Sunday, December 30, 2012

Twas the Week After Christmas

Twas the week after Christmas, there wasn’t a whiff
Of congressmen rushing to avoid the cliff.
They bloviated, they blew, lots of hot air,
Leaving the country full of despair.

Grover Norquist smiled, severe in his stance,
No tax increase, not even a chance.
While families wondered how much more they will pay,
Uncle Sam stroked his beard all through the day.

From the shores of Hawaii the president rose,
To the microphones he stepped on tippy-tip toes.
“Now boys, and some girls, my vacation is done,
I’m returning to deal with you in Washington.

“Can’t we find some new common ground,
To keep most taxes low. Now, how does that sound?
Come Boehner, come Cantor, come McDonnell and more,
It’s time we talked some more to explore
A new fiscal plan that’s not all as stiff
As that Draconian plan that’s beyond the cliff.
We need to agree for the sake of the country
On measures to keep our fiscal sanity.”

Twas the week before New Year when all millionaires
Fretted and wondered if Congress would dare.
What plan could be hatched to take some more tax
From those who could pay, but always say “nay.”

It’s too soon to tell the end of this tale,
Be of good cheer, we have nothing to fear
But falling over a deep fiscal cliff,
Leaving the nation only slightly adrift.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Arresting Experience

I almost got arrested inside a retail store, hardly proper behavior for an editor and publisher of a retail industry magazine. This was nearly 28 winters ago when I ventured out one snowy February to purchase a Toro snow shovel from a home center chain now defunct but whose name I will not abuse again.

I say “again” because I exacted revenge for a less than optimal shopping experience. I recounted the deficiencies of the retailer and its store manager, by their respective names, in an editorial column in my magazine the following month. Shortly, I will relate details of the incident, but I bring this matter to your attention today because of an Op-Ed piece in The NY Times the day before Christmas and a Letter to the Editor in response that appeared this morning. 

Like many of you who read Delia Ephron’s commentary, I identified with her hellish online shopping experience ( Yours and mine might not have come at the hands of overburdened and doubtless underappreciated J. Crew order fulfillment workers, but we’ve probably all been disappointed when the online purchase we made failed to deliver the desired result, whether it be because of late arrival, improper packaging, wrong product, a missing or incorrect note, or some other blunder. Given the volume of non-store retailing these days—nearly $100 billion—mistakes are bound to happen. It’s human nature to want to get even, but when you have a bully pulpit, as Ephron had via The Times, and I had in Chain Store Age, you possess retaliatory power that may be disproportionate to the offense incurred.

That was a central point of the response from Millard Drexler, chairman and CEO of J. Crew. His first sentence said it all—”I was more than surprised that a customer complaint was elevated to an indictment of online retailing on your Op-Ed page” ( 

I am not against citing retailers, by name, if their strategic practices warrant criticism. But public exposure must be commensurate with the crime. Specificity is desired in journalism, yet singling out one retailer for misdeeds common to the industry is a little too heavy-handed, especially when they are not germane to the overall viability of that retailer. 

Now, on to details of my near-arrest but nevertheless arresting experience. I arrived at the home center at 12:30 pm on a Saturday. I quickly found the Toro snow shovel, got in line and waited my turn. And waited my turn. And waited my turn. By 1:20, my patience had been exhausted. For some reason the store manager had scheduled half of his cashiers for their lunch break at the same hour, during prime shopping time. Lines at the open registers were 10 deep, and growing. From his perch in the office near the front of the store the manager looked on without shifting into overdrive. Customers were getting militant. They were demanding action. Open more registers, they cried. I was caught up in the revolt. 

The store must have expected such behavior because it employed a burly security guard, an off-duty patrolman from the town, which too shall go nameless lest I find myself once more face-to-face with a officer of the law from that community. The policeman-cum-security guard confronted me. He asked if I had a problem. I said I did. He inched closer. He repeated his question. I quickly realized several things. First, he was much bigger than I. Second, he was a policeman and could easily arrest me on any number of pretenses (that town was notorious for its aggressive policing). Third, the 20% discount on the snow shovel wasn’t worth an arrest. Fourth, it was a short walk to the Caldor in the same shopping center where I could buy the same product, albeit at full price. Fifth, actually, there was no fifth. By that number I had determined the wiser course of action was to hand the snow shovel to the guard and walk out of the store. 

In case you’re wondering, the retailer exacted a printed apology from me two issues later for overstepping my “editorial privilege” for extrapolating one incident into a chain-wide defect. I never went back to that store or chain. Several years later the company went out of business, partly because Home Depot had arrived in its trading area, partly because the lack of service throughout its store network failed to provide a reason customers would remain loyal to it. I gleefully noted its demise. But not in print. 

(By the way, as long as I'm admitting to being less than perfect, I have been advised by my wife I would not make a good scientist. Seems my disdain Wednesday for research into the effect air conditioning might have on lowering the death rate during times of excessive heat was ill-placed. Gilda says it is quite useful to study what might seem to be common sense as it could be discovered just the opposite effect transpires. In the case at hand, it might have shown people better tolerated extreme heat before the widespread placement of air conditioning in homes, offices and public buildings. Mea culpa.)  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Some Common Sense Thoughts

Fourteen years ago this week my father died. It was on December 27 by the Gregorian calendar, this past Saturday, the 9th of Tevet, by the Jewish calendar. I lit a 24-hour yahrzeit memorial candle Friday night. It lasted 30 hours. 

Saturday morning while reciting the kaddish memorial prayer, as I have done several times every year since his death, I found myself for the first time really visualizing different scenes of my father—working in his factory; sitting in his office; his back straight, left arm extended, dancing a waltz with my mother; driving his Buick; giving his first grandchild, Eric, a horsey ride on his back. I can’t explain why such memories had never been evoked before.  

Common Sense: Perhaps I’m not fully tuned into the value of this research, but a team from Tulane University, Carnegie Mellon University, the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined patterns of heat-related deaths between 1900 and 2004. Lo and behold, they discovered in the absence of air conditioning more people died from excessive heat. 

When temperatures rose above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, about 600 more premature deaths occurred annually between 1960 and 2004. Those deaths were just one-sixth as many as would have occurred under pre-1960 conditions, before air conditioning became prevalent throughout our country, they reasoned ( Now, I ask you, did we really need to spend money to figure this out?

Sure, the researchers will tell you such a study could influence the adoption of air conditioning in tropical climates as in India or Southeast Asia, but again, I ask, wouldn’t common sense have suggested that? 

Today’s Hypocrisy Award goes to ... Senate Republicans. Eight years ago John Kerry was swift-boated by Republicans when he ran for president. Now, the GOP is seemingly forgiving his alleged anti-Americanism by declaring him suitable to be the top diplomat of the United States, succeeding Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Just another example of politics being one of the sleaziest and least trustworthy professions.

Giant Fall: As bad as the NY Jets have been this football season, the despair surrounding the NY Giants after a second consecutive humiliating defeat far exceeds that felt by any Gang Green fan. It’s difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champion, so realistically few Giants fans should have expected Big Blue to win again, even after a 6-2 start. But the team’s collapse over the last two months has far exceeded even the most level-headed fan’s expectations. Even if the Giants somehow make the playoffs they don’t really deserve to be considered an elite team. 

The winner of their division will be either the Dallas Cowboys, a team I loathe, or the Washington Redskins, a team I can’t stand, and not just because it’s my brother’s team (sibling rivalry) but also because of the obnoxious song they play after each of their scores during home games. The Cowboys play the Redskins in Washington this Sunday. Push comes to shove, I’m rooting for the ‘Skins.

More on Tyranny: The other day I lambasted Grover Norquist and Wayne LaPierre for being unelected officials who have imposed a form of tyranny in our land by restraining elected officials from mustering enough votes to pass needed tax increases on the wealthy and gun control laws. 

Today’s focus is international, not the tyranny of dictators such as Assad, but rather the tyranny of close-minded religious leaders in Israel and spineless government officials who have ceded them far too much authority over everyday life in the country, in particular religious practice at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem, the outer portion of the Temple grounds destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Their hidebound ideas are turning the Western Wall back into a Wailing Wall.

For those not aware, given jurisdiction over the area, the ultra-Orthodox segregate women from men at the Wall plaza. They further deny them the right to wear prayer shawls and other religious garments there. Women of the Wall, and their sympathizers, have been fighting these restrictions for decades, with the hope that a new review ordered by the prime minister will make the zone more egalitarian ( 

When Gilda and I visited the Wall in 1976, she was not shunted off to one side. She stood and prayed next to me. It is troubling that successive governments have since courted religious party votes by granting them authority to impose restrictions at historical religious sites, especially when one considers that at different parts of the Wall, near Robinson’s Arch and in the tunnel beneath the Wall (the closest point to the Holy of Holies of the Temple), women are allowed to pray without restrictions. 

