Thursday, March 28, 2013

Story Ideas Turn Up Every Day

I’m asked occasionally from where I choose the topics to write about in the blog. The short answer is, from everywhere, but mostly from people, places and things that have touched my life. Today’s three-part entry is a case in point.

Like many who live in Westchester, I found the Verizon Super Pages on my driveway this morning. Before replacing last year’s copy I tore off the small glued-on advertisement from the front cover. I was about to discard it when I read the name of the personal injury law firm that has “recovered millions” for its clients from such tragedies as auto and truck accidents, construction accidents, slip, trip and fall, wrongful death and traumatic brain injuries. 

One of the names of the principals of the firm looked familiar, so I googled it. Sure enough, he turned out to be a former member of our temple softball team, a good player, a real competitor. We need more of his type on the ball field. So it was not not surprising to see his biography describe him as “hard-nosed and aggressive.” But I was taken aback by the following: “(Name withheld because I don’t want to be sued) is notorious for being ruthless ...” 

Now, should I ever need a lawyer to beat up on an insurance company or anyone who doesn’t deal right by me, I’d want my attorney to be ruthless in pursuit of my claim. But seeing that description in black and white smacks more of brawling than reasoned discourse. I’d have preferred to see him described as tenacious. Or, determined. Or, resolute. 

Am I being too prudish in my assessment? Could be. He is, after all, successful, so maybe the clients he attracts prefer more of a roll-up-your-sleeves-put-up-your-dukes approach. Interestingly, his co-principal’s biography was not as in-your-face in describing how he “zealously represented and fought for the rights of accident victims and consumers.” Again, I guess the good cop-bad cop approach works. 

You never know if your advertising works (a standard joke has an executive complaining that he knows 50% of his advertising works and 50% doesn’t. Only trouble is, he doesn’t know which is the half that works). If one measure of advertising success is having the reader look up your Web site, I’d say my former teammate has spent his dollars with ruthless efficiency.

The Long and Short of It: If you follow theater in New York, you’re probably aware of a controversy surrounding The Flick, a new play by Annie Baker currently at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Awarded the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given to a woman who has written a work of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre, The Flick has drawn rave notices but also damnation from theatergoers because of its length—three hours. The play about three workers in a 35mm movie house in central Massachusetts has little physical action, save the sweeping up and cleaning of detritus left by patrons. In other words, they’re picking up popcorn. Or worse. The dialogue is funny and poignant. But there are interminable pauses that, depending on your point of view, drag out the play or give it a piercing view of lives on the fringe. 

Almost six weeks ago Gilda and I, along with Ken and Jane, saw a preview of The Flick. We liked everything about the play, except its length. But we didn’t leave at intermission, as the couple sitting in front of us did. Nor did we complain to management, as apparently others have, so much so that the theater’s artistic director felt compelled to send a email to the 3,000 people who have seen The Flick, in whole or in part, explaining Playwright Horizons’ decision to present the 180-minute work (

We’ve been members of Playwrights Horizons for about a decade. It’s one of our best entertainment expenditures. I recommend your signing up. For a fraction of the cost of a Broadway play, you’ll see provocative, new, theater in an intimate playhouse.

Third Match: Right above the NY Times article on Playwrights Horizons there was a story on the Barnes Foundation ( Just 12 days ago Gilda, Ken, Jane and I traveled to Philadelphia to view the artwork collected by Albert C. Barnes. 

The galleries Barnes assembled include more Renoirs than any museum. It was almost too many Modiglianis, CĂ©zannes, Matisses, Picassos, Rousseaus, Soutines and de Chiricos to absorb at one time, but well worth the trip to Philadelphia.

There you have it. Two items from today’s newspaper and a third from the Verizon Super Pages. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Venus, Jon Stewart and Red Light Districts

CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on Good Housekeeping’s Seal of Approval a few days ago. If a product carrying the coveted seal does not perform as promised, the magazine—not the manufacturer or the retailer—will refund the purchase price or replace the product. Which brings me to today’s mail and a copy of a magazine-sized glossy catalog of women’s apparel from Venus of Jacksonville, Fla. It’s 96 pages of soft porn images of fetching young maidens in bikinis and otherwise come-hither fashions. The back cover headline is “Sexy Sunrises are on your horizon.”

By the way, this hot catalog was not sent to Gilda. It was sent to me! I’m flattered Venus considers me, or Gilda, sexy. But I can’t help but thinking Venus and others of its ilk should adopt a Good Housekeeping-like creed—if their products don’t turn you into the personification of sexiness (at least to your partner’s satisfaction) in say, 60 days, you should get your money back. Or at the very least, they should remove you from their mailing list.

