Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December 26, 2007--Taking A Break

I'm taking a week off. See you next year. Enjoy the holiday season.

Monday, December 24, 2007

December 24, 2007--The Shortest Day

Our neighbor Saturday night hosted a Winter Solstice party. We learned about it when returning from the funeral and Mass for Barbara, our dear friend.

Quite a juxtaposition between the Catholic and pagan. It made me recall reading Sir James Frazer‘s Golden Bough while a college freshman. No other book, though it would not hold up well to contemporary analysis, had a more profound effect on my innocent and unshaped mind. How Frazer tracked the absorption of elements found in pre-Christian ritual and worship into Christianity itself. Yes, this evidence spurred in me skepticism about the revelatory nature of all of the Religions of the Book; but it also inspired me and my eager classmates to look critically at all assumptions and especially any doctrines or ideas that propounded a special claim on truth.

The Mass for Barbara, seen through this lens, was full of “primitive”-seeming activities. Without wanting to do anything to sully this season of joy and hope, I never, seated beside her body, was so aware of how much of Christian practice is about matters visceral—about the Body and Blood of Christ. It was not hard to see the sources for some of these beliefs and practices.

The Winter Solstice party made no pretensions about its sources—“primitive” to the root. The host said, “Isn’t this the most important day of the year?”

Knowing where he was going with this, I said, “Yes, if you live in the northern hemisphere, well above the Equator.”

He smiled back at me, “Precisely. What’s important is not that it’s the shortest day but that at the very moment when the sun is at its lowest ebb and we have less daylight than any other day of the year, just then, right now, our days begin to lengthen.” I nodded, “And this means that the warmth will return with the light and before too long we will be able to plant our crops in the certain knowledge that we will be able to sustain ourselves for another year.”

I didn’t challenge him on the “certain knowledge” claim, after all we had just come from the cemetery. Or that not that much crop sowing goes on in Manhattan. But I’ll take as much light and warmth as this day promises. And try to go on from there.

With that said--happy whatever you’re celebrating!

Friday, December 21, 2007

December 21, 2007--Day Off

Got a late start today. See you on Monday.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

December 20, 2007--The Cross, Fruitcakes, & Noblesse Oblige

Is it my imagination or is this the first time so many candidates for the presidency have been running warm-and-fuzzy Christmas ads?

The first, one, like the infamous Willie Horton and atomic bomb countdown ads, which will be referred to forever as sadly effective, is Mike Huckabee’s. He looks great in his red sweater and what he has to say is fine —Enough with the negative campaigning already during this holiday season—until he gets to the Baby Jesus references and the camera pans left to reveal the ethereally lit “bookcase” behind him that just happens to be in the shape of the Cross. It’s not hard to miss the point in spite of his disingenuous denials that any such allusion is accidental.

Then we have Rudy, also in Santa-Claus red. His sweater, though, is a sleeveless vest that looks more like a Christmassy flack jacket than something most Americans, except Militiamen, would wear around the Xmas tree.

Looking into the camera, Rudy claims he’s been so busy this year that he hasn’t completed his Christmas shopping. So instead of individual presents such as video games, scarves, and flat-screen TVs (what people really want) he will give all of us the same present—“peace with strength” (take note Islamofascists), lower taxes, and secure borders. But quickly realizing this is not what folks are hoping to find on Christmas morning, he looks to his left and adds, “Maybe I should also get everyone a fruitcake. “You know”, he slips here into a thick New York accent, “one wid a big ribbon on top.”

The camera moves right and reveals that sitting on the sofa next to our just-plain-folks presidential aspirant is none other than Santa himself decked out in the fakest beard ever and Ben Franklin bifocals.

Things could only have been worse, or funnier, if Giuliani, knowing his penchant for dressing in drag, had donned the Santa suit.

Topping them all, though, is Hillary Clinton’s attempt during the holiday season to represent herself as a cozy homebody. This week’s Clinton political agenda is to show her “warm” and “human” side. Polls indicate that she is trailing both Edwards and Obama on the “likeability” meter; and realizing that this can be fatal, because being perceived as amiable, since the dawn of TV era, has almost always been essential to electability, she too thus has her Christmas ad.

Hers finds Senator Clinton at home, or in a home-like setting, wrapping gifts. Again, we’re not talking Xboxes or iPhones but rather--“This one,” she says “is the gift of ‘Universal Health Care’; this one, with the pretty ribbon, is ‘Alternative Energy,’ and this other one, ‘Universal Pre-K.”

Putting aside for a moment the fact that these “gifts” are not on anyone’s wish list, isn’t it true that universal health care and universal pre-K are not gifts at all but rather government programs that will not be paid for by the gift-giver but rather by the recipients? By us, the taxpayers.

Her noblesse oblige, Huckabee’s conflation of himself with Christ, Rudy’s fruitcake, and Obama’s video Christmas card that has his daughters wishing us, first, “Merry Christmas,” and then, politically correctly, “Happy Holidays,” all of this schmaltzy hucksterism brings out the Bah, Humbug in me and makes me long for the return of old Ebenezer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December 19, 2007--Barbara Cohen, R.I.P.

She grew up in hard times. So hard that some days there wasn’t enough money for food for Barbara and her brother and sister. But her mother still managed with what little there was and also found ways to put aside a few pennies each week to use to buy books. She was a reader and also wanted books in the house for her children.

Many men in those days saw it to be their responsibility to be the sole provider for their families. Not being able to do so was humiliating to them and drove many to despair and anger. Anger that they often turned against their family, especially their wives.

Just a few days ago, as we sat beside her bed in an effort to bring her some brief comfort, Barbara in a haze of medication, told us stories from those days. Many sweet and joyous but others of a more ominous kind. How one evening, when there was barely enough for them to eat, her father lashed out at her mother and said, “Why don’t you eat your books!”

