Friday, August 7, 2020

Day 151 Nat’l Emergency: International Beer Day, Mood Swings and a Toast to Pete Hamill

Today, August 7, is International Beer Day. While I enjoy the occasional brewski, I am not devoted to the libation. I’m no Brett Kavanaugh. I’m more a vodka man when seeking a buzz.

But I have come to recognize the importance beer has played in the development of societies. As I learned when reading “A History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage, beer was the first transformational drink of Western civilization. (Just so you’re not overwhelmed by curiosity, the six breakthrough liquids, in their order of development in the Middle East and Western countries, were beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola.)


Water, naturally, was a thirst quencher from the get-go. But too often water sources became tainted from human and animal waste. The production of beer, on the other hand, cooked off disease spreading microorganisms. At one time, Standage noted, beer was the preferred drink of kings of ancient civilizations. Moreover, the quality of one’s beer reflected a person’s wealth. 


Beer also often was part of one’s wages. Written records show the Egyptians who built the pyramids were state employees whose wages included rations of beer. As winemaking became more prevalent, wine superseded beer as the drink of choice by the cognoscenti. 


Beer continued to be important to the masses. Even children drank beer, albeit a heavily diluted potion. Adults also consumed diluted beer, at least early in the day. It was not unusual for the populace to walk around in a stupor from morning till night. 


It was only after the introduction of coffee to Europeans, first on the island of Malta in the mid 16th century by Turkish slaves, that a different type of buzz woke Christendom up in the morning. Coffee hastened the industrialization of Europe.


It is beer that is celebrated today, however, so everyone raise the glass of your favorite brew. Cheers!



 Uh-oh, I just found out why I have a problem stabilizing my moods.


According to a chart from Sumbu.official, you can get more serotonin in your body by swimming, cycling, running, meditating, sun exposure, and walking in nature.


Okay, well, I don’t know how to swim, I stopped biking 10 years after I learned how to at age 40 following repeated spills, I never jogged (bad for the knees, I always reasoned), I don’t meditate, and after four facial basal cell carcinomas I try to avoid too much sun exposure. I do walk in nature but not often enough to count as a daily, even weekly, endeavor.


I guess I’m screwed.


Serotonin, for those like me who never really thought or knew about it, is a chemical released in your brain based on activities you undertake to stabilize your mood. It is one of four “happiness” related chemicals, the others being dopamine (the reward chemical), oxytocin (the love hormone), and endorphin (the pain killer). Here’s a chart: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCaTF74Dqmv/.



How have you been keeping your sanity while staying cooped up in your abode? Have you been maintaining your equilibrium? Not chomping at the bit eager to chop off the heads of your spouse or children? 


Even Michelle Obama has acknowledged these pandemic and political times have infused in her a low grade depression. So, how do you keep your cool?


I achieve quasi-normalcy by writing this blog, though during periods when I go almost a week or longer between posts it usually is because I am too depressed to get up the initiative to create. It’s not writer’s bloc. It’s low grade depression. 


How are you coping?



For Pete’s Sake: Around the time I matriculated from the sports and comics pages of the newspaper to reading daily columnists—the mid 1960s—Pete Hamill began his reporting career at The New York Post, then a bulwark of liberal journalism. He was one of several noteworthy writers including James Wechsler, Murray Kempton, Mary McGrory, Max Lerner, who filled my brain with progressive ideas. But it was Hamill’s prose that captured a reader’s attention through its earthy depiction of tragedies and human interest stories amid the normal lives of working class stiffs that forged the core of Hamill’s background growing up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Hamill died Wednesday. He was 85.


Along with Jimmy Breslin of The New York Daily News, Hamill championed a new type of journalism that went beyond the who, what, where, when fact sheet and delved into the why, the emotions behind the swirl of events. He described people and how they were affected. He also instilled a soul into his depiction of New York City. His writing was like that of the Post’s sports columnists who didn’t worry about telling you the score of the game but rather related what star athletes felt about their achievements or disappointments.


