Friday, January 31, 2014

January 31, 2014--Sneaks

Near where we live in downtown Manhattan, on Lafayette Place, there are a couple of stores that sell athletic shoes.

A few times a year when we are walking south to get to Balthazar or the Smile for morning coffee, we see lined up on the sidewalk at those shops hundreds of young people, kids really--some in tents since they have been living on the street for a couple of days--camped out in all weather, which is frequently nasty, waiting, they tell us, to be among the first to get the newest edition of Air Jordans or some such.

List price, especially if they are in their original wrapper and box--these J's are not for use in schoolyard games, but collectors' items--they are as coveted by these kids as is an Andy Warhol to hedge fund managers that is up for auction at Sotheby's--at the store, the Jordans these days go for up to $150.

And then one can find them offered on eBay the next day for at least twice that. Again, if they are in the original, unblemished box.

Some of the kids on line tell us that they are really placeholders or agents for others. They've been promised a couple hundred bucks to wait out in the rain by someone willing to pay them $500 for a pair. Again, if and only if they are in a pristine box.

Not bad. Five hundred bucks to sit out in the rain or snow for a couple of days.

"Hey, can anybody here find a straight job?"

"Not me, man. I'm livin' again with my Mom."

There are enough models to make your head spin and like any other commodity (that, ultimately is what the Jordans are) there's a lot of inside knowledge and background any investor or collector needs to know in order to get good value and upside asset potential.

Like the Air Jordan XIII's, for example, which . . .
. . . were released in 1997. This model was known for its cushioning along the feet, designed by Hatfield. The black panther was the inspiration for the Air Jordan XIII, the sole resembles the pads on a panther's paw. But also the panther is the hologram on the back of the shoe which imitates a panther's eyes in the dark when light is shined on them. They were rereleased in 2005, which coincided with the release of the Air Jordan 8s shoe. 
In the movie He Got Game, the Air Jordan XIII was worn by Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington). Ray Allen, who played Jake's son Jesus in the film, wore them when he broke Reggie Millers's all-time record for made three-point shots during a game against the Lakers in Boston during the 2011 season. The Jordan brand re-released the Air Jordan XIII at the end of 2010, which included the French Blue/Flint Grey, White/Red-Black, 'Playoff' color way and the Black/Altitude Green color way. 
The Air Jordan XIII was originally released from 1997 to 1998. It was retroed in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013.
Got that? You better if you're even thinking about investing.

I was reminded about this glimpse of the underground economy by a story the other day in the Times about P.J. Tucker of the Phoenix Suns basketball team and his sneaker collection.

That's what they are--sneakers--not "athletic shoes." Athletic shoes are for over-weight, over-pampered kids from uptown prep schools.

Tucker has more than 2,000 pairs in his collection. 2000! Not all Jordans but a lot of those nonetheless.

And he's not alone. Many NBA and MLB stars not only cash in through sneaker endorsements but have huge collections of their own.

Evan Tucker, the Philadelphia 76ers point guard also has at least 2,000 in his. He confesses that he gorged on 57 pairs recently in a single afternoon of shopping at Sole Control. No sleeping on Lafayette for him.

He stashes them all over the place but mainly in four big closets in his basement, while waiting to figure out a permeant place to display them.

Learning that Jeremy Guthrie of the Kansas City Royals has a special vault for his kicks, Turner says, "I want to do something dope like that for mine."

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

January 30, 3014--State of Disunion

Rona asked, "Do you want to watch the State of the Union?"

With some guilt I said, "Not really."

"I feel the same way. I've given up on Obama and Congress. It's too depressing to watch him again mouth familiar clichés and see John Boehner sitting there all smug and grimacing."

"Yeah. Recent polls have Obama's approval rating well below 50 percent and Congress' under 20."

"I'd like to know what those 20 percent are thinking."

"So we have two other choices," Rona said, "Read or have dessert."

"Dessert for sure, but also let's watch a few more episodes of West Wing."

Some background--

When West Wing was first broadcast in 1999, though we are both political junkies, not wanting to get hooked on any TV series, we opted to ignore it even though a lot of our liberal friends were eating up every episode.

Now, with more time on our hands and looking for things to lighten our moods, via Netflix streaming, about a month ago, we began watching the first of the 154 episodes. Yes, there are that many. As of last night, we've seen 57 and are thrilled that there are about 75 more. Some nights we pig-out on WW and find ourselves staying up until 2:00 AM to squeeze in just one more.

By coincidence, Tuesday night, the night of the real State of the Union, which we were assiduously ignoring, halfway through the third season of West Wing, we watched the episode devoted to the preparation of President Jeb Bartlet's fictional State of the Union speech.

I'll give you one guess which one we preferred.

This lead to a breakfast conversation the next morning about presidentail politics.

"If I were president . . ."

"God forbid."

" . . . and was in the kind of political trouble Obama is in--not able to get anything done, held in low esteem by voters--what would be wrong with calling in West Wing's creator, Aaron Sorkin to ask his advice about what to do and what to say?"

Over her coffee cup, Rona looked at me skeptically.

"I mean, after all, politics is part theater."

"Actually, a big part," Rona agreed. "All the polling and spinning and even making things up and trying to entertain us is a version of theater. And then there is all the effort they make to interest and emotionally move the public."

"Thus, Ronald Reagan."

"And, to be fair and balanced, Bill Clinton. So, maybe you're right. Sorkin would be interesting to consult with."

I said, "I'd love to see the speech he'd draft for Obama."

"Hopefully it would be in the spirit of the one from the first-season episode called, 'Let Bartlet Be Bartlet' when Sorkin had him shrug off his handlers, march into the White House press room, and let them and his political opponents have it."

"Maybe Sorkin would have Obama show up in Congress to deliver his State of the Union to the American people, figuratively and literally, looking over the heads of members of Congress and talk right into the camera to address directly the people who elected him twice."


"Let me try my hand at drafting something."

