Monday, August 30, 2010

A Different Point of View

My Sunday post about Glenn Beck, Islamaphobia and demagoguery brought the following comment from one of my LinkedIn readers. Though she would like to remain anonymous, she has granted permission to reproduce her thoughts. I deeply respect her beliefs and greatly appreciate her contribution to a national dialogue that is so very much needed. Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome.

Hi Murray,

I followed the hyperlink on your LinkedIn posting and read your write- up regarding the Mosque and Glenn Beck. Since the issue involves both politics and religion, I considered not responding . . . then I reconsidered. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts with you.

My personal opinion doesn't matter, however I think it's important for you to realize that this is a highly sensitive issue for many people and it involves multiple layers and varied degrees of intensity. By your writing, it's clear that you are in favor of the mosque, however there are probably more people against it than for it and the argument on both sides is somewhat compelling.

As you know, we are currently at war. I'm not talking about the war with Iraq or Afghanistan; rather I am referring to the war against the global Islamic Muslim extremists who are fixed on destroying the USA and our way of life.

When at war, the enemy looks to find your weaknesses. Since we are a country with open and free borders that protects the religious freedom as well as the civil rights of our citizens—and even our non-citizens—we are left in an extremely vulnerable position. As a result, the enemy is free to use these rights and protections to move in, take up residence, recruit and train and plan their attacks. Whenever they are questioned, they simply cry racism and/or discrimination and they make demands for their rights and freedoms! The rest of us proceed to argue and debate among ourselves—which further breaks down our country. Unfortunately, even though the majority of Muslims in the USA are peaceful Americans, they have extremists among them and people of this country are scared.

Among the Muslim community in the U.S., you could say there are a few bad eggs that are ruining it for the rest. The larger problem is, people know about the Islamic Muslim extremist threat and when it comes to situations that may increase the risk, they would rather not take any chances.

Let's face it, if you knew that salmonella was found in some eggs but nobody is sure which eggs, where they came from or whether there are any more bad eggs out there, what would you do? Would you take your chances and order some sunny side up? Or would you pass on the eggs until the situation is cleared up? There are always some people who will take a chance, just as there are still people driving without seat belts and smoking cigarettes . . . but most people would give it a second thought . . . and many would pass on the eggs altogether. The idea of taking unnecessary risks is frightening to many people.

Unfortunately we are not dealing with bad eggs —we are dealing with bad human beings that are hiding among the good ones. The fact is that there is a very real threat, not a perceived one. Attacks have occurred in the past and continue to occur each week around the world. Several planned attacks in the U.S. have been averted and the threat continues. I would not call this "paranoia" since the thought process is not irrational. The unfortunate truth about this situation is, that the enemy is not only hiding among the innocent; he is taking root and growing his army there. To believe that is not the case would be irrational.

This is key to the mosque issue near ground zero. Other than respect for the thousands who perished at that site at the hands of the Islamic Muslim extremists, one of the biggest reasons people are against it is that mosques are used worldwide by the Islamic Muslim extremists to train and recruit terrorists.

Since 9/11 there have been tens of thousands of Islamic Muslim terrorist attacks worldwide resulting in six times as many deaths. Many people disclaim this issue and speak about the history of other religions and the number of people who have been killed in conflicts. We cannot even compare this to other religions in terms of who is more violent. The Islamic Muslim extremists are killing in the name of their God and training their children to do it as well. For example, in Lebanon, they are virtually repeating the process for teaching hatred toward Israel that was used by Hitler—spouting and distributing false propaganda, lies, manipulation, etc.. They are starting their teachings with small children who grow up being praised for their hatred. These anti-Semitic and anti-American teachings are so deeply rooted in some of these people that they know nothing else.

So, when people are concerned about a mosque opening near the location of the largest terrorist attack in history—I do not believe it should be discounted or ignored. We should question it thoroughly.

I would also caution against looking at Fox News like they are the evil empire protecting Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is just a guy with an opinion that he is willing to share. He is very passionate about his opinions and his opinions are very conservative and very Christian. In his case, it just so happens that there are masses of people who can relate to what he is saying (approximately 750,000 attended his rally in Washington. As a matter of fact, Dr. Aveda King—the niece of the later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—also spoke at his rally.

Additionally, I'm not sure that I have ever looked at The Daily Show or John Stewart as a reliable news source —the show is on Comedy Central. Al Sharpton was simply looking for another reason to complain, and while I am not a Glenn Beck follower . . . I do not see anything wrong with what he did.

I also think you have to be careful not to "cherry-pick" the "Freedoms" you support based on how closely they mold to what you agree with. I will admit that I was concerned by your comment regarding how Roosevelt dealt with Coughlin in the 30's and comparing it to Glenn Beck—I guess I am hoping that you were not suggesting that the government step in and try and limit his airtime simply because you do not like what he is saying.

