Monday, June 30, 2014

June 30, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Alive and Kicking

It was the day after my mother's 106th birthday and I called to run an idea by her.

"I have a theory."

"A what?"

"A theory, a perception I want to ask you about. It's something I've been noticing for the past number of years."

"How big a number? I'm trying to get used to big numbers. But before you tell me about your ideas, I have a related question for you."


"Is this the way you talk to a mother? About shooting?"

"Sorry, please, ask me your question."

"How did this happen to me?"

"What's the this?"

"To get to this number."

"Oh, you mean your age."

"What else? What other numbers do I have to think about?"

"I'd say, primarily because of DNA."

"Dee-en what?"

"Genetics. You had two sisters who lived to about 102. So good genes run in your family."

"Good other things too."

"I agree with that. But your getting to 106 is about that and also that you had and have an active and stimulating life. They say that contributes to longevity."

"Longevity, short-gevity, they're all the same to me as long as I feel good. And now that my birthday's over--which I do not like to celebrate, I still have vanity about my age--I can get back to feeling as good as it's possible to feel at these sky-high numbers."

She paused to take a deep breath, which I was happy to see since her breathing has been shallow in recent months. "So, already, shoot." She chuckled at that.

"Here's my theory--Remember what years ago Rona and I said to you when you turned 85, about how  . . ."

"That I don't remember."

"Wait, wait, I haven't gotten to it yet. It's something we said to you about 20 years ago. How at that point in your life, rather than thinking always about other people and what they want and expect of you--something you did, devoted your life to to that point--that it was your turn. That if you wanted to you should say and do whatever was on your mind--not censor yourself or think so much about what others might expect of you--and that we would follow your lead. We would not put any pressure on you to think or say or do anything other than what you wanted and seemed right to you."

"This I remember. Rona said that when she got to be my age she'd start drinking and smoking again. That was funny."

"I'm not sure what we said influenced you at all, but it seems to me that since you were at least 90 you've been--how should I put this--feeling, acting more yourself. You speak your mind more, you do more things that feel as if they are what you really want to do than what you think others want. You speak your mind more forcefully. You seem willing to disagree more than in the past. You seem more focused on yourself than on others."

"And this is a bad thing?"

"No, no. Quite the contrary, I'm saying that this new, more assertive you is a good thing. You spent so many years . . ."

"Doing," she whispered, as if she didn't want anyone to hear, "Doing what other people expected."

"That's how it looked to me."

"Even voting the way your father told me to do. I remember that when we walked to the school to vote he would tell me to vote for this person but not that one." She chuckled again, this time it was mixed with a sigh. "As if I didn't know Republicans from Democrats. But, when I got behind the curtain, I did what I wanted."

"I'm glad to hear this. That curtain sums up what I'm trying to say--you could only be yourself, true to yourself, in private. Away from others' influence and expectations."

"I'll tell you something else."

"What's that?"

"All the women I knew did this." She paused, and I tried not to say anything, not to fill the silence. To let her thoughts flow freely.

"That's the way we were brought up. Not to speak our minds. Not to take the lead. Not to disagree. To hold ourselves back. I had sisters who joined the garment union and Bertha marched to demand the vote. But they were criticized for this. By their husbands and even by their father. My father, who said we should have a home, a husband, children and not work, not picket."

"That was how your generation of women was supposed to behave, but . . ."

"No buts. Though this is what was expected of us, still we shouldn't have gone along with it. Some didn't but most did." Again she paused, not to draw me in but to relive those memories and disappointments.

"This included me. And when later women began to talk about liberation and became feminists still, though I was working as a teacher and even was the acting principal of my school, at home I was a wife and a mother. I loved being a mother but being that kind of wife I didn't like so much."

"You were a wonderful mother and . . ."

"I followed in the news what women half my age were doing and demanding and, though I agreed with the ones who weren't shrill or man-haters, I was too old to join them and burn my bra." At that she laughed so full-throatedly she began to cough. "And if I did," she had quickly regained her breath, "burning my bra would have caused a bonfire." Again she laughed. As did I.

"Your father." Again I heard her inhale. "He was a good man. In his way. In a traditional way.  He worked hard, was responsible, accepted the family, which at first didn't accept or like him. He was born in America. All the rest of us came from Poland or Russia. I liked this about him. His being an American. I was proud of that. They thought he was arrogant for being born here and because his parents came from Austria. Can you imagine?"

"I can. Back then that was not uncommon."

"It's so different now? Where you come from? Not everyone is happy with immigrants. They forget where they came from."

"True enough."

"And your father was a strong man. A strong person. He made me feel secure. I still had fears from my childhood in Poland. From the pogroms. He protected me from that. Not the pogroms. Thank God we didn't have these in America. But places were restricted. Even in the Catskills. Some hotels had signs that said, 'No Jews-No Dogs.' In my lifetime I saw those signs. But they didn't bother your father. He felt as if he belonged and because of him I belonged too. And was safe."

"I know he also could be a difficult man. Severe and harsh at times. Actually, often."

"He was never successful enough for him to feel like a true man. He saw others, including in the family, doing better and it upset him. It made him angry and he took much of that out on me. As if it was my fault. I tried to protect you from his frustrations. But you know . . ." She paused this time to get control of her emotions.

"But you know, though I saw it as my role to do this--to let him be himself, to accept that and to protect you--though I did this, wanted to do it, saw it to be my responsibility to do this, it came at a price."

"I think I understand."

"But back to your theory," she had regathered herself, "which caused me to remember all this. Though my memory isn't what it used to be. You are saying that you are seeing something different in me."

"Yes. Definitely. To use a word many are using these days, you seem more authentic."

"You mean I haven't been?"

"Not exactly. But for some years now you seem to be more your true self. If that's helpful."

"I think I understand."

Though concerned I might be pushing too hard, still I asked, "Do you agree?"


"That for the past ten to fifteen years you have been different?"

"I have to think about that for a moment. As I just said, there's a lot I forget. So it's hard to remember myself from so long ago." I sensed her struggling to recall the past. "Maybe, maybe . . ." She trailed off.

"It's OK, Mom, we can talk about this another time. I don't want to overtax you."

"You can tax me all you want. Everyone does. I just paid my quarterlies."

"I meant . . ."

"Maybe I am different. How long ago did you say this was?"

"Ten, fifteen years ago."

"And when did your father die?"

"I'm not good at remembering dates. Maybe 15, 18 years ago."

"So you see?"

"The relationship between Dad and . . ."

"Me, as you would put it, coming into my own."

"That's interesting. Really interesting. What about . . . ?"

"That's just what I was about to tell you." I'm not sure how she knew what I was going to ask. "All the girls here. It's the same thing with them. Those who came into their own. It was after their husbands . . . . They may have loved them but . . ."

"I see where you're going with this. How after . . ."

"It's a terrible thing to admit," my mother said, again after not saying anything for a moment, "Sad how they had to  . . . before . . . I . . . we could . . . But yes . . . I . . . we . . ."

"So I need to amend my theory," I stepped in to interrupt those painful recollections, "To consider the reasons you became, were able to become an active feminist at an older, geriatric age," I opted for that euphemism, "I mean, not just you but some of the ladies."



"Many of the ladies. They also are different and . . ."


"And if you live long enough it can happen. Anything."