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is no Sandy Koufax. You’ll remember the southpaw ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers forsook pitching the opening game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Judaism’s holiest day. (For the record, Koufax pitched and won two other games in leading the Dodgers to the baseball title.) Stewart chooses to ignore, and even mock, Jewish holidays, working on Yom Kippur and other holidays including this week’s Passover celebration. Most Jews I know have a liberal sense of humor about our religion, so we laugh along with Stewart’s comedic send-ups. 

Monday night, however, one of The Daily Show’s best puns went unappreciated by what must have been an audience with few if any Jews, given that it was the night of the first seder of Passover. There wasn’t even a hint of laughter when Stewart’s reporting on the president’s trip to Israel was accompanied by the caption, “Barack Atah Adonai.” For the non-believers out there, and anyone else Hebraically challenged, Barack Atah Adonai is a play on “Baruch Atah Adonai” which begins every blessing and means “blessed are you, Lord our God.” In Stewart’s version, the Hebrew translates to “Barack (Obama), you are God.”  

Uh-oh: Retirement may cost me about 50 bucks. Since I don’t travel out of LaGuardia Airport too often these days I was unaware traffic lights were installed on an overhang above the departure ramp of the main terminal. As I drove Ellie and Donny to the United Airlines door, I was softly questioned by my son-in-law about gliding through a red light. 

I stopped at the next one and noticed a camera stationed to the right of the red sphere. Dread descended. No doubt my picture was taken at the prior light. No doubt I’ll get a notice in the mail in a few weeks demanding payment for going through a red light. No doubt my defense that no lights previously impeded my progress down the ramp will not absolve me from having to pay for the infraction. Ah well, it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise enjoyable retirement.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Repurposing Stories on Passover and Kutsher's

I don’t know if NBC News and ABC News do this, but CBS News is a practitioner of “repurposed copy”. In other words, stories done for the daily evening news often find their way onto CBS Sunday Morning or some other news broadcast. It’s all part of the new dynamic of trying to fill airtime devoted to news, which seems to be expanding, with staffs that seems to be constantly contracting. Nothing wrong with that, especially since we repurposed all the time on Chain Store Age, using material from our Web site in the monthly magazine. More to the immediate point, I’m about to repurpose two posts from my first year of blogging, posts chosen because of their link to current events. The first commemorates preparations for Passover which begins tonight. The second also comes from that first year and is reprinted because of the death of Helen Kutsher, matriach of the Catskills resort Kutsher’s Country Club.

Gilda and I figured out this morning it is 25 years since she began cooking and hosting the annual Passover seder for some two dozen family and friends. Back on April 2, 2010, I paid tribute to my mother’s yeoman prior work for this most Jewish of all holidays:

Passover Wonders

How did she do it?

How did my mother, who worked full-time with my father in his business, manage to cook and store food for 20 to 30 people for our annual Passover seders when all she had was an old oven and stovetop and a small International Harvester refrigerator-freezer?

It’s always baffled my brother, sister and me, especially when I see the preparations Gilda makes each year for our seder of equivalent size, the food she cooks in advance and stores in our two fridges with their freezers and our stand-alone freezer.

Our mother no doubt bartered space in neighbors’ kitchens in exchange for portions of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. I’d be in charge of delivering the goods each year, not one of my favorite chores as I was rather possessive of her handiwork. Her gefilte fish was an exquisite blend of pike, carp and whitefish she personally bought from the fish monger’s truck at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Avenue W, a block and a half from our home in Brooklyn. Simply put, her gefilte fish was to die for.

My sister Lee loved her matzah balls (I was more partial to the kreplach she made for Rosh Hashanah). Each matzah ball was exceptionally soft and fluffy. So it was more than surprising when one year everyone almost broke their teeth, literally almost broke their teeth, on her matzah balls. Without telling anyone, she had hidden a blanched almond inside each sphere. Her unsuspecting family and guests assumed their knedlach would easily melt inside their mouths. The crunch and resistance we all felt made everyone uneasy. Too embarrassed to say anything, we wondered if she had somehow mixed chicken bones into the matzah ball batter. When she finally noticed everyone avoiding finishing their knedlach, she volunteered that she had hidden a “surprise” inside each matzah ball. Enlightened and relieved, we gobbled up the rest, and thereafter joked about it at all subsequent seders.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, we lived in an attached two-story row house. Before I turned 13, we’d hold the seder in the basement. Tables would be arranged in a U-shape. Our immediate family, aunts, uncles and first cousins totaled 18. On top of that came mostly people related to our father by kinship or friendship, swelling our numbers to 25 or more, as many as 40 one year. Uncle Willy, who ran a dry goods store on First Avenue in the East Village in Manhattan, always brought us new clothing for the holiday.

