Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Tucson

It is colder than you might have thought, or at least might have wanted. When my son arrived almost at midnight on the 22nd, it was less than 35 degrees; maybe not much colder than what he left in Chicago, but he was hoping for tropical paradise. A couple of days ago we had highs and lows of about 61 and 33 and NYC was 67 and 41. Nonetheless, he hasn’t seen precipitation and there are flurries in Chicago. It was raining a lot last week; it was raining on Sunday and Monday. On Thursday, we went on a hike and it was lovely; no worries about rattlesnakes in the Tucson Mountains when it is this cold.

Our trip was less uneventful; left Friday evening, stayed in Pratt, KS, and headed west and south on US-54. It’s prettier than going on the Interstates, 40 and 25. Somewhere in the construction zone, however, a few miles south of Carrizozo, the driver’s side tire exploded. We must have run over something sharp a while before and it imbedded in it. No shoulder, so Pat steers it carefully down a small embankment onto flat dirt. Shredded. We call AAA and are told 45 minutes, so try to change it, with little luck. It’s been raining here also, and the dirt is soft, and instead of car going up, jack goes down. Raised it some with the help of a piece of flat concrete, enough to get the wheel off, but not the donut spare on. Within about 2 hours, as the sun is beginning to set, the AAA guy arrives with a lever jack, from 50 miles away over the mountain in Ruidoso. We are able to get the tire on, although it is harder since VW (it is a pretty new Jetta Sportwagen Turbodiesel, 40 mpg on the highway + room for the dogs) makes the bolts separate so you have to line up the tire with the holes, instead of just placing it on bolts that stick out. So on our way the hour to Alamogordo, where the Walmart tire place is still open for another 20 minutes and they have exactly one size 225/45/R17 high performance tire. Which is all we need. So we figure out how to reset the tire pressure light, treat ourselves to a nice hotel another hour south in Las Cruces, and head onto Tucson in the morning. And we think about how lucky we are to have money and credit cards in our pockets and what a real disaster such a blowout was when we were young and had nothing.

So we have a relaxing few days, going to the gym in the morning with my father who is spending the winter here, visiting my sister and brother-in-law, and Pat’s sister and nephew. And, of course, having another blowout, right front this time, and right in Tucson. Must have been another piece of metal imbedded. Who knows? We are now swift at tire changing, knowing where all the pieces are and having firmer dirt, and we head to the Firestone place to get our 2nd tire in 3 days. We’ll pay more attention to that low pressure light…

Anyway, Pat and Herbie, my father, had a good time shopping the 99-cent store in the mall where the Firestone place was, so all was not lost, and  so far the rest of the tires have stayed intact. We’ve visited Nancy’s new place, a double-wide she calls “My Little Palace”, in a 55-and-older mobile home park in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. She is located high, and has put picture windows in the NE facing side looking out over the Catalinas and the whole valley. In addition to the path to the rec center and big swimming pool, there are trails into the desert out her back door. And all for a price, including renovations and restoration, for a fraction of a house in a much less nice area. And, despite the rain and chill, not much worry about tornadoes or hurricanes here!

The dogs like running around the fenced in yard around the little house my father is staying in, owned by and next door to Becky and Bill, though this didn’t stop them from trying to dig their way out in soft dirt, creating a hole that he had to fill with rocks. We see this when we go to pick him up, to try to fix his computer and go to the gym. And the trees, everywhere, but especially in Becky and Bills front yard, which they have walled and landscaped, and have placed several types of feeders, are filled with birds. Hummers, red house finches (such a dull name for such a colorful bird!) and so many others.

We’ve also hiked the Tucson Mountains, and had a gathering at my sister’s for all our old friends, and had dinner with Barry and Joyce, and gone to see the new Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes action flick, and had bunches of meals together, including lunch yesterday with one of my medical students and her parents who live here, lovely people. And picked up a great deal on steaks and fish from a guy with a truck – the bacon-wrapped filets mignon and ahi steaks last night were great. And Adam is here, which is wonderful, and last night we walked the streets of Winterhaven, two blocks away, to see the fantastic Christmas displays they put up. We liked "Occupy Winterhaven", ooh-aahed at the amazing imitation-Bellagio light show, and the dogs ate popcorn off the street. A good time was had by all. If cold.