I think this country is divided enough and we need to band together and fix what is wrong. Too many people drank the Kool-Aid during the last Presidential election . . . and we are in worse shape now than we were before. We went from the far right to the far left . . . it’s time to move to the center and away from extremists on all fronts.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Our Latest Demagogue

Time to catch up on some rants:

How revolting is Glenn Beck?

He’s accomplished the near impossible. He’s managed to make Al Sharpton into a sympathetic figure.

Before leaving for Russia two weeks ago, I read an article on the proposed mosque inside a community center proponents want to build two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan. No doubt you’ve heard about it. Back in early August the controversy was just simmering; it had not yet percolated into a national boil. The article in question noted the Anti Defamation League had come out against the location of the mosque.

For sure many Jews are against it. But I was appalled the ADL took a public stance. I was incensed the ADL’s position had been construed as blanket Jewish opposition. On this issue, the ADL does not speak for me, or, I hope, for anyone who truly loves and cherishes the values upon which this country was founded.

Thousands perished on 9/11. They should be publicly memorialized, in a positive fashion, not in a discriminatory one.

After WWII, my father abstained whenever possible from buying German products. He never voiced his boycott to his children. But we got the message. To this day none of us have bought a German car. He refused to travel back to Europe to receive the reparations he was entitled to. If the families of the victims of the terrorists want to honor their loved ones by individually harboring anti-Muslim feelings, that’s their right. But let’s not allow them, or demagogic politicians, or ill-advised organizations, to hijack our national heritage of tolerance.

It’s been pointed out that a mosque already exists within four blocks of ground zero, that the proposed construction does not front on the hallowed ground, that in the immediate vicinity there are strip clubs and bars that bring a less than sanctified presence to the area.

Perhaps, if we truly want to exact retribution on those who attacked our way of life, how’s about barring financial services companies from ground zero and its environs? It could be argued that the economic tsunami of the last three years has hurt more families than Al Qaeda has.

To get a better understanding of just how disturbed and disturbing Islamaphobia has become, watch last Wednesday’s Daily Show interview by Assif Mandvi of Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the leader of a mosque opposition group in Murfreesboro, Tenn.!!! The interview appears about five minutes into the broadcast— (when this loads make sure you are viewing the show from August 25 with Drew Barrymore as the guest. If it says Michael Bloomberg, simply scroll down and click on the correct link).

There is a paranoia sweeping our country. Tolerance, religious freedom are under assault, in the guise of national and defense interests. Racial and religious physical attacks occur daily. Regrettably, our nation has a history of demagoguery. Back in the 1930s, Father Charles Edward Coughlin attracted 40 million listeners to his radio programs. That’s roughly one out of every four Americans. In the guise of combating communism, he spouted anti-semitic diatribes. He was the Glenn Beck of his time. The Roosevelt administration took steps to limit his access to the airwaves and the mail for his printed screeds.

But Glenn Beck is protected by Fox News. We have to rely on our good senses to counteract his venom, misinformation, disingenuity and bigotry. I hope we are up to the challenge.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Great Patriotic War

Here’s a short pop quiz: What was the turning point of World War II In Europe?

I’d wager many of you answered D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy.

The more correct answer, according to most historians and to all Russians, would be the Battle of Stalingrad. Fought between July 17, 1942 and February 2, 1943, the battle for Stalingrad, now known as Volgograd, gateway to the oil fields of the Caucasus region, was among the bloodiest ever fought. Close to two million casualties from both sides. Though they defeated Germany’s Sixth Army, the Russians paid a dear price—they claim losses of 478,741 dead Russian soldiers, 650,878 wounded. More than 40,000 civilians died. The city was left in ruins. The soil wouldn’t produce crops for three years.

To the northwest, the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) lasted for nearly 900 days. Some 1.5 million Russians died.

Overall, Russia says it lost 20 million soldiers during WWII, or what they call the Second Great Patriotic War (the first being the defense of the motherland from Napoleon’s invasion). Another eight million civilians died. Twenty-eight million out of a population of about 170 million. One out of every six citizens (16.5%). Hardly a family did not have a relative killed during the war.

By contrast, the U.S. lost 408,000 from a population of 131 million (0.3%). Aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, random coastal shellings and combat on some islands of the archipelago of Alaska, American soil was not breached. No civilian population centers were terrorized or captured. Life went on, albeit under rationed goods. But vigilance on the home front couldn’t compare to the deprivations and brutality of living in conquered or embattled Russian territory.

Is it any wonder Stalin vehemently argued for the opening of a second front against Germany? He complained to FDR and Churchill the Soviet Union was bearing all the burden in fighting the Nazis, both in terms of the loss of life and the destruction of its territory.