In the 1960s, after the seder moved upstairs, my brother Bernie and I were tasked with rearranging furniture to accommodate a long table run down the center of the living room. We moved the couch and chairs into the dinette. Our father presided at one end. Willy sat a few seats down. Our mother sat at the far end, gossiping with her three sisters. In between, the nine cousins, two more uncles and assorted guests, most of whom could not read Hebrew, and even if they could they would find it hard to follow the melody Dad and Uncle Willy brought with them from Galicia. But that didn’t stop our father from plowing ahead in Hebrew, expecting participation from his Hebrew school-trained children and at least silent devotion from everyone else. He didn’t skip a word in the haggadah. It was an excruciatingly long service, broken up by the not-so-occasional remonstrance from Dad to be quiet. When the noise overwhelmed him, he’d threaten not to continue, which made us all the more fidgety and anxious to get to the midpoint of the haggadah so we could eat.

Food. It always came back to the food. No matter how long the service, no matter how many at the table, the seder hinged on the quality and quantity of the food. Mom piled on the food. Each year she’d make a crown roast, until she traded that signature dish in for rack of lamb. Same meat, different presentation. Almost 25 years ago, it became too much of a burden for her to prepare the seder. We knew it was time to transfer the torch, er, spatula, to the next generation, to Gilda, when there wasn’t enough meat to adequately serve everyone. Because there were no leftovers, Mom thought she had ordered “just enough.” It was one of the first signs she was failing to appreciate reality.

Over the years, the cast-in-stone liturgy of our haggadah has changed as we graduated from the Maxwell House version Dad used to a text assembled by Bernie, then me and now our daughter Ellie. The themes of liberation, equality, emancipation, egalitarianism remain constant, updated to reflect current humanitarian concerns. Constant, too, has been the function of the meal, a celebration of plenty, a symbol our generation are not slaves in Egypt, or shtetl dwellers in eastern Europe, or refugees squeezed into Lower East Side tenements.

I witness how exhausted Gilda is after preparing the seder meal, how taxing it is for her to do this while working full-time, how physical it is even with all the modern day cooking conveniences. And I wonder how our mother was able to do it all. It was, no doubt, another miracle of Biblical proportions.


Helen Kutsher was proud of her resort, not the least for being the last of the “grande dame” hotels that transformed the Catskill Mountains surrounding Monticello, NY, into a Borscht Belt of oversized, cholesterol-filled meals and nightclub acts featuring mostly Jewish singers and comedians including Alan King, Steve Lawrence and Eydie GormĂ©. The heyday of Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s, The Concord, Brown’s et al was the 1950s and 1960s. All but Kutsher’s have closed. As a youngster, I tagged along with my parents to many of these hotels. Gilda never experienced the Catskills. Here’s what happened 25 years ago when she suggested we spend a romantic weekend at Kutsher’s:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 22, 2013

From St. Francis to Diesel Fuel to Summer Camp

Prophetic or Just Lucky? When the programmers at Turner Classic Movies put together their list of flicks for March, do you think they had advance word about the name to be chosen by the yet-to-be-elected pope? 

Tonight at 9:30 the cable channel will air Flowers of St. Francis, an 87-minute paean to St. Francis of Assisi, what TV Guide calls a “lighthearted episodic account of the life of the Italian monk” whose name has been taken by the newly installed pontiff.  

In truth, the coincidence is just fortuitous serendipity. TCM is running a month-long salute to Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Flowers of St. Francis is just one of 14 of his films airing this month. However, one cannot help but wonder if there was some higher authority that guided the selection process.

Fill ‘er Up: Did you hear about the trouble President Obama had in Israel with his armored presidential limousine? Seems someone filled the diesel tank with gasoline. For those not familiar with what happens to a diesel engine filled with the wrong fuel, it shortly stops working. Lucky for the president and his Israeli hosts, a second limo was procured from storage in nearby Jordan. 

The incident reminded me of when my boss about 20 years ago visited Italy with his wife. They stopped for lunch at a quaint hillside village after gassing up their rental car, only to find it dead as a doornail when they returned from their delicious meal. He called the rental company which agreed to send a replacement vehicle. It would take several hours, an inconvenience John was more than willing to endure when he realized he had put regular gasoline into the diesel car.  

Parallel Parking: Last Sunday I pulled up next to a late model Ford on South 5th Street in Philadelphia. Just a block away from the National Museum of American Jewish History we wanted to visit, the spot was a tight one for my Toyota Avalon. The others in the car thought it was too small, but I chose to give it a try. After all, last year when I taught in-car Driver’s Education, I told my students the only time they needed to pull off a perfect park was on their road tests. After you pass, you can hit the curb or the cars in front or behind you as often as you like, I told them. Nobody's going to take your license away.