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

June 28, 2014--Mom at 106

Today is my mother's 106th birthday.

The other day she asked, "How did this happen?"

"What?" I asked.

"How did I get to be this old?"

I had no ready answer. Just admiration and boundless love.

Friday, June 27, 2014

June 27, 2014--Best of Behind: Why the Roman Empire Fell

Until Labor Day, on Fridays, to take a bit of a break, I will be posting some of my earlier blogs. To call them the "best of" is obviously self-congratulatory, which, I like to believe, is not my normal MO.


Here is the very first posting, from September 1, 2005. It is addressed to a friend, Hedy, who asked why the Roman Empire fell.

I am not sure there are any lessons here--

As promised Hedy, I will reveal here the answer to the centuries-old question: Why did the Roman Empire fall? 

This is not simply an academic issue; many today are seeking answers because they perceive the U.S. to be an empire and thus are looking for similar evidence of our potential decline and fall. Either in an attempt to prevent it or hasten it as the case may be.

Historians have cited many reasons: there was political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay, excessive military spending. See the parallels? Some even claim Rome fell because of Christianity--among other things Christianity turned Romans into pacifists. Parallels cease.

I have learned when facing complexity and contradiction to turn to the NY Times.

Bear with me. Look carefully at the very top lefthand corner of the front page. Note the "All the News That's Fit to Print" box. See just below it: "Vol. CLIV . . . No. 52324." I ask you to turn your attention to "Vol. CLIV"--Roman Numerals! CLIV=154 in Arabic Numerals. This notation indicates that 2005 is the 154th year in which the Times is being published.

Though many of us learned our Roman Numerals in elementary school their only current uses seem to be for publication volumns (check your magazine subscriptions), crossword puzzles, and Super Bowls--the next being Super Bowl XXXIX (39 for those of you who did not go to elementary school).

So you may be wondering, how did Roman Numerals lead to the fall of the Roman Empire? Learning that I=1 and V=5 and X=10 is easy. But try doing addition using Roman Numerals. 

Allow me to illustrate:

Let's add 23 + 58. In Roman Numerals that's XXIII + LVIII. How to proceed? We need to begin by writing the two numbers next to each other: XXIII LVIII. Next we arrange the letters so that the numerals are in descending order: LXVIIIIII. Now we have six Is, so we rewrite LXVIIIIII as LXVVI. The two Vs are the same as an X, so we simplify again and get LXXXI, or 81 as our final answer.

Don't ask me to do long division.

Suffice it to say, when the Arabs came along with their Arabic Numerals (and swords) the Roman Empire didn't stand much of a chance.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

June 26, 2014--Midcoast: Change

I asked the previous owners of our cottage, who live in Sarasota, why they had a place so far north. If it was to be a getaway from the heat and humidity of Florida summers, why not have a place much closer, say, in the mountains of North Carolina.

"Well," he said, "we came to the Midcoast of Maine right after we got married--that was more than 40 years ago--and liked what we saw. There is of course the natural beauty but then there is also the slowed-down lifestyle and all the local history which people respect and remain true to. We thought about how nice it would be to be able to visit regularly, but we had various obligations and a business in Florida that we needed to tend to and didn't get back here for many years."

"I understand," I said, "This really is a special place. But how . . ."

"I'm getting to that. About 15 years ago we came back for a vacation and loved it all over again. You know what especially appealed to us? The fact that so little had changed. There were no new houses, many of the businesses were owned by the same people from 30 years before, and we even recognized some we had met during our first visit. And amazingly, so did they! I mean, remember us. So we impulsively bought a place and never looked back."

Rona and I have been here now for only five years and like some of the same things. Though not much has changed during that time, it's not as if everything stands still, nor does it feel like people are stuck in place. Even those who have to struggle don't whine about it and find ways to enjoy life.

So when two Sundays ago, on the day we arrived for the season, we turned off US 1, and then drove south on Route 129, and as usual slowed down and held our breathes out of concern that some of the familiar places had been transformed or were no longer there.

We slipped through Damariscotta happy to see all the shops intact and everything seeming familiar. "That's good," Rona said, with a sigh of relief, "Nothing's changed. Just how I like it."

Ever pessimistic, I said, "Don't get too excited, we still have ten miles to go."

And we ticked them off one-by-one, now on the Bristol Road, feeling assured, as we crept along, that things were as we had left them six months ago.

"That's what I love about this place," Rona said, "They know what to value. It's not all churn, churn, churn or getting, getting, getting. Back in the city after being away for only a few months our shoe repair shop was gone as was our dry cleaners and a lot of restaurants."

"And don't forget all the new banks, drug stores, and coffee places. But here . . ."

Rona cut me off, "Slow down, stop, look, look over there."

I hit the breaks afraid there was an animal in the road. "At what?"

At that." She was pointing at something on her side of the car.

I pulled over onto the margin. "I don't see what you're seeing."

"Over there. By Farmhouse Lane."

"It looks the same to me. Just like in November."

"You're not looking at the right place. Bend down so you can see out my window. Next to the street sign."

"Oh my, I see what you mean."

"That's different, right? That wasn't there last year."

"I think you're right."

"It's a little tacky, don't you think?"

"I agree," I said, "Very."

"I know people like to name their houses. Like our place is called the Lilac Cottage because of all the lilac bushes. So I'm OK with them calling this place The Nuthatch's Nest. Nice alliterative name. But the sign!"

"That's my point," Rona said.  "The name's fine, the sign's fine, but the little painting on it is another story."

"Yeah, of the nest with three cute little eggs in it."

"At least there's no mother nuthatch."

"You know," I said, "to me we're sounding a little spoiled. This is a live-and-let-live place so who are we to complain about something like this."

"It's just that we were talking about how we like the changelessness here and how something this innocuous stands out and . . . but," she caught herself, "But I think you're right. Actually, we're sounding more than a little spoiled."

"I think we need to calm down," I said, swinging back onto the road, "and count our many blessings."

Rona reached over, smiled, and kissed me softly. "Many."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 25, 2014--Sunnistan

I know next to nothing but for years knew that as soon as the U.S. withdrew its troops from "Iraq" there would be civil war and eventually--actually soon--there will be at least three countries replacing "Iraq."

"Iraq" is in quotes to suggest that it is a geopolitical fiction. It is no more a culturally-consistent country than Syria or Jordan, current-day Lebanon or Israel. The list goes on. All were creations of European and American victors at the end of World War I.

I know next to nothing about the situation in strife-torn Syria, but for at least two years, from casually reading the New York Times and other sources, I knew that the chaos in Syria and northwestern "Iraq" was an incubator for extravagantly jihadist factions. I had never heard of ISIS (and it appears that neither did most of our leaders), but I knew thousands of youthful militants (including many from the United States and Western Europe) were streaming to Syria to be trained to join the fray and to become suicide bombers.

Again I know next to nothing, but knew that the so-called border between Syria and "Iraq" was porous and in danger of being obliterated and that a new country would emerge that will likely in the future be known as Sunnistan. As there will be a Shiastan (allied with Iran) and of course a Kurdistan.

So if I, knowing so little, knew this much where have our leaders been?

Since Syria was the place where this toxic mix was being compounded, why didn't the Obama administration agree to directly help the moderate forces who were struggling to overthrow Bashar al-Assad as well as fend off the most violent of the jihadists?