I’m no expert on WWII, though I’ve seen my share of war movies, read some history and historic novels, so I have a pretty good idea what went on. A visit to Moscow’s Military Museum brings the conflict to life from a whole different perspective. I’d always thought America had supplied vast amounts of war materiel to Russia through the Lend Lease program beginning in the summer of 1941, before we entered the war but after Hitler tore up the non aggression pact and attacked Russia. To be sure, we did send in much needed supplies and equipment. But the Russians, themselves, produced the vast majority of their weaponry, developing numerous tank and airplane models. They developed the Katyusha multiple rocket launcher during the war. One of the best, if not the best, assault rifle, was also developed during WWII by Mikhail Kalashinkov.

Don’t take this commentary as any defense of Russia’s behavior before, during or after the war. But knowing what the Russians endured places their actions in context. Indeed, one of the major themes to emerge from Gilda’s and my two weeks in Russia was a greater appreciation of the hardships the people of this vast land have suffered through for centuries. Not decades. Centuries. They suffered through despots. The masses were slaves—serfs bound to their master’s land with no right to move—until 1861. Even their religion at times offered little comfort. In the Middle Ages, deadly violence rippled through the church’s competing factions. After the Bolsheviks took over, churches were closed, priests and nuns executed. The Soviet Union failed to provide a softer, more fulfilling life. After perestroika, their economy, meager as it was, collapsed.

The people, however, retained their sense of humor. They measured governments and leaders by the quality of the jokes about them. They revealed a resiliency forged through years of deprivation and suffering.

Russia is not a workers’ paradise. It is not a capitalist bastion. It’s a little like the Wild West. It’s not a full democracy, but is better than it ever was.

This concludes Russia Week at No Socks Needed Anymore. There’s much more I could tell, but I probably overtaxed your interest already, so I’ll go back to “normal” blogging next week.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Riches Beyond Belief

I’ve seen the crown jewels of England. I’ve walked Windsor Castle, Versailles and its Austrian knockoff, Schoenbrunn, in Vienna. Vast as their riches were, none of those palaces and their treasures could compare with the opulence and extravagance of the tsars (perhaps only the riches of the Vatican could be its equal or superior). The Armoury Tour of the Kremlin—don’t be fooled by the name, it’s really not a military museum—is a must-see of Faberge eggs, silver and gold icon covers, diamond jewelry, silver and gold plates, crowns and thrones, gowns, official wardrobes and massive horse-drawn carriages. And since it is an Armoury, there’s a small amount of ceremonial rifles, swords and suits of armor.

It’s a wonder any of this ostentatious wealth survived the Revolution. Indeed, some Bolsheviks in the 1920s wanted to sell it off to pay for needed foodstuffs and manufacturing equipment. But the voices of historical tradition prevailed. The legacy of the tsars was saved. Only by seeing the Armoury, and the Romanov palaces in St. Petersburg, can you fully understand how the royals raped their people to live a life of luxury and distance from the masses.

In modern times we gape at the shooting fountains of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Modern technology, ha! Peterhof Grand Palace outside St. Petersburg, built by Peter the Great in 1715, has its own shooting fountains which erupt every day to music at 11 am. Like Schoenbrunn, its building was patterned after Versailles. Surrounding it are extensive grounds with fountains that lead to the shores of the Baltic Sea.

As impressive as Peterhof Palace is, one needs to keep in mind that the Nazis completely gutted it. Only a charred shell remained after WWII. In painstaking detail the Russians reconstructed the palace. Indeed, the center of St. Petersburg as well was rebuilt to resemble its pre-war façade. The Soviet Union might have projected a monolithic mien to the outside world, but to its people it preserved history and heritage.

Any European country boasts magnificent churches. Russia is no exception. Russian churches are generally smaller, but what they lack in size they make up for in décor. Naturally, onion domes topped by golden crosses attract immediate attention. Inside, they are adorned by icons and frescoes from floor to ceiling. Many, many churches were destroyed by the Communists (and their priests and nuns executed). But many were retained, not always as working churches. Now, under its current government, Russia has been restoring them and building new churches (and many are joining the priesthood. Regular priests may marry. Only those who choose to join the church hierarchy take vows of celibacy).

Anyone fascinated by cemeteries must travel to Moscow to view the New Cemetery adjacent to Novodevitchy Convent (New Maiden Nunnery—Russian royalty really took the “get thee to a nunnery” dictum to heart. Any time they wanted to rid themselves of a wife, sister, daughter or mother, they simply banished the lady to the nunnery). The cemetery dates back to the 17th century but its New portion opened in 1898 as the resting ground of Russia’s most celebrated composers, directors, writers, poets, generals, businessmen, scientists, and now, with the fall of the Soviet Union, its leaders who no longer get buried near Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square.

