Friday, January 29, 2010

January 29, 2010--Kosher Elevators

Some years ago I was visiting a friend in the hospital. Mount Sinai in New York. I was eager to get to see her and was impatient with the crowds clustered at the bank of elevators. They were very slow getting on and off and so when I saw one arrive at the end of the bank where the crowd was thinner I pushed my way toward it. People backed away and surprisingly, though the others were packed, this one was nearly empty as the doors closed. There was only one other person with me, and she go off on the second floor. My friend was up on twelve.

Even though I had pushed just that button, the car proceeded to stop, with agonizing slowness, at every floor. It was a great mystery to me why it did so since at each floor no one was there to summon it.

When I finally got to twelve, feeling confused and a little impatient, I noticed for the fist time a sign by my elevator that read, Sabbath Elevator—On Saturdays This Car Automatically Stops At All Floors. And since it was Saturday, it was the Sabbath. Or in Yiddish, Shabbos, which means cessation or rest.

This was my first experience with a kosher, yes, a kosher elevator.

On the Jewish Day of Rest many things are prohibited in order to make sure we do not do anything that smacks of work. This includes not walking a total of more than 2,000 cubits (3,049.5 feet), driving a car, carrying any money, using the telephone, or for that matter any electrical device, including a stove or a lamp. All are considered forms of work.

You may wonder where in the Old Testament there is any mention of telephones or lights or elevators. Of course there isn’t. But since to orthodox Jews the bible is a living document that must be interpreted for different times and different eras, much like the American Constitution, through the ages groups of the most senior and esteemed rabbis have taken on this complicated interpretive task.

Which brings me back to elevators.

During Shabbos, although observant Jews are not allowed to use anything powered by electricity there are permitted ways in which they can benefit by electrical devices such as lights and elevators. This is allowed if a non-Jew, a Shabbos Goy, activates them for us. Thus, famously, even synagogues can have their lights turned on on Saturdays if a gentile is hired to do so. And it is all right to benefit by an electrical light on Saturday if it is left on overnight or turned on automatically by a timing device. And it is permitted to use an elevator if it is programmed to stop automatically at each and every floor. This allows us to us them without having to push any buttons. Clever, no?

As with matters of this kind, things can get very complicated and disputatious.

For example, there is much controversy right now about new-fangled elevators that have sensing devices in them that determine if too many people are on board. If they are unsafely overloaded. This is done by automatically measuring the weight of all the passengers. If the car is quite full and just as the doors are about to close a portly person pushes his way on, a warning beep is emitted and the car will not begin to ascend until he or someone else gets off.

Among the rabbis who spend long day and nights considering these perplexing matters, they ponder that if you are that person who gets on at the last second and sets off the alarm are you doing the equivalent of pressing an elevator button? You were not just a passive elevator user who benefited from the fact that the car is preset to stop on every floor without your active engagement; but to the sternest rabbis, by your action (a version of “work”), you “desecrated the Sabbath.”

In the early days, the prohibitions were for things such as weaving or planting seeds or threshing grain or slaughtering or skinning an animal. Making a fire was also forbidden and was listed separately on the generic list of 39 categories of prohibition, the 39 melakhot. And from not being allowed to make or extinguish a fire (even one causing serious damage to a house) comes the ruling that activating an electrical light or circuit is the equivalent of making a fire.

Forgetting for a moment the actual physics—yes, they are both acts of releasing or using energy—it is pretty hard to live in the modern world and follow strictly all of these kinds of rules.

Which brings me back to the elevator situation. Many cities’ current safety codes require these kinds of warning devices on elevators. This then presents a problem to observant Jews who live on the 16th floor and on the Sabbath must get out—for example to go to shul for worship services. The Shabbos sanctions do not allow them to walk down and up the stairs and so they are left with having to use the elevator, presumably having a gentile neighbor press the buttons for them. But as was reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago (article linked below), a group of the most-esteemed rabbis in Israel issues a decree that said that even activating one of these weight sensors is a desecration. What is one to do? Move to the first floor? Make sure to always be the first one to get on the elevator?

As you can see, being this kind of Jew is a very dicey business. Thus, I think I’ll stay in bed tomorrow. But without turning on the TV or reading or doing the crossword puzzle. And for sure no raiding the refrigerator, that is unless I remove the bulb that lights when the door is opened. But then again, when I open the door (opening a door is permitted—it is not considered to be work) I will let some of the cold air out and that will start the electrical compressor and . . .

I think I’ll just let the rabbis figure that one out. In the meantime, I’m off to the Green Owl for coffee. Before the sun starts to go down.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 2010--Hamid Karzi's Karakul

I used to think Hamid Karzai was pretty cool. He cut a dashing figure when in 2001 he reemerged as president of the new Afghanistan. He had been living in exile in Pakistan after the Taliban defeated the Russians and then when they were subsequently overthrown by a coalition led by the United States returned to lead his country on a wave of optimism and high fashion.

I admit I thought he was cool as much because of the way he dressed as by the way he appeared to be governing. Even designer Tom Ford called him “the chicest man on the planet.” What with those flowing robes and lambskin hat. Right out of central Afghani casting.

That was then—the Taliban were tossed out by the U.S. military, women could get out of their burkas if they wanted to, even go to school, and it looked as if things were working out among the various ethnic tribes and militias that for many, many centuries had ruled and ruined that beautiful country.

But this is now—the Taliban are resurgent, the tribes are at each other’s throats again, what had been a quasi-democratic government has more and more come to resemble a central Asian monarchy, Karzi’s brother has been exposed as one of the country’s leading dope barons, Karzi himself after a rigged national election can’t manage to appoint a cabinet that his own legislature will approve, and no one any longer is wearing that cool karakul hat.

This is important because the karakul was more than a dashing fashion statement. It was a symbol of national unity.

In a country that was created during the middle of the 19th century by Briton and Russia as a consequence of their ruinous Great Game, as a gesture of hoped-for national unity, an inspired Karzi came up with a hat that would be pan-tribal. It was not indigenous to any of the many Afghani tribes. And so sales of the karakul took off. Anyone who was anyone or simply wanted to make a statement that the days of fierce division were over sported one.

But now that Karzi’s star has faded (an understatement), they are disappearing from the streets of Kabul. Where once there were dozens of hat stores on trendy Sha-e-do-Shamahera Wali Road, now all but 12 are closed and no one is expecting any of them to renew their leases.

According to a report in the New York Times (linked below), when a Karzi supporter returned to his village of Logar wearing his karakul hat, people laughed. They mocked, “There goes an old man who thinks he’s president.”

But Karzi persists in wearing his. In fact, he has dozens of them in various shades of gray and black and black and white. And they are quite dear. Along Wali Road they can go for as much as $3,000 each. Especially those on which the lambskin curls appear to read Allah in Arabic script.

But even with caps this miraculous (recall the piece of toast that sold on eBay for thousands because it appeared to have an image if the Virgin Mary etched in it?), the ultra-religious community is up in arms. It seems that the lambs that get slaughtered to make the hats are not done so in a way prescribed by Islam and thus the meat as well as the skin is “prohibited.”

Another problem, speaking anonymously so as not to get into trouble, one hat store owner where Karzi shops revealed that when he first took over as president the circumference of his head was 22½ inches; now it has apparently swollen an inch to 23½.

No comment.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 27, 2010--The Timidity of Hope

While waiting for tonight’s State of the Union address, I am prepared to make one prediction—it will not sound all that different than those by George W. Bush.

What a difference an election in Massachusetts can make.

From what has been leaked to the media about the speech, its title could be The Timidity of Hope.

The centerpiece will be a call to freeze all “discretionary” spending for the next three years. Obama’s version of kicking our domestic problems down the road for his successor since I am sensing that if things continue as at present he will turn out to be a one-term president. Even many of his original supporters are feeling frustrated. (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

This call for a spending freeze is a cynical pander to independent and Tea Party voters who are abandoning Democrats and Obama because of their perceived recklessness with the budget. Next year’s deficit, for example, is projected to reach at least $1.3 trillion.

It is cynical for a number of reasons. As defined by Obama, the “discretionary” part of the budget not only excludes entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security (I can understand not freezing or cutting them) but also all things military. Thus, by this faulty logic, the Pentagon and Homeland Security budgets (a huge percentage of the total) are not only sacrosanct but also are being redefined as quasi-entitlements.

Thus, Obama is talking about freezing less than one-sixth of our total federal budget. For a relatively pittance of savings, he will set off an internecine zero-sum feeding frenzy among all sorts of constituency groups (mainly members of his own party) all wanting to save their favorite program at the expense of others which may be of equal value. This will make the battles over aspects of the health care bill look like skirmishes.

We’ll see charter school advocates go after after-school programs; we’ll see cancer research advocates go after HIV programs; we’ll see ethanol sponsors attacking farm subsidy protectors; we’ll see national park preservationists wrestling with friends of endangered species. Get the not-so-pretty picture?

An audacious president wanting to reattract political independents turned off by business-as-usual would go after all the special interests, starting at the minimum with a freeze on military spending. Even better, he would call for across the board cuts in all parts of the budget, again exempting Social Security and Medicare.

If we’re going to have a dog-fight over which education or health or environment programs to cut—which could be good since not all are worth retaining--we should have at least equivalent ones over which weapons systems should be slashed or eliminated.

This is not only the right thing to do—freezing or modestly cutting everything is not in itself an irresponsible or radical idea—but it would also be the politically smart thing.