It may not have worked (what does in that region?) but wasn't it at least worth a try? Now, we have to reengage in "Iraq" to save some bits and pieces of stability from the mess George W. Bush and his handlers brought about by their invasion and occupation.

We spent $1.7 trillion (with a T) in Iraq and one would think that would at least have bought us a functioning intelligence network that would have warned us about what was bubbling in Sunnistan.

Or, for $2.50 a day, the administration could have picked up the Times at the corner newsstand and known from its coverage what was happening.

In case they didn't want to spend all that money on the Times, they could have for free checked the ISIS website regularly where, without spin, they openly publish their agenda and flaunt their achievements. One can also consult their annual reports. Yes, like a corporation or national state they issue them!

Among these "achievements," again reported yesterday in the Times, is the capture and control of all roads that connect Syria with "Iraq" and "Iraq" with Jordan.

So, in effect, Sunnistan now exists.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

June 24, 2014--Cousin Henry-Hank-Henri

Cousin Hank ran out of lives on Sunday and his funeral is this morning.

He faced death so many times, including over the years being placed in hospice care but then reviving, that we came to take for granted every time he was sent to the ICU that this was just another example of Hank being Henry.

When he first joined the family, marrying Cousin Nina, he was introduced to us as Hank, a familiar form of his real name, Henry. But years later, when I came to know he was in fact Henri, these name variations made perfect sense. They were just another iteration of Jewish immigrant life--get anglicized so one could try to "pass," avoid quotas, maybe get into college, attempt to slip through life unscathed, and, if possible, eek out some measure of happiness.

Henry-Hank-Henri managed to achieve all of this while growing more in love with Nina over nearly 65 years.

To me, coming of age in post-World War Two Brooklyn, he was the only family exotic.

There were members of the family who came from Europe--my mother included--but they were Middle-European shtetl Jews, and we lived in a neighborhood among so many others that neither their Yiddishkeit, foods, customs, nor consciousness seemed out of the ordinary. Indeed, they and the lives they led were the ordinary.

Henry-Hank-Henri was to me anything but ordinary.

His English was German inflected, not Polish-Russian-polyglot English. He was from Austria, not an obliterated village "near Warsaw." He drank espresso black, smoked unfiltered French cigarettes, and during the din of family gatherings remained non-judgementally detached, puffing and sipping, taking it all in as if we were the exotics.

For a kid dreaming of getting away, of making something different of my life, I was not thinking about wandering around in the Pale of Settlement searching for my Polish-village roots but wanted something cosmopolitan. Not that I at the time knew what cosmopolitan was, but Henry-Hank-Henri had the aura of that difference and I spent a lot of time studying him.

Secretly, I tried black coffee (hated it) and, with candy cigarettes, practiced holding them between my second and third fingers as Henri did. I also took to ordering Compari and Soda--or as he would ask for it, "Compari-Soda," as an homage to him.

Sad to say, the last time we were together, for the first time I asked him questions about his earlier life, a life up to then I had only imagined and shaped for my own transgressive purposes.

What he shared did not diminish my own version of his life and genealogy.

He indeed was Henri.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

June 23, 2014--Midcoast: Gardening

We've been here seven days and have already made three trips to Moose Crossing, the funky-named garden center 15 miles north on US 1 past Waldoboro.

Rona's last year's perennial plantings for the most part made it through the harsh winter. Just how harsh we heard on Friday at the farmer's market from Mrs. Chase, who makes the best pies in the Northeast (which means anywhere), who told us how her husband managed to keep the house warm all winter.

"We heat with wood and even have a wood-burning boiler for hot water. Usually winters he shovels out the ashes four, maybe five times. This year," she said with a broad smile, "he needed to do it eleven times. Can you imagine, eleven times!" It was clear she thought they had been through an adventure.

A few days earlier, it was with trepidation that we went first to the waterside gardens immediately after we arrived to see how things had fared.

The blue and white Lupine were fully two-feet tall, in extravagant bloom, bending in the wind off the bay. The Delphiniums planted in the center of Rona's rambling perennial border looked as if they had expanded three times since the early fall while the Foxgloves were feeling a bit unhappy. "Maybe they're too close to the Lupine," Rona mused, "The sun gets blocked. They need lots of sun."

But the pink Obedients were anything but obedient as they had naturalized north and south way beyond the boundaries Rona had set for them.

"Looks like I'll need to do some dividing," Rona said, quite pleased with herself as she looked out over her flower beds, "I know just where I can place what I don't want in the beds." Her gaze and gesture swept across the full expanse of her garden kingdom.

"Shouldn't we unpack the car and get settled? We haven't even looked in the house to see how it made it through the winter. There could be all sorts of . . ."

"Stop right there. I don't want you bringing any of your New York anxieties up to Maine and into the house. That's why we're here--to shelter ourselves from all that and to take on the peace and solitude and to . . ."

"I'm with you," I cut her off, "I agree with all that. But how come the garden always comes first and the house second?"

"You'd have to be a woman to understand."

She turned away to wander among her Roses of Sharon (doing very well) and her Dasante Blue Delphiniums (also exploding with new growth).

Rona's comment about gender and gardening caught me by surprise, but through the years I had noticed that almost all the gardening I've witnessed, note witnessed, was done by women. In fact, at Moose Crossing I don't ever recall seeing a man alone pulling a cart full of annuals. Yes, men lug along those rubber-wheeled carts but always, in truth like me as well, trailing a step or two behind while their wives select a Pink Astilbe (False Goatsbeard) or a Red Vein Indian Mallow. Their role, our role, is to try to patiently be of assistance until we can get back to our tool sheds and chain saws.

A couple of days later, after we had in fact ventured into the house (all was as we had left it), settled in, restocked the pantry and refrigerator, and Rona had divided and relocated some of her Obedients, I asked about "this business of women and gardens."

"I imagine you must also be thinking about women, or girls, and their horses."

"As a matter of fact, yes. That too. Do you think it's . . ."

"Rustic things?"

"Sounds possible. But I don't understand the women connection. Why you guys, I mean women, are so attracted to rural matters while we guys would rather spend our weekends lying around watching baseball on TV."

"And it's not because the men work for a living and need to decompress over the weekend and women stay at home, take care of the kids, do the cooking and cleaning so that getting out into the garden is a natural extension of that."

"Well," I said professorially, "in a lot of native societies women do the gathering while the men do the hunting. The gathering being looking for edible plants and roots and tubers. I suppose, a version of gardening."

"There could be some hard-wiring going on," Rona conceded. "But nowadays everyone is working, not that many of us do any gathering, and so clearly there's something else going on. I agree."

"Glad to hear that. What's going on?"

"I'm getting to it. We were up at Moose on Thursday and the place was really busy. It's prime planting time here. We have a short growing season and if new plants don't get into the ground in the next few weeks, they'll be goners by next spring, and not one person shopping for plants was a woman. Like you, there were men trailing along, schlepping wagons full of plants."

"And the meaning of all this is?"

"Simple--women are more connected to nature because they have the natural capacity to bear children and in most societies, even here, have the primary responsibility for raising them. I hope this doesn't sound sexist. What do feminists call this, Essentialism?" I nodded. "Gardening must somehow be related to these DNA-driven female capacities."

