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 (