I never met Hamill directly. Rather, my contact with him was once removed. Back in the 1970s, when Hamill was living with Shirley MacLaine in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Gilda’s stepfather, Gus, was their mailman. One day he had to make an in-person postal delivery. Gus rang the bell to their apartment and was surprised when MacLaine opened the door dressed simply in her negligee. A wide smile passed over Gus’ face whenever he recounted that experience.


As I conclude this blog entry written with several interruptions over the course of eight hours, it is still International Beer Day. I think the passing of Pete Hamill is worthy of raising a toast in his good name.


(Editor’s note: Because of the loss of Internet service to my desktop computer I am unable to provide direct links to URLs provided. Please copy them into your browser to gain access to the sources.)



 

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Day 150 Nat’l Emergency: Neighborhood Watch

Most evenings after the oppressive daytime heat and humidity have dissipated to a tolerable level Gilda and I do a circular walk around the streets of our housing development. Each rotation is half a mile. Our goal is six revolutions, though we often have to compromise because the air remains heavy and dank. 


Tropical Storm Isiais breezed through our neighborhood Tuesday toppling Gilda’s tomato plants in our back yard and scoring a direct hit with a broken off tree limb on the sign she put up on our front lawn. Score 1 for Injustice. 


The branch had bent the sign frame back as if it were a yoga enthusiast doing a King Pigeon Pose. Gilda easily bent the frame back into shape (score 1 for Justice). We jointly lifted the urns holding the tomato plants. It had already been a less than appetizing crop. Isiais did not help. The fickleness and randomness of nature was not lost on us. 


Wind shorn branches were strewn across the neighborhood. We didn’t lose power but we did lose Internet, cable and Internet-enabled landline phone service. One doesn't realize how dependent life has become to technology until connectivity is severed. We’re grateful we saw the last episode of “Money Heist” on Netflix before Isiais hit. 


Built in 1966 the subdivision went up on land that was an apple orchard. The manor house is one of 34 in the development, distinguished by its size and architecture from the four or five different models the builders employed in the subdivision.


The builders—it was the first residential project by Robert Martin Associates. They named the streets after family members. Romar Avenue for the two partners Robert F. Weinberg and Martin S. Berger. Teramar Way for Terry and Martin Berger. Brad Lane for their son. 


In 1990 as our family flew on a UJA  mission to Israel we sat next to Brad Berger, a tall, handsome man with curly, prematurely grey hair. He was amused to hear we lived on the street his parents had named for him. 


After several more single family housing developments Robert Martin Associates evolved into commercial real estate. It became prime builders of office complexes in Westchester County. 


We’ve lived in our house for 36 years. The day we moved in I took a break from unpacking to make some use of the basketball hoop the prior owners erected next to the driveway. A neighbor and young son ambled by and joined five-year-old Dan and me. The man hardly missed a shot. He introduced himself as Jim McMillan. Was he the same Jim McMillan who played for Columbia University and professionally for several teams including the New York Knicks?, I asked. He was. 


I envisioned honing my poor basketball skills at the hand of a retired pro, but the McMillans moved a short time later. They eventually relocated to his birth state of North Carolina. He died of heart failure four years ago. He was 68. 


One of the byproducts of the pandemic’s limitations on freedom of movement is a renewed interest in the comings and goings inside our subdivision. From the outset diversity has been a hallmark of our neighborhood. Two of the remaining three original homeowners are a Black family and an interracial couple. Among the 34 current homeowners there are, by my informal count, five Afro-American families, three Indian, five Jewish, two Eastern European,  four German, one Canadian, and three Italian.  


Almost every family has at least one SUV among their two or more vehicles. I feel almost unAmerican not owning a gas guzzler. At least one of our cars, however, is a domestic brand. Within the subdivision there are fewer than 15 U.S. models. One home has three Teslas, though I believe only two drivers live there. 


Obviously environmentally conscious, that family is, like us, one of three with solar panels installed. 