"I won't tell some of our friends what you're saying. I don't want to get you in trouble."

"I'm OK with this analysis. But there's at least one more reason."

"Which is?"

"We're just smarter than men about what's important. What sounds more important to you," she winked, "making and maintaining a garden or drinking a six-pack while watching the World Cup."

"I can tell you what the Brazilians would say."

"You mean the guys, right?"

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Friday, June 20, 2014

June 20, 2014--Persia

I am having second thoughts about our working in tandem with Iran to push back against the jihadist ISIS forces that are threatening to fully overrun Iraq and implement a holocaust against Shiite Iraqis and impose sharia law. They are already massacring thousands in parts of Iraq they have seized

These really are bad people. Even Al-Qaeda has renounced them as too violent. When you have Al-Qaeda pronouncing you to be too violent that qualifies as violent.

Already openly engaged in talks with Iran about its nuclear program, something that would have been difficult to imagine just a year ago when the drumbeat in Israel and among militarists in our own country were pressing the Obama administration to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran; as ISIS fighters stormed across northern and central Iraq, the US and Iran, again openly, began to talk about the possibility of coming to the assistance of the Iraqi government, as ineffective and exclusionary as it is, because the prospect of ISIS controlling most of the country, and the region that includes Syria, was too apocalyptic to contemplate.

There are at least three possible scenarios for the tormented Middle East--

Perhaps most likely is decades of interminable warfare ranging from small scale internecine civil wars between ethnic, tribal, and religious rivals to region-wide strife. Libya is an example of the former while what we are now seeing across Syria and Iraq is characteristic of the latter, with ISIS already proclaiming that what they are up to is not just the imposition of sharia law but the reestablishment of the Caliphate of the 7th through 15th centuries.

Second is the reemergence of a class of local tyrants who can, through force and terror, suppress the aspirations of the region's fractious peoples. Saddam Hussein in Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Shah and ayatollahs in Iran, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and currently Bashar al-Assad in Syria are all examples of leaders who were or have been for decades successful at keeping the lid on discontent and political rivals.

Third, though ultimately unlikely, is the scenario I have been reconsidering--the emergence with subtle U.S. support--of three or four regional powers that reassert their historic leadership roles across the region.

Egypt would need to see its revolution concluded to again play its dominant role among Arabs. Turkey would have to see it influence spread among moderate Muslims. Saudi Arabia would have to open its society further and come to play a greater regional role. And Iran would have to again become Persia.

Some have argued, for example, that Iran's nuclear aspirations have less to do with developing atomic weapons to use against Israel than an expression of national pride. For a people with an ancient and proud history to see itself overshadowed by the Saudis and Israelis is deeply humiliating. To again be able to play an influential role in the region might satisfy those national ambitions.

Of course the likelihood of any progressive scenario advancing is remote. The Sunnis and Shia have been murderous rivals since the death of the Prophet 1,400 years ago and Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran eye each other venomously.

But perhaps our trying to find a way to bring Iran into the family of moderate nations is worth a try. Everything else seems too depressing to think about 24 hours before the summer solstice.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 19, 2014--The Ego

The Donald is having problems with The Ego.

In Chicago six years ago, he opened his 92-story hotel and condominium. Everyone in town was sort of happy. They thought for Trump the architecture was restrained and even elegant. OK, maybe not elegant. This is The Donald after all and elegant and Trump do not go together in the same sentence. Though I just did it.

But at least it didn't look like Atlantic City, where we have the Trump, yes, Taj Mahal,  or, forgive me fellow New Yorkers, the hideously-gilded Trump Tower in Manhattan, right across from Tiffany. And, no one in Chicago wanted to say this openly for fear The Donald would get ideas, it didn't have his name--T-R-U-M-P--trumpeted on it as it is on everything else he owns, or, for a fee, sells his name.

Like the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas or the Trump Hotel and Towers in Waikiki, the Trump Towers in Istanbul or another Trump Towers in Pune, India.

He likes alliteration.

But just this week, to the chagrin of tasteful Chicagoans, Trump finished installing a 20-foot tall stainless steel, LED-backlit P to the facade to join the T, the R, the U, and the M.

The always colorful, Mayor Rahm said, "This is an architecturally tasteful building scarred by an architecturally tasteless sign."

The tasteful people of Pune said, "Ji."

What is it with these guys?

Trump is worth $2.7 billion according to Forbes and owns dozens of buildings, casinos, resorts, and golf courses. He even owns the Miss Universe pageant for God's sake. He needs his name on everything?

The answer is pathetically obvious.

When Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York State, he spent billions of taxpayers' dollars on new government buildings. This transformed a charming, sleepy state capital, full of historic buildings, into a version of soulless Brasilia. Some wags said Rocky had an Edifice Complex. Others, considering his private life, said it was all about his asserting that "Mine is bigger than yours."

Some say building on a grand scale and affixing one's name to what one owns is an attempt to make oneself immortal--the works will be there forever, millennia after one departs this mortal coil.

But then there is the Ozymandias problem.

Remember the lyric poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley? In my day, everyone in elementary school was required to memorize it and to ask, at that tender and innocent age, "Is that all there is?"

When contemplating the ruin of a 13th century BCE statue of Ramessesi II,  the poet writes--
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

June 18, 2014--The Six Americas

I hesitate to bring him up, he was such a . . . you know what, but John Edwards, during the 2008 primary campaign, reminded us that there are two Americas--"the privileged and the wealthy and the America of those who live paycheck to paycheck."

He of course was oversimplifying--for example among the less-privileged there are the working poor and those, without hope of work, who live in unrelenting poverty. And then there are the "privileged" who are the wealthy one percent and the simply affluent. This could then be thought of as four Americas.

But his reductionist two-Americas lens was still a good one through which to see the United States. It continued to be as the Occupy Wall Streeters reminded us.

The two-Americas idea was not entirely new, not even in it phrasing. It was derived from the findings of the presidentially-appointed Kerner Commission, which, after the urban riots of the 1960s, in 1968, reported that the United States was "moving toward [becoming] two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

The Kerner conclusion about race adds two more Americas for a total of six. And though the commissions findings were and are essentially true, they too lacked nuance. For example, the report barely mentioned how poorly many other millions of color, Hispanics for example, were doing. And it did not take even a glance at how women were faring or look at the stratification within the black community.

But as with Edward's summation, it too attracted attention, debate, and led to some palliative social policies.

Thus one could say that are more than two Americas. Six at least and even eight.

I've already noted that there is an America for most people of color, not just for African Americans, and that the socioeconomic divide if far more complex and its complexity is more important to pay attention to than Edwards' simple wealthy-versus-paycheck people.

And it may be almost equally important to consider the two ideological Americas, which also has a geographic component.

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the partisan divide stretches way beyond Congress. Liberals and conservatives prefer to live near people of like minds and want their children to marry those with similar political views.

More distressing, beyond having differing views that are subject to debate and compromise (both essential to a functioning democracy), Pew reported that 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republican see the other party as a threat to the nation's well-being.

Then there are the two cultural Americas, both closely aligned with the two ideological Americas. Some have declared the Culture Wars ended with "victory" for the progressive perspective that, among other things, supports same-sex marriage.