But her mother took the risk to continue to find ways to save so she could acquire more; and as a result Barbara became a voracious reader and died very early this morning in an apartment filled with light, her mother’s books, and others that later in life she bought for herself, devoured, and cherished.

I came to know her that way, as did Rona, through her love of books and the places to which they transported her. She and Rona were classmates and students of mine at New York University; and, along with Lillian, their mutual friend, who in effect became a loving second sister to Barbara (all members of Barbara’s immediate family predeceased her in spite of Barbara’s tireless ministering) the inseparable three of them were among the best students I encountered during my many years of teaching.

Especially Barbara. American and European history, literature, philosophy, and art history consumed her. Even during her last moments of clarity this week, she spoke luminously to Rona and me about her favorite, Jane Austen—rereading Pride and Prejudice was Barbara’s final autonomous act. The very last was having her dear friend Mary read her all of A Thousand Splendid Suns. She found it even better, she told us, these were almost her last words, than The Kite Runner. More nuanced she said and even more meaningfully disturbing.

So like Barbara, with her last breath, to want to deal with something that intense.

And how she dealt with, this is an inadequate way to put her final acts and understandings, how she dealt with her certain end was in character. She told us not to weep for her, and we will try not to, because wasn’t what was coming, after all she asked, just a part of the larger cycle?

We tried to understand and assimilate that in all its complexity, but do not as yet have her wisdom. So in the end, how often have you heard this—though here more true than cliché, that as she struggled and pushed herself at times as my student to understand more and then even more, in the end I became her student. 

And like her I am now doing the struggling. She would be very disappointed in me if I did not make that commitment. Which I will, because her lessons are the most profound and I need to learn them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 18, 2007--It's "Change," Stupid

Listen carefully to Hillary Clinton this week and you will hear the word “experience” being supplanted by the word “change.”

Experience just wasn’t getting the job done. In fact, it was producing negative consequences—presenting oneself as having had 35 years of experience in the public arena made her vulnerable to appearing (1) old and (2) a part of the compromised way of doing business. With that “compromised way” responsible for getting us into a disastrous war (even if the surge is “working” the war is still a disaster) and all snarled up in partisan bickering while our health care and education sytems flounder and we ignore global warming and the collapse of our infrastructure.

Thus the appeal of the Obama and, to a lesser extent, the Edwards campaign, which have been all about new ways of doing business. In other words—Change.

The Clintons first attempted to mock this, claiming that real change is the product of experience and hard work and not just, as in the Obama campaign, “hope” or in the case of Edwards “demand.” But since this too hasn’t worked, they will now say that Senator Clinton is a “proven change agent,” “a lifetime advocate of a change agenda.”

The New York Times reports that this new strategy has been devised by Bill Clinton himself who has been telling campaign workers that the initial strategy—running her as if she were the incumbent—isn’t working. (Article linked below.)

Hillary’s purported chief strategist Mark Penn—who last week was involved in linking the words “Obama” and “cocaine” in the same sentence—put it this way: “If you want to have change in this country, if you want a new beginning, then how about electing someone who has a lifetime of making change?”

I actually could go along with this except that I have one problem with it—who might Penn be talking about? I assume he is here referring to Hillary Clinton who, he asserts, has had that lifetime of “making change.”

I wonder who he is referring to because whenever she is described that way, as someone who has a long track record of causing change to happen, or when she talks about herself this way on the stump or in interviews, I lean forward in my chair and hope that Tim Russert or whomever, would ask the following follow-up question:

“Senator Clinton, can you give me two or three specific examples of changes in public policy that you have brought about?”

I suspect she would answer by listing changes that she has advocated, which is a very different sort of thing. Because during her eight years as a “witness” to the presidency (the newest way of describing her experience in the White House) and seven as a senator, I’m not sure that there are any significant changes that she has, to quote Mark Penn again, “made.”

This is by no means her fault—as the First Lady, heath care aside, her role was primarily limited to private advice-giving, though it is possible that President Clinton took some of it and by doing so some kind of change occurred—I suspect his “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” executive order might well have been the result of one of her suggestions.

And except for this past year in the Senate, as a member of the minority, it was not an easy thing to actually accomplish anything.

Yet, even in the absence of any real evidence that Hillary Clinton caused much change to happen, we will be hearing nothing but “change, change, change” during the next few weeks.

In effect, ironically, this too makes her a candidate whose campaign is based on hope. The hope that if she manages to secure the nomination and wins the election she’ll be able to do something she has never done before—bring about change.

Monday, December 17, 2007

December 17, 2007--Making America Safe For Xmas Trees

Here I was feeling relieved that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly had again this year rescued Christmas from the secularists. So, while doing my holiday, sorry, Christmas shopping at JCPenney, instead of the cashiers wishing me a “Happy Holiday,” they have been ordered to chirp, “Merry Christmas.”

Forget for the moment that I'm Jewish. In this Christian Nation even Jews celebrate Christmas-- any excuse to shop—and although we have been labeled Christ Killers, we take pleasure in reminding those who accuse us of this that (1) he was Jewish after all; and (2) didn’t he have to be killed in order to be resurrected?

So I’m OK with the “Merry Christmas.” And I’m also OK that this annual crusade of O’Reilly’s makes him look like a nut. Which is a good thing since he is a nut.

But I not OK with something else he indirectly had a hand in messing with—he and others who unrelentingly rail about how our porous borders allow illegal immigrants to sneak into our country as well as contribute to the outsourcing of large segments of our economy (porousness, you see, works in both directions) these cranks have created a Christmas tree crisis. And how can we celebrate Christmas in the manner O'Reilly would require us to do if a large part of our supply—trees from Canada—are being turned away at our northern border?

Allow me to make this personal.