Westerners often decry the reactionary practices (at least in their minds) of Islam. Judaism has advanced past lopping the hands off robbers or stoning adulterers, but the treatment of women by the ultra-Orthodox is still stuck in the Middle Ages, or earlier. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Duo of Tyranny

Seven weeks ago we voted in a new Congress and re-elected a president, but two of the most powerful and influential men in the land rule despite a majority of Americans disagreeing with their stands. Grover Norquist and Wayne LaPierre hold such sway over elected officials that they stymie any attempts to impose rational thought on issues affecting national priorities.

President Obama ran a successful campaign based on higher taxes for the wealthy. Democrats narrowed their minority position in the House of Representatives. They increased their majority in the Senate. Opinion polls repeatedly show some 60% of Republican voters believe higher taxes on the rich should be part of any negotiated settlement of our budget crisis.

Yet Republicans are so cowed by Norquist’s anti-tax pledge that they fear voting for any bill that includes any marginal tax rate increase, even if it affects just millionaires (could it be that since many GOP congressmen and senators are millionaires they are in no mood to pass anything that would up their own taxes?). 

Norquist also is a board member of the National Rifle Association, of which Lapierre is the vocal executive vice president who, one week after the Sandy Hook massacre, refused to soften the NRA’s position on any form of gun control. Again, polls show most Americans favor background checks and assault rifle bans. Instead of acknowledging the prevalence of guns contributes to mass killings, LaPierre blames our culture for breeding a climate of violence. His and the NRA’s solution is more guns in the hands of good guys will stop guns in the hands of bad guys. 

I’ve never owned a gun. Heck, I’ve never even pulled the trigger of a real gun. But am I now a candidate for NRA membership because, like LaPierre, I believe schools should be protected by armed security?

Gilda vehemently disagrees with me. She sees no benefit from introducing guns into school settings. After all, she points out, an armed guard didn’t stop the killings at Columbine. Gilda favors doing away with assault rifles and semi-automatic hand guns, And large capacity ammunition clips. So do I. Unlike LaPierre, I don’t believe solving our epidemic of violence can be achieved by arming as many people as possible. I prefer a country where semi-automatic guns are not protected by Second Amendment rights. But I’m also a realist. Until we resolve our self-inflicted crisis of too many guns and too many bullets available to too many unstable people, we need to establish at least minimal safeguards. 

Yes, it will cost lots of money to staff, train and deploy security personnel, not just at schools but also at other public facilities, such as hospitals and houses of worship. Some might think I am extending the killing zone. But evil will look for weakness, as it did at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. 

Our culture somehow has devolved into a dark video game. I’ve never played video games, never comprehended the fascination with mock killing and dismembering. I cannot fathom the depths of any mind that would exult in the deaths of innocents, especially the young. But as the troubled mind seeks greater and greater proportionality of fame and havoc, I cannot help but envision scenarios that undermine the very humanity of our culture. We claim to be better than other countries, but no other nation not at war with itself (as in Congo, Syria or Afghanistan) inflicts so much brutality on its fellow citizens.

Our national dialogue must include recognition that mass violence will not be contained overnight. So we must protect in the near term what we cherish. From where will we get the manpower to staff security at schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues and mosques? We have, regrettably, on top of his tax relief for the wealthy, another Bush-era legacy—a sizeable supply of personnel trained in the art of war. Thousands of qualified, stable military veterans need jobs. They could be hired to protect the vulnerable.

It’s not a solution without challenges. I’m embarrassed to have to put it forward. But deterrence may work in the short term until we regain our senses and devise a sensible gun control plan as well as a workable mental health plan and a rational tax plan and stop letting two myopic men set national policy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

End of the World Edition. Maybe.

It’s the end of the world, according to those who believe the Mayans were onto something a millennium ago. Their calendar is believed to end Friday, which might pose a problem for those planning to make Saturday the busiest shopping day of this year’s holiday season. With not a moment to spare, here are some tidbits to keep your mind off the inevitable:

Did You Know? 22% of Americans believe the world will end during their lifetime? That’s according to a Reuters/Ipsos Global survey earlier this year of 16,262 adults in 21 countries. The global average for world destruction in our lifetime was just 14%, which means Americans are a pretty pessimistic bunch. Europeans, on the other hand, see the world through rosier glasses. Only 6% in France, 7% in Belgium, 8% in Great Britain and 11% in Sweden believe the world will end in their lifetimes. Perhaps Republicans should reconsider their constant bashing of Europe. 

As for the immediate danger at hand, 12% of Americans agreed the Mayans had it right about the end of the world. One in five Chinese agreed, while 13% of residents of Turkey, Russia, Mexico South Korea and Japan thought so as well. 

Stop the Presses? Not to be too cynical, but did we really believe Wal-Mart, and for that matter other companies expanding abroad, did not at times resort to bribery to get their plans approved? I’m not condoning any alleged action, but I’m not going to be surprised if it is confirmed either by the company or independent panels. Heck, bribing local officials happens here in the United States, so why should we be blind-sided if allegations prove true in Mexico, as reported in The NY Times, or in India or other countries where American companies have financial interests? By all means, let’s report the improprieties, but let’s not be too sanctimonious about it.

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun: That was my reaction to an article in Wednesday’s Times about Internet retailers like Piperlime and Bonobos deciding to open physical stores, units that carry limited inventory for customers to feel and try on merchandise but not purchase and take home on the spot. Goods are ordered online at the store and delivered the next day, usually ( 

Thirty years ago I reported on a concept developed by retail guru Alton Doody called Investment Clothiers based in Columbus, Ohio (fyi, Doody was one of the brains behind the look that differentiated Target from other discount stores). Here’s one of the key paragraphs from that story which parallels The Times article:

“What Doody has devised is a chain of stores that leapfrogged the catalog book stage. He has relied instead on a visual catalog—the store—wherein customers can get a tactile appreciation of the goods and be stimulated through point of sale material and knowledgeable sales personnel to trade up in price points and purchase additional merchandise.” 

I’d like to report Investment Clothiers was a success, but it wasn’t. Like so many underperforming retailers, it picked lousy store locations. If you haven’t heard it before, the three keys to successful retail and restaurant operations are: Location. Location. Location.

Fiscal Cliff: Definitely not a great location, being on a fiscal cliff. Perhaps, like me, you had a tinge of optimism earlier this week when House Speaker John Boehner seemed to finally agree to a tax hike on the wealthy, albeit just for those making more than $1 million a year. My optimism was enhanced by the following sentence in a Times article: “The two sides are now dickering over price, not philosophical differences, and the numbers are very close.”

As I considered further the state of negotiations to resolve the fiscal cliff crisis, I was reminded of a classic Winston Churchill story. I won’t vouch for its veracity, but as the anecdote goes, the old codger and former British prime minister was seated at a dinner party next to a socialite not to his liking. The conversation was said to go thusly:

“Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?" 
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill... Well, I suppose... we would have to discuss terms, of course... "
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?"
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!" 
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.” 

Having seemingly agreed to higher taxes for the rich, Boehner should stop haggling and start thinking about the greater good of the country. Accept, already, the president’s revised $400,000 threshold for a tax increase. 

Speaking of Sex: In my quest to bring you all the news that's fit to print, or at least all the news that's useful, here's a morsel from Down Under—for those of you who travel for work, know that in Australia, injury during sex while on a business trip qualifies you for worker’s compensation benefits.

The Federal Court ruled a government worker traveling on business was entitled to compensation for physical and psychological injuries after she was struck in the face by a falling glass light fitting in her motel room while having sex. According to the Associated Press,  “The government's views on the woman having sex in her motel room were irrelevant.” The court compared injury during sex to injury while playing cards in a motel room. The former has as much right to be covered as the latter.

Before you rush off to Sydney for your next business trip, be aware Comcare, the government’s insurer, is considering an appeal. 

I was particularly fascinated by this story because of my own unusual worker’s comp story, first reported to you last December. Here’s a quick recap (that’s a great pun which you’ll understand once you finish reading my story):

On a trip to Los Angeles to meet the president of Vons Supermarkets at a new Hispanic concept store, Tiengas, I was induced by him to try some rancho huevos, essentially scrambled eggs, despite my claims of high cholesterol. On my first bite I felt a crunch. I had cracked my tooth on the softest of foods. How embarrassing! How upsetting that I might incur a $550 dental bill for a crown, the going rate at the time.

Talking over my predicament several days later with the head of our company’s human resources department, we agreed I would submit a worker’s compensation claim. After all, the only reason I put the eggs into my mouth was because the Vons president insisted. It was clearly a work-related claim, we reasoned.

The compensation board agreed. I received full reimbursement for the crown.

