Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30, 2009--Traveling

I'll be back on Wednesday. Reporting from the Big Apple.

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Mom Turns 101

My mother turned 101 yesterday and you can only imagine all the excitement. Not just about the number, which is something, but because she is doing so well. The ladies in the Jennie Room where she takes her breakfast not only remembered this was her special day—and in truth for some remembering anything is remarkable—but when she got up to leave they broke into a spontaneous version of Happy Birthday. And then later that evening—insisting we shouldn’t make a fuss or spend a lot of money—her immediate and extended family gathered at the Creperie in Lauderhill, her favorite French restaurant, where she not only took pleasure in all the toasts and food but regaled us with stories from the vault of family lore. Some of which I should restrain myself from repeating. But at 101, one should have dispensation from feeling the need to cover up the truth from the next generations. So we heard for the first time about a not so distant cousin who back in the day was, as my mother put it, “sort of a hussy type who . . .” But then I promised not to tell.

Back at her apartment, after we put away all the presents, which she didn’t want but loved, and straightened out everything so her place looked just how she liked it, she said, “Sit down for a moment because I have a few things to talk to you about.” This sounded a little ominous, especially since she always wants us to get going because at that time of night in Florida there are “all kinds of people” on the road and she wants us to be safe. “Just for a moment.”

“Sure mom,” I said, exchanging a worried glance with Rona.

“You know how the girls are always taking about things.”

“Yes I certainly do. You tell me about what they say and then I write about them.”

She made a face because, as she has mentioned to me a few times, she and they do not always like my version of their conversations. Nonetheless, she continued. “We’re worried.”

“About what mom?” I wasn’t yet convinced that she was not going to tell us about her recent visit to her cardiologist and the results of the Echo Test that they gave her on Tuesday.

“Not what you’re thinking. I’m fine. My health that is. But about other things I’m not so happy.”

“Tell us,” Rona said.

“I’m concerned about the country. The girls too. We are feeling that we have so many problems and . . .”

I cut her off, not wanting her to end this remarkable day feeling sad and pessimistic. “But we’ve always had problems mom. We managed to . . .”

“I know what you are going to say,” it was her turn to do the cutting off, “That people my age—of which there are very few—lived through terrible wars and the Depression and discrimination and back in Europe the Holocaust and yet we prevailed. We won the wars—at least most of them—and came through in many ways better off. You remember when you were younger,” she turned to look directly at me,” that when you came to Florida the first time to visit Aunt Fannie and Uncle Harry how upset you were when you saw how colored people, which is what they were called then, were not allowed to go on the same beaches as white people. But now how black people here along with a majority of whites voted for Barack Obama and he not only won the state of Florida but also the presidency?”

“Yes, that is still amazing to me. How so much of that has been overcome. You see, mom,” I tried to get her to look on the positive side of things, “not everything but so much has gotten better. You’ve lived long enough to see how women . . .”

“I know what you are going to tell me. And you should since much is better. But that’s my point.”

“I’m not following you, mom, you’re confusing me. First you say you are feeling pessimistic but now you are admitting that things have gotten better.”

“If you would stop interrupting me I’ll tell you about what we’ve been talking about here. Downstairs. At dinner.” I leaned back in my chair to indicate I would be patient with her. “The reason things are in many ways better is because the people and the government made them better. This didn’t just happen. When we were threatened by the Nazis and then the communists what did we do? We did something. That’s what we did. Millions went into the army. Everyone back home pitched in. I was teaching at the time and so didn’t join Rosie and the other riveters at the Brooklyn Navy Yard but my sister Gussie did and Bertha too. Not doing riveting, though they could have, but they worked at night at the Brooklyn Terminal Market packing crates of things for the soldiers which were then shipped overseas. And before that when there was the Depression everyone helped family and neighbors who lost their jobs and their homes. For years my mother, your grandmother, had relatives sleeping in her apartment, at times two or three to a bed. And with what little she had she made do. Feeding all of them from her big pots of soup.

“And that’s not all. Our government was able to do things. Big things. I already mentioned how we treated black people, how terrible that was, but we finally did something about that. You know that most of us remember when women were not allowed to vote and we did something about that. It wasn’t easy. Nor was it to pass legislation for Negroes to vote. When was that? Some time in the 1960s I believe.”

“1964. The Voting Rights Act. That was . . .”

“Yes it was. When Lyndon Johnson was president. Look at what else he was able to do—and for the moment I’m forgetting about Vietnam, which was such a shonda—so many good things. And Congress went along with him.”

“They had to, mom, to get anything passed.”

“I know that. I know how this works. And that’s my point. Social Security, which I know FDR passed so there is no need to correct me, and the GI Bill and workers compensation and insurance for savings accounts and even Medicare which has been so good for us seniors. I know, I know, it costs too much and there are so many forms to fill out and there is abuse, but I remember before we had it, how my family was bankrupted when my mother and father both died from cancer. It’s not perfect, and as Obama and many others have said, it needs to be improved, but not to have it was even worse.”

I thought if this went on much further my mother would get so wound up she wouldn’t be able to sleep and then who knows what might happened; and so I said, “I understand, mom” and then, making an exaggerated gesture to mime looking at my watch, added, “It is getting late and I think . . .”

“You’re always putting me to bed.” She smiled at that because this is what I always used to say to her when I wanted to stay up for an extra half hour. “But indulge me a minute more. After all, how often will I get to be 101?”

“Never again,” Rona smiled, “but there’s always 102. In fact we made a reservation with Suzy at the Creperie for the same time next year.”

She blew a kiss to Rona but said, “So here’s what has us worried. We had all these big problems—even bigger than the one’s we face today. We are worried about Iran and atomic bombs. But we had Russia to worry about who had thousands of them and missiles. Remember the Missile Crisis just a few miles south of here?” I nodded. “Those were problems. And the others I mentioned. We found ways to solve them. But what about our problems today? Even though they are not as threatening what are we doing about them?”

She let that question float in the air for a moment. Then said, “Very little. We have a Democratic president and the Democrats control Congress and what are we hearing about healthcare and energy, as just two examples? We’re hearing bickering and partisanship and how if we do this the insurance companies will be unhappy and if we do that the doctors will be upset or the lawyers or the drug companies. But in the meantime too many do not have healthcare and many who have it are losing it or can’t afford to pay for the coverage they have and like. This is not a good thing because I am feeling that nothing meaningful will happen. Yes, so as not to embarrass Obama something will be approved. But it will not resemble anything the people really need.”

“Not that I disagree with you,” I said, “but aren’t there legitimate concerns about how much it would cost to do anything meaningful?”

“Yes there certainly are those questions, but somehow we managed to find a trillion dollars for the so-called prescription drug program, which is literally full of holes, and another trillion for that unnecessary war in Iraq and trillions to bail out the banks and the auto companies. And almost another trillion for the stimulus program. And how many other trillions to give tax breaks for corporations and rich people. That we somehow managed to do. The Republicans and the Democrats. Both of them. Why can’t we find a trillion for healthcare, assuming we can’t cut some of the costs, and a trillion for education, which is a bigger threat to us than Iraq or Iran, or a trillion to really fix up our roads and bridges, which are collapsing? Have you see what I-95 looks like? It’s falling apart. In America. A disgrace.” She came to a stop and sighed.

“I can’t disagree with anything you mentioned,” I finally said. “But I wish you wouldn’t worry about these things so much. You deserve now to lead a peaceful life. You have this wonderful place to live and the ladies, your friends, all . . .”

“You’re doing it again. Turning me into a little old lady,” she smiled at that, “True, I am old but I am far from being a little old lady. And neither are the girls. We didn’t come this far to just sit back and play canasta while we wait to die. We will never give up on our country. Even though, as I told you, I am pessimistic. That will never happen. But it’s up to you, now. And those younger than you. My grandchildren. Your nieces and nephew. We need to keep reminding them about what’s possible. What we came through and did and what they can accomplish if they have the courage to give up some of their comforts and fight not just for themselves but for others less fortunate. That there is enough for all. And I’m not just talking about things. In fact, I’m not talking about that at all. There are more important things than that. Like people's rights and opportunities. We have to help them remember this.”

She paused and then made the same kind of exaggerated gesture to look at her watch that I had half an hour before and said, rising from her chair without the aid of either her cane or walker, “You had better get going. It was a lovely evening. Thank you so much for that. Though you shouldn’t have spent so much money. One bottle of champagne would have been enough.” I shook my head. “But I did like having enough to get through all the wonderful toasts.”

We hugged her as if it might be the last time—one never knows at this point—and just before we turned to leave she said, “Remember what I said—if we can only find a way to put aside some of our differences and forget for a moment about what we think to be our private needs we can be great again. Though,” she couldn’t resist adding, “you know, I will continue to worry about you.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26, 2009--Savage Beasts

The New York Times reported yesterday that a 35,000-year-old bone flute was found by archeologists in a cave in remote southwestern Germany. (Article linked below).

