Thursday, September 30, 2010

Middle Class Values

Less than five weeks until election day. The battle for the middle class vote is fully engaged. Forget for a moment where your political sentiments lie. Consider a more open-ended question—just who comprises the middle class these days?

Time was, middle class was mostly a statistical evaluation. It generally meant households with incomes ranging from $30,000 to $80,000. Given that today the poverty level for a family of four is $22,050, the $30K threshold might be a little low. Probably the same holds true for the top level as well.

In any case, purely statistical measurements do not suffice when assessing who is part of the middle class. Today it is more of a psychographic classification, reflecting not just income levels but also, among other things, education, aspirations, professional status, a family’s total mindset. To some, middle class life means enough income to allow a spouse to stay home with the children, or to get a new car every three to five years. Ethnicity is a factor as well. Asian Americans place a different level of importance on education than other groups. Hispanic Americans shop as multi-generational units. We have attached symbols to middle class living that heretofore might have been represented just as “the American dream”—home ownership. The housing crisis of the last few years has pretty much turned that dream into a nightmare for too many.

Back in 2002, married friends of ours living in Scarsdale (an upscale Westchester County, NY, community) decided to move to Manhattan. At their going away party, I walked into a conversation among several couples lamenting their paycheck to paycheck existence. As 2002 was the last time the country suffered through a recession prior to our current state of mismanaged economic affairs, it was not surprising to hear such talk. But it was disconcerting to hear their self-categorization as middle class. These, after all, were lawyers and stock brokers, doctors and accountants, real estate developers and corporate executives, couples whose annual household incomes easily topped a quarter of a million dollars a year, who lived in one of the country’s wealthiest areas, who drove the most expensive foreign cars, belonged to country clubs, took several vacations each year and sent their children to summer camps and private colleges. I suggested to this small gathering of grumblers they were not middle class, that they lived in a cocoon of privilege and their paycheck to paycheck lifestyles were the result of choices made, some good, some questionable, about their spending priorities. (Fear not, concerned reader—nobody punched me out. I remain friends with all of these “enlightened” complainers.)

But it is now 2010 and the debate is raging on the wisdom and morality of keeping or repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, those families earning more than $250,000 a year, the very people I chided for their middle class in-sensibilities. I’m not going to bang you over the head with my opinion about the tax rate. Rather, I present to you the contrasting views of Ben Stein and Linda McGibney as delivered these last two weeks on CBS Sunday Morning. You decide:

Ben Stein:

Linda McGibney:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Remembering An Icon

I woke up Sunday morning to the news another part of my youth had passed away.

Lonny Benamy was an iconic figure at Camp Columbia and Kfar Masada, two eight week sleep-away camps in upstate New York where I spent my teenage years. Lonny died Sunday morning after a four year bout with cancer.

I first met Lonny in 1962. I was 13, Lonny 18. He was the nature counselor, but to the urbanized (read that, sheltered) Jewish boys and girls of Brooklyn and Queens who mostly populated summer camp, he was the the flesh and blood image of Ari Ben Canaan of Exodus. Or more precisely, he was our Paul Newman, with wavy brown hair, piercing eyes, bronzed suntan and khaki shorts rolled up high on the thigh like any good Sabra would wear. He drove the camp’s red Jeep. He wasn’t afraid to play with snakes. He had a devilish grin, not too dissimilar from that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Naturally, he also wielded a big hunting knife.

As I matriculated from camper to waiter and counselor with off-site days-off privileges, I aspired like everyone else to be chosen for one of the five passenger seats in Lonny’s 1956 Buick. As one of his fellow Saturday afternoon volleyball enthusiasts, I was fortunate to secure a coveted spot most of the time when our six days off coincided. Those excursions were among the most memorable days of the summer.

Riding with Lonny on the narrow, winding upstate roadways was an adventure. You never knew when he might suddenly swerve. If his eagle eyes caught sight of a woodchuck, he’d do his darndest to run it over. Perhaps that’s what they taught him about farm pest control at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In his pre-seat belt car, it was everyone’s not so silent prayer that woodchucks stay invisible when Lonny drove by.

It was with Lonny I first went to the track, Monticello Raceway. After a day bumming around town, perhaps visiting other Jewish camps to drop in on friends, we’d get to the racetrack parking lot shortly before the 8 pm post-time. As we were still dressed in shorts, we’d jump out of the car and change into pants as fast as we could. There were no inhibitions when Lonny was around. There also was no guarantee I’d make it inside the harness racing track, as I was just 16 that first time. But with Lonny running interference, I made it through the gate. Making it back to camp by the midnight curfew was another form of racing. We’d stay at the track till nearly 11. The ride back to Elizaville was about an hour, mostly with no other cars on the road, and thankfully, with no woodchucks crossing our path.

