with a view.”

“Well, that would be a good thing since after all that’s what you’re here for.” He winked at Rona, maybe thinking we were on our honeymoon and who knows what a view of the Falls might inspire.

Having directed us, he stepped back from the car and I immediately began to close the window to shut out the waves of heat. While attempting a U turn to get us pointed in the right direction, I noticed him checking his watch and then, turning away from us, looking up toward the sky. I nodded to Rona when she reminded me that the first right was just on the other side of the small bridge. But before I could get us moving forward, Johnny trotted back over to the car and tapped on my window with his wedding band.

I reluctantly lowered it half way, it was cooling down nicely and I didn’t want to let too much air escape. I looked up at him. In spite of the duct tape, streams of sweat were rolling down onto the front of his shirt. Some dripped on the side of the car where he was again leaning. “You know, it’s almost four o’clock.” This didn’t mean anything special to us except maybe that was the time was approaching when the hotels in the area released the guarantees on their rooms with views. “I see you folks don’t know about what’s goin’ on over there. I should say, what’s about to happen.” Without turning away from us he pointed back over his shoulder toward the sky where he had just been looking. “At exactly four he’s gonna walk across that tightrope.” He continued to point.

I thought, I know what’s really going on here—he’s tying to get us to pull into his parking lot. From the looks of all those empty spaces it’s been a slow day. But just as I was about to close the window for the last time and race away from there and him, he said, “It’s quite an attraction. He’s been at it every day for nearly 35 years now. Almost as long as I’ve been sittin’ over there. If you have the time you might want to wait around ’til four. It won’t cost you anything.” He was reading my thoughts again.

Also sensing my mood, Rona said, “What’s the rush? We’ve been driving for six hours today so what’s another few minutes? If he says there’s something special about to happen, he should know.” And without waiting for me to respond she asked Johnny, “Tell me what it is? I’m interested.”

“If you like you can sit where you are and stay cool in the air conditioning; but if you look over there where I’m pointing, you’ll see what I mean.”

Rona leaned over me to look out of my still half-closed window. “I don’t see anything.”

“Look way up there,” he said, “By the roof of the Hilton hotel. And then just to the left of it. Look for something that looks like a construction crane. Except one that standing straight up in the air. Right up there almost as high as the roof. About 20 storeys high.”

Rona was the first to spot what he was pointing out and exclaimed, “Is that a man standing up there on top of it?” By then I noticed him too.

“Yup, that’s him way up there. Like I said he’s been doin’ this twice a day for 35 years.”

“You mean he’s going to walk across that tightrope to the other tower? It looks like it’s a half mile away.”

“That’s about right.”

“Is there a net?” Rona asked. Johnny shook his head. “Because if there isn’t I don’t think I can watch. I’ll have nightmares all night.”

“That’s OK,” I said, “We can go. It’s getting late and we should probably get moving.”

“But I can’t not stay to watch him. It will be even worse if I don’t know if he made it across.”

I understood her logic and so we stayed for the full half hour that it took him, painful step by step, to get to the other side--first along the long down slope, then to the leveler part of the parabola, and finally, even more arduously, up the steep incline to the safety of the second tower.

And while he was at it, Johnny filled us in about the long history of daredeviltry at the Falls. How in the old days a series of tightrope walkers persuaded the powers-that-be to allow them to attempt to cross the Falls themselves—some not making it very far and perishing in the rapids. And how others came from all over the world to try to survive going over the falls in wooden barrels. “Can you believe it these people climbed into an old pickle or nail barrel and then got their friends or relatives to seal them in and then push the barrels and them into the rapids up top. I saw a few in my time and you can only imagine what happened to most all of them. Hardly any were ever found as they got swept down along there into Lake Ontario.”

He wiped his brow at recalling the old days. “Call them crazy if you will; but they were only trying to bring a little something special into their lives. Most came from small towns where there was nothing for them but lots of struggles. They must have dreamed about becoming famous by doin’ this. You know, getting their names in the papers. That sort of thing. Anything to relieve the hopelessness. Those were hard times.”