The moral of both stories is, file a claim. You’ll never know what might result. Even if you don’t succeed, remember, it’s not the end of the world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Piercings Are Not for the Faint-Hearted

My sister Lee, who had a crush on one of Dr. Harry’s sons, Kurt, (btw, it was in Kurt’s house on Long Island that I saw the end of the perfect game Jim Bunning pitched against the NY Mets on Father’s Day 1964), says she and our brother Bernie did try to help soothe me when I was about to get an injection from the good doctor. According to Lee, I was “so distressed (I) lost total thinking process.” Adding insult to injury, Lee says modern medicine had already advanced to the point where getting a “shot was really not necessary. They had pills even then” that would have cured me. 

Lee also advises her screams when getting her ears pierced “were not for the piercing per se. Rather, Dr. Harry put white thread onto the needle and then after the hole was made pulled the thread thru the ear and tied it loosely. The pain was the pulling of the thread. For the next several weeks I needed to clean the earlobe with alcohol and move the thread back and forth even though it often crusted, thus inflicting even more pain. Today is a piece of cake. They pierce the earlobe with an earring and there is far less trauma to the earlobe than in the old days.” 

She’s right about the thread (I left it out of the story so as not to overly complicate it. Regardless of the cause, her screams were palpable). But she’s a little too cavalier about the trauma of today’s ear piercing practice, at least as far as my experience with Ellie.

Having been traumatized by Lee’s experience, I could not go with Ellie when she wanted her ears pierced when she was around 11 years old. Gilda was too chicken as well. So our friend Linda took her. They went to Piercing Pagoda in the Galleria Mall in downtown White Plains. A few months later, Ellie wanted more holes in her ears. I reluctantly was dragooned into taking her. We went back back to Piercing Pagoda where they brought out a gun which they put to her earlobe and fired. I saw something shoot across the floor. I was convinced it was part of her ear. I screamed, only to realize what I thought was part of her ear was a piece of plastic that pierced her ear. She did not scream or cry. I was a wreck.

Ellie subsequently had several more ear piercings, including one in the cartilage at the top of an ear for a long post. For several years she nagged us about getting a belly button piercing. Finally, around her 14th birthday, we agreed, but only if we accompanied her. It was our way of assuring she didn’t simultaneously get a nose pierce or worse, a tongue pierce. 

We went to the East Village in Manhattan, along Astor Place, one evening after work. With an attaché case in hand, dressed in a suit and topcoat, I looked even more like a fish out of water than I would have in jeans and a leather jacket. We found a piercing and tattoo parlor on the north side of the street, walked up the stairs and told the clerk what we wanted. We had to wait while they pierced a young man’s tongue, she said. Except, when asked when he last ate, his answer was too long ago to satisfy her. She counseled him to run out and eat a bagel because he wouldn’t be able to chew anything for hours and they didn’t want him passing out during the procedure or after from a low blood sugar level. How comforting.

It was now Ellie’s turn. She went behind a curtain in the back. Gilda went with her. I heard no screams. They emerged a few minutes later, Ellie beaming, Gilda a little flushed. 

Ellie didn’t bother us about any more piercings, but the next year while in Israel, she did get that nose piercing. We never saw it. The day before she flew back home she called her brother Dan to ask if we would flip out if she emerged from Customs with her nose pierced. Most decidedly, Dan responded. Ellie removed the piercing on the plane. It was months before she told us about it. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Today I Am Officially Old

It’s not my birthday, so no need to rush out to the Hallmark store for a card (or for those more technologically advanced, to the Internet for an e-card).

I didn’t become old when my AARP card arrived when I turned 50 nearly 14 years ago. It didn’t happen when I retired. It didn’t happen when stores and some movie theaters extended senior citizen discounts to me.

No, today I officially became old, and self-consciously vulnerable, because today, for the very first time, I succumbed and allowed myself to be punctured with a flu shot. For the first time I heeded the advice of health officials to get immunized against influenza. Despite common perception among family and friends that I’m a hypochondriac, the truth is I rarely get sick. I admit to lots of complaints about aches and pains, and a lousy digestive tract, but almost never does my temperature rise above 98.6 degrees.

That I submitted to an injection would be most surprising to my brother and sister. When I became ill as a youngster, not necessarily more often than anyone else yet to reach double-digits in years, but often enough to recoil at the very thought that our family physician, Dr. Harry, would make a house call (doctors did that back in the 1950s, especially when they were family friends, as ours was), I knew the day would end in trauma. 

The irony in this aversion to seeing Dr. Harry is that I really liked him. He was funny. Dr. Harry was from Vienna. He was tall and dapper, with receding, wiry grey hair, bulging eyes and a slightly effeminate manner of walking and waving his hands. Harry wasn’t his true given name. It was Bernard, same as my brother’s. But he said he preferred Harry. Or maybe his wife, Sonia, did. Whatever.

Any visit from Dr. Harry produced laughter. And lots of tears. He’d make me laugh during the examination, poking me where I was ticklish, always asking when was the last time I had a bowel movement. It was decades before I knew the significance of that question.

The laughter ended when I would realize my symptoms called for a shot. That reality seemed to please my brother and sister. Nary a comforting word would they utter. They seemed to relish my fate.

Dr. Harry would vanish from the bedroom into either the kitchen or bathroom where he’d wash his hands and prepare the needle. By this time I’d be screaming. My mother would be holding me down, trying to soothe me, making sure my bare buttocks faced upward. Dr. Harry would slip into the room, say a few nonsensical remarks and quickly, surprisingly, thrust the needle into my behind. I’d scream some more. Cry a little louder. Hug my mother a little tighter. Dr. Harry would retreat to the dinette where he and my mother would gossip awhile over coffee. 

Dr. Harry’s office was in Williamsburg, first floor of an apartment building in a neighborhood already devolving. I didn’t go there often, though I do recall the time I accompanied my sister Lee to his office when she had her ears pierced. I waited in the anteroom as she went into the inner office with our mother. The next thing I heard was a loud, piercing cry. Then another. Closed doors could not contain Lee’s chilling shrieks. It gives me the willies just thinking about those squeals. 

I took today’s flu shot like a man, in my left arm. No sniffles. No hesitation. But as I walked out of CVS, I do admit I had a tingling sensation all down my legs. And my arm hurts. They say that’s normal. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Can Evil Be Contained?

Can you stop a lone gunman? Can you stop a sole terrorist? After evil has been released, can you put it back into Pandora’s box?

Some people ask, how could anyone kill innocent children? The truth is, such depraved behavior should not surprise us. Brutality, senseless and premeditated, is universal. It’s been with us since Biblical times (read the story of Dinah and the slaughter her brothers wrought on the helpless, infirm males of Sechem—Genesis 34). Or Pharaoh’s dictate to slay the first born of the Hebrews. Think we’re more humane in our “enlightened” age? Not if you’re familiar with our treatment of Native Americans. Or Africans brought here into slavery. Or if you’ve followed the individual and collective torments afflicted by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and their legions, by Lon Pol, Slobodan Milošević, Yasser Arafat, by drug cartels, Muslim extremists, African warlords who, terrifyingly, arm children only slightly older than those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, to kill others. 

It’s not an exhaustive list, just an exhausting one as we contemplate how in the name of religion or nationalism or some –ism that is meaningless to most everyone else, carnage is condoned and, given technological advances, made more efficient with weaponry available to almost anyone, a “modern convenience” unimaginable just decades ago. 

Adam Lanza, by increasing accounts, was a troubled young man who should not have had access to guns, let alone the firepower his mother stored in their home. Adam was not able to conquer our most basic instinct to harm, to inflict superiority over another. Restrictive gun laws won’t prevent another tragedy, though the frequency of incidents might be diminished. They will happen. Too many guns already are out there. Too many unstable males (have you noticed these shootings are never perpetrated by females?) are not supervised and can easily get their hands on guns. It’s ironic that 17 years ago the State of Connecticut shut down a mental health facility, Fairfield Hills State Hospital, that might have housed Adam Lanza in the very community he has shaken to its core, Newtown. 

Israel has shown that while all terrorist action cannot be eradicated a pro-active approach to security can shield citizens from most danger in public places. Perhaps an answer for our school systems, at least for grades K-12, is to have single-entry facilities monitored by an armed guard. Yes, it would be costly (my guess is $50,000 per school building). But would it be more onerous than having to live through another massacre? Are we saying we are prepared to live by an actuary’s calculations that it’s more cost efficient to endure another mass murder than staff a security guard who most likely will never have to engage his protective skills?

The solution is not foolproof. Several times a week I walk into our local high school on my way to instruct students in the English as Second Language study hall. There’s a security desk outside the administrative offices. Once, maybe twice, I have been stopped by the guards. We’re just too trusting a society; 99.99% of the time, it makes no difference. But all it takes for disaster to strike is for the .01% to sneak through carrying a semi-automatic gun stocked with an oversized ammunition clip. 

The gun lobby believes armed deterrence is an answer. It believes all adults should carry weapons, even concealed guns, even on school grounds. I prefer letting trained professionals handle security. It should be a service we are all prepared to fund. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown Memories

Have you ever been to Newtown? Gilda and I have, she more than I. As pained as everyone is about the unspeakable tragedy that overwhelmed the nation there Friday, a deeper anguish, I believe, may be felt by those who can personally relate to that beautiful, picturesque Connecticut community.

We lived in Connecticut from 1973 through mid-1977. While Gilda was earning her nursing degree from the University of Bridgeport from 1973 to 1975, she spent a five-month semester in a training rotation at Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown. It was a psychiatric center with some 4,000 patients at its peak use. The state closed the hospital in 1995. The 100-acre site was turned over to the Town of Newtown in 2004. 

From our apartment in Seymour, Gilda would drive up to Fairfield Hills on Route 34 alongside the Housatonic River, past the village of Sandy Hook which is part of the Town of Newtown. Weekends, we would sometimes retrace that route as we explored western Connecticut around Danbury and further north, up to Litchfield. Western Connecticut back then was dreamy in its small town, Americana appearance. White colonial homes surrounded well-groomed village greens, at the side of which usually stood a stately Congregational Church, its spire reaching majestically to a blue sky. Rarely did you pass a traffic light. Of course, Newtown and the whole region have changed in the near 40 years since we traveled those bucolic roadways. The last time we visited Newtown was in 1993. Dan’s traveling all-star soccer team participated in the one-day Memorial Day Kickoff Tournament. Among the trophies still housed in his room, I found the jersey patch he received that day.

Like most parents I wanted to reach out and hug my children when they came home Friday. Alas, they are grown and have homes of their own. I talked with them, but it was not the same. 

Swept into the sadness of the tragedy was the feeling of futility experienced by many first responders, including nurses and doctors on the scene and in area hospitals who eagerly waited to tend to the wounded. But only two frail, soon to be lifeless, bodies emerged from the killing field. The medical professionals were told to go home. Eleven years ago on September 11, Gilda waited with other nurses and doctors for the injured to arrive at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center. They waited the whole day in vain.

This country is in denial. Margaret Brennan of CBS News, who grew up in nearby Danbury, said on CBS-2 Saturday, “There isn’t a gun culture here. It’s one of those small, New England towns you go to to avoid the city, and things like this don’t happen.” But how do you explain that Nancy Lanza had five guns at home, including two high-powered revolvers and an assault rifle her son used to kill 26 innocents in cold blood at short range? 

Guns permeate our society. They are so readily accessible. Remember, the Columbine shooters used guns from one of the parents. We are a culture that denigrates teachers but upholds and lauds the right to carry arms, openly in public and increasingly on school grounds.

Why do so many begrudge teachers better pay? Why don’t we realize teachers are professionals we entrust to mold the future of America? Why don't we realize that when unimaginable horror confronts our children, it is a teacher who protects them, sometimes with his or her life?

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching visual of the entire massacre was not the line of children running to safety, or individual pictures of the deceased, but rather the wooden sign hanging in front of the Sandy Hook Elementary School that simply and invitingly stated, “Visitors Welcome.” No more can such an earnest sentiment be expressed, not in Newtown or anywhere else in America.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Yule Be Sorry Edition

Pity the poor celebrant who is allergic to Christmas. Trees, that is. That tannenbaum—a real one, not an artificial evergreen—standing majestically in the corner of the living room carries mold and other allergens into the house, making sniffling or wheezing as common a holiday sound as carolers singing before your front door (at least in my Frank Capra version of the wonderful life we all live). 

Oh, and let’s not forget allergies also can be triggered by stress. Few times of year are more stressful than the end of year holidays. Notice I didn’t single out Christmas. As if they didn’t need more tsuris in their lives, Jews get agita from picking the right Hanukkah presents for their loved ones and from having to fight crowds in stores. The Chosen People don’t all buy at wholesale. Some of those fantastic retail discounts really are worth the ride to the shopping center. 

Of course, getting to the store is among the most dreaded activities. Today, for example, is a gridlock alert day in New York City. Moreover, according to a Consumer Reports online survey of 1,100 consumers, 40% rated “aggressive, thoughtless driving in parking lots” as among their most dreaded aspects of the Yuletide season. It trailed only “crowds, long lines” at 58% and “weight gain”, 41%. (Totals exceeded 100% because multiple responses were allowed.) 

Consumer Reports also found “60% of shoppers would rather receive cash as a present than a gift card. And 8-in-10 would rather receive something practical over something ostentatious as a gift.”

By the way, as irksome as seasonal music can be to some, only 14% said it bothered them, just slightly more than the 12% who said they dreaded “seeing certain relatives.”

One aspect of the holiday the CR survey did not measure was annoying commercials. Today I heard for the umpteenth time a spot for Hoodie-Footie pajamas, “the most talked about gift” of the year. For sure it was most talked about, given all the ad time the company has bought. It’s doubtful anyone but someone paid to talk about the hoodie-footie is talking about it.

I also have problems with an ad for a not-so-typical Christmas gift, that of an electric garage door opener. LiftMaster is advertising the ability to remotely access your garage from anywhere in the world just in case you realize from afar  your need to open or close your garage door. Don’t bother wondering why you could be halfway around the world before realizing your garage door may be open. Wonder instead why you are so detached from society that you don’t have a relative or friend who lives nearby whom you would not trust with your garage door code. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mel Brooks Strikes Again

Mel Brooks victimized me again.

Not just me, directly, but rather any and all of my namesakes. Anyone with the name Murray.

In the latest homage to the incomparable comedian, this time an interview with the BBC’s Alan Yentob (Mel Brooks Strikes Back, aired for the first time on HBO Monday night), a video clip was shown of Brooks and Carl Reiner performing their 2000 Year Old Man routine before a live audience in the early to mid 1960’s. Reiner asked Brooks, playing the ancient yet dapperly-dressed man, how clapping one’s hands as an expression of applause began. 

“Murray the Coward” was responsible, Brooks responded. It seems back in olden days, people would show their approval by slapping their cheeks with their palms. But Murray the Coward didn’t want to hurt himself so he pulled his face back at the last second, allowing his hands to hit. When everyone else heard the sound and saw Murray was not in pain, they followed suit. Thus, clapping was created.

Now, I take great pride in bearing the name of such an innovator as Murray the Coward, but I find it rather amusing the 2000 Year Old Man had so many friends with the name Murray. Three years ago, in an interview with The NY Times, the 2000 Year Old Man attributed to Murray the invention of thumb twiddling: 

REINER: Who was the first one to twiddle his thumbs?

BROOKS: Murray.

REINER: Murray? 

BROOKS: Murray, the cave man.

REINER: What made him twiddle his thumbs?

BROOKS: He couldn’t go on the hunt. He had hurt his foot very badly the day before, a musk oxen had hurt his foot the day before, so he was in the thumb—he was in the cave, twiddling his thumbs. He was the first one to betray this nervous disorder, thumb twiddling. And when we all came back, we noticed it. We said, “Murray, kung voo roch mush?” We talked in a different language.

REINER: Yes, I see.

BROOKS: Cave talk (for) “Why the hell are you twiddling your thumbs.”

There aren’t too many Murrays roaming the earth these days, so I guess my brethren-in-name and I should be happy Mel Brooks is keeping our moniker alive. 

Of course, sometimes having an uncommon name can prove useful, especially if your wife has an equally distinctive name. To wit—when an acquaintance a few weeks ago was speaking to a professional colleague about our daughter’s singing, and she mentioned our first names, the other woman perked up. From the deep recesses of her mind she remembered a Gilda and Murray from her time living in the New Haven area 38 years ago. Could these be the same couple? Indeed we were. Our mutual acquaintance set up a reunion dinner two weeks ago. 

Murray and Gilda. Gilda and Murray. Vive la différence!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Losing Weight, Religion, Raising Taxes, Baking Bread

I understand a new season of The Biggest Loser will start next month. Never watched the show but if you need any more evidence Americans are overweight and looking mostly for short-term solutions to their bulges, here’s a news flash: Spanx, the company whose body-slimming products have been available only through department and specialty stores or online, will be opening stores ( In other words, there are enough fatties out there to make the cost of store construction and staffing worthwhile. When, oh when, will we stop eating ourselves to shortened lives ...

Hard to think such a thing could occur during this season of gluttony. Not just turkeys and stuffing and marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and glazed hams and you-name-it, but also sugar plums and caramel popcorn and cookies galore. But then, anything can happen. Consider this—last week Fox News star entertainer-cum-newscaster Bill O’Reilly opined, “It is a fact that Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy.”  

I apologize for being late in reporting this mind-blowing news. I don’t make it a habit of watching Fox News. I rely on Jon Stewart for my daily dose of Fox News absurdities. The O’Reilly revelation was broadcast last Thursday. I had to wait until Monday night for Stewart to alert the masses O’Reilly had downgraded them from religious adherents to philosophy groupies. 

Perhaps, and this is just a prayer, O’Reilly’s pomposity will finally be visible to the Fox News nation and this could be the beginning of his end ...

As long as we’re wishing on a star, here’s another person worthy of downgrading—Grover Norquist, he of the “no tax increase” pledge that has cowed many a Republican elected official into abandoning the principle of working for his or her country in favor of working to stay in office and avoid a Tea Party primary challenge. 

I’m always amused to read creative ways Republicans could get around abandoning the pledge. Monday’s NY Times carried a letter to the editor from the former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Taxation Section. Peter L. Faber argued “there’s a loophole in the pledge. Under its literal language, a signer agrees to ‘oppose’ any efforts to increase taxes but does not irrevocably commit to voting against them. A signer could vigorously ‘oppose’ a tax increase and yet vote for it as part of a compromise solution.”

Written like a true lawyer, parsing every word. But such a rational approach to an irrational situation would not work. Tea Party extremists are not rational. They will primary anyone who votes for a tax increase. The Republicans’ only hope—nay, the country’s only hope—is that reasonable, patriotic elected representatives will display profiles of courage and agree to a tax increase for the wealthy elite, even if it means a primary challenge. Mainstream Republicans must take their party back from the extremists. 

I know. I don’t think it will happen either, but it’s nice to dream of life and politics the way they could be ...

Which brings me back to a food item. Last week I heard a story on NPR about a process to bake bread that resists mold for two months without the use of preservatives. It’s done by bombarding loaves with microwaves no stronger than those emitted by your everyday kitchen appliance. It’s just done more comprehensively. 

Trust me on this. I’m no scientist, but the researchers in Lubbock, Texas, were, and they explained how it could be done. Only it probably won’t be done because bread companies would lose a fortune in repeat sales if bread actually lasted that long. It’s like car fuel economy. Do you really believe we don’t have the wherewithal to produce cars that get 100 miles per gallon? We put a man on the moon 43 years ago, for God’s sake. Only the political might of the oil and car companies has stymied development of fuel efficient, safe cars.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bursting Bubbles of Childhood

Gilda and I are grandparents, as well as being a great (grand) aunt and great (grand) uncle, which means we’re not constricted or restricted by the strictures of parenthood. English translation—we can spoil little kids by letting them do what their parents deny them. No TV for little Finley? Not on our watch. No junk food for little Sophia and Dylan? Ha! Who better to introduce them to McDonald’s French fries? 

All this by way of saying when I grew up in the 1950s my parents had a few rules for me and my siblings that by today’s standards seem really quaint. Our father did not believe in long telephone conversations, whether incoming or outgoing. My sister Lee was particularly and repeatedly chastised, and in turn distraught and embarrassed by our father’s yelling for her to hang up, not because someone important might want to reach us, but rather to keep the telephone bill from being too high. Our mother fell victim to this restriction as well, which forced her to talk to her three sisters from the telephone in the dinette only late in the evening, after Dad had gone to bed. 

We also couldn’t walk around the house shoeless. If we dared trod in our socks or barefoot, Dad would casually walk near us to playfully, but with real intent, try to stomp on our exposed feet until we retreated to put shoes on. Naturally we’d complain, but our mother would explain going without shoes was a sign of mourning, an event from which our father wanted our household to be spared. 

I thought this Old World superstition was confined within our Brooklyn row house walls, but two weeks ago, as I listened to the end of a Jewish literature class given by the author Gloria Goldreich, I learned the practice of shunning shoeless sashaying around the house was quite common among first generation European immigrants. 

My parents also didn’t want us to chew gum, though the occasional peppermint Chiclet made its way from our mother’s purse into our mouths. They especially disdained our chewing bubble gum. A thin rectangle of pink bubble gum came with each packet of baseball cards I collected. I could keep the cards, but was expected to discard the gum. 

The one haven where we could chew bubble gum, chunks of Bazooka with the requisite three-panel Bazooka Joe comic strip inside the wrapper, was Paul’s Barber Shop on Avenue X between E. 21st and E. 22nd Streets. Paul’s (later Paul and Phil’s when the latter became a partner) was an old-fashioned barber shop, complete with swirling red, white and blue pole out on the sidewalk, scissors and combs soaking in a blue tincture of Barbicide disinfectant, a round stainless steel towel warmer for those getting a shave, and a trapdoor in the floor near a sink where cut hairs were swept into. With every kid’s haircut you got a packet of Bazooka.

I went to Paul’s until I moved away from Brooklyn after I landed my first job at The New Haven Register. I stayed with Paul’s even after Frankie’s opened on Ocean Avenue a block closer to our home when I was a teenager. I resisted Frankie’s razor-cuts that promised to straighten, for a while, my naturally kinky hair. Besides, Phil started giving razor cuts, and though they were more expensive ($10) than his regular trims, they still cost less than Frankie’s. 

The barber shop was a refuge to chew Bazooka—much preferred to Double Bubble—and read comic books (before ultimately matriculating to Playboy). Now, it seems, Bazooka is transforming itself. A new marketing campaign hopes to make the brand more appealing to chewers of all ages. Bazooka Joe, the eyepatch-wearing icon of the brand, along with his sidekick, the red-turtleneck-over-the-mouth clad Mort, no longer will be tickling funny bones as kids of all ages masticate their way to bubble heaven. Ah, well. Another reality of the past becomes just another memory ( 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holiday Notes: Shopping, Woody Allen, Huckabee

Were you one of the 247 million Americans who trudged down to the mall over the 4-day Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate our collective good fortune by spending a record $59.1 billion? I wasn’t. Not that I don’t have lots to be thankful for, but I make it a point to abstain from the in-store frenzy. I didn’t even participate in the $1.5 billion Cyber Monday buy-fest. 

Perhaps because for 32 years I had to report on this ultra-patriotic shopping activity I developed a certain disdain for Black Friday, followed by Saturday and Sunday at the shopping center. Coverage of consumers fighting over Xboxes or big screen TVs or Ugg boots was all too predictable. Also predictable was the supposition that strong Thanksgiving weekend sales presaged an overall strong holiday shopping season. Yes, that could happen. But what usually transpired was a lull in spending that picked up only in the last 10 days before Christmas. Meanwhile, newspapers and electronic media wondered who would win the game of chicken between retailers who did not want to reduce prices and hurt their profit margins and consumers who wanted to wait until extreme discounts opened up their tight hold on their wallets. I’ll be very surprised if such stories don’t start appearing in about a week.

Too Awed to Ask: I’m a little behind in my reading, so I finally looked at a NY Times conversation with Robert De Niro printed November 18 in the magazine section. Written by the film critic A.O. Scott, the article highlighted a challenge many journalists confront when interviewing a famous person. Scott wrote, “I confess, however, that it took all my professional discipline to resist squandering the time I spent with De Niro on a recent Saturday afternoon in a slack-jawed fanboy recitation of his greatest hits. Oh, my God, you’re Jake Lamotta! You’re Johnny Boy! Your Travis Bickle! I’m talking to you.”

That paragraph reminded me of my year at Syracuse University earning a master’s degree in newspaper journalism. One of my classmates and best friends, Steve Kreinberg, got a freelance gig as a movie critic on the Syracuse New Times, an alternative lifestyle newspaper launched just two years earlier in 1969 (and still around today). After we laughed our way through Woody Allen’s Bananas in a suburban Syracuse movie theater—there is nothing that makes you feel more Jewish, and alone in the world, than guffawing at Woody Allen shtick when the rest of the audience is sitting cold, stone silent—Steve announced in the parking lot that he landed an interview with Allen the following week in New York City. Though Allen was in the middle of editing Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, he agreed to meet Steve at his studio.

He drove down to Manhattan. When Steve returned he was uncharacteristically quiet. When the next edition did not run his interview I demanded an explanation. Sheepishly he admitted he lost all professional composure in the presence of the great man. He just kept gushing, “You’re Woody Allen. I love your work.” There’s only so many times he could say that before Woody determined this interview was going nowhere. 

Steve eventually recovered his moxie and went on to become one of the five question writers for the old Hollywood Squares show (the one that featured Paul Lynde in the center square). He was expected to write 50 acceptable questions per day, and yes, celebrities were counseled before each show on topics they would be asked. After Hollywood Squares Steve and his writing partner Andy became staff writers for Archie Bunker’s Place (Carroll O’Connor’s successor show to All in the Family) as well as for Herman’s Head, Saved by the Bell, Head of the Class, Nine to Five and Mork & Mindy

Funny, He Doesn’t Look Jewish: I’m always amused when out of left field a famous person has it revealed that deep in their past a Jewish gene lurks. Think former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (though how an intelligent woman like she could not figure out her parents chose to flee Prague in 1938 because of their Jewish origins is beyond my ken). 

Anyway, I was reading this week’s NY Times magazine when I came across this response from Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, also-ran 2008 Republican presidential primary candidate, Southern Baptist minister and Fox News Channel talk show host. Asked how to celebrate the holidays, Huckabee said, “On Christmas Eve, we go to the service at our church, and when it’s over, we go out for Chinese food.” 

Funny, I didn’t know Huckabee was Jewish (for my non-Jewish readers, ask a Jewish friend why it's funny). 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do We Really Need to Know This?

How would you like to have been the PR person assigned to write the press release accompanying the following headline?

“More than 38 Million Online Americans Shopped While on the Toilet”

Do we really need to know this? I know shopping has become more than just part of the fabric of the American way of life. To many it has become the total blanket. Still, do we really need to know that even on the potty people are dialing up their smartphones so they won’t miss that bargain of a lifetime. It used to be sitting on the john was reserved as “quality” reading time. If you remember the movie The Big Chill, the Jeff Goldblum character, a writer for People, said he and his colleagues were instructed to keep stories short enough so they could be read in total during the time it takes to complete one average dump. 

Anyway, back to the, ahem, news ... A Harris Interactive survey paid for by CashStar, suggests “that more than 38 million online adult Americans admit to having shopped online while on the toilet.” Compare that to “almost 17 million shopping via a mobile device while standing in the retailer's physical store.”

Among the other enlightening though not projectable findings of this online survey of 2,104 adults aged 18 and older conducted Nov. 6-8:
*Potty shopping was more of a male than female activity;
*Shopping online trumps safety as more than four million said they shopped while driving;
*The business of business is business, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that more than nine million said they have secretly shopped while in a business meeting;
*Seven million-plus Americans shopped from their mobile device while at the grocery store.

Get to Work Thursday: I never liked Sunday Blue Laws, the civic ordinances that required retailers to be closed Sundays, or another day of the week if one’s religion celebrated the sabbath on a different schedule that Christian America. Blue Laws mostly vanished in the last 25 years except in some hamlets like Paramus, NJ; some companies, such as Chick-fil-A, remain closed on Sundays because of the religious belief of their founders, Truett Cathy in the case of Chick-fil-A. 

I like having access to stores every day. But I also believe store personnel are entitled to some family life. They should not be deprived of holidays with their families. Or friends. With the exception of drug stores and partial hours for supermarkets, stores should be closed on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. I’m also okay with no retailing on Christmas and Easter. No one should go into cardiac arrest because they can’t get their Target or Victoria’s Secret fix. Yet these stores, and a whole lot more, have scheduled openings for Thanksgiving. It’s not enough they make workers get to the store before the sun rises for Black Friday sales, now they are thrusting a consumer frenzy mindset onto a day that had always been reserved for family. There’s enough tension already in these family gatherings without the extra hype shopping demands. 

My daughter’s brother-in-law Rob posted a neat idea—“Any stores that start Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving this year will be getting zero business from us.” He included a list of stores opening on Thanksgiving: It’s going to be pretty hard to stay away from many of these stores, but the sentiment is one worth considering.

Lots of people, nearly half the country, will struggle to shop in stores this weekend, but there’s growing evidence the activity does not rate high on people’s preferred activities. According to Western Union Holiday Gifting Index, 68% of those who shopped on Black Friday last year said they did not think the experience was worth the money they saved. 

I Love You, Craig: As long as we are on the subject of waste matter (see above), Gilda has embarked on a composting binge. All manner of uncooked vegetables, fruits, tea leaves, cooked egg shells and cardboard egg cartons are making their way into our compost pile. Normally, I fill up the pile with free compost from our city municipal dump. But I got there too late this year. Without compost, Gilda’s flower and vegetable garden would not be extraordinary, so we’re now a composting family. 

Composting, however, requires leaves. Lots of leaves. Shredded leaves. The electric blower/shredder I borrowed from my brother last year doesn’t really work (no wonder he let me have it). New electric leaf shredders cost about $200. I opted to try to find a used on on Craig’s List. Score! I found one today 60 miles away in New Jersey for just $25. 

While I’m at a meeting tonight, Gilda will be surprised when she comes home from work and sees the Craftsman Leafwacker Plus where my car usually rests in the garage (don't worry about her finding out before she gets home; she rarely reads my posts the day they go up). I even bagged six large loads of leaves from around the neighborhood. I know what you’re thinking—I’m such a thoughtful husband. There’s lots of truth to that. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m retired and able to spend time, thanks to Craig’s List, fulfilling her dreams. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Twinkie Twinkie Stars No More

I wasn’t too distraught to hear Twinkies would no longer be processed by Hostess Brands. But Devil Dogs!!! Now that’s hitting me where it hurts—in my memory bank.

Drake’s Devil Dogs, along with Yankee Doodles and the occasional Ring Ding, were as integral to my first 30 years as wearing socks was. They sustained me, until, that is, my blood sugar levels oozed créme. Growing up, we always had fresh cake from the bakery, marble loafs or seven layer cakes or checkerboard chocolate cakes in the bread drawer or simply out on the dinette table. But for a quick fill me up, nothing came close to a Devil Dog or three-pack of Yankee Doodles. 

I continued this childhood gluttony even after marrying Gilda whose concept of a sweet tooth somehow never reached full development. She tolerated, barely, my sugar-laden eating habits which included a breakfast of Devil Dog with, not being a coffee or tea drinker, 6-8 ounces of Coca-Cola. My 10 am snack in the newsroom was another Coke and a Baby Ruth bar. Even after my triglycerides topped 1,100 I didn’t forsake my sweets. I’d drink Coke in front of our children. They were not allowed to imbibe any. Gilda told them, “Daddy has an addiction.” It worked. To this day, Dan and Ellie rarely drink sodas. But I did, until my internist demanded I change my eating and drinking regimen some 25 years ago. I now drink Diet Coke or Crystal Light lemonade. I haven’t had a Devil Dog in decades. Or a Yankee Doodle. Perhaps that’s why Hostess, which bought Drake some years ago, hasn’t maximized sales.

Twinkies? I think I might have sampled them two or three times. They really tasted ... tasteless. I never could understand other people’s fascination with them. Maybe it was their “white bread” sheen, so sterile within the plastic wrapping. Devil Dogs and Yankee Doodles came out of Philadelphia-based Drake, urban, ethnic, mixed races. Twinkies was middle America—white on white. It was like mayonnaise on a white bread pastrami sandwich. Don’t cringe or laugh—that’s how airlines served deli sandwiches 30 years ago. At least they left the crust on the bread. Twinkies had nothing to sink your teeth into. Just air. And créme.

Financial watchers expect the equity bankers who own Hostess to sell off several brands, including Twinkies, to recoup some of their losses. I hope someone buys the rights to produce Devil Dogs and Yankee Doodles. Even though I won’t buy any, it would be comforting to know part of my childhood and young adulthood lives on.

There have been many articles commemorating the 82-year rise and fall of Twinkies. Here’s one I particularly enjoyed:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Media Equivalency is No Public Service

We've just concluded one contest wherein the mainstream media felt an obligation to practice equivalency, a bizarre belief that meant it could not point out factual mistakes of one candidate without noting miscues of the other, no matter how egregious the former’s lies were and how insignificant the latter’s were. Brazen and emboldened by a comment from his pollster, Neil Newhouse—"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers"—Mitt Romney constructed a campaign of lies and innuendoes, confident that for every whopper he told, the mainstream media (I know, I sound sooo Fox Newsy) would soften the correction by pointing out one of President Obama’s misstatements. 

We’ll return to Romney shortly, but first let’s consider another media mess, the current conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Last night CBS News aired video of an Israeli air strike assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, the military leader of Hamas. It also mentioned other air strikes within the Gaza Strip. Aside from marveling at the precision of the takeout of al-Jabari, the report left the uninformed wondering just why Israel had sent its planes into Gaza at this time. CBS failed to mention the rocket and missile attacks Arab terrorists had launched over the last month, 1,000 in all, according to Israel’s U.S. Ambassador, Michael Oren. Anyone listening to Scott Pelley might have concluded Israel was the aggressor when it simply was retaliating for repeated attacks no nation would tolerate.

CBS was not alone in its under-reporting. NPR’s All Things Considered program today said “fighting began” after the Israeli air strike. Doesn’t NPR think indiscriminate rocket fire amounts to fighting? Do we really think Hamas and its more evil cousins launched those missiles with no hope or expectation they would murder or at the very least maim Israeli civilians? Are we expected to admonish Israel because its military is more precise and effective? 

Tensions along the Gaza frontier could escalate into a mini-war or a full scale affair there, as well as in the north with Hezbollah. I hope not. One thing to remember is that Israel's Iron Dome missile defense is not impervious and by that I don't mean infallible. As I explained six months ago after spending time with trauma care providers who live and work in the border settlements near Gaza, Iron Dome is meant to protect larger cities, such as Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv, not the small kibbutzim and moshavs adjacent to the Gaza Strip. 

Residents of the districts near the border have about 15 seconds’ warning of incoming rocket fire to seek shelter. Homes within four and a half kilometers (2.7 miles) of the border have been outfitted by the government with “safe rooms” built to withstand a direct hit. In communities four and a half to seven kilometers (4.2 miles) from the border, no safe rooms are retrofitted to existing homes. The only government funded security is a shelter for kindergarten children. Beyond seven kilometers, everyone is vulnerable. No safety measures are provided.

For a modest depiction of conditions in the border settlements near the Gaza Strip, read this post from May 2011:

Now back to Romney. We found out Wednesday just how much of a scuzzball the Mittster really is. After disavowing his infamous “47%” comments during the campaign, Romney exposed himself once again as a bigoted, boorish man. In a telephone call to donors and supporters, he explained away his loss as a natural outcome after President Obama gave away stuff to buy votes. Free contraceptives (because college girls like to have sex). Free health care for children until they are 26, (presumably because they like to get sick). Tuition loan relief (because not everyone has millionaires for parents and can afford to pay for college out of pocket). Romney took no responsibility for running a lousy campaign, one that essentially wrote off half the country as “victims” who only want to take handouts from the government ( 

Though Romney showed he is beyond redemption, GOP governors apparently comprehend the shallowness of his and their party’s appeal to young people, women, Latinos, Asians and Afro-Americans. During a meeting Wednesday of the Republican Governors Association, several rebuffed Romney’s representation of the election results as a gross misrepresentation ( 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Predictions Come True

I warned you the day before the election last week we were on the cusp of the inauguration of the 2016 presidential campaign. If you took my warning to heart you would not be too depressed by the insipid chatter from pundits already handicapping the race four years hence. They’ve conducted polls—Hillary and Mike Huckabee are frontrunners of their respective parties. 

Personally, I like Stephen Colbert’s idea. Let’s not spend time on 2016. Tuesday night Colbert zeroed in on the 2072 election, a contest he said would be between Robo-Cheney and a swarm of sentient nano hornets. He did not predict the winner.

Hornets. Seems Tuesday was a big hornets day for me. Earlier, in Bible class (Exodus 23:28), hornets were part of God’s arsenal in support of the Israelites’ conquest of the land of Canaan (“And I will send the hornet before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee”). 

Last week’s post on the election also contained a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the United States bifurcate itself into Blue and Red State countries. Seems I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. The Huffington Post reported residents of 42 states have submitted petitions to secede from the Union. Here’s the list: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The list included Blue and Red States. Maybe we are making progress toward thinking alike.

While we’re on the subject of the election, I wonder if you noticed an article in the business section of The NY Times the other day. It dealt with patent law and the problems American companies have protecting their unique products. Here’s how The Times described the article: “Sears, which sold many Bionic Wrenches last holiday season, is selling a similar product (the Max Axess) this year — only now it is made in China instead of America.”  

You can read the full article by linking here (, but the real meat of the story came near the end. Here are two telling paragraphs:

The company that makes the Max Axess wrench and other tools for Craftsman, the Apex Tool Group, is being acquired by Bain Capital, the company founded by Mitt Romney, in a $1.6 billion deal.

“Throughout the presidential campaign, Bain was criticized on the grounds that it encouraged outsourcing by companies it buys at the expense of American workers. Apex makes many of its tools overseas. A company spokesman referred all questions to Sears.”

Romney hasn’t run Bain Capital since 1999, but his management philosophy of outsourcing American jobs is enshrined in that company. 

And remember my cautionary advice last week about buying cars from the flooded areas. Well, there's been a slew of warnings from attorneys general and consumer protection officials about cars with engines flooded not just by Hurricane Sandy but also by storms and floods in other parts of the country (dealerships across state lines have been known to swap swamped autos). So be wary out there. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flying High on Potatoes, God's Will and The View

Just back from a quick weekend trip to Tucson for the wedding of our nephew Gabe to Laura. Was colder in Arizona than back home in New York, but the real eye-opener of the trip was reaffirmation of my antipathy toward flying. I am soooo glad I no longer have to fly several times a month. Especially when our connecting flight from Houston to LaGuardia was delayed, the heaviness of sitting around the airport, eating airport food, was overwhelming. 

Eat Your Veggies: Last week WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show aired an interview on the origin of potatoes as a staple of Western cuisine. Originally from the Andes in South America, most of the spuds we eat today are cloned varieties of Chilean potatoes. Central to the diet of South American natives, the potato was introduced to Europe in 1530 by the Spanish. 

In the small southeastern Polish town of Ottynia where my father was born, potatoes dominated mealtime, so much so that by the time he left the village at 16 and made his way to the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk) on the Baltic Sea, he vowed never to eat another potato. He managed to maintain that self-imposed prohibition for some 10 years until sitting in a restaurant one day a waitress prevailed upon him to try a potato with his meat. 

The rest, as they say, is history. From that time forward rare was the day a potato did not take up space on his dinner plate. Boiled potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Baked potatoes. French fried potatoes at the delicatessen. Potato latkes. The man loved potatoes. His palate hardly ever entertained a vegetable. Nothing green made it onto our dinner table. On the rare occasion my mother tried to introduce a vegetable, say asparagus or Brussell sprouts, she failed miserably. Ordinarily a good cook, she grossly overcooked vegetables until all their nutrients and taste were eliminated. Her asparagus resembled a limp question mark with no hint it was once a spear. Naturally, I grew up disdaining vegetables.

As an early member of Trans World Airlines’ frequent flyer program some 30 years ago, I often upgraded to first class (back then you could do so without having to redeem miles; you qualified for an upgrade simply by flashing your frequent flyer card). During one first class romp to California, I accepted the stewardess’ invitation for cold asparagus under Hollandaise sauce. My taste buds exploded. To Gilda’s everlasting joy, I came home eager to eat vegetables. To my everlasting joy, Gilda knows how to prepare them properly and tastefully.

God’s Will: Last posting I opined that by sending Superstorm Sandy a week before the election God must have been on Obama’s side since it stymied Romney’s momentum in the crucial last week of the campaign. I failed to remember God previously intervened to thwart Romney’s initial push by hurling Hurricane Isaac at Tampa just before the city hosted the Republican National Convention. Coupled with losses by Republican candidates who believe rape is God’s will, I’d say there’s significant evidence God is definitely not a registered Republican.

For a moment, it looked like God would be neutral. A storm did, after all, prompt the Democratic Party Convention to shift Obama’s acceptance speech from an outdoor stadium to an indoor arena. But the threatened downpour never happened and Obama’s rhetoric, not as lofty as four years ago, probably played better inside than it would have outside.

Barbara Bests Bibi: Most of the pundits have analyzed the election far beyond my meager efforts, but it’s worth noting Obama was criticized in October when the United Nations General Assembly met for making a guest appearance on The View instead of meeting with Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu. In light of the overwhelming support women provided his re-election effort, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge sharing yucks with Barbara Walters and her crew was more beneficial than making nice to the head of a foreign state who clearly favored his opponent and, like so many caught up in distaste for the current occupant of the White House, came out on the wrong side of history. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Oy Vey Moments

No religion is safe from ideological bigots. 

After reading the names of organizations to which viewers could donate Superstorm Sandy relief funds, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show Monday night said a nor’easter was expected to hit the New York metropolitan area Wednesday, meaning there’d be more places to send in money “because somehow we’ve annoyed God.” Apparently, Stewart had not heard about Rabbi Noson Leiter, executive director of Monsey, NY-based Torah Jews for Decency.

Speaking Oct. 30 on Crosstalk, a syndicated radio program, Leiter intimated that passage of the state’s same-sex marriage law could have kindled God’s wrath toward New Yorkers. “The Lord will not bring another flood to destroy the entire world, but he could punish particular areas with a flood, and if we look at the same-gender marriage recognition movement that’s occurring, that certainly is a message for us to learn,” Leiter said. 

Leiter joins Pat Robertson and other evangelical ministers who have linked natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 attacks, to retribution for liberal positions on abortion and gay lifestyles. Stewart might have missed an opportunity to ridicule Leiter, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not. Leiter’s comments were “as offensive as they are ignorant,” Cuomo said (

Pray for Heat: Last Saturday there was no heat in the main sanctuary of our temple, which reminded me of the way churches and synagogues were in Europe a thousand, even hundreds of, years ago. Many a congregant in today’s Orthodox shul sways back and forth, or side to side. It’s called schuckling, said by some scholars to be a means to increase concentration and emotional intensity during prayer. I prefer thinking the practice started in the cold, drafty synagogues of Europe as a means of keeping one’s circulation going, of staying warm. 