In August, once Saratoga Racetrack opened, we’d go north, first to Lake George for some motorboating, then back down to Saratoga for the afternoon races. For Saratoga we had to bring along some decent clothing, as the meal at night invariably was at Tradewinds, a white tablecloth restaurant on Route 9 sitting by itself at the southern entrance to downtown Saratoga Springs. Fortunately, the trips to Saratoga came after Parents Visiting Day, so our wallets bulged with tip money. I’ve been back to Saratoga many times in the last 10 years. Tradewinds has long since closed. Its location is surrounded now by other restaurants and a Hilton Garden Inn hotel. I’ve eaten at the restaurant that took over the Tradewinds’ spot. The food is not as good.

As I sat at Lonny’s funeral service on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, across the street from Yeshivah of Flatbush founded by Lonny’s uncle, Joel Braverman (Lonny was a biology teacher and the head of discipline for the high school—my alma mater—now located a few blocks away on Avenue J and East 16th St.), I reflected on another friend’s passing, another alumnus of Camp Columbia and Kfar Masada. Michael Lauchheimer died 20 years ago, Oct 4, 1990. Like my relationship with Lonny, it started out as camper and counselor. I was one of Michael’s counselors. When we met again some 10 years later, my daughter and his older son were in the same class at Solomon Schechter. We were now equals and became close friends. Like Lonny, Michael died during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. One of the most joyful of holidays has become tinged again with sadness.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living in an Artless World

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

That statement, attributed to H.L. Mencken, is as applicable today as it was in the first half of the 20th century when Mencken reigned as one of our premier journalists. The cultural definition of the comment is as follows: People can easily be persuaded to accept the most inferior ideas or useless products.

Consider American tap water vs. bottled water. Our tap water is about the best water to be found anywhere in the world, not only in taste but also in purity. Yet we spend billions of dollars each year, about $10 billion at wholesale prices, on bottled water, usually spring water. At least one brand, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, rakes in more than $1 billion selling us ordinary tap water it has processed through another purification treatment.

It would be smarter to just fill up a jug of tap water, but like the man said, you won’t go broke underestimating our intelligence.

Last Thursday we were treated to the delusional rantings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a speech at the United Nations, the Iranian president presented a theory that “some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the (Sept. 11) attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grip on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime.”

It is not shocking he made that assertion, as many rank and file Muslims believe it to be true. Sadly, while 33 delegations, including those of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica and the 27 members of the European Union, walked out of his speech, apparently not one Arab or Muslim state, or any of our other supposed allies in South America, Asia or Africa, chose to express their rejection of this lunatic’s diatribe. We send billions of dollars in aid and our most precious resources—our young men and women in uniform—to defend and prop up Muslim countries. How is it that they do not automatically distance themselves from such statements? How is it that their leaders have not expressed abhorrence of these remarks?

Of course, we shouldn’t just look overseas for idiocy and revolting behavior, not when polls show 18% of the U.S. public believes President Obama is a Muslim (up from 11% in March 2009) and a discordant number believe he wasn’t born in the United States and therefore was not eligible to be elected president. Here’s how a Republican congressional candidate in Michigan (a former U.S. Representative seeking to win back his seat) handled the religion and citizenship questions during a radio talk show interview last Thursday: "I don't know, I really don't know," Tim Walberg said. "We don't have enough information about this president. He was never given a job interview that was complete. But that's not the issue now. He is president. Right now we need to make sure he doesn't remain as president, whether he's American, a Muslim, a Christian, you name it."

Seeking to oust a president and a Congress is acceptable. Undermining the legitimacy of our elected president is not. When our own countrymen play loose and goosy with the truth, why should we expect more from our enemies?

Tea Party candidates, and their siren leader Sarah Palin, are daffy. No need to go on a witch hunt to expose behaviors that would scare most thinking people away from their candidacies. But these are tough economic times and too often our electorate has shown a tendency to blame incumbents, even throw them out of office, in favor of demagogues and otherwise incompetent alternatives.

Lower taxes and fewer government programs are platform planks for the Tea Party and Republicans. We can have a serious debate on the wisdom of these ideas, but only if memory is included. Do people not remember that these ideas were part and parcel of the Bush years and that they resulted in huge deficits and the atmosphere of regulatory indifference that led to the banking and financial services fiascos that sucked the air out of the economy?

No doubt there’s a lot of waste, even abuses, within many if not all government programs. Heck, within the companies you work for there no doubt are inefficient, wasteful purchasing practices and people who fudge expense accounts. The ideal is to clean up these messes. But do we want to do away with government programs meant to protect us? Hasn’t the latest health scandal surrounding egg production shown us we need better coordinated consumer protection, not less?

It disturbs me that our political discourse has been reduced to sound bites. It disturbs me that too many voters pick candidates seemingly the same way a naïve bettor chooses a horse at the track, based on their name or the colors of their racing gear, rather than their track record. It disturbs me that we have entered an age of non-compromise. Politics used to be known as the art of compromise. Sadly, I believe we increasingly are living in an artless world.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blockbuster Press

Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy today. Though the video rental store hopes to emerge reorganized as a more viable enterprise, it is doubtful it will be anywhere near as impactful as it was before Netflix and other digital alternatives intermediated its unique selling proposition.

Blockbuster was a ubiquitous store of the 1990s. By 2001 it operated nearly 8,000 outlets. I was a card-carrying Blockbuster member, but, in truth, I rarely frequented the chain. Instead of renting video tapes, I turned to Tommy, a mailroom employee at work, to provide what charitably can be described as bootlegged copies of films. Three films to a tape, for $10. Eventually, through Tommy’s efforts and my own taping off cable, I amassed a sizable cache of films, more than 500. I have nowhere near that many these days. That’s what happens when your kids grow up and out and there’s no longer pent up demand to watch Beaches or Superman or The Parent Trap upteen times.

Being no more than a casual customer of Blockbuster made it somewhat difficult to follow the nuances of one of the more dynamic companies of the last three decades. Good thing I had staff members who were more regular patrons. The same thing can be said for Starbucks. I’m not a coffee drinker; I probably can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been inside a Starbucks. Again, my coffee-caffeinated staff kept us up to date.

When I first shifted my career from newspaper journalism to business to business reporting for a restaurant publication based in Manhattan, none of the staff writers had been inside a Wendy’s. This was 1977. There were no Wendy’s in the greater NY metro area. Yet we were supposed to write stories about this fast-growing Columbus, Ohio-based chain that was seen as a real threat to McDonald’s, especially with young adults. Had the foodservice industry known about our knowledge deficiency I am sure it would not have entrusted us to report accurately and intelligently.

Of course, the press rarely lets you see behind its black curtains. We prefer exposing the foibles of others. Two amusing stories surfaced this week, both revealing how dumb people in business can be.

In launching its Canadian service Wednesday, Netflix staged a media event in Toronto. It hoped to show ordinary citizens excited about the video service. Trouble was, Netflix hired actors to play the part of ordinary citizens, to especially pretend to be excited if a member of the press approached them. Caught in the ruse, Netflix issued a red-faced apology.

Earlier this week, Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart reported on union efforts to picket Wal-Mart in Las Vegas. The United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 711, is fighting Wal-Mart’s use of non-union labor. According to Mike Giddings, a spokesman for the 7,000-member Local 711, the retailer’s workers receive minimum wage and have no protection should the company cut back their hours.

It was an argument sure to resonate with many sympathetic to the workers’ plight, especially when Mandvi noted the picketers walked the line in temperatures well above 100 degrees. It was then he dropped the “gotcha” as deftly as any Mike Wallace 60 Minutes piece. Turns out the picketers were not members of the union. They were hired, temporary non-union workers, earning minimum wage whose hours were summarily cut back from five to three days a week when the union’s treasurer left town for a few days. Tripped up by his own complaints, Giddings provided a human portrait of a deer caught in headlights. See for yourself in this clip (if the clip doesn't load on The Daily Show page, search for Working Stiffed.)

For nearly four decades I made my living asking questions. For 30 of those years I, in turn, was the voice of a national magazine on retailing, fielding questions from reporters from around the country, even internationally, about the retail industry. Occasionally I even appeared on television and spoke on radio. All those interviews, by far, were the most harrowing part of my job. Not because I had stage fright. Rather, it was because you really never knew how your responses would be used by a reporter. So every word I passed I first had to parse in my brain on seven second delay, to make sure I would not say something out of context.

Take my advice—if a reporter asks you a question, politely decline to answer. Trust me. It’s not worth your 15 minutes of fame, or infamy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sukkadah Time

Finished putting up the sukkadah Monday.

Now, most of you might think the temporary hut that is part of the annual fall Festival of Tabernacles that commemorates the Israelites’ wandering in the desert for 40 years is called a sukkah (plural is sukkoth, the Hebrew name of the holiday). But to me and a handful of my close friends, it will be forever known as a sukkadah.

Almost 20 years ago our group decided to upgrade from sukkoth made of wooden posts anchored in cinder blocks to a more high-tech speed-rail frame construction. We assigned David S. the task of finding a supplier. Try as he might, he kept coming up empty. During one memorable call, he asked if the retailer sold speed rails. No, came the response, followed by, “What are you looking to build?” David hemmed and hawed, not really wanting to get into a detailed explanation of what a sukkah is. Pushed further by the retailer, David said he wanted to build a temporary hut for a religious holiday. “Oh, you want to build one of them sukkadahs,” the retailer said. David didn’t bother correcting his pronunciation, but as soon as he related the story to us we adopted sukkadah as the official terminology of our construction activity.

We eventually found a fence retailer in Scotch Plains, N.J, that carried speed rails. One Sunday morning we loaded my minivan with enough speed rail to build five sukkoth.

Over the years, like most of our group, I drifted in and out of building a sukkah. I started again last year and have made decorative enhancements each year. In 2009, I added fabric garlands of autumn leaves. This year, a string of rope lights.

Sukkoth is one of the most joyous of holidays, made all the more so by building a sukkadah.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Let me begin by acknowledging I’ve never been in the military. Never been in an active combat zone. Never fired a real gun. Never been shot at. Never shot at anybody. My exposure to war has been vicarious—through the media of print, television and film.

I grew up on war movies and westerns. Forget about the pyrotechnics of today’s shoot ‘em ups. The best of any genre are the ones that put you into the minds, the psyche, of the combatants to reveal their fears, their tension, their disgust with the dehumanizing character of war. All Quiet on the Western Front. A Walk in the Sun. The Hurt Locker. The Enemy Below. Das Boot. Platoon. The Red Badge of Courage. To this list of extraordinary studies of humans in and under conflict (and others too numerous to mention), add Lebanon, an Israeli film about a tank crew, and the dozen foot soldiers they are meant to protect, in the opening days of the war in Lebanon in 1982.

I saw Lebanon this week, part of the free-Tuesday movie series courtesy of Cablevision’s Optimum Rewards program. For 93 minutes I sat riveted as if in the claustrophobic confines of a dark, dank, dirty, noisy, clanking, reverberating, oily, sweaty, smoky, suffocating, greasy tank, looking out on the world only through the telescope of the gunner, a young soldier fresh from shooting barrels during basic training now ordered to fire into combat zones inhabited by civilians.

It would not be hard to view this film as anti-Israel. That would be wrong, for there are plenty of villains represented, including the PLO, the Phalangists and the Syrians.

No, Lebanon is first and foremost an anti-war movie, conveying in this singular story the horrors and fog of war, how it torments its participants, turning some into monsters, some into weeping children, others into selfish, delusional action figures. And how innocents become casualties of even the most well-meaning initiatives.

It is a hard movie to sit through, especially if you are pro-Israeli. But a strength of any country and people is the ability to look deep inside their actions to bring out the truth of their experiences. As I watched this film just days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, I was reminded of a sermon my rabbi gave Kol Nidre night, the commencement of Yom Kippur, in 1982, just days after the Israeli army stood by as Phalangists massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps around Beirut. It remains the low point of Israeli involvement in any military action. As he recounted the tragedy, Rabbi Turetsky intoned words from the Yom Kippur confessional liturgy, over and over repeating Ashamnu, “we have sinned, we are culpable.”

The Sabra and Shatila massacres took place September 16-18, 1982.

Tonight, September 17, 2010, Kol Nidre services begin at 6:30.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chinky Chose Always Shows

No one growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s didn’t know the meaning of that playful phrase. It served as the “truthiness” arbiter of all athletic disputes during games played without an umpire or referee. If both sides of a contest disagreed , say, on whether a batted ball was fair or foul, or if a runner reached a base safely, the dispute was resolved by a do-over. The outcome of the replay, divinely inspired, no doubt, determined who was telling the truth and who was trying to cheat. The victor expressed his righteousness by taunting his opponent with the ditty, Chinky Chose Always Shows.

I call this to your attention because of last night’s Yankees-Rays game in their hotly contested pennant race. The winner would awake this morning in first place with little more than two weeks left in the regular season. The game began with the Yanks in first place by 1/2 game.

His team trailing 2-1 in the top of the 7th inning, Yankee captain Derek Jeter seemed to be hit in the left forearm by a pitch. As he danced around the plate in what appeared to be obvious pain, the umpire awarded him first base. Tampa Bay’s manager, Joe Maddon, rushed out to protest the ball had hit the knob of Jeter’s bat, not his arm. Moreover, since the ball rolled into fair territory and had been picked up by the Rays, Jeter should have been out, not issued a free pass to first, Maddon argued to no avail. The next batter, Curtis Granderson, hit a home run, giving the New Yorkers a 3-2 lead.

Yankee fans had reason to celebrate, but not in good conscience, as the instant replay pretty conclusively revealed the ball had indeed hit Jeter’s bat and that he was demonstrating some pretty good acting skills (the camera also showed him sheepishly looking over his shoulder to ascertain if the ump was buying his act).

It might not have been divine intervention (retribution?), but the Rays got their revenge. In the bottom of the 7th, for the second time in the game, reserve player Dan Johnson powered a 2-run home run off Phil Hughes. Final score—Rays 4, Yankees 3, leapfrogging the Rays back into first place, 1/2 game ahead of the Bronx Bombers.

The boys from the Bronx didn’t deserve to win, as anyone from Brooklyn, even a Yankee fan, would tell you.

Chinky Chose Always Shows.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Random Thoughts

Less for More: The Commerce Department reported this morning retail sales rose 0.4% in August, a better than expected showing, indicating consumer spending and the economy might be firmer than originally thought. Among the sectors of the retail industry said to be doing well are dollar stores, department stores and warehouse clubs.

I can vouch for the warehouse clubs. I’m a big Costco shopper, but I did notice one troubling change in the retailer’s merchandise offering. In case you’re not aware of it, bathroom tissue—toilet paper, in the more common vernacular—is among the best sellers at Costco. A bundle of Charmin Ultra Soft contains 30 rolls. But the Charmin rolls now being sold are just 173.2 sq. ft. long, down 7.6% from the 187.5 sq. ft. of two months ago. The price, however, has not gone down. It’s gone up, by 50 cents (2.6%) to $19.99.

Costco is not alone in practicing a strategy of reduced content. Indeed, it’s most often the supplier that makes the decision to package less product (e.g., that 13 oz. can of Maxwell House coffee is history; it now holds just 11.5 oz.). Some companies are honest enough to reduce the container, thus alerting the buyer to the switch. Most, however, just give you less for your money. They usually couch their actions by claiming less product is preferable to higher shelf prices.

Of course it’s a bogus claim, since the actual price per unit goes up. They just assume most consumers will be too dumb or indifferent to notice their wallets are being wiped clean.

Sports Break: There’s no better way to watch a football game than to pre-record it. You can zip through commercials and, more importantly, minimize the air time of the inane announcers (this also works for baseball games. Just remember to record the show following any game as extra innings, overtime, or just slow execution usually means the game runs longer than the allotted broadcast time. You don’t want to miss out on that, hopefully, exciting finish).

When I began following football in the early 1960s, I used to watch the NY Giants on TV with the sound off (sorry Chris Schenkel) while listening to the radio broadcast of the game. Marty Glickman did the WNEW Radio play by play, Al DeRogatis the color commentary. DeRo analyzed the action and often predicted what the next play would be. One of the worst losses in Giants football history was the day in 1968 NBC tapped DeRogatis as the color analyst for its national broadcasts.

It’s generally agreed football is more action-packed than baseball. Each game takes roughly three hours to complete. Yet, if you do a time and motion study of the average nine inning baseball game and four quarter football game, they contain about the same amount of real playing time, about 15 minutes. That’s leaves about two hours and forty-five minutes spent thinking about what pitch to throw, meeting in the huddle, television timeouts for commercials, and changes of sides each half inning and football quarter.

In other words, you can save about two hours of your life by recording a baseball or football game and watching it later. As long as you keep yourself in a media blackout, your pleasure will be sustained. During last year’s World Series, I set the DVR to record Game 3 and told my dinner companions I was on a media blackout. One of them didn’t hear, as she cheerfully informed me on the drive home she just checked her Blackberry and the Yankees were winning 6-2 (on the way to an 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies). Needless to say, I was more than a little upset. But at least the Yanks were winning.

I’m not too sure about this year. After the Yanks’ fourth straight loss (and third walk-off loss during this road trip) and their displacement from first place by the Tampa Bay Rays, I’m not too confident about their chances in the post-season. They just don’t seem to be a team of destiny this year. Suspect starting pitching and nagging injuries might do them in. Plus, their batters seem to go through sustained cold spells. After being super in August, Mark Teixeira is back to his early season funk. Derek Jeter is decidedly not Derek Jeter these last two months. And Robinson Cano has lost his batting eye discipline.

Getting back to football, I thought the Giants-Carolina Panthers game was as professional as watching two junior varsity teams play. It’s a long season. Hopefully Giants receivers will hold onto more balls and the offensive line and running backs will show more life. The defense, however, looked decent. But they were going up against a less than great quarterback. This Sunday against Peyton Manning will be more instructive.

Evidence suggests that hummingbirds have returned to White Plains. But I’ve yet to have a sighting.

White Plains is a stopover on their migration south for the winter, so I put out the red liquid food in late August. The nectar keeps dropping in the bottle, but so far not one hummingbird has chosen to hover when I’m around.

I’m getting lots of other birds dropping by the birdseed feeders even though I stopped the handouts about two months ago when coyotes started prowling the neighborhood. About 5 am I heard one or more coyotes howling (don’t ask why I was up at such an ungodly hour).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mosque We Go On

The Ground Zero mosque debate has stirred up deep passions, as evidenced not only by the continuing news about it but also by responses to recent postings. If you’re among those interested in this issue, read this admittedly loooong entry. If not, see you next time....

Reacting to the August 30 “Different Point of View” note from one of my readers (, another had this to say:

I utterly agree with your correspondent, that there are smart terrorists and dumb ones. The smart ones exploit weaknesses (time, place, opportunity, lack of awareness, gullibility, poverty, pride, etc.) to accomplish their mission.

I believe most people on earth are more interested in their own peaceful lives than in waging war (although the desire for revenge, even on the most petty levels, seems universal). However, I do think there's a point where we have to recognize when we're being made fools of. We spend billions on defense, and a group nearly takes us down with a few flying lessons and some plane tickets.

More than 20 years ago, people I consider part of my own family came here from Pakistan. The mother, a peaceful woman with no ties to any extremists, innocently told me that in her home area they hoped so many Middle-Easterners would come to America that it would eventually become Muslim. She was in no way politically connected, and even at the time I didn't think it was an original thought. I believed she repeated something she had heard in her community.

On 9/11, she called, distraught, asking if she and her American-law-abiding family should immediately start wearing Western clothes. She was being stared down on the streets of New York. She was frantic that her family would be targeted by people lashing out at any person who was obviously Muslim. Even though i suffered, as every American did, on that day, I told her that our Constitution granted her freedom of religion. Her family has now assimilated; her two older children have post-graduate degrees and they are all fine American citizens. But I never forgot her remark.

I have no reason to believe that the people who want to put the cultural center in the country's financial hub are anything but people who desire peace and mutual understanding. But I do believe picking this site is disrespectful. And I believe it opens the door to those who wish to mock and exploit our freedoms. I don't want us to suffer a broken national heart again.

Commenting on my September 5 posting, “A Time for Every Purpose,” ( ), a psychiatric social worker wrote:

It took a generation to die out in the desert for the people (of Israel) to forget or distance themselves from slavery. it will take at least that amount, 20 years, for 9/11 to not cause instant angst and pain. There is no reason to rush the mourning process...if left unfinished and abruptly stopped, the person or people will never fully accept or deal with the loss. We as a nation are too quick to want to go on and let it "go".

I think the big fight over where the mosque should be located is not so much location; rather, it is a loud protest that we are not over the mourning period and still do not accept the loss. Why is it OK to remember D-Day, Hiroshima, Japan bombing the American fleet in Honolulu, and scores of other days we still remember and mourn?

To the reader who first responded to “Our Latest Demagogue” (, I sent back the following note:

Thank you for your note. It reflects deep seated beliefs and I respect you for them, though I do disagree with some of your premises, mostly that it is acceptable to give in to our fears and discriminate against any people or religious group simply because some of their members are extremists and therefore could pose a threat to our way of life. We in the United States live atop a rare mountain of freedoms. But there are slippery slopes on all sides of our mountaintop and if we begin to restrict one group who knows where we might end up. For example, those who believe in the philosophy that triggered Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, would you deny them their rights? Monitor them, yes, but deny them the right to pray together at a location of their choice? No, I don't think we want to go there. Once any group deviates from the norm of the majority, there is a danger of repression, fueled by demagogues. Yes, Glenn Beck is a demagogue, as is Al Sharpton. They are exploiting fears and prejudices.

It is interesting you brought up an egg analogy. In my "perfect" world, i am grateful we have a government that checks up on the safety of eggs. Too many libertarians would do away with government agencies and let the marketplace deal with an outbreak of salmonella. but as we've discovered, the offending company has many corporate subdivisions so it would be hard for the public to fully know which eggs are safe and which are not. So even with the egg scare of the last two weeks I have bought and eaten eggs, as have millions of others, because we have confidence in our government to protect us.

It is that confidence in government protection that is at the heart of much of the political debate today. I'm a liberal, or a progressive in the term more commonly used today. I believe government's responsibility is to care for its citizens, to protect them from overt and covert threats. So we have an army, and we also have an OSHA. We provide, or require, education for our children, and we provide financial support for our elderly through social security and Medicare. I believe the measure of any society is how well it cares for its less fortunate citizens. I'm not comfortable with the old custom of the Eskimos to simply put the elderly on an ice flow and send them adrift. I'm not comfortable with the practice in many Third World countries to allow children, young children, to work full time. Only through government (sometimes prodded by unions, but almost never because of the social consciousness of the Power Elite) do we get reforms that span the entire population and not some lucky segments.

Glenn Beck and his ilk want to go back to "a simpler time." They want to go back to an America they believe was better decades ago. Does that mean they want to go back to the time of racial discrimination? Do they want to go back to a time when the opportunity to attend college was limited? Do they want to go back to a time when we feared diseases like polio? Does it mean that we want to go back to a time when you had no safety net should you lose your job, or your health insurance? Does it mean we want to go back to a time when asbestos was commonly used to build our factories, our offices, our schools? Does it mean we want to go back to a time when factories openly and without restriction polluted our waterways? Do we want to go back to a time when, because we were at war with the Japanese, we interred everyone of Japanese ancestry? Why then did we not put German and Italian citizens behind barbed wire fences? Is it because they were Caucasians and did not look different from the mainstream?

Muslims are to be feared, if they have evil intentions. No, it is not easy to look into everyone's soul and predict what their true intentions are. But just as we don't lock up all the co-religionists of those who blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors, or those who bombed Afro-American churches, so too must we extend and maintain the freedoms of Muslims and all other religions who reside in the United States.

Did you ever stop to think why people who are ready to kill each other in their homelands (such as Serbs and Croats, Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, Arabs and Israelis, Hutus and Tutus, to name just a few) do not kill each other when they come to the US? They live side by side here, without incident. It's partly because of our tolerance of others that is imbued in everyday life, plus limitless economic opportunities. Once we begin to erode that tolerance we will be hard pressed to ever get it back.

To correct any miunderstanding of her original note, she provided the following reply:

I think some things may have been lost in my communication to you and I would like to clarify . . . I did not say that we should “give in to fears and discriminate against people or religious groups.” Rather, what I did say, is that while at war, we need to be mindful that our very freedoms are being used as an avenue of access by the Islamic Muslim extremists that we are at war with. I was not suggesting anything beyond that.

My point is, much conflict is born out of misunderstandings . . . so I believe it is important to “understand” where people are coming from and how and why their fears are created. I did not suggest that I share those fears nor that they are a valid basis for discrimination.

Incidentally, I see your example of people who are ready to kill each other in their homelands, but live peacefully here in the U.S. is an over generalization. Perhaps you are speaking of the general “people” of that country, but I would guess that whether they live here or there, the individual people you speak of would not be the ones killing their neighbors, otherwise they would be doing it here–which is probably why they left to come here.

Regarding Glenn Beck, I’m not sure what he would like to see happen in America. I am not particularly fond of extremists in any area of race, politics or religion–including both liberal and conservative ones. I think extremists are dangerous on all fronts and prone to narrowing the realities to align more closely with their arguments.

I believe there is a place somewhere in the middle of all of this, where most people would be satisfied. I was a Democrat my entire life–until now. I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican now. I see the current liberal movement as something just as dangerous as the “simpler time” that Glenn Beck dreams of. I think people should be rewarded for their success–not penalized and demonized and forced to share their income with people who do not contribute.

I believe in sustainability–and in order for our country to become sustainable, its citizens need to contribute–not just take from it. I agree that the government should be there to help people in need–but it should not allow people to live off the government without contribution. I do not believe that everyone who is poor wants or deserves sympathy or charity and I feel that people should be encouraged to support themselves and contribute to their communities. Believe it or not, some people do not want to work for success–it doesn’t mean that much to them. Others don’t want the responsibility that comes with success . . . and that’s fine too. They have that right–but at the same time, they should not be rewarded for taking that stance with a percentage my hard earned money–or anyone else’s for that matter.

I’ve been questioned, even chastised, for giving too much space to the thoughts of others in my blog. Most newspapers, it should be noted, restrict their Letters to the Editor to 150 words. In more than 30 years of editing a magazine I never followed that practice. If someone took the time to send in a comment, I would run as much of it as space permitted. On the Internet, fortunately, there are no space restrictions. No trees are harvested to produce this Web page. Dialogue, important dialogue, can be fostered, even cherished, with the only restriction being the patience and tolerance of each reader.

Your comments are always welcome.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Sometimes, a picture can sucker you into reading an article you otherwise would have passed. Case in point: Last Friday’s Weekend Arts section of the NY Times showed a young couple standing in front of Kutsher’s, artwork for an article on a rock concert the two were staging at the legendary Catskills resort (

Ordinarily, I avoid reading about rock concerts. But the picture drew me in. Like me, the young man in the photo is lean and bearded. He is 38, a year younger than I was when I was first sucker-punched by a Times photo of Kutsher’s. Let me explain:

In 1988, when our son, Dan, was 9, he went to sleepaway camp for the first time for eight weeks. With the assistance of a neighbor who agreed to watch the then 6-1/2 year old Ellie, Gilda planned a romantic weekend getaway for us. Having never experienced a Catskills resort when growing up, Gilda craved the experience. She had seen an article in The Times describing a renovation of Kutsher’s in Monticello. She made a reservation and sent a $50 deposit.

Now, I had accompanied my parents to many Catskills hotels when growing up. They were generally pleasant, but by 1988 I had been exposed to, shall we say, a more refined world. I traveled across the country for my job, staying in many first class hotels and resorts. Gilda had often shared the resort trips with me as they centered around conferences where the presence of a spouse was a definite advantage in meeting and mingling with sources. Despite Kutsher’s renovations as described in The Times, I was less than enthusiastic about trekking off to the Catskills. Having just mastered riding a bicycle at age 39 (a subject of a future blog), I was happy to learn Kutsher’s had it own bike trail around its lake and provided bikes free of charge.

The fateful weekend in early July came. I admit I did not muster much enthusiasm. Gilda was rightfully upset with my attitude. As we pulled onto the hotel driveway, the same canopy depicted in the picture in last Friday’s paper appeared. It was not the equal to the Del Coronado outside San Diego. Or the Boca Raton Country Club. Or the Arizona Biltmore, the Scottsdale Princess or the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, all hotels Gilda and I, often with our children, had enjoyed. I sensed her trepidation as we entered the small registration desk just inside the front door.

She wanted to see the room before we officially checked in. The registration clerk asked why. Just to be sure. We didn’t want a room with double beds. Reluctantly she agreed to show us the room. As we walked across the lobby, I detected a strange odor. It reminded me of a used kitty litter box. I suggested perhaps the carpet was mildewed and was immediately rebuffed. It was new flooring, I was told. New or old, I said, the carpet smelled.