"This should be fun," Rona snickered.
My fellow Americans.
And I mean that--fellow Americans.  
I'm here tonight to speak to you. With all due respect, not to these members of Congress who invited me here to deliver the constitutionally-required State of the Union.
Presidents for 225 years have begun these speeches by summing up their view about how the nation is faring. Some have said that the state of the union is "strong," others that it is "at peace," or "free and restless." 
As I see things, the state of the union today is an utter mess
If I was out having a drink with you (more about that later), I might have used saltier language. 
For now, use your imagination. 
Yes, there have been improvements in the economy. More people than a year ago have jobs--though too many of those jobs are lousy jobs, paying a disgraceful minimum wage. Those working for $7.25 an hour, if they work 35-40 hours a week, are still living in poverty. 
And these folks in Congress are not prepared to do anything about it. In fact, they're not prepared to do anything about the richest folks in this country making more and more money, piling up a king's ransom of houses and yachts, and private jets while the rest of you are working two, three jobs just to make ends meet. 
I'm not against people getting rich. I'm against seeing the rich get richer while the middle class get poorer. 
Call this Class Warfare if you like. I call it the truth. 
So things are a mess. 
Some of this is my fault. Big time my fault
You elected me to change things. In my first two years I was able to do some of that. But not enough. It was not just these folks' fault [gestures to Congress]. I was too passive. I thought by my election bipartisanship would break out all over. These politicians would get the message that if this big-eared black guy with a funny name--Barack Hussein Obama--could get elected we'd better get out act together or the voters will throw us out of office. 
I should have tried that bipartisan business for just a month or two rather than a whole year. When it was clear it wasn't working then I should have come to you--the American people--to tell you that and to promise I'd try to do some unconventional things to pressure Congress to do right by you. 
I didn't do that. 
Michelle was pushing on me to man-up, but I was still hoping for the best. That members of both parties would at least for a time agree to work together. That's traditionally what happens when there is a new president who wins the election by a majority and there is a crisis in the land, as there was beginning in 2008. 
But Michelle was right. 
She also told me that on the very night of my first inauguration about 20 Republican leaders met over dinner to talk about what they needed to do to undermine me. She was right and I was wrong. I should have listened to her. 
About these things she's smarter than I. 
Also, I failed to try to schmooze these folks along. You know what schmooze means? If you don't, it means spending more informal social time with members of Congress. Republicans as well as members of my own party. The Democrats. Schmoozing together at the White House over drinks. Play golf together. That sort of thing. 
But I didn't do enough of that either. It's not my favorite thing. And so I didn't. Maybe I should have. 
But to tell you the truth, I don't think that would have made much difference. 
I'm calling out here tonight the Minority Leader of the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell. He's sitting right over there. [Point to him.] Senator McConnell said on day one of my presidency that the Republican's job was to make me fail so I'll be a one-term president.  
You said that, didn't you, senator? [Pause and stare at him.]
During my first State of the Union, right over there, a congressman from Georgia shouted at me twice, "You lie." 
I don't consider that fair. To have your mind made up before you even begin the conversation, to accuse any new president of lying. 
But by my not taking them on directly--by cutting Senator McConnell a lot of slack--I let you the people down. You didn't elect me to play games and back off when things got tough. 
And, by the way, how tough is my job compared to those of you who, as I said, are working two, three jobs just to keep your heads above water? 
I get a big salary and have a terrific place to live for which I do not pay rent nor have a mortgage. 
So it's over
What's over is any pretense that enough members of Congress will work with me and my staff for the good of the American people. 
They would claim otherwise, but I say that they're working for their own self interest--to get reelected, to gain influence and power. For themselves. Not for you
When it comes to Congress, the truth is I'm already a lame duck. 
Usually that doesn't happen until after a president's sixth year when half the people in this room really come out of the closet to declare they're running for president. At least half a dozen folks here are already off and running. Have been for a couple of years at least. That's fine. I did a version of the same thing myself. 
But I'm through playing games. 
Congress is not going to deal with the deficit, with tax fairness, with rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, with fixing the out-of-control costs of health care or, for that matter, how much we're spending on the military. They have signaled that and proclaimed that every day right here, in the press, and on talk shows. 
They are not listening to you. 
If they were they'd agree to increase the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits and not cut support for education, health care, and the environment. They'd get serious about inequality and the collapse of the middle class. They'd be eager to make it more affordable for your children to go to college and support efforts to make sure there would be jobs for them when the graduate so they could proudly stand on their own two feet and no longer have too live in your finished basement. 
So what am I going to do? 
Here's what-- 
I'm getting out of Washington. Right after I finish here. 
I'm going to spend the next month, the next six weeks on the road, wandering around America. Visiting big cities, suburban communities, and small towns. I'm going to visit every state. All fifty
I'm leaving Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base and will travel around on public transportation as much as possible and, when it isn't, I'll be traveling in my car. I intend to do some of the driving myself. I want to feel the broken roads that everyone else needs to drive on. I plan to cut back on my Secret Service detail so I can mingle more informally with you. 
Every morning I will pop in for breakfast unannounced at diners and luncheonettes and for dinner at local restaurants and, if you invite me in, your kitchen. 
I hope you'll join me at the counter so we can talk privately about what's on your mind. What you're feeling good about. And what's aggravating you. 
I know I'm not all that good at listening--Michelle reminds me that I talk too much. But I promise to try to do more listening. And, if you'll indulge me, I'll tell you what's on my mind. 
We're going to keep the press entourage to a minimum and try to keep thsoe who trail after me at a distance. I know I'll get in trouble with this but that is my intention. I'll also be leaving all, all my advisors back in Washington. 
          During this time I won't be making any speeches or holding any press conferences.
You may be wondering how this will benefit you. I know I will enjoy spending time with you. When I first ran for president more than anything I enjoyed these kinds of unscripted times. 
So, finally, here's how I think doing this will be of benefit to you. 
I'm hoping that this experience which we will have together will not only recharge my batteries but also motivate you to give me and Washington a second chance. That you will feel that maybe, just maybe, with your help, we can make a difference. Maybe we in Washington will figure out ways to work together on your behalf. 
I've got to be honest with you--unless there is a huge groundswell of pressure from you that is applied to me and everyone else supposedly working for you it will remain business as usual. To work, all of us have to feel that if it doesn't get better, you'll throw us out of office. 
If nothing changes, I'll play out my days in the White House making speeches and hoping for the best. Those in this room will keep doing their thing--looking for PAC money and thinking about cashing in as lobbyists after they leave office. After I leave, I'll make a fortune writing my memoirs and focus on polishing my legacy. 
Again, you'll be ignored. 
As of right now all I'm asking is for you to have coffee with me tomorrow morning. Someplace in Pennsylvania. 
After a month, a month and a half of that, we'll see where we're at. 
You'll know more about me. I'll know more about you. 
They key, though, is what you will do to make me work harder and smarter for you and how you will do the same to all members of Congress. Because all of us here--Democrats as well as Republicans, Congress as well as the president--me--have together made this mess. 
I hate to put this on your shoulders, but the only way out of it is if you demand that we make things better for you. 
If you do, Americans will become the new Greatest Generation. 
Good bless the United Staes; and especially, God bless you.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 29, 2014--Uncle Eli's Tongue Factory

While the Obama administration is thinking about publishing a list of individual doctors who are off the charts in the amount they bill Medicare as a way of exposing them to public scrutiny and potential prosecution if there is evidence of over-billing, Health Management Associates in Naples, Florida is already publishing data of its own about doctors affiliated with its South Florida chain of hospitals.

In Naples, according to a report in the New York Times, scorecards are posted for all attending physician to keep track of how many over 65-year-old patients they admit to the hospital each day.

Doctors hitting the target to admit at least half of the Medicare and Medicaid patients who entered via the emergency room are color-coded green; the doctors who were close to that 50 percent target are coded yellow; and those not admitting enough to the hospital are red-lighted.

Since the HMA hospitals, reflecting national changes in the way medicine is practiced, employ more and more doctors rather than just granting them attending status, pressure on these salaried doctors to increase income (and their own bonuses) by admitting more patients who have good insurance is increasing. So much so that at a HMA Naples hospital a Medicaid-elegible child was admitted with a diagnosis of having "fever" when her actual temperature was normal, 98.7; and an 18-year-old with a minor knee laceration was admitted though the wound could easily have been treated in the ER and the patient sent right home.

These are not isolated cases but rather examples of routine business.

These hospitals, like most in the nation, are technically "not-for-profit," but beyond that IRS designation, they are very much in the business of making as much money as possible so as to be able to pay doctors top dollars and hospital administrators seven-figure salaries.

It is thus no wonder that the money-driven healthcare system in the U.S. is by far the most costly in the world and for "average" people far from the best.

With thousands of lobbyists keeping the pressure on politicians not to change anything, very little does change. Big Pharma, the AMA, health care unions, medical equipment companies, hospital associations all join hands in assuring that their bottom lines, not patient care and cost-containment, are paramount. And thus far they have pretty much had their way.

Occasional exposés and law suits as the one being launched against Health Management Associates are rare and only chip away at the problem.

But there is a simple way to keep an eye on quality of service and billing practices.

Years ago, an uncle of mine owned a meat processing plant in the South Bronx. While trying to "find" myself I went to work for him and spent long days unloading truckloads of hams, pork butts, and beef tongues.

The Department of Agriculture required that the meat be inspected and, if it passed, labelled as such--USDA Inspected.

So in Uncle Eli's plant, on site, there were two full-time federal inspectors. They wandered around at will in their long white coats, randomly selecting a rack of curing tongues for careful analysis. They were incorruptible, permitted to work at any single establishment for only a month or two so as to inure them from being approached for bribes. And, in order to contain costs to the government, Uncle Eli was required to reimburse the Department of Agriculture for their salaries and benefits.

It worked rather well and this approach to safety and quality control could easily be extrapolated to all hospitals that are allowed to bill Medicare and Medicaid.

These hospitals, like Paramount Meats, should be required to have a team of on-site inspectors who they would pay for and who would keep an independent eye on services and billings. If, for example, they discovered a red light-green light system designed to defraud taxpayers (which that in fact does), they would have the power to intervene and, if necessary, report abuses to the Medicare-Medicaid Administration which in turn could refer cases to the Department of Justice.

This would lead to a significant decline in medical scams and reduce costs to those of us--really all of us--who through our taxes are paying the cost of abuse and fraud.

Doctors, then, could again be held to the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm."