But Tucson is Tucson, and the mountains are still there, and I am looking out the back doors at the Catalinas and Finger Rock. And, though it has been light for a while, the sun is coming from the east and illuminating it in a direct light almost as beautiful as the reflected red light from the west last evening. The cactuses have survived another night, and today is Christmas Eve. Pat and Nancy will take Sean up to Phoenix to fly to see his father in New Jersey, and then we’ll go see the new American “Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”, and have dinner, if not the traditional Chinese food. Family is good, and so is life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December at the Lake

Early winter. Only early December, so officially still fall. Cold, but not bitter, mid-winter cold, about 30 this morning. A rime of frost on the railings of the deck, and on the grass out front, and on the chewed up dirt where they dug the sewer line where there used to be grass. A bit late for the main migrations but there is a bunch of ducks paddling across the lake – I can’t tell what kind – and later another flock honking (if ducks honk; I don’t think they are geese) across the sky. Later, I saw a kingfisher in a tree, and a great blue heron wheeling around the lake. The bird feeder Herbie bought, which I cleaned out of its clumped husks a few weeks ago, is doing a good business, mainly goldfinches and nuthatches. And we saw a strange (to us) nest hanging on a tree in the woods, apparently belonging to a Baltimore oriole.

I sit in the cold with a thick fleece, and wool gloves, and a towel spread on the metal chair, with a cup of coffee and a book I need to finish. It is already light out, and the sun is rising above the trees across the lake. The lake is not completely calm, but certainly not too rough to go out on. It is just still a bit cold. Maybe later, if the temperature gets to 40 or more, after eating. The dogs, especially Fry, are jumping around, wanting to go for a walk. Even though they are not on a leash, running around near the house isn’t enough, but they won’t go for a long walk without one of us.

Yesterday morning, in the West, in time zones where it was still dark when it occurred, Nancy and Amy saw the lunar eclipse in the morning. Amy, farther west in Grass Valley in the Sierra foothills, says it was very impressive. In Kansas City the sun was already up, so the eclipse was not visible, but last night there was a huge yellow full moon hanging in the sky, reflecting on the lake. It was very beautiful here.

The trees are bare, the air is cold, and the coots that spend the winter here are not yet in evidence, nor the otters. But it is very peaceful, and very pretty. I think that you would have liked it, Matt.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nostalgia and the Near Poor: Confronting the real issues that face us

A number of my recent posts could legitimately be characterized as “nostalgia”, that is, generally positive reflections on times or things gone by  (Brooklyn Nostalgia, Remembering Records, Steve Goodman). That’s OK, we all have our memories and some of them are good, and I get pleasure writing about them, and sometimes they evoke pleasant memories  in others who read them.

But this is not at all to say that all memories are good, or certainly that times past were better. I have had a harder time writing about the difficult and sad memories because – they are difficult and sad. Nostalgia tends to be selective. While it is good to remember things that were good, or interesting, and now gone or much decreased, or are no longer easily available to us because we have moved (“Nathan’s” hot dogs, French fries and clam strips!) , that doesn’t make it true that the past was all good. I have also written about this.

In a typically excellent piece in the New York Times, November 19, 2011, Charles Blow writes about the “Decline of American Exceptionalism”. He discusses a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, in which, for the first time, the percent of Americans  answering saying that they agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” had dropped below 50% (to 49%,from a high of 60% when first asked in 2002). Even more striking, he notes, “…was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain.”  (Note that France, the other country for which data is provided is quite a bit lower than the US, despite the common portrayal of the French as “culture snobs”. Funny, that.)

Looking at it the other way, older people are more likely to believe this statement, whichever country they are from; the percents for the groups 18-29 and 50+ are, for the US 37/60, for Germany 45/51 (the smallest difference), for Spain 39/55, for Britain 38/38 (and, interesting, this is the only country where the middle group, 30-49, is way below either, at 20%), and for France 20/35. Perhaps this, in general, does indicate that older people remember the past as better, either because of “nostalgia” or because it actually was.

Providing some support for the latter idea is the increasing evidence that most of the increase in wealth over the last 30 years (certainly in the US) has gone to a small percent of those at the top. At the greatest extremes the top 1% have more wealth than the bottom 50%. The ratios of CEO earnings to those of the average worker have increased logarithmically, from the mid 2 digits (about 40) to over 300 times since the 1950s. Some support for this is also presented in another article from the same day’s Times: Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census, by Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise.  “They drive cars,” it starts, “but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by. “ We have focused on poverty in the elderly and in children and in the “core” poor, but this is a “new” group. Or newly-identified by the Census Bureau; most of us know people in this situation.

I am not; I am very fortunate to have gone to medical school and become a doctor, I know in part because it would provide financial security as well as the opportunity make some positive difference in the world. But I could have been in this group had I chosen a different profession. My parents worked hard, and wanted me to get a good education, but they certainly were not rich or able to provide for my future if I didn’t work.  I benefited from growing up in NYC when the public schools offered the opportunity to have an excellent education. This is “nostalgia”  but it is socioeconomic nostalgia for a time when the city of New York was populated mostly by workers, who had built institutions that in many ways mirrored European social democracies. Where one could get a bachelors and masters degree tuition-free from the City University. Before the “financial crisis” of the 1970s (brought on, let us be clear, like all financial crises, by the bankers and not the people) opened the door for a jealous and vengeful rest-of-the-US to destroy the infrastructure the city that had built for its people (NY Daily News headline of October 30, 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead!"). (For a much better and more complete discussion of the history of the city and the people-centered infrastructure it had built, see “Working Class New York”, by historian – and no relation – Joshua B. Freeman). 