What makes the New Cemetery unique is its gravesite monuments are not simply slabs of marble or granite. Rather, they are works of art, life-size or larger statues of the deceased, in striking poses. The head of the circus, a clown by trade, is memorialized on a park bench. The head of telecommunications is depicted making a phone call. Everywhere you turn the dead appear larger than in life. A strikingly beautiful sculpture of a young woman stands beside Raisa Gorbachev’s grave. It’s the way husband Mikhail remembers her.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Sale" Is an International Word

Gilda and I normally rent a car and drive through foreign countries. We’ve motored through France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, England, Mexico, Canada, Israel and The Czech Republic. But there was no way I was going to drive in Russia. Not that Russian drivers are any worse than their counterparts in other countries. It’s that the Cyrillic language is too difficult to decipher at 60 mph.

There are virtually no English language signs with one major exception—”Sale” is a universal word. Without peering into a shop window it would be impossible to know what goods were offered inside, but it would be easy to recognize when a discount was on tap. “Sale” signs abound, in English. Here’s what it would look like if only advertised in Cyrillic: Продажа.

Russian fashions tended to work the extremes. Women’s clothing was either doughty or very chic. For that matter, Russian women tended to fit the extremes, as well, with Moscovites being more fashionable than their St. Petersburg cousins. Throughout Russia one constant—stiletto heels. Whether wearing a dress, skirt, shorts or jeans, women favored skinny six inch heels. The more daring the shoe design, the better. Usually they coordinated the color and pattern with another part of their ensemble. One memorable young lady in northern Moscow wore open-toed turquoise heels that revealed turquoise painted toe nails. She carried a matching turquoise handbag. Her hair was held back to one side with a tri-colored pin that included a turquoise layer. Gilda’s favorite stiletto featured a wavy zebra-striped pattern with a shocking red heel. The stiletto craze so captivated Gilda and other female passengers that they initiated stiletto alerts and took countless pictures of the daring footwear.

No trip to Russia would be complete without a vodka tasting. Vodka, which means “little water,” was first distilled about 1,000 years ago. Rye or another grain is the source of Russian vodka (in Poland vodka is made from potatoes). Eighty-proof vodka (40% alcohol) is the standard. Anything higher can be detrimental to your health, an unfortunate frequent occurrence during Gorbachev’s time when state-run vodka stores restricted sales to one bottle a month, prompting the populace to distill their own which often exceeded the appropriate safe level.

Best to drink vodka ice cold in chilled glasses. While Americans might imbibe vodka in mixed drinks, Russians prefer it straight. In bars and restaurants they buy it by weight: 50 grams or 100 grams. That’s about six or 12 ounces, I figure. Russians chug their vodka after making a toast. Then they eat either bread or food such as pickles, cheese or smoked fish. They drink sparkling water between rounds to keep them sober longer. It works. After seven shots in a little more than an hour I was still upright with no hangover the next morning.

To pick a good vodka, it’s recommended you hold the bottle upside down and shake it violently to create a funnel effect. The whiter and stronger the tornado inside, the better the quality of the vodka.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From Russia With Love

Russians are a pretty romantic lot.

The most common wedding day is Friday, no doubt to permit maximum revelry without the anxiety of having to go to work the next two days.

Before marrying, many Russian couples buy a padlock on which they etch their names. They attach the lock to public sites, such as the metal “trees” placed across a bridge spanning the Muscovy River in Moscow for just such a purpose. They pick elaborate locks, not your standard Master Lock. Though intended to signify eternal bonds, the locks have no magical power to sustain a relationship—50% of all Russian marriages end in divorce.

Russians are fiercely proud. A guide from Yaroslav said a woman of that town, Anne, daughter of Yaroslav I of Kiev, was married off to Henry I of France in 1051. Among her other accomplishments, according to the guide, was her introduction of the fork and regular bathing to the court of France. Russians, not the French, were the sophisticates of yesteryear, and of today, she implied.

Though commonly associated with Russia, nesting dolls, matruskas, are not native to the country. They came to Russia from Japan at the end of the 19th century.

Along with matruskas, one of the most common souvenirs is a music box of an onion-domed church. It took a while but I finally found one that didn’t play Lara’s Theme. What did the music box makers do before Doctor Zhivago?

Onion domes on churches are painted gold, green or blue depending on the aesthetics desired by the architect and congregation and the latter’s treasury. Being round they aid in the run-off of snow and rain.

Russian ice cream, at least the flavors served on the Viking Cruise line, must be lactose free. How else to explain that not once during the trip did I suffer from my usual ailment after enjoying two scoops. And enjoy I did. Ice cream was served every lunch and dinner. I’m afraid to think what my blood sugar level is after such gluttony. For the record, for those who care, I didn’t gain, or lose, any weight in Russia.