It is true that in a crescendo of court decisions and actions by voters and state legislators it is now legal in 17 states for men to marry men and women to marry women; but in states and cities along both coasts, in contrast to pretty much everywhere in between, battles rage about what to teach children--evolution or intelligent design; abortion, in spite of Roe v. Wade, is available on demand in only four states; and various forms of Christian prayer at public meetings, recently declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, now occurs commonly in much of America, including in Congress.

So how many Americas do we have? Ten? A dozen? Much to understand. Much work still to be done.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 17, 2014--Relocating

Heading for the Midcoast. I will return on Wednesday with a report from the six Americas.

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 16, 2014--The Middle East? Hands Off

As President Obama feels the pressure to provide military assistance to the collapsing regime in Iraq, he and we should step back and review the last 2,500 years of history. Just a few pertinent highlights!

The major lesson is that no outside power, from Alexander the Great of Macedonia to the French and British imperialists, from the Soviet Union and now the United States, no one has been able to impose their will on the region.

All interventions, all attempts to subjugate proud and defiant peoples have failed. And worse--have reverberated back disastrously on the invaders, colonizers, and occupiers.

After 330 BC Alexander never recovered; the British and French colonial powers after the First World War never recovered; the Soviet Union collapsed and never recovered; and the United States lost treasure, power, and influence in the region and I suspect will also not recover.

So what to do now?

The right answer is nothing.

We should get out of the way and allow the people living there figure out their own futures, very much including their own borders.

If we could impose a sane and just plan of our own that would endure, I would consider supporting it. But the long reach of history teaches that any attempt to do so is doomed to fail and, worse, will only make things worse.

Look at the current situation in Iraq. The Sunni jihadists have already overrun a third of the country, a country that was arbitrarily constructed at the end of WW I. From the videos showing ISIS's triumphant advance, while the so-called Iraqi army discards its uniforms and attempts to blend in with the benighted civilian population, we see the invaders already in possession of American military equipment that also was abandoned by the Iraqi army.

This was evocative of the experience in Afghanistan where the U.S., still entangled in the Cold War, armed the Mujahideen who were fighting the invading Soviets and, after defeating them (which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union), morphed into the Taliban which proceeded to overthrow the Afghan government and then turned its weapons, the ones we supplied, on us when we invaded at the end of 2001. And does anyone doubt that as soon as we finish leaving Afghanistan the Taliban will once again take over?

Sounds like current-day Iraq to me.

Seven years ago, presidential candidate Joe Biden was ridiculed when he said that Iraq should be allowed to devolve into three countries--Shiite in the south, Sunni in the middle, and Turkistan in the north.

He was right.

In fact, he could have advocated similar things for the rest of the region, from at least Tunisia in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.

Few of the countries in that geographic span have cultural borders--Iran (formerly Persia) and Egypt are perhaps the exceptions--but rather ones drawn for them by various conquerers and occupiers.

For centuries, for their own strategic and economic purposes, dominant Western powers have attempted to contain and control the essentially tribal people who live in this vast region. Since the end of the Second World War, country-by-country this has been unraveling. And at an accelerated pace for the past four or five years. Recall the Arab Spring of 2010.

The emergence of jihadist and terrorist groups--ISIS is just the most recent example--feels especially threatening to our national interest. But it may be more dangerous to attempt to continue to contain these aspirations and energies than let to them play out.

The genie of various forms of liberation cannot be stuffed back in the bottle. It is much too late for that.

It may be less risky to step back and allow these contesting forces to work things out. We may not like this idea or the potential outcomes; but, in reality, do we realistically have the ability and resources to impose an alternative scenario?

Do we see ourselves intervening on the side of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq allied with Iran's Revolutionary Guard? As unlikely, even as preposterous as this may sound, it is being seriously discussed.

Frightening as that prospect is--very much including the blow to our national ego--it represents another reason to back off. If there is to be fighting, and of course there is and will be, at least it will be focused within the region, internecine, and less directed toward us. That could be truly in our national interest.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

June 13, 2014--Guest-Blogger: Father's Day Treasure Hunt

On the Friday before Father's Day, guest-blogger Sharon reports about an interesting and emotional treasure hunt--

I don't particularly like Father's Day.
My dear grandfather died suddenly the day before in 1969.
We all watched from the living room window as someone we couldn't quite see lying on the sidewalk and was taken away. It never entered our mind it could be him. We thought he was at home downstairs in the apartment he shared with our grandmother. The next day, his present remained unopened and was returned.
Almost thirty years later, I was preparing to head up to New Jersey for Father’s Day 1998 when I got a call that my dad had a stroke and my family was at the the hospital. It didn't look good.
Another Father's Day funeral. Another unopened and returned gift.
After my grandfather died, I asked my mom for the few coins my grandfather carried in his pocket for a memento. I later found the pictures depicting my grandparents early life in Russia and later life in the U.S. disappeared somewhere along the way. So when my father died, I scooped up his papers stored in boxes from earlier Father's Day gifts and the recently cleaned Eisenhower style uniform jacket my dad had tried on for us the year before. It fit again.
A pack rat myself, I was curious what I'd find in the boxes. There were greeting cards, a few of our report cards, award certificates and programs from school events. Far more interesting were the papers from the years before he was a husband and father. Inside the aging boxes were various documents and correspondence and a few black and white pictures, which almost sixteen years later I would use to try to recreate a chronology for what my dad did during the war.
This year, the Monday before Father's Day I received a long list of questions from Steven about Joe's WWII service, inspired by the reporting around the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Like me, Steven had tried to ask my father these questions directly without much success. Over the years a few stories would leak out, often the same ones-but no real chronology.
Although I couldn't answer most of the questions off the top of my head, I offered a few things I remembered and then decided to get the box.
We all knew that during the war my dad had appendicitis after Thanksgiving. Initially thought to be indigestion, he ultimately remained in London while the rest of his unit moved on. When I found a program dated November 23, 1943, 106th Signal Corp I figured his illness was so significant that he kept the menu.
But it turned out that GI Joe got sick after Thanksgiving 1944 and found himself in a hospital in England. Meanwhile five days after they arrived on the continent, his fellow soldiers, who had trained together for over a year in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana were to face a battle that would prove too much for inexperienced troops, the Battle of the Bulge.
Although ultimately credited with helping to slow down the Germans, over 500 soldiers from the 106th were killed, thousands were captured and became POWS. Many of these men ended up in Stalag IV-B. Kurt Vonnegut himself was with the 106th and was assigned to a work detail in Dresden. Housed in a former slaughterhouse, his experiences there inspired Slaughterhouse 5. Another site I found detailed the dead by unit. Five men from the 106th signal were listed as KIA.
I've sometimes joked with my siblings that we probably owe our existence to appendicitis. However, until this week, I never quite realized the extent of the horrors my dad narrowly escaped.
Noting that his separation papers in 1946 didn't note the 106th, but the 32nd armored regiment, it appears that the rest of his service was as a Sargent and Staff Sargent, including a platoon leader commanding a tank, which I do remember him saying caught fire on his first day. I found a map depicting the 32nd's route through the Ardennes, the Rhineland, and Central Europe. Two of the three campaigns were noted on my dads' separation papers along with note of a bronze star.
Also noted was a ten-week business course at Shrivenham American University. An article about Shrivenham noted that the business courses were most popular with GIs who, tired of taking orders, were looking forward to becoming independent businessmen after the war.
The other interesting discovery was the Cigarette Camps. On the back of an old black and white photo my dad inscribed, "Camp Pell Mell, Etretat France, October 1945.
Disgusting." A quick search uncovered not the old world classical building he posed before, but a camp of "ramshackle tents in a vast mudhole," where early on soldiers were staged on the way to the front and later the last stop for soldiers who had accumulated enough points to return home.
Why were the camps named after cigarette brands? In addition to obscuring their location from the enemy, it was thought to provide a psychological lift and the inference that cigarettes would be plentiful for soldiers who would soon be sent to the front.
So late Monday night, with still many holes in the chronology, some inconsistencies and with only a Thanksgiving menu for the 106th Signal Corp, I did another search and found images of uniform patches depicting a lion for the 106th and Spearhead for the 32nd Armored. I remembered my father’s Ike-style uniform in the upstairs closet. I removed the cleaning bag and there they were--on one sleeve the Lion patch and on the other the Spearhead patch. They were there when he tried on the uniform, but at the time didn't really mean anything to me. I didn't think to ask.
Now they were confirmation of a narrative I had to piece together from documents and scraps of memorabilia because, in life, like so many others, my dad didn’t want to talk about these life-altering experiences.
So as the world appears to be coming apart again, this Father's Day my gift is the gift of remembrance for my dad and for all the people who sacrificed so much over 70 years ago.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