Though we couldn’t take our eyes off the man high up on the wire, we heard what Johnny was telling us and understood. Rona said, “Not so different from today for many people who also dream about being famous. Even for just those 15 minutes.”

“I agree with you there,” Johnny said.

I asked, “How long has he been doing this? You said he does it twice a day.”

“That’s right, at four and then again at eight. If you have the time come out and see him again tonight.” Rona shook her head—once was clearly enough. She wasn’t inclined to want to risk her sleep any further.

“Be sure to watch carefully. He’s over there on the other side now, but if you ask me the way he gets down is part of the show. He’s 63 years old and . . .”

I was incredulous. “How old?” I asked, thinking maybe I had misheard.

“You heard me—63. He’s gonna retire in two years and they may let him walk across the Falls as a sort of retirement present. Though he does make good money. I understand $500 each time.”

“Each time or each day?”

“Each way. But look, look at him now, he’s about to come down. Watch how he does it. Just like a monkey.”

Monday, August 06, 2007

August 6, 2007--The Incredible Shrinking "NY Times"

As of this morning, after 156 years of continuous publication, the NY Times is one-and-a half inches narrower. Wall Street Journal size. One more inch and it will look just like the New York Post.

This is more evidence of trouble in the newspaper industry—a readership that has drifted over to the Internet or the Daily Show to get its news and is thus shrinking faster than the physical paper itself; the decline in the number of pages of advertising; and the continuing rising cost of everything, especially and including newsprint.

So why not just fess up to that and get on with it. But, no, the Times in its announcement of these changes made it sound as if nothing really is happening and regular readers will not see any significant difference in the paper or its coverage of the news.

Here’s the announcement itself, right off yesterday’s front page. See if you too can see the spin and obfuscations:

Starting Monday, The Times will reduce the width of its pages by an inch and a half, to the national 12-inch newspaper standard. The move will cut newsprint expenses and, in some printing locations, will make special configurations unnecessary. Slight modifications in design will preserve the look and texture of The Times, with all existing features and sections and somewhat fewer words per page.

The “national standard” claim is a fiction—there is none. Yes, the WSJ is now 12 inches wide but that happened a mere few months ago. I guess that’s all the time it takes nowadays to make something “standard.”

Yes, the cost to the Times of newsprint will be cut, but not revealed is the fact that the “somewhat fewer words per page” will also mean the need for fewer reporters, editors, and related staff—if I recall, 110 Times staff will be losing their jobs.

And about those fewer words—how many is “somewhat” fewer? The scientist in me forced me to do a quick comparative word count—the number of words on the front page of Sunday’s paper as opposed to today’s. Excluding pictures and headlines, on Sunday there were approximately 2,140; on Monday 1,730. So, if you’re looking for the definition of “somewhat,” now you have it.

If this cost-containment strategy doesn’t work, like the Wall Street Journal Bancroft family that just sold out to Rupert Murdoch, the Sulzberger family which still owns the Times I’m certain know where to reach Rupert.

Friday, August 03, 2007

August 3, 2007--The "Quiet Room"

It wasn’t a good sign that I didn’t know where to find the belt for my bathrobe.

I had never been to a spa before and when the very nice attendant helped me slip it on, after seeing me struggling to find it and sensing that I had come to the conclusion that it was not for some reason included, in a hushed voice, since we were in the Quiet Room, she told me it was hanging right there on the back where it had been stitched in place. Embarrassed for the first of a number of times to come, she as gently as she spoke, reached behind me and drew the two ends to the front, asking, “Do you need any help tying it?”

Only slightly embarrassed this time, trying not to sound inappropriately uncalm considering where this was transpiring, I said, “I think I can manage, thank you. I do have one at home, but it has a belt that comes pre-strung through the loops.”

At last with me securely belted up, she asked, “Can I give you a tour?”

“That would be nice,” I said.

“Well, let’s start right here in the Quiet Room. As you can see the lights are very dim. That’s intentional. It helps guests to relax. And we also have these relaxation beds.” She pointed to about twenty of these arranged in a dimly-lit circle that she said is an “ideal arrangement to induce relaxation,” adding, “It’s a very spiritual arrangement.”