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January 28, 2104--Rafa

One of the greatest of sports rivalries is the one between tennis superstars Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.

Between them they have won 30 Grand Slam titles, 17 by Federer, 13 by the younger Rafa, and during their careers they have played each other 33 times. Nadal holds the edge, having won 20 matches; also he has dominated the 20 finals in which they confronted one another, 14-6.

Sometimes these matches have been classics. The 2008 final at Wimbledon comes to mind. It lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes, went five sets with Rafa winning the fifth and deciding one 9-7. John McEnroe, among others, considers it the greatest tennis match of all time. Who's to argue with that?

After another confrontation--this time in the semifinals of the Australian Open last Friday, there was an interesting article in the New York Times about Rafa's approach, his strategy when playing Federer. Considering the outcomes, this has been a very successful strategy that has Nadal dominating Federer.

The article is noteworthy not because of its appeal to tennis enthusiasts, that it is, but because of its lessons to those striving for success in general. It is a tennis-focused strategy that translates well to many fields and endeavors.

In the article (linked below), Craig O'Shannessy goes into illuminating detail about the specifics of Nadal's strategy. How he exploits Federer's very few weakness.

Here is a tennis-specific example--
The most obvious of Nadal's simple strategies is his serve direction. 
He made 56 first serves for the match and pinpointed (92 percent) to Federer's backhand. Nadal has been doing that for years, and it is remarkable Federer has not figured out a way to counter this tactic. 
You could almost imagine Nadal yelling over the net, telling Federer where the serve was going to go, but Federer still managed to lose the point. Federer won only 28 percent (15 of 52) of points beginning with a backhand return off a first serve, and none of four directed to his forehand.
In a contest of wills, which has many correlates in non-sports situations, being able to do the expected and in effect flaunting one's strategy in and of itself can be devastatingly effective. Here is a bit more from O'Shannessy--
While the match looked close at the beginning [my emphasis], the pressure was silently building as Federer searched in vain for holes in Nadal's game. For Federer to beat Nadal on such an important occasion, he needed to win the first set and apply scoreboard pressure, hit rock-solid backhand returns back to Nadal's backhand [his one vulnerability], and stop approaching Nadal's forehand [his special strength]. That will at least get him on a level playing field.
To succeed in competitive environments, having or establishing an edge in advance is a great asset. To have a chance, a level playing field is the minimum requirement. To have a proverbial "even chance."

When confronting a talented strategist this alone is difficult to accomplish. To start out behind, immediately under pressure, doesn't often get the job done.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

January 27, 2014--Chris Christie Is Not a Bully

Pretty much universally New Jersey governor Chris Christie has has been declared a bully.

If you tune into MSNBC, beginning early with Morning Joe, it's been wall-to-wall Chris Christie and the Christie coverage does not end until 11:00 when Lawrence O'Donnell finally signs off with the Last Word. Although Joe Scarborough is a proud Republican and has attempted to find ways to see Christie in the best light, even he has made note of what even he refers to as bullying tactics.

For the rest of the MSNBC crew, it's case closed. Curtains for Christie. As one said, "He's toast."

Admittedly it's a juicy story and a politically important one, especially for Democrats and Independents who want Hillary Clinton elected president. If Christie, seen to be her most powerful challenger, can be brought down, it clears the way for President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But in my household, someone is saying, "Hold on."

That would be Rona.

"I do not think he's a bully," she said to my considerable surprise.

"You say that in spite of the claim that when he allegedly had his lieutenant governor tell the mayor of Hoboken that unless she supported Christie for reelection he would hold back Hurricane Sandy relief funds? Isn't that being a bully?"

"Let's assume he did that," Rona said.

"That assumption is an easy one for me."

"How different is that from how Lyndon Johnson operated when he was Senate Majority Leader and then president?"

"He didn't bully people?" I said. "I read all the Robert Caro books and from what I learned I would say LBJ exerted forceful leadership."

"Really? Forceful leadership? Ask Earl Warren who didn't want to serve on what became the Warren Commission that looked into the assassination of John Kennedy. Johnson had the goods on Warren and threatened to expose him if he declined to serve. Warren, Caro reported, broke into to tears and agreed. You don't call that bullying?"

"I guess I do. But, I'm confused. What's your point? You just said Christie isn't a bully and compared him to LBJ who you seem to be saying was a bully?"

"I intentionally confused you since I think the situation with Christie is more complicated than has been represented in the press and on TV."

"Go on."

"Let's begin by talking about bullying itself. Tell me, just what constitutes bullying? Forget Christie and LBJ for the moment. What's the agreed-upon definition of bullying?"

"Let me look it up so we can be precise." I googled bullying and found the following--
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include: 
An imbalance of power. Kids who bully use their power--such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity--to control or harm others.
"You see," Rona said, "as I expected, it's mainly about gaining dominance per se. Someone more powerful bullies to gain dominance over someone weaker. It's an end in itself. It doesn't usually seek to require the person being bullied to behave differently or agree to do something against his will."

"By that definition it's not what Christie is being accused of doing. At least in Hoboken. The bridge thing was more about revenge against the Fort Lee mayor who didn't support him for reelection."

"Exactly,"Rona said, "In Hoboken he supposedly tried to extract more than an endorsement from the mayor or just to dominate her. He wanted to get her to do something against her will. There's a big real estate development project proposed there that he apparently wants the mayor to help get approved which would benefit some of his big-money supporters. People who would be helpful to him if he runs for president."

"So," I asked, "if what went on there is different than bullying, what are we talking about?"

"Maybe blackmailing?

"That could be what Johnson did to Warren. There was a secret the Chief Justice didn't want revealed. But I don't think Christie was blackmailing the mayor."

"Strong-arming then?" Rona asked.

"I'm not sure about that either. That's a mob term that . . ."

"Though folks on the left enjoy suggesting a mob connection to Christie. You know, he's governor of Tony Soprano's state. Newsweek, for example, had Christie's picture on a cover last year, really a version of a mug shot, with the headline--The Boss. Get it? I don't thing they were referring to another New Jersey 'boss,' Bruce Springsteen."

"So what then is it with Christie?" I asked.

"I think more arm-twisting," Rona said.

"Let me look that one up. It says--'Persuasion by use of physical force or moral pressure.'"

"I think that's closer to what's been going on in New Jersey and in governments in general. The pressure part, not the physical force. And, back to President Johnson, that's what he did as well--arm twisting. In addition, of course, to using various other kinds of techniques to get people to go along with his agenda."

"So . . .?"

"So, maybe we all need to be more precise. If it isn't bullying and is a version of arm twisting we should call it that."


"Furthermore, maybe we should be a little more consistent in they way we look at these tactics, these political tools."


"Meaning that if we like a politician's agenda--say Johnson trying to get Civil Rights legislation passed or Medicare--if we like what someone is doing, we're more inclined to look the other way in regard to the tactics used."

"And if we don't?"

"We call him names."

"Like bully?"

"Christie may not be a bully," Rona smiled, "but politically he's still toast."

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Friday, January 24, 2014

January 24, 2014--"Who's this Calhoun?"

At the Delray News Shop the other morning an elderly man asked Richard, one of the owners, if he had a copy of this week's New Yorker. He had heard about David Remnick's long article about Barack Obama and wanted to read it.
"I heard about it too," I said, "the one where, among other things, Obama talks about being a black president."
"That's the one," the man said. "Outrageous."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"That he views himself that way. And blames all his failures and the criticism he deserves on people who he accuses of being anti-black."
"That's hard to believe," I said, "If anything, Obama plays down his blackness and gets criticized for that by some African-American leaders."
Richard didn't have the issue yet and, since I too wanted to read it, did so on-line.  I also had seen excerpts from the article in which there were a few quotes from the president about how some people don't like him because he's black. The Fox News folks jumped all over that, claiming this as evidence of Obama's own racism and hatred for white people.
So, if you haven't seen the article, here is the full quote from the Remnick piece so you can make up your own mind:
Obama’s drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters. “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.” The latter group has been less in evidence of late.
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. 
"And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy."
I doubt if people such as Sean Hannity read the full article preferring, for his ideological purposes, to quote it out of context. Of if he had, I wonder if he would know anything about the history Obama refers to.