June 12, 2014--Where's Saddam?

Here's a multiple choice question for you now that Sunni militants in Iraq have stormed and taken control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and Tikrit, only 60 miles from Baghdad. This after overrunning and seizing Fallujah six months ago.

In these cities the black flag of the jihadi group, The Islamic State of Iraq, flies over public buildings. The lawless border between Syria and western Iraq is virtually obliterated, and these al-Qaeda linked factions are on their way to redraw the map of this region so that it reverts to the nation states that existed until the end of the First World War when lines were drawn in the sand to carve out European and American spheres of influence.

The Iraq police force and army that we spent hundreds of billions training so that the Iraqi government could protect all citizens and the country from just this sort of internal, virtual civil war are in various states of collapse, with soldiers and police deserting in droves, shedding their uniforms and abandoning their weapons in attempts to blend into the civilian population.

With the current situation as dire as it is, and only promising to worsen, here is the question--

With things as unravelled as they appear to be, what would you prefer:

(a)  The United States should not have withdrawn its combat forces and should have committed to remaining in Iraq indefinitely as we are in Korea and Germany.

(b) We should intervene directly in Syria, including arming the rebels and, if necessary, placing American boots on the ground, since most of the jihadists in Iraq were trained, armed, and launched from Syria.

(c) We should exhume Saddam Hussein, revive him, and place him and his repressive henchmen back in power.

(d) If none of the above, what?

I'm inclined to (c). You?

And, while struggling to answer the question, we should again remind ourselves that this dangerous mess is the true legacy of George W. Bush and his neo-con and congressional enablers.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

June 11, 2014--Fracking the Frick

I prefer my Vermeers in intimate settings. Hushed rooms with velvet wall coverings such as those at the Frick Collection in New York City.

At the other end of the New York scale, I like my cheesecake unadorned in its pristine basicness at Junior's restaurant in downtown Brooklyn.

But this is, alas, all about to change.

Just the other day, Rona and I drove into Brooklyn to get a slice. We hadn't been there in years. Halfway across the Manhattan Bridge an array of glittering skyscrapers appeared, all surrounding what had until recently been a downtown overlooked in the city's real estate surge.

But no more.

During the past decade 33 new residential towers were built with a total of 5,300 apartments. There are another 11 under construction, and 16, as they say in the real estate business, are "in development." These in total will add another 12,500 housing units.

Brooklyn really is the new Manhattan. And this means that Junior's has got to go.

It sits on a clearly valuable site on Flatbush Avenue Extension right down the street from my old high school (Brooklyn Tech) and about four blocks north of the new Barclay Center where the Brooklyn Nets play and Jay-Z packs the house.

So Junior's has to be torn down and a 1,000 foot residential tower needs to take its place. No more cheesecake. No more place in the city where African-Americans and white folks can gather over great hamburgers, onion rings, buckets of pickles, and of course the cheesecake voted number one year-after-year by New York Magazine.

And there will no more Frick as we know it if museum officials can get the city's permission to add a six-storey wing to its current jewel-box galleries.

The claim is that they need the new space to better accommodate blockbuster shows like the recent one that featured a host of Vermeers, including the iconic Girl With Pearl Earring on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague. People lined up around the corner hours in advance of opening hours and the Frick could barely squeeze through the exhibit the tens of thousands who showed up.

They also need the new space, the New York Times reports, so they can have a rooftop garden and, I assume, cafe. These days without coffee no one will show up. Even for a Vermeer.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

June 10, 2014--Un-Settling: The Politics of Middle East Real Estate

If you ever for a moment thought that the Israeli government's allowing the building of "settlements" on land claimed by Palestinians is primarily to accommodate population growth, if you imagined that the recent decision by the government to permit 1,500 more housing units to be constructed deep in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was about needing additional apartments for an expanding population, think again.

It's not about living accommodations, it's about the politics of hate and real estate.

The Jewish population has been growing very slowly. Though the ultra-orthodox are having increasing numbers of children, that rest of the Jews in Israel are not growing in number.

There are at least two dimensions to this increase in the number of settlements--the orthodox, the Haredi, are messianic-minded, which means that they are preparing for the appearance of the Jewish Messiah. To them this requires that Jews come to occupy all of Greater Israel--one of the conditions for the Moshiach's appearance--and that includes all of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, the Sinai, and a good slice of current-day Iraq.

The second reason for expanding housing, politically linked to the presence of increasing numbers of aggressive Haredi, is that settlement policy is one vexing arm of the struggle between the current Israeli government and the aspirations of the Palestinian people who want a homeland, a country of their own. And, to present a balanced picture, this to extreme Palestinian  power-players means occupying much of what is currently Israel.

As evidence of the settlements political agenda is the recent move to authorize 1,500 more units in response to the emerging reconciliation between Fatah (moderate Palestinians) and the more radical Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the Israeli government was uncharacteristically honest about the new settlement policy. In the past, they would have claim it was to alleviate a housing shortage. But not this time--
By presenting the new building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a punishment over the newly constituted government of the Palestinians, who regard that territory as theirs for part of a future state, Israel set itself further apart from international consensus and drew criticism from foreign allies, including Britain, France, and the United States. [Italics added.]
Where we go from here is anyone's guess. Minimally, nothing much will change to alter the Israeli government's aggressive behavior until and unless the United Staes and its allies finally say enough. And act accordingly.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

June 9, 2014--R's Birthday

We did a lot of lolling yesterday and so I didn't get to do much typing. I will return on Tuesday with thoughts about the new situation in Israel.

Preview--Not good.

Friday, June 06, 2014

June 6, 2014--Progressive Dinner With Vladimir Putin

High school is breaking out among the G-7.

They are meeting in Europe right now without including G-8--Russia. Because of their annexation of Crimea they, actually, Vladimir Putin, are in the doghouse.