My eyes by then had adjusted to the light and I could see the teak-wood, slatted chaise-like relaxation beds covered head-to-foot with various layers of linen sheets and terrycloth towels. I also noticed that they were not adjustable and that the end where one was to presumably place one’s head was quite a bit lower than where one’s legs would wind go. “If I lie on one of them,” I asked, “won’t I get dizzy, and,” knowing my propensities, “maybe even pass out? I don’t want you to have to call 911.” I chuckled less from my sorry attempt at humor than out of nervousness.

“That wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’re very close to the local hospital. You might have seen it when you drove here from Auburn.”

“I didn’t see it but it’s good to know it’s right here. I feel certain that will help me to relax.”

Ignoring that ironic barb, or missing it entirely, she pressed on, “I don’t know if you noticed the music we have here in the Quiet Room. It was very carefully selected by our spa manager. He came to us from California and put these tapes together especially for us. They’re very relaxing and meditative don’t you think?”

“Oh yes, I can hear it now.” What sounding like wind chimes accompanied by a lute was faintly audible as if descending from the vaulted ceiling which I saw was covered with fluffy frescoed clouds. “The music does sound very meditative.”

“I’m so glad you feel that way because at 4:30 this afternoon, the spa manager himself, Evan is his name, he will be conducting a meditation and relaxation session right here in the Quiet Room. If you’d like, I can reserve a relaxation bed for you. We still have a few free, including one right over there by the water fall. I know it’s hard to see because of the way Evan has the lights turned down but maybe you can hear it. He adjusts the flow of the water just so, so at the same time you can still hear the music and also the relaxing sound of the water. Should I save a place for you? There’s no extra charge of course and Evan wants guests to know he doesn’t accept gratuities.” I nodded, thinking I should sign up for something. All the other scheduled activities sounded too strenuous for total relaxation—Pilates, aerobics, fasting, purging.

“And,” she continued, looking very pleased that I was getting drawn into participating in at least one thing that they had obviously taken so much care and thought to organize, “Did you notice that these specially-designed bathrobes do not have any pockets? Though all the brochures say this is so guests will not bring cell phones to the Quiet Room it’s really because Evan doesn’t want anyone to have any money with them. He feels strongly that we should ‘leave the world behind,’ that’s what he always says, when we enter here.” She smiled ecstatically—I knew that because I could see, through the gloom of the scented air, the light emitted by the whiteness of her glowing teeth.

“Also there’s one more thing I must show you. I feel that from the way you responded to the music that this will be one of your favorite activities while you’re here with us.” Again gently, she turned me away from the circle of beds and pointed toward what appeared to be a cedar-wood door. “Right there,” she said, “behind that door is our Eucalyptus Shower.” While my eyes strained to adjust again to the even-dimmer light in that corner of the Quiet Room, Shelly, she had introduced herself, remained stationary, still smiling broadly and pointing at the shower door.

“I have to confess, though you’ve probably figured it out by now, that I’m not that experienced with spas and I’ve never heard of that kind of shower. How does it work—do they put eucalyptus in the water?”

“You’re being silly again,” she punched he softly and conspiratorially on the shoulder of my robe, “It’s really a steam shower.”

“Steam? That sounds pretty hot to me. I have very delicate skin. Though,” I winked at her, “you already told me the hospital is just down the block.”

“Actually it’s down the road; but you don’t stand under the steam like you do in a water shower. You would get burned if you did that.” Exactly, I thought but didn’t say anything. “It’s more like a steam bath. We make steam and put eucalyptus oil in it. Everyone in California takes them. Evan feels it’s good for your spirit as well as your body. It’s aromatherapy. You know about that I’m sure.” I chose not to contradict her, hoping the eucalyptus steam bath wasn’t going to be too big a part of the session I had signed up for. Having grown up in Brooklyn I was still more of a regular water shower kind of person.

