Friday, November 30, 2007

November 30, 2007--Fanaticism XCVIII: Teddy (Roosevelt) Bear

Remain calm but during the Thanksgiving weekend Rona and I bought a taxidermied bear cub. For our living room. It was not killed but rather died a natural death more than 100 years ago up in the Adirondacks. So we’re not feeling too guilty. A little pretentious maybe, but not politically incorrect.

After finding just the right place for it we next turned to selecting a name for him (at least we think it’s a “him”). We’re Jewish and thought we might call him Max, after the Jewish boxer from the past—Max Baer. Or Blacky since he is a black bear. Gummy was another possibility. Not entirely happy with any of these we decided to wait a bit to see if we would naturally come to call him one name or another.

Then the news broke all over the place about another, very, very different situation surrounding the naming of a bear. This one is a toy bear that belonged to a class of 7-year-olds in an elite private school in the Sudan. By now you know the story—

Their British teacher began a project on animals and as part of it asked her students to suggest names for the bear. Overwhelmingly the class voted to name it Mohammad. Ms. Gibbons then asked them to take the bear home, photograph it, and write a little something about it. After they brought what they wrote back to class she bound all the essays into a book that she called, My Name is Muhammad.

When word got out about this she was arrested and charged with blasphemy, inciting hatred, and insulting Islam. It is considered to be a grave offense, a crime to do anything that might be viewed as an insult to the Prophet. In her case, and she was convicted yesterday, she could have been sent to jail for quite some time and received 40 lashes. She will spend 15 days in jail but will not have to endure the whipping. (See NY Times story linked below.)

Considering the stakes, Rona and I are now being a little careful about what we call our bear. One thought, which we rejected as too obvious, was to consider calling him Teddy after the ubiquitous stuffed bear of that name.

Now, beyond feeling that that name would be too common, there is another reason to keep searching for one that works for us and him—The teddy bear after all is also named after a person, admittedly not quite equivalent to the Prophet, President Teddy Roosevelt. And we wouldn’t want to do anything blasphemous in regard to his memory.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007--Experience Doesn't Count

Look what experience got us. Can you think of any people more experienced than Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld?

When George Bush chose them it signaled that the newly-elected, rather-inexperienced governor of a state where the legislature meets just every other year and where the governor in truth is a version of a glad-handing figurehead, that this governor, realizing he lacked experience, especially in foreign affairs, it appeared at the time that he had the good sense to turn defense and foreign policy over to two men who between them had more than six decades of high-level experience.

Many were comforted by this; but, as a result, here we are now having to deal with the fallout from the biggest foreign policy disaster in our history.

So when the Democratic presidential primary season recently turned to something resembling a debate about Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s experience it was déjà vu all over again. Here was Hillary claiming that she had 35 years of experience, the most relevant of which was during her husband’s tenure in the White House, in contrast to Barack who touted as evidence of his foreign affairs experience the fact that he had spent four years living abroad when he was a what . . . a child! Now talk about the ultimate apples and oranges. It looked at first as if Senator Clinton had really trumped the boy senator. (See NY Times article linked below.)

But then the pundits took a closer look at the situation. First they liked Obama’s retort—Yes it’s true, he said, Hillary had made, what was it, visits to 80 or 82 countries; but was she, as she claimed, “America’s face” while traveling? What might the real Secretary of State say about that? We know that too. Quick as a flash, Clinton-supporter Madeleine Albright said that she was thrilled to have had Hillary representing the U.S. during her trips. And further, she contended, they served as excellent preparation for the presidency. Why Hillary can just dial the phone and talk to . . . almost anyone. She didn’t add, however, that foreign leaders pick up the phone when any of our presidents call, even when it’s George W. Bush who, for God sakes, can’t even pronounce their names!

On the other hand, the talking-heads speculated, isn’t there a two-edged sword with Hillary Clinton claiming that her most relevant experience was as Mrs. (my italics) Bill Clinton? How good is that--to have our potential Commander-in-Chief playing the Little Lady card? Forget for the moment all the related gendered issues--this Mrs. Clinton approach doesn’t make folks feel secure, and it isn’t smart politics.

All well and good. But few went to the next step—critically examining Barack Obama’s experience. I assume that if the TV writers were not on strike Jay Leno and colleagues would have had a field day making fun of the foreign policy experience Little Baracky was acquiring while skipping around in short pants and knee socks in the third grade of some fancy private school in Indonesia. Hillarious. And now Oprah! I’m laughing so hard just thinking about this that tears are running down my face.

But then, I thought, if the richly-experienced Cheney and Rummy screwed up, and before them, to be bipartisan, the equally-experienced Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, what after all is so special about experience of this kind?

Key, I am coming to conclude, is the this-kind part of this. The kind that is plugged into and thus powered by the conventional wisdoms about American exceptionalism and the manifest right to use our power to promulgate America’s so-called superior values on a global scale. The kind that is dominated by all of the elites, not just those that inhabit the political establishment—but also the corporate elite as well as those from academia and the media. Regardless of party, all who are tangled up together in the certainties derived from having danced with each other in a century-long interlocking Pavane of directorates.

Looking at experience this way, especially noticing what it has brought down upon us and the rest of the world during the past four or five decades, what Little Barack absorbed while growing up in the largest Islamic country in the world might be just what we need.

What First Lady Hillary experienced while traveling abroad, or what they allow senators to see when on junkets, is as far removed from reality as is Oz Land. We are in such trouble, as a result, that maybe, just maybe we need to take a chance with something entirely new. Maybe we need to turn to someone who has at least some experiential sense of what it’s like to be viable while being perceived as the “other” in a part of the world where, like it or not, we have to figure out how to maneuver.

Of course, if all Senator Obama knew was derived from those childhood years I would not be making this case. He has also acquired a terrific education, has had a significant if brief career in public service, and more than anything else seems centered and reasonably authentic because he knows who he is and what he isn’t. (Read his biography.)

And again, that experience of otherness which has in many ways defined his life also symbolizes America’s current place in the world. We may be hegemonic in economic and military terms (though this can be contested), but our metaphoric global face is more, like his, that of the other.

And yes, his name does rhyme with Osama, which it turns out may not be a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November 28, 2007--The Timekeeper--Concluded

For years I’ve noticed him. In all weather. Always wearing his blue checked short-sleeve shirt. It gets bitterly cold at the eastern edge of Washington Square Park, but still I’ve never seen him with a jacket, much less a coat or a hat. Or wearing gloves.

He is easy to ignore. Just another of the big city’s lost souls. Because lost, he seems--muttering to himself as he paces with apparent purpose back and forth, back and forth--he seems sometimes to rise in what appears to be anger. I have some expertise about Tourette Syndrome, and since I first observed him thought he was a classic case. Like the others--unable to control his violent verbal eruptions; and though he, unlike them, is not easy to understand, I assumed that his angry outbursts included the cursing that is characteristic of so many Tourettes. Indeed, a textbook case of physical and verbal tics.

Although I know that there is nothing inherently to fear from Tourettes, as I said they are all-too familiar to me, I always cut them and him a wide swath. One never truly knows.

That is until last Wednesday.

I had heard that he is well-known to the NYU community. In fact, there was a recent article about him in the student newspaper, The Washington Square News. No one attempted to interview him, the reporter had been respectful of his affliction, but he did learn that the little man—and he is indeed quite small, no more than five feet tall—is referred to as the Timekeeper by students who rush to and from class along Washington Square East. This because he appears to check his oversized watch every thirty seconds or so. And each time, after doing that, he barks what seem like commands or admonitions to the students streaming along the park. Thus it was reported. Nothing more than that. There was nothing said about his condition or other aspects of his life. Such as it must be.

Forgive me. This is not quite true. I failed to mention, they did write how a number of the students interviewed for the article, like me, also noticed that he never wears a sweater when the wind is howling, and a few revealed that they had brought one for him last winter but he had rejected it with a dismissive and even frightening grunt.

Last Wednesday was especially raw for mid-November. One of those late fall days when, after a spell of warmer-than-normal temperatures, the color of the sky suggests that if it were a mere few degrees colder it would yield some early winter snow. It was of course no surprise that the Timekeeper was there, perhaps pacing a bit faster to keep warm, as usual checking his watch in the familiar exaggerated gesture which has him deliberately lifting inch-by-inch his stumpy but muscular left arm and watch to within a foot of his mottled face. As if to flamboyantly show anyone who cared, or happened to notice, that he was on the job and would indeed still be at his post when things really began to blow and storm. We could count on that. Though what that counting-on might mean remained unclear.

But for some reason, unlike on so many other days when I simply took note of him, that morning I paused to watch him as he went through his involuntary rituals. More balletic than a series of, to me, familiar neurological tics. And thus worth cataloging.

First, and perhaps most curious for Tourettes, his pacing was confined to a tight pattern (most when out and about simply wandered, seemingly aimlessly)—an equal number of steps that traced all the points of the compass from due north then sharply west, south next, and finally east back to the very spot where he began to trace this militarily precise box. Over and over he repeated this drill, being certain to stop at each intersection to check the time and bark skyward his invectives before snapping off a sharp right-angle turn and stomping in another direction.

Also not appropriately dressed for the emerging season, huddling in the lee of Pless Hall across the street from where he paced his rounds, last Wednesday I stopped to observe.

By the third time that he turned east toward where I lurked I had become so, what else to call it, interested in watching him, wondering why the misfiring of his synapses had produced such a unique-to-my-experience syndrome, that I found myself being drawn toward him as if compelled for some reason to move closer. The better to take account of him? I am not certain; but whatever the case, I found myself, seemingly against my will, stepping out from the shelter the building provided, crossing the sidewalk, and when I reached the curb stumbling; and in so doing wound up thrust into the middle of the busy street. Where I rigidly stood as if frozen in place.

Before reaching the spot from where he would swing north again, no more then than three or four yards from where I bewildered stood, he fixed me with a ferocious look, crouched even lower to the ground than his short legs unbent allowed, and with his left arm extended—feeling to me as if it were long enough, though I knew this to be a physical impossibility, to press against my chest—growled words I could distinctly and unexpectedly understand: “Watch the traffic,” while at the same time waving with his right hand at the taxi cab, to slow it, which was careening, I then noticed, up the street toward where I remained transfixed.

He had surely saved me from serious injury or worse, and I nodded my appreciation in his direction as I jumped back out of the street and onto the safety of the sidewalk. Appreciation he did not stop to acknowledge as he resumed his rounds. North again, then west, next south, and finally back in my direction, east. From my side I waved toward him again but he did not seem to notice as he peered at his watch before turning once more to his left.

The sidewalks on both sides of Washington Square East were by then swarming with students racing between classes. I slipped back into the shelter of Pless Hall to catch my breath and to resume my observing. The wind was still slicing in from across the park. West to east. And as the streets filled even more with scurrying students, it would soon be late for class, the Timekeeper, when he got to his own self-delineated south-east corner, the one closet to the street, came to a stop. He remained there twitching and, even more deliberately and ostentatiously than usual, raised his watch in an almost imperceptible sweep of his left arm and roared, again uncharacteristically but totally distinctly, “Two minutes to class. Two minutes.” And added, “Watch the traffic.”