"Who's this Calhoun?" I could hear him hollering at his staff. "Some Chicago pal of Obama's?"
I also wonder what the New Yorker was doing, also quoting Obama by releasing very selected out-of-context excerpts of only the most controversial material. I guess for them it's also all about selling copies and making money.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

January 23, 2014--Snowbirding: In the Ghetto (Concluded)

Back at the Foodtown checkout counter, I made sure we had the package of nans, thinking that heated up they'd go perfectly with the Jamaican-style pork chops.

"Those look interest to me," the woman behind us on line said. "They are please?"

"Nans," I said. "They're Indian. They're made in a tandoori oven."

"What kind oven that?" I couldn't place her accent.

"A clay one. They use them in India."


"Yes, the ones in Asia. From India. Not American Indians. Though these nans do remind me of Navaho tacos."

"Now I am all confuse."

"Sorry. I'm so excited by this market and by the nicest thing another shopper, Anna, did for us that I'm not making myself understood. She told us all about this wonderful Jamaican pork chop recipe. We bought . . ."

"I no eat pork myself," she said, making a face. "Beef is good and chickens and fishes. Any kind of fishes."

"We like everything. And this store sure has that. Everything." I was still feeling euphoric about our experience with Anna.

"I think I maybe get some of those brets," she said, placing a package of nans in her basket.

"You'll like them," I said confidently.

"Toast maybe?"

"I think so. They should be delicious toasted. With a little butter or dipping oil."

"That kind of oil, dipping, I do not know."

"It's just a little olive oil in a dish that you . . ."

Then, as if no longer thinking about the nans, she moved closer to me and whispered, "Can I say something?"

"Sure. Anything," I said softly, fully facing her.

"Not many of your kind come here."

With those words I was instantly on guard, not happy to hear about my kind.

Sensing that, touching my arm, she said, "No offended. I mean to say people from your backgrounds." I felt reassured.

"See everyone here?" I looked around. "I do not see any who look like you and your niece."

"Rona. She's my wife."

"No offended again. You look like love people." Warmly, she smiled up at me. She was tiny. Well under five feet. "I mean they live with all those gates."

I was confused. "Gates?"

"Houses with gates."

"Oh, you mean gated communities."

"Those kind. Why they live there and never come out here?"

"You know, I sometimes wonder that myself. One of the things we like so much about spending time here is all the diversity." Puzzled she looked up at me again. "All the different kinds of people." She nodded enthusiastically. "From all over the world. From places where all these foods and spices and teas come from."

"And these gate-people. They do not like it here?"

"They like Florida, but maybe not this place."

"Why not? This is America, no?"

"Good question. Though I'm not sure you'd like my answer." I half turned away from her.

"I might surprise. I do not bite." She was grinning.

"I think they're afraid."

"Of what?"

"That's another good question."

"Of what afraid?" she repeated.

"Of you," I whispered so as not to be overheard.

"Me? I tiny and am only 90."


"Pounds. And they afraid of me?" She was genuinely perplexed.

"That's what I think. They are afraid of anything different. Anyone not like them."

"So they put themselves behind gates?"

"Yes. As I see things, unfortunately yes."

"You had that person running for president last year."

"Barack Obama?"

"The other one. Mitts.

"Mitt Romney."

"He said we should go back to where we came from."

"Yes he did. He called it self-deportation."

"Is that what I am remembering?"


"So here they are putting themselves again to where they came from. Behind their gates. You said because they are feared."

"Like self-deportation," I said sighing, "In their case they choose to go back to the ghetto. And I don't mean just my kind. People from other backgrounds too."

"I don't know what that means, ghetto," she looked confused, more sad than frustrated, "But if you say so."

I shrugged, smiling uncomfortably as if apologizing. "It also makes me sad," I said, "And sometimes angry. But . . ."

Rona was waiting for me with a bag full of tropical vegetables, spices, and those wonderful looking pork chops. She signaled it was almost time to go.

The woman said, imitating my shrug, "Maybe there will soon be change."

"I hope so," I said as we paid and turned to leave, "I hope so."

When we were outside, I looked back through the window and saw her still smiling and waving the package of nans.

"What a place," Rona said. "All the world is here."

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January 22, 2014--Snowbirding: In the Ghetto

We were standing in the checkout line at the Foodtown Market in West Palm Beach. It's off the beaten track for us, but Rona was looking for a special tea and someone suggested we try them after unsuccessful forays to a number of ethnic food stores.

But Foodtown offered more than just a full aisle of exotic teas. In addition to the tea, we loaded a basket to overflowing with fresh okra, sweet plantains, Japanese sweet potatoes, oyster mushrooms, a pomegranate, garlic, and fresh ginger. The okra and yams to accompany baked tilefish, the mushrooms for a frittata, and the plantains for a Bobby Flay recipe for chicken stew.

"This is some store," Rona said as we inched our way forward.

"Look at these baked nans," I exclaimed, noticing a pile of them tucked away in a crowded space near where we were stacking our items on the cashier's conveyor belt. "It says they're baked in a tandoori oven. Let's get some to try." I placed a package on top of Rona's three boxes of English Afternoon tea.

"I think they'll go well with the chicken stew."

Rona noticed a package of pork chops the woman ahead of us was passing to the cashier. "Those look wonderful," she said to the woman, who turned toward Rona with a smile.

"There's a Jamaican woman who I work with at the hospital, she said. "I'm not Jamaican," she added as if apologetically. "She's always teaching me how to cook Jamaican."

"What do you do with those?" I asked. "One thing I notice is that the chops are sliced very thin. Only about a quarter of an inch. I'm used to ones much thicker. But those look like they'll grill up deliciously. They probably get real crispy."

"Indeed they do," she said with a broad smile. "I may look Jamaican," in fact she did, "but as I said, I'm not. But I sure like cooking and eating Jamaican."

"Maybe we should get some," Rona suggested.

"Sounds like a good idea."

"Do you have any advice about how to make them?" Rona asked the health aide.

"Want me to show you?"

"But you're checking out and . . ."

"No problem," she said. "Would you keep an eye on my groceries?" she asked the the cashier who was already moving her bags to an out-of-the-way spot.

"My name's Anna," she said, reaching out to shake our hands. "And yours are?"

"I'm Rona."

"And I'm Steven."

"I'll remember that," she said.

"As we'll remember you," Rona said.

Anna was off at a trot heading for the aisle that was devoted to Jamaican products. Before turning up it, she spotted a stack of cans of Ocho-Rios Butter Beans. "These are delicious you said. "Perfect for the pork chops. And they're on sale. Only 79 cents a can," she said, taping the sign that listed the price. "They're normally 95 cents. Even at that, worth every penny. Um, um."

Halfway up the Jamaican aisle, she stopped and took down from the shelf a package of spices. "Just what you want for the chops. EasiSpice's Pork Seasoning. Let's see, it includes in the mix pimento, black pepper," she read from the label, "garlic extract, cane sugar, and pepper extract. You rub a little on the chops and then you put a tiny amount of Jamaican white wine on them before grilling them."

"Any kind of white wine?" Rona asked.

"No, no. The kind of wine's very important" she said shaking her finger. "They have that on the next aisle. Come. I'll show you." And again she was off and running. I tried, but couldn't keep up with her.

"Here. Here's what you want. Edmundo's Golden Cooking Wine. I don't know where it's from. But my friend says it's the only one to use. It only comes in this big bottle, but you'll like it so much that you'll get your money's worth."

And with that she was off to retrieve her groceries. Over her shoulder she said, "I hope to see you next time. But, like I said, I'll remember you. Steven and Row-na. Did I pronounce that right?"

"Yes Anna, Rona, that's who I am. And thanks so much for . . ."

We raced over to the meat department and found the thinly-sliced pork chops and picked the smallest package--eight chops that weighed almost two pounds and cost less than six dollars.

"I can't wait to make them," I said, "with the pork seasoning and the . . ."

"Golden Cooking Wine," Rona completed my thought.

To be concluded tomorrow . . .

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

January 21, 2104--Foodtown

Foodtown in West Palm Beach is not to be confused with all the Foodtown supermarkets in the northeast. The latter are traditional supermarkets selling everything from paper towels to Campbell soups; the former, in South Florida, is anything but.