So, you say, if he could pull up his shorts and call for this, the Congress would still continue to do its thing.

That’s an easy one—veto any spending legislation that violates this directive. If necessary, shut everything down. It worked when Clinton called Gingrich’s bluff, and it would work even more powerfully now that everyone in the country is riled up and ready to throw out all the bums.

Which to me is getting to be a more and more attractive Plan C.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 26, 2010--JN8:12--The Light of Life

Trijicon, Inc., ever hear of them, has a nearly one billion dollar contract with the Pentagon to supply it with high-tech telescopic gun sights that are in demand all over Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marines are buying more than 200,000 and the Army is in the process of purchasing 200,000. Clearly, these must be state of the art gun sights.

Actually, they are much more than state of the art. Unbeknownst to military purchasing agents, Trijicon, out of the goodness of its heart, at no extra charge, threw in a few extras.

Either to help make our troops aim more accurate, or to provide an extra layer of protection, very subtly on each and every scope they added a quote from the Bible. Actually, from just the New Testament.

Needless to say, this mashing together of military jingoism and Christian faith-based exhortation is not only upsetting some members of our own military who are not of the Christian faith but it also is enraging many in the Islamic world where these weapons are being used.

Do they need any more encouragement or evidence to claim that what we are up to in their region is a 21st century crusade? And don’t you think al Qaeda and the Taliban are using this as a made-in-heaven, sorry, unintentional recruiting opportunity?

How dumb can we get? All the Pentagon folks needed to do when investigating whether or not to order the gun sights from Trijicon, to see if they were an appropriate supplier, was to look on their Website. They would have seen that the company is not trying to hide its beliefs. Quite the contrary, they flaunt them. Trijicon unabashedly says, “We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow these morals.” (See the linked New York Times article for a fuller accounting.)

Not only is this bad history—most of our founding fathers were self-declared deists—but it should have been a tip-off to check whatever they ordered and received from Trijicon with a fine tooth comb.

If they had, they would have easily spotted the inscriptions on the sides of the gun sights. Either “JN8:12” or “2COR4:6.” Which stand for “Book of John, Chapter 8, Verse 12” and “Second Corinthians, Chapter 4, Verse 6.”

And if they then went to their New Testaments, they would have seen that in John 8:12, Jesus is quoted as saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Crusader talk.

And then in Second Corinthians 4:6, they would have found: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” More evangelicizing.

The belated good news—after this was pointed out to Secretary of Defense Gates he got Trijicon to give the military, free-of-charge, kits to remove the quotations.

The bad news is that they received only a total of 100 kits. With 400,000 of these gun sights out and about, some in pretty remote places, with 100 kits, if it takes say a half hour per gun sight to file off the biblical references (they are cast in the metal housing), by my calculations, and I was never very good at math, if we and our Islamic ally troops who have these telescopic sights worked at this 24 hours a day, it would take about a year to get the job done. 333 days. That is if each of the kits was in full, seamless use during all of those 333 days.

And then I wonder what Jesus himself would have thought about his words being put to this use.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 25, 2010--Mr. President: Come to My Diner In South Florida

After the election last Tuesday in Massachusetts, to change the subject and demonstrate he is far from a lame duck, President Obama traveled to Lorain, Ohio, hit hard by the Great Recession, to talk in campaign mode about how he will continue “to fight” for the things “average Americans” sent him to Washington to accomplish. He used the word “fight” literally 20 times in his remarks to make sure we got the point.

He spoke about the economy, the environment, and of course health care. But before he got to the main substance of is comments, unscripted, as if responding to the charge that even after just one year he is isolated and out of touch with us average American’s, he pined about how things change when you become the President and how difficult it then is to escape the White House bubble and mix with people.

With a hint of sadness in his voice, he said:

For two years, I had the privilege of traveling across this country, and I had a chance to talk to people like you, and go to diners and sit in barbershops, and hear directly about the challenges that all of you are facing in your lives, and the opportunities that you’re taking advantage of, and all the things that we face together as a nation. And the single hardest thing — people ask me this all the time — the single hardest thing about being President is that it’s harder for me to do that nowadays. It’s harder to get out of the bubble.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the White House is a wonderful place to work. You live above the store — (laughter) — which means I’ve got a very short commute. I’m having — I see my daughters before they go to school and I see them at night for dinner, even if I have to go back down to the office. And that makes everything so much better. But the truth is, this job is a little confining, and that is frustrating. I can’t just go to the barbershop or sit in a diner. I can’t always visit people directly.

To this I say: “Mr. President, with all due respect, aren’t you the President? The Commander In Chief? And as such can’t you tell your people, including commanding the Secret Service, that you want to get out there among the people so you can hear directly what’s on our minds? Not unprotected, of course, but on your own at least once every couple of weeks. To visit your old barber shop and a diner, including mine here in South Florida.

I’m serious, get on that big plane, fly it down to West Palm, and drive on over. We’re only half an hour from the airport. I’d suggest arriving without an entourage at about 7:30 or 8:00, when some are getting before-work coffee and others are there to hang out for an hour of good food and great talk.

And don’t worry too much about being sandbagged by a lot of Tea Bag folks, though there are a few of them, or think that everyone here is a Republican who voted for McCain and now after one year are even more turned off to you. Actually, about half the regulars took a chance and voted for you. And to give you another sense of who’s actually here, when two-years ago presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani campaigned at a nearby Dunkin’ Donut only about a dozen people turned out to see him.

On the other hand, it would do you good to get an earful from some of the people who are now totally disenchanted with what’s going on in Washington, but unlike you, though you expressed some of your own frustrations, they don’t, as you put it in Lorain, have a deal as good as yours. They have to pay their own bills.

Most of them, most of us are worried about losing our incomes, our homes, and our futures. You need to hear from us directly. Not through the filter of so-called town meetings and rallies. And you also need to hear what those, like me, who still support you, are saying. We’re on board, but not happy.

So pull up a stool at the counter, order a mug of coffee and some eggs and grits. As a preview, here’s a sampling of who you’d meet and what you’d hear. These are real people but I’ve changed their names and some facts of their lives so as to give them cover in case you turn up and sit down next to them.

And I suggest you do a lot more listening than speechifying.

You’d love Nick Parker. He’s an ex Marine who served in Vietnam and then went on to a career that had him living and working in West Africa. He won’t say for sure but we all think his corporate job was a cover for some government-sanctioned snooping. He still gets his hair cut in buzz-cut Marine style. By a lady barber who charges only $7.00. I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you about the place, even take you there, and also about his concerns.

He didn’t vote for you (too inexperienced, he said at the time) but is very much with you when it comes to how to fight in Afghanistan. He lives mainly on pensions that depend on the interest-rate environment and so has seen it cut about in half. But he also invests in commodities, which he will tell you he thinks are a hedge against hyper-inflation that he sees to be at most a year or two away.

And he will tell you to hire some more gray-haired folks for your administration. People who have been around the block a few times. And for the stimulus program, which he still doesn’t like but wants to see succeed (he’s a patriot and wants everything you are trying to accomplish for the economy come out well) he thinks you made a big mistake asking Joe Biden to oversee it. He says, “What does Biden know about running anything more than his Senate office?

“Why not ‘draft’ someone like Donald Trump to oversee it. I hate that guy—can you get over that hairdo of his—but he does know how to get things done. We need more people in government who actually know how to do things. Like that industrialist Henry Keiser who Roosevelt during the Second World War put in charge of building Liberty Ships. You should do the same kind of thing.”

That, Mr. President, is probably the kind of thing Nick would tell you and a lot more.

Sally Mayfair is another one of the regulars. She’s a pistol. Full of spit and vinegar. She has to work three jobs to keep up the payments on her house and her health insurance. And never complains about that or anything. She takes life as it comes. All her jobs are part time; and even if the places she worked offered a health plan, as a part-timer she wouldn’t be eligible for it. Now she’s afraid she’ll run out of coverage since she had cancer surgery about four years ago and she is bucking up against her lifetime maximum. “One recurrence,” she says, “and there goes the house.” About this you would be in full synch. In fact, she voted for you enthusiastically in part because she believed you would do something about health care and would do so again tomorrow if you were running.

Her 16 year-old is struggling in high school. He’s smart enough but he’s bored. Because of cutbacks in funding here, they’ve had to lay off teachers and his class sizes have gotten so big that he gets lost in the crowd. He needs a lot of individual attention and that’s not available anymore. Nor are the art and music classes, which were his favorites. They too were cut because of lack of money. So she worries that he is slowly drifting into trouble. He got suspended last week for a dress code violation. He says it was because they have it in for him. Plenty of other kids, he claims, wear their hats the same way. Sally would like to talk about him with the assistant principal but would have to take a day off from work and that would mean losing pay. Which she can’t afford.

If you sat next to her, she’d likely tell you that though health care is important, fixing the public schools is even more so. This from a cancer patient running out of coverage. “If we can’t do right by our kids,” she’d say, “what kind of future will they have. Much less the rest of us. So,” she’d advise, “I hope you’ll take that on as your top priority. If we can’t take care of our kids, how can we take care of anything else?”

Jim Lacey is a town cop. He’s an Iraq veteran. From the last time around. Desert Storm. He’s African American, which is not unusual for police here; and although he worries about all the young people he encounters—about their education and the kinds of jobs available for them—he is especially concerned about black kids. Not because he and they are black but because what he sees from his patrol car is many more blacks than whites getting into serious trouble.