And with that, as if his warning were insufficient, he stepped off the sidewalk and halted all the approaching cars and taxis. “One minute,” he said. And gently added, “Hurry now.”

I returned the next morning and sought the cover of the same doorway in which I had sought protection on Wednesday. This time to be obscured from view. The weather as is not unusual for this time of year had once again changed—a front had passed through during the night and the Timekeeper, who was back to his purposeful pacing, was likely feeling comfortable in the same thin shirt he had worn the previous day. The streets were relatively empty, classes were in session—I had checked the schedule to be certain of that--and so I had clear sight lines along which to resume my observations. This time I was sure to bring a pad along with me in case there was something out of what I now saw to be an ordinary set of routines. These rigid routines being something somewhat unusual for Tourettes, but far from unknown since there were many variations recorded in the literature.

I watched and made note of four complete tracings through the compass points and the accompanying pauses at each turning to check the watch and bark some incoherent imprecation. Each traverse to my eye appeared to be identical to the last. I could perceive no variations. Perhaps if I were closer I would have observed some but I did not want to repeat the fiasco of the day before.

Since it was clear that there was nothing more for me to learn, my curiosity had been slaked—it was, though, an unusual case: all the obsessing with time and traffic was perhaps unique, and thus the hour or so in total I had spent on this had not been wasted—I put my pad away and turned to head back to my apartment. I had much work to catch up with and in many ways was not unhappy to be able to break away and walk north toward 9th Street.

But before I had managed to reach even the first intersection—Waverly Place and Washington Square East—I saw a woman of middle years dash diagonally south-west into the park where she quickly intercepted the Timekeeper just as he reached the northeastern corner of his tiny territory. Since this event I had not observed before I decided that my work back at home could wait. This encounter--because that is what it undoubtedly would turn out to be--might prove worth watching and even analyzing since Tourettes react in so many different ways when interrupted during one of their extended tics.

Remarkably, when she reached him she put an arm around his shoulder—she towered over him even though she was of normal height for a woman—and he followed her to one of the nearby benches. I reached for my pad and crossed the street in order to be closer to them.

They appeared to be having an intense conversation with their heads nearly touching. Both simultaneously and extravagantly gesturing. I inched nearer, but because of my impaired hearing was unable to make out anything that was being shared between them. She had brought him coffee or tea in a paper cup (I could see steam escaping and thus knew it was a hot beverage). Clearly they knew each other well.

After about three minutes, since I could not record what they were saying and because I was concerned that my skulking nearby would be detected by them, which I did not want to happen since perhaps I would choose to continue my observations at another time—I wanted to preserve my anonymity and objectivity—I retraced my steps back across the street and moved at a normal and hopefully inconspicuous pace north up University Place. Though to be sure I did not draw too much attention to myself—I was concerned that my visible excitement at this unexpected turn of events would give me away—Tourettes are uncommonly observant of anything unfamiliar or out of the ordinary—so as to eliminate the risk of being discovered by either of them I ducked into the deli just across Waverly Place for a cup of coffee for myself. Not that I wanted one—what I sought was a place to slip out of sight for a few minutes.

The shop for some reason is called the Space Market and though at the street side is narrow, it is quite deep, perhaps 150 feet or so back into the bowels of the building in which it is situated. An ideal place then to find cover. So I filled a cup and retreated to the back, well back behind the massive salad bar. There is no place to sit; but in the sanctuary of the market, among the shelves of dry cereal, I stood sipping coffee and thinking about what I had been observing during the past two days. There was much to consider, especially the Timekeeper’s relationship to the woman. Clearly there was one—it in fact felt profound considering how instantaneously they had picked up their conversation. And how obviously intense it was. There were no preliminaries—they seemed to launch immediately into a dialogue that had been going on for quite some time.

In spite of my best efforts, when you put all the pieces together—the Tourette tics, the unwavering patterns that the Timekeeper traced in the park, the unrelenting involvement with time and traffic (of which I was a thankful beneficiary), the daily involvement with students and their schedule of classes, and above all whatever was going on between him and the woman—I could not make sense of it all. I would have to do some more thinking and reading. Or maybe I would decide to just let it go—to chalk it up as another unfathomable story from the annals of the big city. There were God knows many of those. I had a lot to do without getting involved any further with this. Yes, that’s best, I thought, let it go. Move on. This was without doubt the right decision.

But while mulling this over and coming to this sensible conclusion, my cup was almost empty, and who cared any more if the Timekeeper or the woman noticed me, it was long past time for me to forget all this and get back to my real work, with a newly purposeful stride, as I approached the cash register at the front of the deli there she was, the woman who had just been with the Timekeeper.

I tried to slip by her but there was such a crowd pressing in through the narrow entrance—classes were changing again and students were streaming in to get snacks before the next ones began—that I could not do so. There was not enough room. In fact, to get back out to the street I needed to ask her to move aside to allow me to squeeze through. For a moment I hesitated to tap her on the back but, considering that I no longer cared if she somehow recognized me, I did not restrain myself from asking if she could let me by.

As she began to attempt to create a passageway for me, she turned to tell me that she was doing her best and that I should be patient. But in mid sentence I could see a flicker of recognition pass across her face. Still this did not concern me. It was over. My involvement, such as it was, with her and him. To her, though, it clearly wasn’t since she moved to block my way, forcefully took hold of my arm, and led my toward the back of the store where I had just been hiding.

I did not resist. By her doing this I was instantly reengaged in the story—at least her part of it. This too I did not resist. What, after all was likely to happen to me back among the boxes of pasta Raman noodles? I was tall and fit and she was, truth be told, short of breath and dumpy. So why not go along with her to see what I might learn?

When we reached the remotest corner of the market she turned me to face her. She did this with considerable physical power and I thought for a moment that I had underestimated her. But it was quickly clear that this was not to be an angry confrontation. No, “How can you stalk that poor man as if he was one of your experiments [not that I did any]? Don’t you know he is afflicted? That his behavior is not under his control? And look how he saved you yesterday. I heard all about that. Leave him be, will you. Etc.”

Rather she said, as I was readying my response, which would have been: “I do know about his condition. I do not, as you, consider it an ‘affliction.’ I know about individuals with Tourette Syndrome. In fact I am very sympathetic to their circumstances. And yes, he did keep me from harm yesterday. I very much appreciate that. Etc.”

Instead she said, “He is not a Tourette as I suspect you have been thinking.” How did she know that I wondered? “In fact he has no afflictions and conditions that I know of.” Again, it was as if she had been reading my mind. “It is true that he has some Dwarfism, you may have noticed that, but that in no way limits his mental capacities, though many think that those with that condition are in some way retarded, which they are not.” I knew that. It was hardly necessary to tell me that. “You, though, may have been wondering about what could easily be interpreted as unusual behavior.” Yes, I had been. “What he does every morning in the park.”

“To tell you the truth, I had been wondering about that. Sympathetically I hope. Indeed, if he had had Tourette Syndrome that too I feel I would have observed with understanding. You see . . .”

She cut me off, “I don’t have all day to talk with you. I’m busy too. But since you seem so interested in him I should tell you a little about his life. About what befell him. Perhaps then you will leave him alone.” I moved to say something about that but she waved me off. “I know, I know, you are a very sympathetic person. You just told me that. I am happy for you.” I nodded as if to say that I deserved her sarcasm.

“About five years ago,” she continued, “he lost his son. His son, who was his whole life, was a college student upstate; and in his second year there was killed by a car.” I grabbed hold of the wire shelves to keep myself from reeling. It was clear where this was going. “Not while driving. But while racing from his dormitory to his 9:00 biology class. He was a premed. He was run down by a hit-and-run driver who was never caught.” She was staring at me.

“After that life for William, that’s his name, was never the same. His wife died of grief less than two years later. The boy who was killed was their only child. So there you see William every day.” She pointed back toward the park.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

November 27, 2007--Annual Checkup

Off today to a round of routine checkups. Blogging resumes on Wednesday.

Monday, November 26, 2007

November 26, 2007--Jesus Manuel Cordova

While we rage on about illegal immigrants and our would-be leaders contort themselves as they seek to use this inflammatory issue for their own self-serving purposes, there are other stories to tell besides those about crimes allegedly committed by “illegals” or how they depress wages paid to low-skilled citizens or how they take jobs away from Real Americans.

For example, there is 26 year-old Jesus Manuel Cordova from the northern Mexican state of Sonora.

Illegally in the United States for just a few hours—he had walked across the border into Arizona--he saw a van careen off the road and plunge into a canyon where it landed 300 feet below. He climbed down to it, not to rob the passengers but to see if he could be of assistance.

In the crumpled van he saw the seriously-injured driver pinned in the wreck. He was unable to pull her out but found what turned out to be her uninjured but disoriented son wandering about seeking help. Mr. Cordova tried to comfort him, telling the boy that everything would be all right. And when evening fell and the dry air cooled, he gave the child his jacket and built a bonfire to keep him warm. In this way Jesus Cordova spent the night with him in the desert just north of Arizona’s border with Mexico.

The next morning help did arrive in the form of hunters who called the sheriff of Santa Cruz County. The sheriff got the boy to a hospital where he was found to be unharmed. His mother, however, died in the van during the night. The boy’s father had died just two months earlier.

The NY Times reported (linked below) that Sheriff Tony Estrada then turned Mr. Cordova over to the Border Patrol, and before nightfall he was returned to Mexico.

Now I know that this story of courage and uncommon charity does not in itself counter the fact and problem that there are at least 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. or respond to the daunting challenge about what to do about this. But it does specifically and metaphorically suggest that this Nation of Immigrants did and does derive many kinds of benefits by being welcoming.

Friday, November 23, 2007

November 23, 2007--More Monday

Taking the weekend off. "The Timekeeper" will continue on Monday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

November 21, 2007--Thanksgiving Story: The Timekeeper--Part One

For years I’ve noticed him. In all weather. Always wearing his blue checked short-sleeve shirt. It gets bitterly cold at the eastern edge of Washington Square Park, but still I’ve never seen him with a jacket, much less a coat or a hat or wearing gloves.

He’s easy to ignore. Just another of the big city’s lost souls. Because lost, he seems--muttering to himself as he paces with apparent purpose back and forth, back and forth--he seems sometimes to rise in what appears to be anger. Sad for me, I know a little about people afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, and since I first observed him thought he was a classic case. Like the others--unable to control his violent verbal eruptions; and though he, unlike them, is not easy to understand, I assumed that his angry outbursts included the cursing that is characteristic of so many Tourettes. Indeed, a textbook case of physical and verbal tics.

Although I know that there is nothing inherently to fear from Tourettes, as I said they are familiar to me, I always cut them and him a wide swath. One truly never knows.

That is until last Wednesday.