Unless you are Jamaican, Haitian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, Honduran, Peruvian, Taiwanese, Sri Lankan, or Brazilian, this is not necessarily the place for you. That is unless you want a fascinating shopping experience or are looking for a special type and brand of Ceylonese tea.

In regard to tea, if you want to gain a picture of the New America, by far the most diverse country in the history of the world, spend a half hour, as we did on Sunday, in the 30-yard-long tea aisle in Foodtown West Palm where literally hundreds of different kinds of tea and many dozens of brands are on display.

Rona was searching for Ahmed English Afternoon tea. And found it at Foodtown after striking out in half-a-dozen other ethnic food markets.

But if you were searching for that special Ceylonese tea, you had these among other choices--

Black Vanilla
Earl Grey
English Breakfast
Green Jazzy Mint
Green Raspberry
Passion Fruit
Super Pekoe Black Tea
Vanilla Roobius
Pomegranate White
Ginger Peach Roobius
Lemon Spice
Royal Elixer
Pu Erh
Chai Teas
Ceylon Sonata
Saint James
Nuwara Eliya
And, of course, Ceylon Blend

Then, from India, there was . . .

While wandering among a literal world of foods, including pork brains, I wondered what might be available from Sri Lanka.

Rona reminded me that Sri Lanka is the former Ceylon; but that, when if comes to food, Ceylon, not Sri Lanka, is still on the map.

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Monday, January 20, 2014

January 20, 2014--Baring It All

As we know, Vladimir Putin is in all sorts of trouble because of his views about gay people. Not just his personal views, but also his official ones.

He got his rubber-stamp parliament to pass legislation last year prohibiting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices" among minors.

The law has been used to ban gay right demonstrations because children might see them, and it bars discussion of homosexual issues on TV and in newspapers out of concern that children could hear or read about homosexuality and, presumable, as a result, themselves become gay.

As if homosexuality is something one catches. Like the flu.

If it weren't for the fact that the Winter Olympics are just a few weeks away and will take place in Sochi, Russia, this would probably be a two-day story in the United States. We have other important issues to focus on. For example, Chris Christie's closing of a few lanes to the George Washington Bridge and why Robert Redford wasn't nominated for an Academy Award.

But a number of gay Olympians from the U.S. and elsewhere are planning to participate in the winter games and, who knows, maybe wear something purple to protest Putin's homophobia and bigotry.

While thinking about Putin's obsession with gayness, I was reminded of this picture. And then I understood.

Under pressure, though, Putin this past weekend assured gay athletes that his secret police will not interfere with them while they are in Sochi. That is as long as they "just leave kids alone."

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Friday, January 17, 2014

January 17, 2014--15 Seconds of Fame


From Andy Warhol's brilliant perception that the new media age will assure each of us 15 minutes of fame, we are now seeing evidence that that 15 minutes has shrunk to 15 seconds.

Case in point is work-product of the company, NowThis News, recently acquired by NBC's news division.

They specialize in producing news clips that run for 10, 15, and 30 seconds. So, last week, they produced a 30-second micro-documentary about "Chris Christie's Least Presidential Moments" and another one--my favorite--a 15-second clip that "summarized" the life and times of former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday.

Fifteen seconds for someone who lived an over-full like stretches even my cynical notion about the limits of young Americans' shrinking attention spans.

And shame on NBC, the network of Huntley-Brinkley, for pandering to this want-to-know-nothing generation, for whom 15 seconds is about as long as they can sit still.

I know, I know, I'm sounding like and old-codger.

 Guilty as charged!


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

January 16, 2014--Bomb, Bomb, Bomb

I am reading about the Cuban Missile Crisis in Robert Dallek's excellent biography of John F. Kennedy, An Unfinished Life.

During the 13 days that it lasted, as the United States and the Soviet Union came eyeball to eyeball, facing the all-too-real possibility of a massive nuclear exchange, the unanimous advice JKF got from his military leaders, including Strategic Air Commander Curtis LeMay, the inspiration for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, was to take the opportunity to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on the USSR. They felt that we still had the military edge but only if we attacked them preemptively.

Thankfully, for the sake of human life and civilization, JFK resisted that advice and here we are living to tell the tale.

Kennedy had been burned by a version of the same kind of advice 18 months earlier when the CIA and his generals advised the new president to support the invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro.

From that fiasco, JFK learned to be suspicious of his military advisors. Their job, he realized, was to wage war. Not peace. And as commander in chief, with the wisdom of our Founders that the military should be under civilian control, he needed to be leery of predictable advice to attack and invade.

I was reminded of those fateful times the other morning when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared on Morning Joe to promote his memoirs, Duty.

As has been widely reported in the press, not only does Gates take frequent swipes at Joe Biden (inaccurately claiming that in 40 years of public life he has always been wrong in his policy recommendations) but also one of his presidential bosses, Barack Obama. Obama, he claims, not only did not "passionately" support the mission of soldiers mired in Afghanistan, but also was to "suspicious" of his generals' advice.

To that I say, "Thank you President Obama."

Let us recall that it was his generals who pressed him to send more troops to Afghanistan in another ill-fated effort to defeat the insurgents and stabilize the Afghan government under corrupt President Hamid Karzi. And beyond that, as Obama became more aggressive in declaring that we would withdraw all combat forces from there by the end of this year, it was his generals who went public, advocating that we leave a residual force in Afghanistan for 20 more years.

As JFK said in January, 1961--
When at some future date the high court of history sits in judgement on each of us, it will ask: "Were we truly men of courage--with the courage to stand up to one's enemies--and courage to stand up, when necessary, to one's associates?"
Gates should know that history as well as that of the Eisenhower presidency before taking a too causal look back on his service under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. At least eight times during his presidency, former Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower faced down advice from his generals to preemptively wipe out the Soviet Union with massive strikes. They pressed what became a familiar mantra--that the U.S. would for only a few more years have the nuclear edge and that since war with the USSR was inevitable, we should get it over with while we had the advantage.

And at least eight times, Eisenhower, who more than any president was skeptical about such military advice, declined to launch the nukes. Better than anyone else, Ike knew that as surgeons will more often than not say, "Operate," generals will invariably say, "Bomb. "

Under the radar right now, while focusing most of our attention on Governor Chris Christie's exquisite agony, members of the U.S. Senate are quietly advancing legislation to ratchet up the sanctions against Iran. At the very moment that for the first time in decades there is a glimmer of hope that we may be able to negotiate our way to some sort of accommodation with them about their nuclear weapons program. Iran has already signaled that if this new sanctions bill is approved by Congress, overriding what would be a certain presidential veto, they will back out of further negotiations.

Maybe this is a geopolitical example of bad cop (Congress), good cop (Kerry-Obama); but with the Israeli leadership doing what it can to derail negotiations and Congress, very much including many Democrats under the influence of the Israel Lobby, we would be faced with another dangerous situation where bombing not negotiating threatens to become policy.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

January 15, 2014--Rainy Morning

I'm sleeping in but will return tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

January 14, 2014--Jamon Wars

Under the radar for some years a Jamon War has been underway.

Prosciutto producers in Italy have held sway for decades as the essentially sole-suppliers of European-style cured hams in the U.S. No wonder they have attempted to maintain their near monopoly. High quality Prosciutto di Palma goes for up to $30 a pound; and while one is standing in line waiting for a few precious slices, there is imported pasta to buy and a whole array of wonderful cheeses reaching out.

But people who have spent time in Spain (me included) have known for some time that various versions of Jamon de Espana are in fact much tastier and subtler than the Italian competition.

A problem, though, for those of us wanting to find Jamon Serrano or, better, Jamon Iberico Bellota in America, is that we could not locate any until fairly recently. Italian Prosciutto producers managed to keep the U.S. FDA from approving Spanish hams for export. It was claimed that Spanish hams were cured in settings that were not considered to be sufficiently sanitary for the American market.

Spanish authorities counter-claimed that their facilites were as immaculate as the ones in Italy and the FDA ban was simply a matter of unfair restraint of trade. And, it was implied, what else might have been going on under the table to protect Prosciutto's exclusivity.

But whatever was impeding the import of incandescent Spanish hams has been overcome and a number of kinds of Jamon are now available in gourmet and specialty stores.

