Saturday, September 29, 2007

September 29, 2007--Saturday Story: Mt. Lebanon--The End

The best way to get there is to take the Long Island Expressway, heading east from the city. Just after passing the old Worlds Fair grounds, look for an exit that will come up quickly on your right. You’ll need to make a sharp turn at Exit 22E, College Point Boulevard, and in less than a hundred yards will have to hit the breaks or you’ll shoot right by the entrance to Mt. Hebron Cemetery, the site of the Zazlo family plot.

My Aunt Madeline is the only Zazlo I ever have any interest in visiting so I always schedule a quick stop there before proceeding to Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, where my parents and all the Malones are now buried. This particular time I hoped seeing Madeline would be quick because I knew I needed to be with the Malones for at least an hour since I hadn’t been there for quite some time. But with Madeline one never knows. She always has a lot on her mind and, if you’ve been following this chronicle even casually, you know she has never felt shy about speaking it.

I was still ten yards from the gravesite when I already heard her familiar bark, “So you’ve been too busy to visit me. Some favorite nephew you turned out to be.” From that I knew I was in for it and that this was not going to be quick; and so rather than remain standing by her headstone as I usually did, I sat on the bench my father had insisted be placed there even though it took up a precious burial plot—real estate at Mt. Hebron had always in short supply, especially after Madeline lost her third husband and insisted he join the other two, reserving a narrow place for herself squeezed between Murray and her “lover,” third-husband Harry.

But in spite of the holocaust that wiped out her husbands and thus took up two more graves than she was entitled to, my father still prevailed, asserting that a family as proudly assimilated in America as the Zazlos could afford to give up a plot for a bench. Little did he know at the time that that plot would turn out to be his. My mother, after he died, ignored his lifelong plan to be buried to the immediate right of his father, the last expression of primogeniture for him, the first-born of a first-born—my mother, ignoring this ultimate wish, arranged to have him buried with the Malones, as close to her parents as possible, in Mt. Lebanon. She couldn’t stand the idea that she would have to endure the Zazlos, all talking at the same time at the top of their voices, for eternity.

“It’s just that I’ve been very busy lately,” I hemmed and hawed, “And you know we sold our car. And . . . ” I was trying to make excuses for myself, but Madeline would have none of it.

“With all that money I left you you’re too cheap to rent a car so you can come to see me? You think this is a picnic I’m having? My brother over there, your Uncle Sonny, is still treating me like I’m a who-er or something. He should talk. At least I married the men I fucked. Pardon my French. I wish I could say the same thing about him. But what good did that do me? They’re all good-for-nothings, my husbands. All they do is lie around here all day pretending they don’t know me. Even my wonderful Harry. Now that he can’t put his hands on me anymore he has no need for me. And I thought,” she spat, “that he was a man.”

“I liked Uncle Harry,” I said, hoping that might calm her and we could move on. I had an appointment back in the city in less than two hours.

“I’m not interested in talking about Harry. I’m finished with him.” Good, I thought, we’re making progress. “But I am interested in talking about you.” Uh, oh. “Since I don’t like very much what I’m hearing.”

“Well, Aunt Madeline . . . ”

“Don’t ‘well’ me. I know all the tricks. Yours included. My dear nephew, I have a bone to pick with you.” I didn’t say anything. “It’s about that wonderful wife of yours.”

“You mean Rona?” I said with a quiver of fear. That she wanted to pick a bone with me about Rona was unexpected and put me on my guard. Usually, if she had something on her mind, it was about money. Especially what we were doing with what she left us. To her, unless we put all of it in T Bills, we were being irresponsible.

“Of course Rona your wife. Who else? You have another one? I’m not talking about that bag-of-bones Lydia. The one with no chest. Of course I mean my Rona.”

It had been a love affair between them. At my father’s funeral service, at the most emotional of moments, Madeline, not hearing—she was nearly deaf—or caring about what was being said, had broadcast a non sequitur for all to hear, especially Rona’s mother, “Don’t tell me she’s your daughter. She’s my daughter.” And though this caused some nervous laughter, everyone knew Madeline was being at least half serious.

“Well, she’s OK” I managed to say, “Actually, that’s one of the things I wanted to tell you about—that she’s doing very well indeed. She got promoted at the university,” Rona had remained at NYU after I left to work at the Ford Foundation, “And she . . . ”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” she interrupted, “But I’m talking now about the disturbing things I’m hearing. You know I still have my sources.”

“I know that, but as I said, we’re doing well.” And though I wanted to distract her and get back on the road as quickly as possible, I still was curious to know what was on her mind and so, unable to stifle myself, I asked, “So, what are you hearing?”

“You may think that things are going well, my nephew, but I hear otherwise.”

To protect myself from what I knew was about to be an onslaught, I slumped back against the pine tree that was just behind my father’s bench and folded my arms nonchalantly across my chest. Then, against my better judgment, sighed and said, “OK, let me have it.” To complete my pose of studied indifference, I looked up at the sky and took in the drifting clouds to give the further impression that I was only half-heartedly listening. A jet hovered overhead as it circled on its final approach to nearby LaGuardia.

“Don’t get smart with me Mr. Fancy Columbia. Let me have it,” she mocked my insouciance, “I told your father if he let you go there you’d graduate thinking you were a big shot. And did he listen to me? Of course not.” I could almost feel her eyes boring through me. “None of them ever did. But look at how I was right. Just look at you sitting there all smug and puffed up. And remember, I was the only one to die with a pot to pee in.

“But enough of that,” she continued, “What’s past is past. That’s what we all say now. Look around you here. What do you see? A bunch of ghosts. That’s what. What good would it do us to keep fighting? So therefore let me tell you a little story,” unexpectedly her tone softened. Perhaps, I thought, she realized she had gone too far with the invectives. But for whatever reason, I preferred this gentler, rarely-seen side of my eccentric aunt.

“It’s about me and Harry, but if you listen carefully you’ll see it’s also about you and Rona. But to see the connection, you will have to think about yourself as if you were me.” I was confused, but intrigued, and leaned forward, unsticking myself from the sappy tree trunk so I could hear better.

“He was very devoted to me. He was always concerned about my well being. He couldn’t do enough for me. And I don’t mean just in bed.” She laughed. “But that too.” I recalled how much she enjoyed telling me how they would spend days lying together naked in their bed. Reading, listening to the radio, and frequently making love. “Fucking,” as she would unadornedly put it. “What was most special was when he would do something for me that was unnecessary. Did you hear that? Unnecessary. Yes, when I had a chest cold he was wonderful—bringing me my medicines, getting me juice and tea, massaging my back—with no funny business--even if necessary taking me to the doctor to get a shot. I know I was lucky that I had a man that would do these expected things.

“That nogoodnik Sonny wouldn’t lift a finger even when his wife had a stroke. But Harry was different. On his way home from work he would stop at Ebingers Bakery to buy me my favorite, a pecan coffee cake. He would sneak it into the apartment and hide it from me, though I of course knew what he was up to. And when at night after I got up to go to the bathroom, when I came back to the bed, I would find a slice on a dish on my night table with a glass of hot water. For my constipation. He was also the first to notice when I got my hair cut, not that I had much hair, from dying it so much I was almost bald like my brothers. He would tell me how beautiful I looked even though I knew that there was no haircut in the world that would make me look anything but ugly.”

“No Aunt Madeline, you always . . . ”

“Thank you, but never interrupt when I’m telling the truth. It’s important that everything comes out. In my current circumstances, what’s to hide?” Actually, with her, very little had ever been left unsaid. “My point is,” she continued, “the point of the story is not how Harry behaved but how I did.”

“I’m confused, Aunt Madeline, are you saying that . . . ”

“Again, Lloyd, you need to be patient. Since I still have most of my marbles in a minute you will understand.” She paused to take a deep breath, “And what did I do to return all of his caring and love? I disapproved of everything he did. Especially of those things about which he was sweetest and most giving. I know this must sound strange to you.” It did. “And even cruel.” It did. “And it was that. Cruel, I mean.”

I was in fact stunned and couldn’t compose myself quickly enough to suppress my reaction. “You did that to him? Why? If he was so wonderful did you . . . ?”