* * *

It was nearly 4:00 and since I had a half hour to kill I decided to walk around the grounds. They are very beautiful, and from the inn’s brochure I understood are modeled after Monet’s garden in Giverny. I wandered around a bit, over the arched wooden bridge that spanned the water lily pond just like the one so familiar in Monet’s late paintings; and before I knew it, it was time to return to the Quiet Room. In fact, it was nearly four-forty. I was ten minutes late but thought that would be all right since for like an experience I was about to have, leaving the world behind, as Evan always said, I felt certain no one would be watching the clock.

But I was wrong—pacing back and forth by the door, tapping on his watch was, I was sure, Evan. Blonde streaks such as his could only be come by in California. In a harsh whisper he admonished me, “Everyone else is here waiting for you so they can relax. Please get onto your relaxation bed so we can start.”

Pulling my robe even tighter around me in an attempt to make myself invisible, I slunk over to, wouldn’t you know it, bed number 13. As quickly as I could, half tangled up in my ankle-length robe, I lowered myself onto the bed, not at all gracefully since, as you know, the head end was so much lower that that for my legs. But I did manage to get settled without choking myself with the belt.

Almost immediately I realized that much too much blood was rushing in the wrong direction; and, as unanatomically correct as it may seem, I was getting quite dizzy while lying down. I had feared that this would happen at the end of the session when attempting to get up.

To cover my anxiety, sotto voce, I said, as the heavenly music continued to envelope us, “Lying here like this reminds me of a being in a mausoleum.” And to tell you the truth, as I looked around at the other nineteen lying there wrapped up like mummies in their oversized robes, if they had been orange and not of white, we would have looked at lot more like members of that Hale-Bopp cult than guests paying $500 a night so we could relax.

I vowed that if I survived the session and manage to avoid being raced over to the hospital, at dinner later than night in the inn’s award-wining restaurant I would be sure to have their legendary Mood Altering Warm Chocolate Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream and Toasted Walnuts. As they note on the menu—“Because You Deserve It.”


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

August 1, 2007--Talking to Strangers

“Are you familiar with The Soo”?

We had just finished breakfast at Ernie’s, a joint on Queen Street that serves, it would appear, a clientele of regulars since the waitress knew everyone by name and just how they liked their eggs.

He had been in a booth with a friend and since all them were occupied, we climbed onto stools at the scarred-up Formica counter. I ordered two scrambled eggs with “peameal” bacon, thinking it would be the vegetarian kind. When it came time to pay he needed to come to the counter to do that and a faux ruckus erupted—he had a twenty and the waitress didn’t have enough change. She needed to get some from Ernie who was in the kitchen frying up the bacon. When she returned, he told her that she didn’t give him enough since he had given her a “C note.” She gave it back as good to him as he gave it to her.

And as inveterate New Yorkers we couldn’t resist joining in. Rona said that he in fact was right—“He didn’t give you a hundred. He gave you a five.” By then the whole place had joined in. Lots of joshing back and forth–a typical morning at Ernie’s

We paid up and wouldn’t you know it, there he was out on the street clearly waiting for us. To tell you the truth, my heart skipped a quick beat thinking who knows what. But approaching us with a smile, calming me down, he said, “Are you familiar with The Soo?”

From the waitress at dinner the night before we had learned that’s what longtime residents call Sault Ste. Marie. We got the “Ste. Marie” part but not the “Sault” (Soo). From something we read in the hotel we knew that the city is strategically situated on the St. Mary River which connects Lakes Superior and Huron. But there was nothing about the Sault part of the city’s name. In the old days, we also learned, all the big boats (Lakers) hauling iron ore from points west toward the steel mills in the east would have to use the locks to avoid the rapids on the river.

So there were things about the city about which we were unfamiliar—“The Soo” itself, for example.

We caught ourselves about to say back to him, “Actually, there are lots of things about The Soo with which we are not familiar. You see [here’s where we about to go wrong] we’re from New York City.”

For sure he then would’ve said, “Oh, New York. I was there eight years ago. It’s a hellova place. Where do you guys live? I bet in Manhattan.”