I had heard that he is well-known to the NYU community. In fact, there was a recent article about him in the student newspaper, The Washington Square News. No one attempted to interview him, the reporter had been respectful of his affliction, but he did learn that the little man—and he is indeed quite small, no more than five feet tall—is referred to as the Timekeeper by students who race to and from class along Washington Square East. This because he appears to check his oversized watch every thirty seconds or so. And each time, after doing that, he barks what seem like commands or admonitions to the students streaming along the park. Thus it was reported. Nothing much more than that. There was nothing said about his condition or other aspects of his like. Such as it is. And, oh yes, they did write how a number of the students interviewed for the article, like me, also noticed that he never wears a sweater when the wind is howling, and a few revealed that they had brought one for him last winter but he had rejected it with a dismissive and even frightening grunt.

Last Wednesday was especially raw for mid-November. One of those late fall days, when after a spell of warmer-than-normal temperatures, the color of the sky suggests that if it were just a few degrees colder it would yield some early winter snow. It was of course no surprise that the Timekeeper was there, perhaps pacing a bit faster to keep warm, as usual checking his watch in the familiar exaggerated gesture which reveals him deliberately lifting inch-by-inch his stumpy but muscular left arm and watch to within a foot of his face. As if to flamboyantly show anyone who cared, or happened to notice, that he was on the job and would indeed still be at his post when things really began to blow and storm. We could count on that. Though what that counting-on might mean remained unclear.

But for some reason, unlike on so many other days, I paused to watch him as he went through his involuntary ritual. More balletic than a series of, to me, familiar neurological tics. And thus worth observing.

To be continued tomorrow . . .

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

November 20, 2007--In the Hospital

Look for a new posting tomorrow. Today, I am visiting a family member who is in hospital. All indications are that she will soon be fine.

Monday, November 19, 2007

November 19, 2007--DNA Me

I recently learned that if you have a thousand bucks to spare and are willing to spit in a cup, there are a growing number of companies out there that will analyze your saliva in order to chart your very own DNA. From the results you will be able to learn important things about your susceptibility to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

You can also learn about your genetic ancestry—of what racial mix are you composed. For some, acquiring this latter information has come as quite a surprise—former members of slave-owning families have learned that that though they are as white looking as say Thomas Jefferson they are in reality 20 percent African. Somewhere back then great-great granddaddy must have been fooling around in the slave quarters.

And you can find out why those Thanksgiving brussels sprout don’t appeal to you—one part of your DNA may reveal that to you all vegetable taste a little bitter—and you might learn why as a child you hated it when your mother tried to get you to drink your milk—you may have a genetic tendency to not easily digest dairy products. (See linked NY Times article.)

More controversially, it is claimed that your DNA patterns might show a tendency to higher (or lower) IQ. If true, this is one step away from looking to see if there are racial differences that might be inborn. Or for that matter, DNA IQ-related patterns that differentiate males from females.

I think I’ll take a pass on these and focus more on tendencies toward certain diseases (though do I really want to know if I’m prone to Alzheimer’s when there is at the moment nothing to do with that information except be depressed all the time) and personality traits.

For that matter, what if I learn that I have a tendency toward early rising (this I already know), a propensity to put on weight because I am drawn against my will to fatty foods, or that I’ve inherited the gene that produces wet earwax? This too I’m plagued with and am hoping that this new genomic knowledge will lead to some celebrity stepping forward to get behind fundraising efforts in support of the Earwax Association Research Society—EARS being their acronym--because I'm getting sick and tired of all that wax build-up and overflow.

Friday, November 16, 2007

November 16, 2007--Fanaticism XCVII: A Cat In the Bush

While frantically switching back and forth earlier this week between the cable news networks and Court TV in an attempt to keep up with the Breaking News about the OJ Simpson trial in Las Vegas (never mind that Pakistan was unraveling), another significant trial was beginning in Galveston that was barely noticed. We can, though, depend on the New York Times to cover all the news that’s fit to print.

The newspaper of record reported that in south Texas on Tuesday one James M. Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, was placed on trial for shooting, with the ”intent to kill,” a cat who, he claimed, had been threatening endangered piping plovers. (Article linked below.)

According to court documents, the policeman who was called to the scene and evacuated the cat to the Humane Society (it died on route) testified that the cat “was in terrible pain when he arrived at the crime scene.” Among other things, the defense team will attempt to ask how the policeman could reliably “asses the cat’s state of mind.” It will be interesting to hear what he has to say. If convicted on charges of “animal cruelty,” Mr. Stevenson could face a fine of $10,000 and up to two years in jail.

This all seemed open-and-shut to me until I investigated further.

First, under Texas law animal cruelty only pertains to doing harm to animals “belonging to others”; and in this case Mr. Stevenson, who does not deny he shot the cat, contends that the cat was feral, that it did not belong to anyone. Though the prosecution counter-claims that the toll keeper of the bridge under which the cat lived fed it regularly and even gave it a name—Mama Cat—and in effect it/she belonged to him and was thus not wild.

On the other hand, it is not contested that Mama Cat did in fact chase after birds on the Galveston beach. That, after all, is what cats do. No? But, and this makes things all the more complicated, the piping plovers Mama most loved to hassle are indeed endangered and therefore legally protected. If you, a human, drive on the beach in some four-wheel drive gas-guzzler and run over plover nests, killing any or destroying their eggs, you are subject to prosecution.

But to equate a cat, whose natural instinct it is to chase down and eat birds, with a luded-up SUV jockey may not hold up in this court. Unless you can make the case that the drivers are also doing their natural, instinctual thing.

As you might imagine, birders and cat-lovers who learned about this legal battle are at each others’ throats. Mr. Stevenson, in the blogosphere, has been labeled a “murderous fascist” and a “diabolical monster.” Bird-lovers have fired back, asserting in the most vigorous language, that he had a right to “dispense with a terrible menace.”

At the risk of raising your ire further, let me play this out a bit more. I’m OK with protecting from cruelty any animal that “belongs to another” (assuming, of course, that the “another” is a human). On the other hand, in Texas six weeks ago they changed the animal cruelty statutes to protect all cats from “harm” even if they are feral.

Forgive me, though I had cats as beloved pets for more than 20 years, what’s so special about cats to earn them this unique designation? What about deer with big eyes? Shouldn’t we protect Bambi from hunters? And I’m sure that if we tried we could find pheasant and quail lovers who could be mobilized to protect them from the likes of Dick Cheney.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

November 15, 2007--Illegals

At the last debate among Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton got all tangled up in the issue that may very well determine no only who will become the nominee but also our next president. Much of the post-debate commentary was about how she flipped before she flopped before she flipped. Somewhat lost in the pundits’ tussle was where she actually stands on the issue itself—in this instance issuing versions of drivers licenses in New York to illegal immigrants. This, of course, was a surrogate for her meta-position on so-called illegals. Gotcha indeed.

While folks like me who depend on undocumented workers to bring me espresso in the morning and then wash the cup and saucer after I’m done, all across America, including in extra-liberal New York, most people are raging about the question. And this is not just one of Karl Rove’s famous wedge issues designed to mobilize right-wing voters by pandering to their fears and prejudices as well as distract them from the mess we’ve made in the Middle East. It cuts deep among, it seems, almost everyone. Fully 70% of New Yorkers, for example, disapproved of their governor’s plan to make these licenses available and thus yesterday he dropped it. To Hillary’s and every other Democrat’s relief. They know how to count and want to win in 2008. (See NY Times article linked below.)

My snideness aside, this is truly a tough one. There are at least 10 million illegal immigrants in the country and more are arriving every day. Pretty much everyone agrees, including those most vocal on the subject, that the American economy requires them. To clean up after me in Balthazar every morning, to mow our lawns, as aides to our aging parents, to pick our lettuce. In other words to do much of the work that “real Americans” wouldn’t do even if we offered them $10 an hour. To help put this in perspective, do you personally know any 18 year-olds who want to wash dishes?

But then do we want to just say that even though we know you broke the law to get here we’ll forget that and put you on a fast-track to become citizens while ignoring all the others who are waiting on line to fill out applications, and then wait years more, to emigrate legally?

It’s not a sufficient argument to say that we are “a nation of immigrants” or that our grandparents or great-grandparents came here and worked in sweatshops until they dropped so we could go to school because most came here legally and more-or-less played by the rules, harsh though they certainly were. And it is not enough to recall that previous waves of immigrants also faced withering discrimination. Or that, since we are the beneficiaries of our families somehow managing to endure and overcome this, we should in turn be more understanding and tolerant about their successors who after all want the very same thing for their children.

Our history is full of stories about the No-Nothings’ racist claims and opposition to certain kinds of immigrants who were often seen to be less-than-human. Especially during hard economic times or periods of national fear. Sound familiar?

Though it may be all too familiar, still there are the 10-15 million who are here illegally. And like it or not, what to do about them is becoming an increasingly incendiary issue in the campaign. As Hillary Clinton found out, touch it even casually and you get helplessly stuck to it.

At the risk of getting equally ensnared, I suggest we consider doing three things:

First, shouldn’t we do a better job of keeping people from entering the country illegally? As the Republicans say, “secure our borders”? As most of us feel, to make us feel and actually be more secure?

Second, essentially linked to the next suggestion, as unfeeling as this may seem, shouldn’t we make a real effort to find and send home as many undocumented immigrants as we can? For a couple of reasons—to uphold and demonstrate the importance of obeying the law; and to make it less attractive to come here illegally;

And, third, coupled with this, make it much, much easier to come here legally—no more endless waiting. Since we need low-skilled workers now, and the contributions that their children will subsequently make to our economy and country, and since we would want to replace those who we deport, this should be a priority as well as a statement about what America, at its best, is about.

You know--“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . .” Remember that? Though it may sound a little dated, it’s still a stunning concept.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

November 14, 2007--Some Nice Things

It’s not just $2,500 pocketbooks that are selling like hotcakes. Yesterday the Dow-Jones average rose more than 300 points, and at Christie’s auction of postwar and contemporary art 16 records were set for artists such as Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, and Lucian Freud.

We do not need Lucian’s grandfather, Sigmund, to help us analyze what is going on. While most in the world, including right here in the U.S., are struggling just to get by, for an international elite there is tons of money around and all sorts of out-of-control spending.

For example, if you’re the 13th richest person in the world, Prince Walid bin Tabal of Saudi Arabia, $300 million is not too much to spend on a new private jet, a customized double-decker A380 that weighs 560 tons and has 6,400 square feet of interior space. No problemo.

The main deck will be reserved for meeting rooms, a dining room, and a spacious royal lounge. The rear section will have first- and business-class style seats for courtiers, advisers and other royal flunkies. I assume at meal times those relegated to the back of the bus will get more than pretzels and peanuts.

However, it's on the upper deck is where the fun will take place. Details are hard to come by because the palace and aircraft builders are known for their discretion when it comes to Saudi pleasures—he is a Muslim let us remember—but we do know that many divans will be included and, since the prince needs to stay in shape, considering his life-style, there will be a “wellness center” and I assume an on-board cardiologist.