“Once more, I told you to just be quiet and listen.” I did as I was instructed but got up from the bench and stood right by her grave, peering down at the ivy that covered it as if to look directly at her. “I already told you,” she continued, “about the coffee cake. How nice he was to bring it home and put it out for me to discover. But when I would get back into bed I barely acknowledged it. Or him. Yes, after a while I did eat it and did thank him, but not in the way he was hoping. And needing. I knew that he depended on my approval, my acknowledgement, to make him feel good about himself. To be a man. He was very insecure and needed this from me. So what did I do? Knowing this about him, I intentionally did the opposite. I withheld from him what he most carved. You know how bad I was?” I didn’t respond. “I will tell you. Almost every day I looked for things about him to disapprove. And I became so good at it that I didn’t even have to do this actively. Just a certain critical look on my face or an extra second of ignoring him before responding to something he said was all it took. Actually, it was these kinds of disapproval that worked to my best advantage.”

She paused to let this sink in or because she needed to catch her breath. She was by then very old and frail. Then she said, “I can sense this is shocking you. No, don’t say anything more. There is no need for you to say another word. But you must hear one more thing. Why I perversely did this to the most beloved of my husbands. That is a fair question. Which I will now answer for you.” I bent over to get closer to her because I did need to know.

I did this so I could take total control of him. I was a very spoiled person, my mother’s darling, and wanted to have everything just they way I wanted it. By taking advantage of his insecurities I could have my way with him. And stop smirking please because I am not talking about the things that I’m sure you’re imagining. Though yes I had power over him in that way too. But more important to me was to have him in my emotional control so I could ignore him when it suited me and get him to play any role I wanted when I wanted anything else from him.”

For a few moments there was silence. The wind had picked up and scattered pin needles among the grave stones. But then she resumed, and in a hoarse whisper said, “In this way I took possession of his soul; and though this worked to what I thought to be my advantage, it also killed him. Take a look at the date on his footstone.”

I turned to where Harry was and realized they had been married for only three years. She had made short work of him.

“Now go away,” Aunt Madeline said; and, now in her more-familiar roar of a voice added, “And don’t come back here until you understand.”

To be continued . . .

Friday, September 28, 2007

September 28, 2007--Long Weekending

Driving north now to try to catch some fall foliage. But will post the first part of a new Saturday Story tomorrow. Then back to the blog-grind on Monday.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

September 27, 2007--I Need A Break From . . .

Ahmadinejad and Lee Bollinger; MoveOn and General Betray Us; gay marriage; the Holocaust (sorry); Senator Craig and his “wide stance”; Senator Vitter and his hookers; whether or not Bill O’Reilly is a bigger racist than Don Imus; the doings of Lindsay, Britney, and Paris (whatever happened to her anyway?); and lest I forget, the leading Democratic candidates who in their debate last night refused to say they would end the war by the end of their first term—by 2013. You heard me . . . 2013.

So you can only imagine how relieved I was to see in the NY Times Styles section the article linked below about all those people proliferating on TV who make a career out of dissing the clothes so-called celebrities wear on the Red Carpet. This is just the sort of thing I need today to cogitate about.

I go back to the time when the only person who engaged in fashion policing was Mr. Blackwell who appeared at the end of each year to talk about his Best and, deliciously yes, Worst Dressed List. I recall how millions of us pulled out Barcaloungers right up close to our televisions to catch a glimpse of grossly-overweight Liz stuffed into some designer atrocity. What pleasure we got from seeing her and Liza looking awful.

And we took even greater delight from what Mr. Blackwell himself was wearing. How could this man--if he in fact was such (snicker, snicker)—how could he allow himself to be seen in public wearing That! Thank God we didn’t have a color set. His ties alone would have blown out the tube.

Now, as the Times notes, not only do we have the Fashion Police, What Not to Wear, and Full Frontal Fashion, but even the vaunted Today Show has a fashion guru of its own, Lloyd Boston (where do they come up with these names?) who, ruing the fact that the WE Network and TLC and the Style Network are willing to put anyone on the air and call them fashion experts. Why, Lloyd says, about the bottom-feeding competition, “If you’re not detaching a limb and putting on a more svelte one with a tennis bracelet, they’re not interested in you as a style expert.” I’m not sure I get all the references, but talk about bitchy, bitchy, bitchy.

(I think this version of the B-word is still PC.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

September 26, 2007--No Congressman Left Behind

There’s decent news and not-so-decent news: the latest results from the annual nationwide testing of student achievement shows that for fourth graders, math and reading scores continue to rise, but that reading test results at the eighth grade level continue to be flat while math gains are still modest. (See linked article from the NY Times.)

This news comes at a time when the No Child Left Behind legislation is up for reauthorization. Recall, it was the initial bill approved by Congress, acting in a bipartisan way, and signed by President Bush during the first few months of his initial term.

Ah, how that seems like forever ago. Which is not to say that NCLB was at the time not controversial. The anti-testing establishment, Fair Test among others, rose to oppose it since it required annual achievement testing in all public schools at every grade level. They claimed that with the proliferation of high-stakes testing teachers would dumb-down their lessons and, at the expense of more authentic kinds of teaching, would spend too much class time prepping kids for the exams.

And the national teachers unions opposed the bill because of its accountably features—using the test results, every single public school in the U.S. would be expected to reach mandated achievement goals and, if they were unable to do so, after a number of years, parents would have the right to remove their children from failing schools and enroll them in others that were meeting the NCLB goals. In addition, unless school districts utilized approved curricula and teaching methods they risked losing federal funding.

But in spite of this assault from the very powerful Democrat-supporting teachers union lobbyists, Senator Kennedy and Congressman George Miller had the courage to say that business as usual was not getting the job done, especially for low-income and minority students, and they helped shepherd the bill through both houses.

That was then and this is now. Now, the Democrats control all of Congress and, as the reauthorization works its way along, the previous opponents of NCLB see another opportunity to sack its testing and accountability provisions. They are making the same arguments as six years ago but are now also saying that, based on the national test results, it is a failure. Whatever gains are showing up, in the words today of the American Federation of Teachers, “were rising faster before No Child Left Behind was enacted.” Ted Kennedy, though, is basically hanging tough, saying that the results are “encouraging.”

I say “basically” since a number of key internal aspects of the reauthorized version of the legislation are in danger of being whittled away under pressure from the AFT and others.

Three examples:

  • The current bill requires “universal proficiency” by 2014. This is undoubtedly an unreachable goal but nonetheless helps keep school districts’ feet to the fire. Many in the education establishment would like to see that deadline relaxed or even eliminated.
  • As one way to reduce the use of reading and math proficiency scores as the sole criteria to measure individual school’s progress toward the NCLB goals, the reauthorized bill may ultimately include language that would allow schools to use so-called “multiple measures” when assessing student achievement—a complex formula would grant elementary schools a 15 percent credit and high schools 25 percent through which they could offset poor reading and math results by claiming they were making other kinds of academic progress.
  • And, as a way to reduce the federal Department of Education’s role in holding schools and districts accountable, Congress, again, pressured by the unions and state education commissioners, Congress is considering adding a 15-state pilot program to NCLB which would, in effect, allow the states themselves to determine if their schools are doing well.

Taken together, if written into law, this would clearly be back to the future. Or a version of allowing the fox back into the proverbial chicken coop.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September 25, 2007--The Toothless Lion

In spite of the opening sentence in the NY Times’ report about Ahmadinejad at Columbia, the critical issues we and the rest of the world face do no include homosexuality in Iran or, hate me, the historical truth about the Holocaust. (See article linked below.)

And although Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, in his introductory remarks spoke about the essential need for “us to better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics,” little in what he went on to say and even less of what was raised by the audience’s questions had anything at all to do with geopolitical issues.

What we heard was basically a reflection of the kind of cultural wedge issues that pollute our own political discourse and distract us from having to deal with larger, more threatening realities. Of course it’s important to be concerned about the status of homosexuals and Jews and women in Iran and everywhere else, but what does that have anything to do with the dominant geopolitical role that Iran is more and more playing?

There are homosexuals in Iran and the rights of women there are becoming increasingly abrogated and, yes, Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier regardless of yesterday’s wiggling and spinning. And he has on other occasions said that Israel must be wiped off the map and Iran is likely moving toward the development of nuclear weapons.

But most dangerous is Iran’s role in spreading their form of political Islam throughout the Middle East and, if successful, controlling much of the world’s oil resources. Now this is geopolitical! But there was virtually no discussion of any of this by either Bollinger or the assembled students.

Instead, after Bollinger’s impressive defense of why it is not only appropriate but essential for universities to serve as free spaces for open discourse on all subjects (none of this was reported in the media), he went on to an intemperate and highly personal attack on Ahmadinejad’s character and “astonishing” lack of education. All of this juicy stuff was reported over and over again on all the news networks. (As a Jewish alum of Columbia I can only conclude that these remarks were an attempt to pander to the university’s substantial Jewish donor base.)