Within the last three to five years a new wave of owners has descended on our neighborhood, bringing a passel of kids under 10 years old. It is not uncommon to observe parents and grandparents pushing strollers while older children ride circles around them on their bikes. A few middle aged couples no longer are empty-nesters as their single or married children have fled Manhattan for the relative safety of suburban life and remote ties to work. 


New ownership has also meant a surge of home improvement projects. 


One of the quirkier aspects of life in the burbs is the divergent belief in the most appropriate time to water a lawn. After sunset or before sunrise are the options most preferred. Gilda is a morning advocate. If you’ve seen her garden you would be hard pressed to disagree with her. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Day 144 of Nat'l Emergency: It's Time to Think About What Trump Could Do After the Election

On the assumption Donald Trump will fail in his reelection bid, prognosticators are busy trying to piece out what he would or could do. 


Would he challenge the validity of the election? Of course he would.


Would he outright refuse to leave the White House on January 20? That’s an interesting question posed recently on Quora.com, a newish question and answer website on all sorts of issues whose major drawback is that answers do not necessarily come from experts. Some of the answers are downright amusing, such as the one posted in response to the question, “Can a president refuse to leave office after losing an election?”


“Absolutely! The President can legally refuse to leave office. The housekeeping staff will politely pack them up and remove their goods to the curb, and the Secret Service will come into the White House and remove the now ex-President to the same curb - or to the local hoosegow - and the new President will move in and take control. But, the old President can pout and thrash and proclaim that he or she is still the President - legally - and they will be cheerfully ignored.”


That’s all well and good on January 20, 2021, but from November 3, 2020, until noon January 20 Trump would still be president, with all the powers ascribed to that office. 


For example, he would continue to be in control of the nuclear codes until Joe Biden takes the oath of office on inauguration day. That, of course, is an extreme example of the delayed transfer of power. 


During those full 77-1/2 days after votes are cast, he would remain commander in chief of the armed services. He could end our membership in NATO, though that order would be rescinded by Biden on his first day as president. He could order an air strike against Iran, and any subsequent military action it provoked. Cleaning up that mess would be Biden’s responsibility.


He could declare martial law at will. Indeed, some fear he might exercise that power in advance of the election to prevent voters in Democratic districts in swing states from  being able to turn up at polling precincts.


There would more than enough time for Trump to wreak additional havoc on government institutions and international alliances that he has already weakened.


The potential for chaos is extreme.


Which brings us to the Rod Rosenstein solution, commonly known as the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. After Trump dismissed FBI director James Comey with its potential obstruction of justice issues, Rosenstein, as the deputy attorney general of the United States in charge of overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is alleged to have suggested Trump could be removed from office under provisions of the 25th Amendment. For the record, Rosenstein denies he ever seriously considered the idea.


But it may be worth thinking about now. Section IV of the amendment empowers the vice president and a majority of cabinet secretaries to remove the president from office, at least temporarily. The section reads, “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”


Within 21 days both chambers of Congress would have to ratify the action or the powers would revert back to the president (https://www.businessinsider.com/25th-amendment-how-can-you-remove-president-from-office-2017-3). 


Trump clearly has been exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies, even going so far as to tweet the idea of postponing the November 3 election, a suggestion that prompted a founder of the conservative Federalist Society to call his actions “fascistic” and grounds for impeachment (https://nyti.ms/33azE6H). Not so strident but soundly in opposition to Trump’s idea were Republican Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.


If Trump loses, will Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet invoke the 25th amendment to safeguard against scorched earth actions such as a pardon of Ghiselle Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s enabler?


Mostly, but not entirely overlooked by the public and some media because of coronavirus and political campaign news, Donald Trump was asked at the tail end of a recent news conference if he was concerned Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged-sex-scandal-with-underage-women-enabler Maxwell might reveal names of famous people.