The bankers, as we have become used to, won. Jobs left the city, and it became more and more a “center of finance” catering to the well-to-do. The small factories that had covered the city left for lower-cost (read: “non-union") states when they could. And the same happened across the country. The industries that allowed people who had often less than a high-school diploma to work really hard and earn enough to buy a house, a car or even two, and send their kids to college – the steel mills of Chicago and Pittsburgh, the auto plants in Michigan and Ohio, “blue collar” jobs everywhere  – disappeared. And the folks who were born just a little too late to have worked in these jobs into retirement, as well as many who have seen their retirement benefits dwindle, are our new “near poor”.

But the disparity that strikes me most about the findings of the Pew study are between those with and without college degrees, with the latter group consistently and significantly more of the belief that their culture is superior. They are quite impressive in each of the countries surveyed. In France, apparently the new standard for cultural non-arrogance, the difference is 20%, with 15% of those with college degrees and 35% of those without having this belief. The country with the largest difference is Germany (25%/50%), while in the US, the difference is the smallest (9%, 43% of those with degrees and 52% of those without), but the percents for both groups are the highest.

Why are those without college degrees more likely to believe their own cultures are superior? Perhaps it is the obvious answer, that a college education broadens one’s outlook and decreases this kind of arrogance-born-of-ignorance. In this case, it is scary to think about what the US higher-education system is doing if 43% of college graduates still hold these beliefs. Or it could be, in part, that as opportunities, economic and otherwise, wither, it is nice to have something to hold on to, in much the same way that beliefs in an afterlife can be comforting in times of loss. Or maybe it is nostalgia – I may not look like so much now, but once I – and my country – was young and strong. I certainly don’t know. But I know that we need to understand the difference between nostalgia, remembrances accurate or inaccurate of the past, and what is recognizing that we have in many ways gone in the wrong direction for the last 30 years, guided not by ignorance but by selfishness and greed, and now need to change that direction.

Blow says: “We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices.” Indeed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Bonus Army: Forgotten or Relevant?

In 1932, the US government sent active duty army troops to attack its own WW I Veterans.
This is a guest post from Herb Freeman

It was inspiring to me to manage to get to Zuccotti Square on Monday and to make my small contribution against the weather. I'm pretty old, but not anywhere old enough to have participated in the World War I veterans' bonus march in 1932, encompassing about 30,000 veterans and families, from all over the country, demanding that the government honor their promised $1.25 a day veterans' bonus in the middle of the 1930s depression.

Instead, President Hoover sent Major General Douglas MacArthur, Major Patton in charge of two troops of cavalry and four tanks, and oh yes, Major Eisenhower, who later called MacArthur "that dumb son of a bitch", not for dispelling and burning the veterans' makeshift dwellings, but for personally overseeing it. That overkill reaction, according to many historians led to Herbert Hoover's defeat by Roosevelt, who wasn't much better to the veterans.

Your Occupy the Highways, is what reminded me of this event, which has many parallels to what you are now accomplishing, and you may already know of this history, or have been reminded of it many times.  I just thought that it was significant that this action follows an American tradition of dissent, and not only the Arab Spring model.

Possibly better articles are on the History website and Wikipedia.  I didn't find any from a participant's point of view.

Fight on.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Steve Goodman

Writing about records has me thinking about music and performers. One of my favorites, possibly less well known all over the country than in his native Chicago, is the late Steve Goodman. He was a stalwart of the “folk revival” and author and singer of many important songs. When I first moved to Chicago in the early 1970s, he had a bar on Lincoln Avenue called “Somebody Else’s Troubles”, after one of his more popular songs. Its lyrics were typical of his wit as well as containing profound philosophy:

It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles,
They don’t make you lose any sleep at night.
As long as fate is out there bustin’ somebody else’s bubbles
Everything’s going to be all right!

Among the other songs we loved were whimsical “Chicken Cordon Blues”, about a guy whose girlfriend buys only health food while he yearns for éclairs and lasagna (“This stuff is so weird, the cockroaches moved next door!”), and “Lincoln Park Pirates”, about an infamous towing company of the time that “would tow almost anything off the street”. Written like a sea shanty, it contained many local references (common to Goodman’s songs) including the assertion that

All of my drivers are friendly and courteous
Their good manners you always will get
For they all are recent graduates
Of the charm school at Joliet!