If Bollinger thought that by hosting this forum his institution would be modeling ways in which to encounter and deal with upsetting ideas, he would not have spent nearly an hour in a preemptive tirade that in effect took time away from the student question and answer period, as if by doing this he was saying, “Only I can protect you from this man and his evil ideas since you are not capable of doing so yourselves. In spite of your off-the-chart SAT scores.”

And if Bollinger was truly proud of Columbia’s role in this affair why would he have set himself up on the stage fully 20 feet distant from Ahmadinejad (as if he feared he might get infected) and why did he order all Columbia logos to be covered up on the podia and back curtain?

Monday, September 24, 2007

September 24,

I was hoping to get through life without commenting on the now-infamous MoveOn “General Betrayous” ad. But no such luck.

I have nothing to add about whether or not it’s an insult, or worse, to our brave fighting men and women (it isn’t). And though I have something to say about the claim that many Republicans and conservative journalists have seized on it to distract us from what is really at issue—our Iraq war strategy and what is in fact going on on the ground—since so many have made this case effectively I'll restrain myself from adding my two-cents worth.

So what happened to lure me into the debate? The news about the 19-year-old M.I.T. student who, as an “art project,” went to Logan Airport, the place of departure for some of the 9/11 terrorists, with a lighted circuit board attached to a hooded sweatshirt. In addition to this simulated bomb, she carried a wad of modeling clay that police appropriately suspected might be plastic explosives.

After her arrest, the aptly-named Star Simpson said she created the “device” for M.I.T.’s career day, though she didn’t explain what career she was promoting.

A fellow electrical engineering student told the NY Times that Star wasn’t really meaning to scare anyone. “She’s just kind of kooky like that. [Why] last year she shaved her head and donated her hair to charity. She’s a great girl.” (See article linked below.)

Great girl or not, great organization or not, I see her art project to have many things in common with MoveOn’s. Whatever the validity of the below-the-headline content in the Petraeus ad, MoveOn knew the headline would be the grabber. And I suspect they knew it would draw as much attention to them as would to the claim that the general in the past had not been accurate, or perhaps even truthful, in his reports to Congress.

If they had placed an ad about just that with a different catchy headline they might have actually done some good. They might have contributed to what is one of their organization’s priorities—doing all possible to help end this infernal war. But they wound up doing the opposite—providing raw meat to the Republicans who wanted to change the subject. Some have speculated that the intemperateness of the ad’s headline intimidated anti-war Democrats from really pressing Petraeus out of fear that if they did so they would appear to be aligned with MoveOn.

So now they’re left to wallow in ineffectiveness, even voting to condemn ads of this kind and most likely will be rolling over when President Bush asks them, as he will this week, for another $200 billion to fund the war through the end of his term.

Back in Boston, Ms. Simpson is awaiting trial on disorderly conduct charges. I guarantee you that her equally self-indulgent act, if it comes to trial, will be covered live on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. That should get us through next spring when the OJ trial will take over.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

September 22, 2007--Saturday Story: Crazy Rona--Part Four

In Part Three Lloyd continued to drive relentlessly north toward Amherst where he was to join an accrediting team at the University of Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was his administrative assistant who continued to tell him about her childhood. And a sad one it continued to be. He, it must be admitted, had other things in mind and thus was eager to get to the Great Western Motel where he had reserved a room for her. With the rest of the team he was booked into the Amherst Inn; but never managed to check in because, after a disappointing dinner at the Asparagus Valley Roadhouse, he found himself with Rona at the Great Western and she had already agreed to remove her sweater.

So in the endlessly and inexplicably delayed Part Four, we find them . . .

On the drive back to New York it was clear that something had changed. Rona no longer talked about her childhood or life in her garment bag; and though as we drove she was curled up into a ball as she had been on the trip north, as we headed south into the rising sun, she was this time curled up not against the door but against me.

It would not be inappropriate to pause here to ask what had happened to bring about this literal turn of events. It would even be fair to seek to take a step backward to ask what I had been up to, luring my assistant away on an overnight trip whose purpose had nothing to do with work or any kind of assisting. Though this occurred at a time well before there were work practices and even laws that forbade this kind of miscreance I was still placing my association with the university at considerable risk—innuendoes, flirtations, even an after work drink or two was one thing, but a night at the Great Western in Massachusetts was so across the line that if it became known I would yet again have been forced to resign; and this time, with my reputation so shredded, would likely have needed to change my name, create a new professional identity for myself, and consider going back into the family’s sheet metal business.

It would also be appropriate to ask what Rona might have been thinking. When I invited her to join me to play a questionable, quasi-professional overnight role 200 miles distant from N.Y.U. she must have suspected that my invitation was about something other than work. And, if that is true, what would have possessed someone as smart and savvy and talented and worldly and beautiful and young to have agreed to run away for two days with someone so desperate, so out of shape, so disheveled, and so old?

You would need to ask her; but if you were to ask me, I would speculate that she too was desperate in her own way and sensed something about me, beyond my being her boss (though that too must have come somewhat into play) that made me attractive to her in spite of my softening body and by-then well thinned-out hair. While I confessedly was attracted to her obvious bodaciousness and dreamed about the possibility of getting my literal hands on that (I feel compelled here to be ashamedly honest), as a person mature-beyond-her-years she must have been attracted to, well, at least interested in my other qualities. Perhaps, if you press me, she might have been thinking I was capable of hearing her, she in her youth would have put it that way. Perhaps she could have been imagining that she could get me to take in the facts of her life and by deploying my interpretive and analytical capacities (I had been, she knew, quite a Blake scholar after all and before that had been a pre-med with an interest, maybe a slight talent in psychoanalysis). I might thus have become a sympathetic and even helpful supervisor, friend, or . . . lover.

And through that long evening, night, and chilly dawn up in Amherst, sleeping almost not at all, perhaps I did not entirely disappoint Rona either as a lover (again you will have to ask her) or as an emerging friend; because during our lovers’ pauses, which because of my limitations grew longer and longer, she, actually we, continued to exchange stories that we felt defined our lives:

Rona told about how, because she felt like an emotional and biological alien within her seeming family, when alone she had rummaged through every nook, cranny, cupboard, and drawer in their house seeking the adoption papers that she hoped would prove she was not of their progeny. I in turn told her about how I grew up in an extended family so suffused with superstitions and fears of illness, doom, and death that at a very early age I was assigned to be custodian of the cemetery plot where every weekend during the growing season, on hands and knees, I was expected to crawl among the occupied and still empty grave sites to search out and exterminate all infestations of crab grass and choke weeds. In riposte, as we surfaced gulping for air from our tangled sheets, Rona reported that when she began in fifth grade to manifest signs of severe depression, since her parents denied the evidence manifest right before their eyes (it was then that for the first Rona time began to explore the possibility of retreating to her closet), she was forced on her own to find a psychiatrist who might agree to take her on as a client. And though it was difficult to exhume incidents from my life to match this story of sadness, I did manage to pull one up from my deep subconscious and told her about how, in grade school gym class, I met with continuous public ridicule because of my overgrown and underdeveloped body—how Mr. Schurr, recently returned from military service where he was reputed to have been a sadistic drill sergeant, would bellow for all in the school to hear, especially the girls after whom I was beginning to lust, “You [meaning me] with the sunken chest, throw your bird-boned shoulders back and try to stand at attention.” And though I quivered close to tears as I recounted this twice-weekly humiliation and she pulled me close to comfort me in her arms, in truth I sensed she wanted me near so I would not be able to see her smiling at the patheticness of my kiddyhood tale of woe; and while cradling me thus she told me how after the psychiatrist failed to help her and the garment bag did not adequately provide shelter from her demons, she affixed herself to the Italian family next door, the Nostras, and effectively became their sixth child; and by doing so, absorbed in their love and through them coming to understand she was not Crazy Rona, she began to rescue herself. And though I had no equivalent tale of escape, I did tell her finally about my lifelong pursuit of happiness—about how when I found the courage to stammer to my father that that would be my life’s goal; and in response he asked, after asserting that being consistent and responsible were pursuits enough for any man, he asked more than rhetorically, “What does happiness have to do with anything?” And how, though I had a ready answer then—“Everything”--until now my pursuit had not yielded very much.

After these soulful confessions, by the morning, when we had no choice but to rouse and mobilize ourselves, I had begun to hear her and maybe muttered a response or two along the way that indicated that whatever her attraction to me might have been she had not been entirely self-deceived. And I realized that, in spite of myself, I had been attracted to more than just Rona’s flesh.