And we would have said, “Yeah. Downtown. In the Village. When you were there did you get down there?” Then all three of us would have gone on talking about New York and we would have walked away from Ernie’s and him not any the wiser about his town.

But fortunately, we said, “We’re passing through but this place seems very interesting.”

“Well it is. Did you know that more than half the folks living here are Italians? That’s why there are so many good restaurants. Like Ernie’s.”

“Yes, we liked it very much.”

“It’s been here more than 50 years and old Ernie’s still in the kitchen. How did you find out about it anyway? It’s not in any books about The Soo.”

“We drove by it last night and liked the neon sign. You know, the one with the big coffee cup. And when we came by this morning at 7:30 it was the only place in town that had a lot of cars parked out front.”

“Funny, when I’m travelin’ that’s how I pick places to eat. Never fails. And he cooks good dinners too. If you have the time, stop by tonight because for eight bucks he puts out a rack of short ribs that are the best ever. There’s enough for two.”

We had plans to leave right after breakfast with a host of hotel and lodge reservations stacked up for the next six days, but from what he was telling us about those ribs we looked at each other tempted to change our plans.

“And if you need the best pizza in Canada . . . you like pies I bet . . . well if you do, there’s Giovanni’s up on East Street. But if you don’t like that, Muio’s got broasted chicken that folks will drive a hundred miles to get their hands on.”

“How did you know—that’s where we went last night. It is amazing.”

“Did you have it with the homemade ravioli or the gnocchi?

“Actually, both! When she brought the plates the waitress said, ‘Good luck.’”

“And I know why? Bet neither of you finished. Am I right?” We smiled and nodded, giving our stomachs a rub for good measure.

“This is one good eatin’ town.” Still not a word about New York. “But you just had a big breakfast so why’re we talkin’ about food?”

“Actually, there’s one thing I’m wondering about--why do they call the bacon I had ‘peameal’? I’m not a vegetarian but ordered it because I never heard of it, and it turned out to be meat. Sort of like a ham steak.”

“It’s pork all right, a specialty of this area. Tasted real good and sweet too I’ll bet?” I nodded again. “That’s because after it’s sweet-pickle cured these days it’s days coated in yellow cornmeal but in the past peameal was used.” He chuckled, “I bet you’d like to take some home with you.” He

“You’re right,” I said, and then almost added, “I wish we could get it in New York,” but was able to restrain myself and instead asked, “There’s another thing we’re puzzling about. We asked the waitress at Muio’s, but she didn’t know, what’s ‘The Soo’”?

“He snorted, “No surprise. I bet she was a kid.” She was very nice and looked to us to be about twenty. “You see, none of them know anything anymore ‘bout anything. I don’t know what they teach ‘em in school these days. ‘The Soo,’ I’m sure you figured this out already, is what natives call this city. I mean folks born here not the Indians. We have a lot of those too. Mainly Chippewa. ‘Sault’ is the ancient French word for waterfalls or rapids, pronounced then and now sort of like the girl’s name ‘Sue.’”

And that led to a whole conversation about the first settlers—the ancestors of today’s Indians. He told us the first people arrived here more than 9,000 years ago and remained because the fish and game were so plentiful. And then much later the fur trappers arrived, French and English, who worked out a system to get pelts down from northwestern Canada by using voyageurs who transported them in long 8-12 man canoes across the Great Lakes and on out to Montreal. Most amazing was that when they got to the frequent rapids connecting the network of lakes the voyageurs miles of land in some cases. An extraordinary effort—all to make felt out of beaver fur for hatneeded to carry the pelts, about 9,000 pound per boat, and the boats themselves over land. Manys for the rich and fashionable in Europe. And then, he told us, the whole trade collapsed when the King of England decided he preferred silk to felt! “Not much changes if you ask me.”

Once more I almost blurted out, “You know, downtown, where we live in New York, they made felt hats from the furs brought to America by John Jacob Astor who actually lived just three blocks from us. . . .” But fortunately I managed to keep my mouth shut.