For all I know, the city of Joliet, southwest of Chicago, might well have a charm school, but Chicagoans all know that it is the state prison to which Goodman is referring! After the “fat man” (he didn’t use the well-known name of the company’s proprietor) tows all the cars off the street, he plans to

Tow all the boats from Belmont Harbor to the Lincoln Park Lagoon…
And when I’ve collected the ransom, and sunk all the ones that won’t yield
I’ll tow all the planes that are blocking the runways at Midway, O’Hare and Meigs Field!

Goodman’s most famous song was, of course “City of New Orleans”, made famous first by Arlo Guthrie and then recorded by many others, including Johnny Cash. Another Chicago-area city is featured in that one; at the beginning of the trip, “the train pulls out of Kankakee”, a city south of Chicago which nicely rhymes with “southbound odyssey”.

Another song that is a favorite of my family is “You Never Even Call Me by my Name”. The original didn’t have the “last verse” added to David Allen Coe’s famous version. According to the story Coe tells on his album, he responded to Goodman’s assertion that it was the perfect country and western song by saying it wasn’t, since it “said nothing about mama, trains, trucks, prison or getting drunk.” So Goodman added a verse:

I was drunk the day my ma got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a darned old train!

Which led Coe to say that, indeed, it was the perfect country and western song. And it became almost an anthem in some parts of Texas. Mainly bar parts.

Another great song is the beautiful, wistful “Banana Republic”, most famously recorded by Jimmy Buffet, about sad, pathetic, American expatriates

Some of them are running from lovers
Leaving no forward address,
Some of them are running tons of ganja
Some are running from the IRS

who, in their drunkenness, wish the band would

Give me some words I can dance to, or a melody that rhymes.

 Interestingly, one of my other favorite songs recorded by Goodman, “The Dutchman”, another sad – or bittersweet – song about an older man with dementia and his caring wife, was not written by him but by Michael Peter Smith:

Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise about the Zuider Zee
Long ago I used to be a young man
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.

Meigs Field, the downtown commuter airport, was lost to the renovation of Grant Park in 2003, but Steve Goodman was lost to us almost 20 years earlier, dying from the leukemia that plagued him for much of his life in 1984, at the age of 36. He was a great Chicago Cubs fan and author of the classic Chicago chant “Go, Cubs, Go!” (“Hey, Chicago, whaddya say, Cubs are gonna win today!”).  According to his Wikipedia entry, “Four days after Goodman's death, the Chicago Cubs clinched the Eastern Division title in the National League for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945, three years before Goodman's birth. Eight days later, on October 2, the Cubs played their first post-season game since the 1945 World Series. Goodman had been asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before it; Jimmy Buffett filled in, and dedicated the song to Goodman. In April 1988, some of Goodman's ashes were scattered at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs.” That was a pretty big time in my family also, as my son Matt, then in kindergarten, was a complete Cubs zealot (I wish I could find the picture of him dressed for Halloween as Bobby Dernier, the second baseman on that team!)

Buffett titled his autobiography “A Pirate Looks at 50”; for Goodman, the Lincoln Park pirates were bad guys, so probably remembering him as the “Lincoln Park Pirate”, though tempting, would be inappropriate. But I do remember him, and continue to love his music. Peace be with you, Steve Goodman.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Remembering Records

I heard a report on the radio about a company that would put all of your CDs on to MP3s, saving you the trouble of lugging all those heavy CDs around when you moved. I guess it is the latest technological “transfer”. When my oldest son was born, we invested in a very state-of-the-art Super 8 mm movie camera. Took lovely 3 minute film strips. Not a couple of years later, videotape cameras came into use. Friends and family took all their old filmstrips and had them reprocessed into videotapes. Now you could watch the family grow up Christmas after Christmas, all on one videotape. I hope that, if you did this, it was on VHS and not Beta! Now all of those old VHS tapes are being copied onto DVDs.

So, this change of media is nothing new; it just happens more rapidly. I started thinking, with the CDs onto MP3s, whether a CD collection was as bulky as a record collection. Surely, not. Obviously the CDs themselves are much smaller than 12-inch LPs; the jewel cases may be a bit thicker than record jackets, but their smaller size must compensate for that. I assume that everyone knows what 12-inch LPs (records) are. Vinyl disks? The things that DJs scratch back and forth with special turntables? Regular turntables – oh yes, I have a very nice Bang and Olufsen Beogram with an arm that goes across the record rather than pivoting. Very pleased with it when I got it a few years before CDs came out. But, then again, I still have records that I can play on it. I don’t, but I could. I’m sure.