Thus, if that morning you too were heading south and had passed Rona and Lloyd on the highway, and had looked through the driver’s window at the couple, us, in the car next to yours, and then if you had slowed down enough to enable you to see a much young woman nestled against a much older man, you would have been mistaken to assume that something untoward was going on. Instead, you should have more appropriately concluded that you had stolen a glimpse of something quite rare--the emergence of happiness.

Go figure.

Friday, September 21, 2007

September 21, 2007--Fanaticism XCI: In the Sunlight of Horror

Some years ago I was in Munich. Primarily to visit the museums, but also to take in whatever remained of the atmosphere out of which Hitler emerged. My idea of fun!

So I visited the beer hall, the Bürgerbräukeller, where in 1916 he made his famous speech and launched the putsch that brought him and the Nazi party to prominence. I must admit, though decades had passed since that infamous night, when up in the private room where the early Nazis gathered, to hear the same songs from his day filtering up from the huge hall below, it was not difficult to project myself back in time. In my mind’s eye I could see Hitler surrounded by Rudolph Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Herman Göering.

The following day, as a part of my Nazi tour, I wanted to visit the Dachau concentration camp since I understood it was nearby and, because it was among the first of the camps. I didn’t have a car so I tried to find out if there was a way to get there by public transportation. It was not easy to find someone to direct me much less get anyone to look me in the eye so I knew it and concentration camps in general were still not discussable subjects in Bavaria. But I did manage to find my way to what was in effect a commuter train—Dachau, you see, is only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Munich.

Thus, in a mere 20 minutes I arrived in the town of Dachau; and since I assumed I would need to take another train or taxi to wherever the camp was located—considering what had gone on there I assumed it would be at a considerable distance—I wandered around again seeking directions. I was not ignored because of my halting German, though it was pathetic; I suspected it was more because no one in Dachau wanted to even hear mention of the real Dachau—the camp.

I did, though, eventually find a taxi driver who agreed to take me to it. I got into his car and sat slumped in the back seat not wanting to draw too much attention to myself by looming as a presence in his rearview mirror—I was happy enough that I was able to find someone willing to drive me there and didn’t want to put any pressure on him to have to acknowledge me.

But without any provocation he asked, “Would you like me to take you to the camp by the road along the railroad tracks?”

I didn’t immediately understand the implication of this, thinking only that I did not have much cash and since getting to the camp would be a long and expensive ride I didn’t want him to take a route that would run up the meter. So I said, “Whatever you prefer is fine, as long as it’s the shortest one.”

He chuckled at that and said, “Along the tracks is the shortest.” And added, “You see, they located the camp as close to the tracks as possible. They prided themselves on being efficient.”

Along the tracks we drove, following them as they wound their way right through the center of this medieval town. “You see where we are,” he said, “Where everyone could see.”

Again not understanding, I asked, “See what?”

What was going on,” he said.

Embarrassed that it had taken me so long to get what he was trying to tell me, I muttered, “Ah, I understand,” and pulled myself up in my seat so I could get a better view of things.

“The trains went right through the town. In the morning they were packed full of prisoners. In the afternoon they returned empty.” For the next few minutes we rode in silence. “And then at night, everyone could smell what was going on. You will see why because we are almost there. It is not far and the prevailing wind blew the smoke right over the city.”

We had been driving for no more than a total of ten minutes when he stopped at the entrance. “This is as far as I can go,” he said.

He refused to take any money from me and then looked back over his shoulder toward where we had been. The town of Dachau was clearly visible. He pointed. “Now you understand, yes?”

I did.

I was reminded of this on Wednesday when the NY Times wrote about the discovery and exhibition of 116 photographs of Auschwitz taken by Karl Höcker, adjunct to the camp’s commandant. (Linked below.)

These are noteworthy because while there are all too many photographs of the horrors of Auschwitz, until now there have been very few of “ordinary,” day-to-day life of the SS and their “female auxiliaries.” Soon to be exhibited at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, many can be seen now on their Website I urge you to look at them.

Not even a million words from me are worth just one of these pictures.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

September 20, 2007--Portrait In Cowardice

I needed to take a break from all this infernal typing and, seeking distraction, I went upstairs to turn on the TV hoping there would be some OJ breaking news. Unfortunately, I had left the set on the Senate C Span channel and, wouldn’t you know it, Senator Warner had the floor and was explaining how though on Friday he had indicated he would support Senator Webb’s amendment to require that troops have as much “dwell” time at home as they serve on the ground, he was now going to oppose the measure. You know, he was offering a sort of a I-was-for-it before-I-was-against-it kind of explanation.

Intrigued by how this senator’s senator was going to square this political circle, though I needed a break from this maddening stuff, I couldn’t help myself and stayed tuned.

Yes, he said, after his seventh of eighth trip to Iraq he came home and made a speech, the Record will show, in which he indicated that things were not going as well as he had hoped and that it might be necessary soon for the president to do some course changing. Then after his eighth or ninth trip, he made another speech, again as the Record will show, in which he recommended to the president that as a gesture signalling a move toward a new strategy he should bring 5,000 troops home before Christmas (or Hanukkah of Kwanza, though he didn’t mention these). The president at the time thanked the senator for his “helpful advice.” (Check the Washington Post story linked below to see if I’m getting this right.)

Since that time, he continued, Senator Webb, who “knows more about these matters than I,” drafted an amendment, which he supported, that calls for a new policy in regard to troop rotation and includes the not-so-hidden agenda that would amount to a de facto force reduction because, if troops are guaranteed equal time at home between rotations, troop strength will be reduced since the military does not have enough soldiers to maintain the current 160,000 much less the pre-surge 130,000.

But, the senator orated, he has had a change of mind. I am quoting from memory—“My esteemed colleagues, you might imagine why. Well, there are two reasons. I just returned from my tenth trip to the region [why is it that Congressmen can’t stop themselves from compulsively talking about their trips to Iraq—could it be to show how intrepid they are, that they, from the Green Zone with helicopters circling overhead to protect them, are sharing the sacrifice and danger?], and while on that tenth trip I saw with my own eyes that we are making military progress; and, second [and by far most important], the president has taken my advice. Why just last week he announced that, as I recommended, he would be bringing home by Christmas those 5,000 troops. So they can be with their families.”

And though the senator didn’t say this, he implied: Since the president listened to me, to me, I have accomplished my goal, my conscience is clear and I will now return to my familiar role—occasionally raising some questions about our policy over there but ultimately supporting my president.

So there he was, 8o years old, the very picture of a senator right out of Central Casting, a veteran of combat in both the Second World War and Korea, an unimpeachable friend of the military and the “fighting man,” a five-term member of the Senate, a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, an widely-esteemed senator who is about to retire from Congress and thus one would think would feel liberated from the politics; here he was, someone who knows that George W. Bush & Co. are a pack of fools (“I knew George H. W. Bush and he’s no George H. W. Bush”), yet knowing all this, even he couldn’t keep it up for something as limited in effect as the Webb amendment--limited since he and everyone else knew if it passed the president would have vetoed the bill before the ink dried.

John Warner, one of Elizabeth Taylor’s exes, with all that senatorial hair, bespoke suits, and fabled diction, you should be ashamed of yourself. I always thought it would take more than a president blowing in your ear to make you fold up like a cheap camera. But once again I’ve been proven wrong.

PS—As you know, the amendment failed to get the 60 votes required.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September 19, 2007--BREAKING NEWS: A Seminal Event

Until yesterday at Newark Airport, post Larry Craig, I hadn’t ventured into a public men’s room. But after a long flight from Florida, I needed too. It was an unnerving experience. I was tempted to turn around and leave, but then I saw Arlen Specter there and I . . . . Just kidding.

But in spite of my trepidations, no one is being deterred from entering the infamous real thing--it seems that the Senator Larry Craig Memorial Men’s Room at the Minneapolis Airport is now almost as popular a tourist destination as the Mall of America. The NY Times reports that the owner of the shoeshine shop next door gets at least 50 questions a day about it. (Article linked below.) “It’s ridiculous,” he says; but I’ll bet it's good for business.

There’s a steady stream (forgive the pun) of visitors who want to be a part of history. One said, “It’s a seminal event [without intending any etymological irony]. It’s part of the experience of living in 2007. It’s a celebration of hypocrisy.”

Others are less politically hip. They just want to be a part of the story. For example, using his cell phone, Michael Hogstad zapped a picture of the actual stall (number eight in a row of nine—the sting cop used number seven) back to his wife in Norfolk: “She thinks it’s cool to have a picture of the news.”