Russian computer hackers were hard at work during our trip. Several fellow travelers had their emails compromised with messages to friends and family seeking emergency funds to save them from misfortune. Hopefully, none of you received an SOS email from me. No doubt, if you had, you would have gladly opened up your wallets to speed my return back to the Good Ol’ USA.

It was kinda weird to see one of the films featured on the closed circuit on-board TV was the James Bond flick From Russia With Love. Asked how she felt seeing 007 and other American agents always triumph over evil, inept Russian spies, one guide replied, “Did you ever see how U.S. spies were portrayed in Russian movies?”

Growing up in the 1950s, I was drilled in school to hide under my wooden desk in case of an atomic bomb attack. Russian children were instructed to hide under white sheets.

Our river cruise managed to avoid any prolonged heat wave, acrid smoggy air from peat bog fires around Moscow or rain. We left St. Petersburg before a wind storm and electrical blackout hit the city and enjoyed normal Moscow temperatures in the 60s and 70s, a far cry from the 100-plus days Muscovites suffered through for almost a full month. I did have one weather-related regret—I would have liked the ability to be transported for one day into next January so we could have experienced a Russian winter. One day, maybe just one hour, would have been sufficient.

By the way, minus 40 degrees Celsius is equal to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, not an uncommon occurrence during a Russian winter.

The 90s-100 degree days taxed the country’s limited air conditioning capacity (fortunately for us, our ship’s a/c worked efficiently). It was especially challenging for the museums where high temperatures and humidity left us wondering how the treasures of the Hermitage and other venues could be properly maintained.

I always thought Siberia encompassed the land mass east of the Ural Mountains all the way to the Pacific. Not so. Siberia does start at the Urals, but the eastern coastal area is known simply as the Far Eastern region. By train, the Trans-Siberian railroad from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok traverses 5,753 miles. The trip takes eight days.

Speaking of rail lines, the Moscow subway, known as the Metro, is clean and boasts some beautiful marble-lined stations, adorned with patriotic statues sculptured during Stalin’s reign. But trains are not air conditioned and are no less noisy than their New York counterparts. They are cheaper, however. Each one-way ride costs 26 rubles. You can ride all day for about 85 cents.

Final tidbit of the day—Moscow’s Red Square was named long before the Russian Revolution. Red, in Russian, means beautiful. I wouldn’t call Red Square beautiful. I prefer Krakow’s central square, or Prague’s. But Red Square is definitely impressive.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Double-Headed Eagle Has Landed

Perhaps you’ve noticed your faithful correspondent has been absent from your inbox lately. Well, the secret can now be told—even retirees go on vacation. Gilda and I just returned from two weeks in Russia, sailing on a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Discovery Channel has its Shark Week. Consider this your Russian Week. I won’t pontificate, not too much, I hope, on deep Russian themes. Rather, for the next several days I’ll provide some pointed observations and tidbits of information you might not have known about Russia:

Russia’s summer has been extraordinary, afflicted by intense heat and peat bog fires around Moscow that shrouded the capital in smog, making breathing for three hours outdoors the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes. Instead of normal temperatures in the 60s and 70s, during the weeks leading up to our trip St. Petersburg and Moscow experienced high 90s and even 100-plus days. We packed accordingly and even managed to bring with us a little Lady Luck, for the weather was just short of perfect for our fortnight in Mother Russia.

The symbol of the Russian empire was the two-headed eagle, facing east and west. Ever the cynics, Russians claimed it symbolized the country did not know which way to turn.

History, according to our guides, is the hardest subject to master in schools because textbooks are rewritten every two years. Russian history has an “unpredictable past,” said our guides. Reminded me of the Texas Board of Education and its respect for accepted knowledge.

Given a choice between order or democracy, between stability or freedom, the Russian people favor order and stability. Democracy is not a good word, a guide said, because “every time we have a weak ruler we have problems.” Putin is well regarded because he is decisive. Gorbachev is reviled because he presided over economic disaster. Yeltsin was considered a buffoon.

Despite the Soviet Union’s anti-religion manifesto, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a revival. About 65% of the population, it is estimated, affiliates with the Russian Orthodox Church, though they are not traditionally observant. That would require them to both fast and abstain from sex for more than 200 days a year. Attendance at services is on the rise (pun intended, as there are no seats in the churches. Congregants stand for the two to three hour services in buildings that usually do not have heat, though the Church of the Assumption in the heart of the Kremlin had hot water pipes installed under its cast iron flooring in the 18th century, a form of central heating gaining wider acceptance in the 21st century. By the way, a kremlin refers to any fortress built to protect a population center. Moscow’s Kremlin houses offices of the government and numerous churches where the Tsars were crowned, married, had their children baptized, and were eulogized).