So, mostly for the nostalgia of people who are old, I want to point out that LPs, those 12” vinyl disks,  are called “LP” for “long playing”, because they could have as much as 30 minutes of music on each side (but rarely, more often in the low 20s). They were also known as “33s”, because they were designed to play at 33-1/3 rpm, as opposed to their predecessors, 78s, which (you guessed it!) played at 78 rpm. 78s pretty much had one song on a side; not only did they rotate more than twice as fast, the new 33s were 20% bigger (12 vs 10 inches) [note: calculation error. They're actually 44% bigger; like pizzas area of records increases by squaring the radius, so a 12" record has an area of 36π while a 10" only 25π].  and had more closely spaced grooves. They required a different needle (a diamond needle, usually) than did the 78s. Most record players, or “changers”, had a double needle so you could rotate the correct one into place, along with a switch to adjust the speed to 33, 78, or in the middle, 45 rpm. 45s were the 7 inch disks with the big hole in the middle (presumably so you wouldn’t put it on a regular spindle and wreck the record by playing it at 78rpm); they had one song on a side also, but were a lot smaller, lighter and easier to store than 78s. If you didn’t have a 45 spindle, they sold plastic adapters that you could put into the big hole and put it on a regular spindle, but you still had to change the speed. 45s were the records that everybody I knew bought and collected from elementary school up through high school; you could buy a box to carry them around in, to parties at other people’s houses. I bet there are still some in a box at my father’s house.

What I know are at my father’s house are a bunch of 78 rpm albums. Those of you old enough to remember records but not 78s probably never thought about why a record is called an “album”, since it is only one record in a sleeve, but 78s actually came in albums, like a picture album. Because you could get so little music on one disk, if you recorded a symphony or an opera (or even a group of songs by a single artist or group) you had to have a bunch of disks, most commonly 4. So between the two cardboard covers with the information on them were several paper sleeves, each of which had a disk in it. And, to hear the whole album (particularly if it was a symphony or an opera, say) you piled the disks on a long spindle that had an apparatus that would drop down the next disk when one was finished. And when all were done, you turned the stack over to hear the rest. Thus, confusing to me as a child who didn’t much listen to symphonies, side 1 is on the flip side of side 8, side 2 is with side 7, 3 with 6, and 4 with 5.

78 records, while vinyl, were an older fashioned kind, not somewhat flexible like 33s, but rigid and thick. And brittle after a while. At one time when I was, probably, a young teenager, my father decided to get rid of a bunch of old 78s, many of which had cracks, and discovered that they would (pretty much) break when banged on my head. Not too hard, you understand, and good preparation for smashing beer cans on my forehead a few years later! Luckily, he didn’t break them all. Some of the albums most fixed in my brain are still there in the cabinet. They would probably be scratched a reedy and thin (remember these were all monaural, not stereophonic), but they would be great. I know that Josef Marais and the “Songs of the South African Veldt” is still there, as is “Songs of Free Men” by Paul Robeson and another album of songs of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the Americans who fought on the (losing) side of the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists, along with the other members of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-38. One disk had a label stuck on it that said, in Spanish “the noises on this recording are due to the electrical interruptions resulting from the bombings”.

We also still have, I am pretty sure, Robeson’s recording of “Ballad for Americans” by John LaTouche and Earl Robinson (and produced by the recently-deceased Norman Corwin), which, according to the Wikipedia entry, “In the 1940 presidential campaign it was played at both the Republican National Convention (by white baritone Ray Middleton) and that of the Communist Party”. (We also have Odetta’s rendition, on both LP and CD). And Burl Ives. And a recording of “La Boheme” featuring Victoria de los Angeles as Mimi and Jussi Björling as Rodolfo, one of my mother’s favorites. And, of course, as I was reminded the other day listening to a talk on the history of the NY Yankees, the Brooklyn Baseball Cantata, by George Kleinsinger, performed by Robert Merrill (available on YouTube as Part 1 and Part 2).
And, in case you’re wondering, while I did have a child’s 78-only record player (“Tubby the Tuba” and Tex Ritter cowboy songs), no, I don’t go back as far as wax cylinders or gramophones with conch-shell-shaped speakers. And, to be honest, if saving CDs to MP3s saves weight, think of the weight-saving benefit for 78s!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tahrir or Tienanmen? "White Shirts" or Brown? Occupy Wall St and the NYC Police

This is a guest post by Herbert Freeman.

This week has suddenly exploded with opinions from various establishment figures across the political spectrum about a homogenous encampment in the financial district that has existed for about a month and has been an object of scorn and ridicule and physical abuse until now.

NYC Police Commissioner Kelly, instead of evasive defense of the abuses of his “white shirt” police commanders, in the face of the multiple videos, that throw the lie back to his face is now whining about the cost to the department.  Perhaps we should thank him for increasing the pay to his patrolmen and using them to increase the size of the participants four and five-fold.