Unspoken, but clearly implied since Trump had consorted with Epstein and Maxwell before he was president, was whether he feared she would implicate him in the sordid activity, as Britain’s Prince Andrew has been. Maxwell is in custody on six federal charges for allegedly facilitating Epstein’s sexual abuse of minors. She has pleaded not guilty. 


“I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I haven’t really been following it too much. I just wish her well frankly. I’ve met her numerous times over the years, especially since I lived in Palm Beach. I guess they lived in Palm Beach. But I wish her well. Whatever it is.”


The vagueness of that comment and his well wishes to Maxwell prompted the following Facebook message from “Ridin’ with Biden”: “I’m voting for the guy who didn’t just go on live TV and send best wishes to a woman accused of running a child sex trafficking ring.”


By now we are creepily familiar with his repeated protestations of ignorance about his affair with Stormy Daniels and the payment to her of hush money. 



We also should all be creepily familiar with Trump’s evocation of positive feelings toward friends and supporters charged with, and even convicted of, illegal activity. Paul Manaford. Roger Stone. Gen. Michael Flynn. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik. 


If he speaks fondly of someone, expect some form of executive clemency in the near future. So Paul Manaford and Retied General Michael Flynn, sit tight, your freedom awaits a propitious moment.


That could be sometime after November 3, whether Trump wins or loses the election. And let’s not count on Penche and the Cabinet doing the right and patriotic thing after four years of serving as his toadies. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Day 142 Nat'l Emergency: Trump's Dilemmas

What if you hosted a party to celebrate the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine but nobody came?

Having invested so much time disparaging the reality of the pandemic, only to invest billions of taxpayer dollars to develop a vaccine at “warp speed,” Donald Trump will have to confront dilemmas mostly of his own making should a potential cure be discovered.

Having cultivated an image as a disruptor while encouraging similar behavior, including disbelief in government programs and pronouncements, among the legion of his followers, will Trump be able to turn those mavericks into compliant communal-minded sheep? 

What if a coronavirus vaccine is developed but not enough people take the shot to make it effective as a pandemic deterrent?

What if Trump’s past deprecation of science and medical expertise, including support for the anti-vax movement, leaves him with no moral persuasive powers to convince enough people to take the inoculation?

What if he were told by advisors he needed to publicly take the shot to rally the country behind the vaccine. Would Trump roll up his shirtsleeve and do it? Could he trick the public by getting a dummy shot, or would he fear a leak would expose his deception?

Would he have his wife and children and their families publicly inoculated? What about the White House staff and cabinet secretaries? Would he order them to take the shot?

A president is charged with safeguarding the nuclear bomb codes that could destroy the world. As this viral moment in time unfurled a president also had the power to help save the world from a virus that knows no boundaries to its ravaging impact. 

How sad that Trump has squandered opportunities to stem the transmission of the disease. How sad that Trump has championed false remedies. How sad that Trump has set the example that wearing a face mask is not necessary and definitely not mandatory. How sad that Trump has sown doubt about the medical and scientific communities’ integrity. How sad that in almost every public appearance Trump has dispensed lies, fabrications and misinformation. 

How sad that the death toll from the coronavirus in the United States exceeds 152,000 from more than 4.46 million confirmed cases. How sad that those numbers will continue to climb because of Trump’s ineptitude. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Day 141 Nat'l Emergency: 6th Grade Memories

Buried deeply in a pandemic-fueled tribute article in Monday’s New York Times to the “soothing comfort” Johnny Carson infused in “The Tonight Show” was a reference to the TV host’s master talent of extracting interesting tidbits during small talk with guests. Aside from engaging in long interviews on weighty subjects, Carson might “suddenly decide to ask every guest on an episode what they recall about their sixth-grade teacher” (https://nyti.ms/32TpirK).

If you’re like me (btw, proper grammar would be “as I am,” but I tend to write colloquially, not always per the Queen’s English), you would have paused and reflected on your sixth-grade teacher, presuming, of course, you have any such memories. Gilda, for example, cannot recollect who her teacher was but she does remember being named valedictorian of her graduating sixth grade class at Public School 182 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. She also recalls attending a sixth grade prom, sixth grade being the end of public elementary school before the transition to junior high school. 