The young couple that had emerged from the Ford as we pulled up lingered across the street, watching my every move, ready to pounce should I nudge their car. I slid in perfectly. When I got out of my car I couldn't resist shouting across the street triumphantly, “I taught Driver’s Ed.” They didn't hear me, but I felt good all the same.

Inside the museum I spent a goodly amount of time at a film display of 30 influential Jewish Americans, people like Sandy Koufax, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Irving Berlin, Golda Meir, Jonas Salk, and Louis Brandeis. I don't know why the museum chose the 30 they did, why they left off some pretty important people, luminaries such as Robert Oppenheimer, Louis B. Mayer, Howard Schultz, Marvin Traub, Philip Roth, William Paley. The list can go on and on, from almost every human endeavor. 

Sitting there watching those videographies I missed seeing the second floor exhibit on Jewish cultural life in America. When Gilda asked if I'd seen the pictures of Camp Massad I raced up the stairs for a quick run through of the camp I attended from ages 7-11, from 1956 to 1960. For some reason I was disappointed my picture wasn’t among the few on the wall, though why it would have been there I cannot imagine. 

There was a picture of the arts and crafts building, named after Bezalel, the biblical artisan who crafted the desert tabernacle. My first year crafts project reflected the mores of the time—I made ashtrays for each of my parents, a brown one for my father, a sandstone one for my mother. 

Another camp photo was of the man-made lake, Kinerret, the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee. I didn’t learn to swim there, as long-time readers know. I remember being cold, standing waist-deep in the water, a thin reed of a boy unable to stay afloat when putting my head in the water, flailing my arms, kicking my legs. How I dreaded going to Kinerret twice a day, once for general swim, once for instruction. I loved everything about Camp Massad except swimming.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Coming Out for the Good of the Country

He's been vilified as an opportunist, a politician who changed his position on same-sex marriage only after someone close to him made an impassioned appeal for the rights of gay couples to wed. No, I'm not talking about Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). I'm referring to Barack Obama, who only last year, only after his vice president came out strongly for it, publicly endorsed same-sex marriage. Obama shifted his position after failing to go all the way four years earlier when running for president. Back then he merely favored civil unions. That was his stance through the first three years of his presidency, till Joe Biden spoke up and forced his hand. 

Was it a political calculation? Of course it was. Do Democrats and liberals admonish him for it? A little, perhaps, but nowhere near the venomous reaction they have had to Portman’s about-face. 

Was Portman’s conversion from opponent to supporter of same-sex marriage a crass political maneuver motivated solely by his son’s coming out, or did he arrive at a more tolerant state of mind after deep reflection subsequent to learning of his son’s homosexuality? Should Portman be applauded for his change of heart or vilified for hypocritically altering his position only when he and his family were personally touched by the reality that affects maybe 4% of the population? Did Portman show leadership by changing his position based on new family data, or would it have been a higher form of leadership to be out front on this issue, without any personal motivating force?

One of the more ill-used terms in political dialogue is that of “flip-flopper,” used with devastating effect against John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. Mitt Romney took many a hit during his recent campaign for his one-day-this, one-day-that rhetoric. But do we really want politicians to cling to outdated positions, to rigidly stick to dogma even when public sentiment has overwhelmingly shifted? Even before the public has changed its collective mind, don’t we want our leaders to lead? Don’t we want them to bring us along to a more enlightened world?

Yes, back in 1996 then congressman Rob Portman was one of the co-sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act. It defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the United States. As president, Bill Clinton signed it into law. Just as Clinton has changed his mind (and Hillary Clinton just announced her support for same-sex marriage), so has Portman.  

Should it matter why Portman now believes in equality? I don’t think so. Even if it’s part of a new charm offensive by Republicans as part of their effort to woo minorities, women and independent voters, I’m all for it. I’m all for Republicans going on the record in support of progressive ideas. 

Why? Because I don’t believe hard core rank and file conservative Republicans will sit idly by as plank after plank of their reactionary party platform is torn away. The GOP hierarchy today released a report on why they lost the 2012 election and what needs to be done to win in the future. They have to reach out to blacks, to Hispanics, to women, to LGBTs, to those struggling to survive on an absurdly low minimum wage, to those who need Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare. 

At the state level, however, conservative Republicans will continue to push bills that deny women rights, that deny workers rights, that befoul the environment, that allow guns in schools, bars and other inappropriate places, that discriminate against everyone but the wealthy. 