Mayor Bloomberg, in his normal arrogant deviousness, first deliberately misconstrued the protest as an attack on the ordinary wage earners in the financial sector, rather than the institutions that employ them.  His new attack is that his tax base is being damaged, though the protesters are trying to increase his tax income by having the privileged pay a fair share.  This, at a time when he not only has enlarged the unemployment rolls, but the callous immorality in high places, that the protesters deplore, the concept of “Get Mine First, To Hell With the Rest,” has slopped over into several areas of his own city administrations.

Now the pundits are starting to devaluate the movement, by analyses which tend to show that “they don’t really know what they want.”  This, of course, is most common among those sharp observers, who never saw a housing bubble coming, and denied the possibility of a recession, while it was in full swing, as ordinary market fluctuations.

On the other end of the pendulum, are the psychics, who ponder is this like a left-wing Tea Party reaction?  Are these the same people (or their grandchildren), who protested the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Afghanistan War, celebrating its 10th birthday with no end in sight?

Perhaps, they say, it’s like the youth and student protests in Tianenem Square, that Occupation there was good because it was a protest in China or like the street protests, also in a square, in Bahrain, that was bad because it jeopardized our oil interests. Maybe like the ones in Syria (that was good, they aren’t our ally), or Tel Aviv on Rothschild Boulevard
(that was bad because they are our ally in destroying Middle East peace).

How about the Arab Spring in Tunisia (good), Cairo (the jury is out), Yemen (bad, we control the oil).  But the real question should be how do we handle peaceful (but sometimes disruptive) dissent in the most advanced democratic nation in the world, with strong constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly?

These demonstrations, which are showing signs of growth in other areas of the United States and Canada,  gave birth in the heart of New York City, the largest and most advanced city in terms of this country’s economy.  We also happen to have the largest police army and prison system.

Is it possible to conceive that in this forward-looking metropolis, the port of call for millions of immigrants from hundreds of ethnicities, seeking liberty, the right to express their opinions, and economic security and even advancement, that the security forces responsible for public safety, would respond, not unlike they did in Syria and Bahrain, though to a lesser extent?  In terms of constitutional violations, and illegal conduct on the part of the government structure, the principle is exactly the same.

There is an additional psychological factor that disturbs me greatly, although I have no training in this field.  The reversal of roles between the foot soldiers and the “white shirt” commanders in handling these confrontations should alert us to many other possible problems for our citizenry.  The deliberate entrapment of demonstators on the bridge to Brooklyn, engineered so as to arrest as many people as possible on insignificant and very possibly false charges, in an effort to stifle the growth of the protest, is disturbing. Disturbing not only for the political content of the decision by our police force, but by the ignorance it shows of their understanding of what its effect would be.

The decision (and it was certainly a decision) to have the “white shirt” commanders be the first to attack the cornered marchers, was an apparent attempt to justify the actions of the original stupid commander who first sprayed four women behind the police nets.  Even if the demonstrators shouted derogatory remarks (possible but not certain) that is still free speech, not a criminal behavior and less still an attack.

But more frightening, was the psychotic attack by the “white shirt” commander swinging his baton with both hands as hard as he could against American young men and women, who may or may not have knocked over a barrier. Just consider that this man has access to .50 caliber machine guns, according to recent conflicting press releases from our mayor and police commissioner.

Would you trust this man, or the other “white shirt” commander who dragged a woman over the police netting to knock her to the ground, and kneel on her while cuffing her in an unnecessarily violent position? Or the one videotaped beating a young man's head against a car bumper? A young man whose "crime" was apparently possession of a professional-grade video camera. Stopping videotaping of their abuses is apparently a very high priority of the police (although in this case, someone else caught it on their camera).

Would you want to trust them in a real civil disobedience event, or a terrorist attack, or even to even to be responsible for raising children? I certainly wouldn’t!  If some of you are thinking that I use the term “white shirt,” very often to imply that there is a similarity between their mind-set and that of other military-style groups in European history, let me make it clear. You are absolutely right!

I attended the rally in Foley Square last Wednesday, and was impressed by a woman who carried a sign saying, “I’m 87 years old, and I’m mad as hell.”  I was so proud of her, and then realized that next month I will be 87 years old and I can be justified in being “as mad as hell.”  I physically cannot camp in “Liberty Park,’ but I intend to visit often, bring food, money, and hope to sit with them, and perhaps learn something.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shall we be callous or shall we be people? There is hope.