But if you had an appetite for a second-rate 40-inch square Warhol “painting” of Elizabeth Taylor, one in a series of 13 “Liz’s,” each distinguished by a different colored background, you should have been at Christie’s last night. One bought by the actor Hugh Grant six years ago for $3.5 million was on the block. And if its deep turquoise blue background goes with your color scheme, you could have walked away with it for a cool $21 million. Clearly Hugh knows a good investment when he sees one.

The New York Times reports (article below) that the London jeweler, Laurence Graff, was an active bidder. He grabbed another Warhol, “Elvis 2 Times” (clever double-entendre tile) for a mere $15.7 million and a Basquiat, “Sugar Ray Robinson,” for just $7.3 million. Clearly his bauble business is thriving because he said he felt that though he had gotten a bargain he was prepared to “go much higher.” And when things wrapped up for the evening, he admitted that he felt good about his shopping—“I got some nice things.”

Sarah Jessica Parker was in attendance at Christie’s as was the blue-haired designer Marc Jacobs of the $2,500 pocketbooks. My own guess—after last night’s spending orgy he raised all his prices.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

November 13, 2007--Sit Still & Shut Up

There’s a question on an IQ test that is frequently administered to kids in the first grade. It’s one of those tests where the children are shown a series of pictures and asked to use a crayon to make an X over the one that doesn’t belong. This one includes pictures of a car, a train, a bus, and an airplane.

I’ll give you a moment to come up with the right answer. . . .

If you put an X on the airplane you would be right—it’s the only one that doesn’t travel along the ground. But, one smart-alecky kid raises her hand to protest—“The car doesn’t belong,” she claims, “because it’s the only one where you don’t need to buy a ticket.”

“Wrong,” the teacher says, “The right answer is the plane.”

But another smart-ass waves his hand and says, “It's the train because it’s the only one that rides on tracks.”

“Wrong,” the teachers says once more; and seeing a sea of waving hands yells at them, “Sit still and shut up.”

So much of schooling is about getting the right answer and, beyond that, learning to behave oneself. In fact, if students misbehave too much they get labeled disruptive; a discipline problem; or if their parents can afford to get them tested, they get certified as “learning disabled.”

It is generally assumed that if children misbehave in the early grades, pretty soon they will begin to do poorly in reading, math, and other academic subjects. But there are a number of recent studies that call some of this conventional wisdom into question, simultaneously putting more pressure on teachers to tolerate and work with a variety of behaviors and learning styles and on developmental psychologist who until now have had a free hand in interpreting children’s behavior and guiding practice in elementary schools. (See linked NY Times article for a report about these studies.)

One study finds that kindergarten kids who spoke out of turn, resisted instruction, and even got into frequent fights wound up by the fifth grade doing as well in math and reading as well-behaved children of equivalent ability.

An on-going assumption about disruptive students has been that they do not have the innate capacity to do well and thus “act out” in class out of frustration. Or that our media-suffused culture is such that a standard classroom cannot compete with video games for a student’s attention. But these controversial studies imply that a typical classroom may be so dumbed-down or poorly run that a kid with an inquiring or creative mind just can’t sit still.

In schools that serve privileged kids teachers find ways to accommodate and stimulate a wide diversity of students; but in public schools that enroll low-income students, during even a short walk through the building, one hears a lot of yelling and screaming by both children and teachers.

Admittedly teachers have one of the most challenging of jobs and are grossly underpaid and insufficiently acknowledged; but no one forced them to enter this profession, and they need to be expected to do a lot better.

Monday, November 12, 2007

November 12, 2007--"I DID Have Sex With . . . "

What if, nine years ago, Bill Clinton had said:

“On a number of occasions, in the White House, I did have oral sex with Monica Lewinsky. Of the many stupid things I’ve done, this was by far the stupidest. I told my wife and daughter about it. They are furious with me. I tried to apologize to them, and I hope one day they will come to forgive me.

“I know you’ve heard rumors about this. They are substantially true. I will now spend as much time as you like answering all your questions. I’ve cleared my calendar for the next two hours so ask me everything that’s on your mind about this. I won’t leave until you run out of questions. I promise to answer them candidly while attempting to protect Monica Lewinsky’s privacy.
What happened was all my fault. I took advantage of her and for that too I am asking forgiveness though I know I do not deserve it.”

What if, just yesterday, in Iowa, Hillary Clinton had said:

“I just learned that a member of my campaign staff got a student from Grinnell College to ‘plant’ a question at one of my press conferences. I consider this to be as reprehensible as FEMA doing a version of the same thing a few weeks ago. Actually, what I did, because I am responsible for what my staff does, is worse. It is a subversion of the democratic process and I will not tolerate it. As a result, that aide has been fired.”

We know what President Clinton said. Here’s what Hillary actually said about the planted question:

“It was news to me; and neither I nor my campaign approve of that, and it will certainly not be tolerated.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

If they had dealt with these situations more or less as I suggested, rather than lying and equivocating, wouldn’t both have been versions of one-day stories? OK, in Monica’s case, one-week, because it was so irresistible to the tabloid-minded press, comedians, and public. Instead, we’re still talking about Bill Clinton’s BJs and will continue through this week to talk about how the planted questions and especially the way she dealt with the situation exemplify the perception (the reality?) that Hillary will say or do anything to get elected.

I can’t understand how the Clintons and pretty much all the other candidates can’t figure out that the public would be electrified if they just told the truth. How much better, for example, would Barack Obama have done yesterday on Meet the Press if, when questioned about why he takes PAC money while criticizing the influence of fat-cat donors to political campaigns, what if he had simply said:

“On this subject I do talk out of both sides of my mouth. And I am disappointed in myself for doing so. But until we can change the system, and I plan to make it a priority when I’m president, there’s no way anyone other than a billionaire can run for national office without accepting money from these sources. But I repeat—I confess to being inconsistent about this, some would not unfairly claim even hypocritical, and I will do all in my power to change this rotten system.”

I suspect that any candidate who behaved this way would be a shoe-in to win the nomination.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

November 10, 2007--Saturday Story: Heshy's Final Complaint

On September 24, 2005 I posted the first of the Saturday Stories--The Tongue Factory. Since then I have written and posted 41 others. In truth, in the aggregate, in somewhat different order than you may have found them here, they form something I am thinking of as a fictional memoir. If you dig out from the blog archives and read Heshy's three complaints (the final one is below; the first one was posted October 28, 2006; the second on December 23, 2006) you should get a pretty good idea of what I mean by "fictional memoir." Maybe some day these will appear between hard covers and you will be able to say, I knew him when . . .

Thanks for travelling along.

Heshy's Final Complaint

“If I were your wife, your current wife, I’d be insulted.” It was Heshy yet again. I had studiously avoided any contact with him on the advice of my publisher’s lawyers. I had sent him a copy of the second volume of my fictional memoir, “Give Him A Treatment Boys!” since, as in the first, he had been prominently mentioned (in fact he had been more the hero than I, and I had thus dedicated it to him), I needed his approval to use his real name. Though he did not like volume two any more than the first one, “Dirty Jew Bastards!” I suppose out of considerable ego he had allowed me to do so. Perhaps in the spirit that “As long as you spell my name correctly, it’s all right to write about me.”

This time around he had gotten his hands on a prepublication copy of the final volume at the Strand Bookstore, “What Does Happiness Have to Do With Anything?” and on his own momentum called me. I should have hung up on him or made some excuse that I needed to meet Rona at the doctor’s; but I didn’t and, as previously, I turned out to be sorry I hadn’t. “Why should she be insulted?” in spite of myself I asked, “I think she comes off pretty good.”

“With a story with a title like "Crazy Rona"? You call that coming off ‘pretty good’?” I heard him sneer even though he was calling from his cell phone and the connection was intermittent.

I chose not to enter into another debate with him about stories and chapters—we had been through that too many times already, and instead asked, “Where are you anyway, I can hardly hear you?”

“To tell you truth, I’m in the hospital. In the intensive care unit.”

I was careful not to follow that up, preferring to think that since he was still a doctor, a urologist, a self-described Dick Doctor, that he might have been with a patient rather than, considering his advancing years, being one.

I decided, thus, not to inquire and to engage him just about what I had written. The last thing I wanted was to learn that he might be seriously ill or even, God forbid, dying. “Did you read the whole thing or just the title? If you had, especially the last chapter, I think you would see that that ‘crazy’ part is used ironically.”

“Again with the irony. Of course I read the whole thing. Even though, as you know, I didn’t think much of the first two books of stories,” here we go again, I thought, about him calling the “chapters” “stories”; but I ignored that and, after pausing to, I’m sure, bait me into an argument about that, he continued, “You know that though I thought both of them were poorly developed and the stories didn’t knit together as well as you claimed, I still have good memories of our growing up together in the same part of Brooklyn and even of our childhood friendship; and so I like to keep track of what you’re up to.”

“I do know that and appreciate it.” I tried to sound sincere.

“Frankly, your appreciation doesn’t mean that much to me after all the years of your ignoring me and pretending to be such a fancy person, too full of yourself to want to be associated with any of us from the old neighborhood.”

I had hoped he had gotten over that resentment. After all we were nearly seventy and there he was maybe connected to intravenous lines and wearing an oxygen mask. When would he get over those imagined slights? Hadn’t I made amends enough in the first two volumes by representing him so positively? More than he deserved, to tell the truth. That was one of the reasons for fictionalizing my memoirs, another thing he had mocked me for doing.

But since, who knows, maybe he was dying, I let it slide and said, “I understand. You’re right. I could have been a much better person. I should not have done so much pretending and posturing. In some ways, I’ve been seeing these books as a way of making amends.”

“Well, you could have done a much better job of that too.” His voice came across with its old strength in spite of the clicking on the phone and what sounded like the beep of monitoring equipment in the background.

From all of these still strong feelings, whatever his condition--I was sensing that he was more likely a patient than a physician--I decided to stop pandering to him and said, “Forget the Rona part for a moment, OK, and tell me what else is wrong with the book?”

“Plenty,” he shot back. “Among other things, what was true previously is true here as well—there’s no sense of color whatsoever in any of your books, no clear or noteworthy descriptions of any of your so-called ‘characters,’ and no sense whatsoever of place.” I didn’t say a word, letting him rant on. “I’ll give you an example from the first story, ‘I Married Lydia,’ who is quite two-dimensional by the way since I know who she is derived from or, as you would say, from whom she was ‘fictionalized.’ I have no idea what she looks like except that she wears black clothes all the time; and I have no sense of how any of the settings look, other than the frankly unbelievable description of that mad psychiatrist’s leather-covered office, ridiculous; much less any sense of coloration—what does the light streaming into your room from the Hudson look like? I ask because that light seems to me to be important to you, to represent something significant since you make such a big thing of it? No novelist, if that’s what you insist on calling yourself, could get away with any of this.”