As is often true with any food obsession, industries of various kinds come to surround and glom onto the latest, hottest, coolest foods, condiments, wines, and cheeses--reviews, magazine and on-line articles, insider information, preparation techniques, and special serving requirements. So it is no surprise with Jamon de Espana proliferating  there is debate and excitement about the best way to slice and serve it.

Actually, more than anything else the buzz is about who does the slicing. Especially if it is celebrity Jamon slicer Florencio Sanchidrian. He has made a lucrative career out of convincing the rich and famous that at least half the value of a leg of Spanish ham depends on how it is sliced. Meaning, if it's sliced by him.

According to the New York Times, when bandana-clad at the Oscars, Hollywood parties, and high-end hotels in Las Vegas and Macau, Florencio commands and gets, for spending an hour and a half slicing a 17-pound ham, around $4,000. (This is not a typo.) He has even done his thing for George W. Bush and the Pope. Benedict XVI, I assume.

For me in the meantime, I'm OK with whoever does the slicing at Dean & DeLuca.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

January 13, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Chris Crispy

"Did you see him on TV?"

"Who?" I asked my nearly 106-year-old mother, who was calling from Forest Trace, the retirement community in South Florida where she has lived for almost 20 years.

"Chris Crispy."

"I missed him. I know he had a news conference to talk about--"

"The bridge."

"Yes, the George Washington."

"How his people closed it to get revenge against the mayor who didn't support him for election."

"Of Fort Lee."

"That's the place."

"What did you think of his press conference?" I asked, "Christie's, which, by-the-way, is his name."

"Christie, Crispy, who cares."

"I don't. In fact, I like your name better."

"My name? Ray?"

"Not your name, his. The one you have for him."

"I only have a minute before I have to go down for dinner so why are we talking about names?"

"I agree. So what did you think about his press conference?"

"You remember what I told you when I heard he had surgery, lap-dance surgery, so he could lose weight? That it meant he was running for president. You can't run for president if you weigh 500 pounds."

"I remember your mentioning his lap-band surgery. How--"

"If he's that heavy how people would think he's about to have a heart attack. Or has an eating problem that he can't control. And how could we trust someone to be president who can't stop himself from eating."

"I recall you're saying that. And I think you're right. But--"

"But, did you see what he looked like last week?"

"Looked like? I guess I did. And?"

"He was half his size."

"Thinner, yes, but not quite half his size. It takes time to--"

"So, I'm exaggerating a little to make a point."

"Which is fine."

"This is good for his health, but I'm not so sure for his politics."

"Say more because I'm not following what you mean about his politics."

"To become president. That is, if he is telling the truth about what happened and the public decides to ignore what went on on that bridge."

"I don't believe he didn't know what was happening."

"Neither do I. But up to now he's been very popular. That's why I'm thinking about his weight. Rather than being bad for him politically, how it helped him."

"Now I'm totally confused."

"When he was 500 pounds, he--"

"I think maybe he was only 350."

"You call that 'only'?"

"Sorry. I interrupted you again."

"What I'm trying to say," my mother persisted, "is that being so big was part of why people liked him." She paused to let that sink in.

"Why is that?"

"Like the Japanese Zoomos."


"Zoomos. The wrestlers."


"Like the Sumos. The people there love them. Not because they're such good wrestlers, but because they're so big. As you would say, bigger than life."

"You believe that part of Christie's appeal has been his size?"

"Yes. That's what I'm saying. Also how he talks. Not like a typical politician. How he brags that he tells it like he tells it."

"Like it is," I corrected her again. "And if he loses more weight and becomes normal size, people will be less attracted to him?"

"He won't be like a hero from the comics anymore."

"A super hero?"

"That's what I'm saying."

"You could be right. He has seemed larger than life, and for people who are fearful maybe that makes them feel secure."

"Unless they find more dirt about him, you watch--as his weight goes down so will his poll numbers."

"We'll see. But you've been right before."

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Friday, January 10, 2014

January 10, 2014--Que Sera, Sera

This insightful piece is from guest blogger Sharon M-L:

As a new year began, I found myself contemplating what to do with the months and years ahead.

A few lines from an opinion piece in the New York Times, "Anxious Youth, Then and Now," suggests why for me and other baby boomers this might be easier said than done.

After drawing parallels between the challenges faced by the children of the Industrial Revolution and currently by Millennials whose plight includes "unstable careers, the confusion of technologies, [and] delayed romance, parenthood and maturity," the author writes:
Today’s young adults are constantly rebuked for not following the life cycle popular in 1960. But a quick look at earlier eras shows just how unusual mid-20th-century young people were. A society in which people married out of high school and held the same job for 50 years is the historical outlier. Some of that era’s achievements were enviable, but they were not the norm.
Born in the 50s, my frame of reference was study hard, get good grades, go to college, get a good job (initially only in those approved professions for young women), marry, have children, become grandparents, and then await death.

This was reinforced by the first two popular songs I picked-up, "Love and Marriage" sung by Frank Sinatra in a mid-fifties television production of Thorton Wilder's Our Town, and at about the same time, "Que Sera, Sera," introduced by Doris Day in Hitchcock's, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

While the social changes of the second half of the 20th century made the lyrics of "Love and Marriage" as outdated as the horse and carriage, the fatalistic roadmap for life expressed in "Que Sera, Sera" (“whatever will be, will be”) reinforced by my parents worldview persists.

Having skipped the children and grandchildren stages and with an unplanned early exit from my career thrown in for good measure, I'm starting to think I should have heeded a graduation speaker who advised what to do to avoid life becoming "a straight run to the grave."

We all had plenty of warning that we'd have to be more flexible and have a plan to thrive in the future. An article in the early 90s talked about “portfolio people,” noting in the near future we would have to be prepared, not only for multiple jobs, but for multiple careers.

I do not see many of my contemporaries planning for the type of retirements held up as the ideal for our parents' generation. Actually one friend talks about the "big buyout" and fully expects us to be encouraged to get out of the way--permanently. His vision: a future government program, perhaps linked to Medicare, which when you've had enough (or cost too much) would provide an option (a pill perhaps?) to end it all quickly in return for a payment to your heirs.

In spite of my best efforts to try to make a plan, when I think of my friend's version of the future, l find myself not wanting to think about the next chapter at all, and instead find myself humming Que Sera, Sera.

For the entire opinion piece, see:

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

January 9, 2014--The 2040 Diner

We had just placed our order at one of our favorite on-the-road places, the 2040 Diner in Fredericksburg, Virginia--eggs and grits for Rona, and the $7.95 county ham special for me--when the owner plopped an overflowing plate of eggs and sides on the counter and himself on a stool.

"That looks good," Rona said, sipping her tea.

He turned in our direction, not responding, looking annoyed by her interrupting what must be a daily ritual.

I thought, "Here we go. We're already in trouble."

"Is that lemon you're squeezing on your eggs?" Rona asked, ignoring his ignoring us.

Without turning he nodded and grunted something indecipherable.

"I've never seen that before."

I mouthed to Rona to "Cool it."

But she persisted, "I never tried that. I love lemon and maybe I'd also like it on eggs."

"Very Grek," he said with a thick accent, squeezing another half lemon all over everything on his plate.

"Grek?" Rona said.

"Grek," he turned fully in our direction, "Grek, Greek. Dot's me. Grek."

"The lemon is very Mediterranean," Rona smiled at him.

At that, with effort, he lifted himself off the stool and lumbered in our direction, hunched over with his arms dangling at his side.

"Lemon we have with everything in Grek." His accent thickened as he neared us.

I was beginning to feel nervous. We were the only customers. 8:30 is often a quiet time in diners that cater mainly to locals--late for those headed to work, too early for older folks, and too off the tourist route for travelers. Usually, exactly our favorite kind of place.

But at the 2040 I was beginning to feel threatened. The two waitresses, who looked as if they had worked there for decades, watched, smiling, which partially reassured me.

"You Brooklyn?" he asked.

"What?" I finally joined in, thinking that might ease the situation. He stood pressing his huge stomach against our table, still with his arms dangling and swinging simian-like.

"Brooklyn? From dare?"

"Yes," Rona chirped, the caffeine in her tea taking hold. "Both of us." She included me in her sweeping gesture.