This is shortly after homo sapiens arrived in what is now Europe after journeying there from Africa where early humans originated. The preserved portion of the flute, which was carved from a hollow bone from a griffon vulture, is a fragment 8.5 inches long and includes four remaining finger holes. A fifth one is missing. Researchers made a wooden replica and say that when they play it, it produces tones that are comparable to those from modern flutes.

Friedrich Seeberer, a German specialist in ancient music who fabricated the reproduction says “The tones are quite harmonic.” This inspired the flutes discoverer, Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen to note that southern Germany “may have been one of the places where human culture originated.”

Other archeologists when learning of the discovery noted that they can “only speculate” about why these early Europeans were motivated to make music.

I suspect that these scientists who are puzzled as to why these distant ancestors would bother with music when their very survival was at stake are wondering about how it contributed to making homo sapiens more likely to survive. Doesn’t evolutionary theory teach that only physical or psychological characteristics that are essential to survival would be naturally selected? Why then would the capacity to make music become an evolved trait? How does something so seemingly impractical help our species survive?

If anything, wouldn’t ancient man huddled around the fire in a German cave 35,000 or more years ago listening to the flute maker playing some haunting tune, wouldn’t they have been lulled into a passive reverie which would have made them vulnerable to the attack of, say, a griffon vulture? Or some enemy clan? Why then did this impulse to make and be captivated by music evolve so universally? Isn’t it true that every culture through all of human history developed one way or another to produce music? It appears as widespread as the development of teeth.

Teeth and music? It is a puzzlement.

A couple of thoughts. First, where was this early flute found? In a cave in one of the starkest regions of Germany. Even remote by today’s standards. Perhaps homo sapiens, of course used to starkness, especially in winter—and 35,000 years ago was at the end of the next to last ice age—needed music almost as much as their teeth to help them get through long and still frigid nights.

Is it too much to imagine that after the hunt, back in the cave, to help them ease into sleep or to bond them with their kinsmen or induce them to participate in some fertility rite, the plaintive sounds of the bone flute, in the words of one Dr. Conard, “could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks and thereby perhaps have facilitated the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans.”

Or to make life worth living? To suggest that existence is not all about hunting and striving and killing?

Back at the cave after a week of hunting wooly mammoths or at Carnegie Hall after a week of making a killing on Wall Street, that music not only soothes the savage beast but also contributes to making that beast human?

Thus I suspect that according to out-of-Africa theory when 2,000 generations ago homo sapiens left the land where they emerged they not only brought with them their spears but also, thankfully, their flutes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25, 2009--Seeing Rosé

Summer has finally arrived though for those of us living in the Northeast the weather has been much more reminiscent of mid spring. But, in anticipation, of what I think of as summer, actually anticipating long, languid dinners accompanied by many glasses of wine, I ordered a case of my favorite rosé with the unlikely name of Turkey Flats. Rosé, the perfect summer wine. If you can't make up your mind about maybe wanting something red or perhaps something white (and who wants to do much struggling with such matters when we are supposed to be relaxing) something seemingly midway between the two seems ideal.

Though mind you, rosé is not produced as a half-and-half blend of red and white wines. It is something unto itself. It is traditionally made from red grapes and only red grapes that are crushed and then left to ferment accompanied by their skins which impart the distinctive rosé color to the otherwise colorless grape juice.

But as with so much else in this rapidly adulterating world (I just heard, for example, that next year the Academy Awards will nominate ten and not five films for best picture--which to me dilutes the meaning of "best"), there has been a move afoot in Europe to allow winemakers to make rosé in sort of the way Bathtub Gin was concocted during Prohibition--filling a tub with half a measure of red wine before dumping in an equal amount of white, mixing it well, and then pouring this mess into bottles, corking them (undoubtedly with plastic corks), and then sticking labels on them that claim this stuff is Rosé.

As they used to say in my old neighborhood--"No way rosé!"

Thankfully, someone in France was paying attention and organized a protest. Not exactly of the kind from 1789 when les citoyens took to the barricades and made La Révolution. There is now a European Union and the EU has an Agriculture Commission and to this commission rosé winemakers appealed, asking it to protect their venerable methods. And, according to the equally venerable New York Times, they were heard. As the linked article will show, plans to make rosé as a blend will not be permitted.

"It is a very sensible decision that is of very significant importance to our sector but also for consumers of rosé across the European Union," said Xavier de Volontat, president of the Association Générale de la Production Viticole, a French industry group.

This reads better in French. Très is much preferred to very, don't you think? And no one can say important like the French. Especially when it comes to wine.

My only problem with this is that Monsieur Volontat should have mentioned how très importante this decision is to some of us not only across the EU but also across The Pond. Me, for example. All I can say is Merci beaucoup. Summer can now proceed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24, 2009--Traveling

I will be in Florida for the next five days where the Ladies of Forest Trace have been thinking about Iran and of course healthcare. I will let you know what I learn.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23, 2009--Magic Fingers

Back when motels were motels--a nondescript strip of rooms that looked more like an army barracks than a resort with a parking lot--one of the few pleasures available there when stopping for the night after a weary drive was that for a quarter, you could collapse on the saggy bed and turn on Magic Fingers.

For those too young to remember, Magic Fingers consisted of a mechanical vibrator that was attached to the bed’s metal springs that was activated by an electrical motor which was set in motion when you dropped a quarter into the meter and which then meted out 15 minutes of soothing pleasure. You lay there inert and for those glorious few moments let the vibrations run through and relax your body. If you had traveled far and wide and had another long day planned for tomorrow, another quarter bought you another 15 minutes of bliss.

As the label on the meter promised, “Magic Fingers quickly carries you into the land of tingling relaxation and ease.” How I looked forward to that simple pleasure, to being transported to that tingling destination.

Until last week it never occurred to me that Magic Fingers had an inventor. I thought it simply existed. Like the woods behind the motel or, in my on-the-road imaginings, the road itself. Always there, always alluring, always waiting.

But now I know that it was invented back in 1958 by Kansas-born John Houghtaling, former cookware salesman, former remote-controlled lawn mower salesman, and former hotel busboy. He also was a tinkerer and must have come up with his iconic creation by combining his experience growing up in Kansas with its endless dusty roads with selling those self-propelled lawn mowers with the insights he gathered from schlepping luggage for exhausted hotel guests. This not only made him a few bucks and offered millions of travelers something more than a night of snow-filled TV to watch, but it also justified an above-the-fold obituary in the New York Times when he died recently at the enviable age of 92. I hope he passed in his bed, with you-know-what turned on. (Full obit linked below.)

And, in the spirit of truth telling, Magic Fingers during the repressed era of the 1960s and 70s, when it was ubiquitous and before product liability lawyers made a living and put them out of business by suing motel owners and the Magic Fingers company on behalf of plaintiffs who they claimed were injured after being tossed out of bed by excessive vibrations, Magic Fingers also offered the possibility for more than just late night relaxation.

If you had the right kind of date who was known to be “loose,” and if you got “lucky” (both very rare circumstances) on a Saturday night you might make you way over to the hot-sheet where, behind its flickering neon sign, for less than ten dollars, with a pocket full of quarters, a room, a bed, Magic Fingers, and forbidden pleasures might await. “Might” being the operative concept.

I was thus lucky regretfully just one time. I will protect the relatively innocent (I am talking here about myself) by not getting into too many revealing details, but suffice it to say that “Brenda,” which is not even her real name, was well-known in the neighborhood as someone who, as it was put euphemistically at the time, “liked a good time.”

So I borrowed my father’s car, we went for a Shore Dinner and the movies in Sheepshead Bay, and after that headed toward, let’s call it, the Driftwood Inn.

Before plopping down my ten dollars in cash, avoiding eye contact with the bored motel clerk, as casually as I could, stretching and yawning to demonstrate how weary I was, I asked if the room that was available had Magic Fingers.

“They all do pal,” he grumbled, probably having been asked the same question by a generation of frustrated but hopeful Brooklyn boys, “Why else would anyone come to this dump?”

I did not have a ready answer for that, not one I was comfortable sharing, and with that assurance I slipped him the ten, he passed me the sticky key, and Brenda and I made our way to room number 11, the same number that I wore on my basketball jersey. I thought, How lucky can I get?

As if we were an old married couple stopping there for the night, after I spent a few clumsy minutes pretending to see if the TV was working (it pulled in only two channels) and making certain that there was soap in the bathroom (there was one paper-wrapped domino-sized cake) and hangers in the closet (I found half a dozen left over from someone’s dry cleaning)—I tried the bed, bouncing on it as if to see if was firm enough to assure a good night’s sleep before we hit the road again in the morning.