We’ll be left with a bifurcated Republican party. And like the gay community they do not want to sanction coming together, the GOP will not be able to consummate a reversal of its out-dated, outlandish moral and political positions.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On Selling the Sizzle, Not the Steak

Not sure how many of you watch the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, but Thursday night the broadcast commemorated the 75th anniversary of CBS Radio’s World News Roundup. Begun the day after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, commonly referred to as the Anschluss, the World News Roundup is the longest running news broadcast. 

In keeping with the news of this week, Pelley featured none other than “legendary Vatican correspondent Winston Burdett in 1962 reporting” on Pope Paul VI’s coronation (sic—the ceremony actually took place June 30, 1963). 

Unlike my commentary on Wednesday about Burdett, Pelley did not mention his confession as a Soviet spy.

Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak: It’s a common marketing theme—sell the customer on the hype, not the actual product. If a deal can’t be struck, there must be something wrong with your marketing, with how you project yourself to the public.

How would you feel if you were Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and you heard House Speaker John Boehner blame “candidates and personalities” rather than proposals on Medicare and spending cuts as the reason Republicans lost the election last November?

In the days, weeks and months since Barack Obama won a second term and Republican numbers in the House and Senate suffered dilution, GOP insiders have searched for a new path to victory. Their most right wing members met this week at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in National Harbor, MD. With nary an exception, speakers picked up the failed banner of 2012, demanding an end to Obamacare and other benefit programs. They weren’t interested in developing a more humane Republican Party platform, just a more palatable face to their repressive (my word, not theirs) positions. Republicans want to sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Across the Atlantic, a new pope was chosen. The Catholic Church is under stress. Reform seems to be needed, and wanted, both in its administrative functions and its theological tenets. But like Republicans gathered outside Washington, the cardinals stuck to their conservative doctrines. They picked a new Holy Father who is singular only in that he comes from the Americas. His thinking is decidedly Old World.

Initial enthusiasm for the selection of Francis I may well give way to more sober reflection by rank and file and uncommitted Catholics who want women to be ordained as priests, who want an end to priestly celibacy, who want acceptance of alternative lifestyles, who want abortion and contraception to be tolerated.

The challenge both the pope and the GOP have is how to appeal to a wider audience than their respective true believers. The Church, on the surface, has opted to offer a sizzling, appealing new face. Humble, compassionate, a tireless worker against poverty. Someone eager to shake up an entrenched Vatican bureaucracy. Time will tell if he’s more than an attractive new look. Will he diversify? Will he expand power beyond old, mostly white, men?  

One of my Catholic friends suggested I refrain from commenting on the pope. I am, after all, not Catholic. But the pope is more than just a religious leader. Some consider him the most powerful man on earth, being the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, even if they are not all strict adherents to his doctrine. Even among non-Catholics, the pronouncements of the pontiff demand attention. And commentary. 

So I hope Pope Francis will become more tolerant, less restrictive. I’m emboldened by news today that Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a one-time supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act, now endorses the right of gay couples to marry, to be entitled to federal marriage benefits. Yes, Portman changed his mind only after his son revealed he was gay. But it’s another example of a prominent Republican who has had personal experience with the LGBT lifestyle within their family. Portman, and Dick Cheney and Ted Olson, haven’t stopped loving their children. They’ve accepted them for who they are. They’ve accepted their equality and suitability to raise a family. Pope Francis, along with many conservative thinkers of all religions, may yet come to that same level of acceptance. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Personalizing the News: Autobahn Driving, GOP Stubbornness, A New Pope and Penney Problems

Under snowy conditions Tuesday in Germany, about 100 vehicles crashed on an autobahn near Frankfurt. No doubt, the snow contributed to the massive crack-up. But I also have no doubt the pattern of German driving contributed, as well.

During my first trip to Germany, in 1996 to attend the EuroShop conference in Dusseldorf, I was invited by the team from Boston Retail to tour some stores. They had rented a car, a large Mercedes sedan, with a driver. I sat in the middle of the rear seat with an unobstructed view of the speedometer. German cars measure speed in kilometers per hour. It’s a simple computation to convert the number into miles per hour. Simply multiply it by 60%. 

When the speedometer needled its way toward 160, I could barely contain my anxiety as I also had an unobstructed view of the traffic in front of us, which at that moment was no more than two car lengths ahead. It wasn’t that our driver was a tailgating daredevil. Every driver on the autobahn was spaced the same one to two car lengths behind the car he was trailing. To travel less than 96 miles per hour would endanger all. 

Of course, that means when a car slows down, because of snow, fog or some other reason, there is a chain reaction should any one vehicle not brake to the precise slower speed. Large pile-ups are common in Germany.

All for Naught? Why do we bother holding elections if the party that loses just regurgitates the same garbage that cost them the election? I’m talking about the Republican budget proposal that would slash Obamacare, transform Medicare and reduce other social services programs without asking any more in taxes from the wealthy. It’s the same hogwash that voters repudiated in the last election just four months ago.