A picture of the news? I wonder how many will be racing out to Las Vegas to get a picture of the OJ news out there? If you can’t have your own five or fifteen minutes of fame, there are now at least ways to glom onto someone else’s moment in the spotlight.

And one can’t get started too early. Back in Minneapolis Robert Kelen, returning home form a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, took his 15-month-old daughter into the toilet to change her diaper. Not because it was soiled, but, as he put it, for “historic reasons. When he emerged, he said, “Eloise, now you can say you’ve been there.”

I say, thank God for poor Senator Craig and old OJ, and while we’re at it toss in little Madeleine McCann. What would all-news-all-the-time do without them? Report about the surge? The new Attorney General designee? The Blackwater massacre and the privatization of the war in Iraq? Home foreclosures? The emerging political debacle in Pakistan? The collapse of the New York Mets and the Red Sox? Nah.

While in Florida the OJ story broke. I know his arrest is releasing all sorts of pent-up rage and schaudenfreudian glee in a nation still obsessed with race, but did MSNBC have to devote two full hours of its prime-time schedule to endless loops of his being hauled off in handcuffs? The three hours on Fox with Geraldo Rivera and his old gang of former prosecutors and defense attorneys, half of whom are felons themselves, I can understand. Fox is now making a career out of changing the subject.

And I guess, so is everyone else. Obviously, me included.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

September 18, 2007--That's It

“I’m wrong. I’m wrong. Gussie lived there before she moved to Florida. Then she sold it to lovely people. Then Leonard came down. And that’s it.”

My mother had a rough week. A very rough one. She’s 99 and so we rushed to see her. But now I hear the familiar sound of her voice filtering out to me as she sits in the den, nestled next to Rona, telling her again some of the family stories. To help assure that they will not be forgotten once she is, as she puts it, “gone.”

“I slept on this sofa when my brother Jac came here for a visit. I gave them my bedroom. They never knew I slept on the sofa. But I was fine. Lie down. See how comfortable it is. How I miss him. And Helen of course, who was like a sister to me.”

She had four biological sisters and now they too, along with Helen and Jac, are gone. She is the only one from her generation who is left. But now, though she seems better than she had been last week, she has been saying many valedictory things and perhaps in this way is signaling to us that she is getting ready to leave. She told us this morning, over breakfast at the Bagel Tree (they have those kinds of trees in Florida where the New Yorkers have migrated) that she doesn’t fear death. But that she is afraid of dying. She also took pains to remind us again where her papers are, her safe deposit box, even her small cache of money—“I always have $100 here. Make sure you remember where it is.”

“And remember that all you have is each other. I want to know that you will love and take care of each other. If there are things that are upsetting you, issues between you, I want you to put them aside. You will need each other. This much I know. Nothing is more important than that. Everything else you must forgive.”

I am in the dining room and can hear Rona murmuring that she understands and that everything is all right. She has nothing to worry about. Above all, we want her to concentrate on getting stronger. To put aside for the moment her lifelong devotion to us and all of the family. It is her turn, at least for a while, to allow us to worry about her, to do things for her. She has more than earned that.

And yet I hear her saying, “But I can’t rest unless I know that you are all well. That’s the way I am. Can you expect me to change now? I’m almost 100 and, yes, I think about everyone. I do worry. Is Jared happy and secure in his job? [He is well, Rona says, and from all reports is making good progress. They like him and why shouldn’t they?] And I so much want to be here for Margo’s graduation. I want to know where she’s going to college. That’s very important to me. [Rona says, She also is doing well. You do not need to worry about her. She’s smart and will find a good place to go.] And then there’s . . . . ”

I type louder since I feel they are saying things to each other that I do not feel it is right for me to overhear. Though in truth there isn’t anything I haven’t heard many times before, still I block out the sounds by also humming to myself.

I quickly realize I want to block them out not because of concern about eavesdropping on intimate matters but because I am not ready yet to confront the most final of realities which their conversation evokes. (In spite of my best efforts I can still hear them now talking about what’s in her desk and files.) I have been more fortunate than anyone deserves to have a mother so ancient and yet so perfect of mind and body. If there is anything to feel blessed about, this is surely it.

“If I have to go to the hospital . . .” cuts through my best efforts to isolate myself.

But I have also become spoiled, feeling, in her age-defying near perfection, that with her always here I would live on, indefitely sheltered from the abyss by her very existence,.

And so I sit here in emotional self-exile surrounded by framed pictures of the past—all her sisters and brother are here as well as at least one image of every member of our very extended family. For years they have existed in the hazy background, stuffed in among the crystal and bric-a-brac, of an old lady’s apartment. Now they are suddenly animated. I am brought again to Fay’s 90th birthday and to vivid memories of Chuck’s 70th. There is a glimpse of Noelle’s wedding on that dreamy summer day and reminders of shucking corn at Bantam Lake with Len and Holly.

And in the remotest, most shaded corner of the living room, on the carved lamp table, there are pictures of cousins so distant from me that I cannot either identify or name them.

From these I am jolted now to a clearer understanding of what my mother meant when she said, “This is all you have.” There are things I have to do. There is still time. Or so I hope.

Monday, September 17, 2007

September 17, 2007--Inspiration From The Gutter

About a year ago we found ourselves in Springfield, Illinois. We were driving east en route to New York from Wyoming and put in there less out of an interest in things Lincoln than because there were tornado warnings posted in the area.

We were lucky to find a hotel room; and while hunkered down with little to do we read about the local attractions. Of course to be visited there were Lincoln’s law office, the old state capital building where he served in the legislature, and the home from which he left to assume the presidency and to which his body was returned.

Also in Springfield, we read, was one of the earliest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style structures, the Dana-Thomas House, commissioned by the silver-mine heiress and socialite, the widow Susan Lawrence Dana who had total control of her inherited fortune and spent much of it to satisfy her taste for the avant garde. Thus she turned to Wright who, at the time, represented the cutting edge of American architecture. Completed in 1904, the guide book claimed, the house is a fully realized example of his organic architecture and reflects the flat landscape of Illinois and the influence on his work of Japanese prints. She wanted something primarily for entertaining and therefore the public rooms got the most attention.

Since we were serendipitously in the land of Lincoln and Wright we planned to visit both homes the next morning if we survived the twisters.

Lincoln’s place was a little less modest than I had imagined, having been raised on stories of his growing up in a log cabin. But he had become a successful lawyer after all and in his middle years could afford to stretch out a bit, especially considering his height and wing span. And as further evidence of his relative prosperity, he did manage to get himself elected president.

The Dana-Thomas House was a very different sort of place—immense and lavish in its entirety. In fact, the docent-guide spent more time pointing out every lamp, vase, and sconce than talking about Wright’s expansive and paradigm-shifting architectural vision. The focus was on the totality of his design, how he not only planned every fresco and piece of fretwork but also all the furniture and even Mrs. Dana’s clothing.

Just how total was Wright’s aesthetic control was revealed once we got to the barrel-vaulted dining room—clearly entertaining central. He not only took complete command of the design of the chairs and table and dishes, glasses and flatware; but by basing his furniture designs on what appeared to me to be monastic models, he also was insisting on determining exactly how guests would be forced to physically sit for hours around that stoic table.

To get a sense of just what such an evening would feel like on my body, when the guide wasn’t looking I slipped into one of the rectory-style chairs and realized that if I had been forced to sit there for more than ten minutes I would need to be taken to the hospital and placed in traction.

I began to wonder what might be the intrapsychic source of what could only be thought of as Wright’s architectural sadism. Was this an expression of some inner urge to frappe the rich that bubbled up from memories of his deprived childhood? All I knew, and this was confirmed when I asked to see examples of the severely boned clothing and shoes he designed for his patroness, was that though everything that met the eye on both the interior and exterior cried out for featured inclusion in any serious history of 20th century American architecture, this was not a place in which to actually live or to be comfortable. It was a place to be admired in hushed, worshipful, and painful tones.

I was reminded of the Dana-Thomas House just last week when I read a review by the NY Times architecture critic, Nicolai Duroussoff, of a new condo being built on the city’s rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side. (Linked below.) Though reluctant to seem a shill for Bernard Tschumi’s 17-storey, very commercial, so-called Blue Building that is nearing completion, Durousseff nevertheless couldn’t control himself. He wrote:

The building avoids the ostentatious self-importance that infects the design of so many of the new luxury towers. Encased in a matrix of blue panels, its contorted form has a hypnotic appeal that is firmly rooted in the gritty disorder of its surroundings. It reminds us that beauty and good taste are not always the same thing.

The building twists and bends, growing and bulging from the compressed “footprint” out of which it soars. Every square foot downtown after all is precious. There is so much squeezing and compressing that, to quote Duroussoff again, “The entire composition appears wonderfully off balance.”