In New York City, down by St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, on Second Avenue at 10th Street, for as long as we have lived in the neighborhood, every year on the stroke of December 1st, one Daniel Lemay, a graphic designer from Montreal (that’s in Canada, Mr. O’Reilly), sets up a small shack in which he lives until Christmas Day, selling trees that he grows and trucks to New York. And he donates 10 percent of the proceeds from his sales to the church, which is very Christian of him.

But not this year. According to the “New York Times,” (article linked below), on route to New York with a load of trees, he was stopped in Beecher Falls, Vermont by U.S. Customs agents who told him, as they forced him to turn back, that he was “doing jobs that U.S. citizens could do.” (Danny, by the way, always hired New Yorkers who are citizens to work for him. Which apparently is more than what Mitt Romney appeared to do.)

I can see how non-Americans are taking lettuce-picking jobs away from red-blooded citizens and how others are cornering the market on the most desirable dishwashing work, but if I have to find some other place to get my Christmas tree, in protest I’m not shopping in JCPenny anymore and will certainly not be watching “The Factor” (whatever that means) on Fox.

Friday, December 14, 2007

December 14, 2007--Fanaticism XCIX: The Roids of Summer

Inspired by Popeye the Sailorman, kids of my generation learned that to become powerful and potent, all we needed to do (which wasn’t easy because we hated it) was eat our spinach.

In a typical Popeye cartoon, the little sailor would find himself or his girlfriend Olive Oil, in a perilous situation, threatened by the lumbering but massive Bluto. Weighing 372 pound, standing 6’ 8”, the black-bearded villain was always about to squash Popeye like a bug until somehow our hero managed to get his hands on a can of spinach, down it, and within seconds see his forearms swell to four times their normal size. And with this newly acquired strength he would free Olive Oil from captivity, or worse, and punch out their tormentor.

So, we learned, if we too wanted to be big and strong and defend feminine virtue, like Popeye, we needed to eat nutritiously and play by the rules. Not only would we then be able to fend off neighborhood bullies, but we would also develop the muscles needed to succeed in football and basketball an especially baseball.

Doesn’t this now sound like an innocent idyll?

Not only do we today have an initial list of current and former Major League baseball players who cheated by bulking up on steroids and Human Growth Hormones (see linked “NY Times” article), but not so between the lines we are learning more about the unspoken pact between the team owners and the players’ union to keep all of this hidden because it was in everyone’s economic interest to see these athletes transformed by drugs into versions of androids. A Bluto-like Barry Bonds thus could break all season and lifetime home run records by launching titanic blasts beyond the stands out into San Francisco Bay.

And thus the fans would fill the stands, pay ten bucks for a hotdog and beer, and go wild as Barry Bonds with his size 10 head circled the bases. Just as the suckers do at professional wrestling matches when their living versions of cartoon characters, pumped up by drugs, slams a villainous opponent to the mat. But at least at the WWF “matches” there are few pretenses with many of the pro wrestlers even dressing up in comic book costumes.

Anyone paying the slightest attention has known that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGuire in recent years have doubled in size; and others who really paid attention suspected that Roger Clemens and Gary Sheffield were most likely cheating. But what also jumps out from the so-called Mitchell Report is the number of third-tier players who were also shooting up. The likes of Bobby Estella, Ryan Jorgensen, and Chad Allen. Look them up and you will find that they had undistinguished careers. In their cases, the Roids most likely made it possible for them to barely make a team in The Bigs, thus saving them from languishing in the minors.

Back in the day when cartoons were still cartoons, players were effectively chattel, bought and sold as such by a cadre of merciless owners who paid them such a pittance that during the off season they had to take straight jobs as automobile or insurance salesmen. The one time my father bought a new, as opposed to a used car, the salesman was Carl Furillo, the Brooklyn Dodgers brilliant and reliable right fielder. This was clearly not a good or fair system since the players did not share in the bounty they were producing.

Unaware of this exploitation, we kids in our innocence worshiped these players as men of extraordinary achievement. It was enough to become, sort of, disenchanted when we learned that one of our heroes got into a brawl at a nightclub or had a reputation for chasing skirts or having one-too-many. It would have been quite another thing to think that the reason Duke Snider could belt them over the right field fence and out onto Bedford Avenue was because between games his personal trainer was shooting steroids into his ass.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

December 13, 2007--Elementary, My Dear Watson

James Watson, along with Francis Crick, is the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Never mind that they failed to adequately acknowledge the essential contributions to their “discovery” of Rosalind Franklin, who worked largely unnoticed and did not share in their Nobel Prize. Big Science, especially when fame and fortune are at stake, can be quite a blood sport.

Not unlike many other scientists who do their best work when young and then drift off into relative obscurity, Watson and Crick, after their magnificent discovery, took up largely ceremonial or honorific positions on the margins of research. Crick then slipped even further away, never again breaking into the headlines.

But Watson, also like other aging Great Men, managed to step in it big time the other day when he speculated that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites.

He was quoted as saying, “All our social policies are based on the fact that [Blacks’] intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” (See “NY Times” article linked below.)

This could have been laughed off as the ravings of a besotted old man; but considering his stature in the very field of genetic research where such explorations—controversial as they might be—would appropriately occur, he had to be paid attention to and contradicted.

That would have been enough. After all, in America, we may be on the cusp of nominating a Black person to run for the presidency. But as it is in Watson’s case, sometimes the best justice is the poetic kind. So let’s pause for a moment to savor what happened to him.

As one of the founding fathers of DNA research, Watson placed his own genetic information on line for all the world to see. That felt charming enough until the other shoe fell. The company dCode Genetics of Iceland did an analysis of his DNA to see what it might reveal—a tendency toward having curly hair perhaps? (he is now quite bald); an inherent inclination to like sweets; the likelihood that he would develop Alzheimer’s (this is an easy one since we know that has already happened)? Bread and butter stuff of the kind that more and more people are learning about themselves when they have their own DNA analyzed.

But deCode discovered something much more ironically interesting: it seems that Watson has lots of Black “blood” mixed into his DNA. So much so that it is the virtual equivalent to having had a Black great-grandparent! How sweet it can sometimes be.

Maybe next we’ll find out that he’s related to Strom Thurmond or even Thomas Jefferson.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

December 12, 2007-Chanukah In Vermont

On the fourth day of Chanukah we went to our friend’s house in S____ . You’ve met him before—"The Vermont Jew"—and we trekked all the way up there to be a part of his annual celebration. He had told us for many years that he invites all the Jews he knows who live in Vermont and a few secular Gentile friends. “A good time will be had by all,” he promised, “so rent a car (four-wheel drive since you never know) and come.”

“And,” he added with a wink, “even though the house is not that big, there will be plenty of room for the two of you. As you might imagine, there aren’t that many of us up here.”

We weren’t concerned about that. We prided ourselves as being the opposite us people. And even if we were most comfortable among co-religionists, which we aren’t, Vermont has such a history of toleration—wasn’t it the first state to legalize civil unions?—that we knew our friend’s Gentile friends would make us feel right at home. But on the other hand, dour Calvin Coolidge was born and raised a scant 10 miles away and Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, grew up in Sharon, the nearest town. We had better, we thought, keep our eyes open. Just to be sure.

We agreed to come to the party because the date for it corresponded nicely with a meeting we had scheduled in Boston. Thus, a plan began to take shape--take the train to the meeting, rent a car (an all-wheel drive), and then drive first to Vermont, stay overnight in an inn in Woodstock, and then the morning after the party drive back to the city.

When we told him we would finally make it there this year, I could hear the excitement in his voice in spite of the fact that there is scant cell phone reception in his town. Through the crackling in the connection I could make out his saying, “We so happy that . . . And if you want to you can . . . But then there is the . . . and latkes . . . all you can . . . with caviar, which I know is not . . . But if you like . . . applesauce . . . We have a neighbor who . . . he, though, may not . . . from his trees . . . which kind you’ll have to . . . know me and nature, however . . . You met them in the city, my cousins . . . remember, she works for Struck, Struck . . . and he . . . the biggest, as his mother used to . . . After all, we’re Jews!”

It was a beautiful drive through the mountains from Boston to Woodstock and we were happy to have the formidable car since at the higher elevations the snow was falling and beginning to accumulate. But the highway crew got right on it and cleared the way for us as if they were sent out to escort us to our hideaway. We arrived before long and settled into our charmingly chintzed inn and had a romantic dinner and much wine while snug at our table right by the fire. It was an evening right out of a New England cliché. We even had a fireplace in our room and made good use of it after tottering up the creaky stairs. We were so happily weary that we fell into an enchanted sleep, oblivious to whatever traffic noise there was just outside our wreathed windows.

The next day couldn’t have begun more beautifully. The sun glinted on the dome of the Universalist church right across from the inn and the rest of the picture-postcard town was covered in a blanket of new snow. But overnight the sidewalks had been cleared and we able to get about and complete most of our holiday shopping before lunch, which we devoured at the counter of the 1832 Barnard Country Store. Another magical setting where homemade soup never tasted so good!

And after that, it was time for another fire and a two-hour nap. We would be well rested for the drive over to S____ ; and although large parties with rooms full of strangers are not our favorite way to pass an evening in the country, we knew how much our being there meant to our friend; and we were feeling so relaxed and intoxicated by the beauty of the day and what we had so pleasantly accomplished that we were ready for even that kind of gathering or anything else that might come our way—even an unexpected blizzard.

But we were not prepared for what actually happened once we got there.

After pulling off and depositing our boots in the mud room, ladened with gifts for the children and our hosts, we made our way through the throng of Vermonters in their plaids toward two familiar faces—our friend’s New York City cousins who we had met for the first time a few months ago. L____ and R_____. How glad we were to see them! It would make things so much easier for us—less pressure to make small talk about the weather this time of year, the short days, how our car fared in all this snow, and the results of the hunting season: “So, did you finally manage to bag that doe?”

Thus we raced toward them—not for the usual New York talk about new restaurants and how crowded downtown has gotten with all those Europeans flashing their strong Pounds and Euros.

They had situated themselves right by the entrance to the huge farmhouse kitchen where most of the guests had gathered and right by where the bar was set up. Happily they recognized us as we did them and seemed thrilled to finally have someone to hang out with who was not much interested in talking about organic farming.

Rona almost ran to them. I lagged not far behind. “R____ , how nice to see again.” She exchanged a real New York hug with her as if R____ were a long-lost friend. “And L____ , you look so well. I didn’t know you would be here. How are you?” Rona was glowing.

But before I could even extend my hand in greeting, I could see his balding brow and face collapse into a frown, “Not so good, to tell you the truth.”

I stepped back as is my wont but Rona moved in closer. Before she could even ask him what was going on, he launched into a virtual monologue, “It’s my mother. She’s 87 and is in assisted living. She has a problem with her mitral valve but she’s too weak for treatment much less an operation. I’m an oncologist, as you may remember, but as a physician I know much too much when it comes to my own family. Especially my parents. My father died two years ago. He had Parkinson’s. That was very nasty. To witness that powerful man decline as he did. It broke my heart. You know how people who are not physicians have the ability to deny what is going on with regard to themselves and their loved ones and how that can protect them from the worst when their parents have an incurable illness? Well for those of us who are doctors, there is no possibility of denial. Not being able to deny what is really happening is essential to us when we are treating our patients, but it is a terrible burden when we see our parents suffering—when there is nothing we can do—as with my mother.” I could sense, poor thing, that he was about to burst into tears.

In spite of that, perhaps because of that, as surreptitiously as possible, I began to tug on Rona’s sleeve. I hadn’t come all this way to picture-postcard Vermont to lapse back into the very things in our own New York lives that we were frankly, for the weekend at least, hoping to deny. But here was this L____ person, who we barely knew, in pain to be sure, laying this misery off onto us.

Rona wouldn’t budge. And though I had my eye on the nearby bar, he continued, “You know how these things are. I’m not a cardiologist but I know enough to understand that even the slightest change in the heart can bring about catastrophic consequences. Take my mother as an example—until last month she was getting on reasonably well. True, she had trouble going to the bathroom herself. That’s why we moved her to assisted living. But still she had some measure of independence. Then just a few weeks ago the opening in her affected valve narrowed by much less than a centimeter and now look at her situation. She cannot get out of bed, and the aides have to bring her a bedpan every hour or two. The director is saying she needs to be moved up to the skilled nursing floor. And I can’t sleep at night, considering what I know about the consequences of her condition and what such a move will mean to her. She, after all, not too long ago, with my father . . .”

With that, especially with bedpan images floating in my mind, though I remained at Rona’s side, I began to drift away. As a Jew, my first thought was, How typical. You can bring a Jew up to Universalist and tolerant Vermont for Chanukah but you can’t take the Jewishness out of the Jew—for us it continues to be all about illness, dying, and death. No amount of draydlnig or, if you prefer, wassailing, will make any difference.

As L___ continued to Rona’s apparently rapt attention, I wondered what our Vermont friend’s Gentile friends would have reacted to L___’s “Not so good greeting.”

Considering where he had placed himself, right by the bar, I suspect they would have said, “Sorry to hear that, chap.” And added, without pausing or skipping a beat, “I wonder if they’re making any Martinis over there. I like mine very dry. Don’t you?”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

December 11, 2007--Instigating

The Jets were getting trounced again. By the end of the afternoon their record for the season would be three wins and 10 loses. They were eliminated from any real chance of making the playoffs more than a month ago. Only the hapless Miami Dolphins had a worse record—winless in 13 games. On the other side of the NFL ledger, the New England Patriots were moving inexorably toward an undefeated season.

But to Jet fans at Sunday’s game in the Meadowlands it was “who cares.” There were two minutes to go in the first half and the stands were already empty. Not out of disgust at the Jets inept play or because the guys needed to get on line ASAP at the men’s room after guzzling so much beer. No, they were heading once more to gate D where, for many years during halftime, regardless of how the Jets were faring, they’d line up along the ramp and try to get some babes to pull up their parkas and expose their, what else to call them, hooters.

Fans Gone Wild!

Now I understand why pro football has surpassed baseball as America’s most popular national pastime. Here I had naively thought it was because football aficionados liked the revved-up action or what the invention of the point spread had done for sports gambling when in truth, all the while, it was about T & A.

Of course I should have known better. After all, what has historically been more important to the faithful season ticket holders—taking in the nuances of the California Offense or the getting tanked up at endless tailgate parties hours before kickoff?

The New York Times began to report about the carryings-on at Gate D a number of weeks ago; and because of the front page publicity the Jets organization and the local New Jersey police who are charged with maintaining order at the stadium, after denying that they knew there was a problem, promised to look into the situation and vowed to make sure that if they “found” anything offensive going on they would do what was necessary to assure that it was stopped.

And they have the power to do so--the fine print on the back of tickets to the games states that fans are expected to behave in a “responsible” way and that if they do not they can be expelled from the stadium and even lose their rights to continue as season ticket holders.

To see how well the reinforced police presence was doing to stop the harassment of women who, not knowing about the scene at Gate D, might wander by in search of a warm place to get out of the cold, the Timesman once again took up his post. And discovered . . .?

Pretty much the same thing. Yes, there appeared to be more police present, but there also were more fans gathered there than ever before, few of them seemingly interested in observing the law being enforced. In fact, to quote the Times, the women who ventured by had to run the same “gauntlet of abuse.” (Article linked below.)

In some places, standing 12 deep, unruly fans taunted the women and called upon them to expose their breasts. If they didn’t comply, some hurled cups of beer at them and even spat in their direction.

Unlike on other occasions when a number of women did bare all, our erstwhile reporter this Sunday did not spot any who did. One woman, a student at Ohio State, did lift her sweater up to over her naval but when she refused to go any further was roundly booed. Even more than the Jets had been during the first half. She said, “If I were a dude, I’d boo me too.” What a good sport.

The police did ask a few to move on, including two women. The authorities claimed that they were “instigating by watching.” That at least I understand. Watching does get dudes crazy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

December 10, 2007--Be Prepared

Perversely, when I joined the Boy Scouts as an innocent 13-year-old, I quickly and happily realized that that innocence would soon, at last, be dispelled.

As part of the orientation to the lore, pledges, salutes, and best of all secret handshakes, we were also required to learn the Scout motto and pledge. Especially the various literal and metaphoric meanings of the ultimate aspiration of Scouting—Being Prepared.

My innocence of the world was such that I did not have any awareness as I did later in life that much of this preparedness was of a paramilitary sort. Perhaps liked to the constitutional right and responsibility to “bear arms.” Unfortunately, we did not have any to bear in my troop but the uniform and disciplining should have at least provided a clue as to what was really up. As should have been the obsession with leaning techniques to survive in the woods. To ultra-urban kids from Brooklyn starting fires using just flint and steel and learning which roots and berries were edible and which poisonous seemed more exotic than necessary preparation for survival after being successfully invaded by some inchoate.

But if Be Prepared was our mantra, so be it. I did, after all, love the uniform, canteen, and lariat.

Fortunately, Stewie Cassell was a Scouting mate and he had a very different version of what it meant to Be Prepared: he was less interested in surviving in the woods than fooling around there. So with a wink to the rest of us in the Beaver Patrol (can you believe it, that’s who we were), slipping a Trojan from his wallet, he leered, “This is what you use to be prepared.”

Though I had no idea what he meant, I feebly winked back at him and to myself pledged, in a very un-Scoutlike way, that I would also devote myself to learning about that kind of preparedness.

Sexual awakening during adolescence is of course its dominant feature. So much so that even the restrictions and discipline of Scouting cannot tamp it down. So it is hardly a surprise that the Boy Scouts with its militia traditions has devoted much of its energy to denouncing, forbidding, and ferreting out any inklings of homosexuality.

Of course, we Beavers had no such inklings. True, Larry D ____ was always polishing his boots and ironing his bandana and checking himself out in the mirror and from this we should have known that something was up; but this was, yo, Brooklyn, the borough of real men . . . and boys.

Later in life I became aware of the Scouts’ heterosexual agenda. But until recently, oblivious to the full story, I thought that focus, as in the Catholic Church, was to “protect” boys who were in the care of Scoutmasters from those who were gay and thus couldn’t restrain themselves from molesting them. Putting aside the evidence that gay teachers, Scoutmasters, and even homosexual priests are no more likely to prey upon young boys for whom they have responsibility than gay men in the larger population, since the Scouts are a private organization, like it or not, the law allows them to exclude gays from becoming troop leaders. But, because they act in this exclusionary way, there have been numerous court decisions not to allow the Scouts to use public facilities for their activities. All well and good as far as I’m concerned.

But just this week I came to realize that more than this is at stake. The New York Times reported (article linked below) that the city of Philadelphia finally managed, after years of trying, to evict the local Boy Scout chapter from using a municipal building. One it has occupied, effectively rent free, since 1928.

Embedded in the article was mention of a 2000 Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that upheld the Scout’s right to expel gay Scouts. Not just predatory Scoutmasters but the kids themselves. Like poor Larry D ____. If the Army can have a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy, why not these little soldiers? For that answer, you’ll have to ask Justices Scalia and Thomas.

Or the Scouts national spokesman who said, “Since we were founded, we believe that open [as opposed to closeted?] homosexuality would be inconsistent with the values that we want to communicate.” And he added, “A belief in God is also mentioned in the Scout oath. We believe those values are important.”

God too. If I had only known I wonder what they would have thought if they knew that pretty much all the kids in the Beaver Patrol were Jews. I think, though, that there was one Italian. Like Stewie, Louie also knew (wink) about Being Prepared. And from him I learned more than I ever did from Mr. K ____ , our Scoutmaster.

But you know, now I’m even beginning to wonder about him. There was that overnight hike to Alpine, New Jersey and, after we were all bedded down in out little Pup Tents, Mr. ____ . Well, that’s another story.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

December 6, 2007--Stocking Stuffer

I’ve managed to get used to those TV ads that picture a naked man and a naked woman holding hands while immersed in separate side-by-side bathtubs set in a verdant meadow. I like the mood music and the frankness of the approach—if the man had popped a Cialis pill as long as 36 hours ago, the voice-over assures, he would even now be ready to go at it.

It’s pleasant to picture myself in one of those tubs and, in spite of the warning that the pill could induce Priapism (a four-hour erection), with its assistance I think I can handle both her and that troubling side effect.

So you can only imagine how eager I was the other day while watching the Dallas Cowboys overwhelm the NY Giants to see a new ad for another medical product. This was NFL football and I knew it wouldn’t be for ways to treat osteoporosis. They had just run a series of ED commercial and I was wondering what this Cypher thing was.

As I remember the ad, it showed a guy of about my age sitting on his living room couch, maybe tuned in as I was to a Sunday afternoon football game. Hovering in the background was a woman who I assumed was his wife. Here we go again I thought. But he appeared not to be randy. Coughing and wheezing, it was clear that he was in some distress. Ah, I thought, it’s flu season and this Cypher-whatever is probably another mucous medication, a Musinex competitor. Or maybe it's a new Christmas gift item.

Losing interest, I reached around behind me to grab another bottle of Bud. But out of the corner of my eye, with the sound muted, looming on the screen was a luminous, rotating image of what appeared to me to be a small section of a mesh garden hose.

Intrigued now, I switched the sound back on and learned that Cypher is a “drug-eluting” stent that can be inserted into coronary arteries to alleviate chest pains and shortness of breath, both symptoms of heart disease.

This, I thought, they’re advertising on TV?

But I quickly concluded that if half the so-called entertainment shows on television are about medical subjects, including forensic medicine and plastic surgery, and more and more of the commercials are for prescription and non-prescription medications, why not then ads for stents?

I later learned from an article in the New York Times (linked below) that the Cypher company, a division of Johnson & Johnson (a Johnson incidentally, “Woody.” Is the owner of the NY Jets), plans to run this ad, titled “Life Wide Open”—get it--nearly 200 times during subsequent NFL games. I guess the assumption is that guys get so excited watching pro football that they give themselves chest pains and thus this is an ideal ad placement opportunity.

Beyond the silliness, there are medical complexities about the value and safety of stents; and although the Cypher ad and the Cialis ads and the ubiquitous Lipitor ads all include various warnings about potential side effects, these passing cautions are inadequate. If all you care about is getting it up, a little warning about Cialis potentially causing blindness or Lipitor kidney failure isn’t going to stop you. But the Cypher spot doesn’t even allude to the fact that many cardiologists feel that stenting is far from the best treatment in a significant number of cases.

This direct-to-consumer medical marketing, many feel, is leading to considerable over-prescribing. When patients come in to see their doctors and pressure them to give them a drug that they’ve seen advertised on TV, it isn’t easy for an over-busy physician not to just take out his or her pad and begin to write script.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

December 5, 2007--iMac Land

I do not own an iPod and for sure no iPhone, so when it was time to buy a new computer, the old one was terminally infected with viruses, Mac-oriented friends urged me to abandon my decidedly-uncool PC and move into the more intuitive, user-friendly world of Apple.

This made me very nervous. I was totally addicted to me little SONY Vaio and, as someone adverse to radical change—except in the larger world, I was certain that I would never be able to figure out much less get comfortable doing my work, which mainly involves writing, e-mailing, and some Internet surfing, using a new operating system. Especially since I have no idea whatsoever what an “operating system” is.

But these very reliable friends kept pressing on me to at least go to the Apple store to see how easy it is to use a Mac. This then I did; and before too long I wound up buying one, a MacBook Pro, largely because I liked the look of it and thought if I ever went to a Starbucks (unlikely) and toted it along with me (less likely), I’d fit right in among the 20-somethings.

When I got it home and freed it from its sumptuous packaging, all I needed to do was push the on-off button and sit back to await the graphic ride of my life. I had grown used to the dour PC icons and images; but with the Mac powered up I was swirled into an array of images at the so-called Dock at the bottom of the luminous screen--the Picasso-like, cubistic face that takes one to the Finder (I’m still trying to figure out what I will find if I ever take a chance and click on that smiley face); the Dashboard clock or dial—I’m not sure which it is and what it connects me to; and the Safari compass, which I quickly learned is my portal to the amazing Internet. Wow!

Rona next installed the software we bought so I could continue using Microsoft Word for my writing—there is a limit to how much of the old I am willing to let go of before making a total switch over. And since I truly do want to make that switch I gather I will eventually have to have my Mac, if it is to remain pure and uncorrupted, Microsoft-Free. You see, I’m learning already.

My first working experience with the Mac was to draft yesterday’s blog. Traditionally I do this as a Word document and then copy and paste it onto the Blogspot Web page that then allows me to publish it for all to see. No problem there—it works the same way on the Mac as on the old Vaio.

There was, though, another problem that I encountered almost immediately. I’m a poor typer and speller and need to do a lot of text editing along the way. This includes a considerable amount of deleting. It quickly became apparent that on the Mac the only way to delete a word or phrase was from left-to-right using the Delete key. There appeared to be no way to do this in the non-Hebraic direction, left-to-right. On the PC this was easy to do since there is both a Delete key for left-to-right deleting and a Backspace key to do just that—backspace.

Since I assumed I was doing something, considering it took me two weeks to learn how to turn on and then log onto my SONY, I walked over to the Mac store to find out what I was doing wrong. As you might imagine I was feeling pretty stupid, not to mention very uncool.

The accommodating and youthful Apple staffer matter-of-factly told me that I wasn’t wrong. “You see,” he said, “on the full keyboard there are both keys but on the laptops one had to be eliminated to make room for these.” The “these” he was referring to were the stereo speakers on both sides of the keyboard which, to assure full fidelity, were huge thus making it necessary to eliminate a host of keys, including the one that would allow me and other real-writers to delete in both directions.

I said to him as if he were Steve Jobs, “This is not cool at all.” And, I said to myself, Ill get used to it since I do very much want to be cool. Cool enough, in fact, so that when the New York Times every month or so publishes it Circuits section I’ll be able to read the articles and understand them rather than do what I always do--immediately recycle it.

So today I turned right to the one article that seemed to deal with computing—the one linked below about Flash Drives. You know those things that plug into your U.S.B. slot. What the Times calls “those little data suitcases.” Gadgets that allow you to . . . . To tell you the truth I have no idea what. But they are getting cooler and cooler because, the Times reports, they are now being designed to be fit into things such as pens and bracelets and heart-shaped pendants. Gift items, in other words. Stocking stuffers which have become so ubiquitous that they now have a new name of their own—“Invisidrives.”

This is all too advanced for me. But I am trying my best and promise to get with it before too long. But I also know I’ll continue to miss my Delete key

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

December 4, 2007--Kindergarten Cop

I don’t know about you, but when I was in Kindergarten I was having so much trouble just learning my A, B, Cs and trying not to pee in my pants that I didn’t have much time left to write essays about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Forget being able to speculate about becoming president. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a president. I’m not even sure I knew the school had a principal. Fireman was still looking pretty good to me.

So Hillary Clinton, to retort Barack Obama’s dig that he (in contrast to her) hadn’t spent the last 35 years planning to be president, snapped back that at least she, unlike him, hadn’t written a paper while in Kindergarten about “Why I Want to be President.”

To get further under her skin—it was already making her crazy that she was slipping in both the national and Iowa polls—he offhandedly and calmly said, “Well I guess we’re getting into the silly season.”

Hillary is having an anger problem. Early on when it seemed inevitable that she would receive the nomination she ran what the pundits called a national campaign. Essentially, she ignored her Democratic rivals, at most brushing them away as if they were pesky insects. In her speeches and in the debates she artfully treated them as if they weren’t there, concentrating all her attention on the Bush administration and the Republican’s also-inevitable candidate, Rudy Giuliani. It looked for a time as if the other Democrats were either auditioning to be her VP running mate or, in the case of Joe Biden, Secretary of State.

But all of this changed two debates ago when she got tangled up in the sticky drivers-licenses-for-illegal-immigrants brouhaha. Right before everyone’s eyes she flipped and flopped and then flipped again. It was one of those quintessential moments when what one suspected all along—that she would do or say anything to be elected—became manifest.

It was also during that debate that her principal rivals finally found the courage to take her on. Knocked off her pins by that (up to that point she had been sailing along being attacked only by "Clinton-hating" Republicans) she also revealed her nasty side--something else many unsuspected had been held in check just below the surface of feigned amiability.

As a result, blood spilled into the water and we at last had a race. Now Obama and Hillary are going at each other while Edwards, smiling disingenuously, is standing far back away from the fray. He who had been the first to challenge Clinton and thus took the risk of alienating voters, especially those who saw this in gender terms—both Clintons tried to help fuel this--and in Iowa where they like their campaigns to be civil and not personal.

So Hillary finds herself in a pickle. Her front-runner status was based more on her inevitability and competence than on any wellspring of affection or good feeling. In fact, recent polls find more than half the potential voters see her by far to be the most “ego-driven” candidate and shockingly few view her as “likable.” Lest one think this latter quality to be insignificant and even superficial, most of our recent presidents won in large part because, all things being sort of equal, they were perceived to be more likeable than their opponents—the current President Bush, for example, an how-can-we-forget, the first Clinton.

In a real fight for the nomination Hillary now has to figure out how to mix it up with the eminently-likeable Obama and the newly happy-warrior Edwards. One problem for her is that what she says when engaged in retorting and attacking reads better than it sounds. Meaning that raising questions about Obama’s PAC fund and his aspirations to be president during childhood are legitimate issues, and things seem OK and within the bounds of legitimate discourse when you read the transcripts. But if you listen to her speak the words, to quote a potential caucus-goer in Iowa, her attacks are “somewhat irritating to sit through.” (See NY Times story linked below.) This is a big problem.

But I can’t stop thinking about that 5-year-old Barack in an Indonesian Kindergarten class.

First, how good is the Clinton campaign that they came up with this tidbit. Let’s give it up for her research staff. And beyond that, rather than being concerned that Obama’s ambition emerging so early in life should give us cause to worry about his being more ego-driven than Clinton, I’m pretty impressed that this little kid at such an early age was capable of even spelling the word “president.”

Monday, December 03, 2007

December 3, 2007--The Reverend Ike School of Business

When I worked at NYU everything was for sale. True, at that time, the university was on the verge of bankruptcy and there was daily pressure to cut expenses and increase income. I thought I had joined an institution of higher learning but quickly found that the place was more like a business. And a failing one at that.

One of my first meetings was to meet with our school’s development person. I.e., the staffer who’s job it was to raise money and to engage deans, people like me, in the process.

He informed me that I was expected to host a series of fundraising breakfasts, already scheduled, for leaders in the New York real estate community. Guys (and they were all guys) such as Larry Silverstein and Leonard Stern and the Rudin brothers had agreed to attend these and they knew in advance that we would be hitting them up for money.

I was told that it was my job to sit at the head of the table, not say very much while the food was served so as not to interfere with their talking among themselves, gossiping and cutting their various deals; but when the dishes were being cleared I should stand up, tap my coffee spoon on a water glass, and say a few words about my school, how well it was doing (being sure not to talk about the deficits we were running), and how we needed their help to expand and enhance our offerings.

Then, I was to sit down and shut up. The chair of NYU’s Real Estate Institute, my co-host, would do the rest. He would say, I was told, “Leonard, we were all pleased to learn that Hartz did very well last year.” Everyone would applaud and Leonard would nod and smile. “Thus, how much can I count on you for this year?” Leonard would say, “Thank you Larry. It’s true and so I pledge $100,000.” My job was to jot this down on a pad and report the final tally to the development office after breakfast.

At the first breakfast things proceeded just as I had been briefed. That is, until it got to Gerry G ______ . Larry, as with the others, new all the details about how well Gerry had done the year before, including how much he had spent on the legendary bat mitzvah he threw for his daughter Sarah. So it was no surprise that he pledged $150,000 and said he would arrange for the money to be delivered to the campus that very afternoon. Next to the $150K I affixed an asterisk, indicating that the check was more than in the mail.

I, though, was not prepared for what happened next—Gerry turned to me, this was the first time anyone appeared to notice I was in the room, and asked, “And, Steve, what will I get for my money?” Flummoxed, I sputtered, “I’m not sure what you mean, Mr. G _____ .” I was that innocent. “I mean, what will you name after me? The G _____ Study Hall? The G _____ Student Lounge? For my 150, I should at least get something.” I muttered, “I’ll see what’s possible and we’ll let you know.”

Back on campus my first stop was with my development person who gave me a mini-lesson on naming gifts—for the right amount of money, I was instructed, everything at the university can be named. Hadn’t I noticed that NYU’s school of the arts was called the Tisch School of the Arts?

So I was not surprised to read in the New York Times that anonymous gifts have more-or-less disappeared and if you go to a place like, say, the Metropolitan Opera, all seats in the orchestra are named after donors, as are the staircases and even the bathrooms. (Article linked below.)

A few years into my stint at NYU, a potential student showed up at our school accompanied by her mother who, we all noticed, was wearing a full-length sable fur oat. Parked just outside my window on Washington Square Park was a pink, yes pink Rolls Royce. Clearly this was the car that had transported daughter and mother to us.

They were here to talk about admissions. Since the university was still very much in the red, all I could think about was development—how much might we extract from them to have their daughter . . . ? I didn’t finish the thought because NYU, in spite of its financial situation, did not accept those kinds of donations with those kinds of stings attached.

So I had another thought—with the school of the arts named for the Tisches and the school of business for Leonard Stern, how about seeing if the Reverend Ike, that’s who it was, would make a naming gift to our school? No knowing, I speculated about how much it would cost him and wondered would we agree to name one of our schools after this, how shall I put it, unconventional minister?

Thus I asked someone high up in the president’s office. “If the Reverend Ike would agree to donate $50 million, what would the university do?”

After just a moment’s thought she said, “We’d take it.”

“And would we name my school after him?”

This was a bit more complicated and so she pondered it for a minute. “How much did you say?”

“Fifty million.”

Without hesitating she said, “No problem.”