He glared at me and pointed, laboriously hoisting one of his thick arms. "Him too?"

"Yes, he and me. We were both born there. Are you also from Brooklyn?"

"Grek," he said.

"So how did you know we--"

"Sound just like your mayor. Bloom. Both you and him." He dismissed me with a wave of his massive hand.

"Bloomberg," I said, taking a chance by correcting him.

"No gut."

"He's not our mayor anymore," Rona informed him. "As of January 1st we have a new one. De Blasio."

"De who?"

"Bill De Blasio."

"What kind of name dat?"

"I'm not sure," Rona said. "Maybe Italian?" I nodded.

"Where does he stand on guns?" His accent miraculously gone. "Not like Bloomberg I hope."

"I assume--" I cut myself off, stunned by the change in the way he spoke and not clear where this might be headed.

"He doesn't understand us." What happened to all the Grek business, I wondered. He sounded like someone more from Virginia than Athens.

"In what way?" Rona asked, eating away at her eggs and grits as if not noticing. I was feeling substantially relieved and took to enjoying the wonderful country ham.

"He should come here and talk to people. Real people. Then he would see."

"I think he's not--"

"He is," he corrected me before I could finish.

"Is what?" I was feeling bolder with him backed off from us. But I was still thinking about his disappearing accent.

"Take my son, for example," the taller of the two waitresses said.

"Your son?" Rona said.

"Yes. He has a gun. Most of his friends do."

"I assume," I stammered, "To me it depends on how old he is. I mean from my perspective. But what do I know about these things. I'm just like Bloomberg. From New York. The city. Brooklyn."

"Exactly," she said, having wandered over to us.

"I mean, if I may ask, how old is he? You don't have to tell me, of course."

"I know that." She smiled a bit condescendingly in my direction. I deserved that, I acknowledged. "If you must know, he's eight."

"Eight?" Rona could not hide her surprise. 

"I know what you're thinking but you don't know my boy. Or his grandfather."

"Who is?" Rona ventured.

"He works for Homeland Security."

"Really? What does he--"

"He teaches marksmanship. Trains their best people to become snipers."

"Really? That's amazing," I said.

"To tell you--"

She interrupted Rona. "I think I know what you're thinking. That this is a terrible thing to do and--"

"Not really. I mean I know--"

"That in the real world," she completed Rona's thought, "as awful as it is, it's necessary. Don't you think? I don't need to spell out all the situations where we need them. Snipers. There's no other way to describe them. That's what they do. So we should call them what they are. And are proud to be. To help keep us safe. You remember those Somali pirates?" We both nodded. "Well, my father teaches Navy Seals too."

There was no need to say more. "His grandfather taught him, my son, all about guns. Starting at six."

"Not to--"

"No not to become a sniper," she and Rona laughed together. "But how to handle and respect them. Guns."

"To tell you the truth," Rona said. "This is not something or a world that I know anything about. I guess I'm OK with people having guns. I mean--"

"Among other things, it's in the Constitution," the owner rejoined the discussion. "The Second Amendment says--"

"We coud debate that all day," I said, "The history and meaning of it."

"You mean about the 'well regulated militia' part?" He said, now directly to me.

"That and other things," I said. "But at the moment I'm just enjoying your eggs and wonderful ham. Every year when we're here I can't wait to have some."

"Let's just agree," he offered,  "that things are often more complicated than they seem."

I couldn't disagree about that.

"Like, for example," the waitress said, "how few people from where you're from could learn from my father how to defend us."

"Fair enough," Rona said, "But there are many ways to do that. Not everyone has to . . . . There are other things that need to be done. And people from Brooklyn and other places are helping as well. In their own ways. About things they know how to do."

"One thing, for sure we all agree about," he said, "is that there are some bad guys out there and we have to figure out ways to keep people safe. There are probably other things we could agree about. Like privacy, for example. On the other hand," he caught himself, "considering where you're from, maybe not."

"It might surprise you," I said, finishing my ham, "but for a New York liberal I'm no so liberal about privacy and some of the things the N.S.A. does."

"And it might surprise you that I voted for Obama. Twice. And she did to,"he pointed toward the waitress who was refilling the coffee pot.

"Just once," she winked. "The second time, I didn't vote at all. A plague on all their houses," she said.

"While I'm holding this can I heat up your cup?"

"I'd love some," I said.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

January 8, 2014--Lynching

Circulating virally right now among progressives is a blog posting by Frank Schaeffer, a former member of the Religious Right, in which he comes to the defense of Barack Obama, claiming, with considerable truth, that much of the disproportionate and even savage criticism of Obama is because of racism.

Schaeffer emerged from his Evangelical life a number of years ago and has been telling his story in a three-volume memoir called by some the God Trilogy. In the first of the three, Crazy for God, he reveals that he left his Fundamentalist coreligionists when he "realized just how anti-American they are."

In the blog, "GOP Driven Crazy by Hatred for Obama," which is being widely circulated by some liberal friends of mine, Schaeffer reveals that--
[He] changed because, if this country will lynch a brilliant, civil, kind, humble, compassionate, moderate, articulate, black intellectual we're lucky enough to have in the White House, we'll lynch anyone. What chance does an anonymous black man pulled over in a traffic stop have of fair treatment when the former editor of the Harvard Law Review is being lynched? [Emphasis added.]
Shaeffer is the new darling of many progressives because it is so rare for someone, anyone to switch ideologies from right to left. Pretty much all political conversions are in the other direction, from liberal to conservative. It is much more common to find Dick Morrises who begin life as fervent supporters of Democrats and then, for various reasons, become disillusioned with liberal orthodoxy and migrate to the other side of the political spectrum. In cases such as Dick Morris' they become ultra-conservative, believing in paranoid conspiracies or come to realize there's more of a quick-buck available on the extreme right than left.

But the criticism and attacks Obama is experiencing is not a lynching.

A lynching is a lynching as the Holocaust is the Holocaust.

If liberals who pride themselves on knowing their history engage in this kind of hyper-inflated rhetoric how can one criticize right-wing conservatives when they call Obama an Islamic socialist or communist?

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

January 7, 2014--I Fibbed

We drove 520 miles on Monday and I didn't get to finish my Lynching piece. It will be completed and posted on Wednesday.

Monday, January 06, 2014

January 6, 2014--En Route

Heading south. Somewhere between Virginia and the Carolinas and . . . I will be here on Tuesday with thoughts about a lynching.

Friday, January 03, 2014

January 3, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Are You Limping?

Like clockwork, for decades, at precisely noon on Sundays, my mother would call. In fact, she was so regular in doing this that it would generate genuine concern if she was even a minute late.

I would look at Rona, she would look back at me with a worried face and I would ask, "I wonder if anything is wrong."

"She's probably on the phone with someone else," Rona would say, as much to calm herself as me.

Invariably, on those rare occasions, when she placed her call a few minutes after twelve, she would say, "I was on the phone with Harriet. She called and I couldn't rush her. I know you must be worried," she would say, "But I'm fine," and knowing we might be skeptical, she would add, "I am. I really am. Fine."

Last Sunday the telephone rang at the stroke of noon. "Is there something wrong with your voice?" my mother asked even before I could ask how she was.

"I don't think so," I said to assure her and by attempting to sound stentorian.

"It doesn't sound good to me. Your voice."

"I'm fine. I really am." In truth I was feeling well, though I am quite capable of not always telling her the full truth about my health, knowing that if I do, or cough while talking with her, she will begin to worry and in the process begin herself to not feel well.

"You sound scratchy too," I said. "I think maybe there's a problem with the connection. Hang up and I'll call you back."

She did and I did. "How's that?" I asked when we were reconnected.

"You still sound sick. Are you sure you're not hiding something from me?"

"I'm not. Really. But you don't sound so hot yourself," I said, in an effort to lighten the mood and relieve her concerns about me.

"Let me go upstairs to get another phone," I suggested, "Maybe there's something wrong with this one. Hold on. Hold on. I won't hang up while I'm going upstairs."

When I retrieved the phone from my night table and turned off the one from downstairs, I asked, "Is that any better?"

"Not really." My mother said, also continuing to sound as if she had a sore throat.

"Are you really all right?" I asked, turning the tables on her. "You're not keeping something from me, are you?"