Much-more-experienced Brenda, either having been there before for the same purpose of having watched too many B movies, with a sly smile said, “Maybe I should slip into something more comfortable,” and from her large pocketbook she extracted something that looked red and silky. With my heart pounding in anticipation, I rummaged in my pocket looking for my quarters.

While I fumbled with the Magic Fingers meter, finally managing to stuff a quarter into it, Brenda emerged from the bathroom, alluringly backlit, in her crimson peignoir. She swayed over to join me on the bed, curling up against me, while I lay there rigid while either I or the bed itself began to tremble.

Quickly, those wonderful fingers began to work their magic and before very long, with Brenda slowly unbuttoning my shirt, I began to relax. Even in my inexperience it seemed to me that we were making wonderful progress. Some of this attributable to Magic Fingers.

But alas, this was to be short lived.

The motor attached to the bed frame began to make a high-pitched whine and in the next moment all sound and all motion ceased, that caused by the device as well as that which was until then generated by my attempts at erotic foreplay. As we lay there, now in silence, the smell of burnt electrical insulation began to fill the room. Magic Fingers was on fire!

You can easily guess the rest. One hint--my ten dollars was not refunded.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22, 2009--Don't Know Nothin' 'Bout History

Among the congressman pressing Barack Obama to forcefully condemn Ayatollah Khamenei for presumably rigging the recent presidential election in Iran and ordering the suppressing of dissent, senior Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions of Alabama stands out.

When it was pointed out to him that the major reason Obama offered for his originally muted publicly-stated position was that there is so much bad history between the U.S. and Iran that for him to “meddle” in what was at the time an dispute about the results of an internal election would again, as in the past, give the Ayatollah and his crowd another excuse to blame the demonstrations on the streets on American manipulation and thereby hope to stigmatize and defuse them.

This encounter was on TV and Sessions pulled himself up to his most distinguished height, he does look like a senator, and in effect said, “What does history have to do with this? Isn’t it true that more than half of Iranians are younger than 30? This means they’re too young to remember what happened between us and them.”

Well, they may be too young to have lived through the era of the last shah, who back in the 1940s and 50s we helped to place on his throne and then intermittently supported and protected. Most dramatically in 1953 when we restored him to power after he was forced to flee the country by nationalistic opponents. With the help of the British, who, as we, were equally interested in securing Iran’s oil for our own excusive use, the CIA organized the overthrow the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

Some Iranians younger than 30, though, may have a living memory of the Iran-Iraq War which began in 1980 and lasted until 1988. It was ostensibly about a long-simmering border dispute but in fact was more part of the bloody, centuries-long struggle between Sunnis (who politically controlled Iraq) and Shia, who are the predominant faction in Iran. The Islamic Revolution had already occurred in Iran, the shah had been deposed, and the then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was eager to spread his influence in the region. And though the Iranians had recently released the 52 hostages they had been holding for almost a year and a half, the Americans, under President Reagan in significant ways supported the Iraqis.

Iraqis, who, by the way, were brutally led by, yes, Saddam Hussein. Our then best friend in the region. We offered him direct military support in spite of the fact that he, in what became his signature military strategy, indiscriminately used chemical weapons of mass destruction against the Iranians (and while he was at it, his own Kurds). Overall, at least half a million Iranians were killed and millions more wounded and maimed. All with U.S. support. History does, doesn’t it, have its twists and turns and ironies.

Anyone living in Iran does not have to have a long memory to remember this history—the wounded survivors of that war are visible daily on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan and every rural Iranian village.

So Barack Obama who does know this history of the United States actual meddling in Iran took the political heat and decided not to speak out too forcefully. It would undoubtedly have made him and the rest of us feel good to hear him offer a full-throated defense of democracy—almost all members of both parties in the House and Senate, in a demonstration that bipartisanship is not just an Obama idea, passed a non-binding resolution condemning the Ayatollah—but it would have only served to enflame things on the ground. It is certain that everyone bravely risking their lives on the streets knows where Obama and the rest of America stand—on their side.

And they know how counterproductive it would be for Obama to take the easy road and give in to the passions of the moment. They heard his speech two weeks ago in Cairo and that was enough for them to know what he thinks about our relations with the Islamic world and his commitment to respectful engagement. And they also heard Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Friday when he, among other demagogic and threatening things, not only blamed the U.S. for the current crises but also the British. (See New York Times article linked below.)

The Ayatollah knew he was pushing some still hot buttons for many Iranians who either vividly recalled British meddling in propping up the hated shah, and even hiding Salman Rushdie after a fatwa was issued on his life, or had studied the history of their own country. Something our Senator “Jeff” Sessions obviously failed to do.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19, 2009--Line In the Sand

I usually am behind the times by a day or two. But here is something from 20 minutes ago right off the New York Times website. You'll be hearing about it all day:

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, angrily warned opposition leaders Friday to stay off the streets and denied opposition claims that last week’s disputed election was rigged, praising the ballot as an “epic moment that became a historic moment.”

Speaking in front of an audience of thousands that included President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he endorsed the president’s policies and insisted that the margin of victory — 11 million votes — accorded to Mr. Ahmadinejad in the official tally was so big that it could not have been falsified.

“The Islamic republic state would not cheat and would not betray the vote of the people,” he said.

Iranians had been looking to his appearance the national prayer service from Tehran University on Friday. Political analysts said they hoped that the leader would reveal his ultimate intent, indicating a willingness to either appease the opposition or demand an end to protests that followed presidential elections a week ago.

He blamed “media belonging to Zionists, evil media” for seeking to show divisions between those who supported the Iranian state and those who did not.

The next 48-72 hours are likely to be ugly.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009--Safari Bar Mitzvah

My father had a story or joke for almost every occasion. Some quite ethnic which straddled that fine line between truth and stereotype.

One of his favorites, which he would tell after we would make a trip to the Gold Coast of Long Island to visit his rich brother, who lived in gilded splendor along the North Shore which was famous for its nouveau riche mansions, and thus inspired my dad, was called The Safari Bar Mitzvah.

He would draw it out endlessly, savoring the details, which I will spare you. Though they helped us deal with the frustration we would always encounter, schlepping through the traffic that crept along the Long Island Expressway, known to locals as the world’s longest parking lot.

It went something like this—

There was a lot of competition among the men who had businesses in the Garment District. Especially when it came time to make bar mitzvahs for their sons. Later they would contest with each other over which of their boys got into Harvard and who was “stuck” going to Cornell; but when one of their sons turned 13, it was all about how lavish a bar mitzvah their old man could throw.

Among those who had businesses on West 35th Street, Ginsberg was first. He invited everyone to the grounds of his house in Great Neck for a circus bar mitzvah. In addition to the rabbi and the seven-course dinner, to entertain the guests there were clowns and jugglers, a seven-foot man and a tattooed lady.

Not to be outdone, when it was time for his Herman to be bar mitzvahed, Schwartz ordered up a rodeo-themed event on the lawn of his house right on Long Island Sound. There were hayrides, cowboys with lassos riding around on horses, and a chuck wagon at which guests lined up for hors d’oeuvres which they ate on tin plates. Though for the sit-down dinner they had eight courses and ate on Wedgwood.

Then when it was Goldberg’s turn, the father of the last boy to turn 13, he thought and thought about what he should do. No, not a bar mitzvah on the luxury liner the Queen Elizabeth. Silverman had done that last year. And not a bar mitzvah in Israel. He had gone to one there also last year. After a week of thinking about his bar mitzvah, tearing out his few remaining hairs, he finally had a brainstorm—a bar mitzvah in Africa, a safari bar mitzvah! No one had ever done one of those!

So he invited 150 of his closest relatives and friends, chartered a plane to Kenya, arranged everything—including guides and porters to carry everyone’s luggage deep into the heart of the country. They would have to trek 100 miles but it would be worth it once they got to the safari camp. He had arranged for game drives, and dinners featuring roasted impala (he had checked—impala was kosher), native drummers, and authentic dancers. It would be memorable. And no one would ever again do anything more impressive or expensive.

The first day on the trail went well. But midday on the second day, which was sweltering, the bar mitzvah party which was strung out one behind the other for half a mile came to a sudden halt.

Goldberg, who was at the back of the line of trekkers, asked the person in front of him to ask the person in front of her to pass the question person-by-person to the guide at the head of the line, “What’s going on? Why have we stopped?”

The question was passed forward; and then person-by-person, after half an hour of waiting in the dripping rainforest, the answer came back to Goldberg. The reason they were stopped, he was told, was because there was another bar mitzvah ahead of them.

We loved this slightly salacious story and laughed every time my father told it. It made up for the boring trip to his brother’s house.