He’d tell you, “If this were true with the white kids, I’d feel the same way—we should pay special attention to them. The big problem, as I see it, is that other than restaurant and hotel work there aren’t any jobs for young people. When I was their age, before I went into the army, we were building things here and that was good for me because I wasn’t great at academics. I could make good money in construction but now with all the illegals, sorry to bring that up, what work of that kind there is goes to them. And it’s all off the books, which isn’t good from a tax perspective. Plus it also builds resentment among folks who can’t find work.

“So if you were to ask my advice, which I know you’re not, like Sally, I’d say pay attention to our young people. That needs to happen for all the reasons Sally mentioned but also if would be good for you politically. No one will disagree that we have to do better by our kids. I’ll bet even some Republicans would go along with you if you emphasized that.”

Than, drifting in later would be Harry Greene. He’d intentionally come in after the rest of us knowing you’d be there. So as not to appear too eager to meet you. He has a lot of that kind of pride. He took over a small office services business from his parents. His people have been in the area for three generations. They have been among the town’s leaders. He employs eight people and is struggling now with all the costs associated with keeping their benefits going. He’s even cut his own weekly draw, trying to ride out the recession without laying anyone off or cutting their health care coverage.

He went to the University of Florida and then earned a law degree at Florida Atlantic, going to school at night. He’s a real Gator and one of the smartest and most articulate people you’ll ever meet. You wouldn’t be able not to love this guy, including some of his stories and anecdotes. And he would like you too, even though he and his people have been life-long Republicans. Quite conservative ones. So conservative that he doesn’t like the current Florida governor, Charlie Crist, and not just for embracing you when you came to Florida to talk about your stimulus plan. Crist’s just not conservative enough for Harry’s taste.

He’d let you know what he thinks about your first year. It will be no surprise that he doesn’t like what you’ve been up to. He was and is against the bailouts for corporations—he even suspects that it’s an intentional step toward socialism; he disagrees vigorously about cap and trade, feeling the science isn’t there to support the theory (and he calls it a theory) that humans are contributing to global warming; and he suspects that you’re a traditional big government, tax-and-spend liberal.

But he would want you to do something to support small businesses such as his own, and this includes doing something about health care. Not the broad, ambitious program you’ve been promoting. He thinks it was an ideological mistake to push for that, a practical error, and a political blunder. As a result he’d claim that you spent most of your first year and much of your political capital on this and will likely walk away with little or nothing.

He’s happy to see his Republicans feeling resurgent; but like Nick Parker, he views himself as a good and true American and thus wants his president, whoever he might be, to succeed.

He’d tell you what for weeks he’s been telling me, “You should have gone after some low-hanging fruit when it comes to health care. Things even Republicans like me could support. You should have had your party in Congress pass legislation to make sure no one gets denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition; you should close the donut hole in the prescription drug program, and you should not only help subsidize some of our poorest people so they can get coverage, but you should also listen to people like me—really listen to us—about what you could do to help small business owners provide coverage; and also while we’re talking, what other kinds of tax things you could advocate to help us survive and grow. Because that’s the real way to create jobs. Make-work schemes don’t work.”

Harry would say, “Though I want to see a Republican president elected in three years, if you did this kind of thing, you’d build the perception that you can do more than eloquently present ideas and raise hope but also that you can get things done. That you can deliver some needed and popular things for the people who elected you—independent, middle-class, hard working people like the folks here in the diner.”

He’d smile at you and, leaning closer, say, “Of course don’t tell anybody that I advised you this way since I’d be in big trouble with some of my friends!”

Some come on down Mr. President. I’ll even pick up your check if the election laws allow that, and I’d offer a little advice of my own—I like your notion of the audacity of hope; but isn’t it true that there is no real hope with only the audacity of words.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22, 2010--Tapped Out

I will return to this spot on Monday. Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21, 2010--Amusing Ourselves to Death

A former NYU colleague, media ecologist Neil Postman, wrote widely about the ways in which the electronic media are affecting our lives and consciousness. The title of one of his books, from 1985, in itself sums up much of what is infecting and endangering our current culture and political environment—Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Now, from a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, we have the data that support Neil’s early insight. (A report about it in the New York Times is linked below.)

Are you sitting down?

Except for their relatively few hours in school, America’s youth on average spend nearly every other waking hour hooked up to and/or involved with smart phones, computers, television, computer games, and iPods.

Kids between 8 and 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day involved with this stuff; and this doesn’t count the additional hour and a half during which they text message or the other half hour they spend yakking on their cell phones. Add it all up, and if you include time spend multitasking—listening to music while surfing the Internet—and this means that they are hooked up this way for about 10 or 11 hours a day every day.

Postman’s was a TV-suffused world. At the time he could hardly imagine what might be coming next. If he were alive today, I can only imagine what he would have to say about our media-addled kids. But much of what he wrote about the TV generation is extrapolatable to what we see today as young people wander the streets while texting as if in a somnambulant state or spend countless hours up in their bedroom addicted to electronic games such as Assassin’s Creed or Left 4 Dead.

To Neil, TV, and by extension these newer media, portended an Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights. Or a world not unlike the one described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss and voluntarily sacrifice their rights. Postman saw television's entertainment value as a "soma" for the contemporary world, and he worried that we as a result were surrendering our rights in exchange for entertainment.

Citing Marshall McLuan, Neil claimed it is in the DNA of electronic media that their “form” is so powerful and intoxicating that it becomes more important than the “content.” Fostering rational argument, an integral attribute of print media, cannot occur through the medium of television because "its form excludes the content."

One consequence of this is that politics and religion get diluted and the "news of the day" is transformed into a commodity. The presentation itself deemphasizes quality; all data, all information is thus devoted to the unquenchable need for entertainment.

Similar kinds of concerns were expressed early in the 16th century when books came into wide circulation. They contributed to democratizing what to that point had been a monopoly of knowledge; and those with vested interests in maintaining that exclusivity of literacy, those at the top of the social and religious hierarchies that depended on the privileged possession of the kinds of knowledge previously available only in manuscripts, objected vigorously and did what they could to contain the spread of ideas that were the result of the books that became available after the Guttenberg Revolution.

I used to argue with Neil about this. If as it turned out books and later newspapers contributed to the dissemination of knowledge, the scientific revolution, and the empowerment of more people that at any time in the historical past, wasn’t he being premature in his Luddite-like opposition to the perils of the emerging media? Could we possibly know so early on in the development of these new media what good they might spawn?

“Wait,” he would say to me with his always generous smile, “This is just the beginning. I do not know what will follow, but this is just the beginning.”

Though I know he would not be happy, I wish he could still be here and again between classes stroll down University Place with me to witness all the wired-up, zombie-like kids.

Then again, he would likely still say, “Wait.” Perhaps this time wondering if perhaps some good might still come of this.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 20, 2010--Massachusetts And Beyond

There is no way to spin this one.

One day short of the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the results in the Senate race in Massachusetts indicate that his presidency is more than foundering. It is in serious free fall.

Not only have the Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate, which means that because of arcane rules Republicans in disciplined lockstep can block his entire legislative agenda, but it also means that he is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Health care reform will be the first thing to be jettisoned but so will any real efforts to reform our corrupt financial system, our failing public schools, and our overheating environment.

We will now get a chance to test the hypothesis of the no-government crowd that has been gathering strength for at least a year. We will see if their version of a free market can solve our economic problems, if doing more of the same can fix our schools, and if concerns about global warming are part of a socialist conspiracy to expand government control over our lives.

This and more will be tested. And to this progressive, it is a good thing.

It is time to get it on.

To see if a year of governmental gridlock, the Republican agenda, can solve more of our problems than a year of federal activism. And if this fails, where will we be? We will have pushed the restart button and in November, during the mid-term election season, we can get serious about really cleaning house. The Tea Bag crowd will rule.

They just had their first clear victory and this will embolden them. It will also scare off many more Democrats and a few Republicans who are wavering about their own reelection prospects. Blue Dog Democrats in both houses of Congress will behave more and more like Republicans and craven folks such as Joe Lieberman will likely flirt with switching parties. We will see a lot more of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and Fox News.

This will lead to Rock Bottom. The place all addicts need to get to in order to have a chance to finally amend their ways. And, make no mistake about it, we as a country have been behaving like out-of-control addicts.

Spending money both personally and governmentally that we do not have in order to feed our various consumption habits. Some of us have already reached rock bottom thanks to the Great Recession. But most of us have not yet been brought low enough to shake us to the core.

It will be increasingly difficult with an economy in tatters, with us roaming the Far East with a begging cup in hand, and needing to confront the hard truth that our remarkable military is unable to win wars against insurgents and terrorists, in this condition it will become more and more difficult to get away with just blustering and swaggering. It will be harder to get away with chanting “USA. USA.” Or, “We’re number one. We’re number one.” This as a policy or course of action will no longer work. We will be forced to move beyond this and other forms of self-delusion. Distractions, gossip, and entertainments (including political entertainment) will lose their power. Hopefully they will.

This trumpeting and posturing can get us one so far. It’s getting to be time soon to press the restart button.

And if Barack Obama is not too isolated from the realities swirling around him to see this need, I am hoping he will begin the restarting process.