Not so well known is that Stalin reversed his attitude toward the church after WWII, known in Russia as the Second Great Patriotic War (the first was the one against Napolean). Though Hitler promised religious freedom if it would support his attack, the church lined up behind Stalin and the Russian defense of the motherland. After the war Stalin eased up on restrictions and allowed more churches to open and operate.

Russian churches often have superb acoustics and boast exceptional male choirs, usually a quartet whose voices are transformed into resounding multi-layered harmonization. As I write this I’m listening to a CD of the White Lake Vocal Ensemble. Sung in Slavonic, an old, mostly lost language, the hymns are deeply spiritual.

After experimenting with a progressive income tax system, Russia has adopted a flat 13% tax rate on all income. Anyone who owes taxes, or excessive fines, for say, parking violations, cannot leave the country before paying off their debt.

Speaking of parking violations, before perestroika (which means reconstruction), there were about 200,000 cars in Moscow. Today there are close to four million. Understandably, traffic jams abound and there is not enough parking. Moscow installed parking meters, but the public rebelled, vandalizing many of them, forcing their removal. Cars are parked on sidewalks and other illegal places. Police tow trucks are called “black angels.” To relieve some of the parking space deficit, Russia is building vertical garages. Often they are co-op initiatives. People contribute to a building fund for a reserved spot and pay a monthly fee as well. The price of regular gas was around 26 rubles for one litre, equal to around $3.27 for one gallon.

To widen some of the roads in Moscow, buildings were elevated and moved backward several meters. Friday is the busiest traffic day as city dwellers drive to their suburban dachas. Most people have dachas. Under the Soviet Union land was distributed free of charge to all workers thereby inadvertently contributing to the peat bog fires that plagued Russia this summer and in years past. To have enough land to distribute, swampy peat bogs were drained. But without the dampness, peat bogs spontaneously combust in intense heat. It would be political suicide to try to wrest the dachas and land back from the populace to reflood the bogs. So Russia is living proof that no well-intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Calculated Consumption

Almost a week after its initial publication last Sunday, the article, “Will You Be Happy After You Buy It?”, remains among the favorites emailed by NY Times readers. In case you missed it, here’s a link to the article that analyzed how Americans spend and whether it has a greater effect on their happiness than how much they spend:

So the question arises, is it un-American to save, to defer, even forgo, purchases? After all, two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have hinged economic recovery on the willingness, nay the aggressiveness, of the American consumer to shop till she drops. As a nation, we’re spending less, saving more. Calculated consumption. Sounds downright exemplary. No waste. No hedonism. How pragmatic. How boring.

Well, not entirely boring. Actually, our purchases, our meaningful purchases, have shifted from objects to experiences, such as piano lessons, trips or gardening. We’ve derived more satisfaction from these experiences (and the necessary physical purchases to fulfill these experiences) than we have from just “buying stuff.”

One output of this new paradigm of purchasing is it furthers our transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. Jobs generally pay less in a service economy. We will have a hard time replacing the economic power of the average worker lost in the Great Recession.

Last Friday’s mail brought our most recent charge card bill. It was the lowest in years. I can’t remember the last time I bought a piece of meaningful apparel. My suits and ties hang limply in my closet. I used to practice a form of conspicuous consumption. When I liked a new style of shirt or sweater, I’d buy a rainbow assortment. To be sure, my status as a “non-earning retiree” has colored my perception of needs vs. wants. I naturally selected a slower spending profile.

Even before retirement I contemplated the question, when is enough enough? When have I amassed sufficient possessions to live comfortably, without envy or unrealistic desire?

I’m not ready to dispose of my comfort goods and live a “simpler” life, as some of those profiled in the Times article did. But I am content to live a life where enjoyment of family and friends trumps spending on personal material possessions.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Another Argument

Last week, after it was revealed Mitch Miller died at 99, I noted his Sing Along With Mitch show prompted one of my biggest arguments when growing up in the early 1960s (for those who don’t remember, I wanted to watch The Untouchables, but my brother and father preferred Mitch and his gang. Little known fact---one of the stars of Sing Along With Mitch was Bob McGrath who became one of the original cast members of Sesame Street).

Another major argument of my early teen-time transpired one Saturday night in early September. Sadly, I was reminded of it because of another prominent person’s passing. Robert F. Doyle died last Sunday, one day after Mitch Miller. He was 100. Boyle was, in the words of the NY Times obituary, “the eminent Hollywood production designer who created some of the most memorable scenes and images in cinematic history,” in movies ranging from North by Northwest, The Birds and Shadow of a Doubt ( He collaborated often with Alfred Hitchcock.