"I'm not. But what's going on with you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are you limping?"

"Limping?" I said, feeling confused. "I'm fine. As I said."

"I don't believe you. You're limping. I know you are."

"I'm not. I'm not." I felt guilty that I was beginning to become annoyed with her unending uber-concen about all aspects of my well-being as if I were still a child. "I'll tell you when something's wrong. I always do," I said, trying to calm her with a half-truth.

"By the way," I added, "What makes you think I am?"



"I heard you."

"Heard me?"


"How? When?"

"When you were walking up the stairs."

"Really? You heard me walking up the stairs?" I was truly incredulous at her inventive ways of keeping track of me.



"The phone."

"The phone? I mean--"

It was beginning to dawn on me. I'm sometimes slow about noticing all the manifestations of her monitoring strategies. "You mean you heard me coming up the stairs because I was carrying the telephone? We do have a wooden staircase that amplifies sound and--"

She began to chuckle. "Since I don't always believe you tell me the truth, I have my methods for keeping up with you." She was by then laughing.

"You know, Mom, for an old lady you're really something."

Feeling good about herself, she said, "That I am. Something."

Before I could tell her how much I love her, she hung up. She didn't want to be late for State of the Union on CNN. One of her favorite Sunday TV talk shows.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

January 2, 2014--WARNING: Sports Action Violence

This holiday season we've actually gone to the movies three times. Out to the movies in a movie theater, not just watching them at home on DVDs.

Thus far we've seen--Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, 12 Years A Slave, and the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis.

All were disappointing.

Blue Jasmine felt like a series of two-dimensional cliches about the rich and poor. The rich vapid and hollow, the working poor violent and virtuous.

12 Years A Slave, though it reminds one of the unspeakable cruelty of that "peculiar institution," also was superficial, with the slaves essentially noble and the owners psychopathic. Of course there are elements of truth in this; but, I felt, if you want a more moving and insightful view of this American nightmare, get hold of Roots on disc or, if you'd like something brilliant and unsettlingly controversial, take a look at Django Unchained.

As for Inside Llewyn, if you're searching for a mean-spirited portrayal of the folk music scene in 1961 Greenwich Village, this flick is for you. Even the music in the film, which in real time was often clever and full of fun, was turgid. And the Coens' picture of the Village back then was far from what I remember. To them it was empty and grim; to me it was tumultuous and exciting, with of course the usual down and dark sides.

To distract myself, especially during the disappointing Llewyn, for some reason I found myself thinking about the movie rating system. The one that warns potential moviegoers about nudity, sex, and violence. Or at least the old G-to-X system that prevailed until more recent years when the list of warnings, especially to parents, increased dramatically.

For example, the preview we saw for what I suspect will be a leading candidate for the stupidest picture of the year, the Robert De Niro-Sylvester Stallone film Grudge Match, has among its warnings "Sports Action Violence." I doubt if the really good Rocky I, which Grudge rips off, had such a warning even though Sly spent a lot of time in a meat locker beating up on bloody sides of beef.

Midnight Cowboy, the first mainstream X-rated movie, back in 1969 received an X because of its "Homosexual Frame of Reference." How far we've come. Today it would probably be rated PG-13.

On the other hand, moviegoers are now warned about "Unsettling Images," "Sexual References," "Drug Use," "Smoking," and, my current favorite, for the film Walking With Dinosaurs, "Creature Action and Peril."

This proliferation of warning categories reminds me of all the safety labels on things such as step ladders, bicycles, and kiddy car seats. Some of this is because of litigiousness; some because we have devolved into a culture that over-coddles children; and, more generally, we have become a people paralyzed by all sorts of unknowable threats.

But when it comes to new categories for Motion Picture Association warnings, those I would welcome include--

For Blue Jasmine--Pervasive Cliches.

For 12 Years A Slave--Superficial Social Issues.

For Inside Llewyn Davis--Only for those Who Know Nothing About the 1960s.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

January 1, 2014--My Father's Son

There is a story my Aunt Madeline took delight in telling. It was about something that happened twenty years after her brother, my father and my mother retired and moved to Florida.

Every six months Madeline would call to tell it to me yet one more time. I enjoyed hearing it again and again and took pleasure in her unrestrained joy when she recounting it.
You remember your cousin Irving? The dentist from Jersey City? He called all excited to tell me about something that happened on a visit to New York City.
"You'll never guess who I saw," he said.
"Who?" I asked.
"Your brother. David." 
"Where?" I asked, very confused. "Were you in Florida?" 
"Like I told you," Irving said, "I was in the city." 
"New York City?" 
"That can't be," I told him, "He's lived in Florida. For twenty years."
"Maybe he's here for a visit." 
"I would know it if he was here. He's not here." I could hear he was becoming annoyed with me. 
"But," Cousin Irving insisted, "I saw him. In Greenwich Village. Walking along the park."
"You're wrong!" I yelled at him. You know me, I'm not shy about expressing my opinions.
"Well, I did see him in New York. And you know what's most amazing? I haven't run into him in more than twenty years, right?"
"Whatever you say," I said. "But," to humor him, I asked, "What's so amazing?" 
"Though I haven't seen him in twenty years, he looks exactly the same."
Aunt Madeline and I always laughed at this because, as she told him, "You didn't see Dave, you saw his son Steven who lives in the Village and looks just like him. I mean, he looks like how Dave looked twenty years ago."

Madeline long ago departed but I was reminded of this story the other day when I caught an unexpected image of myself reflected in a store window on Sixth Avenue. What struck me was that after twenty years, I now look just like my father did the year before he died.

Then about three years ago, visiting my 103-year-old mother, as she is inclined to do these days, we were talking about the past. It was and is for her the most vibrant time of her life.

She suggested we look at old family photographs. This gives her great pleasure. She has them loose in neatly-labelled boxes, not arranged in chronological albums. So a formal picture of her parents as bride and groom in late 19th century Poland is as likely to be found among photos from Passover dinner five years ago, or of me as a six-year-old, or Cousin Chuck at 12 on Brighton Beach showing off his Charles-Atlas-toned body.

Falling out of the box was a picture of a bearded, patriarchal figure clearly from the Old Country. "Who is that?" Rona asked. "I don't remember seeing him before."

"I don't know," my mother said, testing her memory. "He looks familiar, but . . ." I could sense her becoming frustrated at what she took as more evidence of her decline.

"I think maybe it's your father's uncle. He was a very learned man. Almost a rabbi."

"One thing, though," Rona said, "He looks just like Dad did."

"And Steven," my mother said, smiling at me.

Indeed he did, I thought. Not a surprise, but--

Last winter, two years later, we were back in Florida, again in my mother's living room, again listening to her stories from the Old Days, and again going through fading photographs.

On my lap I had the same box in which there were pictures of adolescent Chuck and her parents' wedding portrait.

"Let me take another look at Steven's great-great Uncle," Rona asked. "The one who looks so much like dad."

"And Steven," my mother recalled, with her cognitive powers intact.

"Where is it?" I asked, rummaging among the pictures of past Passovers and cousins' weddings and bar mitzvahs. "I'm sure it was in this box two years ago."

"How could it be missing?" Rona said, beginning to get annoyed at my inability to find it. I suspected wondering about the state of my own decline.

"Here. You look." I thrust the box over to Rona, who was curled up on the sofa.

Systematically she took each of the dozens of photographs out of the box and, while she was searching, stacked them in what appeared to be some kind of order.

"I can't seem to find them either," she confessed. "Whatever could have happened to them?"

"It's happening to everything here," my mother said. "Nothing is not where it's supposed to be. And everything is missing."

"No, it's not Mom," I said, reaching across to take her hand. "Everything is still in place. You're very careful about that. The apartment is perfect." And indeed it is.

Mystified, Rona put the newly-organized photos back in the box. "It's the strangest thing," she said to herself.

I  thought--are we losing the past? My father. Aunt Madeline. Cousin Chuck. My great-great uncle. The list is lengthening.

That's what time does, I rued. The circle is closing. Would I be next?

After a moment of sadness, I consoled myself by recalling that the image in the Sixth Avenue store window where I caught a glimpse of myself looking like my father did a year before he died was fully two years ago.

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