I have suggested for many months that his coolness at a time when things are heating up, when understandable anger is building, though it reveals remarkable restraint, is a ruinous political strategy and inappropriate for these times and our troubles. It smacks of disconnection, out-of-touchness, and, at its worst, arrogance.

He needs to get on TV as early as today, and without script or teleprompter, look Americans in the eye and say, “I hear you. During my first year in office I tried a lot of things that I felt were in the best interest of the country.”

If he needs to, though I recommend that he restrain himself from doing so, he can then make a list of what he sees to be his accomplishments. “But,” he should continue, “by various means, including yesterday in Massachusetts, you gave me a failing grade on that first year.

“I still have three years left in my term of office and I will not allow myself to slip into irrelevance. I will not turn into an overnight lame duck. We still have too many problems to solve.

“So I will again try to work with my Republican colleagues. I am asking Congress to take health care legislation off the table. It was not the right priority at this time of deep recession when people are still losing their jobs and homes. We need to focus all of our energy on the economy.

“We need to advance policies to create more economic vitality; we need to find additional ways to help small and mid-size businesses create jobs; we need to do everything we can to help people from losing their homes; and we need to be serious about restraining government spending.

“In regard to the latter, anything that comes to my desk with even one earmark in it I will veto. Even if it is for funding the military. This in itself will not cut deeply into the deficit but will send a message that this kind of business-as-usual is over. Over. At least while I am president.

“And I am reorganizing my economic team and White House staff. Late last night I asked Treasure Secretary Geithner to resign. He has done so. Paul Volker, who was a remarkably able Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has agreed to replace him for the next three years. Paul has been right all along as we were heading into this mess and he has the right ideas about what we should do going forward. I was wrong not to have listened to him enough during the past year. We need more experienced hands working for the American people to hold to account those who brought us to these unacceptable circumstances.

“I have spent too much time focused on Wall Street and not enough on Main Street. As of today, that too is over. Over. As long as I am president.

“Also, I have also asked Rahm Emanuel and my entire White House political team to resign. They are terrific, hard-working people but they have not given me the advice I needed to be effective and to respond to the real needs of the American people. I need fresh voices advising me. I need to break out of the Washington and Chicago cocoons.

“But ultimately what we have accomplished, but above all the failures that have occurred on my watch, have been my responsibility and my fault.

“I intend to be here for three more years; and with so much that requires urgent attention, I will recommit myself to bringing about change. The kind of change you sent me here to accomplish and that the American people still want and deserve.

I heard you last night.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January 19, 2010--Mr. Cuba

I was going to write something about the Senate race in Massachusetts, about how important it is to the Obama agenda and how in its apparent closeness--this is a state where three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats--it is a bellweather of voter unhappiness, frustration, and deep anger toward anything having to do with governments. And who can blame them. Who can blame us.

But then I came upon an obituary in the New York Times about Mel Cuba who died at 99 and who, from his picture, looked preternaturally familiar to me. (It is linked below.)

I knew a Mr. Cuba from my elementary school days at PS 244 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. He was my shower teacher. Yes, shower teacher.

As part of its attempt to Americanize the children of immigrants, New York City at the time did various things to teach us good hygiene. We needed to bring and display clean handkerchiefs to school; we needed to hold out our hands every morning in class so our teachers could inspect them for cleanliness, especially to see if our fingernails were clean; we had to provide evidence that we went to the dentist twice a year for checkups and cleanings (I always suspected that dentists organized themselves to lobby for this torturous requirement); and after gym class we were required to take showers, and during that shower class we had a teacher there with us who instructed us on proper soaping, scrubbing, and drying techniques.

In my case, my shower teacher was a Mr. Cuba. So when I spotted an obit for a Mel Cuba, and when his face looked familiar to me, I concluded that this had to be my Mr. Cuba. So I read it carefully.

It was a featured obituary, and this was not because of his hygienic history. Though water was a prominent theme in the obituary. I learned for the first time that his real claim to fame was not his time with us thin-chested public school kids but rather for his heroism as a lifeguard back in August 1933, a number of years before I encountered him.

On that day, 105 orphans from the Judea Home in Brooklyn were brought to Rockaway Beach for a midsummer outing. The ocean was quite rough and quickly 40 of the orphans were swept away. For a time, it looked as if they would all be lost. But one lifeguard in particular was very brave. While his colleagues on the strand struggled to launch boats so they could paddle out to the drowning kids, he plunged right into the rough surf and swan out to the sandbar where they were stranded and in imminent danger of being washed to sea.

When with great effort he managed to get there, he took hold of one boy, than another, and after that two more; and with all four in hand he somehow was able to tread water while a catamaran raced toward him. Just as he himself was about to succumb, the boat arrived and the four boys were hauled on board and brought safely back to shore.

That lifeguard hero was my Mr. Cuba. He was so exhausted by his effort, that he too needed to be rescued. On that day though, one of the worst in New York history, seven children drowned. But the others were saved. Four thanks to Mel Cuba.

Years later, when we encountered him, my classmates and I were unaware of these heroics. If we had known, rather than grousing about the humiliation of having to shower in semi-public, including being required to allow Mr. Cuba to inspect between our toes to make sure they were dry so we could avoid getting Athlete's Foot, we would have spread them and other parts of our bodies to make things easier for him and as a way of acknowledging his bravery. At least I hope we would have.

Rest in peace Mr. Cuba.

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18, 2010--Sperm Olympics

I’m worried about my manhood. Not actually mine, but rather man’s manhood.

A year ago, I was worried that men were in danger of becoming biologically obsolete. That the chromosome which is responsible for fetuses turning into men, the Y chromosome, was literally shrinking; and before too much longer, some scientists claimed, man will become biologically obsolete and sexually reproduction as we know it will cease.

Our Y chromosomes have been losing genes. When homo sapiens first evolved, X and Y chromosome started out with about the same number of genes -- about 1,000. Today, however, the Y chromosome has less than 80 genes; and in about another million years, we’ll be down to zero.

Though by this calculus we shouldn’t be that worried about such matters for, say, at least the rest of this millennium, things are not looking too good when it comes to our longer-term destiny. And, more promising, other scientists are seeing things differently. For example, David Page of MIT's Whitehead Institute claims, "At the same time that the Y chromosome is continuing to lose genes, it's found some new ways of replenishing itself."

And also last year, Page and his colleagues reported a finding that brought me some cheer--at the same time as it has been shedding genes, the Y chromosome has been secretly creating backup copies of its most important ones. These are being stored in the DNA as mirror images of the disappearing genes. According to this scenario, there is hope for maleness after all, and thus for the human race, such as it is.

In spite of these hopeful thoughts of Dr. Page, it has taken me some time to get used to the idea that the potency of my future male brethren is likely winding down.

But now the good doctor has me totally confused.

At the same time that men are in danger of no longer being men and whatever consequences that might have for species survival, from him and his colleagues, I am now learning that that our species is undergoing another kind of change. Our Y chromosome is experiencing a much more rapid, different kind of metamorphosis.

According to a recent article in the New York Times (linked below), after Dr. Page finished decoding the DNA of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, he found evidence that since about six million years ago, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary time, change to man’s Y chromosome has been rampaging ahead at such a rapid rate that it is now 30 percent different than a chimpanzee’s. While the rest of our genome has remained pretty much chimp-like, this male-determining chromosome is startlingly different.

To add to my confusion, it appears that though chimpanzee Y chromosomes have also evolved more rapidly than other parts of their genome, this change has been decidedly slower than human’s.

How to explain this, and does this offer more hope for our long-term survival, assuming we do not do ourselves in in other ways before that one-million-year biological time clock runs down?

Again, according to Dr. Page these unexpectedly rapid changes are the result of chimp and, yes, human mating habits. Things now are about to get a little more delicate.

When a female come into heat, she mates with all the males in the group, in effect setting up competition within her uterus for all the males’ sperm. Which one, or which ones, will cause conception? In evolutionary terms, the winners will not be determined just by chance. The sperm which wiggle the fastest and are the strongest swimmers will find their way first to her ovum and fertilize one or more of them, and this sperm vitality and potential to survive will be passed along to their offspring.

You may be wondering what does this have to do with our own kind. What chimps do chimps do; but we are humans and this is not the way we mate. It may be the way some of us fool around, but mating is something different.

Well, Dr. Page relentlessly points out, not so fast.

First of all, we have been fully emerged homo sapiens for only 200,000 years and, in regard to how we carried on in the savannahs and caves, who knows what was going on for the first 195,000. And even now, he cannot help himself from pointing out, there are contemporary examples of heteropaternity—the birth of twins with two different fathers.

So even though the primate Sperm Olympics is still going on among other apes in the wild, at least when it comes to us, though some of our behavior has evolved as the result of our relatively new-fangled moral and religious codes, it appears that there is still extant evidence from these twins of that earlier kind of more unrestrained behavior. And thus, for species survival sake, as well as for that of the fragile, incredibly-shrinking homo sapien Male Ego, on this bleak Monday, there is cause for some muted optimism.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January 15, 2010--Good As Goldman

Republicans I know are in full rant. The latest has to do with the Obama administration’s move to limit carbon emissions.

Here is a sample from an email that arrived recently from one such friend with whom I have been having an on-going debate about global warming—he recognizes that it is happening but contends that humans are not contributing significantly to it:

The science is nowhere near settled on this issue and the technology presently does not exists to significantly affect what the powers-that-be erroneously think is the problem. You don’t start down the road if it’s in the wrong direction. You often preach patience. Well, now you have your chance. Now is a time to do nothing because the reasoning behind measures being taken and contemplated is flawed.