It was their first work together that got me in trouble. The Saturday night before the Jewish New Year, there’s a midnight service called Selichot (prayers of repentance). Having been bar-mitzvah’ed the previous winter, I was no longer exempt from attending, at least as far as my father was concerned. I, on the other hand, was nearly 30 minutes into CBS’s The Late Show presentation of Saboteur, the World War II thriller starring Robert Cummings that ends with a deadly tangle on the torch of the Statue of Liberty (of course, at the time I knew nothing of the climactic scene. I only knew that going to Selichot would sabotage my enjoyment that night). We argued, loudly. My father left for synagogue, without me, but with a strong admonition that I had better be standing by his side within 10 minutes. I appealed to my mother. Why did I have to go and my older sister did not? (I can’t remember where our even older brother was that night.) It was unfair. Mom could usually be counted on to run interference, but not this time. Reluctantly, I turned off the TV and trudged the four blocks to synagogue.

Eventually, I got to see Saboteur. A good, not great movie. But one that always has special meaning to me. As does Selichot. Gilda and I go most years. It’s one of the most musical and inspiring services of the year.

More Miller Time: My sister Lee reminds me not only did our brother Bernie like Mitch Miller, he used his quota of Columbia Record Club membership initiation albums to secure three Sing Along LPs.

She chose the greatest hits of The Platters, one of Johnny Mathis and a third she can’t remember. I picked Frankie Laine and some Broadway shows. We all agreed on a Ferrante and Teicher instrumental album of movie themes (such as Exodus, The Apartment, The Vikings).

Into the Water: My sister and husband David separately pointed out I fulfilled a parent’s obligation, according to the Talmud, by having my children learn to swim. I don’t hold it against my parents that I never learned. They did, after all, send me to summer camp for 14 years. You’d think I would have learned. I suspect I have a deep-seated, early trauma I cannot overcome.

Of course, I gave the same reason as to why I never learned to ride a bicycle. That phobia vanished when I was 40 when Gilda forced me to learn (a story for another day). If I could learn to ride at 40, perhaps I could learn to swim at 61?

Lee says I should try hypnosis. She even “volunteered” one of her friends who recently became a hypnotist to put me under a spell. And my friend Ken has offered his pool for lessons. All I need now is the gumption to just do it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

J.R. Is Back

J.R. Ewing is back. In case you haven’t seen it, the Dallas villain we loved to hate is in a new commercial promoting energy efficiency, not from oil, but from solar power. “Shine, baby, shine,” is his new mantra. Here’s a link to the spot the TV character is doing (, but if you just want to read about it, here’s a text link (

Gilda and I were avid Dallas fans (maybe that partially explains why we named our daughter Ellie—Miss Ellie was the Ewing family matriarch). Being new parents when Dallas began its 13-year run in 1978, we were okay with staying home most Friday nights for a turgid visit to Southfork, home of the Ewing clan. The Texas-sized ranch played as big a part as Tara did in Gone With the Wind. It represented power. Family. Tradition. Continuity.

In May 1986, the discount store industry held its annual convention in Dallas. I penned a cover story for my magazine’s convention issue that forecast dire days for most of the remaining full-line discount stores, companies like Gold Circle, Richway, Venture, Rose’s, Clover, Gemco, and Jamesway. If you’re not familiar with those retail chains, it’s either because they operated in areas you never visited, and/or my predictions came true. None of those companies remains in business.

As part of the convention, one of the leading packaged goods suppliers sponsored a dinner reception at Southfork in the suburb of Plano. Naturally I responded positively to the invitation. As I drove up, Southfork loomed just as it did on Dallas. Once inside, however, Southfork lost its Texas grandeur. Sure, it was nicely decorated, but it was waaaay smaller in real-life than in reel-life. Instead of a row of second story bedrooms worthy of any Four Seasons hotel, Southfork had but one second floor bedroom. The first floor was nicely furnished but far from spacious. Turns out, Southfork served only as the exterior backdrop of the weekly CBS soap. The front façade and the pool in the back were the only actual Southfork features used in the filming. (Once home to a real Texas family when the series began, Southfork is now a tourist attraction and event venue with a separate conference building and rodeo arena.)

As I concealed my disappointment about the down-sized Southfork, I found my assigned dinner table and sat down amid executives from Gold Circle and Richway. Both chains were part of Federated Department Stores, the company that owned Bloomingdale’s, Filene’s and A&S, among others. Gold Circle was based in Columbus, Ohio; Richway in Atlanta. They had recently been combined for greater efficiency and marketing clout, but I had written they would probably be sold, possibly to Target (which happened two years later).