Charles Blow, who appears every Sunday in the New York Times, is one of my favorite columnists. He is terse and articulate. His column always features a fascinating graphic with data that presents additional insight into his topic. Sometimes his topic is overtly political, as when he recently wrote about the disappointment many, including African-Americans, feel in President Obama. Frequently it is about people, especially poor people, especially children, and the incredible challenges that they face in this land of “everything for the rich and squeeze the most needy”. His colleague, Nicholas Kristof, often writes about the plight of children in the rest of the world; between them, we learn a great deal of about the desperate situation of so many, as in On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence, September 25, 2011.

So, on September 24, 2011, it was uplifting to have a column presenting something good happening for these children, It Takes a Village. Blow describes his visit to the Dorothy Day Apartments on Riverside Drive in West Harlem, a “former drug den” converted in 2003 to housing for destitute and homeless families. Most of the adults were drug addicts or are HIV victims or mentally ill or all. He writes about the cheerfulness of the design of the entire building (including the art gallery on the top floor with views of the Hudson River), of the yoga done by “wee little legs that barely have kneecaps” on mats placed in a courtyard that was previously 6 feet deep in garbage.  It has been successful by any measure – no teenage pregnancies, successful graduations from high school and entry into college, as well as done at a cost less that “housing” people in prison, shelters, or mental hospitals.

Blow quotes Lady Bird Johnson saying “Where flowers bloom, so does hope”. I am reminded of the song (taken from a poem by James Oppenheim written in 1911) “Bread and Roses”,Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!” The poem is associated with the women who struck the textile mills in Lawrence, MA in 1912, and since the name of many projects and organizations, including an “integrated arts” high school in Harlem.  If I am disappointed in anything in Blow’s column, it is that he fails to mention who Dorothy Day was. Day, who died in 1980, co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, “a nonviolent, pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf”. If anyone wonders if Catholicism is focused only on anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and child abuse, or that there are those practicing the precepts contained in the New Testament rather than greed, prejudice, and selfishness, the Catholic Worker Movement is a good place to start. We are very fortunate to have such a center, Shalom House, in my town of Kansas City, KS.

On the same page as Blow’s op-ed is one by Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw, who are academics rather than columnists. “How do you say ‘Economic Security”?” discusses the situation in the Depression in 1934, and how the government was seen as the vehicle for helping those in need to achieve a dignified life. They talk about how the discussion has changed in the last 50 years. In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live.“  They go on to say that “In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.”

There were selfish bad guys with lots of money in 1934. But they were unable to control the debate, hard as they tried, with their control of the media (Hearst newspapers, anyone?). Somehow today they do. Occasionally, there is a burst of hope, the mass rallying of regular people to contribute to and work for Barack Obama in 2008, and the dashing of hope as this figure too seems to serve those with the most power. Marmor and Mashaw conclude  Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately. Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”

I’d like to say “maybe yes”. Maybe we can look at the Dorothy Day Apartments and the Catholic Worker movement and Shalom House and the dozens of groups called “Bread and Roses” and the thousands of organizations and millions of people who really want to make this country and this world a better place for actual people, and have hope. And, if we want to look back for inspiration, let me offer a few passages from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech of January 6, 1941:

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living….

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it….

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.”

Are we now such a different people that such aspirations are no longer possible? I hope not.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. Becker

Most people have at least one teacher that they remember who had a major influence on their lives. Or we hope so. Experts may differ on what criteria define “good teacher”, but for me and many others Bob Becker, my 6th grade teacher, was most assuredly one. In those days (1960) there were not that many male elementary school teachers in Brooklyn, but they were not so rare; I had had one in the 5th grade also. But Mr.Becker was quite special. One of the “male teacher” things he did was coach – and pitch for – our class and intramural softball games (you got “two swings”). But most of the things he did were far from gender-defined.
The most unique part of the curriculum was a daily lecture, called the “Basic Lecture Series”. Throughout the year, he lectured (for, I guess, an hour, or 45 min) on core topics for our education. At least to my memory, they tended to focus on the what I would now call the social sciences: history, economic, politics. I remember a series on different forms of government and another on different economic systems. A whole series of lectures that covered WWII. And so on. And all the students in the class were required to take notes on the lectures and turn them to be graded. Early in the year, he reviewed various styles of note-taking (e.g, numbered, outline, free-style), so that each of us could try out different ways of doing it. The best notes were graded “MN” (master note-taker) or MHR (“most highly recommended); these were the ones we were to borrow to review if we missed a lecture. I cannot imagine how long it took him to grade all these every night. Or,maybe, it was only 3 times a week.