Since losing the presidential election to Barack Obama and seeing their ranks in the House and Senate shrink, Republicans have shown little if any inclination to change their national message and appeal. Their only salvation for the moment is their hammerlock on state governments where they have gerrymandered congressional districts into safe GOP seats, safe, that is, if their candidates hew to the hard right to avoid a Tea Party primary. 

Doubtful we will get a legislative branch of government in the short term that will function to the welfare and benefit of the country rather than the partisan aggrandizement of each congressman.

For Old-Time Vatican Watchers Only: As I listened to CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey report from Rome over the last several days, I was nostalgic for the hushed, clipped tones of Winston Burdett, the network’s Papal eyes, ears and voice during the 1950s and 1960s. His weathered look gave his Vatican reports a certain ancient authenticity, not that Pizzey’s reporting hasn’t been crisp and informative. (BTW, did you know Burdett was a self-confessed spy for the Soviet Union? Rather than throw him under the bus, Edward R. Murrow had him transferred to CBS’ Rome bureau.)

No need to guess about this—with the election of Francis I Tuesday we will be subjected to a stream of articles on the significance of his elevation from archbishop of Buenos Aires to the 265th successor to Peter as the bishop of Rome. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pontiff to be elected from the New World, though he has roots in the Old. Before he was born 76 years ago, his parents emigrated to Argentina from Italy.  

In 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio was the runner-up to Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI. Yet he was not considered a front-runner this time. As he was chosen on the fifth ballot, perhaps he was a compromise candidate, someone who, in Pizzey’s words, while not a fan of the embattled, scandal-plagued Roman Curia, nevertheless is seen as an ultra-conservative and ultra-orthodox cleric not likely to shake up church dogma on such issues as abortion (which many in Argentina favor, according to Elaine Cobbe of CBS) or celibacy for priests. 

The new pope is said to be a humble Jesuit who lives simply and rides the subway to work. Though the trappings of his new office will require lifestyle changes, his emphasis on eradicating poverty and helping the indigent and less fortunate could have political repercussions in the United States where Republican efforts to limit or eliminate programs to help the poor would undercut his mission.

It was speculated the College of Cardinals would choose someone younger. After all, Francis I is only two years shy of  Benedict’s age when he ascended to the papacy. What’s more, he has only one lung. In his appearance before the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, he appeared restrained, barely cracking a smile. Perhaps exuberance is not appropriate at such a solemn occasion, but as the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics beset by numerous ecclesiastical and administrative issues (some would say scandals), Francis I will have to show more energy than he did from the balcony of St. Peter’s.

In the theater world, second acts are among the hardest to pull off. Third acts, almost impossible.

It’s that way in retailing, too; no less a luminary than Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel said, “Retailing is theater.” Few retail executives have been able to replicate success after success after success at different companies. 

Ron Johnson, the beleaguered CEO of J.C. Penney, is finding that out the hard way. After a notable career as a vice president of merchandising at Target, Johnson stunned the retail world with his evocation of retail nirvana—he developed the Apple Retail Stores. Apple stores boast among the highest sales per square foot in the industry. While almost all other mall stores can be empty on any given weekday, Apple’s are a beehive of activity. 

For sure, Apple products are key attractions. But equally magnetic have been the store design, the attention to detail and customer service, particularly the Genius Bar Johnson pioneered at the back of each location.

It was inevitable Johnson’s success would lead to his recruitment. Penney, though, is a far cry from Apple. Its products don’t have the cache of Apple’s. Apple concentrates on one category of merchandise. Penney is multi-dimensional, which means its messaging is dispersed across many areas, to many different types of customers. Its stores are way larger. Penney’s store staff are not brand proselytizers the way Apple’s are. Apple almost never ran sales; customers came into the stores because they wanted to. Penney had to rely on sales to generate traffic. When Johnson tried to change that by going to an everyday low price strategy, they stopped coming. (Johnson’s disappointment in that tactic is not unique—Food Lion recently pulled its “no sales” platform, as well.) When Johnson came to Apple, he had a supportive leader in Steve Jobs. They worked off a tabula rasa to create a unique store experience. At Penney, Johnson had to work with 100 years of heritage, arteriosclerosis and all. 