And where did our architect find inspiration for this piece of real estate art?

Much of the inspiration comes as much from the gutter as from museum walls. The building’s milky blue colors bring to mind the cheap illuminated plastic signs still found on some old East Village storefronts.

And what might it actually be like to live in the off-balance, gutter-inspired Blue Building since it is after all still supposed to be a home? Read on:

As you reach the upper floors, the apartments get increasingly idiosyncratic. Exterior walls tilt backward or forward; rooms are tucked into what seem like leftover spaces. Big canted columns are set just inside the facade, as if bracing the rooms against some invisible force.

Sounds to me as if it would be a good place to hide out in a tornado.

Friday, September 14, 2007

September 14, 2007--Fanaticism XC: Wardrobe Malfunction

Fashion Week finally ended. And none too soon. It’s been almost impossible to find an empty table at Balthazar for morning coffee. The things I have to endure.

But the other morning there was something else besides the oat scones to savor. Right there on the front page of the NY Times was a review of the Marc Jacobs show. I can’t resist quoting the delicious opening sentences:

The time was 10:50 p.m. Monday. Victoria Beckham, sheathed in a minidress so tight that her breasts appeared to be up near her chin, entered the Marc Jacobs show, conveyed to her seat by bodyguards and paparazzi.

(See full article linked below, complete with pictures of those upthrusted breasts.)

I read on eagerly hoping it would continue in this vein—one can never get too much gossip before a second cup of coffee. So you can only imagine my disappointment when things turned serious. Of course, I realized, this is the Paper of Record and even trivial things are treated seriously.

Jacobs, we learn, by “pushing himself harder and harder,” through the audacity of his designs, which included “see-through evening trousers and a loose one-shoulder white gown with smudgy print and a sheer panel in back, with a beige bra and panties underneath . . . expressed perfectly the dislocating values of our culture.”

Later, while attempting to deconstruct that, I was happy to be distracted by President Bush who provided something else to ponder—the meaning of “an enduring relationship” with Iraq. Talk about dislocating values. Maybe Bush and Jacobs are on the same wavelength.

I was also reminded of Cousin Moritz who years ago was in the coat business. Or as he would prefer to describe it, the Rag Trade. He was famous for inviting women up to his workshop in the Garment District where, while fitting them with the latest, he would also give them a feel or two. As you might imagine, he did quite well.

Before every family wedding or bar mitzvah my mother and all her sisters would make their way to Moritz on 36th Street. With them, he of course watched his roving hands, or so it was reported. At the catered affairs they looked wonderful in their new coats as one-by-one they made their grand entrances up the regal steps of the Flatbush Jewish Center. Aunt Bertha was always the most distinguished, Aunt Gussie the sexiest, Tanta Tanna alluringly exotic, Aunt Fannie radiant, and my mother was transformed into a glamorous movie star.

Moritz always stood alone in the sidewalk, watching them arrive and swelling with pride as he contemplated what he had brought into their otherwise routine lives. Unlike Marc Jacobs who said, on seeing the former Spice Girl in the front row—“It’s ironic that she was here with her breasts out. This show wipes all that kind of expression away”--Moritz never for a moment thought about the social implications of his designs. I suspect that as he admired his work he was already thinking that next year he would cut velvet.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

September 13, 2007--Rethinking the Money

The world is in crisis and the Democrats are in a quandary—

Last November voters returned them to the majority in both houses of Congress. It was assumed that this represented a referendum on the war in Iraq. All polls showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans were dissatisfied with the deepening stalemate and the relentless climb in the numbers killed and maimed. Thus, the Democrats were charged and primed to lead us in a new direction.

But quickly frustration set in and now the Democrats in Congress are even more unpopular than President Bush, including among many members of their so-called base who in frustration are running self-indulgent full-page ads in the New York Times calling General Petraeus’ integrity into question and lambasting Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for their failure to get Congress to pass legislation that would require the beginning of meaningful troop withdrawals. (See the Daily Kos blog for evidence of this.)

Tending to get lost is the awareness that once a war gets started all the extraordinary powers that accrue to the Commander in Chief trump almost anything Congress might do. There are 535 of them and only one of him. To carry out military strategy all he really needs to do is commune with himself. He’s the Decider after all. Congress on the other hand needs to mobilize simple and at times super majorities to get anything done.

Compounding this quandary is the fact that ten members of Congress are running for the presidency and everything they say or do has to be vetted from the perspective of whether or not it will help or harm their chances. Thus we saw Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama acting like pussycats when they questioned General Petraeus earlier this week. God forbid that they appear to be too aggressive toward this “hero” and thus seem not to be “supporting our troops.” To say that the best way to support them is to bring them home safely doesn’t cut it if you’re attempting to seem hyperpatriotic and tough. There are not too many profiles in courage being written these days.

But there is one thing everyone says Congress can do—they alone have the power of the purse; and if they could only muster the courage and votes, it is asserted (including by conservatives who are watching with glee as the Democrat twist by their own petard) that they could cut off the funding for the war and thereby end it. (See linked NY Times story about how they are “rethinking the money.”)

They are afraid to do so for at least two reasons—One is the fear that a too-precipitous withdrawal would place our troops in harm’s way. Images of the last humiliating days in Saigon haunt their political memories. The other reason is that since everything going on now in Washington is more about the next election than anything else, Democrats do no want to appear to be wimpy. They are struggling to hold onto their base which is decidedly antiwar while at the same time not wanting to alienate the more macho middle that they need to win elections.

Thus I have a simple suggestion—

The president is asking for $145 billion in supplemental funding for the war in Iraq. Congress is acting as if this is an all-or-nothing proposition—either appropriate all or none of it. But these are not their only options.

By my calculations, if this $145 billion is used to pay for the current 160,000 troops and then the 130,000 that will remain after next spring (the president’s plan), this represents an expenditure of about $1.0 million per soldier through next September in that the average troop level for the year will be about 145,000 (160,000 for the next six months and 130,000 thereafter).

Thus if Congress were to appropriate “just” $100 billion this would mean that the president would be faced with two clear choices—either spend less for each of the 145,000 soldiers (politically unsustainable) or begin to reduce the average number on the ground for the year to about 100,000. The Pentagon would have to do the exact math.

Though the withdraw-now and stay-the-course members of Congress would not be happy, this plan might be able to secure majorities in both houses since this approach could legitimately be represented as a responsible, support-our-troops plan linked to a significant drawdown.

Obviously the president would veto the legislation. Congress, then, could refuse to budge. They could pass the same authorization bill over and over again and play out the funding clock as the president is thus far successfully playing out the responsibility clock, with the intention of turning his full mess over to the next president, Democrat or Republican.

He’ll be cutting brush in Crawford and, to quote him, "Filling the ol' coffers."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

September 12, 2007--Bye, Bye Alex

Alex is dead. His longtime companion, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, announced that he died peacefully in his sleep, of apparently natural causes, and that his last words to her were, “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.”

He had a long and distinguished career in the field of language acquisition and was widely respected and published. Some say that as the result of his achievements scientists have been challenged to think in new ways about what characterizes cognition and speech.

I first met Alex at a conference on Mimesis that was organized and hosted by the remarkable polymath Jonathan Miller. Alex was there at NYU with his associate, Dr. Pepperberg, and after their session I was introduced to them. They were as compelling in person as they had been in the numerous books and articles about their work. Alex especially was open and friendly.

The theme of the conference focused on imitative and adaptive behavior in all of the animal kingdom, including among humans. There were session devoted to the fascinating set of perplexities and challenges about the ways in which human beings and animals and even mechanical robots can be said to copy, imitate, impersonate, emulate, and generally influence one another. Presenters spoke about the ways in which children acquire many of their skills by copying their parents and peers, and explored the same issue in connection with the widely disputed subject of culture among primates and other animals. For instance, how, if at all, do chimps acquire their manual skills? Are they hardwired to do so or do they learn them by imitating their parents?

Dr. Oliver Sacks was on the program and he spoke about his life-long work with individuals who have Tourettes Syndrome. A neurological condition in which at times those afflicted compulsively imitate humans and animals.

Most intriguing and confounding was the work about which Dr. Pepperberg reported. Parrots are among the most mimetic of animals. Especially gray parrots which are the quickest to imitate human words. Until her work, it was agreed that this was all that parrots were capable of doing—merely, unknowingly mimicking words. It was thought that their brains were too small and underdeveloped to do anything resembling thinking or even constructing the simplest of sentences. But as the result of her three decades of work these ideas about parrots’ limitations were challenged if not overturned.