When I pointed out to him that with science none of the big issues are ever fully “settled,” that it is the nature of science and the scientific method itself to continue to pose hypotheses and then to relentlessly test them when searching for the “truth,” I heard nothing back.

When I mentioned the Manhattan Project, about which he is enthusiastic, noting that the government decided to proceed with the work to develop the atomic bomb even though many scientific and technological questions were quite unsettled, and though some of the leading Los Alamos physicists, when the first bomb was tested, were not certain that it would not unleash an out-of-control chain reaction, still we proceeded to detonate it; and yet about this too from my friend I am still waiting to hear back.

For some reason, desiring certitude and motivated it seems to me more by belief and ideology than history or logic, though we do not have to come to any of the same conclusions, and he undoubtedly would say these same things about me, I have been pressing my conservative friends not just to make claims and offer opinions but to set them in historical context and back them up with real evidence. Again, we are unlikely to agree, but it would be good to have these exchanges proceed on the basis of at least a few agreed-upon facts.

The more these exchanges proceed, the more I am noticing that there is one overarching issue about which they and I irreconcilably do not agree--what role governments should play in taking on any of our nation’s most gnawing problems. From the economy to the environment to protecting us from terrorists. This is the biggest issue of all. All of our policy disputes are derived from the very different ways in which we view government itself.

Embedded in the quote above is a succinct statement about my friend’s basic distrust of government, any government, and in that context, what government should do. In a word, “nothing.

Most of our problems, I keep hearing from him and others, are caused by the Government, with a capital G. As Ronald Reagan, without evidence, famously said, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

This time Government gets blamed for the fallen economy (because of taxes and regulation and federal monetary policy) and for pressing on us “solutions” to global warming that would only make it worse and, further, ruin the economy.

However, there is one exception, in spite of the fact that the military is an arm of government, pretty much anything they want to do is fine. How they want to spend money and how and where to wage wars. This my Republican buddies see to be the one true role for Government.

When I argue back that though governments play various roles in, say, the economy, even at their worst, what they contribute to our problems is only one component of many interlocking causes. And, in my view, the damage government might do is significantly dwarfed by what rapacious financial institutions and corporations perpetrate. And, of course, how bad economic behavior on the part of individuals, which also contributes to our current crisis, is not governmentally determined.

When I ask in what ways government was responsible for the Enrons and Worldcoms of the world, I tend to hear nothing back. When I point out how Goldman Sachs has and continues to manipulate markets for its own benefit (often to the detriment of its clients—see the New York Times article linked below) and ask how government is responsible for this egregious behavior, I hear nothing back, except assertions about the perfection of the Market (with a capital M) and the blind and rational hand that guides it.

Again, it is unlikely that we will find much common ground, but I have been telling these friends recently that if our dialogue is to continue it has to be based on more than rhetoric and belief. I hope to hear something back from them about that.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

January 14, 2010--Bag It

What follows is strictly political. It has nothing to do what’s right to do or wrong to do. It has to do with what Barack Obama has to do right now to save his presidency.

You might say that it’s just a week short of one year since he was inaugurated so what’s the political crisis. Hasn’t he accomplished a lot? The economy, though still badly wounded is off life support; both houses of Congress have passed versions of a health care bill—his top legislative priority; unemployment, though still intolerably high, has at least leveled off; holiday shopping blipped up; and there are signs of progress with a few of the world’s seemingly intractable problems.

Yes, but again politically, by this time next week there is the real possibility that the voters in Massachusetts will have elected a Republican to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate. This in a state where three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats.

And even if Martha Coakley wins it is likely to be by a slim and, from an Obama way of looking at things, very scary margin. If Scott Brown manages to triumph, there goes the Democrats’ 60-vote majority in the Senate and, politically once more, this for all intents and purposes will represent the end of the Obama presidency.

With just 59 votes, and with then all 41 Republicans marching in lockstep to bring down the Obama legislative agenda as well as his presidency (for the past year they’ve been up front about saying that this is their goal), the Senate rules are such that the do-nothing GOP will filibuster his presidency to a dead stop.

So here’s what he has to do:

Of course pray that Coakley wins. If she does (and I expect that she will eke out a 5-point victory), call a primetime press conference. At it announce that he is ending his support for both the House or Senate versions of the health care bill. Neither one, he should say, represents real reform. They both reflect sell-outs to the health insurance industry; they both cost too much and will not be paid for except by taxing the very people he said during the campaign are already taxed too much; there are too many wild cards in both pieces of legislation—he no longer, for example, can say that either will assure that people who have insurance and like it will be able to retain what they have. And there were many too many deals that had to be stuck to line up sufficient support to pass it, and those special deals are embedded unacceptably in the legislation. This is not the way to change things in Washington. He should remind people that he was elected to work to end business as usual, and sadly the bill is turning out to represent that very thing. Thus, he cannot support it.

Instead, he should say, let’s pull the bill back for reconceptualization and turn our domestic attention to two things—

First, second, and third we must devote our energy to strengthening the economy.

About that we need to do two things: we must do everything possible to create jobs, including passing various tax and other incentives to help small and mid-size businesses grow and expand; and second, we should do all we can to help people keep their homes. This includes putting pressure on the banks not just to make loans but to reduce the amount of principal outstanding in existing mortgage, which would help keep more people than at present from slipping underwater.

Obama’s other domestic priority should focus on children—their health and their education. If we can’t tend to both we will be more at peril than from anything terrorists can inflict. Without better-educated children we will for not much longer be able to retain our dominant place in the world.

Of course, Democrats in Congress who have gone out on a political limb for him in supporting health care legislation will feel undercut, so he would have to preview and sell all of this to them.

I suspect most will be happy to be let off the hook. They too can read to polls, the political tealeaves. They know that only 14 percent of the people say health care reform is a priority (see the recent CBS poll linked below) and as a result, if things continue as at present, by this November they will not only lose a working majority in the Senate but Democrats are also in danger of losing their majority in the House.

Of course this will not happen. Health care reform was and remains Obama’s leading priority; but if anything in fact is approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by him, it will be a pyrrhic victory. They will have their Rose Garden signing ceremony but any resemblance to real reform will be visible only via smoke-shrouded mirrors.

And since the public by then will be tired of the whole thing and justifiably worried about what the legislation will mean to them, he will get only a minor bounce in his approval ratings. But for many—me included—it will serve to remind us that he choose a politically inappropriate policy priority and for its sake used up most of his political capital and devoted his first and potentially most powerful year in office to this while too many continued to suffer the consequences of the fallen economy that he inherited, but which is now fully his.

The Obama presidency needs a restart and there is still time to do that. Not much, but enough.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 13, 2010--Catch Up

I need to do some of that. I will return tomorrow to make the case that Barack Obama, to save his presidency, should drop the effort to pass healthcare reform.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 12, 2010--Snowbirding: Early-Birding

To New Yorkers such as Rona and me, I mean Manhattanites—actually I mean for those of us who live Downtown in New York City—the thought of eating dinner earlier than 7:30 or even 8:30 is enough to make one lose one’s appetite.

But down here in South Florida, and by this I do not mean South Beach, we find ourselves surrounded by early-birders. Folks who wander from shopping plaza to shopping plaza looking for Italian or o seafood or Chinese restaurants that offer dinners at steep discounts if, and to us this is an insurmountable “if,” if you are seated for dinner no later than 5:30.

But if you do, with or without a disguise, depending on how secure or insecure you are about being spotted eating so early by one of your Soho neighbors (and assuming your digestive system can get comfortable with eating during what we still consider to be the middle of the afternoon), there are some dining deals to be had.

For example, at a decent Italian spot near here on the beach, if you show up well before sunset, you can get spaghetti vongole for just $15.95 as opposed to $21.95 after 6:00; and it includes a cup of soup, a salad, and coffee. Wine and dessert are additional. And at this place, the portions are so generous that there is enough for a doggie bag for the remaining pasta and clams. There is also always bread left over that the owners, knowing how to keep their clientele coming back, are glad to wrap up and toss in the take-home bag. And if you take the plunge and order a bottle of wine, whatever you haven’t finished can be recorked and also taken with you. So, for not much money you can have a perfectly decent and filling meal and still have enough left over for another dinner.

All you need to do is make a few adjustments in hunger management and overcome any self-image problems eating this early presents. Of course, if you don’t want to gain too much weight, you have to restrain yourself from falling asleep too early when you get back home by 7:00 (this is assisted by early afternoon napping); by not finishing at 8:00 what you brought home presumably for the next day; and if you do manage to stay up until at least 9:00 manage not to give in to the temptation to snack, especially if you had Chinese food—you know what they say about its being delicious though it leaves you feeling hungry in an hour.

Just as we were struggling with all these complicated biological, economic, and above all psychological issues, I saw an article in the New York Times about how in this new Era of Frugality, early-birding in some places is getting to be a cool thing. Since above all I have a predisposition to wanting to be or at least appear to be cool, I read the piece very carefully since I am admittedly struggling with certain aspects of aging and mid-life self-definition.

Here are some of the reporter’s insights:

In Miami Beach, at the respectable Café Prima Pasta, after the owner last year saw all his investments in real estate slip underwater and as he began to notice many of his regular customers food shopping in Publix, people who before their own investments sink ate out every night, seeing his restaurant half full even on weekends, he for the first time began offering early-bird specials. If you arrived for dinner before 6:00 p.m., everything on the menu was 50 percent off.