Johnson’s latest misstep is his apparent disregard for an exclusive contract between Macy’s and Martha Stewart. He seemed to encourage placement of Martha Stewart products in Penney stores, the result of which has been embarrassing revelations during a Macy’s lawsuit contesting the Stewart-Penney alliance. I won’t go so far as retail analyst Walter Loeb who suggested “this could be a fatal blow to J.C. Penney.” But I do believe it could signal the end of Johnson’s leadership of Penney. His tenure is not helped by the company’s performance in the fiscal year ended February 1: year over year sales dropped by $4.27 billion; the company lost $985 million compared to a loss of $152 million the year before. Share price tumbled by 60%; 2,200 workers were laid off last week. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

No Longer Ignorant or Blissful

We’re all indebted to Thomas Gray for coining the phrase “ignorance is bliss” in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College ( Twice this week I came away feeling less than thrilled upon finding out some realities.

I celebrated my 64th birthday Wednesday (thanks, all who Facebooked me or sent notes the old-fashioned way—by email—and the even more old-fashioned way, by snail mail). For years whenever asked about my birthday I would say March 6, the day the Alamo fell. Now, however, thanks to one of those annoying “15 seconds in time” Geico radio commercials, I learned that March 6 is the day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its most infamous ruling, the Dred Scott decision, in 1857.

While Geico did perform a public service in bringing this bit of historic news to my attention, I was less than pleased to hear how the insurance company framed the decision. It took the safe explanation, merely stating the judges ruled slave owners had the right to take their slaves into Western territories, that the federal government did not have the power to regulate slavery in those areas. 

What Geico did not point out is that in the Dred Scott decision the Court held that slaves were personal property, that people of African descent, whether free or slave, were not protected by the Constitution, that they had no rights as a U.S. citizen, that they had “no rights which any white man was bound to respect.” According to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott was the property of his owner, and property could not be taken from a person without due process of law (

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution basically have voided the Dred Scott decision, but disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and other minorities, has been a tragic legacy still weighing us down as a nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its subsequent renewal, helped expand voting rights, but the current challenge by Shelby County, Ala., to Section 5 of the law raises the prospect of another ignominious decision by the Court. 

Which brings me to my second enlightened disappointment of the week. I had followed coverage of the Supreme Court arguments. I remonstrated against Justice Antonin Scalia’s bigoted views and the absurdity and hypocrisy of a conservative judge advocating judicial advocacy to do the work of Congress. No, my reversal of ignorance is of a more personal nature.

Thanks to a clip on The Colbert Report Wednesday night, I once again was embarrassed to hear my cousin, Bert Rein, argue before the Supreme Court in favor of the entitled, in favor of those who would repress the rights of the disadvantaged. While the history of this country has been the (gradual) expansion of voting rights to all citizens, my cousin, representing Shelby County, stood for the belief that “the problem for which the Voting Rights Act was addressed is solved.” 

Did Bert sleep through the last election cycle? Did he not witness attempt after attempt by Republican elected officials in state after state to restrict voting access to minorities? 

Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lessons to be Learned

Spent an engrossing 95 minutes Tuesday afternoon watching The Gatekeepers, the Academy Award-nominated documentary that interviewed six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service.

I won't bias your opinion of this film by injecting my analysis of the merits of what was conveyed by them.  I urge all to see it. It’s a refreshing presentation of ideas and events from key participants in Israel’s history since 1967. I was captivated by the candor of these six men, especially when I compare two interviews I saw and heard with former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor this week. She's promoting a new book she wrote about the Court, but when pressed by Leonard Lopate of WNYC-NPR or Jon Stewart of The Daily Show for specific insights into the inner workings of the Court, the best they were able to elicit was the fact that when the justices get together for lunch they individually order food from the Supreme Court building cafeteria.

What I do want to highlight from the film it how fragile relationships between peoples—especially enemies—can be. They can turn on a phrase spoken with casual sincerity but unintended consequences. Shortly after Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza and their more than one million Palestinians after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel undertook a census of the territories. As one of the Shin Bet directors recounted, Israelis would knock on Palestinian doors, announce themselves, and say in Arabic they were there to “count the men.” But the word for “count” sounds disastrously close to another word that would not instill confidence or bonhomie. That other word is “castrate.” Whether it was Israeli mispronunciation or Palestinian mishearing, a casualty of understanding ensued.

Which brings me to my own experience with language, in my case, English. If you’ve ever tried to teach English to anyone from a non-English speaking country, you would know that English is a darn hard language to learn. Too many words sound alike. Too many words have multiple meanings. Too many words, depending on their usage, can be either nouns or verbs, or adjectives. 

For more than a year I have been tutoring English as Second Language students at our high school during their study hall. I stay away from math assignments. English. History. Geography. Simple science lessons. I'm pretty good at imparting some knowledge in those subjects.

But the lessons aren’t always easy. It doesn’t help that my Spanish (most of the students are from Latin America) is limited to 20 words or so. I had a major breakthrough today. Trying to explain “cowgirl,” I made little headway saying it was a female cowboy. The student had no idea what a cowboy was. Fortunately, all those years watching westerns paid off. I said “vaquero.” A connection was made.