I had four teachers in sixth grade. As I attended Yeshiva Rambam in Brooklyn, a Modern Orthodox Hebrew day school, through eighth grade, we had separate teachers for Hebrew and English studies, mostly women for the latter, rabbis for Hebrew classes except in first and second grades. In sixth grade we had one Hebrew teacher whose name I cannot remember, and separate teachers for mathematics, English language and social studies. It was my social studies instructor who left a lasting impression.

Perhaps it was because Mrs. Saperstein was the first teacher that looked young. She was tall and attractive, with short hair.

As the 1959-60 academic year coincided with the run-up to the presidential election, Mrs. Saperstein structured a candidates’ debate among the students. She chose to focus on eight hopefuls: Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon B. Johnson and two more whose names escape me. I was assigned to represent Rockefeller.

Rockefeller might have been my governor but I knew little about him. So I tapped into my human Google equivalent—my father. Though he had lived in America for just 20 years at the time, Dad was politically informed. 

The day of the “debate” is rather fuzzy in my brain. I can see myself on the left as the eight candidates stood before our classmates. I think by the time my turn as Rocky approached class was almost over so my speech was gratefully cut short. Much like the governor’s campaign which he abandoned shortly thereafter, easing the way for Nixon to secure the Republican Party nomination.

For another of Mrs. Saperstein’s projects I was assigned to report on Bolivia. For that I consulted the Encyclopedia Americana my parents had recently bought. 

All I remember from that exercise is that Bolivia was named for Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan freedom fighter who liberated the region from Spanish rule, that part of the country lies in the Andes Mountains, that La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world, that tin mining was a major segment of the economy, and that Lake Titicaca is part of the border with Peru and is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world as well as being the largest lake in South America. 

Beyond that I retained very little knowledge about Bolivia.

Mrs. Saperstein didn’t last very long at Yeshiva Rambam. Within two years she left, with not even a mention in our 1962 graduation yearbook. 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Day 139 Nat'l Emergency: Taylor Swift's Rebekah Harkness Song Is Only Part of the Family Story

Music superstar Taylor Swift is making scores of news with the release of her latest album which includes a song about the family—mostly the eccentric socialite heiress—that owned the mansion she bought in 2013 for $17 million in Watch Hill, RI. 

For a short time, just the seven years they were married, Mr. and Mrs. William Hale Harkness lived in what they called the “Holiday House.” William died in 1954 from a heart attack. His widow, Rebekah, renovated the 40-room house to include eight kitchens and 21 bathrooms. She died in 1982. For tabloid details about the Harkness heiress, click onto this Daily Mail article: https://mol.im/a/8557467

Why Swift would desire the property that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean is a question only she could answer, though the spectacular views for sure were an enticement. Doubtful at the time she contemplated it as inspiration for a song, “The Last American Dynasty.” 

The Harkness family is associated with John D. Rockefeller, Henry Flagler and the origins of Standard Oil which made them the wealthiest of Americans.

Holiday House is 25 miles northeast of Waterford, CT, outside New London, where the neoclassical mansion Eolia stands at the cliffside edge of the 230 acre Harkness Memorial State Park. Eolia was one of seven homes owned by Edward and Mary Stillman Harkness. Edward is the son of Stephen Harkness, a silent investment partner of Rockefeller’s oil empire. Harkness was the second largest stockholder in Standard Oil, just ahead of his stepbrother Flagler. 

Harkness invested in Rockefeller’s enterprise on the condition Flagler would be made a partner. Aside from the fortune Flagler made as the “brains” of Standard Oil, he later gilded his coffers by building a railroad network into Florida all the way to Key West and developing resort hotels in the Sunshine State including the Breakers in Palm Beach. He is considered the “father” of Miami.

Like Holiday House, Eolia is majestic. It has 42 rooms, 20 bedrooms, 11 fireplaces and 14 bathrooms. 