He expected that at best this would attract just retirees living on fixed or reduced incomes. Yes, they did show up to take advantage of the bargain; but he also began to notice, even at 5:30 or 6:00, an increasing number of young people, including a hip crowd—women in mini skirts and nose studs and men with full heads of hair.

And with so many here either unemployed or finding themselves in reduced circumstances, pretty much everyone is scrimping in one way or another. Thus the shame has begun to be taken out of wanting to spend less. In fact, even those with a few remaining bucks are feeling some reluctance to let it all hang out.

But for those who still can’t deal with accepting this new more austere reality, some places are resisting calling their early-bird specials early-birds. For example, the Benihanas in South Florida are euphemistically calling their early-bird dinners “twilight dining,” and Café Baci in Sarasota calls its early-birds “early dining.”

I say, whatever works. And in that spirit, on Wednesday, after going to the movies to see “It’s Complicated” (the 3:00 p.m. show), we thought that rather than eating leftovers at our place, we’d try the new Chinese restaurant in an adjacent shopping plaza.

“But it’s not even six o’clock,” I whined. “No one eats diner that early. Other than my 101 year-old mother.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rona said, “Half the people down here eat at this time. You know that. So stop pretending we’re back in Greenwich Village. We’re hungry, right?” I sheepishly nodded, “So stop pouting and let’s see if we can get a table.”

“There should be no trouble with that,” I offered with conviction. “It’s so ridiculously early. It’s still daylight.”

Well, in fact I was quite wrong--there were no tables inside and even every seat at the sushi-bar-like counter was occupied. “This must be a good place,” I said, “to be so busy at this time.”

Rona just looked at me as if to say, “You’re so out of touch.”

There was an empty outdoor table, even though it was situated virtually in the mall’s parking lot; and since we were hungry and had made a commitment to take the risk of being seen eating this early, and though I hadn’t as yet spotted any women in short skirts and none of the men had fell heads of undyed hair, we nonetheless slid into the last available seats.

“I’m sure we won’t run into anyone from New York,” I said as I, just in case, slipped lower in my seat and hid my face behind the plastic sheathed menu.

“You’re being silly,” Rona said, “Just look at the specials. They sound quite good. There’s roughy steamed with scallions and ginger and one of you favorites, Singapore Chow Mei Fun. Though I wonder if they’ll use enough curry to make it spicy enough for you.” She looked around at our neighbors as if to indicate that considering the age of the other diners it would likely be tamer than we would like and were used to when we ordered it at the Big Wong back in New York’s Chinatown.

“Now you’re doing it,” I said.

“What?” Rona shot back at me.

I leaned forward to whisper so I wouldn’t be heard, “Implying that people who eat this early . . .”

But before I could finish my thought the waitress was at our table, smiling broadly, to ask if she could bring us something to drink. “Just tea and ice water,” I said. “I see you have pu erh tea. It’s our favorite.”

When she returned with our beverages she looked very carefully at her watch and asked, “When did you get here?”

“About a month ago,” I answered, “Why do you ask?” It seemed like a strange question.

“I mean this afternoon. I mean this evening.” She pointed at the table.

“Oh, here you mean. I don’t know. Maybe 15 minutes ago.”

She smiled broadly, “That’s good she said, “It’s early enough. You can have soup or an egg roll with your order.”

“But we don’t want that,” I said. “We’re interested in the steamed fish and . . .”

“It all comes.”


“Before six you get soup or egg roll. For free. It comes.”

“Thank you. That’s nice. But still we only want the roughy, the Singapore noodles, and also some Chinese eggplant with mushrooms and water chestnuts.”

“No soup?” She had her face all scrunched up in a look of puzzlement.

“No, just that,” Rona said, sharing the responsibility for our seemingly unusual order. Actually, our calculated decision not to participate in having any freebees.

“You can take home later,” she persisted.

“We’ll be fine. Thank you for mentioning that.”

The dinner turned out to be quite delicious. Not quite Chinatown quality, and as expected the Singapore was a bit tame for us, but much more than just respectable. Surprisingly not what one would expect at a Chinese restaurant in a non-prepossessing shopping mall.

As she was clearing the table, the waitress now happy since we had told her when she had checked with us how much we were enjoying the food and had eaten virtually everything except for a few remaining scraps, she asked if we wanted the pistachio ice cream that comes with the dinner.

We both rubbed our distended stomachs and simultaneously said “No, but thank you very much.”

“You sure?” she asked, again looking puzzled, “It comes.”

“Really, we’re stuffed,” I said. “Just the check, please.”

As she turned to get it for us, a 80-something woman at the next table called out, “What about us? We want our ice cream. Pistachio. I love pistachio. It’s my favorite with Chinese food.”

The waitress, again taking a long look at her watch, responded calmly, “You had the soup, yes, and the egg roll? Both. You just get one.”

The woman, ignoring that, said again, “I want my ice cream. Pistachio.”

“But you had egg roll and wonton soup. I told you it comes with either one. But you wanted both.”

“What about them?” She was clearly referring to us. I wished I still had the menu so I could again get lost in it. “You told them they could have pistachio.”

“They had no soup. No egg roll. Neither.”

The woman tapped her husband on the arm. It looked as if he had fallen asleep over his dinner and when she poked him, he jolted into consciousness, mumbling something I couldn’t make out. In an even louder voice she broadcast, “She says they didn’t have the soup.”

“The what? What did you say?”

“She says they didn’t have the soup or the egg roll. And now she says we can’t have the ice cream. Though she wants them to have theirs. Talk to her will you.”

But before he could, at great relief to us, the waitress said, “I’ll bring you two orders of ice cream.” So as not to be misunderstood, she wiggled two fingers in their line of sight. “Two.”

“Morris doesn’t eat ice cream. It’s his cholesterol. So bring two scoops for me.” The waitress, expressionless, nodded and turned to get our check and the two scoops of pistachio. She had clearly seen it all.

To me, witnessing this exchange, in spite of what the New York Times had reported, things were not feeling at all cool that afternoon during the early-bird hour. But the food was excellent and I thought that if we come back for another dinner, we’ll be sure to arrive well after 6:30 and take our chances that they’ll still be open.

And we will remember to ask the chef to make the Singapore Chow Mei Fun more robust. We are, after all, still from Downtown.

Monday, January 11, 2010

January 11, 2010--Back to the Stone Age

I think I’ve finally figured out this Iran thing.

At least how they are running their nuclear weapons program. And to be sure, they have one under way. The only issue in dispute is how long it will take them to build an atomic bomb. One year, 18 months, three years? Even the three-year scenario is scary.

Equally scary is how they’re going about this. It seems that most of the critical work is being carried out underground. In caves in the many mountains of Iran. And this strategy is making it virtually impossible for the U.S. or even the Israelis, who feel more immediately threatened, to contemplate “taking them out” militarily. Though we are trying to develop bunker-buster bombs, none in the planning stage have the capacity to reach deep underground where the Iranian facilities are situated.

And according to a recent article in the New York Times (linked below), there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of large caves throughout Iran where weapons research and development may be underway. In fact, to make matters worse, there are decoy tunnels and entrances all over the country.

So for those of my friends who are clamoring to take care of the problem not through diplomacy or sanctions but by “bombing Iran back to the Stone Age,” they are a country with a very modern weapons program that in many ways is already operating as if it is still in the Stone Age. In caves.

And in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad they have a secular leader who knows his caves. I always thought he looked like a stereotypical accountant or high school algebra teacher. But, no, he is a tunnel maven.

He started his political career in Iran as a transportation engineer and later became the founder of the Iranian Tunneling Association. I am not making this up.

In that capacity, in 2004, while also Mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad chaired the Sixth [!] Iranian Tunneling Conference and in his keynote address praised leaders of ancient Persia for building subterranean waterways and called for the construction of modern-day tunnels to link government, universities, and professional groups’ facilities. At the time he didn’t have much to say about weapons-building tunnels. But he clearly was well prepared for his current job.

Ironically, much of this tunneling to hide and protect nuclear labs and fissionable fuel production plants is the result of Iran’s reaction to threats from right-wing saber-rattlers in both Israel and the United States. The Times quotes Iranian officials as saying that it was these veiled bombing threats that motivated them to exercise their nation’s “sovereign rights” to protect their nuclear facilities by placing them in caves.

The chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told Iran’s Press TV, “We will be using the passive defense so that we don’t need to have active defense, which is very expensive.” (My italics.) If someone had only told our military leaders and politicians about this. Maybe it would have helped us rethink some of our own military planning and spending.

Perfect—we show the Iranians our cards in order to bluster and thereby appear tough and this alerts them to what they have to do to in order to protect themselves from us. And also provides the justification they feel they need to proceed with a nuclear program. After all, those they consider to be their sovereign enemies—Israel and the U.S. (put aside for the moment who might be originally at fault in creating this dangerous mess)—are already armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

Friday, January 08, 2010

January 8, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Monday. Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

January 7, 2010--Connecting the Dots With Google

Like most of the rest of the country it’s cold down here in South Florida. When we went out for coffee yesterday morning it was 38 degrees. A record. I was about to complain, but before I could Rona reminded me that if we were in New York we’d be trilled to be out at 8:00 a.m. and for it to be that warm.