Dumb or Cagey? Chevy Volt’s television ad uses real people to plug the benefits of its extended distance electric car. There’s Noble, Priya, Eric, Adam, Elissa. 

Priya? What possessed Chevy or its ad agency to pick a customer whose name evokes one of its main competitors, Prius? Who knows, maybe Chevy hopes that expanding the pool of hybrid car buyers will benefit it in the long run. 

It just seemed a little whacky to me.

Whose Side Was God On, Anyway? Republicans are blaming Superstorm Sandy for blowing an ill-wind Romney’s way and lifting Obama to victory. Could be some truth to that, if you truly believe in Divine intervention. Which would mean God wanted the president to be re-elected. So all you God-fearing Republicans out there, accept God’s will. Obama’s our president for the next four years and let’s work with him to make our country better and stronger.

Republicans Eat Their Young: The abuse being heaped on Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey for complimenting Obama for his relief support after Sandy is reminiscent of the cries of traitor hurled at Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court after he cast the deciding vote upholding Obamacare’s constitutionality. After that post-decision smack-down by conservatives, court watchers speculated Roberts might abandon long-held principles and become more liberal, turning into a latter day Earl Warren or David Souter. Too early to tell if that will happen. But after Christie’s supposed life-line to Obama, whispers about his future went public. “It would not surprise me if Chris Christie at some point became a Democrat,” said Laura Ingraham, the right wing radio personality.

Perhaps nothing delineates the moral bankruptcy of the GOP more than its treatment of members who sway from party dogma, even if doing so is in the best interests of their constituents and the nation. Christie’s state is reeling from the devastation, yet he is called a Judas for acting like a governor should when the president of the United States provides support and comfort to his flock. Long-time Republican senators Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett, and before them Arlen Spector, are defeated in primaries for not being conservative enough. 

Speaking on NPR Wednesday, Norman Orenstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, likened GOP political tactics to “tribalism,” especially at the state and local levels where special interest groups are investing huge sums of money to pack elected boards with right-thinking members. In the past, these races were run out of the proverbial shoe-box. But the introduction of PAC money has far-reaching consequences. School boards, for example, can influence whether evolution or creationism is taught. It’s not a very pretty prospect to contemplate.

A Foreign Thought: Speaking of Lugar, here’s a far-out, not far right, idea that just floated into my head. Lugar’s strength has been as a foreign affairs expert. With Hillary Clinton poised to step down as secretary of state, perhaps Obama might entertain appointing Lugar as her successor, assuming John Kerry doesn’t take the job. Yes, Lugar’s a Republican. But so was Robert Gates, whom Obama retained as secretary of defense. The position of secretary of state is supposed to be apolitical (notice, Hillary never campaigned during the election), so naming a Republican would not be too crazy if he shares Obama’s world vision. Plus, it would fit Obama’s “team of rivals” Lincoln-esque view of his presidency.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Kickoff Time for the 2016 Elections

It’s all over but the shouts of joy or despair, the air of resignation or elation, the couldabeen, shouldabeen cries of missed opportunities, the atta-boy, way to go hurrahs of “yes, our country has been saved from (you pick it) socialism or 19th century-style robber baronhood.” 

Hard to believe that, barring a hanging chad-like controversy, we will settle into the 2016 presidential election cycle in less than 36 hours. I know, you just can’t wait. Who’d have thought there was an actual silver lining to gender neutral Hurricane Sandy (like the Saturday Night Live character Pat, who’s to say Sandy was a female or male hurricane), when it knocked the campaigns off front pages and TV screens for days, giving the nation respite from the shallow, often offensive tones of the candidates and their surrogates. 

As anyone who has read my blogs knows, I’m hoping for an Obama victory. No need to review why. But there’s still time to point out some interesting and perhaps fun thoughts about the election.

For instance, I wonder why so many Republicans deny the reality of evolution when they’ve witnessed it in warp speed before their very eyes. During his years-long run for the White House, Mitt Romney has evolved from a moderate to a conservative to an extreme conservative to a moderate (at least in his eyes). It’s not so much survival-of-the-fittest as survival-of-the-whatever-it-takes-to-win. We’ll see Tuesday if the public swallows his brand of political posturing.

From the Republican party and presidential debates, Romney came across as a silver-tongued salesman. Rapid fire delivery of purported facts. No countenance of disagreement. Aggressive to the point of disrespect. A manner more suited to the manor than to the general public. It was a type of behavior I’ve seen before, in captains of industry. Even in public companies, they broached no dissent. Shareholders at annual meetings who questioned their authority were barely tolerated. Shareholders could submit resolutions and get to vote on the election of corporate directors, but the tally was usually stacked in favor of management. For Romney to win he would have successfully convinced enough voters that he knows best. 

I found an insight into his character in a story that didn’t get as much play as I would have suspected, given its human interest nature. The Associated Press reported that after the second debate, the town hall debate where Obama woke up from his first debate coma and attacked Romney’s misrepresentations, Romney's son Tagg was tempted to "take a swing" at the president for criticizing his father. Tagg made that admission in a radio interview. He apologized for his thoughts. Forty-two-year-olds don’t make those kind of statements if they haven’t been brought up in an environment where the powerful are not meant to be challenged. 

During one of his campaign stops last month, Romney predicted stock markets would likely rise if he wins. "There will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country," he said. "We'll see capital come back and we'll see—without actually doing anything—we'll actually get a boost in the economy," he said. "If the president gets re-elected, I don't know what will happen. I can­, I can never predict what the markets will do."

What does he think has been happening to the stock market over the last four years? Here are the facts: On Election Day 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 9,625. On the next three Election Days under Obama, the DJIA went up to 9,771, then 11,189, then 12,170. As Americans troop to the polls Tuesday, the DJIA is at 13,113, a 36.2% increase under Obama. Compare that to what happened under George W. Bush’s presidency. The day he got elected, the DJIA was 10,952. Eight years later it was 9,625, a 12.1% decrease. For all their bellyaching about Obama wanting to increase taxes on their oversized earnings, Wall Streeters have done quite nicely under our “socialist” president.

It’s apparent that once more the country will be divided in politics and philosophy. So why not adapt an idea from Britain and separate the country in two, much the same way Ireland was divided as was the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan? Actually, the idea of two entities precedes British action. The Confederacy thought it up first. You’d have the Republic of Red States stretching across the South, Midwest, and Plains states separating the two sections of the Republic of Blue States in the Northeast and West Coast—having two parts is like the original Pakistan, the eastern section is now independent and known as Bangladesh. (For the moment, let’s not concern ourselves where Florida, Illinois and perhaps Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota fall.) Let’s remember that Texas governor Rick Perry thought his state might want to secede from the Union. This idea just elaborates on that birdbrain notion.

The Red States would have lots of natural resources, lots of agriculture, lots of nuclear rocket silos, lots of tornadoes and drought, lots of Bible belters. Lots of people working with their hands and big machines. Blue States would have lots of earthquakes and shore erosion. Lots of lawyers, bankers, geeks, surfers, media stars, fashionistas. Lots of people dedicated to making money from  intellectual capital, with no guarantee their ideas are anything more than schemes to make money out of thin air. 

I don’t have all the details worked out, but it’s worth keeping in mind as we start the next presidential selection process on Wednesday. Assuming Romney loses, the GOP will undergo an internal contest of values. It will either veer further right or return to a more moderate, just right of center, position. If it does the latter, NJ governor Chris Christie has a shot at the nomination. He’d have to fight off Jeb Bush. If it swings further right, Christie would either have to alter his stances or Congressman Paul Ryan would have an inside track, along with Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Dement. 

On the Democratic side, the battle for the nomination will be between Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden and Andrew Cuomo. Those are easy predictions. My real crystal ball forecast is the vice presidential pick—Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, or Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts. 

That’s it for now. Go vote. Pray. Cross your fingers. Light candles. Vote again (just kidding). Pray some more (not kidding).

Fair, of Should I Say, Storm Warning: Anyone, anywhere in the market for a new or used vehicle in the next half year or so better check where and when that car was manufactured and serviced. With so many cars swamped by Hurricane Sandy, lots of autos and trucks will be bought as replacements. But if you’ve ever wondered what happens to the cars and trucks salvaged from the deluge, even those that were on dealers’ lots, listen up—they are often “repaired” and many times shipped to other parts of the country to be sold to unsuspecting customers. 

That’s where CarFax or other services that can trace a car’s provenance come in handy. Trust me, you don’t want to buy a car or truck with an engine that was under water. For a new car, it’s probably a good idea to buy one built after November 1. It also would be a good idea for any new or used vehicle purchase to get the dealer to give you a sworn statement that it has not gone through Hurricane Sandy.

Tragic Bookends: New York mayor Michael Bloomberg moved into city hall months after the devastation of September 11. He will be leaving office at the end of 2013 while the Big Apple is still in the midst of recovering from the big bite Hurricane Sandy took from it.