Upon his mother’s death Edward became the sole heir to his father’s estate. In 1918 Forbes magazine ranked Edward as the sixth richest man in the United States.

Edward’s wife was no slouch when it came to wealth, as well. Her maternal grandfather owned much of what we now call Mystic Seaport.

Rebekah was unconventional, even as she supported charities and the arts. Edward and Mary, on the other hand, enjoyed a more staid reputation. Childless, they endowed many institutions, chief among them the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Specifically, as he was fascinated with Egyptian artifacts, Edward funded the Met’s purchase of George Herbert’s collection of Egyptian treasures which included relics from the tomb of King Tut. 

Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, had accompanied archeologist Howard Carter on his famous excavation discovery. Herbert needed to sell his collection to pay for renovations of Highclere Castle, the setting for the PBS television series “Downton Abbey.”

Edward also paid for residential colleges and buildings at Yale, Harvard and other universities. 

Mary’s interests led her to start on grounds adjacent to Eolia a retreat for children afflicted with polio. Now called Camp Harkness it currently is used by special needs children. 

Almost none of the gifts the Harknesses made (more than $2 billion in today’s dollars) bears their name.

Founded in 1918 by his mother and later administered by Edward and Mary, the Harkness family established the Commonwealth Fund, one of the longest running, continuous foundations to improve public welfare.

My personal connection to the Harkness family name came from my mother’s frequent stays at Harkness Pavilion, a private wing of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. It was named for Stephen Harkness, a gift from his wife and son. 

Five years ago Gilda and I visited Eolia on one of our day trips. It was a glorious late summer day, an excursion the coronavirus and an oppressive heat wave have made all but impossible to reproduce. Taylor Swift may make Rebekah Harkness’ sad, troubled life familiar to her fans, but I will always recall the Harkness name with fondness for the care my mother received in its namesake pavilion.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Day 137 of Nat'l Emergency: Praying for Rain

Like the toothache that doesn’t hurt when you get to the dentist we have been stymied to discover if the repairs to our gutters and leaders have been effective.

It’s rained only once since we had the new rainfall channels installed 10 days ago. To be sure, the rain Wednesday night was intense. But we weren’t home to observe how the gutters and leaders performed. We had chosen that night to socially distance a dinner visit with friends.

It sprinkled Friday morning, not enough to even dampen the newspaper thrown onto the driveway. The longterm forecast for the next 10 days suggests sunshine except a 40% chance of rain next Tuesday and the following Monday.

In pre quarantine days we would exult in weather that fit our desire for outdoor activity. But those options are severely limited these days. No Garden Conservancy tours. No trips to the beach. Or to a friend’s pool. No outdoor festivals. Or flea markets. 

With temperatures hovering near and above 90 degrees with a dew point index an uncomfortable 60-plus, walking extensively outdoors, even on a shaded trail, is out of the question.

Confinement is not how Gilda and I anticipated spending this year. Scratched already have been trips to Washington with Shalom Yisrael guests, to Omaha to see our daughter’s family, to Colorado for a first cousins get together, to Massachusetts to see our son’s family, to Switzerland for a car tour with my brother and his wife, to Maryland for their oldest grandchild’s bat mitzvah, to Portugal for a bus tour.

On the local level we’ve missed out on plays from our subscriptions to Playwrights Horizons and Second Stage, countless dinner parties with friends at our home or theirs, hosting the Passover seder, and attendance at synagogue services and programs.

Zoom cannot replace those experiences.

There’s a special heart rending poignancy to crossing those activities out of my paper calendar that cannot be matched by deleting them from an electronic calendar on my iPhone. 

I know. My fatigue and disappointment with coronavirus life is no more extreme than what many or all of you have gone through. No one in my immediate and extended family has been infected.

At least I have this public blog to express my feelings. And for a change I am not ranting about Donald Trump.

Stay healthy. And pray for rain, enough to test our gutters and leaders. But no flooding.