To say my dinner companions were frosty towards me would be an understatement. I still remember the CFO, Robert Glass, introducing me to his colleagues by noting this is the miscreant who wrote our company off in Chain Store Age (okay, so he didn’t say miscreant, but it was clear from his voice that he didn’t care for my analysis, even if he did tell me a few years later when he was with Loehmann’s he agreed with it, but just didn’t appreciate seeing it in print). I spent the next hour defending my position, hoping not to embarrass myself by knocking over a wine glass or doing something else to further imprint my notoriety into my dinner companions’ collective minds.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Water Hazard

The tragedy of six teenagers drowning Monday evening in Shreveport, La., as they tried to save a seventh from a similar fate, raised troubling questions. ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked in her opening comments Tuesday night, “Race and Drowning: Why do Afro-American children drown at higher rates?”

They are three times more likely to drown than white children, ABC reported. The segment offered three possible interrelated reasons—Afro-Americans often lack funds to pay for swimming lessons, they have a fear of water, and they mistakenly believe swimming is a white person’s activity (

All six victims, and the seventh child, did not know how to swim when they slipped into water above their heads. Compounding the tragedy—it transpired in front of their adult family members who were powerless to save them because they, too, did not know how to swim.

On several levels this story touched me personally. Despite 14 years at summer camp, I never learned to swim. Three times I almost drowned. The rare times I enter a pool I am always cognizant of the five foot line. Two weeks ago I wore a life jacket and enjoyed four waterlogged hours in a pool. I think that’s going to be my modus operandi from now on.

My inability to swim motivated me to make sure Dan and Ellie learned by the time they were seven. They’re excellent swimmers. Dan even became a lifeguard and experienced firsthand the dilemma presented in the ABC story. When he was 16, he was hired as a lifeguard at FDR State Park in Yorktown Heights. The park’s pool is one of the largest in the state, and the country. It can accommodate up to 3,500 bathers at one time. It can get that many swimmers because, even at 40 miles away, it is the closest free pool to New York City (Westchester County pools being off limits to non-county residents).

Over the course of the summer of 1995, the lifeguards at FDR State Park saved more than 400 people from drowning. Dan, alone, saved 11. He would tell us that kids from the city, despite not knowing how to swim, would simply jump into the pool without regard to how deep the water was.

I admit to being fearful of drowning. But my mother used to say you couldn’t escape your fate. You could wind up drowning in the shallow waters of your bathtub. And if death by fire was your fate, even being on a ship in the middle of the ocean cannot guarantee your safety.

TV of the 60s

Mad Men, the AMC TV series centered around an early 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency, is widely praised for its spot-on depiction of the era’s mores, current and changing. The show’s attention to detail, at least for those of us who lived through that time, is uncanny. Aside from being old enough to enjoy that perspective, I can personally validate the sartorial eye of costume designer Janie Bryant’s selections, at least for the male cast members.

It went by in a flash during Sunday night’s episode about the ad agency’s Christmas party. Buxom redhead Joan walked into the party. I immediately hit the pause and rewind buttons. There, unable to take his eyes off her, was the agency’s young art director wearing a burgundy tuxedo jacket with vertical and horizontal black stripes. That was my Bar-Mitzvah jacket!

How did Janie Bryant find that jacket? Did she secretly visit my house and look through my Bar-Mitzvah album? Of course she didn’t. Besides, my album is in black and white. How would she have known the jacket was burgundy?

Just one more reason I am a big fan of Mad Men...

Federal Offense: Mitch Miller died Saturday. He was 99, considered by many a genius of music, and by others an old fogy of music ( I will always remember him as the cause of one of my biggest arguments with my brother and father.

Sing Along with Mitch aired on NBC between 1961 and 1964. My father and older brother Bernie really enjoyed that show. I, on the other hand, preferred ABC’s counter-programming—The Untouchables. Since we had but one TV in our pre-VCR or DVR home, someone was going to be disappointed each week.

One particular week I was not to be denied. I screamed and yelled and cried (hey, I wasn’t even a teenager at the time of this story, so cut me some slack, willya). I made enough noise to drown out any hopes Bernie and our father had to enjoy the gang singing along with Mitch. Of course, by the time they finally gave in, Eliot Ness was already deep into his crime-fighting episode. Frank Nitti could have already been arrested, or better yet, machine gunned, by the time I was able to switch the TV to Channel 7.

Our confrontations lasted through The Untouchables’ last season in 1963. After that, we all watched the bouncing ball above the words on the screen and sang along with Mitch. Who knew Mitch was training a generation of karaoke singers?

Mom Says It Best: In this case, it’s Finley’s mother, Allison.

“Fathers, Lock Up Your Daughters, Because Finley’s on the Move,” she reported in a weekend post of her blog, Http:// Our 8-1/2 month old grandson is officially crawling. Here’s proof: