Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Picks, Libya Fallout and Bully Tactics

Gilda and I have been frantically trying to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films before tonight’s telecast. We did a fairly good job of it, so here are picks for the golden statues for the top awards:

Best Actor: Colin Firth of The King’s Speech

Best Actress: Natalie Portman of Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale of The Fighter

Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo of The Fighter

Best Director: David O. Russell of The Fighter

Best Picture: The Fighter

Crisis at the Pump: Forget about the precipitous rise in oil prices because of the upheaval in Libya and other Middle Eastern fiefdoms. We have to focus our attention on the real crisis in Arabia—how will Muslim potentates be able to import Western values if their access to BeyoncĂ©, Usher and Mariah Carey is cut off?

One of the more interesting stories to come out of the turmoil was the report on how Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sons engaged in a game of one-upsmanship, spending countless millions to party with entertainment from the likes of the aforementioned performers ( Are BeyoncĂ©, Usher and Mariah Carey so hard up for cash they would dignify despots with their talent? Even for a million dollars? Keep in mind, the millions they were paid did not come out of the Qaddafi family’s pockets. They were paid with money ripped off from the Libyan people.

It’s just another sad commentary on the shallowness of some of our “stars” and a value system that plays to the tune of the highest bidder.

Bully Tactics: Speaking of shallow, it’s hard to evince any sympathy for Charlie Sheen, the raging and enraged star of Two and a Half Men. He’s placed himself in the mold of Mel Gibson with his rant about show creator Chuck Lorre’s birth name, Chaim Levine. (At least in Sheen’s case the apple has fallen far from the tree. Gibson seems to be following in his father’s anti-Semitic footsteps, whereas Sheen’s father, Martin Sheen, is the darling of liberals.) One can only surmise Sheen was expressing a not so veiled anti-Semitic comment, though he denies it. It is hard to imagine any other explanation, given the long history of bigots who dredge up birth names to cast aspersions on their targets.

I admit I have occasionally watched Two and a Half Men during its eight year run. I’ve laughed at some of the humor. But I never really was comfortable with its comic take on life. I’m turned off by humor that derives its punch line from insults and offensiveness. I’m turned off by a character that extols drunkenness, conniving, insensitivity and a mostly misogynist attitude. He’s not too kind to his brother, either.

For the most part, Sheen’s character is a bully, someone who takes advantage of the weak and defenseless. I don’t know Charlie Sheen’s political orientation, but his bullying tactics on the air and in his personal life smack too much like the politics being engaged in by Republicans on the federal and state levels. I’m particularly incensed by the choices Republicans are making. For example, last year Arizona eliminated a Children’s Health Insurance Program that covered 47,000 low-income children without coverage. Another 310,000 childless couples lost Medicaid coverage under the state’s budget. In the proposed federal budget approved by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, funding would be cut for a host of programs that aid women and children ( I don’t know how many of you actually click on the links I provide, but this last one is important. After reading the editorial, I challenge anyone to explain the term “compassionate conservative” with a straight face.

I’m all for cutting wasteful programs and imposing a fair tax system. But I just cannot understand, or accept, the GOP’s stance on de-funding programs that help the disadvantaged. How can they claim to be pro-family when all they do is cut programs that help struggling families? How can they do that at the same time they support tax relief for millionaires? How do they sleep at night?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spotlight on the News

Tuesday’s NY Times Business section carried an article on how to travel with your boss, a mostly common sense review of proper behavior while spending time with one’s superior ( I was particularly drawn to the following sentence because of an incident that happened at my former company some 25 years ago: “Mr. Tulgan said employees should err, in general, on the side of decorous behavior and conservative dress and should pay close attention to the cues from their boss.”

As an offshoot to my publication, we had launched a separate apparel magazine, staffed with its own publisher, editorial and sales teams. The publisher traveled to Los Angeles to make calls with his new resident salesman. They planned to visit Ocean Pacific the first day. OP was an emerging brand at the time.

Carl, the publisher, showed up at our LA office in our standard corporate uniform, meaning a suit. Not even a sports jacket and slacks was acceptable back then. His salesman, on the other hand, came dressed in a T-shirt, cutoff shorts and flip-flops. The contrast could not have been greater. The salesman explained that when they would arrive at Ocean Pacific Carl would see that casual was the norm, that Carl would be the one whose dress would stand out from the crowd.

Sure enough, the salesman was correct. The next day Carl fired him. He had been guilty of either failing to properly uphold our corporate profile on a business call, or failing to properly communicate in advance the appropriate dress code to Carl for the OP call. Either way, he was history, one of the shortest-tenured salespeople in our company’s history.

Back in the News: Allianz is back in the news and back in my crosshair sights.

A survey reported in USA Today of 3,257 adults ages 44-75 revealed 61% feared outliving their money compared to just 39% who feared dying.

I have no reason to challenge the findings (brought to my attention by Monday’s Colbert Report), but am bemused it was Allianz that funded the survey. Allianz, you might recall, is a German financial services company whose U.S. holdings include Fireman’s Fund. But to me the Allianz legacy is its history as the company that insured Auschwitz and other concentration camps along with Nazi factories that used slave labor during WWII. For many years after the war Allianz also tried to avoid paying claims to Jewish survivors or their next of kin.

How ironic the two choices mentioned in the survey—dying and outliving their money—fit so neatly into Allianz’s past.

For those not familiar with my personal history with Allianz, here’s a link to an old blog entry:

Union Dues: Several readers questioned what they perceived as my blind support of labor unions the other day. So let me clarify: Public service unions have secured for their members salaries and benefits that have contributed to the financial distress of many states. I believe compromise, in other words, give backs, are in order.

But unions must be permitted to retain their right to collective bargaining. That way all members of the union will give back the same amount or percentage in pension and health insurance benefits. And the unions will be able to provide other protections, as well.

Let's not blame unions for asking for the moon—that's their job, to represent workers and get the best deal. Like pro athletes, unions shouldn't be blamed if management or politicians gave them what they asked for, even if long term it was not in everyone's best interests.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Look for My Union Label

Let’s get my bias out in the open at the very beginning—30 years as a manager, yet I still identify with my two years as a union member back at the New Haven Register in 1975-76.

Perhaps that’s one reason I sympathize with public service employees in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere who are threatened with the loss of collective bargaining rights by newly emboldened Republican governors and state houses. Don’t focus on the demand to require civil servants to pay more for health care coverage and to contribute more toward their pensions. That’s an appropriate take back. Budget deficits are real and deep, with benefit liabilities a major factor. Belt tightening should be across the board and include government workers.

But the right to collective bargaining is a mainstay of union activity. Any action to strip that collective bargaining right is a first step in doing away with unions, both in the public and private sectors. For sure, not every union is pristine. Likewise, not every management team or politician is abusive or regressive. But history has shown time and again that unions have led to greater employee benefits for all (for non union workers and managers, as well), and that without union protection individual workers are vulnerable even if they are first-rate workers. A teacher I know in California, for example, received exemplary ratings from both her principal and independent test scores last year, but for some unknown reason this academic year has lost the confidence of this same administrator to the point that without a union to protect her she might well have lost her job or she would have had to resort to a costly, personal civil law suit.

The bogeyman du jour, probably des annes, is the labor union. Strip away public and private sector unions, the theory seems to go, and our economic woes will be on the road to solvency, our government deficits made less deep and our exceptionalism restored. If we eliminate unions, maybe we’ll be able to reduce, or even do away with, the minimum wage and worker benefits, especially that darned social security that we keep hearing is going to be bankrupt by the time baby boomers all retire. Who needs it anyway, since the economy is in such bad shape no one will be able to retire except the very rich, and since when do they need government help? If we could only do away with all those government entitlements and regulations perhaps then we’d be able to compete on the global labor market, compete with countries like Bangladesh, China, India, even Mexico. Without those costly wage levels and benefit programs plus OSHA and EPA rules to follow, we’d easily resolve our illegal immigration crisis. No self-respecting Latino would want to jump border fences or wade across the Rio Grande to enter a country that doesn’t provide any better earnings prospects and worker conditions than their native land. Without inflated union workers costs, no more manufacturing plants would be shut down in the United States, their jobs shipped overseas to lower labor markets. We’d go back to the way it was mid-last century, when all we did was close down northern plants and move the jobs to cheap-labor southern states. But at least we’d be keeping those “good” jobs in the good ol’ US of A, thus bringing more power to states that are the true core of our country’s creed, states that still believe the Civil War was a conflict based on states’ rights, not the exploitation of labor and human rights better known as slavery.

See, it all begins with getting rid of those damned unions. And the place to start is with public sector unions because we all know government workers, especially teachers, are slaggards, what with their two months off in the summer and all those winter and spring school breaks. Those damn teachers work just 180 days a year, while most others have a 261-day work year, before vacation and holidays. Those teachers have it cushy, considering we keep hearing education test scores keep dropping. They keep complaining parents aren’t helping out with good follow-up at home, but that’s merely a cover-up for no accountability. And, did you ever see state workers working hard at the motor vehicle department? And why is it my street never gets snowplowed until late afternoon? And building inspectors, why can’t they ever show up on time? Don’t they know they’re delaying my project, and when they do show up they are capricious, with no consistency from inspector to inspector? But that’s the type of service you get when jobs are guaranteed and you’re afraid to criticize because someone might go “postal” on you.

Those people in the badger state sure know which way the wind’s blowing. Let me tell you, that Gov. Walker, he’s a rising national star. He’s a man of principle. He’ll make those trains run on time in Wisconsin, or else.

The tragedy of it all is that too many workers—even some private sector union members, according to a NY Times article today— don’t realize they benefit directly and indirectly from the working conditions unions collectively attain for their members. They see an imbalance in civil servant contributions to health care and retirement benefits and selfishly turn their backs on their working class brethren. Ever since Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan convinced working class voters to vote with their hearts and not their minds, or pocketbooks, the American worker has had his and her earnings power reduced. It might be patriotic to support U.S. war efforts, but it is downright unpatriotic to vote into office legislators who sanction corporate rip-offs, be they unsafe products, unsafe working conditions, tax dodging schemes and plant closures that have transformed our economy from a manufacturing to a service-centric base. We no longer produce goods. All we do is create services to service the wealthiest segment of our population without taxing them appropriately.

Don’t worry about the rich. They have a union to protect them. It’s called the Republican Party, Tea Party members included.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Altered State

Soon I’ll be traveling to Tucson. I don’t think I look Hispanic, so I don’t anticipate any problems with Arizona’s new immigration law. But even after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 12 others and the killing of six innocents, Arizona has gun-loving activists who would make it legal to carry concealed weapons anywhere and everywhere. Visitor beware!

I couldn’t begin to match the satire Stephen Colbert produced on the Colbert Report Tuesday night in response to this initiative. Instead, here’s a three-minute clip that excoriates Arizona state representative Ron Gould who advocates unfettered gun-toting. Watch it and shake your head in astonishment, and appreciation, that we live in a country where such inanity (Gould’s, not Colbert’s) can flourish: (don’t give up if the clip doesn’t load the first time; it’s worth re-trying).

Another interesting note about the Arizona shootings—I’m never not bemused by the random confluence of similar (sounding) names in high-intensity news stories. Two weeks ago I noted how the name “Tripp” appeared in the alleged scandal involving Todd Palin’s supposed dalliance with a prostitute (Shailey Tripp), his grandson (Tripp Palin) and the Monica Lewinsky affair (Linda Tripp).

Now my attention is drawn to the Arizona shooter’s public defender, Judy Clarke. Though her last name ends with an “e,” I can’t escape noting the similarity to the prosecuting attorney in the O.J. Simpson murder trial—Marcia Clark.

Speaking of shooters, I’m seriously considering buying a BB gun. The squirrels are pushing me to the brink. No matter what I do they successfully breach my bird seed feeder defenses to gorge themselves (I’m not actually serious about getting a gun; maybe a good slingshot, though).

Spring Sprig: Like the hand that rises up from the water at the end of the movie Deliverance, a single sprig of green from our front yard evergreen shrub has pierced through the snow that has covered the lawn since Christmas.

What a glorious day Thursday was, so good I abandoned my no-exercise regimen and did a brisk 30-minute afternoon walk around our neighborhood, followed by some shoveling to rid our two-car wide driveway of snow and ice that had reduced access to a single lane.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Look in the Mirror of Reality

Late last year Sylvia landed in the hospital, followed by a rehab center stay. By the time she was discharged and went back to her apartment, she had missed the cutoff date to renew her registration for the Meals on Wheels I deliver in Yonkers each week. Her slot was assigned to another. A government cutback in funding denies program administrators any leeway in adding to their roster of subsidized recipients, so near 90-year-old Sylvia will have to arrange her own meals while she waits to reclaim a spot on the food distribution list. You can easily imagine how the next vacancy might occur.

Sylvia’s plight, and the juggling act social service providers must play given extreme reductions in funding for safety net programs, begs the question: What type of America do we want our parents and grandparents to live in during their sunset years? Alternately, what type of America do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

Will it be an America of opportunity or an America in retreat? An America that cares for its vulnerable citizens or an America that shuns collective responsibility?

Matt Bai of the NY Times framed the debate in terms of gluttony vs. neglect ( Democrats would lead us to decline by a spend, spend, spend mentality. Republicans would cut, cut, cut our way to second tier, or lower, status by failing to invest in infrastructure needs.

Are there any statesmen left in America to bridge the gap between these two philosophies?

Sadly, it’s not really the politicians’ fault. Their job is to get elected and re-elected. As the conspirator/patriot? Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Or, as Walt Kelly’s comic strip possum character Pogo related three decades ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are blinded by imaginary realities. We create mystical memories of politicians, sans warts. The victorious current candidate is the one who can channel his or her own image more strongly with those of heralded predecessors. Democrats fawn over FDR. And JFK. Republicans lionize Ronald Reagan. FDR and JFK created and extended the safety net and universal freedoms. They were not embraced by most wealthy Americans; their constituents came mainly from the working poor and the growing middle class. Reagan, on the other hand, managed to convince common citizens he served their best interests, a legacy Republicans have pounded into the electorate’s head over and over again. Every Republican swears allegiance to Reagan, hoping the public remembers the image, not the reality of his political arc.

When will the Democratic Party start broadcasting reality reports? When will they de-claw the GOP lion by pointing out he raised taxes in seven of his eight years as president, that he nearly tripled the federal budget deficit, that government grew under his tenure, that his adoption of trickle down economic theories hurt the working class and the middle class? Are the Democrats so cowed by the specter of Ronald Reagan they cringe at the prospect of running against his record?

In the play, Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote, the hero is brought back to reality by the Knight of the Mirrors. “Look in the mirror of reality and behold things as they truly are...thy dream is a nightmare of a disordered mind,” Don Quixote is told.

It is laudable to have a quest, a vision of greatness. But government based on falsehood would be catastrophic. Better to face reality.

Tax and spend is not the way to go, either. We need a reasoned, compromised approach to ensure America’s prosperous future. We cannot strip away funding for education, for social services, for health care, for infrastructure and expect our country will remain great. The other day an alarming report informed that many foreign students opt to return to their native lands, albeit countries where personal freedoms are limited, because they believe opportunities for wealth generation are greater overseas. Some might say, good riddance, but that would be turning our back on America’s history, a past built on the contributions of immigrants.

I want our country to respect the service and value the Sylvias of her generation contributed to American society. We should not force safety net providers to limit their administration of benefits while we dole out tax relief to wealthy individuals and corporations. I want America to challenge the next generations to think not just of themselves but also of the collective good of all. Societies that allow their citizens’ fortunes to bifurcate may survive for an indefinite period, but they invariably rot from within and topple, often in violent seizures. Our greatest threat is not from China, India, Russia or Iran, et al, it is from our failure to learn the lessons of history.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Oy Factor

During her time with us last week Ellie noticed what she says is a disturbing habit of mine—almost all of my morning movements are accompanied by moans or “oys.”

Now, anyone who knows me well knows I “complain” a lot about my physical infirmities. If asked how I’m feeling, I invariably respond with the truth, the full truth. Any aches or pains are catalogued in vivid detail. Hey, if you don’t want to know, don’t ask. I won’t be offended if you don’t ask. But if you do ask, don’t be offended if I respond to your innocent inquiry under the belief you really do care about me.

Oy, or ugh, conveys more in one syllable than any full-throated sentence. You can look up what oy means. But until you’ve lived with me you will not appreciate what Gilda (and for a week, Ellie) goes through daily.

Exodus Redux: Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.—Exodus 1:8

How poignantly wondrous that the overthrow of a modern day Egyptian dictator occurred just weeks after the annual synagogue Torah readings of the exodus of the Israelites from bondage and the vanquishing of Pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds.

Several friends sent along a short joke making the Internet rounds—"Israel to Egypt: do not destroy those pyramids. We will not rebuild!”

Cute, but not historically accurate. Jewish slaves built the Coliseum in Rome, but not the pyramids in Egypt. The pyramids are believed to have been erected hundreds of years before Jacob and his clan made their way south to Egypt during the famine Joseph forecast when interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. The Bible recounts how the enslaved children of Israel built the store cities of Pithom and Raamses. No mention of any pyramids.

After the exodus, the Israelites had few military entanglements with Egypt until the modern era, until 1948. Since the Camp David Accords were signed in 1978, a fragile peace has existed between Israel and Egypt, a peace reaffirmed for the present by the Egyptian military now in control. What could have been 30 years of tranquility and prosperity devolved under Hosni Mubarak into 30 years of repression and economic stagnation for the masses in Egypt while the elite grew fat. Israel, meanwhile, prospered, becoming a high-tech beacon.

The world, and especially Israel, trembles while it awaits the evolution of the Egyptian revolution and its impact on the Middle East. Will future Egyptian leaders choose continued peace or a return to a belligerency that sapped the country of its pride and youth?

Grandpa Who? I slowly made my way up the stairs from the garage Friday evening. Finley heard my footsteps. As he does with most visitors, he smiled in anticipation. But upon deeper observation of my bearded countenance, he grimaced and cried. In the near two months since we last saw each other, he had virtually forgotten me.

While he instantly re-bonded with Gilda and played with her, he’d warily look towards me from across the room. I figured the best course of action was to bide my time. It was hard waiting for my turn. By the next day Finley was more comfortable with me. He’d bring books over to read, but stayed for just one page. I didn’t take it personally. Even his mother could get him to sit still for just one page at a time.

By the end of our visit on Sunday he’d come full circle and even let me butt heads with him when we departed, our signature good-bye ritual. Our next time together is Passover in April. Two long months from now. Too long a time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mrs. Nightmare

I awoke this morning to a radio news report about a first grade teacher in Silver Spring, MD, charged with choking and hitting students during the school day.

Now, ordinarily I wouldn’t pay attention to such a story. Except, her alleged brutal treatment of her charges paralleled my experience in elementary school in the 1950s. I attended a private Hebrew school, Yeshiva Rambam, in Brooklyn. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Mare, or more appropriately, Mrs. Nightmare, had a unique way of dealing with recalcitrant children. She would tightly pinch your nostrils for 10 seconds or longer. If you were really deserving of re-education, she would stand behind you, grab hold of your arms just above your elbows, pull them back towards her while sticking her knee into your back.

Of course her students complained to their parents. But as they were mostly immigrant or first generation parents, they sided with her, believing if we were disciplined we surely must have done something egregious to warrant corporal punishment.

Our third grade teacher, Mrs. Schlesinger, educated us into the tribulations of solitary confinement. Her version of the modern day “time out” in the corner was to isolate an offender in a dark wardrobe closet in our classroom. Usually your term of sentence was 10 to 20 minutes standing in the dark, but one spring day Mrs. Schlesinger lost track of one of her inmates and left him inside his cell when dismissal came. So did the rest of the class. His parents were not amused when he failed to show up at home when the school bus made its normal stop at their door. Mrs. Schlesinger reluctantly agreed to more benign punishments after that incident.

Our seventh grade Hebrew teacher, Mr. Kulik, was real old school. That means he saw nothing untoward in some physical contact with students. He took a particular interest in Walter, a chubby, not overly ambitious or attentive student. His patience finally exhausted one day, Mr. Kulik decided to eject Walter from the classroom. Physically eject him. He literally decided to throw Walter out the door. Trouble was, the door was closed. Walter, being round and pudgy, bounced off the door right back into Mr. Kulik’s arms. Only after two or three repeat tossings and rebounds did Mr. Kulik finally realize it was not Walter being insubordinate that kept him coming back time and again. I should note that throughout this ordeal Walter was laughing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A-Rod: Schlemiel or Schlimazel

Celebrities go to the Super Bowl to see and be seen, so it should come as no surprise cameras catch them in unscripted moments. Former NFL coach and TV commentator John Madden was shown texting during the game, just moments before the camera caught film star Cameron Diaz feeding popcorn to her current squeeze, baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez. Even play by play announcer Joe Buck, who also broadcasts Major League Baseball games, had to wryly acknowledge, “I’m sure Alex was thrilled we put the camera on him at that moment” (

Once again A-Rod became the butt of jokes on the airwaves and blogosphere for a PDA (public display of affection—unlike previous incidents, this PDA involved a woman and not self-preening in Central Park for a newspaper photo or in front of a mirror for a magazine layout). He did nothing more than any decent, sensitive man would do if his girlfriend offered him popcorn, especially if his girlfriend was a beautiful movie star. He showed interest in her, unlike many men who zone out when watching sporting events.

There’s no denying, however, A-Rod is a lightning rod for controversy, which begs the question, Is A-Rod a schlemiel or a schlimazel? For those not familiar with the Yiddish terms, a schlemiel is a person who, despite the best of intentions, always fouls up. A schlimazel is an unfortunate soul, a person to whom misadventure always falls. To gain a deeper understanding of the distinction between the two, think of a schlemiel as a bumbling waiter who spills hot soup on a patron; the person drenched by the soup is a schlimazel.

Active or passive, schlemiel or schlimazel, A-Rod can’t catch a break.

More Super Bowl Follow-Up: In case you missed it, as I did, here's a link to the NFL's tribute to President Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday which coincided with Super Bowl Sunday:

Since I wasn't a Reagan fan, I'm happy the winner of the Super Bowl receives the Lombardi Trophy. I can just imagine the NFL renaming the trophy after football-happy Reagan if it were named for any lesser a personage than Vince Lombardi.

Even More Super Bowl Follow-Up: For a long while there I thought my 21-17 final score prediction would hold up. Of course, I said Pittsburgh would have the 21, but let’s not quibble over small details.

I also was right the trailing team would fall short on a last minute attempt to score the winning touchdown, though the Steelers got nowhere near the Packer 20 yard line as I forecast. In fact, they didn’t get beyond their own 20, so I guess I was right the game would end with the ball in the Packers’ possession near the Pittsburgh goal line.

I see a new career ahead of me in sports prognosticating....

Traffic Patterns: I’m commuting to and from Manhattan again. Not for a new job, not for pay.

With Ellie on crutches after her recent foot surgery, she’s staying with us so I can drive her to and from work each day (here’s where you’re supposed to say, “What a nice guy/dad Murray is”).

Some observations: The roads are really bad. Lots of potholes. Traffic is much worse than when I used to occasionally drive to my office. It’s taking at least an hour to get to the Metropolitan Museum at Fifth Avenue and E. 80th Street, the same time it took to travel a longer distance to Park Avenue and E. 55 St. Too many cars are single occupancy.

Still No Socks, But...: I haven’t abandoned retirement but I have taken a part-time position as director of industry relations for Green Retail Decisions, a Web-based enterprise that delivers information and analysis to the retail industry on energy-, waste- and supply-chain management, as well as green construction/maintenance practices (

Sustainable business practices are not a fad; they are integral to a company’s profitable performance. GRD provides actionable news, trends and analysis through a robust Web site, weekly e-newsletter, Webinars, white papers and face-to-face forums.

GRD is the brainchild of another Lebhar-Friedman alumnus, John Failla. John is also the founder of Store Brands Decisions, dedicated to the private label industry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Frederick to the Rescue

I can’t wait to read books to my grandson, Finley. He’ll be almost 15 months old when I see him this weekend. Sure, I’ve read books to him before, but he’s starting to understand words now, so the thrill of reading to an infant is again kindling within me, as it did when Dan and Ellie were young.

One of their favorite books, as well as Gilda’s and mine, was Frederick, by Leo Lionni. It tells the story of five field mice. While four of them gather food for the winter, Frederick seems to be shirking responsibility, idly sitting on a rock and seemingly dreaming the fall days away. Chastised by his friends, Frederick says he is working. He’s gathering words and images, colors and memories to cheer and warm them through the long winter ahead. And so he did when their world turned grey and cold.

It’s a beautiful book whose message of an individual’s contributions to a society have taken on added meaning during a time when technology has seemingly invaded and assaulted our private moments, be it technology that links us to friends and family or, more ominously, technology that tethers us 24/7 to the workplace.

Last Saturday night at dinner in a New York City restaurant, a couple sat next to us. To the right of her place setting, the woman’s smartphone rested on the corner of the table. How fortunate, I thought to myself, that I am not part of a relationship where my partner values constant connectivity to a machine more than to me.

Sunday’s Business section of the NY Times carried a story—”Who’s the Boss, You or Your Gadget?”—on the phenomenon of media/communications intrusions into personal lives. The story was illustrated with a picture of a mother and father interacting with their newborn daughter. The mother holds the fingers of her child with one hand; her other hand holds a smartphone (

Perhaps it’s a good thing I retired 19 months ago. I’m not sure I could adapt to the demands of the new marketplace, a region where perspective takes a back seat to immediacy, where deliberation is outweighed by speed, where success is measured more by how many decisions one can make in a day rather than by how many correct decisions one makes.

For all its good, CNN and the 24-hour news cycle perhaps was the jumping off point for a world of non-stop action. Of course, we had all-news-all-the-time radio stations before CNN, but they were local, not national, much less international, in scope and impact. CNN and its derivatives required, nay, demanded, instant analysis. The storyline could change from hour to hour. If you were not connected, especially on the financial news stations, you could be left less informed, or worse, misinformed.

I’m not against technology. I’m against its usurpation of the time to think, the time to reflect, to absorb meaning from our surroundings. Sure it’s nice to bridge vast distances to engage with relatives and friends via Skype or email or text messages. But why need it be at the expense of comrades sitting across a table from you? Is commerce so rickety these days that it is dependent on immediate response during time we traditionally set aside for family and personal satisfaction? Are our pleasures destined to forever be interrupted by electronic impulses?

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” the proverb warned. Perhaps not dull. Perhaps more financially successful. Probably less compleat and more one-dimensional.

(By serendipidous coincidence, I received the accompanying link today from my friend, Milton. He turns out to be my version of Frederick. Follow the instructions. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Passionless Play

I can’t generate any passion for today’s Super Bowl.

I’ve studiously avoided reading any stories about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers over the last two weeks, which might explain my indifference to the game. As a NY Giants fan, I really can’t get too worked up about the championship contest tonight.

Oh sure, I guess I could be anti-Green Bay because the Packers beat the Giants late in the season and kept them out of the playoffs by winning the following week against the Chicago Bears. But I hold no animosity against the Pack. The Giants really didn’t deserve a better fate considering how haphazardly they played this season.

As for the Steelers, I give them some points for knocking off the despised NY Jets, but is there any reason to embrace a team led by a quarterback who can’t control his testosterone and a linebacker who revels in injuring his foes with helmet-first tackles?

I’ll probably watch the game, and commercials, but it matters little to me who wins the Lombardi Trophy. For the record, I predict Pittsburgh will bring home the hardware in a tightly fought 21-17 game, with Green Bay thwarted on a last minute drive within 20 yards of a winning touchdown.

What the Packers and the Steelers do evoke are memories of my emergence as a football fan. I had been vaguely aware of football in the late 1950s, but didn’t really get into the game until I was 12, when Y.A. Tittle joined the Giants as their quarterback in 1961. I think I rooted for Tittle because he was mostly bald. He looked like my father, and since Dad was in no way an athlete, or shared any rooting passion for any sport with me, Tittle provided a small measure of transmutation. It didn’t hurt that Tittle was a very good quarterback on a successful, winning team.

The Giants played the Packers for the NFL championship in 1961 and 1962, losing both times in bitter cold, first in Green Bay and then at Yankee Stadium. I was able to watch the Packers demolish the Giants 37-0 in Green Bay, but the following year’s 16-7 loss was blacked out in New York. It was the custom back then that even if a game sold out, the NFL imposed a 90-mile blackout on any TV transmissions. My 17-year-old brother Bernie, (a Giants fan at the time, now a Washington Redskins fanatic) and his friends traveled to Philadelphia to view the game. It was a sad ride home, made all the more unbearable, Bernie reports, because the car’s heater stopped working.

After playing the championship game again in 1963, this time losing to the Chicago Bears 14-10 in another frigid contest, the Giants began a protracted period of ineptitude. From three straight trips to the ultimate game, their record tumbled to 2-10-2 in 1964. They wouldn’t make it to the championship game, now dubbed the Super Bowl, until 1986 (they won, their first of three Super Bowl titles).

Tittle retired after the 1964 season, but not before losing a heartbreaker—and body breaker—game in Pittsburgh, 27-24. Late in the game, he was hit as he threw by Steeler defensive end John Baker. The pass was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. A dazed Tittle, helmet off, sat on his knees near the end zone, his hands on his thighs, blood streaming down the left side of his face. He had suffered a concussion and a broken sternum. The picture of the defeated Tittle is considered one of the iconic sports photos of all time (

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Squirrel's Revenge

Just when I thought I’d outwitted the squirrels, along comes Mother Nature to fight on their side.

I awoke this morning, as did most metropolitan New Yorkers, to a sheet of ice across the landscape. I knew it was bad when Gilda reluctantly opted not to travel into work. She’s more reliable and dedicated than the fiercest postal worker, so it was apparent this storm was a real game changer.

As I peered out the kitchen window I noticed tree limbs sagging under the weight of the ice. The dip in their arc meant the birdseed and suet feeders were dangerously close to ground level. My fears were soon realized. The reddish-grey tailed squirrel, against whom I had installed baffles Monday to thwart his assaults from above, was easily able to leap up onto the bird feeders. He leisurely—actually, that’s not a a good word for a squirrel; squirrels rarely do anything in a leisurely fashion—sampled one feeder after another. If it were just snow on the limbs, I’d have ventured out to knock some off to raise the limbs. But knocking a branch encapsulated in ice could crack it and send it and the birdseed feeders crashing to the ground.

I waited till well into the afternoon thaw, till after I spent 90 minutes clearing the driveway of ice, before trudging out through the ice-capped snow in the yard to replenish the food in the feeders and gingerly poke off some ice from the trees.

Once you’ve become a caterer to the winged world, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of obligation to maintain a constant food supply, especially during times when the ground is covered in snow or ice and birds can’t easily find their normal sources of nourishment. I don’t really mind that the squirrels partake as well. They are cute. But I do expect some decorum—hanging from the feeders, literally pigging out and denying access to the birds is unacceptable behavior.

Mother Nature also must learn to fight fair. But then, I should have anticipated some shenanigans. Today, after all is a semi-squirrel holiday. It’s Groundhog Day.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stick Out Your Arm

The recent medical finding that there is no authoritative link between early childhood vaccinations and the onset of autism, plus an interview with Dr. Paul A. Offit, author of “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All,” on Monday’s Colbert Report, made me recall an incident involving one of our children’s playgroup friends when Dan and Ellie were young.

Bethany and Sam (I’ve obscured their names to protect them, and me) had two boys the same ages as our children. Being a health and organic food advocate, Sam insisted his boys not be immunized. His reasoning, at the time, was injections could induce cancer. No shots for them. No protection from a vial against diphtheria, whooping cough or tetanus. No needles for measles, mumps or chicken pox, as well.

With a letter from a holistic doctor giving them cover, Ian and Robert entered school without the required vaccination forms. All went well until Ian badly scraped his knee during recess one day. The school nurse sent him to the hospital emergency room where they asked if he had a tetanus shot. Ian replied he had never had any inoculations, for anything. Just as they were about to administer his first medical puncture, his mother swooped into the emergency room. Under threat they would take her child away from her custody unless she allowed them to administer a tetanus shot, Bethany reluctantly agreed.

At home that night, Bethany had just finished relating the events to Sam when a knock at the door revealed a social worker and two policemen, there to investigate whether Bethany and Sam were wholesome parents, not abusing their children. While they passed the surprise home inspection, they were not out of the woods, just yet. The social worker insisted on a more thorough investigation of their parenting skills.

Sam swung into action. He contacted a cousin who was a state judge who issued a letter vouching to their appropriateness as parents. The family was saved, if that’s the right word, from any further action. To my knowledge, they never received any further injections.

As for me, though I recoiled from getting shots when young, I’m in favor of them now. After my 61st birthday last March, I had my doctor give me a chicken pox booster to ward off shingles. When my current tetanus booster expires in another few years I’ll put my arm out again for a tetanus and pertussis cocktail.