No better evidence of how ridiculous things can get have been all the maneuvers to keep Putin and Barack Obama from running into each other. This is because Putin in fact has been in Brussels but meeting less officially with European counterparts and he, as well as Obama, were in Paris yesterday and will be in Normandy today, the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings.

But the funkiest machinations were those involving dinner and souper (supper) on Thursday (in a movement I will unpack that distinction) in Paris, hosted by French president Francois Holland.

"Dinner," at an undisclosed Parisian restaurant, will include Obama but not Putin while souper, which will follow dinner, will include Putin but not Obama.

So for Monsieur Hollande and other members of the G-7 or G-8 it will be like a progressive dinner (where courses are served at different locations) with the dinner part, I suppose, consisting of small plates while souper will be more robust.

Or the other way around.

I am not privy to the menus but they could be something like the following--

Always the good host, Hollande, wanting Obama to feel at home after being largely ignored at the G-7 talks, at dinner will order up a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza and a a couple of Big Baby double-cheesebergers.

"What, no Moules Marinieres?" Obama will ask. "Back home I eat Bug Babies all the time."

Dinner conversation with him will center around how, after tapping her phone, he can get Angela Merkel to return his calls.

At the Putin souper cabbage borscht will be served after which there will be skewers of lamb shashlyk.

"What, no Blanquette de Veau?" Putin, pouting, will ask. "In Moscow all I eat is shashlyk."

Souper conversation with him will likely include putting the final touches on France's sale of 1.2 billion-euros' worth of helicopter carriers to Russia in, sort-of, violation of the sanctions the West has imposed on Russia because of its intervention in Ukraine.

But as they say in Paris, C'est la vie.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

June 5, 2014--Where's the Stretcher?

There are at least five interconnected issues that will eventually be unraveled regarding the prisoner swap with the Taliban.

None of them good.

First, was Sergeant Bergdahl a deserter, worthy of putting other American soldiers in grave danger as they attempted to free him?

Were any of his fellow platoon members killed or wounded in the process?

Do the high-ranking Taliban prisoners who were traded for Bergdahl present an on-going threat to Americans and our allies as we wind down our involvement in Afghanistan?

Did President Obama and his administration tell the truth about the situation--Did Bergdahl serve "honorably," as Susan Rice claimed on Sunday?

Did the prisoner trade need to occur urgently, as the administration asserted, because the sergeant was in "immediate danger" of dying and thus there was not sufficient time to consult with Congress as required by law?

It is too soon to know the answers to all these questions.

But I can put at least one to rest--the sergeant's physical condition.

I am not a physician and generally tend not to trust long-distance diagnoses, but viewing the Taliban-supplied videotape of Sergeant Bergdahl's release, it is clear that the Americans who came in by helicopter to pick him did not bring a stretcher with them.

If he was in such dire shape, wouldn't they have?

And if he was so physically endangered that it was necessary for the Obama administration to bring the deal to a swift conclusion, would he have been fit enough, unaided, to hop, as he did, into the waiting helicopter?


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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

June 4, 2014--NY, NY: Fish Story

We've had a series of beautiful days. It is as if the weather gods are compensating New York City for the harsh winter they imposed.

So we have been taking long walks. For the fresh air, the exercise, and to take note of all the changes that occurred during the four months we were lolling in Delray Beach.

"It's a shame," Rona said, as if already taking the clear air for granted, "how the banks and pharmacies and food places are pushing out the shoemakers and dry cleaners."

"And the mom-and-pop places," I joined in the familiar litany.

Living peripatetically as we do, these shifts in the neighbor are more dramatic than they would be if we were here all the time. It would feel more like a steady drip than a torrent of change.

"Why don't we try to enjoy things," Rona said, wanting us to move on from nostalgia for the old, more human scale New York. "For example, look at this little park. I don't think I ever noticed it before. It's just a sliver of a triangle, all grown over like a woodland landscape with what looks like a rambling path. Let's finish our ices and wander in."

We were at Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street and had just stopped at Rocco's, an old-fashioned Italian bakery to get some of their delicious homemade ices. "Just like the old days in Brooklyn," Rona had said but then added, "Here I am, doing it again, living in the past. I find it so hard to move on and get comfortable with all the change and gentrification."

I put my arm around her and we ventured into the pocket park.

Though tiny, it was a transporting oasis from the throb of traffic on Sixth.

"I'll say one thing positive about all the new things."

"I'm looking foreword to hearing that," I smiled.

"During the past 20 years or so the city has done an amazing job of improving its parks. From Central and Prospect Park to Washington Square, Union Square, and now this one. It really is like an enchanted glade. Magical."

"And we have it all to ourselves. That's almost my favorite part."

Rona hugged me and I let my hand find her breast. "Stop that. There are other people here," she squirmed away from me but giggled with girlish pleasure.

After wandering further in the West Village we turned to home. Broadway, pleasantly, was a bit less crowded than when NYU is in session and also the street demographics are now shifted more toward our end, my end, of the actuarial scale, which meant that we didn't have to dodge the streams of college-age kids staring obliviously at their smart phones.

"Did you see that?" Rona whispered, pulling on my sleeve.


"That women. The one pushing the walker."

"I see her," she has shuffled passed us as we stopped to look in a shop window, "But I don't know what you're pointing out."

"What she has in the basket."

"Maybe a cat, like I told you about seeing the other day when I went out for the paper? The woman who had her cat seat-belted in a kiddie stroller."

"No. Not her. Walk faster. You're not going to believe this one."

"Give me a hint. I don't want to race after her and scare her. She looks pretty fragile."

"She's stopped at the light. We can catch up without startling her. This you won't believe."

We got to her well before the light changed and I looked surreptitiously into the basket. Rona, excitedly, was poking me in the back. I brushed her hand away so I could get a closer look.

"I see what you mean," I said.

Rona, nodding, to shush me, poked me harder.

To the woman I said, "Are you taking him for a walk?" I was referring to the fish in the small bowl in her walker basket.

I expected to be glared at or at least ignored.

"Yes," she said, with a wide smile. "It's such a beautiful day I thought he'd enjoy being out."

"It is beautiful," I said, not knowing what to say. "He must . . ." I cut myself off, not believing I was talking about a fish that was being taken out for a walk.

"He's cooped up all day."

"I know what you mean. Just like the rest of us when . . ."

"I know you think I'm crazy," she said, looking directly at me.

I truly did not know how to respond because, yes, I did think . . .

"Maybe I am. At least a little bit." I was happy to see her smiling. It suggested enough self-awareness to assure me that she didn't require an intervention.

"You know when all this began?"


"With the fish. He's a Beta."

"I can see that."

"After Herb died." I looked away. "Almost a year ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"We were together almost sixty years. I didn't know what to do with myself. I wanted to die. If I could find the courage, I wanted to end it. To kill myself."

"That's . . ."

"I know. Sad and desperate." She looked at me and I shrugged as empathetically as I could. "That's how I felt. As if life no longer had meaning." She shuddered. "But then a friend suggested I get a pet. How having a pet is good for people living on their own. It brings life into your life."

"I've heard that too," I said.

"But look at me. Am I able to walk a dog? Or bend down to empty a litter box?"

"I don't . . ."

"You can say it. It's the truth. I'm old and all crippled up. With my knees. I could also use a new hip. And I have back spasms from top to bottom. So . . ." She pointed at the fish bowl and this time she shrugged.

"So this . . . ?"

"Yes, this. I call him Herb. I know that's crazy but at this point I don't care, I don't care what anyone thinks."

"It makes sense to me," I managed to say. In fact, it did.

By then the light had turned green and she began painfully to cross the street.

"Nice talking to you," she said over her shoulder. "Have a nice day."

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

June 3, 2014--Take My Wife . . . Please.

I always thought the roots of Jewish humor were those described by Sigmund Freud in his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

He argued that most Jewish jokes indicate Jewish people's ability to (a) engage in a thorough self-criticism of themselves, (b) advocate a democratic way of life, (c) emphasize the moral and social principles of the Jewish religion, (d) criticize the excessive requirement of it, and (e) reflect on the misery of many Jewish communities.

If you think of Woody Allen as the quintessential schlemiel and self-mocking jokester, only (a) and (e) pertain. Jewish humor is all based on self- and communal criticism and the resulting inner turmoil, misery, and self-pity. There's nothing in Woody's humor or any really funny Jewish humor about democracy or the moral principles of the Jewish religion.

It's hard to think of anything funny to say about any of these high-minded concepts. But Freud was a theorist without much of a sense of humor and so . . .

Recently, I have come to a very different conclusion--

Much of Jewish humor is derived from Jewish food.

Not the food itself, which when ingested can cause all sorts of inner misery and gas (both subjects of many jokes), but the names of our favorite traditional foods--from Bagels to Knishes to Tsimmis.

What other food traditions have so many foods with funny names? Veal Parmigianna? Cog au vin? Meatloaf? Corn beef and cabbage? Not even close to being as funny as Flanken, Ruglach, or Gedempte Fleisch.

A crepe is not funny, but a Blintz is. A porterhouse steak may bring you culinary pleasure, but not as many laughs as Brisket. It could be worth lingering over sweet and sour soup but Matzoh Balls, though tasteless, are funnier.

Neil Simon has a theory that words beginning with K's (or hard Cs) are funny. In the Sunshine Boys, one of the Boys, Willie, an old vaudevillian, gives his nephew a lecture about what's funny--
Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know words that are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer" you get a laugh . . . Words with "K" in them are funny. And with Cs. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny.
People who study what's funny agree. There are some sounds in English that are by their nature funny. Those that begin with P's, B's, T's, D's, hard-C's, and especially K's.

These sounds are called by linguists plosive consonants because they are plosive, they "start suddenly." And thus for some reason make us laugh.

Though not funny, this helps explain why Jewish foods, the plosive names of Jewish foods, are so funny. Also, since Jews spend a lot of time dealing with phlegm, often the result of eating the wrong thing, we thus specialize in sounds and words that make creative use of it. Think, for example, of Felix Unger's honking in Neil Simon's Odd Couple.

P-foods include pickled herring, pirogue (dumplings ), pletzel (flat bread), p'tcha (calves foot jelly) and of course pastrami.

B-foods are among the most familiar to non-Jews (and gentile New Yorkers)--babka (two b's plus one k), bialy, borscht, blintz, brisket, and the universal bagel.

T-foods include teiglach (small sweet pastries) and tzimmes (a stew of carrots, yams, and raisins). Both delicious and funny.

Foods beginning with G's are the well-known goulash and gefilte fish as well as chicken skin cracklings called gribbenes, perhaps my all time favorite Jewish food name.

And finally there are all the funny food names that begin with K's--kasha varnishkas (groats with farfalle pasta), kichel (egg-dough cookies), kneidlach (the Yiddish name for matzoh balls), knishes, kreplach (similar to pierogi), kugel (a sweet and savory casserole with lots of broad noodles), and kishke (beef intestines that also is used in expressions such as the alliterative, "Kick him in the kishkes").

When you grow up eating food with these kinds of names (and don't forget lox), a predisposition to humorous stories and jokes is inevitable. Couple this with self-mockery and gas and, Freud aside, there you have the real roots of Jewish humor.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

June 2, 2014--Negotiating With the Enemy

"Now you're the one who sounds like a Republican." I was happy to have the opportunity to turn the tables on Rona.

"You mean because I'm against the prisoner exchange with the Taliban?" I just smiled. "Well, I am against it so I that makes me a Republican, so be it."

"I'm just fooling with you," I said. "Some Democrats are raising questions too."

"Mainly those facing tough reelection challenges in November. Some of the same one who early on called for General Shinseki's resignation because of the VA debacle."

"I can see your point. At least, to some extent."

"You mean you're OK with us negotiating with the Taliban?" Rona asked, "The enemy?"

"I know that was the GOP talking-point way of discussing this on the Sunday talk shows."

"But they conveniently forgot that a Republican president, Richard Nixon, with Henry Kissinger, negotiated secretly for years with the Vietcong, the enemy, before finally making a deal to end the war in Vietnam."

"And, another Republican president, Eisenhower, agreed to negotiate with the enemy, the North Koreans, to end that war."

"To end wars, unless you can get away with demanding unconditional surrender, like at the end of World War II, you always negotiate with whom your fighting."

"And even with Japan, in WW II, we negotiated with them about keeping the emperor. Many in the U.S. wanted him deposed, but we allowed him to remain. So what's your problem this time?"

"I have a problem with exchanging prisoners before a larger deal can be struck with the Taliban."

"I have some trouble with that too," I conceded.

"A couple of things. First, I don't like the idea that we agreed to release five very bad guys who have been imprisoned in Guantanamo--hold off for a moment about that issue--allowing them to go to Qatar of all places. The deal calls for the Qatar government to keep an eye on them and not allow them to travel for a year--you know how much that agreement's worth--in exchange for an American soldier who has been held as a prisoner of war for five years."

"Among the five Taliban, according to the Times, which I have right here, so let me read what it says--two at least are 'senior military commanders said to be linked to operations that killed Americans and allied troops as well as implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan.'"

"Correct. One was the head of the Taliban army. Bad enough guys to be held at Gitmo without trial for more than 10 years but OK to release for one American soldier. Which brings me to my other point."

"Which is?"

"About the soldier. When you sign up for combat, and all our troops are volunteers, you know the risks. You could be wounded, killed, and even taken prisoner. And the deal is that if you're captured you're likely to be held until the war is over, a full truce is worked out, and all prisoners are then exchanged. And in the particular case, to make matters worse, he may have been a deserter, going over to the Taliban side."

"But, Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel, on the same Sunday shows, implied that this may be a prelude to a larger agreement with the Taliban. We've been trying to engineer something like that for years."

"Which would be a good thing," Rona said, "But why can't we wait until a deal is struck, or at the minimum, when we're real close to having one, before exchanging prisoners? This feels very premature and, who knows, very political."


"You know, with the VA mess and the resulting bad political news for the Obama White House, maybe they wanted to do something that would show dramatic concern for the troops."

"And if the released Taliban get back into the fray, how many more Americans will they maim and kill? How good for our troops would that be?"

"Fair point. But I have another idea. Admittedly a crazy one."

"Shoot," Rona said.

"While we busy exchanging prisoners, why not release everyone we're holding in Guantanamo? You know, all 150. That way Obama would get to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises--to shut it down."

"Now, you're going too far."

"At least, I don't sound like a Republican!"

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