Her collaboration with Alex, a gray parrot that she bought in a pet shop in 1977, demonstrated that he, at least, was capable of much more than rote imitation. Although parrots had long been known for their capacities in vocal mimicry, Pepperberg set out to show that their vocal behavior could develop the characteristics of human language. She found that Alex could acquire a large vocabulary, use it in a sophisticated way, and was able to learn to count and recognize shapes; all of which has been described by her and others as similar to that of a two year old child. Thus her work has strengthened the argument that humans do not hold the monopoly on the complex or semicomplex capacity to communicate abstractly. (See linked NY Times article.)

Quite a guy, old Alex. I am only sorry that I didn’t get to know him better.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11, 2007--The Wimpiest Generation

Unlike in 2001, which began as a glorious late summer day in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania, today it is gloomy. Which fits my mood. My gloom is not primarily from the sadness that this anniversary evokes or the consequences of the tragic loss of innocent lives, but more now for what has become of my America.

What happened to the America of the Greatest Generation, the one that took a body blow at Pearl Harbor and then fully mobilized itself out of grief and anger? Though few sought to sacrifice their bodies or way of life, when called upon, millions enlisted or were drafted into the service while on the homefront, as it was called at the time, Rosie went off to rivet battleships and the rest of us gave up sugar and butter and meat. We also saw our taxes raised, paid them willingly, tightened our belts, and figured out how to make do with less.

I heard these stories growing up and for conformation in recent years looked at the proliferation of books about this generation. They were for the most part remarkable.

Six years ago we suffered another attack. More than 3,000 Americans were killed and, whatever our politics, we are all in one way or another involved in another war. Some on the Right see it to be World War IV—the Clash of Civilizations--with WW III having been the Cold War. Others contend a police rather than a military response would have been more appropriate and effective. But, nonetheless, here we are.

So what have we, this generation, been up to? Nothing much, in my view, of which to be proud.

Less than a mile from where I am there is still a gaping hole in the ground with, at last after six years, the first glimmers of rebuilding. Greed and politics and the concern for the families of the dead have paralyzed us. The owner of the site held out for as long as he could so he could extract the last billion from the insurance companies; craven politicians milked every opportunity to posture and fulminate in front of the pit and TV cameras; and, hate me for saying this, the most publicly active surviving family members made a career out of prolonging their grief.

The rest of us passively watched while other families’ children went off to fight, to be maimed, and to die. We saw our taxes cut and our greatest pain was experienced at the gas pump. Rather than being called to any form of shared responsibility we ran after sub-prime mortgages and used the money to go on a frenzied shopping spree.

And when it finally came time to confront our leaders about the cataclysm they brought down upon us and the world, the best we could muster was to elect more Democrats to Congress who are at this very moment making a mockery of themselves as they wimp out when confronting the four stars on Big Bad General Petraeus’ uniform. The most muscle flexed yesterday during the hearing was to toss out of the committee room a few middle-aged women carrying antiwar signs who, in inchoate protest, had wrapped themselves in pink shower curtains.

At the end of the day, our exhausted Representatives raced off to talk tough on Hardball and Countdown while Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann couldn’t wait to get them out of the studio so they could turn their attention back to poor Senator Larry Craig and Britney Spears.

Monday, September 10, 2007

September 10, 2007--Spearfishing

I am typing this at the precise moment when General Petraeus is beginning his long-awaited report to Congress. In effect, he will be asserting that he, Petraeus is doing well, that the surge plan he formulated is producing good enough results and thus there should be no shift in strategy or significant draw-down of troops until at least March. Well, maybe as a bone to Democrats it might be possible to bring home one brigade—4,000 soldiers, about the number thus far killed in combat. A sort of grim form of poetic symmetry.

Since I can’t stand thinking about this any more, like millions of other Americans I turned my attention to something of at least equal interest—Britney Spears’ performance on last night’s MTV Video Music Awards show.

I kept a careful eye on the clock not wanting to miss her reemergence. I suspect like most I was hoping for the worst. And on first look I/we were not disappointed.

She looked like a middle-age pole dancer so high on something that she could barely walk much less dance and gyrate. She did not even present a good cartoon version of her former nubile self. I could sense all the TV critics and bloggers panting over their keyboards, readying their best Schadenfreudean zingers. Me included. For example, Kelefa Sanneh in the NY Times quotes the host, Sarah Silverman:

“She’s amazing! I mean, she’s 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in life.” (Article linked below.)

The cruelty of this, beyond humor, set off some revisionist thinking on my part.

Can it be, I thought, that she’s already 25? How did that happen? What might we reasonably expect someone to become who made a career out of being precociously pre-pubescent with a Lolita body and a latent sexuality that seemed to pulsate beyond her awareness and control? Or of someone who likely never went to school and if she had would have majored in cheerleading? Retrospectively, I began to think of her as deprived, even with her reported $100 million in net worth, as having been denied anything resembling a normal childhood. A familiar showbiz phenomenon with all the expected fallout.

Watching the tape of her this morning while flipping from news channel to news channel, it was the lead story on all three cable networks, seeing the glee on the faces of the entertainment “reporters” as they slowed the tape to be sure we didn’t miss her stumbles or the ripples in the bulge around her middle, I thought she looked, actually, great. Of course her outfit was in its own way obscene, but she looked just how a beautiful 25 year old might on a late summer day at the beach with her two kids.

I’m thinking that Britney will figure out a way to reinvent herself and hoping that she has still more to accomplish. About General Petraeus on the other hand . . . .

Friday, September 07, 2007

September 7, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXIX: Nazi Porn

How guilty I felt as a 10-year-old whenever I would sneak into the back room of the corner candy store to thumb through the lurid paperback novels that had on their covers pictures of voluptuous girls with ripped blouses. What lustful feelings they evoked, especially those with Nazi themes that pictured U.S. prisoners of war being erotically "punished" by female Nazi prison guards wearing leather bras and thigh-high boots.

But wouldn't you know it, while I was torturing myself because of my addiction to this most-forbidden kind of pornography, pretty much the same thing was going on in Israel of all places. Forget about me for a moment—though I had heard stories about what went on in Germany during the 1940s, many of the people living in Israel at the time had gone through the reality, either having survived the Holocaust or having had numerous family members slaughtered. How could they be “getting off” on stories about such evil events?

It was during the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the early 1960s that a series of best-selling pocketbooks began to appear in Israel with titles such as I Was Colonel Schultz’s Bitch. Called Stalags, most had plots that involved American or British POWs being abused by female SS officers wearing much the same kinds of outfits I was drooling over in Brooklyn.

This unspoken-about phenomenon is coming to light now as the result of revisionist Holocaust studies and the appearance of the documentary “Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel.” (See NY Times article linked below.) During the 1960s, Israel was an extremely puritanical society with strict laws forbidding anything resembling pornography. Though it is no surprise that in spite of this smut still flourished (perhaps in fact abetted by the prohibition), it is beyond interesting that its most explicit manifestation involved Nazi themes.

Needless to say, the same interest in things Nazi was true for me and all the others who slinked through the back door to get sweaty hands on those dirty books. Though there is more than enough to think about in regard to whatever it was that compelled us and what this might say about our and even human nature, there is the more serious concern about the connection between depravity, barbaric violence, and the erotic.

The reality of life in the concentration camps, where mass evil was on daily display, included a full blending of this kind of violence and unleashed sexuality. Though the Stalags in Israel and the dime novels of my youth were all about men being “pleasured” by women, in the camps, though men too were sexually tortured, women inmates were commonly at the cruel disposal of the male (and female) guards and administrators.

And, as is usual, both in reality and in pornographic distortion, men are in charge and write the script while women remain the object of desires in all their unfathomable forms.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

September 6, 2007--Singapore Swing

If you’re anything like me, your image of Singapore is likely to be that of an authoritarian place where if you are caught chewing gum on the street you are certain to be arrested and will receive as a punishment 15 lashes with a whip. In public.

Chances are you don’t know if Singapore’s a city or a country much less where to locate it on the map. Like me, if challenged to do so, you might get left sputtering much like that poor Miss Teen America contestant who said the reason most Americans can’t locate the U.S. on the map is because they don’t have maps. (Actually, she was at least half right—how many Americans do in fact have maps?)