It’s not always that simple, or lucky. Today I was helping a student study vocabulary. He had to identify words as nouns, verbs or adjectives and define them. Sounds straight forward. Only trouble was many of the words crossed over into multiple designations. Words like “cheer.”  Or “refuse.” How did you read refuse—as a verb (re-fuse) or as a noun (ref-use)?   

What about homonyms, such as profit and prophet. The other day a girl asked about Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When I started to tell her about the prophets Moses and Mohammed, she became bewildered. She wanted to know why I was talking about money.

Learning to master a language means learning idioms. Today’s idioms included “putting one’s foot in one’s mouth,” “get out of the car and assume the position,” and “no good deed goes unpunished.” 

I try to spend two hours a day, several times a week, tutoring. Sometimes, real estate work intrudes on my time commitment. So do food deliveries to seniors on Wednesdays. Don’t presume going to the Tuesday movies does—school ends hours before the first screening of the day. Helping these kids gain a better understanding of their new surroundings is among the most gratifying work I’ve ever done. When it’s your turn to retire, you could find few pursuits more fulfilling, rewarding and necessary than spending time assisting ESOL students acclimate to America.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Signs of Spring

With a new storm set to tumble across our area in the next day one might not agree with me that this has been a mild winter in New York. Gilda, for one, disagrees. She says it’s been colder than normal. All I know is I have shoveled less snow than in years’ past so I'm okay with this season. I’ve also got my own built-in system to gauge the weather. I have numerous winter coats worn depending on how cold it is. A different coat for every 10 degrees of change. I can remember just a few days this season when my extreme wardrobe was called into action. 

Some think robins are harbingers of spring. To me it's the return of the lustrous black grackle. They made their appearance at the feeding trough over the last week.

Another signal the seasons are changing is the migration of baseball players to Florida for spring training. For NY Yankees fans it’s not a season of new prospects but rather a time to hope creaking, aging bodies will loosen up and stay healthy for another season (latest to require a two month rest—Mark Teixiera after injuring his wrist swinging a bat). Derek Jeter. Andy Petittte. Mariano Rivera. Can they make it through another grueling season?

For at least a decade Jeter has been the face of baseball. No hint of scandal, on or off the field. Professional in every way. But truth be told, the image of baseball is changing. It is morphing into Buster Posey. Two out of the last three years the team he plays for, the San Francisco Giants, have won the World Series. Posey is the heart and soul of the Giants. If you watched any of the World Series last fall you probably saw Posey’s smiling, puckish face a few times whenever, that is, he deemed it necessary to remove his protective helmet. Posey is a catcher, perhaps the most demanding position on the field.

Catchers don't look like catchers anymore. Not like the catchers of my youth. Back then, a catcher’s body resembled a fire hydrant. Short and squat. Think Yogi Berra. Or Smoky Burgess. Or Roy Campanella. Or Johnny Rosboro. They were hardly good looking. Think Thurman Munson.

Today's catchers are trim, cute, good looking. Pitchmen for shampoos. Think Joe Mauer. Even backup catchers like Chris Stewart are lean.

Where did all the bulk go. Apparently to first base. Think Pablo Sandoval of the Giants, affectionately called “Kung Fu Panda” because of his rotund size. The 2012 World Series MVP is 5’11” tall and weighs 240 pounds. Yet he looks small compared to Prince Fielder of the Detroit Tigers. Prince looks like he ate his way to a throne. On his 5’11” inches he packs 275 pounds.

Let’s get back to Thurman Munson. He was a link in the chain of home-grown Yankees who epitomized the team. I’ll confine this discourse to the free agent era. When one thinks of Yankee greats, following Munson there was the Don Mattingly era followed by the Bernie Williams-Jorge Posada-Jeter-Pettitte-Rivera era. The problem with the Yankees of today is the absence of home-grown superstars, with the exception of Robinson Cano, who will step up when Jeter-Pettitte-Posada retire. Yankee fans like winning, so we accept the strategy of buying talent on the open market. But our hearts, our long-term allegiances, are extended to those who came up through the Yankee farm system. Sure, there are some players who have been Yankees throughout their careers. But let’s face it. Brett Gardner is a nice ballplayer. So is David Robertson. Phil Hughes. Joba Chamberlain. They may wear the same pinstripes as Jeter-Pettitte-Rivera, but they don’t measure up. 

Spring is the time of eternal optimism in baseball clubhouses and TV rooms across the country. For Yankee fans, this season has all the earmarks of 1965-redux. If you’re a true Bronx Bomber fan, you know what I mean. All the rest of you, you can look it up.