“And our high for the day is predicted to be 58,” she said, So stop whining and let’s get a warm cup of coffee. I also plan to have a bowl of oatmeal.”

This got me to thinking about cold and hot.

On my list for some time in this regard is why if you touch a glass window or its metal frame it always feels so much colder than a piece of wooden furniture in the same room. Common sense would suggest that if the room was a uniform 70 degrees to the touch everything in it would feel them same. But it doesn’t.

I fancy myself a bit of a science buff, with physics being a special interest. I know a decent amount about how pulleys and levers work and even a household thermostat. And of course atom and hydrogen bombs. So when I posed this issue with Rona, in addition to her rolling her eyes up in her head, neither she nor I could come up with a satisfactory answer.

I thought it might have something to do with specific gravity. A concept, to tell you the truth, I never fully understood even when I was knocking down A’s in high school science.

It’s something like this—

Specific gravity is the comparison of a substance’s density to that of water. For example, imagine a gallon bottle filled with water, a second filled with feathers, a third with lead weights. There are equal volumes of material in each, but the bottle with the feathers will weigh less than that containing water; the bottle with lead of course weights weighs the most.

This I can understand, but then what’s “density”? So you see how things of this kind can make one crazy.

But since after coffee and hot cereal yesterday it was dramatically clear that the stone countertop in our kitchen felt much colder than the blankets with which we wrapped ourselves (while we were out the heating system here failed!), I decided finally to see if I could come up with a comprehensible answer.

Happily, the computer was still working and so I typed the following into Google:

“Why does metal feel colder . . .”

And before I could complete the question Google finished it for me. I saw in window (or whatever it’s called)—“Why does metal feel colder . . . than wood

I clicked on that and in much less than a second (0.14 of one to be scientifically precise) I was offered a variety of sources (408,000 to be exact) for where to find the answer. From--

And so on.

I tried the ever-reliable Wiki first. Since I know you are as curious about this as I, here’s what Wiki had to say:

Lets say room temp is 75 degrees. Your body temp is around 98 degrees. Metal conducts heat very well so when you touch it all the heat [from you hand] is transferred to the metal whereas wood is more insulating and the heat from your finger leaves at a much slower rate.

Also, there is also a difference in emissivity between the two materials. They radiate energy differently. The metal object not only feels colder in the room (or hotter in the sun), it really is a different temperature.

Metal is a thermal conductor and wood is a thermal insulator. When you touch the metal, the energy transfers rapidly to the metal, making it colder. When you touch the wood, the energy transfers very slowly from your hand to the wood.

Fine, but then for much of the rest of the morning I searched for explanations about “emissivity,” “thermal conductor,” and “energy transfer.” A hint—they are all related and quickly get you to the structure and behavior of atoms and their inner components.

To further distract myself from the cold, and to get me off the computer (Rona needed to do some on-line banking), I took a look at the New York Times. It was full of stories about Iran’s nuclear capacity (be forewarned that I will be writing about that happy subject tomorrow), the continued worries about the housing market, and of course the latest about the Nigerian underwear bomber and what Barack Obama reported went wrong that enabled him to get on that plane in Amsterdam.

He took responsibility for and faulted our homeland security system, indicating that just his banker father’s reporting to our embassy in Lagos about his son’s radicalization should have been enough to set off some red flags. Or how the fact that he bought a one-way ticket for cash and did not have any luggage should have alerted us to the danger since most of the 9/11 terrorists also bought one-one tickets for cash. But, Obama said, this did not happen since our intelligence system (again) failed to connect the dots. Very distressing.

I then proceeded to connect a few dots of my own—those connecting Homeland Security with Google since they are both in the dot-connecting business.

Think of all the dots Google had to connect to get me my answers about the different ways in which wood and metal feel. All in a little more than a tenth of a second. Thus, I thought, why doesn’t the government contract with Google to run our intelligence gathering system? Especially the part of it that requires quick and accurate dot-connecting?

I’m serious. We contract with Blackwater (or whatever it’s called these days) to serve as embassy guards and as versions of mercenaries all over the word, so why not turn this more serious piece of business over to Google?

For them it would be an easy job. And less costly I am sure than at present. I suspect it would be at least as easy for them as coming up with answers to my questions about specific gravity.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

January 6, 2010--Underwater

To get a feel for the extent of the on-going crisis in housing, all you need to do is drive around down here in South Florida.

This is Bernie Madoff territory where personal fortunes were wiped out, but it is also the epicenter of the housing bubble. Along AIA, the road running parallel to the beach—the high-price district—you will see about a third of the beachfront properties are on the market. Most for well over a year.

Then venturing further into the developments and gated communities, you will discover the same thing. This drive-around brings the depth of this sad reality to full life. It is not hard to imagine what the people who are desperate to sell must be feeling.

And if you think about it for a few minutes, you are quickly reminded that the terrible economic collapse of the larger economy was centered in the housing sector—from the speculation in condos in places such as downtown Miami where 60-storey towers containing thousands of apartments which were bought and sold like commodities now stand black and empty; to the folks down the road from here who bought homes they couldn’t afford, borrowing against what seemed to them like endless growth in their equity, spending that cash-out mortgage money on soaring life styles; to where you can witness the work of the worst of the perpetrators—those in companies such as AIG who devised and sold “financial products” such as derivatives for houses almost literally made of air.

You can see all of this within just a few miles of here and realize, as the editorial writers in the New York Times yesterday wrote about so succinctly, how we are far from out of these woods, that things are likely to get worse, and there can be no real recovery unless and until things stabilize in the housing market.

The economy is like a giant jigsaw puzzle made up of interlocking and interrelated pieces—without full-time jobs people do not have the money needed to buy houses or sustain the ones they own; without the appreciating asset of a house they do not have money to spend on things that are more discretionary: from consumer goods to medical and dental treatment; without this ability to consume more jobs are lost and this 60 percent portion of our economy continues to suffer; with the loss of these jobs, or minimally because employers are loath to hire, people do not have the money to buy or pay for the houses they own; without . . .

The Times editorial writers point out that the small blips up in the housing market we have seen for the past few months are more the result of government tax credits than because of any freshening of the economy. And these are set to end in April. As a result, home prices have been flat, and things are likely to get worse. (Editorial linked below.)

Because of worries about the lack of real rebound in the housing sector and realizing that these home-buyer tax breaks are about to expire, interest rates are creeping up and more and more people are thus slipping underwater—discovering that they value of their homes have declined so much that they now owe more than their home is worth. About one-third of homeowners are now underwater. That’s about 16 million people!

And it is estimated that another 2.4 million will slip into foreclosure, causing a further 10 percent decline in the average value of a home, which would then bring that value down 40 percent since the peak in the market back in 2006. It’s been that long.

Government action has not helped very much. Yes, the tax advantages implemented less than a year ago did lead to more buying, but again this assistance is about to end. More critically, this tax break (implemented as much by Democrats in a failed attempt to get Republican support by agreeing to the GOP’s favorite solution to everything—reduce or cut taxes—as by their own complicity in standing by while the real estate bubble inflated) distracted the administration and Congress from doing what they should have done—pushed lending banks to bite the bullet and reduce, with government help of course, people’s mortgage principal balances so they would owe less (reflecting the declined value of their property), stay above water, and thus be required to pay less monthly and not be tempted to walk away from their homes, which as a consequence would reduce the glut and value of homes languishing on the market. Another jigsaw puzzle.

We will see.

No one is optimistic that the administration or the Congress, in an election year with people still obsessed about health care and now terrorism, will have the gumption or political will to take on anything this complicated and confrontational. For more than a year financial institutions have had their own obsession—their balance sheets. To ask them to grant principal reductions to homeowners is likely more than they can bear now that they are working their way out from under the federal thumb so they can return to business-as-usual.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

January 5, 2010--Dearest University of Chicago

Many selective colleges have application deadlines this first week in January. From coast to coast one can almost hear the throb of angst and moaning among high school seniors and their hyperanxious parents.

Rona and I are experiencing it too even though we do not have college-bound children. But we do have considerable university administrative experience, including some that involved admissions-related responsibilities, and thus, we have been hearing from the children of friends and relatives, and of course their parents, who hope we might have some good advice to offer and especially if we might be willing to read drafts of the essays college applications these days require.

We love playing this role, if and only if we think those seeking our assistance are well qualified for the colleges to which they are applying. If we feel they are not, well, that makes things a bit delicate and complicated. How to indicate what we think and how to find socially-acceptable excuses not to get too involved.

As much as we enjoy this, at times in the past reading over these personal statements and other essays about "Why the University of Whatever Would Be A Good Fit for Me," when all of these essays begin to look and sound the same, we would have appreciated hearing that the colleges to which our friend's children are applying had done something as witty, and controversial, as the University of Chicago. But, then agin, I'm not so sure. Read on.

According to the New York Times, the newly-appointed dean of admissions there about 10 days ago send out a sample essay to all potential applicants, as he put it, to "lighten your mood . . . and inspire your creative juices" as you complete your application and think about what to say about why the university appeals to you. The sample letter, written by an actual early-action applicant who was referred to as "Rohan," sent around with his permission, begins:

Dear University of Chicago:

It fills me up with that gooey sap you feel late at night when I think about the things that are really special to me about you. Tell me, was I just one in a line of many? Was I just another supple "applicant" to you, looking for a place to live, looking for someone to teach me the ways of the world?