But now, in the certain spirit that life always imitates art, let me tell you about another bar mitzvah that occurred recently. A real one, but it could have been the subject of one of my father’s jokes—the bar mitzvah held for 60 guests, fully catered, with a band, and the popular orthodox Jewish singer Yaakov Shwekey. The bar mitzvah held by an inmate in one of New York City’s jails.

One Tuvia Stern, convicted of stealing $1.7 million in two financial scams, and sentenced to two and a half to seven years in prison, while incarcerated, realized that his son was going to turn 13 while he was still in the slammer. There was no way he would have gotten a pass to leave the Manhattan Detention Complex to host a safari bar mitzvah of his own (there was a real risk that he would flee—when first accused of his scams he fled the country and spent the next 19 years on the lamb in Brazil) so he did the next best thing: through his political connection in the powerful orthodox Jewish community in New York City he got approval to make it happen right there in the gymnasium of the jail.

Most amazing was not that he had no trouble finding a rabbi to officiate or was able to hire Yaakov Shwekey to perform, but they let him have his however-many course dinner served on real china and for the guests to use metal, rather than standard prison-issue plastic forks and spoons and knives. All understandably forbidden to ordinary inmates in prisons. The last things guards want is for inmates to get their hands on these potential weapons. But clearly Tuvia Stern is no ordinary prisoner.

No, I am not making this up. If you doubt me, check the linked New York Times article for verification of all the facts. And while rummaging around in the Times, look to see what kinds of parties Bernie Madoff might be throwing. I think he’s in the same jail as Mr. Stern.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17, 2009--Remembrance of Things Past

I was disturbed to learn that many history courses are disappearing from college and university offerings. Especially in retreat is what scholars call Diplomatic History—the study of U.S. diplomacy, foreign relations, and national security. According to a report in the New York Times (linked below) courses such as the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from syllabi. This at the very time when we are engaged in two major wars and how best to pursue our foreign policy is literally at the top of today’s headlines.

What is it that George Santayana said about history? Wasn’t it, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”?

History itself is not being eliminated because of lack of student interest, but most forms of traditional history are experiencing plunging enrollments as students opt to take course in newer kinds of history that focus on the study of women, minorities, workers, and social and cultural forces. Often referred to as bottom-up history. Though there was much wrong, or left out, of traditional history—the role of women and “average” people—much of that has by now been corrected. But what we are left with are course offerings that largely ignore the history and lessons that can be taken from studying the tectonic forces that led to the drawing of the geographic borders within which people live and the struggles and battles and cultural issues that were catered to or ignored in the process and that have resulted in the mess that we call “the modern world.”

Again, I refer you to the great Santayana.

To check to see how much people know or do not know about the history of the Middle East and the Islamic world where so much is now roiled and in dispute, I unscientifically took to the streets to ask people about Iran. I stopped about 20 and half were willing to put down their shopping bags to talk with me.

Most knew there had been a Shah at some point, but none knew who the last one was, when he was overthrown, how that had happened, and what happened to him after he left Iran. In fact, only one person knew what a “shah” itself was or is, the rest thought that the Shah who was toppled during the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79 (none knew the exact dates though two people thought it happened while Jimmy Carter was president—they knew who he was), they didn’t know being a shah (lower case) meant one was descended from a line of Iranian or Persian royalty.

On the other hand, no one knew that the literally last Shah was the son of a prior Shah (Reza Pahlavi) who was overthrown by that son in 1941 in a military coup with the essential assistance of British and Soviet troops; and that during his reign he was intermittently helped and protected by American diplomacy and the CIA. In fact, for a time Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi desperately needed America’s help to retain his position. In 1953 foreign powers (American and British) came to the Shah's aid after he was forced to flee the country because of pre-revolutionary pressure from religious and nationalistic factions. He was restored to the Peacock Throne only after an American CIA operative, aided by the British MI6, organized a military coup d'état to oust the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

And it was no surprise that no one I stopped on the street (all within a short walk of New York University) knew anything at all about any of this or that this history of the Western intervention still rankles many in Iran who know their own history better than we apparently know our own. Including, and this is important, opponents of the ruling Ayatollahs or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If we are now to proceed in tumultuous Iran with any kind of diplomatic nuance, we need to know this history and be sensitive to it. Especially that the forces we are presumably wanting to see assume control—hopefully more moderate ones than the world now confronts—we had better not make it look as if supporters of opposition-candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi are being overtly backed by the United States. If that were to occur it would represent the proverbial kiss of death to whatever this movement might mean and call into being.

Thus the macho strutting and posturing by the likes of almost-president John McCain who is insisting that President Obama must immediately “speak out” and condemn the “fraudulent” election that took place over the weekend and “show support” for the opposition is precisely the thing that even a superficial knowledge of history should teach us not to do.

I can’t resist saying that Senator McCain must have been cutting his Diplomatic History classes while enrolled at the Naval Academy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16, 2009--Obesity at $4.98 a Pound

If it is true as Barack Obama has been claiming as he flies around the country to promote healthcare reform that at least half of what Americans spend each year on medical treatment is associated with controllable and thus preventable behavior—smoking and obesity—than I have a simple solution for those 58 million of us who are overweight and the other 40 million who are obese:

By the pound, the government should pay people to lose weight.

Here’s how it would work and how much it would cost . . . and then save—

First, the magnitude of the problem. Being overweight or obese is not just a matter of how one looks or being stigmatized by a society in which celebrities flaunt their svelteness. It is correlated with serious, life-threatening illnesses. 80 percent of Type II diabetes is related to obesity, 70% of cardiovascular disease, 42% of breast and colon cancer, 30% of gall bladder surgery, and 26% of obese people have high blood pressure.

All of these are lifelong afflictions, causing people to seek frequent medical treatment, have expensive tests, take equally expensive medication, and wind up frequently in hospitals. The bottom line for this, the direct and indirect costs associated with this care is at least $117 billion a year.

Now, the “solution.”

Pay people $4.98 for every pound they lose and offer them annual bonuses for every pound that they keep off.
I like $4.98 because that’s about what it costs to buy a pound of basic chopped meat in the supermarket.

If my plan were to work and everyone who is overweight (if you are 5 feet 9 inches tall and weigh 25 pounds more than is recommended, you are overweight) or obese (this would mean that at that height on average you weigh 50 pounds more than is considered to be a healthy weight), with 58 million overweight and 40 million obese, that means that Americans are carrying around 3.45 billion more pounds than they should.

At my $4.98 a pound, minus the administrative cost of the program, it would cost taxpayers “only” $17.18 billion dollars for the initial weight loss if everyone who is either overweight or obese were to lose all the weight necessary for them to reach their healthy weight. That’s just 15 percent of what we are currently spending each year for those who are heavier than is considered healthy.

How would this program be administered? One suggestion is that every post office and school in America would include a simple weight loss facility. Basically, a digital scale that would be connected to a national database that would keep track of how everyone participating is doing and send checks each month to those losing weight.

To get started you would go to your local post office and literally weigh in. The system would determine a healthy weight for you, based on your height, age, and starting weight—in effect your target. You would be assigned a registration number and be asked to pick a password. The scale would then issue you a smart card—like those used in many mass transit systems—that you would insert in the machine each time you came back to a PO or school anywhere in the country. At each subsequent weigh-in that card would keep track of your progress and you would get paid for shedding pounds only until your reached you goal.

If after the first month you lost, hopefully, five or so pounds you’d receive a check in the mail for $24.90.

Since almost all, after the huge effort required to lose weight, in a year tend to regain most of it, this program would reward those who keep the weight off. So, to monitor and reward maintaining a healthy weight, after reaching their goal, people would be encouraged to check in every three months or so; and if they were shown to retain their weight loss, the system would send them checks for up to $50 annually.

If everyone lost all the weight required for everyone to reach a healthy weight and everyone kept all of that weight off, it would cost taxpayers only $4.9 billion a year to sustain the results of all the effort. Again, much less than the current $117 billion that it costs us to treat illnesses related to being significantly overweight.

And this is not to mention the increases in productivity of workers nor the improvements in well being and lifestyle that millions would experience.

I do not know how to quantify the costs of setting up and running this program. We’d need to invest in developing the smart scales, the smart cards, the data system, ways to reduce cheating, and of course the costs associated with maintaining the system and issuing checks. I suspect most of the ongoing administrative work could be automated. So let’s err on the conservative side and say it would cost another $2.0 billion a year to make this work. Still, we would save a fortune and have a much happier and healthy citizenry.

And then as another form of bonus we’d all look better in our bathing suits!

Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15, 2009--The Obama Effect?

Since President Obama’s speech in Cairo less than two weeks ago a lot has happened in the neighborhood of the Middle East.

First there was the election in Lebanon, which produced a surprising and hopeful result. Unexpectedly, Hezbollah did worse than expected. An American-backed coalition of candidates and parties won enough seats in the parliament to make it certain that they will have the votes they need to form a new government. One likely to be less threatening to Israel and thus to a wider peace. This might also mean that Syria’s influence there will continue to erode and that they will succumb to U.S. efforts to distance them from Iranian influence and at some point a deal might be brokered between Syria and Israel. If this were to happen it would be quite a good thing.

Then there was also hope that the upcoming election in Iran, which took place on Friday, would unseat the Holocaust-denying, nuclear saber-rattling Mahmoud Abadinejad. There was a plausible opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was attracting huge crowds of followers, at least in Teheran, and until the votes were counted—or intentionally miscounted—many thought (me included) that he had a good chance to be elected.

And since he campaigned against Abadinejad by accusing him of being too hard line and bellicose in his rhetoric toward Israel and the West, his possible election suggested that perhaps the ruling clerics wanted to reach some sort of accommodation with Israel and us. Otherwise why would they have allowed Moussavi to run and campaign so boldly? Their economy is in shambles, there is a restive population of reasonably well-educated young people and maybe, we thought last week, that they would allow Moussavi to be elected to take some pressure off their own regime. All authoritarian governments see self-preservation to be their highest and only goal.

But here we are on Monday morning with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad having won reelection in a supposed landslide. So much for the so-called Obama Effect in the Middle East. Right?

But then also on Monday we have to digest the content and subtle subtext of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech yesterday in Israel in which he outlined his “vision of peace” for his troubled region.

Also feeling pressure from the new Obama administration (Obama in Cairo called for a two-state solution in the region, one for Israel and one for Palestine, and for a total halt in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank) Netanyahu announced he would deliver a major speech of his own. He saw it to be so important that he reportedly called Obama personally to ask him to be sure to watch it since it was scheduled, I think, at the same time as the basketball game between the Orlando Magic and Los Angles Lakers and he knew what Obama would prefer to be doing. Thank God for TiVo!

The prime minister in his long political career had never uttered the phrase “two-state” nor has he ever agreed to a halt in settlements in the land Israel captured in 1967 from Jordan during the Six-Day War. So at halftime, Israelis and Obama tuned in to hear what he had to say.

Scrutinizing the text, on the surface it looks as if there might still be at least some remnant of the Obama Effect at work in this troubled region. Netanyahu said:

In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other. (See linked New York Times article for more details.)

This sounds like two-states to me though he didn’t quite use that ladened phrase. But he did use the word “two” when referring to “two peoples”; and since he said each could have its own flag, for him that sounds pretty radical.

But there is a “but”--there is always a “but” in the Middle East. That though the Palestinian entity would have its own flag and there would be “mutual respect,” in Netanyahu’s vision they would have to be demilitarized while Israel presumably would be allowed to keep its modern weapons systems that include nuclear bombs and the means to deploy them.

As might be imagined, Netanyahu’s offer was rejected out of hand by the Palestinians even before the Lakers wrapped up the championship.

And if we turn to his vision for the West Bank, we need to do little more than look at how he referred to it—to him, and his orthodox supporters who form the core of his political base it is still and for all time will be “Judea and Samaria.” The lands of Greater Israel which, they claim, were promised to them by God.

There he promised that no new settlements would be established but that “normal life” must be allowed to continue, a phrase he has used to mean that limited building would be allowed to continue within existing settlements to accommodate for “natural growth.” This natural growth in the past has been quite extensive and thus has been a thorn in the side of Palestinians who want the land of the West Bank to be returned to them if they are to agree to a deal.

So where, post-Cairo, does this leave us? Things still look bright in Lebanon and I suspect Syria. But bleak, no, in Iran and Israel?

Who knows for sure?

We are early in the process and what we have seen there may be the kind of posturing that all sides engage in before entering into talks, outside of public view, that might over time result in various kinds of accommodation. It is disappointing (though to have thought anything else was naïve) to discover that Barack Hussein Obama cannot simply wave a magic speech in front of all contesting parties and peace would break out in the region.

So we are left to look for signs in Iran of a loosening up of rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To preserve their prerogatives the mullahs may pull on his strings and tell him to cool his language and concentrate more on improving economic conditions at home. And in Israel, perhaps with right-wingers somewhat placated by the clear subtext of Netanyahu’s speech it will give him a little space within which to cooperate with the Obama-initiated peace process.

Above all, remember this is the Middle East and the very concept of how to bargain and make deals was invented there,

Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11, 2009--Little Palau

I was sitting in Balthazar the other morning, minding my own business, just starting my second cup of coffee, when one of the regulars, all agitated, ran over to my table.

“Did you hear,” he said, betraying more than early morning anxiety, “that they’re bringing one of the worst terrorists to Manhattan?”

Without making eye contact, feeling who needed aggravation before even turning to the front page of the New York Times, I muttered something like, “Huh?”

“Yeah, walking distance from here. Downtown. From Guantánamo.”


“It’s in the paper. Look.” He thrust his copy of the Times between my face and coffee cup. “Read it for yourself.”

I glanced at the headline. Sure enough, the Obama administration decided to bring a detainee here for a federal trial. Annoyed that he had interrupted my wake-up routine, I said, “So what’s the big deal? Who cares? What’s going to happen that has you so upset?”

“He was involved in blowing up the World Trade Center.”

“I understand. He’s an evil person. But what has you so worried?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they’ll come to help him escape. Or blow up some more buildings in New York now that he’s here.”

“Don’t we already have that blind sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman I think his name was, who blew up the Trade Center in 1993? He’s in prison downtown. Or at least he was. And nothing happened.”

“Well, how would you feel if this new guy, Ahmed Ghailani, broke out of jail and was loose on the streets of New York?”

To that I had no answer, except to say, “When has anyone ever broken out of a prison here in New York? Hey, this is the Big Apple. We know how to do things.” And with that I waved him away and got back to concentrating on my coffee. It had cooled just enough to take a long sip.

And then when I did turn to the paper I also read about 17 more detainees from Guantánamo who we’ve been holding in GITMO for years, who are set, it seems, to be transferred to Palau. “Where?” I said to myself. I was still not fully awake. A tiny island nation in the middle of the Pacific I read.

I thought, Isn’t it great that this chain of more than 258 atolls that you can barely find on the map, with a population of barely 20,000 is willing to take 17 of these prisoners while my Balthazar friend is freaking out about having just one in New York City. And, how many was it, 90 senators, Democrats as well as Republicans voted last month not to provide the funds to close Guantánamo, saying, after blustering about human rights violations and hearing that even General Petraeus wants GITMO closed, “Not in my backyard.”

Of course the story is a little more complicated. But really not that much. These 17 are Chinese Muslims, Uighurs, who even the Bush administration did not classify as enemy combatants and were ordered back in the fall by a federal district court (thankfully not the one Sonia Sotomayor sits on) to be released in the United States.

So since that time the U.S. has been looking for places that would agree to take some of them because we, of course, do not want them walking around on the streets in America. We have contacted more than 100 governments to see if they might be willing—including countries who were part of the Coalition of the Willing that joined us in the invasion of Iraq—and thus far have come up empty. We even tried to get China to take them back since they are Chinese, but they turned us down because they do not want any more Chinese Muslims within their borders for fear that they would get engaged in the Islamic separatist movement there.

Running out of options, the president of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, stepped up and said, “Palau would be honored and proud to take them in as a humanitarian gesture.” (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

We’re still waiting to hear from our other allies—Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, though England and France, after much arm-twisting by their new best friend, Barack Obama, did agree to take one detainee each.

OK, so we’re giving Palau $200 million in “long-term development aid.” After all, they can’t get by on just what they earn from scuba diving junkets or as the setting for the reality show Survivor, which twice before used this Pacific paradise as the location for their antics.

Maybe Pago Pago will now take a few. And even Bikini Atoll where we tested H bombs back in the 40s and 50s. It’s radiation free these days and also could also use some development aid. As you might imagine, their tourism business is still not happening.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

June 10, 2009--One-On-One With Kim Jong-un

Yesterday I helped solve our problems with Iran. Today, I turn my attention to North Korea.

We are stymied with what to do about them. They have been testing long-range missiles and exploding nuclear weapons. They have detained and "convicted” two American journalists and sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor. And they are threatening to nuke anyone who lays a hand on them.

The Obama administration, like the Bush and Clinton administrations before them, is frustrated about what to do. Hillary Clinton is saying that we might interdict ships entering and leaving North Korean ports to see if they are carrying nuclear weapons components or missiles. We are attempting to put pressure on China, North Korea's foremost protector, to get tough with them. Maybe cut off their oil supply. And of course we are trying to get the UN to issue more (meaningless) proclamations.

All the while, pundits and government officials are wondering what's going on there to so harden their line. Most speculate this is all because of plans for an anticipated change in leadership. Kim Jong-il is 69 years old and appears to be in ill health because of a recent stroke. To assure that his younger son will succeed him, they speculate, that Kim has to demonstrate to the military elites, who in many ways run the country, that he is in tough and still in charge. Thus all the militant and threatening action and bluster.

Pulling off this succession plan will not be easy even for the Maximum Leader. There are forces within the military who would prefer someone else, and there is even evidence that Kim’s older son may be plotting to keep his brother off the presidential throne.

Thinking about this young son, who is only in his twenties (no one knows for certain), I have been wondering what kind of leader he might make because there are some examples of improved behavior when sons take over for retiring fathers. OK, some examples. Not all. Not George W. Bush, I'll grant you that; but we are beginning to see moderation in Syria where Bashar al-Assad took over from his father, Hafez al-Assad, when he died suddenly in 2000. He seems more accommodating to the west. Maybe because he studied opthomology in London and married a Brit.

Little is known about Kim Jong-un, beyond reports in the New York Times (linked below) that he was secretly schooled in Switzerland under an assumed name, posing as the son of a driver in the nearby North Korean Embassy, and that he liked to ski on Switzerland’s fabled slopes. And that he is a big fan of Michael Jordan.

So there’s the opening. His love for Michael Jordon. A Chicago Bull, recall? The greatest basketball player of all time, right? And where is Barack Obama from? Chicago, no? And what sport does he love the most? Basketball, yes?

I assume you’re catching my drift.

So here’s the scenario: Kim Jong-un manages not to get poisoned by his big brother; daddy Kim Jong-il manages to live long enough and detonates enough A bombs and launches enough missiles to satisfy the military so that they trust and fear him and his family; young Kim Jong-un takes over the presidency; and a week later Obama names Michael Jordan special envoy to North Korea. He goes over to Pyongyang and presents his credentials to new president Kim Jong-un along with an autographed basketball, a Michael Jordan jersey, and his rookie chewing gum card.

The rest is history. This is an easy one. Remember, the door to a rapprochement with Red China was opened as the result of the appearance there of the American ping-pong team. Can you imagine Michael Jordan dribbling around the presidential palace playing one-on-one with Kim Jong-un? It brings tears to me eyes.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

June 9, 2009--Words Worth A Thousand Pictures

"An American-backed alliance appeared to retain control of the Lebanese Parliament on Sunday in a hotly contested election that had been billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East."

So reported Michael Slackman in yesterday's New York Times. (Full article linked below.)

When was the last time any party we backed won anything in the Middle East? A few years ago when President Bush and Secretary of State Rice openly indicated support for the election of Fattah in Gaza, Hamas ran away with the election. Support from the U.S. at the time was seen as a guarantee that whomever we were opposing would win in a landslide. As Hamas did.

Thus it appeared to be quite a risk when President Obama dispatched Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton to Beirut to show support for the U.S.-oriented group of parties referred to as the March 14 Coalition. Pretty much all experts said that this would be the kiss of political death and assure that Hezbollah would come into power. But as it turns out, it appears that they have slipped further into minority status.

What changed in the region since the Hamas victory? One simple, possible answer is that Barack Obama is no George Bush.

Could it be a coincidence that Obama gave his speech to the Muslim world on the Friday before the Sunday election in Lebanon? I doubt it. As I doubt that the timing wasn't also meant to coincide with a potentially even more important election set for this coming Friday in Iran. If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also defeated what will people say? Around the world, on the so-called Arab Street, and among right-wingers right here in America who have been asserting since last Friday that Obama went to the Middle East to "apologize" to the Arabs for our invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib. All signs of his "weakness."

Rush Limbaugh, Liz Cheney, and now Sarah Palin and their followers acknowledge that Obama writes and delivers good speeches. But, they say, these are just words. What counts are deeds. With that I agree.

And perhaps in Lebanon and later this week in Iran we may see evidence of the power of these "just words." Perhaps there will be more new facts on the ground.

How might this work? Obama’s speech in Cairo was carefully crafted to reach at least three audiences. Least important was the American public. For them, for us, he needed to avoid making actual apologies in order not to be accused of disparaging the United States while on “foreign soil.” A political felony. So he “acknowledged” various acts that were important for Islamic people to understand he knew were offensive to them as a way to establish his bona fides while not turning off all but the extreme right back at home. A delicate balancing act.

The second audience was Israeli leaders and the Israeli public. To have any chance at all for a peace agreement in the Holy Land he knew he had to press Prime Minister Netanyahu so that he would understand that the era of unwavering and uncritical support for Israel is over. Thus the emphasis on freezing all settlement activity in the West Bank. No more saying one thing in public while winking in private by a succession of American administrations at everything Israeli governments sanction in order to appease the interests of the right-wing religious parties which control the balance of political power in the Knesset. Hillary Clinton has been unleashed to be even more forceful in this regard, which is critical since she is known to be a better friend to Israel than Obama, who is still regarded there with suspicion. This is a risky strategy to use with a proud people who feel surrounded and threatened by enemies; but unless the Israelis are willing to put some concessions on the table there is no hope for a deal that will lead to peace and their security.

The most important of Obama’s three audiences was Iran. Without coming to some sort of diplomatic accommodation with them it is inevitable that at some point they will acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them and it will be impossible to restrain the Israelis from attacking them preemptively. This would unleash a regional war and threaten worldwide economic collapse. So the stakes are very high. Obama, even during the campaign, indicated a willingness to negotiate directly with them. And he now sees an opportunity to help the Iranians change their government in a freely-contested election at the end of the week.

Last Wednesday the ruling mullahs allowed a live televised debate, with the gloves off, between President Ahmadinejad and his leading challenger, the moderate Mir Hussein Moussavi. Among other things, with the entire country watching, Moussavi accused his rival of ignoring domestic economic issues (the Iranian economy, in spite of their oil reserves, has been in a depression for many years) to foolishly concentrate on foreign policy—for unnecessary confrontations with the West and for wrongly denying the truth of the Holocaust.

Though on first thought this seemed remarkable—aren’t presidents there puppets of the behind-the-scenes ruling elite—why, on second thought, might the real rulers of Iran perhaps be seeking a change in public leadership? Maybe they are feeling pressure from their unemployed, substantially secular, restive youthful population. Well over half of Iranians are younger than 30. Perhaps to save their political skins they want to let some pressure out of the system—to let the people have a leader who will focus on their everyday needs rather than engaging in nuclear saber-rattling which is further isolating Iran and making it more difficult for them to maintain their own power. We will see this coming Friday.

But what we saw last Friday in Obama’s speech was a subtle approach to Iran. He did not beat the lectern when he spoke about them. Yes, he mentioned deep concern about nuclear proliferation in the region, but he did not single Iran out for special criticism. If anything, his tone toward them was one of openness and a continued willing to deal with them diplomatically. So much so that people on the right both here and in Israel criticized him for being harsher on our ally, Israel, than on our “enemy,” Iran.

I suspect that as with everything pertaining to Obama this was all carefully weighed and calculated. He is ultimately attempting to create political space for leaders in Lebanon and Syria and Israel and Iran and Saudi Arabia to moderate their rhetoric and behavior. Leaders in all of those places feel unable, or unwilling, to get out in front of the perceived will of their people. All rule precariously. All feel threatened by the potential power of their frustrated populations. If Obama, who in that region has remarkable credibility for an American president, can show those young people who are yearning for a better life that there are alternatives to despair and militancy perhaps their governments can moderate their own behavior and take some chances with the fundamentalists in their midst who may then, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, slip into minority status.

As with pretty much everything, and especially in the Middle East where history is so aligned against accommodation, most everything is uncertain. And, yes, thus far we have heard mainly words. Deeds, again, need to follow. But there have been times in the past when seemingly just words have been powerful beyond what might be expected. This may turn out to be one of those historic occasions. Friday in Iran could be interesting.

Monday, June 08, 2009

June 8, 2009--Justice Antonin (Nancy Pelosi) Scalia

Did you know—I didn’t—that like members of Congress each year Supreme Court justices are required to file financial disclosure forms?

According to a recent report in the New York Times (linked below) it appears that last year a few managed to anticipate the collapse of the economy and in the nick of time bailed out of their stock market holdings. Justice Stephen Breyer, for example, sold pretty much everything back in September and as a result is worth between $3.75 and $11.75 million. (They are not required to tell precisely how much they are worth—just within which ranges.)

Chief Justice Roberts, on the other hand, held tight to his stocks in 15 companies and saw his net worth drop to only $1.4 to $3.7 million. But about others, not to worry.

The two most liberal members of the court—wouldn’t you know it—are the wealthiest of the lot. Soon-to-retire Justice David Souter has between $6.0 and $27.6 million. Not bad for someone who lives in a small cabin in New Hampshire that reportedly has neither a telephone nor electricity. And Ruth Bader Ginsberg—who looks as if she spends $25 a week on food—weighs in at a cool $7.2 to $30.0 million.

Poor Justice Clarence Thomas of conservative free-market fame is the Court’s most modest member, worth only between $150,000 and $430,000. As with the other justices this does not include the value of his house.

Antonin Scalia, his ideological mentor, is not doing all that much better. He’s has just $1.2 to $2,8 million. It’s a good thing that presumably secure government pensions await them when they step down. Soon, I hope.

But they, again like members of Congress, are also required to report trips for which they are reimbursed with government (read taxpayer) money, and here’s where things really get interesting.

Remember back in February when the financial crisis was at it worst how Nancy Pelosi was massacred in the press (and by me here—actually by my mother and the Ladies of Forest Trace) for her alleged junket to Italy where she not only visited with the Pope, which could be considered work-related, but also with her husband went skiing in the Alps? And how she took seven Democrat colleagues along with her? And how the whole trip cost us—who were hurting and worried at the time about our finances—how the trip cost taxpayers $300,000?

Well, last year she was in high company. Strict constructionist and lion of fiscal conservatives, Justice Antonin Scalia, turns out to be the most-traveled of his Supreme Court colleagues. Though he didn’t have to put a dollar figure on how much his junkets cost, he did have to report that in 2008 he made 30 reimbursable trips. True, this was down from 33 the year before, but I wonder what he was doing while out and about more than every other week.

I assume he took papers along about the cases pending before the Court while he was off in Montana and Wyoming. I assume that when in Wyoming, no matter what court-related business he was engaged in, among other things I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was hanging out in a trout stream with his pal, at the time Vice President Dick Cheney. Wouldn’t you think discussing affirmative action or abortion? Or reminiscing about the Court’s decision back in 2000 that made George Bush president?

I would have paid to be there with them. But, then again, I think I did.

Friday, June 05, 2009

June 5, 2009--The West Bank & the Final Days

Barack Obama rightly pointed out during his historic speech yesterday in Cairo that in order to move the so-called peace process forward in the Middle East the Israelis have to stop building more settlements in the West Bank.

When the new prime minister of Israel was in Washington a few weeks ago, both Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, in private and in public, stressed this. It was met by deafening silence by Benjamin Netanyahu. As was their call for a two-state solution—one for the Palestinians and of course one for Israel, which Hamas and the rest of the players in the region would have to recognize and stop threatening with annihilation.

But the settlement issue has been and is likely to remain the most daunting of the many issue that have to be overcome if there is ever to be a deal and a version of peace.

This is so complex and multilayered that at about the same time Obama was delivering his speech a controversy burst into the open about the policies of the Bush administration in regard to the settlements and the complaint by high officials in the Netanyahu government (surrogates for him) that Obama was abrogating “old understandings” between Washington and Israel that they said allowed the Israelis “some construction.” (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

Though some former Bush officials are denying this, the evidence is pointing to the fact that at a minimum they were told, or it was implied to them with a wink, that no matter what President Bush or Secretary Rice might say in public the Israelis could continue to pursue a policy of “natural growth”—no major new settlements would be allowed but that they could continue to build new houses for Israelis that were contiguous with existing ones.

One Bush official put it this way—it was “similar to taking a string and laying it around a settlement and prohibiting any construction outside the string.”

In the hallucinatory world of those lands it would then come down to just where that string was placed. Would it just skirt the borders of existing structures so that vacant lots within it could be built out or would it stretch to the horizon so that new construction would eventually double the size of existing settlements?

As they have been prone to do for millennia in that contested region, they and we could argue and literally fight about these fine points for additional millennia.

But while thinking about that, this string image reminded me of another string--the eruv--one that orthodox Jews use to circle their communities so that on the Sabbath anything that occurs within it can be considered to be happening within their individual homes.

Those not familiar with this need to know that on the Sabbath, Jews are forbidden from doing any sort of work outside the home — including mundane tasks such as carrying a wallet in a pocket or a child in their arms. Not very practical in the real world. So they construct an eruv in their community--a large, unbroken boundary inside which people can go about their business on the Sabbath. The eruv in effect becomes an extension of their home even though it may encompass many acres.

To the less religious it’s a fudging sleight-of-hand that allows the orthodox to subvert God’s Sabbath commandment, to others it’s an appropriate accommodation to modern big city life.

The settlement eruv can be seen in precisely these conflicting ways—is it a legitimate way for Israelis to assert, while limiting, what they are permitted to do in these occupied lands; or is it a subterfuge that allows them to fill more and more of the West Bank with homes for Jewish settlers?

And why are the Israelis so intent on expanding their occupation of this territory? Some claim it is so that they can create a security zone between them and Jordon—directly to the east of the West Bank. But Israel is at peace with Jordon. They are indeed allies in many ways. Others then say they need to expand their territory in order to house their growing population. But it is growing at a very modest rate—on average just 1.7 percent a year and this is easily accomodatable within their existing national boundaries.

I believe there is another, more ominous motive—what we call the West Bank, religious radicals in Israel refer to it as Judea and Samaria, a part of Greater Israel. Eretz Yisrael Ha-Shlema--or literally, the Whole Land of Israel. They claim that these lands are promised to them in the bible. In Genesis 15:18-21, Numbers 34:1-15, and Ezekiel 47:13-20. And that by occupying Judea and Samaria they are participating in fulfilling biblical prophesy.

This religious impulse makes the situation on the ground much more complicated. It’s one thing to be talking about this territory as necessary to Israel’s security or to house a rapidly growing population, it’s quite another to have to confront those hundreds of thousands in Israel who say it was promised to them by God.

Further complicating matters is the fact that this land is also sacred to orthodox Christians and Muslims. It, as with the other “children of Abraham,” the Jews, is considered to be fundamentally related to the Final Days, when in their different but parallel eschatological traditions the Messiah or God or Mohammed will return to earth and by so doing initiate the events of the Apocalypse and Final Judgment.

All three traditions say that a precondition for the ultimate End of Time involves the appropriate, biblically or Koranically defined necessary occupation of the land between what is now Israel and much of what is now Iraq. For the Jews and Christians who believe this, the land must be occupied by the Jews; for Muslims it must be by people of the Islamic faith. And this in-between land that is so sacred is the largely made up of the West Bank. Thus, much of the problem, is as religious as it is geopolitical.

So to say that any resolution to the settlement situation will require the wisdom and skills of a Solomon—much less a Netanyahu or an Obama—is the understatement of the millennium. But the judgment of secular history and even Nobel Prizes await. And these too through the ages have proven to be strong motivators.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

June 4, 2009--Obama In Cairo

I have no words this morning more important than those just spoken in Cairo by President Barack Hussein Obama. If you were sleeping in and missed it, click on the link below from Fox News for the full transcript. Selections and pull quotes that are already available on line do not do it justice.

So, enough from me. Please read it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

June 3, 2009--Cooking With Gas

For years, while working ten-hour days, we pretty much always ate out.

I’m sure some of this had to do with laziness—we fortunately could afford to take all our meals in restaurants (living in downtown Manhattan helps with that since there are so many good, low-cost ethnic places within walking distance) and so we had a ready excuse for not wanting to roam the supermarket aisles at 7:30 PM and then heading home to start food preparation. Instead, we’d head over to the Stage Restaurant on Second Avenue, a Polish place famous for pirogue and roast chicken and an assortment of the best homemade soups in New York. A quick dinner for two there would rarely set you back more than $20. So why cook?

In fact, we cooked so little that we got a call from Con Edison one day to ask if there was something wrong with our gas service. No usage was being reported on the meter. When we confessed to the fact that we didn’t do much cooking—and that when we did we pretty much always used the microwave—they suggested that maybe we should have them turn off gas service so we could avoid the monthly fee that they charged whether or not we used any. To save that $12 a month we authorized them to do so.

But then for years we were ashamed to let any of our friends know about this. It would make us seem as spoiled as in fact we were. But then, during the booming gilded years when spending was seen to be virtuous, we fessed up and became local heroes of a sort—The Couple Who Ate Out Every Day. In our small way we became symbols of that profligate time.

Well, that time is over, we have more time now that neither of us has a traditional job (in other words, we’re sort of retired), and we are finding that cooking and eating at home is healthier and, the Stage aside, much cheaper than eating out all the time.

But to tell the truth, amateur evolutionary biologist that I am, if I had known sooner that cooking was related to the development and progress of our species—homo sapiens—I would have long ago had Con Edison over to reconnect us. I would have wanted to participate in that Darwinian struggle to be among the fittest.

I now know about the essential role that cooking played in evolution thanks to a new book by Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire (reviewed in the linked New York Times article). It’s not, he claims, because we, unarmed, would have been the expected winners in the battle for survival with other mammals—we have no claws, our jaws are weak, and we have no natural body armor—but rather we have survived and reached this stage of species domination because we figured out how to cook. In his more vivid language, we are “the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.”

He’s no crackpot but rather a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and makes a persuasive case that “cooking made us human” (his book’s subtitle).

Apes began to become human about two million years ago when they (I almost said “we”) learned to tame fire and began to sauté food. In his words:

Cooked food does many familiar things. It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.

In addition to enabling “us” to survive and reproduce better than before, eating cooked foods helped our bodies evolve in ways that made digestion easier and thereby made more energy available for our brains to enlarge. And our brains, more than our molars, are what ultimately allowed us to become the earth’s dominant animal.

The folks at the Stage couldn’t have said it any better.

Long term--who knows? At the risk of causing you to lose your appetite, all the cooking we are now doing is attracting a few cockroaches. Sorry, but we live in New York City. I haven’t seen any of them doing much food preparation—they are for sure seemingly enjoying mine—but I do know that many biologists contend that even if we homo sapiens wind up annihilating ourselves in a nuclear war or succumb to some pandemic, the roaches will survive us.

Must be my cooking.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

June 2, 2009--Castro At Columbia

On New Years Day 1959, Fulgencio Batista left Cuba for the last time and Fidel Castro assumed full power. Though he had a lifelong interest in socialism and communism, the decidedly bourgeois Fidel was also attracted to capitalism and so, when he came to the United States that April, about four months later, on the 22nd to be precise, he was eager to visit with President Eisenhower to see if they could make a deal—to in effect become allies. Specifically, Castro wanted to work out an agreement whereby the US would continue to supply Cuba with the oil it required; and Cuba, in turn, even under the revolutionary Castro, would continue to be an ally, in effect to remain an economic vassal of the United States.

As a first stop on his way to Washington, Castro stopped off in New York and agreed to have a meeting with American journalists at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

To those of us of a progressive persuasion who were undergraduates, he was a hero. Not yet the icon he subsequently became, but a romantic revolutionary figure with whom we could politically and, more revealingly, emotionally identify.

Most of us were still pimply working class Jews from Brooklyn. The children of immigrants who were busy clawing our way toward assimilation and full middle class status either as protégées of Columbia’s ultimately assimilated literary Jew, Lionel Trilling, or more commonly as grubby pre meds whose dream in life it was to somehow manage to get admitted to NYU’s Medical School. At the time, Columbia’s own College of Physicians and Surgeons was “restricted”—officially they had a quota on the number of Columbia College pre med graduates they would admit, which was in truth more a way to keep as many Jews out as they could get away with.

And since most of us were destined to go to Downstate Medical School in, yes, Brooklyn, you can only imagine how eager we pre meds were to cut zoology lab (where we were in the midst of dissecting dogfish shark’s cranial nerves—amazingly like our own) and stand outside on that chilly April afternoon and wait for Castro and his entourage to arrive on campus.

We knew from where the police had deployed their barricades that it would be on that closed off portion of West 116th Street (the site of subsequent student demonstrations in 1968) between the imposing granite library temples—Butler and Low—that he would be deposited and then walk the few hundred remaining yards to Journalism Hall for the press conference.

We students were not alone. Joining us—or rather us joining them—was a group of local Cuban-American women. Though Columbia had a tense relationship with the surrounding Harlem community and it was rare for any of these ladies to even consider walking across our campus on their way to the Broadway subway, on that day it was more their campus than ours. And so we stood together, stamping our feet to keep warm, and with them, for the hours we waited (Fidel was even then known to be notoriously late), stoop-shouldered premeds and tiny Latinas, and sang, over and over and over again—

Welcome Fidel Castro, welcome to New York
Welcome Fidel Castro, welcome to New York
Welcome Fidel Castro . .

By the time two hours of this cross-cultural camaraderie had passed we from Brooklyn had acquired their Cuban accent and so we sang—

Wel-cum Fidel Castro, wel-cum to New Jork
Wel-cum Fidel Castro, wel-cum to New Jork
Wel-cum . . .

You had to be there.

And then his motorcade pulled up, preceded by a phalanx of New York City police on motorcycles with lights and sirens blaring. First out of the lead limo was a slight but lithe kaki-clad man wearing a vaguely familiar looking beret. One of the woman whispered, “Ché, it’s Ché!”

Though he would become much more familiar to us years later when his image would be ubiquitously emblazoned over posters and ultimately tee shirts, Sam C____, the only true revolutionary among us--his father was a lifelong subscriber to the Daily Worker, had been at the notorious Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, and had marched in support of the Rosenbergs--Sam, whispered, “It’s Ché Guevara. The mind of the Revolución.” He pronounced it the Spanish way. Sam was that brilliant. A Comp Lit major and a favorite of Trilling’s

Then just as the late afternoon sun broke through, from the car emerged the spectacular, backlit Fidel.

The women squealed in ecstatic delight and the pre meds danced and chanted—

Wel-cum Fidel Castro, welcome to New Jork . . .

Fidel, man of the people noticed us and came over to where we were squeezed behind the barriers. He bent over, reaching across the stanchions, to embrace his little ladies; and then strode over to us—in his combat boots he was a spectacular strider—and in perfect English, said, “It’s good to be back at Columbia. You know I was once a student here.”

I had no idea that he had been and asked, “We’re you also a pre med? I know that they call you Dr. Castro.”

“No,” he laughed, slapping me on my back—we were about the same height—six-four, “I’m a lawyer. In my country, lawyers also are called ‘doctor.’”

And with that his security people whisked him off to School of Journalism.

* * *

Years late I learned that he never got to see Eisenhower—Columbia’s former president and then America’s was busy playing golf on April 23rd and had Castro meet in his place with his vice president, Richard Nixon. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Monday, June 01, 2009

June 1, 2009--Lessons From Hezbollah

On April 23rd, at a congressional hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her voice almost quivering with concern, warned that the Pakistani government’s failure to quell Taliban insurgents imminent threat to take over all of the Swat Valley in the strategically important northwest region of their country, less than 60 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, posed “a mortal treat to the United States.”

This astonishing warning from the no-drama Obama administration sent chills down my spine. If Swat were to fall, and then Islamabad, would we then be facing a Taliban takeover of a country that possesses dozens of nuclear warheads and the means to deploy them? I am not prone to these kinds of dire fears, but this one seemed ominously real.

Clinton went on to say:

I think that we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state, a nuclear-armed state.

I don't hear that kind of outrage and concern coming from enough people that would reverberate back within the highest echelons of the civilian and military leadership of Pakistan.

Somehow, during the past three weeks, the Pakistani government and military appear to have gotten their act together and are on the verge of defeating the insurgents in Swat and reclaiming virtually all of the territory.

And they appear to have accomplished this by employing more than overwhelming conventional force. According to the New York Times (article linked below), in addition to sending in heavily armored troops, they as well sent in a team of 21 doctors who quickly reopened the hospital in Mingora, the region’s principal city, to serve civilian seriously ill and wounded who had been stuck in their homes since the Taliban had displaced all the patients and used the hospital as a safe haven to secure themselves.

Government aid workers also quickly turned the gas back on and were fixing electric generators to restore the city’s water supply. Both had been sabotaged by the militants. They expect to have the electricity back on line in less than two weeks, also disabled by the Taliban, and 25 tons of food rations have already been delivered to 40,000 people who had been stranded in the Valley.

Partly as a result of seeing the government as their benefactor, locals in the area have been helping to flush out insurgents who have been hiding in hotels and other buildings and, until recently, in many cases, have been sheltered in the homes of civilians. Two senior militant commanders have been killed, as have more than 1,000 Taliban fighters since the operation began on just May 8th.

Clearly the Pakistani military and government have been learning lessons from our failures in Iraq to restore order and civic services after we overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime; and from the way Hezbollah, the Shi'a Islamist political and paramilitary organization based in Lebanon, operates and gains the support of local populations.

In 2000, using seemingly overwhelming force, Israel, in an attempt to defeat Hezbollah, invaded southern Lebanon, and was effectively defeated. The proud Israeli army had to withdraw as much because Hezbollah was perceived to be providing essential local services such as schools and health clinics as because they had developed improvised explosive devices that were effective against Israeli armored vehicles.

So-called “small wars,” where big powers with the latest in high-tech military equipment confront insurgents using homemade devices are not winnable unless local populations are engaged and see established governments to be acting in the best interests of their people. Thus the success of Hezbollah and thus hopefully the sustained success of the Pakistani government.

There is as well much here for us to learn.