I glanced out the picture window and saw the “lake” with the bike path surrounding it. It appeared to be about a half acre in size. Yes, bikes were available, but they couldn’t be ridden anywhere off the paved path around the lake. So much for any biking expedition.

We arrived at our room and stepped into the 1950s. It had separate beds; the carpeting was a long shag of deep orange. We demanded a different room. Reluctantly Kutsher’s agreed. We asked to see it. Again the clerk was less than enthusiastic. The second room had a single bed and decent carpeting. But its only window was higher than six feet from the ground. Standing on the bed I could see out the window. If I craned my neck I could see part of the pool. But most visible was the building next door. Had I wanted to see a building when I looked out the window, I told the clerk, I would have stayed in Brooklyn.

Gilda was now convinced Kutsher’s was not going to be part of our weekend escape. We were prepared to forfeit the $50 deposit, but amazingly Kutsher’s refunded it. We weren’t ready to return home, so we decided to check out the Concord in Kiamesha Lake. Before registering, however, we opted to scope out the hotel. It seemed acceptable until we came upon a yoga class in progress. How can I say this delicately? The yoga instructor could be a contestant on the show, The Biggest Loser. No way, Gilda said, was she staying in a hotel that disrespected its clientele with such an instructor.

Disappointed, we headed homeward till I remembered about the Inn at Lake Waramaug in Litchfield County, Conn. It’s a beautiful setting, with individual cottages. No TVs. No phones. Just the opportunity to commune with nature. That is, unless it’s pouring rain, which started to fall right after we arrived and kept coming down well into Saturday morning, by which time we decided that White Plains wasn’t too bad a place to spend a romantic weekend by ourselves, with Ellie down the street playing with Issa and her mother, Angeles.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Time for Every Purpose

My birthday is March 6. It’s not too early for those who don’t have that date circled on their 2011 calendar to do so now, though that is not the reason I am giving you six months’ notice. Rather, I am reacting to a story in this morning’s NY Times, “This Life: A Day To Dance Or Weep?” (

As a New Yorker, I reflect almost daily on the void in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers stood. Now that I’m no longer commuting to an office, most days I’m listening to WCBS880 radio news as I putter around in the morning. With uncanny persistence, the announcers each day call out the time exactly at 9:11. They probably don’t realize they repeatedly are piercing the hearts of so many listeners. Perhaps no one who was not a New York area resident that fateful day nine years ago can fully appreciate the ongoing assault to our sensibilities.

The Times article raised an important point. When is it proper to return to normalcy, to celebrate happy occasions that by coincidence, or planning, fall on September 11? In a larger sense, in the context of the current debate on the building of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, when is it proper to just...move on?

If we wanted to always dwell on the past, there are ample reasons to live a cloistered and melancholy life. A few years ago, some enterprising(?) souls put together a daily calendar listing calamities that befell Jews throughout the millennia. How comforting to know I’m part of a people with so long and rich a daily history!

When I tell people I was born on March 6, I usually say I share the date with the fall of the Alamo. I don’t mention that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, as well as a hundred or more other Alamo defenders, died that day. I was a big Davy Crockett fan as a child. I adored Fess Parker. Even had a ‘coon-skin hat for a while.

The Alamo wasn’t the only infamous event to happen on my birthday. Of far greater import was the Missouri Compromise that President Monroe signed into law in 1820, permitting the Show Me territory to enter the Union as a slave state. Thirty-seven years later to the day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most egregious decisions. In the Dred Scott case, the court ruled, according to Wikipedia, “that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves—whether or not they were slaves—were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States. It also held that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Lastly, the Court ruled that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process.” How would you like that legacy as part of your birthday heritage?

Of course, some less traumatic occurrences happened on my birthday. In 1475, Michelangelo was born. Lou Costello (1906), Alan Greenspan (1926) and Shaquille O’Neal (1972) also took their first breaths on March 6. Life ended for Louisa May Alcott (1888), John Philip Sousa (1932), Pearl S. Buck (1973), Ayn Rand (1982), Georgia O’Keeffe (1986) and many more luminaries on March 6. In short, every day has its pluses and minuses.

September 11 is no exception. Did you know that in 1609 Henry Hudson discovered Manhattan on September 11? Or that the British Mandate of Palestine began in 1922 (the Mandate might have been detested when it ended in 1948, but it was the first concrete step toward Israeli statehood). One year earlier, the first moshav (cooperative farm) was settled in Palestine. In 1978, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat came together on September 11 to sign the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt. In 1989, the first breach of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary allowed thousands of East Germans to flee repression, hastening the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies. In 2005, Israel unilaterally completed disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

On September 11, 2001, a day of crispness and bright sunshine, 2,977 innocent people were killed in the terrorist attacks. We should never forget them. We should never forget, or forgive, the murderous band that rained death on our country. But it’s time to move on. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “A season is set for everything...A time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing.” Every day has its history of tragedy. Our spirit demands we infuse September 11 with added meanings, new hopes, new reasons to celebrate, not just commemorate.