Friday, January 30, 2009

January 30, 2009--Long Weekend

See you Monday. Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009--Dating a Banker Anonymous

I had an unexpected reaction to an article that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, “It’s the Economy, Girlfriend.” (Linked below.)

It was pointed out to me by a relative who suggested it was a good piece of schadenfreude, knowing that I have an occasional, difficult-to-overcome, appetite for learning about and enjoying the troubles of the overprivileged.

The piece reports about a support group, Dating a Banker Anonymous, formed by young women to help them cope with the relationship fallout that is a consequence of the collapse of the Wall Street economy.

Here’s Christine Cameron’s not-so-anonymous story: She was dating a financial analyst who after losing his job would get drunk and disappear while they were out together and then the next day have the temerity to accuse her of being the one to abscond.

Then there is 26 year-old Dawn Spinner Davis who when her private-wealth manager boyfriend lost his job and became so distraught that he stopped playing golf, which had been his passion, and there was fear that he wouldn’t live to reach his 35th birthday, she cried out to the sympathetic members of DABA that “This is not what I signed up for!”

These are women who had wealthy boyfriends or spouses who would leave them alone with credit cards while they were out there making a killing. Now they are forced to live more modestly, not only having to forego dinners at Masa or Megu, but in many cases those credit cards have been maxed out or, worse, cancelled.

Their sex lives, too, they report, have also taken a beating. Some are being pressed to have sex every day so their boyfriends can relieve work-related tension (these seem often to be guys who can no longer afford their mistresses), and in other cases sex once a week or once a month has become the new norm.

Thus the new organization and its accompanying blog site, which invites women to join “if your monthly Bergdorf’s allowance has been halved and bottle service has all but disappeared from your life.”

When they meet in person, usually Sex And the City-style, at a bar or restaurant, they follow their own unique 3-step version of a 12-step program—Step 1: Slip into a dress and heels; Step 2: Sip a cocktail and wait your turn to talk; Step 3: Pour your heart out. Repeat as needed.

Just as I was chortling my way through the article, thinking how shallow and regressive these women feel, so 1950s in their expectations and values, and thus enjoying reading about their fall from well-kept Stepfordness, I caught myself unexpectedly feeling a little sad for them.

It’s really rough out there. Not just for the people I meet down here in Florida who are struggling to hold onto condos and relationships by working three or four part-time jobs. It’s also brutal for the private wealth managers and corporate real estate investors and their wives and girlfriends.

Sure they’ve been over-indulged and sound so superficial, but at least they appear to have retained their sense of humor. You’ve got to admit their 3-step program is pretty droll.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009--Snowbirding: Texas Shooting Range & Emporium

After dinner at the Golden Pond, slipped under the windshield wiper blade, I found a glossy brochure from the Texas Shooting Range & Emporium. “Professionals Serving the Responsible,” it said. And on the cover flap:


Can You Defend Yourself
In A Life Threatening

Enroll Now In Our Defensive
Firearms Classes to Get The
Necessary Skills and Knowledge
To Defend Yourself and Your
Family . . . While You Can.

The “while you can,” ominously set off in ellipses, really got to me, thinking we’re in Florida for the winter and the TV is full of lurid crime stories and . . . So I took the brochure home, hidden in my pocket so Rona wouldn’t see I had secreted it.

Early the next morning, while Rona was still sleeping, I retrieved it and read further.

First, they offer a Concealed Weapons Permit Course—for “novices,” defined as those who have “shot a handgun less than 4 times,” and do not “know how to safely load/unload semi-automatic pistols.” That will cost you $129.95. For those who are “experienced,” they aren’t specific about what that means, it costs just $79.95; but in either case, though “the course fee includes ammunition during training, not included are fingerprinting and photographs.” These, the brochures informs, “are needed to apply for your CWP Permit and are your responsibility.”

Florida is pretty permissive when it comes to carrying concealed weapons, but since I’m only a Snowbird, the CWP course didn’t seem right for me. Though that “While you can” was still rattling around in my consciousness.

Thus I looked to see what else they offered. For $450 they have Defensive Pistol, Level I, with a curriculum that teaches “defensive mindset, combat triad [?], fundamentals of defensive shooting, dry fire vs. live fire, sighted vs. instinctive firing, cover and concealment, and weapons retention and drawing techniques.”

For graduates of the Level 1 course, there’s Level II, where you get to do “multiple target and threat assessment, rapid fire engagement, shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, and close quarters combat technique.”

And for those nighttime situations, you can take a one-day Low Light Pistol course, for “only $300,” which instructs you in “low light equipment selection, flashlight techniques and light discipline, accuracy drills, and shooting on the move.”

I thought, while there is still time, if I want to get myself prepared for all eventualities, I should probably sneak off for a day, telling Rona who knows what, and take Level I; and if I did well with that, maybe come back for the Low Light course since most of the things I’d probably have to get prepared to defend myself from would be covered in those two.

But then I caught myself—Why am I having these thoughts and contemplating these plans? I’m a liberal. I don’t even believe the Fourth Amendment is appropriate for the 21st Century. I’m against people having handguns. I live in New York City after all. Downtown. No one there has a gun. We don’t worry about close quarters combat techniques. The only close quarters we ever think about is finding a place in the subway during rush hour.

But something bigger than all of this was pulling on me. Something I couldn’t quite understand. Was it situational, being here in an environment where guns are so casually available? Was I feeling more vulnerable as I grew older? Was it something unleashed from my hunter-gatherer DNA?

One thing I did know—I had better fess up to Rona if wanted to follow through. What was I going to do—tell her I was going out for a haircut and come home eight hours later all dressed in camouflage and toting a Glock 26?

To be continued in a week or two . . .

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009--Bubblenomics

Just as I was allowing myself to feel good about things again, what with Obama and his seemingly competent people in charge in the White House, thinking maybe they will be able to turn the economy around, someone I was having breakfast with couldn’t stop talking about how everything’s a ponzi scheme.

“Now take Social Security,” he said, gulping down his fourth cup of coffee, “that too’s a ponzi scheme.”

This got my attention since I have come to like seeing my SS checks direct-deposited in my bank account every month. “How do you figure that?”

“Like with that Madoff fellow whose scam required a continuous infusion for new money in order to keep paying people who he lured in early on, the same is true for Social Security. For folks like us to keep getting our money people currently with jobs have to keep paying into the system. There’s no Social Security fund or anything like that to draw down. People have to keep paying their FICA tax.”

“You sure about this? I thought the money they withheld when we were working went into some sort of account.”

“That’s want they want us to believe. But trust me, it’s the new money coming in that gets paid out to us. And you know what has me worried?”

Though I wanted to ignore him and enjoy my bowl of Great Grains I couldn’t help myself from asking, “What?”

“That with all the layoffs and unemployment heading toward double digits, there won’t be enough new money being paid in to keep the checks coming to us.”

This was not what I wanted to be thinking about with the day looking like it would turn out to be gorgeous and a long beach walk looming; and so I muttered something intentionally unintelligible back at him, lowered my head closer to my cereal, and tried to change the subject, asking what the betting line currently was for Sunday’s Superbowl. He disdainfully waved me off, got up from his stool, and stomped over to the cash register.

But of course I knew he was right—lots of things are like ponzi schemes. The real estate crisis, for example, which many feel is at the heart of our problems. For many folks to pay the rising cost of their mortgages and have money to spend they needed to see the value of their houses keep rising so they could refinance and use the money they took out of that equity to stay above water and finance their life styles. And when home prices began to deflate and they could no longer take cash out of their previously-appreciating homes, the bubble collapsed. Just like Bernie Madoff could no longer pay off his so-called investors.

The more I thought about this I began to see bubbles everywhere—with hedge funds, stock market margin accounts, and even, yes, with tea. Particularly one of my favorite kinds of tea, Pu’er, which I have come to depend on having with my Chinese food. Especially with dim sum lunches.

The New York Times reports that in China the Pu’er tea bubble has collapsed. (Article linked below.)

For poor rural folks in Yunnan Province, isolated from China’s economically booming coastal cities, growing and trading compacted bricks of Pu’er became their version of playing the market. The tea itself has a noble lineage, having been “invented” back in the eighth-century by horseback traders who were the first to compress the leaves into easily transported cakes. But it was much more recently, when tea speculators showed up in places such as Menghai County, that Pu’er, with its alleged medicinal qualities, became an object of market manipulation.

For no apparent reason other than a crafty out-of-town few taking control of the supply chain before pulling the plug and reaping profits for themselves, Pu’er rose ten fold in value in a decade, topping out, before the market bubble collapsed, at $150 a pound. Now it goes for less than during pre-boom times and thus many in the region are wiped out.

As with other Western bubbles, those cashing in along the way used the artificially inflated value of Pu’er to subsidize their spending habits. A local farmer says that “Everyone was wearing designer labels [probably stuff made in China!] and a lot of people bought cars, but now we can’t afford gas and so we just park them.”

Oh yes, happy Year of the Ox.

Monday, January 26, 2009

January 26, 2009--The Obama Effect?

During the campaign I speculated about something I called the Obama Effect--a potential electoral phenomenon that I thought might prove to be the opposite of the so-called Bradley Effect: that rather than some white voters telling pollsters that they were planning to vote for Obama but then when in the privacy of the voting booth voting for McCain, this time around it was possible that a significant number of white voters would tell those polling them that they were going to vote for McCain but then, when alone with their ballots, they would vote for the black candidate, Obama.

Post-election analysis indicated that this turned out to be true--a significant percent of white voters reluctant to tell their drinking buddies that were going to pull the lever for a black guy actually did. So in Pennsylvania, for example, Obama won the state by about 11 percentage points whereas the last polls before Election Day had him with only a three to four point lead.

But we may be on the cusp of seeing an even more interesting and profound Obama Effect. As reported last week in the New York Times (article linked below), when testing a representative sample of 472 18-63 year-old black and white students before and after the election on a series of questions taken from the Graduate Record Exam, researchers found that whereas there was a significant gap in the number of questions students blacks and whites got right, after Obama’s election victory, when tested again, that gap had virtually disappeared.

Initially, whites on average got 12 of the 20 answers right while blacks answered only 8.5 correctly. When last tested the gap was “statistically nonsignificant.”

The questions chosen were designed to assess reading comprehension, the ability to handle analogies, and sentence completion. The tests took place at four distinct points over three months during the campaign: in the words of the researchers from Vanderbilt and San Diego State Universities, “two [times] when Obama’s success was less prominent (prior to his acceptance of the nomination and the mid-point between the convention and Election Day) and two [other times] when [he] garnered the most attention (immediately after his nomination speech and his win of the presidency in November).”

Again to quote, “The nationwide testing sample of 84 black Americans and 388 white Americans--a proportion equivalent to [their] representation in the overall population—[were] matched for age and education level. [The results] revealed that white participants scored higher than their black peers at the two points in the campaign where Obama’s achievements were least visible. However, during the height of the Obama media frenzy, the performance gap between black and white Americans was effectively eliminated.” In addition, the researchers noted that black Americans who did not watch Obama’s nomination acceptance speech continued to lag behind their white peers, while those who did view the speech successfully closed the gap.

To verify these remarkable and hopeful results more testing and analysis obviously needs to occur, but these data support what many on-the-ground public school educators have anecdotally been reporting since Obama rose to public prominence—that African-American youngsters, especially boys who lag even further behind than girls, are saying that they want to be like Obama and to do so means doing well in school.

It would be beyond the possible to conclude that the very fact of Obama’s becoming president would solve one of our most frustrating and daunting educational problems—the thus-far persistent achievement gap between blacks and whites—but these early indications of change, which in truth are as much cultural and psychological as they are academic, are very promising.

And make sense—if children feel that because of their color their chances for success have been limited, why even bother to aspire, why try to succeed if the odds are stacked against you. Of course many, including Barack Obama, refuse to count themselves out or limit their dreams; but sadly all evidence indicates that many do give up before even trying.

With Obama as a living example of what’s possible, it feels certain that this will go a long way to inspire young people so long as we also do all that we know needs to be done to meet and satisfy these rising expectations. This then desperately means making the appropriate national effort to improve the quality of our public educational system.

Friday, January 23, 2009

January 24, 2009--Gone Fishing

Actually, I'm going to buy fishing gear so I can stand in the surf up to my knees and do some surf casting. A lot of the folks around here do this at the end of the day and they look very happy even though they never seem to catch anything. They just let the ocean lap at them and squint into the setting sun. Looks kind of elemental. I too could use some of that.

So forgive me for not writing more today. Though maybe, if I get into this, I'll have some things to report.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: A Time for Prose

“Yesterday, I felt a little disappointed.” It was Wednesday, the day after Barack Obama was inaugurated, and my hundred year-old mother was calling to talk about how she thought it went.

She had been an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s from the day he announced he was running for the presidency and had to deal with the grief that was directed her way by the octogenarian and nonagenarian women, Hillary supporters all, who lived with her at Forest Trace, a retirement community in Lauderhill, Florida.

“How disappointed?” I asked, “I thought everything went well. It was a historic day and it seemed as if everyone was moved by the occasion and was wishing him well. Including most Republicans. I couldn’t stop myself from crying like a baby when he first appeared on the platform.”

“I felt the same way. I had a big box of Kleenex right next to the TV. I go back many, many years and I remember how much prejudice there was in this country. And I’m not talking just down here in the South. Up north too. Even in Brooklyn where we lived. You remember how they treated your colored friend, I mean your black friend Henry Cross?”

“Indeed I do remember that very well. It still breaks my heart whenever I think about it. And that’s my point—January 20th was a remarkable day for many reasons, mainly because someone from Barack Obama’s background could be elected here so few years after blacks and whites in many places weren’t even allowed to go to school together. So I can’t imagine why you felt any disappointment.”

“It was his speech I was disappointed in. He has delivered so many remarkable speeches beginning from back four years ago when he spoke at the Democratic convention. When he talked so eloquently about how there are no red states or blue states but just the United States of America. And then during the campaign when he spoke about race and how he could not disavow the Reverend Wright any more than he could his own white grandmother. You do remember those speeches, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. Like everyone else I was very moved by them.”

“Now you’re getting my point. How in the days leading up to the Inauguration on TV, in the Miami Herald, and with the girls here, all they and we talked about was how his speech would be as memorable as Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s and maybe even Lincoln’s.”

“You’re right. They were talking about it that way. Anticipating something as memorable and historic.” I was beginning to sense where she was going with this.

“And the ladies here were worried that he was setting the bar too high for himself. That’s the way they put it—talking about the bar—just like Wolf on CNN.”

“I agree. There was much of this kind of speculation. In fact, you and I talked about how in general maybe the greatest danger he faces now is that people have expectations for him that are unrealistic. That he alone can solve our problems . . .”

“. . . and quickly. Yes we talked about that last week. That is a real concern. But again, you’re distracting me from my point—my disappointment. With his speech.”