I thought I heard him sucking in a stream of oxygen but still I restrained myself, saying nothing back to him. “Frankly,” he continued after what sounded like wheezing, “reading this latest book made me realize that in the three of them all you did was string together descriptions of only loosely-related incidents. Place, time, setting, reflective insights are in all cases absent. It’s as if everything is represented in black and white, and I am not just talking about ‘color,’ and the narrative, such as it is, reminds me more of the dramas that they used to present on the radio than any novels with which I am familiar.”

“Well,” I was happy to be able to say, “maybe we are on more common ground than you might imagine. Because much of your criticism of my method and the structure of the books in fact reflect exactly what I am attempting to achieve.” I was certain that I heard him snort. Maybe he was also flooded with mucus.

“I am working in this colorless, locationless way quite intentionally--not, if I may say so, out of failure of imagination or lack of skill. Though you may of course disagree about the quality of my vision and technique. That’s your privilege.”

“Stop patronizing me, will you. I think by now you know that I’m not exactly illiterate.” True, I remembered he had made some intelligent references to other novelists back when I had sent him a copy of “Dirty Jew Bastards!”

“Sorry, again,” I said, “You seem so touchy. I have a lot of respect for your opinions otherwise I would already have made an excuse and hung up.”

“Be my guest,” he said testily and added, “And I’m far from touchy.”

“Well if you would stop choking for a minute,” I was instantly sorry to have blurted this out but pressed on anyway, “I have a few things to say—first of all, though Lydia is of course derived from a real person . . .”

“Your first wife, no?”

“Yes, her. But the things I wrote about her are mostly made up. If you remember one of our earlier conversations about my writing, I told you that I try to find the essential as opposed to the literal truth and so . . .”

“That again,” he muttered, exasperated and seemingly gasping for air.

So I spoke faster, thinking not much more time might be remaining, “Yes that again because it’s critical to my methodology.”

There were more choking sounds; and I also thought I heard him say derisively under his breath, “Methodology? That’s a laugh.”

Undeterred, I said, “I use my imagination to get to that truth and want you, readers to use theirs as well. We’ve been over all of this before. That’s why I deliberately bleach out all color and choose not to over-describe things.”

He chortled at that and said, “That’s an understatement”.

But I continued, “So, yes, you’re right to compare what I do to old-time radio scripts. In fact, I hope it is like the experience of listening in the dark to just the bare bones of dialogue and a few primitive sound effects--where intentionally presenting so little forces you to fill in the visual and imaginative blanks.”

I hadn’t heard any sounds from him for a while so I paused in the hope that he was still there—literally. Then there were the sounds of someone stirring about so I continued, again unable to control my tendency to lecture, “Is this helpful?”

Nothing. But then he came back to life and took off in an entirely different direction, “And by the way, as if things weren’t bad enough, what’s all this crap about associating yourself with Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers?”

“Well with that, didn’t you notice, I was being ironic and self-deprecating. Didn’t I acknowledge my various humiliations with this, public and private? And by the way most of that is not made up—it’s was all too literal.”

“I saw that, but even worse was your attempt to manipulate, how did you put this just now, ‘the reader’ to ‘locate’ you within the great tradition of American humorists, even if in your case, to me, much of the so-called humor was unintentional. Did I remember your even alluding to Mark Twain? And by association try to sneak yourself into his company? All that feigned innocence. What a turn off.” I think with that I heard him spit into a cup. He did sound as if he was on his last legs.

“Well, you got me there. Guilty as charged. I was rereading Twain while working on this volume. I especially liked the European sections of Innocents Abroad.” I couldn’t believe myself—here he was dying and I’m telling him about what I had been reading. I couldn’t blame him that he had had it with me.

“You’re killing me,” he retorted, clearly pleased that he caught me talking down to him again as I had done through so many of our early years together.

And while again attempting to stifle his fluid coughing he changed direction again, “I read somewhere, probably just some of your publisher’s PR bullshit, that this book is supposed to be about happiness.”

“Well, sort of. It’s really more about . . .”

“I know a thing or two about that. Let me tell you about happiness . . . .”

“Dr. Perlmutter, pick up on line three. Dr. P, line three please.”

“What’s going on?” I at last asked, “Where are you?”

“Finishing with a patient. What the hell else would I be doing in the I.C.U.?” I was relieved to learn that he wasn’t the patient and immediately felt better that his last conversation on earth, whenever that will be, would not be this one about my book. “It’s an emergency and I’ll have to call, you back.”

“So you’re . . . ?”

“I need to go. Someone may be dying.” But, from all of his wheezing and coughing, he still sounded to the old pre-med in me as if he could benefit by climbing into one of those hospital beds and hooking himself up to a drip.

“All I can say to you,” Heshy sneezed, “is thank God this is the last of these.”

About that, we did agree. With this book I had said all I wanted about myself and him and everyone else from the blurry past—both the literal and the essential.

He had stayed on the line; and as if he had heard my tired thoughts, and intentionally again, for a final time, ignored them and said, “By the way, in case you’re curious—my equipment, as you so like to refer to it, is still working very well. If you don’t believe me just ask my new wife!”

He began to laugh raucously—it was a sound also very much from the past. Then asked, “So how about yours? Still working?”

And with that, to gales of his own laughter, he hung up.

Friday, November 09, 2007

November 9, 2007--Fanaticism XCVI: Kosher Phones

It’s the 21st century and even the ultra-orthodoxy need to find ways to reconcile their beliefs with the urgings of the contemporary world.

Take cell phones for example. Most allow easy access to the Internet and all the fleshpots there that await. And then there is the world of 900 numbers that connect one, at stiff fees, to dating services, phone sex, and porn. So, if your followers want or need cell phones but still aspire to lead strict religious lives, there is a technological solution—offer them kosher cell phones that have built-in devices that do not allow users to connect to those forbidden places.

Just as rabbis supervise and then approve as kosher the preparation of certain foods, in the Hassidic sections of Israel, and I suspect in the US as well, they are koshering these kinds of phones for the faithful. To show how accommodating and flexible they are, these phones can even be used on Saturdays, though one could claim this is against the Sabbath prohibitions that do not allow on that day the most-observant to do anything resembling work, which includes using things powered by electricity.

But, as with other forms of transgression, there’s a price to pay: whereas it costs less than 2 cents a minute to call other kosher cell phones on all days but Saturday, on Shabbos it will cost you $2.44 per minute. To quote one user, “You pay less if you play by the rules.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

There are about 800,000 ultra-orthodox in Israel, and if you think this thriving trade in kosher cell phones is an indication of the market potential of the most-fervent, you are correct. There are huge opportunities in the marketing of all sorts of kosher things—even clothing where the rabbis forbid any garments that combine wool with silk and encourage wearing underwear that has fringes. Don’t ask. For children, one can find Hassidic versions of Barbie and Ken dolls. The Moshie Doll (I made up the name) has long side curls, or peyos, and if you squeeze him he recites prayers.

These strictures and accommodations even pertain to pizza. An Israeli branch of a New Jersey pizza parlor, American Pizza, opened a restaurant in one of the ultra-orthodox communities, thinking newly-arriving American Hassids would have a yen for a taste of home. And they were right. The business thrived. The pizza was kosher but they ran into trouble over the image on their neon sign and take-out pizza box. As in NJ, their logo was the Statue of Liberty. American Pizza, get it? What better symbol of America could there be than the Statue? But there was a problem and it literally caused a riot—protestors, with a perverse sense of humor, not only broke their windows but also threw hot olive oil and tomatoes at the restaurant. And so they went out of business even though it had been very popular.

The problem was with the notion of “Liberty.” In Hebrew, liberty or chofesh means pure freedom. This notion of such unrestraint is forbidden. Hassidim do not belief in chofesh--they believe they are not free but rather servants of God.

But good entrepreneurs that they are, the American Pizza folks opened a new place just across the street from the orthodox enclave and are once again doing well. They are even serving many who are willing to cross that dividing line. They did, though, change their logo—rather than the Statue of (Pure) Liberty, their pizza boxes are now emblazoned with an image of the Twin Towers.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

November 8, 2007--Elvis, Alive On eBay

With the stock market in freefall, with equity in homes declining, with the dollar plunging against the Euro and Pound, with the Social Security system about to go broke as Baby Boomers begin to retire, is it any wonder we are worried about our finances?

I am far from the world’s leading authority on investing (I too am afraid to look at the mail from our broker), but there is a sure-thing out there waiting to be scooped up by right person.

Bidding on eBay right now is stalled at $8,300 for all of the memorabilia from the about-to-close Elvis Is Alive Museum.

Its owner and curator, Bill Beeny (sic) is getting on in years and he’s even having trouble maintaining the 16-foot-tall plywood likeness of the King which sits out front of the museum in Wright City, Missouri. According to the New York Times, Elvis’ left hip is starting to rot and paint is flaking off. The poker chips that Mr. Beeny used to simulate Elvis’ diamond-studded belt are one by one disappearing. Even all the original eyebrows on the Elvis replica in the open coffin, a museum highlight, have been plucked out by visitors. He’s had to resort, as he put it, “to paint them on there.” (Article linked below.)

But he’s OK that the Elvis in the coffin doesn’t anymore look like the real Elvis. Perhaps as a metaphor for the whole situation this is appropriate since, again to quote Bill, “It doesn’t look like Elvis, but [the again] neither did the guy in the casket.”

Now we’re getting closer to what’s at issue and why $8,300 for the works is a bargain. That’s because Mr. Beeny is not another of those kooks who claim to have seen Elvis recently in Wal-Mart or Burger King (as if the real Elvis would have been caught dead—sorry—alive in either of those places). No, he has incontrovertible DNA evidence that Elvis is still among us.

He became suspicious about Elvis being dead when he “learned’ that the body they buried, and said was Elvis, weighed only 170 pounds when we know he had ballooned up to at least 255. So he somehow got his hands on a sample of that corpse’s DNA and had it compared with, maybe, a hair sample of the actual Elvis. I say “maybe” because though Mr. Beeny has written two books about this (DNA Proves That Elvis Is Alive! being one) is vaguer than a true scientist would be about how he obtained either of the DNA samples. I assume he had to arrange to have the grave robbed in Graceland where the purported Elvis was/is interred.

But be that as any of this may, he is offering at auction all the contents from the museum—everything in a single lot. So if you are the highest bidder this means you will get the 16-foot Elvis sign (in “as-is” condition), all the newspaper clippings about everything having to do with his alleged death, an almost-impossible-to-hear recording that it is claimed Elvis made seven years after his “death,” a rusting 1977 Cadillac (not one of the dozens the ever-generous Elvis bought for members of his posse), and the eyebrowless Elvis replica and his coffin.

I call this a bargain and a good investment because, for those of us who believe he is in fact dead, there is a religion emerging with Elvis as the central holy figure. To see evidence of this all you need to do is go to Graceland and observe crypto-Elvis worshippers stuffing into the wall surrounding his mansion “prayers” written on slips of paper. Very much like what you can see at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. And if I’m right about this, how much will Mr. Beeny’s collection be worth when Elvis reappears at his Second Coming Concert at Caesar’s Palace?

I suspect more than your Fidelity account.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

November 7, 2007--President Rudy

A year from today many will be crying in their beer about how Rudy Giuliani managed to get elected president when the day before Hillary was leading in all the national polls.

Some will claim she suffered the same fate minority candidates face—that folks will say one thing to the pollsters so as not to look prejudiced, but once skulking in the privacy of the voting booth will give in to their biases. In this case, “There’s no way I’d vote for a women to be commander in chief.”

Others, me included, will say she lost because she ran an ineffective campaign; whereas Rudy not only made people feel that he would protect them but also ran as a happy warrior who projected energy, humor, and a sense of personal authenticity.

We will say that it all began to unravel for Hillary about a year earlier during and after the debate among Democratic candidates in which her opponents for the first time effectively challenged her. Looking back, we will claim that the tide began to change less because of her equivocations about drivers licenses for illegal immigrants but more because of the way she and her husband reacted to that challenge. She still managed to win the nomination, but what happened then set the stage for Rudy’s campaign against her.

Her immediate reaction to doing poorly in the debate was to shout foul—all those men piled up on me. But four days later, after it became clear that playing the gender card this way (even though the “piling up” metaphor was from sports) had backfired, she said what she should have said in the first place—“The reason I was ‘attacked’ was not because I’m a women but because I am doing so well. In fact,” she added, “I not only can stand the heat in the kitchen, I am also very familiar with kitchens.”

And while Barack Obama was putting his human side on display on Saturday Night Live, Rudy up in New Hampshire was doing a little stand-up routine of his own. He had his audience in stitches when he did a very funny imitation of Hillary not able to make up her mind about drivers licenses, concluding by saying, “If she thinks this is a gotcha situation what will she do when she has to deal with Ahmadinejad?” Touché.

Then, to make matters worse, Bill Clinton out in Nevada, compared what happened to Hillary in that debate with the Swiftboat attack on John Kerry. To quote him, “Why am I saying this? Because I had the feeling at the end of that last debate we were about to get into cutesy land again.” (My italics.) In addition to this being untrue and stupid, his racing to the side of his wife only served to remind voters that she’s just a poor defenseless woman who needs her big-strong husband to come to her rescue. The next thing we’ll hear from him is that he doesn’t stay home baking chocolate-chip cookies.

Pouring gasoline on the fire, one of Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen denied that the erstwhile First Laddie was making the very comparison he was in fact making. Without shame, Jay Carson said that the former president was not connecting what his wife’s Democrat opponents said about her to the Swiftboating of Kerry but rather to what Hillary’s Republican opponents said about her debate performance. Sort of—It depends on what your definition of Swiftboating is. How much better it would have been if Carson had simply said, or better yet Hillary herself, “My husband misspoke last night. I was not Swiftbaoated by anyone.” End of story. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Also, looking back to November 2007, we will take note of the fact that even social conservatives more and more began to throw their support to Rudy. Most notably, in the spirit of anyone-but-Satan-Hillary, Pat Robertson came out for him—which you can see right now if you check the NY Times website. This in spite of the fact that Rudy’s been married at least three times, has children who won’t speak to him, in Bernie Karick had a crook for police commissioner, and didn’t flip-flop during the campaign about his support for gays and abortion.

So, on Election Day 2008, a majority of voters pulled our levers or punched our chads for Rudy. And on January 20, 2009 he will be inaugurated.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

November 6, 2007--Sumo Yokozuna

I remember staying in a fleabag of a hotel in Madrid in 1993 and, seeking relief from the depressing surroundings, tried to find something on TV to distract me. The only program in English was a World Sport program about sumo wresting. Desperate, while waiting for 10:00 p.m., the respectable time to go out in search of tapas, I watched; and wouldn’t you know it, before very long I found it to be fascinating. The announcers, both Brits, were terrific, and after a half hour I began to think about myself as an aficionado. I was in Spain, after all, where a fellow countryman and writer, years before, had become a bullfighting aficionado and so, in a manner of speaking, I felt right at home.

I learned that each match was preceded by various rituals derived from Shinto practice—for example, each competitor faces the audience, claps his hands, and then stomps his legs to drive evil spirits from the dohyō or ring. Then, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami ("power paper"), to dry his lips. Then both combatants step into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands and spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons). When they go to their corners, they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it.

So you can see, I really got into it.

The matches I watched in Madrid proceeded one after another very quickly, some lasted only 10 seconds, and built up to the highlight of the evening, a match between a Japanese grand champion, or yokozuna, and an American. An American? When I heard that I pulled myself up in the bed to pay closer attention. If this other countryman of mine managed to win, they said, he too would become a yokozuna, the first American ever to do so. So I had even managed to stumble onto something potentially historic. And it turned out to be so—that mountain of a man, named Akebono, did win the required number of falls and was anointed with this ancient designation.

Thus you can only imagine my disappointment when I read recently that this ancient sport, like so much else, is being adulterated and is beginning to be riddled with corruption. A coach has been expelled from the sumo association because he killed one of his apprentices through excessive hazing. Hazing, which is also traditional, is supposed to have its limits—smashing a glass bottle over the head of an apprentice and killing him is considered going too far. There are even reports of match fixing. And then to make matters even worse, Japanese women who are sumo fans are making a mess of things. The dohyō, the ring is considered to be a version of a sacred space and, as with most other sacred spaces, is considered off-limits to women. So when last month one female enthusiast eluded security people at a sumo match and crawled into the ring, by so doing she “defiled” it, thereby making it impure, and thus it had to be destroyed. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Just think about what a comparable set of circumstances would mean at Yankee Stadium. But then again, they are building a billion dollar replacement for it. Will Mayor or President Giuliani be there to throw out the first handful of salt?

Monday, November 05, 2007

November 5, 2007--Space Junk

Those who still follow NASA’s work were riveted to news reports last week about the efforts to repair the International Space Station’s solar panel. It involved the most dangerous spacewalk yet because the astronaut assigned to do the work needed to roam further away from the safety of the airlock than anyone in history; and if he touched the wrong electrical connection with his space pliers, there was a good chance that he would be electrocuted. (See linked NY Times article for all the details.)

I admit to not paying much attention for many years to things involving the Space Station. I tuned out after the first Mars Rover inched its way across the surface of the Red Planet. But I did take brief note of this latest space crisis—it appears that if they weren’t able to fix the solar panel it might be curtains for the Space Station. And while thinking about what that might mean—among other things, since it’s in very low orbit, what would happen to us on earth when it plunged to earth in a fireball—I came to wonder about the purpose of the Space Station itself, and beyond that most of NASA’s work, including the Space Shuttle.

What we seem to hear about these days involves these dangerous kinds of repairs, who’s on board the Space Shuttle or Station (especially if a woman or foreign national is in command), and how likely is it that the returning Shuttle will burn up on reentry because some of the heat shield tiles were damaged on liftoff. And, yes, how many millions NASA is charging billionaires to take a joy ride in orbit.

Pretty much absent from discussions about space exploration is the purpose of all the effort and the value of all the expenditures.

When serious space exploration began back in the 1950s much of the rationale involved not letting the Russians beat us. They launched the first Sputnik; they placed the first gerbil, dog, chimp, and then man in orbit: and it was looking very likely that they would beat us to landing a man on the moon. The implication of all of this was that there was a “missile gap” (satellites were launched on modified military missiles) and unless we closed that gap the next thing we’d face would be nuclear-tipped rockets raining down on Times Square and the White House. Thus, the Space Race, was yet another Cold War surrogate, but potentially a much more dangerous one than who could field a stronger Olympic team—the USSR or the USA.

But then there was détente and shortly after that the collapse of the Soviet Union. One way to show that former enemies could now be friends was to find ways to explore space together. The most dramatic example of that cooperation is the International Space Station, with an emphasis on the international part.

Beyond the symbolism embodied in the joint Russian-American partnership, the best case for the program involves carrying out “scientific experiments,” especially in human biology. When one looks at the NASA website to learn about the experimentation than can only be carried out in a weightless environment (that after all is pretty much the one unique feature of a lab in space), one finds that much of the experimentation is scheduled to begin in a few years (even though we have been assembling the Space Station for about a decade) and much of it will involve studies about the effects of weightlessness on the human body. In other words—space experiments about more space experiments.

And I always thought that the justification for the many billions spent by NASA was that they were up there in orbit searching for a cure for cancer. That they needed the pristineness of space to develop that vaccination. I didn’t realize it was so much about self-justification and an expensive version of Coney Island’s Astro Land.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

November 3, 2007--Saturday Story: Mt. Lebanon--The End (Final Part)

In Part Five Lloyd Zazlo heard his father’s version of the family saga. Not surprisingly, it differed considerably from his mother’s. Yes, they did meet as Lloyd had heard; yes his father recognized that what they found attractive, and even intoxicating, was the promise that they would help lead each other to lives very different from the conventional ones that were being charted for them by their respective families. But that ardor, that promise was quickly dissipated when Lloyd’s father entered into a series of failed business ventures and soon found himself feeling defeated and, in his view, more and more the recipient of his mother’s disappointment and eventual scorn. He, to retaliate, acknowledged that he intentionally pulled himself back from her, including not submitting to her desire to begin a family; and as things worsened turned passive aggressive, punishing her in this way for her disavowal of him. Lloyd, he said, had rightly seen this infecting their marriage. He had even chosen to write about it. But, in spite of his best efforts to use protection, Lloyd was conceived, and against his expectations, his father confessed to wanting to be a loving father, But this also was not to be since his mother, in his view, took such complete possession of Lloyd, claiming that he was her son alone, that he felt excluded. He then proceeded to stun Lloyd by revealing that this was the source of his deepest feelings of loss; and, though seemingly unnatural, he became jealous of his own son and turned much of his frustration and anger toward his first born. We left them with Lloyd skeptical about this but again sobbing at a parent’s grave while his father said he had yet one more thing to discuss—Rona.

And thus in Part Six, the final part of
Mt. Lebanon—The End, we find Lloyd again quivering as . . .”

“I’m talking now about Rona. About you and Rona.”

This caught me so off guard that I almost fainted. But I quickly realized that, thankfully, this would have to be brief since they would be closing the gates to Mt. Lebanon is fewer than fifteen minutes. More than anything else, I didn’t want to get locked in there for the night. I had heard stories that this had happened to some visitors. And who knows what might have happened to them.

“That Lydia wife of yours. That was her name, am I correct?” If this was going to take us back to my first disastrous marriage, whether they locked the gates or not, I would be there all night.

“Yes, that was her name. And . . .?”

“I never liked her very much.”

“Indeed that was abundantly evident. You stopped talking to her entirely during the last five years we were together.”

“In fact, I had no use for her. What was she anyway? A dancer? What kind of a thing is that to do for a grown person?”

“A good thing as far as I was concerned, but it’s true we did have our differences and things didn’t work out.”

Differences? You certainly have a way with understatements. You never told us much about being married to her, but I can only imagine. And she was frigid too?” I wasn’t going to get into this. That would keep me at Mt. Lebanon at least through the weekend.

“But Rona is another matter. I have no idea why she wanted to become involved with someone like you who’s already an old man and never could keep a job.”

“Look Dad, we’ve been over this ground before. Yes, I am a little older and I did early on have difficulties in my career, but I think I managed to do pretty well for myself.”

“Including taking advantage of her.”

“Now that’s a new one. And frankly I have no idea what you’re talking about or where this is coming from. We have a very good . . .”

“I assume you can still get it up,” again territory I was not prepared to get into, “though after what you did to yourself and what those surgeons must have had to do with your prostate, one can’t be sure of that either.”

“Why don’t we agree to talk about something else? Actually,” I flamboyantly checked my watch, “it’s getting near closing and I have to get back to the city.”

“OK, next time you come for a visit we’ll talk about the weather.” This was something he used to say sarcastically decades ago whenever we would get into a disagreement about politics or one of my girlfriends; but by deploying my college-perfected debating skills I would get him all twisted up and lost in his own misuse of logic. Achieving that was among my occasional malicious triumphs.

“That suits me fine.” I began to gather my book bag and jacket and rummaged through them for the car keys.

“But before you go, I have one more word of advice for you—You are in danger of doing to Rona exactly what I did to your mother.” He let a beat go by and then added, “Have a good drive back to the city. I hope you don’t run into too much traffic.”

But he had me. “Go on,” I said.

“I don’t want to keep you. I know you have more important things to do. I’ll see you again in a few months.”

“No, no, no. You can’t just drop that on me and then send me on my way. Not after what you just told me about you and Mom. No, no. Let me have it. Whatever’s on your mind. I’m ready for you.” I folded my jacket and tossed it back on the bench to indicate I wasn’t leaving.

And so he said, “Didn’t I read in one of your things how you boasted about how all you cared about was helping Rona become strong and independent? To overcome the things that had happened to her during her childhood? Or was that one of the things you were making up. How did you put it—‘imagining’?”

“Yes, I think you saw Crazy Rona. That was a few years ago but that one included very little fictionalizing.”

“That’s what I meant to say—‘fictionalizing.’ Very impressive. But I’m not interested in arguing with you about that because if what you wrote about yourself there is true, and I hope it is, than you’re not doing a very good job of it. In fact, because of some of your shenanigans you’re doing the opposite.”

“Once again,” I shot back, “which is par for the course today, I’m not following you. What ‘shenanigans,’ pray tell, are you referring to?” I had had just about enough from him. He was long-gone but there I was seemingly not able to escape from him or his relentless criticism. Indeed, I thought, if he wanted to make comparisons between his life and mine, it would have been more appropriate to see that what he was doing to me then and there was the very same thing he had accused my mother of inflicting on him! Endless streams of criticism.

“She saved your life didn’t she?”

“What? Who?”

“You ignored your health and all the symptoms, which we do not need to get into here. Didn’t you? To a point where you considered committing suicide? You even wrote a note, didn’t you? All sorts of poetic bullshit as if the note was more important than the act of killing yourself and its consequences. What pretentious crap.” How did he know this? “Quite the man you were. Quite the inspiration for her. You proclaimed, even in print, how essential it is to take responsibility for your life, about how important it is to be strong in spite of anything that might have happened to you. To not pass along the blame to others or to situations in which you might have unfairly found yourself. And in that way to become independent and, what, happy? Or as you prefer to put it—to pursue happiness. Do I have that right?”

He did.

“But I can’t believe your hypocrisy. You set her up to believe all this. And in you. And then what did you do? You get her to take all the risks involved in trying to live this way and then you plan to take a self-indulgent dive onto the rocks in the Mediterranean. Beautiful. How romantic. And what would then have happened to her?”

“Well I’m still here, aren’t I?” I couldn’t believe how pathetic I sounded. Even to myself. He had me dead to rights.

“Only because of her. That’s why. She found you rolled up in a ball wallowing in your own puke with the crumpled ‘suicide’ note next to you. You didn’t even have the courage to tear it up and throw it away. You wanted to be sure she saw it. Maybe even save it so it could one day be published after the Great One was gone. What a man!

“She forced you to get up and dragged you to the doctor and then back to New York and to the hospital. She went to every medical test with you. She held your hand so you wouldn’t cry out in pain when they took your blood or stuck a needle in your ass. She slept in your hospital room in a broken-down chair night after night to make sure you saw a familiar face when you woke from your sleep and to make sure the nurses didn’t do anything to make your condition worse.

“And then, after the first operation, when they hooked you up to that bag, who cleaned it out?” I didn’t respond. “I’m asking you, who cleaned up your shit?” He waited for me to say something and, when I didn’t, he bellowed loud enough to awaken Richard Tucker from an operatic reverie, “I’m asking you—Who cleaned up your shit?”

“She did,” I whispered as if to myself. “Rona did. And” I added soundlessly, “other things you’ll never know.”

“I did hear about other things. Maybe not so life-and-death, but still important. From years ago.”

I waited for him to continue but when he didn’t I thought, Maybe the only way to get free of him, and this, would be to try to tell him what had happened. More, to confess to him as he had to me; and, how I hated to acknowledge this, that he was right. I had been that hypocrite. So I turned my back to him and, as if speaking to the wind which was now lashing Mt. Lebanon and me, I took a chance.

“I will tell you a story,” I began in a hush, as if to assure he would not be able to catch more than the intonations. “Just one, but I will attempt to make it true.”

“I’ll let you know how well you do.”

So he was hearing me. In any case, I had resolved to do this and so I continued. “Not too long after we became involved with each other, it became clear that our . . .”

“I thought you said ‘one story’? Now you’re talking about when you met. I don’t have all night to . . .”

“For a change, try to be quiet and be a little patient and let me do this my way. OK?” I took his silence to mean I should proceed. “Well, though I was my usual oblivious self, problems emerged almost immediately. Rona had not as yet developed the self-confidence to confront me or them and so they accumulated and inevitably, like everything that’s ignored, they festered. Things like my at the last minute canceling plans that she had taken the initiative to make for us. Things like my grumbling every time she wanted to have dinner on her own with one of her friends. She was a part of a book club that met once a month; and if she didn’t call in to let me know how things were going and, more important to me, when she would be coming home to me, I would give her attitude—what she called ‘the silent treatment.’ One of the few things that was good about her parents was that they didn’t monitor her behavior—she depended on being unfettered, having that freedom. So what did I do? I pressed in on her, claiming it was because I loved her so much that I wanted to be with her every free moment; while in truth I wanted to rein her in, tie her more closely to me than all the inequalities in our relationship would on their own naturally assure. I used all my subversive guile to make her even more dependent on me, and thereby slowly sapped away some of what she valued most--her freedom.”

Now I needed to take in some air. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I did that while proclaiming I longed for her to fully come into her own. To develop an independent sense of herself. I didn’t at the time understand very much of this but soon Rona began to question me and eventually, aggressively confront me since one of the techniques I employed to control and manipulate her was to act as if she what she was accusing me of was unfair and not based on any specific evidence that she could cite. And worse, if I am attempting to be honest here, and I am, when I needed to be most self-protective, when she was close to breaking through the armor of my defensive logic and I was thus in danger of having her confront me with what I was really up to, in spite of my claims that the opposite was true, I would in response puff myself up and pretend to grow calmer as a cynical strategy to incite her anger and turn it into rage. So as to make her feel as if she was, in her passion and fury, not just in a rage but crazy. Which you can only imagine set off deeply-rooted bells-and-whistles from her childhood.

“I, her closest friend, her advocate, confidant, and trusted lover, I too was calling her, though carefully and perversely brilliantly I did not use the words themselves (and how thus this made my claims more effective!), I also, as I stood there smugly and mockingly smiling down at her as she thrashed about the room, engulfed in tears, like her parents, I too was making her feel like she was indeed Crazy Rona.”

My father continued to remain uncharacteristically silent. If he weren’t in his current condition, I would have worried that something had happened to him. But I had more to say and pressed on. “And this is not all. I am ready to tell you that one story.”

He broke his silence and said sarcastically, “It’s about time.” I could almost see him tapping on his watch as he had done so many times in the past when exasperated with me.

Undeterred and determined to conclude, now casting aside any pretense of getting to my meeting, not even caring if they locked me in for the night, still not facing him, I said, “This is hard for me to say but I did other cruel things. And it took me a long time to understand why I would do this to someone I so genuinely loved, though you may understandably be doubting that what I felt for her in any way resembled love. But as difficult as it is to believe, while I was behaving this way, we also did have a good life. We had friends who enjoyed being with us. We did things that gave us pleasure. We had common interests. We liked being alone with each other. We liked to read and listen to music. Passionately, we passed Hotel du Lac and Crossing to Safety back and forth between us and wore out the Budapest’s recordings of Beethoven’s last quartettes. We took great pleasure in languid Sunday naps and when we trekked in the Tetons became intoxicated by the same landscapes. We enjoyed cooking and baking together and agreed that life is too short not to drink good wine. Especially our favorites, Cos D’Estournel and Leoville Las Cases. At NYU we worked together successfully. And we even enjoyed, if that is the best way to describe it, our spats and arguments, for me as long as they didn’t hit too close to home. We had what you would call a satisfying ‘private life.’ To everyone who knew us we presented the picture of happiness. Many thought we were an ideal couple. Rare these days. And in many ways they were right--We were that couple.

“But there was another side to us. My need to have power, to reach in and influence, possess, and control the very heart of Rona’s being continued unabated. I must have been fearing that if she came fully into her own, became self-assured enough not to let me get away with my manipulations, she would lose respect for my ability to arrange and take care of things, and her. And that she would eventually come to conclude that she didn’t any longer need me. Doesn’t this sound preposterous and pathetic? And where’s the internal logic—did I need to continue to chip away at her self-esteem, reduce her in order to elevate my own essentialness? Was I that fragile and insecure, in spite of my public bluster and seeming ability to understand the most complex situations and take responsibility for getting things right, that I needed to do this to her? That in order to provide for her, take care of her most delicate needs, I felt compelled to behave in ways to cause her to become even weaker, more self-doubting and less confident? This must be so because I persisted in doing just that.

“But here’s the story. It’s not about very dramatic things; but in its mundaneness and seeming innocence, even its overtly beneficial effects for her and us, just below the surface something more malevolent was relentlessly at work.” I felt that my father was straining to follow me as I took this torturous route to get finally to my point.

“I know you must be wondering why Rona remained with me.” I realized I was off again on another tangent but hoped he would see all of the connections I was attempting to make. “It was in part that I was very clever at my manipulations. Very skillful in covering my tracks so that often, especially early on, I could get away with convincing her that what I was doing to her was all for her benefit. But over time Rona began more and more to see through that deception; but still, she remained because of the deep investment she had made in getting me to stop the pretending long enough so that we could clear away enough emotional debris to allow us to talk honestly about what we both, yes both, had allowed to happen. If we could do that, she hoped, perhaps we would be able to recalibrate our relationship. And, complicated as it is to comprehend, we were still very much in love with each other. Rona and I.”