As you might imagine, reactions ran the full gamut. Many were delighted to learn that the dean has a sense of humor while others were outraged by the sexual nature of the love letter to the college. (Full article linked below.)

Chicago prides itself on admitting thoughtful and creatively quirky students and the essays they require to attract these types, in addition to the usual "Why Chicago" sort, included this year one that asked applicants to confess "How did you get caught? Or not caught. as the case might be." The good dean did not offer a sample for that one.

But he did quote more from Rohan's application. In addition to the "gooey" stuff with which he began, he (who was in fact admitted early) wrote:

Your cup overflows with academic genius, pour a little on me, You're legendary for it, they all told me it would never work out between us, but I had hope. [sic] I replied to your adorable letters and put up with your puns. [?]

I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around. . . . And now you inquire as to my wishes? They're simple, accept me for who I am! Why can't you just love and not ask why?

For me this is too cute by far. I would have rejected him to save the faculty from having to put up for four years with his puns.

I prefer the essay our niece wrote for Columbia about how studying taekwondo for more than ten years helped shape her character and the excellent one the daughter of a friend composed in a similar manner about ballet. Both, by the way, were admitted to their first-choice colleges and the one at Columbia is getting straight A's. While half the poor faculty at the University of Chicago have applied for sabbaticals.

Monday, January 04, 2010

January 4, 2010--Snowbirding: The Melon Lady

In all this time, we have not exchanged a word. Not one. Nods and smiles and gestures but not a word, much less a sentence. I am not sure if she is allowed to talk with customers or if her English is so fractured or even nonexistent that that intimidates her. I have said “Hello,” “Nice day,” and such; but at most in exchange she smiles even broader, though with so many teeth missing she appears inhibited by that as well.

She works at the Brothers Market. An overgrown farm stand, which it literally was not too many years ago, but now is a rambling cross between an old fashioned local vegetable market, a Whole Foods, and even a food boutique such as Dean and Deluca. The place is busy because of the variety and quality of its products and, of course its prices—a pound of white asparagus at the Brothers is $2.99, while the same amount goes for $4.99 at Boca Raton’s Whole Foods—and the aisles are so narrow that it requires considerable effort to fight your way past lunging customers pulling ripe avocadoes from their display or steer your shopping cart up and down the seemingly random aisles piled high with tomatoes and citrus fruit and olive oils and salad greens and mushrooms and cheese and prepared salads and cooked foods. And melons. Especially melons.

That is where she is stationed—in the melon aisle. At one end there is a pineapple station where two types are available, regular and golden, freshly extracted from their tufted outer skins, and at the other there is a mountain of golden melons from Brazil, while in between there are bins overflowing with cantaloupes, honeydews, and various kinds of round and oblong watermelons as well as other exotics from Spain and Latin America that are unfamiliar to me.

The melon lady walks up and back from end to end handing out samples that she slices from the melons in her purview. With a generous smile she offers juice-dripping bite-sized pieces from an extended hand. And considering the price-sensitive clientele always on the lookout for what in this area of coupon-clippers and early-birders are referred to as freebees, she distributes many handfuls.

In fact, at the end of last week, while I sniffed and thumped my way though at least a dozen honey dews, searching for the perfect one to serve later in the day with thick slices of prosciutto (perfectly aged and also available at the Brothers at a deep discount), there was a man of at least 90 who shuffled behind her as if on a tether who sampled everything she so joyfully offered. He was not merely searching for what to buy, he was dining. I feared for his ancient digestive system as he slurped down one sweet but acidic handful after another. Or on second thought wondered if perhaps it was this very melon diet that had helped bring him to an advanced age.

On previous visits, while Rona stood on the cold cuts line, doing all she could to make sure that the server understood that unlike most customers who typically like their prosciutto sliced thin, she indeed meant thick when she said thick, I haunted the melon aisle to secure my own discrete number of handout samples and to get the attention of the melon lady whose offerings were always perfectly ripe and juicy and who I thus thought would be able to help me find just the right ripeness of melon for our lunch or after-dinner fruit course.

She had seemed willing to offer this assistance during previous visits but since I had not up to that time been able to engage her in even a one-syllable exchange, I did the best I could on my own. Noting, though, that the melons I selected and brought home when we opened them, though better than most that are available in a typical supermarket were not nearly a succulent as hers.

I took to thinking about her between visits. What work life must be for her. She appeared to be content—her ever-present smile seemed genuine enough—but it was hard for me to imagine that day after day confined to that ten yard space with nothing more to do but cut up and distribute melon samples that she, or anyone for that matter, would find the work satisfying. Did she, I wondered, aspire to advance within the Brothers organization to, say, cashier or food manager status? Knowing, of course, as I thought this way about her that I was unfairly and even insensitively projecting my own kinds of opportunities and aspirations onto her obviously more limited reality.

She likely, I thought further, was here in a less than legal way and thus must feel fortunate to have steady work of any kind. If true, she would not want to risk becoming too assertive or draw too much attention to herself and thus had little choice but to accept the conditions of her situation. Perhaps even feeling good about being in this country and having any kind of work whatsoever. Her smile and the aura of contentment that emanated from her and the satisfaction I sensed she felt from having this opportunity, no matter how limited it seemed to me from the perspective of my own more privileged life, convinced me that I was probably right about how she viewed her circumstances.

But then from a local friend, when talking about the Brothers and how much we liked having it nearby as a source for such excellent and fairly priced products and how our menu planning and at-home cooking benefited from what we found there, I learned something unexpected about the place. I must have mentioned how much I liked the way things there appeared to work—how there were men stationed in the maze of interconnected parking lots who helped customers find spaces and then after they completed their shopping helped guide them safely out into the rush of traffic on the highway. And, as with the melon lady, how inside the market the staff were so friendly and helpful.

“And, you know,” my acquaintance said, “the owners of the Brothers are very philanthropic. Next time you’re there take a look at the list of local organizations they fund. The list, and it’s very long, is right behind the cash registers.”

“I did notice that,” I said. “It looks as if they give money to dozens of local groups.”

“And although you wouldn’t expect it,” he added, “all their workers are here legally. Fully documented. They take great pride in that. They must employ at least 100 people, which is very impressive.”

“Impressive indeed,” I said. “And, yes, also unexpected.” I sighed with some relief as I thought about the melon lady and how good it was to now realize that she was here legally.

And so, the other day, when searching for that perfect honeydew to accompany the prosciutto, I approached her, not as before for another taste of something new and exotic, but to see if I could get her to help me select a melon ready to serve.

Since I was uncertain about her English, I tried sign language, pointing to the mountain of honeydews and then rubbing my stomach. Thinking I wanted a taste, she plucked one from near the top of the pile—she is tiny and needed to do this tipped high up on her toes-- and with the knife she always had in her apron pocket sliced out a generous wedge and handed it to me.

I thanked her. “Gracias,” I said and after taking a quick bite and realizing it was at just the peak of ripeness I was seeking, tried, again through gestures, to indicate I wanted one like it to buy. Pointing again at the melons and this time at my shopping cart, thinking from that she would understand. But it appeared that she did not, misinterpreting my gestures to mean that I wanted another slice, which she again generously offered. The 90 year-old who had been trailing her and up to then had been the primary beneficiary of her generosity glared at me. His fierce look clearly labeling me as an unwelcome intruder in his exclusive realm.

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head and trying English, “I want you,” I pointed at her, “to help me,” I pointed at myself, “to select a ripe melon,” I pointed to the melon mountain, “One I can eat later today. This afternoon. Tardes,” I said, smiling and relieved that I had come up with the Spanish word.

“Oh, tardes,” she said with a smile. These were the first words I heard her utter in weeks of trying to exchange hellos. And with that, again on her toes, she reached for a melon high up in the stack. And with an even wider grin passed it to me after wiping it clean and dry on the skirt of her apron.

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, as I placed it carefully in my shopping cart. “Gracias, mucho gracias.

At that, unexpectedly, she moved closer to me and again reached into her apron pocket. I wondered what she was doing and why she was again looking for her knife. Surely not to cut any more melon samples for me. I more than had my fill and with her help had made my selection. Maybe, I thought, she was going to do something special for the pouting nonagenarian. To make up to him for any unintended slight. But why then had she moved so close to me?

As I wondered about the meaning of this turn of events, I saw that she had not reached for the knife but for something else. From her apron she had taken what looked like a photograph. She held it gently in her hand with the image pressed to her breast and whispered something to me that at first I did not understand. It sounded like, “A few.” A few of what? I puzzled. I couldn’t make any sense of it. And it was unlikely that someone like the melon lady with such limited English would know this expression much less use it so out of any context.

“A few?” I said back to her. “What are you saying is a few”? Melons, I wondered. A few honeydews?

“No,” she smiled, “F and S and U.” she said, carefully pronounced each letter. “The universidad.”

Was she trying to tell me something about Florida State University—FSU up in Tallahassee?

Smiling more broadly she slowly raised the photo and turned it to me. I put on my glasses and bent over to take a close look at it. Her hands were trembling. It was a picture of a young girl in an academic robe. It looked like a high school graduation picture.

I understood.

A mi hija,” she then said. Though that I did not understand. “Daughter,” she said with apparent and understandable pride. “Camellia,” and with that she turned away from me, heading again toward the pineapple end of her private domain.

* * *

And later that day, the melon with the prosciutto (thick sliced as Rona wanted) was perfect.