“Sorry, I . . . “

“Nothing to be sorry about. Just let me finish my thought. I’m an old lady and some times it takes me a while to get all my thoughts arranged.”

“I’m sorry . . .”

“Enough with the I’m-sorries. Just for a minute be patient with me.” I grunted into the phone to indicate I would. “You must admit that there are not that many things to quote from his speech. Nothing like, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ Did I say that right?”

“Close enough. And I agree, there wasn’t anything quite like that, though he said his own version of the same thing.”

“And so, yesterday I felt that though it was a good speech it wasn’t a great or a very moving speech. In that regard, it was not even one of his most powerful. What was moving was to see him there with his wonderful family. But the speech itself was not one of his best.”

“To tell you the truth, mom, I think the same thing. It felt a little ordinary. Not the ideas,” I quickly added since I knew she had more to say, “but the language.”

“Now you’re coming to understand what I’m trying to say to you.”

“Go ahead. I’m listening.”

“It is all about language. Just as you said. In his earlier speeches there was so much rich language. So much that felt like, I can’t put it any other way, like poetry. That’s what was missing on Tuesday—poetry.”

“But . . .”

“Again, please, I have a little more to say. I said to you that I felt disappointed yesterday—Inauguration day. But since I have come to respect him so much I assumed he knew that. That he knew his speech, which I understand he mainly wrote himself, was not poetic. So I wondered why he chose to write it that way. Why he made it sound more like prose than poetry. There must be a reason for that. I was so convinced of that that I didn’t sleep well Tuesday night—not that at my age I do very much sleeping—I kept tossing and turning because I wanted to see the newspaper which I assumed would have a copy of the entire speech. So I could read it and think more about it.

“Then today I got up early to get my copy of the Herald from the delivery boy. And I read the entire speech. Two times. It’s not that long. The more I read it the more I realized he had chosen the right kind of language for the ideas he offered to us and the rest of the world. The first part, don’t you agree, was a serious criticism of the previous generation—I think all the way back to 1980, not just the administration of George Bush. How not only the government but also corporations and all the rest of us had allowed what happened to happen. The economy was allowed to fail. The schools were allowed to fail. And the healthcare system. And too many families. I liked when he quoted from the Bible, even though it was from the New Testament, about how we have all been preoccupied with childish things. This was a very courageous thing to say, wasn’t it, to compare our behavior to children’s?

“And then he reminded us that we have experienced hard times before. I lived through many of them. Even worse ones than today. And how, he said, we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. That’s almost a direct quote from his speech. And how much more like prose can it be to describe the need to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off?”

“I too I must admit was struck by how ordinary that sounded.”

“That’s my whole point. How this is no longer the time for poetry. That time has passed. Earlier he inspired up with poetry but now it’s time for prose. We have to do exactly what he said—pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get to work. Not just him. Not just Congress. Not just Wall Street. But everyone. Including you and me.”

“You may be right, mom.”

“So think about what you can do.” She paused and I could hear her labored breathing.

“Are you OK?”

“I’m fine. Very fine.” I sensed she had something more to say and was gathering herself, “Yesterday,” she whispered, “was the proudest day of my life.” I could hear her raspy breathing.

“I’m too old to play much of a part but you must.”

“I will think about what I can do.”

“You must.”

“I promise that I will.”

And then, as she hung up, she added, “I’m so glad to still be alive.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21, 2009--Day After

I'm taking the day off to absorb all that happened. Back tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

January 20, 2009--Meanwhile, Back In Brooklyn . . .

Biologically, for six years I was an only child.

At the time, even what we now call the “working poor” could afford to have help in the house—a Cleaning Girl. My mother was no exception. It wasn’t that she was aspiring to being a fancy lady; it was more a practical necessity. She was an elementary school teacher and had a small child at home—me—who needed to be taken care of while she worked. Thus, because they were available and affordable, she hired help. Though there were a series of Cleaning Girls who came and went, none worked for her longer or more loyally than Bessie Cross.

Bessie was originally from South Carolina. Even I called her Bessie, while she addressed my mother as Miss Ray and me, I’m ashamed to admit, as Master Steven. Her parents had been the children of slaves and as a little girl she had worked in the cotton fields. My favorite stories were about her days as a field hand and how she picked cotton and filled up long, long bags, pulling them between the rows of cotton plants. And how when a bag was full, she emptied it into a big container and received a quarter. This seemed like all the money in the world to me and picking cotton sounded like something that would be fun to do. While a lot of my friends on East 56th Street thought being a firemen would be even better, sliding down the brass pole, riding in the truck with the sirens going full blast, I still hoped one day to be able to go to South Carolina with Bessie and pick cotton.

In retrospect, I now know that the look on Bessie’s face when I shared these aspirations with her was of caring understanding. She loved me too much to want me to know about slavery or sharecropping or picking cotton for a quarter a hundred-weight in a stifling hot field in August in South Carolina. She knew that time itself would fill in those gaps in my awareness. And when that happened, it among other things, would signal the end to my childhood.

Then one day her son Henry arrived. He had been living with his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer just a block or two away from our apartment. But they were getting old and infirm and could no longer care for him so my parents offered to have him move in with us, sleeping on a small bed set up beside mine. He was two years older than I and knew so much more about the world, and most important was willing to share some of it with me. I was happy to think about him as a wiser older brother.

My parents took special pleasure from the reaction of others when we would, on rare occasions, eat out. When someone at a nearby table would stare more than was acceptable, even during those less tolerant times, my father would say, in a voice that filled the room, “This is Steven, my white son. And this is Henry, my black son.” That would quiet the place in an instant and allow us to eat in peace our Chicken Chow Mein, Pork Fried Rice, and Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. These were the only times I ever saw Henry smile. His life had made him very, very serious. As it would mine.

Since there was no TV or other such distractions we spent most of our time in the street. And because we didn’t have very much, street games required pretty much what we had—nothing. Just a broom handle for Stickball (the sewers in the street or the rear wheels of cars served as home plate and the bases). A Spaldeen was enough to get a day-long Punch Ball game going and Johnny On The Pony required even less, just a wall to lean on and a fat kid, always Stanley Futoran, to serve as The Pillow, to cushion us as we came crashing down in a pile on top of each other. A used rubber shoe heel was a piece of equipment, all we needed to play, what else, Heels. And if we managed to find some marbles, we would dig a small hole in the dirt for the shim and could spend hours then playing Pot.

We were very inventive little creatures. In school we learned that Ben Franklin said that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I suppose we were being trained to be entrepreneurs, or just poor.

In the street games that required real skill, Henry was an asset and highly sought after. As we choose up sides, he was always the first to be selected. Especially for Punch or Stick Ball. Henry, when he connected, could punch a ball nearly two sewers. My specialty, in contrast, was slapping sharp, less than half-sewer grounders that when well executed eluded the fielders. This made us a good team, these complementary abilities, and a winning side usually included both of us.

After a three-hour series of Punch Ball games all of us, sweaty as we were, would gather on the stoop of one of our families’ houses and the mothers would bring out quarts of cold milk and home baked cookies (or, to me, just as good, Lorna Doones). Or, if we were really lucky, there would be ice cold bottles of Coca Cola and glasses of black cherry soda made fresh on the spot from thick pourings of Hoffman’s Syrup and Seltzer water squirted from a siphoned bottle. Pretty dreamy days, particularly if a soon-to-be pubescent sister would join us.

These days and years rolled into one long memory. We were all growing fast. Very fast—another of America’s promises was that the sons and daughters would turn out to be much, much taller than their immigrant parents; and mostly all of us were fulfilling that dream. A few, Heshy Perlmutter, especially, were not only growing taller by the hour but were even sprouting hair in unmentionable places and earning exotic street names such as, in his case, Big Dick.

By then I had a younger brother and that meant there was no room any longer in our cramped apartment for Henry and that he needed to live with Bessie. Which he did. But he visited regularly and stayed overnight frequently, particularly if East 56th Street was scheduled to engage in an inter-block Stickball competition on the weekend. Henry was our only hope of victory and thus was welcomed and secreted onto our team as a Ringer.

And while staying with us, in addition to the Stickball, he and I would visit his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer, now quite ancient. In fact, they looked as old to me as those Armenians who were frequently being pictured in National Geographic as the earth’s oldest living humans. They could have given them a run for their money, though they, I am sure, never ate any yogurt. In fact, I don’t think they ever ate much more than some rice wet with giblet gravy.

Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer lived in the basement bowels of the one apartment house in the neighborhood, among the coal bins and hot water boilers. The "walls" of their “rooms” were made from the cardboard sides of discarded refrigerator cartons hung on clothes lines strung between the basement columns. In trade for not having to pay rent (it was hard to imagine anyone paying rent for where they lived), they were required to haul up to the street the huge steel ash cans of cinders that were the residue from the building’s coal-fired burners. A job well beyond their capabilities, and thus Henry, with me as his assistant, did that for them. In turn, in what I now understand to be southern black dialect, they would tell stories of their life in rural South Carolina 50 years earlier. Stories that began to make picking cotton sound to me like anything but fun. Thus, as my neighborhood friends, I too began to think about becoming a fireman.

Those afternoons with Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer were among the happiest of my life. It is not just a gauzy memory of a simpler reality when I was much younger and full of hope and optimism, when anything felt possible and my body always did what I wanted it to. They were amazing, generous, and loving. Wise with years. And in spite of what they had seen and experienced, they were free from anger and bitterness. Thus, they became my aunt and uncle as much as Henry had become my parents’ son.

One Saturday, we managed to eek out a late-inning victory in the Stickball game with the hated team of Italians from around the corner. With Henry driving in the winning run with a two-and-a-half-sewer blast. We had never beaten them before so we were in the mood to celebrate back on East 56th Street.

It was a hot day and we looked forward to cooling off at Melvin Shapiro’s house. With arms around each other we returned to our street in triumph, receiving the cheers and congratulations of our families who were sitting out on their stoops seeking to catch a cooling breeze.

Melvin went ahead to make sure everything was ready for us. The milk. The icy sodas. The cookies. But before we got there he came running back and pulled me aside. He needed to tell me something.

His parents said though it was OK for me to come over, because his 16 year old sister was at home, Henry wouldn't be allowed to join us. I thought I misunderstood; but when he repeated what he had been instructed to say, I then understood. And so did Henry.

I did not need to tell him. Without a glance, he turned and left.

* * *

Though I thought often about Henry and attempted to find him—Bessie had moved back to South Carolina—as the months and years passed, I got distracted by school and friends and plans; and in truth he drifted away from these thoughts and even from my memories. Then one day about ten years later, it was right before Mothers Day, I was in another part of Brooklyn and stopped at a Barton’s Candy shop to buy some chocolates. Behind the counter was a Negro man. When he looked up and we recognized each other, before I could even say "Henry," he disappeared into the back and, though I lingered, did not return.

That was my last ever glimpse of him.

Monday, January 19, 2009

January 19, 2009--Tomorrow

I am writing this from 30,000 feet. In a jet heading south to Florida from New York. Much as I did the first time I flew, more than 50 years ago. To visit my Aunt Fannie and Uncle Harry who had moved there six months earlier to seek new opportunities. Harry had never been successful in New York and had heard there would be many in the rapidly-developing Land of Sunshine.

His dream never materialized and he wound up partners and working with a distant cousin in a broken-down gas station in what is now known as South Beach, where he had to stand on his feet all day in the blazing sun until he was mercifully carried away permanently by a heart attack that was undoubtedly the product of his smoking three packs of Camels a day.

But he and Fannie showed me a good time during my stay. I marveled at the tropical splendor, having left New York in a blizzard, and all the glimmer and glitz of the chain of neo-Deco hotels that stretched along the translucent Atlantic, all the way up to what seemed to me a wonder of the world, the most-recently-opened sinuous Fountainebleau.

Quickly, though, even to my innocent eyes, another picture of the South began to emerge from out of the shimmer of the man-made and natural beauty. In fact, my first hint that something else was going on, something sinister, was the very evening when we visited—actually drove by--the fabled Fountainebleau.

As the sun was setting, lined up at a bus stop opposite this pleasure palace, was a crowd of Negro women. No men. No whites. Just a huddle of Negro women. Curious and puzzled, sitting in the front seat next to Harry, I asked, “Who are they?”

“I think they work at the hotel.” He gestured at the Marseilles, which glinted in the setting sun. “Probably as chamber maids. They need a lot of them.”

His matter-of-factness, not hinting that anything was out of the ordinary, did not quell my curiosity and so I asked, “Did you see that everyone there is a Negro?”

He didn’t answer, which I attributed to the fact that he was driving in heavy traffic and, in spite of what he did for a living, was uncertain behind the wheel.

But as we passed the next hotel I noticed the same thing—a long line of black women at the bus stop. Without the need to ask again, seeing that I had turned to Harry and was beginning to form another question, Fannie, from the back seat, leaned forward and with her hand on my shoulder, with a hint of sadness, said, “Darling, that’s the way it is here.”


“In Florida. In the South.” Thinking she had said enough she became quiet but continued to sit leaning forward with her hand still gently touching me.

“I don’t think I understand,” I couldn’t take my eyes off the women as the car had stopped at a light, “What do you mean ‘that’s the way it is here’?”

Almost in a whisper, as if in the hope I wouldn’t hear, Aunt Fannie said, “Colored people aren’t allowed to remain on Miami Beach after dark.”

Thinking that would be enough for me to understand, or not wanting to be required to say more, she sat there looking at me. I could see tears beginning to well in her eyes.

Though I was beginning to understand I needed to hear more. I needed to have her, an adult, explain and take responsibility for what I inevitably knew was going to be the meaning of what I was witnessing.

Still she peered beseechingly at me as if that alone would suffice as an explanation. But I wouldn’t accept that, and so again I asked, “Why? Please, tell me. I need to know. I need to hear.” I too by then was on the verge of tears.

“You’re still just a child. You don’t yet need to know these kind of things.”

I glanced over at Harry who was crouched over the steering wheel and seemed to be concentrating even more on his driving.

“But I do. Why do they have to leave?”

“Because Miami Beach is an island, a barrier island—you know what that is.” I nodded. “And people don’t want them here at night. They don’t trust them to be here when it gets dark.”


“White people.”

“What are they afraid of? Of these ladies who work in the hotels? What harm could they possibly do?”

“I don’t know. Up north we didn’t think this way.”

“But down here it’s different,” Harry said without taking his eyes off the road. I could see him gripping and regripping the steering wheel. I looked over at him hoping he would say more. With that Fannie slumped back in her seat.

It by then was getting quite dark and I could see the women at the bus stops anxiously peering up Collins Avenue. “What will happen to them if the bus doesn’t come before dark?”

Harry remained silent and then said, “Trouble.” He paused, “Big trouble.”

“But it wouldn’t be their fault.”

“Doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t be here.”

I wondered who he was speaking for—he after all was a just a relocated New Yorker, not a southerner. Though from the frustrations of his life he was an angry and often fearsome man, I took the chance to press him. “You also think they shouldn’t be here?”

Fanny leaned forward again and said, “Leave him be, Harry, he’s only a boy.”

“He’s old enough to know,” Harry growled.

I agreed. I wanted to hear what he had to say. “They need to know their place. It’s not like up north where people live a different way.” He had been in Florida for only a little more than a year. “They have to respect the way of life here. There’s no point in being uppity. That only upsets things. Makes trouble for all concerned.”

I was shivering with fear but still managed to ask, “Trouble for who? I’m not understanding.” I did but wanted to make him as uncomfortable as possible by not letting what he said suffice or seem acceptable to me.

“When you get back home,” he snapped, “in one of your history classes, see what they say about the old days. And I’m talking about the time after the Civil War. How people down here lived in harmony. No one was upset about the kinds of things you’re asking about. They just got along. The coloreds knew their place and were content. They got taken care of and not bothered so long as they did their work and stayed where they belonged.” He looked over at me, “What was so wrong with that? Where’s the need to stir things up? If you ask me I say, leave well-enough alone.”

The light changed and he returned to his fitful driving. A bus finally pulled up and the women pushed to get on. “It doesn’t look all that well to me,” I muttered, as if to myself.

Harry then said, squinting straight ahead, also as if he were speaking into a void, “Trust me, it never will be different,”

The days that remained passed quickly; and during that time while Fannie, who did not have children of her own, clutched at me more than usual, Harry and I did not exchange another word except for morning and after work pleasantries. And I never again visited while he was alive.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15, 2009--Adele Middleberg, RIP

I’m not inclined, nor was Adele, to get religious or biblical at these ultimate times; but her life, especially the last three decades, presented a challenge to all of us who loved her to understand the meaning of all that befell her.

How could such a truly good person have so many punishing things happen to her? Rona and I, and all who loved her, spent many days trying to understand. To make some sense of it. To make sense of what seemed so senseless.

We looked for examples of equivalent unfairness to help us understand. Compared with Adele, those that we remembered from our own experience were sudden reversals of fortune or where the suffering was of relatively short duration. And so from these examples we were able to learn very little that was helpful.

But one day, while walking on the beach, which is a good place to think about daunting things, Rona suggested that the only equivalent she could think of was the relentless suffering of Job. That her mother’s life had tragically become like his—an endless series of afflictions and sufferings that took away more and more of her life.

With this insight, as her family and friends and caretakers struggled to help her endure and bring her some measure of comfort, we also have been trying, again as from Job, to find, if there are any significant meanings.

All three religions of the Book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—also have struggled to understand Job’s plight, asking, in their own ways, how the same God they all believe in, who is supposed to be benevolent to those he created in his own image, who is supposed to reward and not punish good men and women, how could he so willfully bring such misery to such a good man.

As is characteristic of these ancient religions their struggle is mainly to understand the nature of God. Not so much the nature of man, in this case Job, who was the sufferer.

But with Adele, with Rona’s insight, we thought not about God but about Adele; and came to conclude that from the noble way in which she dealt with her endless series of afflictions we could extract many lessons. But more important, in this way, we could, we would come to respect and honor and love her even more.

It was her dignity that was even more endless than her illnesses. And the uncomplaining nature of her struggle to get through every day as less and less of her capacity to live independently and care for herself was taken from her.

This was all the more impressive since throughout, until literally her last day, she, as she would put it, “had her mind.” She was not even granted the release of unawareness or oblivion. Not that she ever wanted it.

She took it all on directly with a touch of stubbornness, contrariness, spunk (I love spunk), tenacity, and mainly humor. Humor often with an ironic, even a sarcastic edge, which is the closest expression of anger that she would allow.

It was perhaps that humor which most sustained her. All her life she loved a good joke (in recent weeks she and I were exchanging daily jokes—mainly doctor jokes--some raunchy) and interestingly as her decline accelerated these jokes, her ironic laughter increased.

It was ultimately, I think, that irony that gave away her secret—as she, with a hint of irony, would, with a shrug, frequently ask, “What are you going to do?”

It was a question that contained its own answer, which was-- “Nothing.” But not a “nothing” full of despair. Rather a “nothing” that meant, “What are you going to do?” Answer, “Just live.”

Whatever that means and with whatever the cards dealt to you. And though during these decades she had seemingly unplayable cards, she kept playing them to the end.

You all know that for years her favorite song was the one she wrote for herself—“I Want to be Young Again.” Well, we know how in life that always works out. But maybe she had the last laugh. We always thought she was hoping for restored health and beauty—that’s what she thought being young was about. And we knew that was not to be for her or, for that matter, for any of us.

But now, maybe as another bit of meaning derived from her life, perhaps, if there is a place beyond life, she got it right. She at last found a way to achieve that dream and a place to realize that hope--the one place where she will be young again. Forever young in all its meanings.

It is her final miracle.

And in this spirit of what one might ultimately achieve, Adele achieved one more thing that she for certain now is able to smile about.

She would probably spunkally say that the best thing about what just happened is that on this coming April 30th she can now avoid having to “celebrate” the 45th anniversary of her 35th birthday. She would have hated that.

So there are all sorts of consolations even at this sad time

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January 14, 2009--Back Monday

Today is my mother-in-law's funeral. She at long last is at peace.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13, 2009--Adele

My mother-in-law died. She was a great woman and finally at peace.

I will resume in a few days.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 12, 2009--Shabbos in Gaza

From the front page of the New York Times, January 9, 2009, reported by Taghreed El-Khodary:

GAZA CITY — The emergency room in Shifa Hospital is often a place of gore and despair. On Thursday, it was also a lesson in the way ordinary people are squeezed between suicidal fighters and a military behemoth.

Dr. Awni al-Jaru, 37, a surgeon at the hospital, rushed in from his home here, dressed in his scrubs. But he came not to work.
His head was bleeding, and his daughter’s jaw was broken.

He said Hamas militants next to his apartment building had fired mortar and rocket rounds. Israel fired back with force, and his apartment was hit. His wife, Albina, originally from Ukraine, and his 1-year-old son were killed.

“My son has been turned into pieces,” he cried. “My wife was cut in half. I had to leave her body at home.” Because Albina was a foreigner, she could have left Gaza with her children. But, Dr. Jaru lamented, she would not leave him behind.

A car arrived with more patients. One was a 21-year-old man with shrapnel in his left leg who demanded quick treatment. He turned out to be a militant with Islamic Jihad. He was smiling a big smile.

“Hurry, I must get back so I can keep fighting,” he told the doctors.

He was told that there were more serious cases than his, that he needed to wait. But he insisted. “We are fighting the Israelis,” he said. “When we fire we run, but they hit back so fast. We run into the houses to get away.” He continued smiling.

“Why are you so happy?” this reporter asked. “Look around you.”

A girl who looked about 18 screamed as a surgeon removed shrapnel from her leg. An elderly man was soaked in blood. A baby a few weeks old and slightly wounded looked around helplessly. A man lay with parts of his brain coming out. His family wailed at his side.

“Don’t you see that these people are hurting?” the militant was asked.

“But I am from the people, too,” he said, his smile incandescent. “They lost their loved ones as martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.”

In Yiddish they call this a shonda.

Friday, January 09, 2009

January 9, 2009--Self-Sabotage

It’s bad enough out there, what with the economy in the tank and not enough time to complete everything on your to-do list, that the last thing that’s helpful is to make excuses for yourself.

To be more honest, I should be saying “we” instead of “you” since I at times am prone to shooting myself in the foot.

Perhaps, though, there is some consolation in knowing that this is an actual human psychological phenomenon called “self-handicapping” and not just simple laziness or excuse making.

Psychologists have been studying this sort of behavior since at least 1978, when Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones used the phrase to describe students in a study who chose to take a drug (actually a placebo) even though they were told it would negatively affect their performance on an exam. (See linked New York Times article.)

Cynics might say, “Well, what else would you expect—that was in 1978 and everyone in college at the time was eager to smoke or snort anything that was passed along to them.” I certainly was.

Perhaps true, but subsequent studies have confirmed that this kind of handicapping is quite pervasive and can take many self-defeating forms. The good news is that if we can catch ourselves doing it and figure out why we lower expectations for ourselves we have a good chance of reducing its erosive power.

Since most research psychologists work at universities many of the studies about this kind of subtle excuse-making concern student behavior. In one study in which students were offered an opportunity to practice before taking an intelligence test, after scoring the tests (actually the experimenters randomly manipulated the scores), those who did “badly” and didn’t practice claimed it was because they failed to do so and thereby cushioned the blow to their self-confidence.

But there are others who point to the same kind of behavior from the world of work. One found that workers who tend to be self-handicapping often find colleagues to serve as apologists for them. So, for example, they arrange to get themselves typecast—as, say, a whiner or complainer. By doing so they set up a surrogate to lower expectations for them. “What can you expect of Charlie. He’s always unhappy. That’s just the way he is.” Neat!

In my on case, years ago when I was imagining myself or aspiring to be a writer, one of my college professors—the esteemed critic and author Lionel Trilling—wrote a note on one of my papers in which he said (and I can still quote him word-for-word), “Well written. Come see me so we can talk about your writing.”

I never took him up on his offer even though it was of great significance—imperially, he rarely saw students in his office—saying to myself he probably was just being nice while, in truth and more to the point, I didn’t push myself to see him because if I didn’t I would have a lifetime explanation, really an excuse, as to why I hadn’t become a successful writer.

If I had seen him and shown him more of my work, how would I have handled his perhaps not liking it? By sabotaging myself in advance, I never had to deal with that possibility. And, of course, I denied myself the other possibility—that he would genuinely like my writing and help me get launched!

We all know people who have not had successful careers and who have a ready array of explanations for it—I didn’t have this-or-that degree, I didn’t go to the right college, I have been the victim of various forms of discrimination, they prefer to hire younger people who cost them less, no one ever gives serious consideration to my ideas.

Of course, in some, even many circumstances this can be true. But, in others, the person offering these self-generated justifications for why they’ve been unappreciated, didn’t advance, or were underpaid, in advance, sheltered themselves from disappointment or failure, claiming to themselves that their ideas wouldn’t be welcome (and therefore chose not to offer them) or didn’t make the case that their lack of an MBA is more than offset by the quality of their work (while opting not to purse that MBA) rather than doing the things in their control to give themselves the best chances to succeed. In fact, they often did the opposite by preemptively applying limits to their own possibilities.

Essential to overcoming this inclination to self-sabotage is the need to be honest with ourselves. To do the hard work to catch ourselves when we are in the midst of doing things that impede us and, when we do, struggle to halt that self-handicapping algorithm. And, of course, take the risk—and it is one—to try a different approach that admittedly makes us more vulnerable.

The failure to make this effort will mean that too many of us will remain our own victims and never come to understand that this self-sabotage is mostly about protecting our egos—our most fragile yet defining of human quality.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

January 8, 2009--Back Tomorrow

With thoughts about "Self-Sacrifice." Should be a bit depressing but also perhaps helpful.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

January 7, 2009--Snowbirding: Salad Days

The other day I said to Rona that we should remember to pick up the local paper at least once a week. Not just for the news and movie times but also—perhaps primarily—for the coupons.

The ones that offer five dollars off any full dinner at Lucille’s Back-to-the-Bone Barbeque or forty cents off on three boxes of Kleenex tissues.

What is it that happens to us every time we are south of Georgia? Something not related to the current economic downturn that makes even financially secure people pay more attention to their spending?

It seems to be as much in the Florida air as the scent of oleander.

We are drawn beyond normal volition to having dinner at 6:00 or 6:30 rather than 7:30 or 8:00 as when in New York; we find ourselves taking long naps in the afternoon even after a good and full night’s sleep; we notice what kind of cars people are driving even though in the city we do not own one and are oblivious to what’s on the road; and we haunt the malls and super markets whereas when in New York it’s hard to get us to subway up to Bloomingdales even when things are on sale.

So yesterday, as the day before, we found ourselves prowling the aisles in Publix with a fist full of discount coupons.

There was nothing much on our shopping list—a few lemons, a replenishment supply of avocados, and some Pellegrino. We were there, to tell the truth, hunting and gathering anything we could find that was fifty-cents-off or two-for-one. Even things we didn’t remotely need much less want.

Like, for example, commercial salad dressing. Which we never use. In fact, I am disdainful whenever Rona mentions that there was this Wish-Bone low-fat French dressing we found in the refrigerator here last winter. It was delicious, she recalls, and even low fat.

“Why do we want that,” I would say, “I make my own salad dressings. You know I pride myself in that. I would never allow any bottled stuff in the house.”

“But I liked it,” Rona would say weakly.

To which, all puffed up, I would reply, “I can make you my own version of French dressing, not that I believe there is such a thing in French cuisine as French dressing; and when you taste it you will see the difference between it—the real thing (again if there is a real thing)—and this Four Seasons stuff.”

“It’s Wish-Bone,” Rona would say even more weakly.

We were having a version of this conversation as we, by chance, were pushing our shopping cart—one big enough to hold at least two hundred dollars worth of groceries—down the aisle where ten yards of salad dressings are shelved.

With her eyes welling Rona looked up at me and pleadingly said, “Can we at least look?”

Since I think of myself as being flexible minded, even when it comes to salad dressings, I magnanimously said, “Sure,” and tugged on the hulking cart to arrest its forward motion. “Take your time, when we’re down here we have nothing but time.”

And as she begin to work her way through the hundreds of brands and types, reading the labels carefully to see how much saturated fat each contained, I busied myself thinking about how I would go about making her some homemade French dressing. Needless to say I never had, being a vinaigrette man. At the risk of sounding immodest I cannot help but mention that I am famous for the dozens of versions I concoct without ever following a recipe.

“Look, look at this one,” Rona excitedly said, interrupting my concentration. “Wish-Bone makes this Honey Dijon dressing that’s only 50 calories per serving. And it has no saturated fat.” She was smiling up at me while extending a bottle of it toward me with an outstretched arm. “It might be worth trying. We are attempting to cut back on fat.”

I didn’t respond and, knowing how prickly I can be whenever any one interferes with my culinary plans, Rona slipped the bottle back onto the shelf and I returned to thinking about how I might create a French dressing. It is tomato-based, isn’t it, I thought. I wonder if I could make something special if I used fresh ones, which I can get vine-ripened in Florida even in January, rather than using tomato paste . . . .

“What about this one?” She held up another bottle of Wish-Bone for my consideration. “I know you don’t believe there’s such a thing as French dressing but this version is also light and look at the list of ingredients. It not only contains tomato paste, of course, but also soybean oil—which is healthy—pimento, brown sugar, Worcestershire, and paprika. I know you like to use paprika some times.”

Again I said nothing, thinking that yes, maybe it is a good idea to use a pinch of paprika in my version. And I was pleased to note that I had already, on my own, thought to add a splash of Worcestershire. My dressing was already turning out, as I thought about it, to be interesting. Perhaps tasty. Maybe even worth repeating for company.

Still lost in thought, still in the Wish-Bone area, this time more insistently in order to interrupt my concentration, Rona was waving in front of me a plastic bottle shaped more like ones found among kitchen cleaners. A spritzer bottle. “What’s that?” I said, unable to conceal my annoyance. I had just about completed my recipe. “Surely not another salad dressing.”

“In fact, yes. And maybe one you’ll approve of.” There was an edge to her voice. She was clearly getting fed up with me. I wisely choose not to respond. “And maybe one that you’ll even like. You do approve of ranch dressing don’t you?”

I actually did. It is very American. Very authentic. That is, when made properly from fresh ingredients. Which I sometimes do when we’re in the country. Always remembering to use buttermilk just as they did back in the 1950s where it was first made at the Hidden Valley Ranch out in Santa Barbara. It seems appropriate to whip up a small batch when we’re, say, in the west, which always seems like a nice gesture. And I do very much like how it tastes, saturated fat aside.

“That spritzer bottle can’t—can it—contain salad dressing? It looks as if it should hold oven cleaner or hairspray.”

“Take a closer look, won’t you.” She was now waving the bottle in my face. “That is if you can come down off your high culinary horse.”

Realizing that I was in trouble I took it from her. And sure enough it was ranch dressing in a spritzer bottle—the label described it thus. “Only 2 Calories per Spray” it also proclaimed. Though when I examined the list of ingredients I saw that it did not contain even powdered buttermilk (assuming there is such a thing), though sour cream and lactic acid were listed, which I assumed, in combination, would substitute for the real thing. And, I also made note, there was zero percent saturated fat.

“I think it’s worth trying. Don’t you? We are attempting to lose a little weight. The beach walking is fine and the Pilates even more important, but it wouldn’t hurt to cut back even more on calories. And this is only, what, a few calories per spritz.”

“Actually, two per spray.”

“So what do you say? It won’t kill you, you know. In fact it might do you some good. You’ve been saying you’d like to take off five pounds while we’re down here.”

Rona was right about that. In fact, while she was reminding me of the fact that I was having difficulty shedding that weight, I found myself looking more closely at the remarkable array of prepared salad dressings. And to be sure remarkable it was—evidence of American inventiveness, I thought. In that light, I couldn’t help but notice the number of brands and types that ranged from many varieties of Italian and Russian and Thousand Island to multiple variations of my own favorite--Ranch.

If we as a people are capable of coming up with such an array of these, I wondered, why should there be such a problem fixing our auto industry? If we applied the same amount of inventiveness to designing cars we obviously did to developing variations of Creamy Italian salad dressing, America would again become the world’s automotive leader.

I should probably write about this to Barack Obama, I thought, while perusing the fat- and sugar-free brands.

Lost again in my thoughts, I was brought up short by a series of stick-on signs back along the shelves that displayed those hundreds of bottles of Wish-Bone dressing.

“Buy One Get One Free” they promised. Involuntarily I found myself saying to Rona, “Did you see that? It says that if you by one you get one free.”

“Yes, of course I saw that. When I was looking for the French dressing I like so much. If you would only open your eyes . . .”

Again, I wasn’t paying attention. “Did you see this one?” Now I was holding a bottle of House Italian in front of her. “And this one?” It was Wish-Bone Thousand island Light. “And did you know they also make Tuscan Romano Basil and Caesar Delight?” I had two bottles in my hands and was waving them at Rona. “I know how much you like Caesar salad. They even have a light version. Maybe we should get this one.”

Rona was finally smiling at me since she saw me working my way toward the vinaigrettes: Balsamic Italian Vinaigrette, Raspberry Hazelnut Vinaigrette, and a vinaigrette made with genuine olive oil!

And she saw me loading the still-empty shopping cart with six bottles of Wish-Bone, including the Spritzer Ranch, knowing I was thinking more about the buy-one-get-one-free sale than the fact that at our rate of consumption those six bottles—consumed spray-by-spray—would last us at least three years. And she knew it was unlikely that we would take them back with us to New York at the end of April. We would never be able to get them though airport security—especially the ones in the spritzer bottles.

We did push on, adding three boxes of Kleenex Lotion Facial Tissue to our cart (40 cents off) and two containers of Philadelphia Soft Cream Cheese (also 50 cents off) and a bottle of Motrin (a dollar off) and a 16 ounce bottle of Soft Scrub (75 cents off) and a half dozen containers of Yoplait yogurt (50 cents off) and a 50 foot roll of Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty aluminum foil (a dollar off) and two containers of Häagen Daz Extra Rich light Dutch Chocolate ice cream (like the Wish-Bone two-for-the-price–of-one) and two boxes of LU Le Chocolatier cookies (35 percent saturated fat but 40 cents off each if you buy two boxes).

Oh well, the diet will have to wait.

With our cart still less than a quarter full, we threaded our way to the checkout counter where the women scanning each item looked to be about 80 years old—perhaps doing this to keep active, perhaps for the extra money as her retirement income, like for many, has shrunk. We were regulars at her station and she greeted us with a genuine smile. I went down to the end of the counter to bag our purchases.

As she began to tally them, her smile broadened. She saw quickly what we had been up to—everything, literally everything we had in our cart was in one way or another discounted. In our bargain hunting frenzy we had long forgotten the lemons and avocados we had originally come to get.

And when she was done and we were ready to leave she showed us how on the printout that not only was each item listed but also the amount saved--$2.49 each for the “free” bottles of Wish-Bone; 40 cents for the Kleenex, a dollar for the Motrin and another for the aluminum foil . . . and that at the bottom of the itemized list was how much we owed—about $35—as well as, much more important, how much we had saved—yesterday alone that amounted to more than $20.

Noticing how pleased we were, she added, “Isn’t it wonderful? But then again,” with a wink, rhetorically asked, “how can you afford to save so much money?”

We heard her laughing as we pushed the shopping cart toward the parking lot.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

January 6, 2009--Citizen Caroline

Our nation’s founders did not envision that we would be governed by a class of career politicians. In fact, they warned against it.

The constitution they fashioned was laced, they thought, with enough checks and balances so that emerging America could avoid slipping into an oligarchy or be dominated by a permanent aristocracy. They took various steps to insure that the new country would not come to replicate the fate of the tired and corrupt European societies they had fled and abhorred.

In place of career politicians they thought they were creating a government that would be made up of citizens who would take a leave from their jobs and lives, ''lend'' their experience to the business of governing, and then return to private life. George Washington foremost, but among many others, exemplified this kind of citizenship.

The system they created was certainly far from open and democratic—most Americans were not able to vote or participate directly in governing. Left out glaringly were non-land-owners, women, and of course slaves.

But still they saw and cautioned against the dangers of a professional class of political leaders. If this were to be allowed, they worried, it would spawn a culture of access, influence, self-interest, and corruption.

On full display as recently as yesterday was how far we have drifted from this ideal.

Two or three cases in point:

In a surprise move, President-Elect Obama nominated Leon Panetta to serve as director of the CIA, the agency that caved in to the Bush administration when if came to assessing the likelihood that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and then later, during the war, took the lead in torturing enemy combatants. Perhaps to bring a fresh approach to cleaning up the CIA and ultimately restoring its standing and morale, Obama selected someone from outside the agency who has a strong track record of leadership and administrative experience.

Seemingly surprisingly his appointment was immediately resisted by the two leading Democratic senators who provide congressional oversight of the CIA—Jay Rockefeller and Dianne Feinstein.

These two senators who for years sat on their hands as enablers while the Bush administration perpetrated what many feel were war crimes (using torture on prisoners of war is a crime), in their statements of resistance to the Panetta appointment said less about his lack of intelligence experience than, with royal egos on full display, about how upset and offended they were that they only learned about Obama’s intentions from an article in the New York Times. (Linked below.)

And when Obama, showing better courtesy, went to Capital Hill yesterday to meet with Senate and House leaders about his economic stimulus plans, anyone versed in reading body language could see written all over her how upset Nancy Pelosi was to have to share the Democratic spotlight with her party’s new leader.

Her frozen smile said it all—Here I was the country’s leading Democrat, always turned to by the media as the spokesperson for the opposition party—the clear counterforce to George Bush (and by the way enjoying every minute of the attention)—and now along comes this very junior senator who the public loves and who will get all the adulation . . . .

And then, in contrast, we have the opposition to the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. There is a chorus of hypocritical voices from other pretenders to that assignment. We paid our dues, members of New York’s congressional delegation are saying, by serving term after term in the House of Representative and thus are entitled to be considered. What experience does she have that comparably prepares her for this high office? This smacks of royalty, they complain, and is not what our founders intended.

There is some point to that—the inherited benefit she has of being JFK’s daughter—but they are blinded by the facts of their own politician lives to the larger civic truth: that they are more royal than she.

She, better than they, fits the founders’ concept of the citizen-politician. At this point in her life, after raising a family, writing books on constitutional law, and serving on various philanthropic and non-governmental boards, she is seeking to lend her service to her country. This does not guarantee that she will be an effective senator, but isn’t it just what Jefferson intended?

Monday, January 05, 2009

January 5, 2009--Parents Guide For “Rachel Getting Married”

Here’s what parents need not be guided about when thinking about taking their children to see this powerful film about a dysfunctional family struggling to deal with a tragedy that clouds its past and affects its present. Issues that arrive front and center during the days leading up to Rachel’s wedding which are triggered by the arrival, after nine months in rehab, of her sister Kym who, through those days, pushes everyone to confront the truth of their collective past.

As with all movies, “Rachel” needed to be submitted to the ratings folks at the Motion Picture Association of America; and, in addition to its R rating, by them, was summarized in obsessive detail, offensive category by offensive category, so parents would know in advance what their children would be in for.

Here in the MPAA’s unique, virtually illiterate, and reductionist style is what they found in the film—a very different film than any of the rest of us experienced:

Sex & Nudity

There is one very brief sex scene between Kym and the best man. It takes place in a dark room in silhouette form, with no visible nudity, and only lasts for several seconds. There is a reference to pedophilia, although it is proved to be false. Kym takes a bath, though most of her breasts remained covered. Skimpy dancers wear nothing more than bikini-type outfits, while suggestively dancing.

Violence & Gore

Kym and her mother briefly exchange blows, but we are only able to make out a small trickle of blood from Kym's nose. Shortly after that, Kym drives off the road and rams her car against a rock, receiving a bruised and swollen eye from the collision.


Some salty language, most of them being f-words. The s-word is used a couple times, along with the a-word and the d-word. The f-word, however, is used about fifteen times, mostly used during verbal fights with family members.


Kym is constantly smoking on a cigarette. She also attends "12-Step" meetings for rehab, and we hear about her drug addiction history. There is constant talk of her previous drug and alcohol addiction, though it is noted that she has been sober for 9 months. Many wedding guests also drink wine both at the rehearsal dinner and at the reception.

Frightening/Intense Scenes

Many verbal fights (and in one scene, physical) with family members, which could disturb younger viewers. There is much screaming, yelling and slamming doors.

What have we come to that we need to hire people to watch movies so they can count the number of times the “f-word” is used (was it actually only 15?); how loudly a door might be slammed; or if, while Anne Hathaway is taking a bath, one of her nipples slips into view?

A more appropriate warning to parents might be to watch this film in order to learn that they should love their children unconditionally, especially when tragedy strikes. Concern about “salty language” will take care of itself.

Friday, January 02, 2009

January 2, 2009--Mulligan Nation

To tell you the truth I didn’t much like the look of Barack Obama tooling around the golf course during his Hawaiian vacation. It reminded me more than I am comfortable with of George Bush and Bill Clinton who, during their presidencies, were frequently spotted kicking back while racing about in motorized golf carts with fat stogies stuffed in their mouths. Good-ol’-boy style.

I have been really liking the idea that pick-up basketball is Obama’s sport. It fits him better and is more in tune with both the times and the culture that I am hoping he will both reflect and contribute to changing.

Now here he is revealed as just another duffer president. This will make him the 15th of the last 18 presidents to hack their way around the links.

But at least it doesn’t appear that he is into Commander-in-Chief mulligans.

For the uninitiated these are do-overs. If you flub your tee shot, for example, hooking the ball into the pond, if you are granted a mulligan you get to take another shot without any penalty. In real golf, if you whack your ball into the water and hit a second tee shot, if you’re keeping score legitimately, when you hit that second drive it will count as your third shot—the first was the ball that plopped into the drink, the second is a penalty stroke assessed against you, and thus the second drive counts as your third shot.

Bill Clinton, what a surprise, was as famous for granting himself mulligans (it’s supposed to be your opponent, as a good sport, who does so) as he was for granting pardons.

As the quintessential baby boomer he wanted everything both ways—to have what he self-indulgently wanted without taking responsibility for his behavior if it was transgressive. Mulligans on the golf course; Monica Lewinsky in the oval office.

So there is some mitigation regarding Barack Obama’s golfing when, we learn, as the New York Times reports, that he isn’t into do-overs. (See brief article linked below.)

His national trip director, with whom he plays golf, says that he deals calmly with golf’s inevitable frustrations and has never seen him either throw his clubs in the water or curse when hooking a ball off a tree—excellent qualities for a president when that red phone rings at 3:00 AM; and that when it comes to keeping score, he turns in an honest scorecard.

“When he’d shoot an 11 on a hole, I’d say, ‘Boss, what did you shoot?’ And he’d say, ‘I had an 11,’ and that’s what he’d write on his scorecard.” Admirable.

Not so admirable, on the other hand, is another report in the Times—about how the College Board this March will begin to allow high school students who take the SATs to decide which scores to have sent to the colleges to which they are applying, “hiding those they do not want admissions officials to see.”

Admissions folks from selective colleges are not so happy about this new so-called Score Choice option. The want to see as much of the unvarnished truth as SAT kinds of numbers can reveal about a candidate. They accuse the College Board of doing this for marketing reasons—if students can select which results to send they will be encouraged to take the SATs as often as possible in that hope that from a large bushel of scores they will be able to pick and choose enough good ones to get admitted to the Ivy League.

Kids from affluent families already take the test many times and, some claim, that this option will only further advantage them over poorer kids who can’t afford to do this.

In addition, this do-over, mulligan-like option only further panders to a youth and parenting culture of manipulation and over-protection that is ultimately disabling of young people. Mommy and daddy will take care of everything. And so now will the College Board.

If the College Board wants to make some useful changes in their test-taking practices maybe they should allow college applicants to take the SATs just once. No PSATs, no multiple attempts. Allow kids to take the test only one time. And take responsibility for how they do.