After another pause to gather myself, I said, “Then I took ill. This is not the story, but when Rona took me to the hospital for the first time nothing short of a tectonic shift for us was about to occur.

“It was 5:30 in the morning. The second day after my operation to divert my colon to form a stoma, a colostomy, in the hope that it would allow my intestines and bladder to calm down enough to enable the infection to heal so they could a few months later perform the surgery to finally cure my condition. As had happened the day before at the same early hour, Dr. Weinstein, my surgeon and his team of residents burst through the door, switched on the bank of overhead lights and, slapping his hands together with such force in the now blazing room that it sounded like a thunderclap. Rona, who had again stayed the night with me, curled up as best she could on a hard chair, with that awoke from her restless sleep and leapt to the floor. Without a wasted motion, she thrust herself between him and me, immobilized in my bed where I lay attached to six drains and tubes, as if to protect me from this predawn invasion.

“‘Well,’ Dr. Weinstein said, again clapping his hands as if to show his professional enthusiasm, ‘he’s doing well, but we can’t as yet rule out cancer.’

“Though groggy, Rona snapped back at him, ‘You said the same thing yesterday; and though when I questioned you about the chances you would find cancer you told me they were infinitesimal. But here you are again talking about cancer.’ I was now fully awake in spite of the narcotic power of my epidural.

“‘That’s true,’ Dr. Weinstein said, ‘but still, cancer can’t be ruled out.’

“‘I’m no doctor,’ Rona said, ‘but I know at least two things about this,’ I tried to hoist myself up on my stack of pillows to get a better view of this potentially incendiary confrontation, ‘First,’ she said, ‘if the likelihood that he has cancer is as slight as you claim,’ he nodded, ‘than what are you trying to accomplish by announcing every day that it can’t be ruled out? We know that. But why does it have to be the first thing you say to us? And second’ (he was staring at her incredulously at her as if to say, “No one talks to me this way—I’m a surgeon and you are only a patient but you clearly do not know your place”) and second,’ Rona pressed on unintimidated, ‘is it necessary to storm in on us as you did with all your minions trailing behind you, and, again as you did yesterday, turn on all the lights, clapping your hands like you’re at a boxing match, and by doing so scaring us half to death? Don’t you have any awareness of what this does to someone who is seriously ill and trying to get rested and healed?’ He remained mute. ‘Well I can answer that one for you—it doesn’t help at all. And’ she concluded, wheeling on her heel and striding over to stand beside me, ‘I would appreciate it if when you come to see Lloyd tomorrow, you knock on the door first before entering and I will let you in. And I expect there will be no more talk about cancer until you have something to rule in or, more likely, out.’

She stared across at him through the tangle of I.V. lines. In my weakened condition, though I concurred with everything Rona said and admired her ability to confront him as she had, still I trembled, fearing that as a surgeon he would not take what he would see to be a reprimand from a layperson, and as a result, would fire me as his patient.

But in the blazing fluorescent light I thought I saw on his face the flicker of a sly smile. A form of begrudging respect, I felt, for Rona’s standing up for us, and confronting him as she did. And for her defense of me. A more subdued Dr. Weinstein said, “No more cancer talk because I am sure we have nothing to worry about. I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 8:00 sharp.” He emphasized the later time and shoed his resident acolytes from the room, following them out, being sure to turn off the lights and gently close the door.”

I wasn’t certain if my father was understanding what I was attempting to tell him about Rona and me by recalling this incident with Dr. Weinstein. And so I continued, “Later that night, much later--it was about 1:30 a.m.—I heard Rona stirring in her chair. It was chilly in the room and I thought she was rummaging around looking for another blanket. But she in fact had come over to my bed and was checking the pump that was connected to my epidural line. It was making a strange sound. With a flashlight that she had brought from home I saw her checking the dials on the pump and the bag that contained the pain medication. I heard her say to herself sotto voce, “The damn thing is almost empty. We’re about to run out of painkiller.” With that I awoke in a start and at once began to shake and sweat when I thought about the implications of running out of medicine.

“Without a word Rona disappeared. I assumed to alert the nurse on duty. In about five minutes she returned and told me, now fully awake, that the nurse was attempting to locate the anesthesiologist on night duty since only he was authorized to deal with epidurals. She paced the room watching as the medication level relentlessly dropped, checking the door every few seconds for any sign of the nurse or doctor. For certain, within half an hour the bag would run dry and I would be writhing in agony. Realizing this she raced from the room, I assume back to the nurse’s station. A moment later, out of breath, she returned. ‘They tell me the one anesthesiologist on call is in surgery, dealing with a kid who was brought in severely injured in a car accident.’ In spite of this distressing news Rona remained calm and brought me a cold compress in an attempt to keep me from overheating and hyperventilating from fear.

“But she couldn’t contain her frustration and said, ‘Where’s that fucking nurse? Maybe she’ll be able to give you a shot or something to help with the pain until the doctor shows up. I have no idea in the first place why nurses can’t replace these bags. It has to be a doctor? That makes no sense. It’s more bureaucratic hospital bullshit.’ And as she said this I saw a new thought come to her, ‘You know, remember because this is a private room, when we checked in, the Medical Director came by to give us his card and said, “Call me if you need anything”? Well, this qualifies.’ And with that she was dialing his cell phone number. It was a little past 2:00 in the morning, but remarkably he answered. I heard Rona telling him about the situation. When she hung up she said he told her he would do what he could. And what he could do was just what we needed to happen because in less than five minutes the head nurse was in my room and said if the doctor wasn’t there in ten more minutes she had orders to give me a shot of Demerol which would tide me over.

“I know, Dad, I’m going on forever with this, but I’m almost done. It’s important. The anesthesiologist did show up and connected a new bag and I was pain free and eventually fine. That though is not the point.” He was clearing his throat and I realized I had just a few moments of uninterrupted time remaining. So I raced on. “I’ve been telling you about this not so you would know the details of my operations and hospitalizations. None of that’s important.”

“But you did get better because of them.”

“Yes, of course but my point here is about what Rona did during that awful year when I was so sick. Up to that point all my rhetoric about wanting to see her and help her come ‘fully into her own,’ as I’ve described it too many times, was just that—rhetoric. As I’ve told you, confessed to you, for everything I did to encourage that I did something opposite to keep her depending on my vaunted capacity to make decisions, keep threats at bay, and know the best thing to do in all circumstances. Well, after what she shouldered day after day in the hospital—and there were five hospitalizations and dozens of tests and procedures during that year—how she took charge of my treatment and became such a forceful and effective advocate for my proper and appropriate care and treatment, not only did she do magnificently in that role but there was also a significant spillover effect. Into the rest of our lives.

“When we emerged from the clutches of doctors and hospitals Rona was a very different person. Transformed. And you know,” I paused for emphasis, “so was I.”

“I think it’s almost time for you to go,” my father said. It in fact was almost dark.

“I know. Soon. But I need to tell you that the equation between us had been rebalanced. Rona has been more than transformed. About many things we both realized she was as least as capable as I. In truth about many things, much more capable. She now manages our finances, and they are very complicated. For the first time she, and thus we, have a clear picture of our investments and other assets. I had pretended to run things but in truth had substantially ignored them and they were not in very good shape. Rona is now an equal partner in all our decisions—ranging from plans about future to where to have dinner tonight. And everything in between.”

“So this is the story you wanted to tell me? I thought it was going to be about something else that was malevolent, wasn’t that your word, that you had done to Rona.”

“Give me one more minute please. You might be wondering if somehow I feel reduced. If . . .”

“To tell you the truth, that thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

“Well, it’s an important issue. One that I suspect from your own life you might be able to understand.” Here I had been telling him all these damning things about myself and I wasn’t now about to let him get away with any of his tricks, or mockery. So I pressed on, “You spoke about always feeling measured and judged by Mom. How her criticism of you, her expecting you to be perfect was a burden under which you eventually broke.”

“That’s not at all how I put it.”

“OK, if you didn’t break under it, you claimed--and I have my doubts that you’re right about this too—you did say that you brought things down on yourself, didn’t you, that you felt as if Mom was judging you to be a failure. Better?” He remained silent. “Well, the reason I didn’t and don’t feel diminished by Rona’s newly acquired power is because it has had the effect of releasing me from some of her unrealistic expectations. One’s, as I’ve said, I encouraged her to have. I was never as able, as smart, as creative, as decisive as she attributed to me. And which I in my need to dominate her had evoked. We together shaped a culture of expectations and perfection which was an enormous burden to both of us—for her to dampen her desires and aspirations and competencies, for me to pretend to be all knowing and always correct. The same kind of culture of perfection that you claim, unfairly I am certain, Mom devised for you. We are both, as a result, becoming free of this and beginning truly to become happy.”

“So this you’re telling me is the story?”

“Actually, it isn’t. I admit I got lost in what I told you and never got to it.”

“But it must be an important story if you repeatedly told me you were getting to it.”

“Maybe then it isn’t. Or maybe it has to wait for my next visit because I want to get home to Rona.”

“And when will that be?” I sensed annoyance.

“This evening. I had a meeting I now missed, but Rona and I are planning a nice dinner.”

“I’m asking when is the next time you’ll be coming?”

“Oh that. Sorry. Soon. I promise soon.” And I meant it.

“I know you are going but before you do there is one more thing.” This would go on forever I feared. Though after this the notion of forever did not disturb me. Perhaps my confession had rebalanced other relationships as Rona and I had rebalanced ours.

“It’s about my sister. Your Aunt Madeline. You remember her?””How could I not.”

“What she told you about Harry. Her third husband.”

“I remember him.”

“She didn’t tell you the truth.””What?”

“What she told you earlier today at Mt. Hebron. About how she controlled him by constantly disapproving of whatever he did. Especially when he did nice things for her.””I’m not following you.” I indeed wasn’t.

“She didn’t tell you the truth. It was a true love affair. In both directions. I envied them. It reminded me of what your mother and let slip away.”

“So why did she tell me that . . . ?”

“Because she loved you and wants you to be happy. She thought by making up that story she would warn you about what might happen to you and Rona. Obviously she doesn’t know about the things you told me today. The next time you go to see her you should tell her what you just told me.”

“That’s incredible! And I promise that I wlll.” And with the beginning of an unburdened spirit, with a wink I said, “It seems a lot of people in this family make up stories.”

“Whatever makes you happy,” he said.

Which reminded me, “Do you remember, dad, years ago, when I told you that I didn’t want to go to medical school because I felt it wouldn’t make me happy and you said, ‘What does happiness have to do with anything?’ I spent a lot of years thinking about that and what I should say back to you as an answer. One that would be truthful. And now I have one--it has to do with everything.”

I was half way down the path to where I had parked the car when I thought I heard him say back to me—“You were right son. It is everything.” Then he added, “I’m happy here”

And then as I opened the car door, I heard my mother say, “Darling, it’s cold out. You’ll catch a chill. You should have brought along a sweater.”