Well, I looked Singapore up on Wikipedia and it is both a city and a state (like in ancient Athens?) and is located on a series of islands off the southern tip of Malaysia, just north of Indonesia. It’s a multi-ethnic, multi-religious place with about 70 percent of the population of Chinese descent. Most practice Buddhism or Taoism, but about 15 percent are Christians and another 16 percent Moslem. It’s a crowded place with nearly 5.0 million squeezed into just 270 square miles. In fact, it’s the second-most populated country in the world—right behind New Jersey. Just kidding, right after Monaco. So for there to be both order and prosperity in that tumultuous region there needs to be a firm hand at the governmental tiller. And that for certain they have.

But in recent years, to maintain their favored position in the global economy, Singapore as had to loosen up. There are signs that it is even beginning to swing.

Before getting to that, let me take note of just a few things that the Singaporeans are doing very well—perhaps some from which we might learn a lesson or two. As an island nation they are taking the prospect of global warming seriously. If the level of the oceans rises a foot or two much of the land mass of Singapore will disappear so they are making a huge investment to protect themselves from that; and while they are at it, they are working to bring all of their infrastructure systems up to 21st century state of the art standards. The New Orleans rebuilders would have done us a favor if they had sent a team there to study what they have been up to.

They recognized a couple of decades ago that the key to their and the world’s economic future was not just having a good education system, but to excel would require an excellent one. It took considerable hard work, but now they have a public education (and health) system that is the envy of the world, with special strengths in math and science. Educators from the U.S., also challenged to work with diverse populations, would do well to get on the next plane and spend some time on the ground there to see what they have achieved.

They even have good advice for us as we continue to stumble with our foreign policy. The founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, says that we are depleting too much of our energy, attention, and resources in the Middle East and have thus lost focus on where the global future is taking rapid shape—Asia, as the result of China’s expanding economic and diplomatic power. (See linked NY Times article.)

Singapore’s secret, he says (and by implication our problem), is that it is “ideology free.” They are shamelessly pragmatic: to us, he claims, “The question is: ‘Does it work? Let’s try it, and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.’”

In that spirit, though still a too over-controlled society for our taste, to attract more tourists they have begun to permit gambling. Two huge casinos are being built; and although they do not like them, they accept the fact that “the world has changed,” and they have to adapt to that.

In the past, punishment was severe for any act of homosexuality—it was considered to be even worse than chewing gum. But to import “lifestyle,” as they charmingly put it, and to compete with China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan which already have gayness, Singapore is loosening up since they want that money too.

How will we ever beat these guys?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

September 5, 2007--The DNA Wars

It’s rough out there. Even in the seemingly genteel and objective world of Big Science. Case in point—the bare-knuckles race to decode the human genome.

If you have been following this you might have thought the race was over. That it ended in a sort of draw with the US government-backed National Institute of Health team and the privately-funded team led by Dr. Craig Venter declaring a truce and, in effect, publishing their findings in a gothic version of collaboration. They still hated each other, gossiping and sniping at each other all along the way toward a hoped-for Noble Prize.

But what they published jointly in 2003 was far from the complete genome. It was full of gaps which rendered it less than ideal for use by other scientists who sought to use it for, among other things, medical diagnoses and treatments. So Venter and his rivals lumbered on and just this week Venter announced that he and his team, still privately funded, had filled in virtually all of those missing pieces.

And, to boot they proclaimed, for the first time there is a complete picture of a single person’s DNA (the previous findings, with their gaps, were derived from a sample of DNA from at least four people). And can you believe it, that single individual whose DNA was analyzed was none other than Dr. Venter himself! You can only imagine how crazy this is making the NIH team. But at least they have something to distract themselves from having to contemplate their diminished status—they can rail against Venter, calling him a colossal egomaniac and an assortment of unprintables. Which they are doing as loudly and publicly as they can.

The media is lapping this up. Nothing tweaks them more than a cat fight among the very same people that they on other occasions exalt. They are also focused on those of these new discoveries that more precisely than in the past reveal the genetic differences between all humans (99 rather than the 99.5 percent as previously thought—which should provide solace to racists) and between us and Chimps—about 90 rather than 94 percent, which should be quite a comfort to creationists).

I admit that I enjoy all of these stories, but to me the one that jumps out as most significant is the nature of the competition itself between the public and private efforts. And between establishment science and a scientific maverick. With Venter being the maverick.

The government put billions into their version of the effort while Venter ran around raising just tens of millions for his. The government, with all their money and other resources, set up a lumbering decoding process that was scheduled to grind away for at least a decade. Venter, on the other hand, developed a method that cut many corners, but not quality, and was as a result moving on a much faster track. So what did the NIH, the principal funder, do? One would think that recognizing Venter’s innovations, they would have swung at least some of their resources his way. Instead they did all they could to undermine his efforts and cut off his access to funds over which they had some control—specifically various open competitions for grants that are supposed to be awarded by independent, objective measures. The NIH won that battle but as we now see lost the larger war. (See NY Times story linked below.)

This is sadly not so unusual in science. Venter was not traditionally trained, securing his doctorate later in life than is usual among the science elites—he having first served in Vietnam as a medic, messaging the hearts of hundreds of soldiers dying on MASH operating tables while his rivals were safely tucked away in grad schools. So when he, rough-and-tumble, appeared on the scene he was shunned by the establishment.

We’ve heard this story before—Charles Darwin, a legitimate genius to be sure, was a part of the early 19th century science aristocracy and his findings, though controversial, were more welcome than those of Alfred Russel Wallace’s, a self-taught naturalist, who, before Darwin, came to understand and write about the key mechanism that guides evolution--natural selection.

And in the field of genetics itself, James Watson and Francis Crick got full credit for being the first to describe the double-helix structure of DNA, while failing to acknowledge the essential contributions of Rosalind Franklin who, as a woman without a major institutional affiliation was easy to ignore. (Watson and Crick were at Cambridge; Franklin was at only King’s College London—worlds apart.)

Now Venter is working on decoding Watson’s DNA and plans to present the results to him as a present. He is also working on his mother’s! I can only imagine what that will reveal.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

September 4, 2007--"Your Leadership Is Apparent"

It has often been said that the winners write the histories. But in the case of this White House we are seeing attempts by the losers there to shape their own historical legacy.

Condoleezza Rice is cooperating with three separate authors who are writing biographies about her. She is apparently, and understandably, trying to steer their attention to the hardships she overcame growing up and her role as Secretary of State, especially her efforts in the Middle East. The Middle East, of course, that does not include Iraq or her ineffectual efforts to serve as a strong National Security Advisor, knowing, as a sort of historian herself, that history will find much to fault. They may even recall her statement that the certainty of Iraq’s having WMDs would mean that the next smoking gun would be “a mushroom cloud” over Israel and Europe.

And President Bush himself is thinking about history. His legacy. He has a longstanding interest in history, it seems. I know this because I was home sick yesterday and while resting listened to a little Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Karl Rove was one of his guests and he told charming stories about how he and President Bush, both inveterate readers, had an ongoing contest to see who each year could read more books.

When asked what kind of books Rove said that in his boss’ case mainly histories because, “You know, he has an MBA from Harvard and was a history major at Yale.” “Who won?” Limbaugh probed. “The president,” Rove claimed. “How many did you read last year?” “Fifty-four,” Rove chirped. “And the president?” “One-hundred-fourteen,” the Brain said proud of his pupil.

As such a serious scholar it is no wonder that the president would have a keen interest in the history of his presidency. Thus he, like Condi, is cooperated with Robert Draper for his forthcoming book about the Bush II presidency, the aptly-titled Dead Certain. He spent more than a dozen one-on-one hours with Draper to make certain he got it dead right. Among other things Bush went to uncommon lengths to set the record straight about the so-called deBaathification of the Iraqi army which pretty much everyone, even in the Bush administration, now sees to have been a mistake.

To Draper, Bush insisted that though it didn’t work out well it was never his intention to dismantle Saddam’s army. The “policy had been,” Bush asserted, “to keep the army intact, but that it didn’t happen.” (See NY Times story linked below.)

Anyone who has followed the syntax of the Bush administration is familiar with this passive voice, one that refuses to take responsibility for anything ever going wrong. You recall the famous “Mistakes were made” comments of late last year after the midterm elections.

But almost as quickly as the ink dried on yesterday’s report in the Times about the upcoming book, Paul Bremer, the first administrator of post-Saddam Iraq, shared a letter he had written to the president, in advance of the army being disbanded, in which precisely that had been recommended.

As evidence that Bush had in fact seen it, one day after he received the letter from Bremer, Bush himself shot a note back to him saying, without irony:

Your leadership is apparent. You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence.

Brownie, where have we heard this before?

Monday, September 03, 2007

September 3, 2007--Labor Day

Not laboring today. Look for tomorrow's post.