This was not the only area in which our sixth-grade instruction presaged not just high school but college. We had to do 3 term papers (“research papers”) during the year. The topics were up to us to choose, but the style was rigorous. They had to be at least 10 typed pages, contain at least 6 references (listed in a formatted bibliography) and some number of footnotes. We learned footnote style: format, the use of Op. cit.  and Ibid. (Op cit’s, meaning you had previously cited that reference, were ok, but too many Ibid’s – meaning the same as the previous reference – in a row were not.)  We had other projects, where we collaborated with others in the class in small groups. I remember one set of reports was on “countries of the world”, and my group had Eastern Europe. I was Bulgaria (attar of roses!); my friend Mark was Rumania. We were told to read the newspapers, and he oriented us to the style (full sheet or tabloid), politics (Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative), and the reliability of each of the 7 major NYC dailies of the time (the Times, Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Daily Mirror, Journal-American, World-Telegram, and Post) as well as the general perspectives of each of their major political columnists (Lippmann, Alsop, Krock, Kempton) and their political cartoonists (e.g., Herblock).

Mr. Becker’s interests were catholic (small “c”); he obviously believed in a strong liberal arts education, even for 11 year-olds. (Actually, also for a fair number of 10 year-olds, who had “skipped” 3rd grade and were in our 5th and 6th grade classes. While “skipping” was an old tradition in NYC schools, I learned from my parents, it hadn’t been offered for quite some time, including not to those my age; none of our age cohort had “skipped” 3rd grade. We made up for it in junior high school, though, where many of us were in the “2-Year SP”, another NYC institution, where we did the 3 years of junior high in 2. This option was not available to those who had already skipped a grade.) We regularly had to listen to classical music that he played, after, of course, lecturing to us on the various musical periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern) and what characterized the music of those periods, the style of the composer, and the individual piece. Of course, we were required to write down our reactions to and impressions of the music. Ironically, although obviously his class was one of the “smart” classes, it didn’t include the students who were in the school orchestra, who were in their own class. I believe a few years later he did teach the “orchestra class”; perhaps he lobbied for it.

He also directed our Dramatics Club. During that year, we performed two plays or musicals, or maybe three; I think in the fall I believe we all did Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore” (he took us later to see a performance at Brooklyn College, which, we were very clear, did not come up to our standards!). In the Spring I think half of us were in Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can't Take it With You”, while the other half did “The Diary of Anne Frank”. That one brought some feedback from some of the parents, who believed it was, perhaps, too serious and sad for children our age. Remember that it had been scarcely over 15 years since the end of WWII. Most of our father were veterans and were still under 40. And it was a Jewish neighborhood with an overwhelmingly Jewish class, most of whom had had family, nearer or closer, who were victims of the Holocaust. He won enough of them over for it to be performed, and, of course we (the global “we”; I was in the other play) did great. He took us on class trips, both more “traditional” ones to the great museums of NYC (such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) but also long-distance ones, such as the anticipated annual trip to the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut (change trains in Bridgeport), which, unfortunately, no longer exists.

And, obviously, we read books. We read novels, either assigned or chosen by us (and approved by him), known as “independent reading”. Not the “Dick and Jane” series of graded “readers” which we had mostly had (with the exception of 4th grade, where I also had a teacher committed to independent reading). And, just as obviously by now, he required us to write book reports on them that were held to a much higher standard that a plot summary and “I liked it”. I am certain that he taught science as well, because it was part of the curriculum, but whether the fact  that I have little memory of that part was because he was less enthusiastic and/or innovative in that area than in others, or because of something about me, I don’t know. (I do remember having to do a report on Francesco Redi, who disproved the theory of spontaneous generation, and who I could only find an article about in the Compton’s Pictured Encylopedia in the Kings Highway Library, not the Brittanica or Colliers; but maybe that was in 7th grade. I am not sure if the person who didn’t make that Compton’s discovery, and said he turned in a report that went “Francesco Redi was born was he was very young. He died when he was old, and has been dead ever since”, was serious or not, but it still makes a good story!)

He had great loyalty to alumni, and often brought back former students or regaled us with their current achievements. And, when we became alumni, we learned that he did not intend to give up on us. We left elementary school for junior high in the 7th grade, but he created an “after-school dramatics club” for alumni which met weekly in someone’s basement. That year we performed Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple”. And, unsurprisingly, there were alumni trips to Stratford, which I am sure I went on for several years.

I am not sure how old Mr. Becker was in 1960. Late 20s? Early 30s? I do know that a few years later he took a teaching position at a state college in New Jersey, and got married, and had a baby – at least one, because a number of us, with our parents who had stayed friends with him, journeyed down to see the baby. I also heard quite some time ago that he died, and I know that at the time it seemed as if he must be very young.

I hope all of you had at least one great teacher in school. I am not sure how many had one like Bob Becker.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Remembering Matt. Meyers though his poetry

Recently, my good friend Matt. Meyers died in New Mexico. Matt. was a very close friend from high school, and President of our Class (James Madison HS Class of 1966). He was a poet, and smart (graduate of Princeton), personable, charming, and a great friend. He will be very much missed by many people.

I recently wrote of Brooklyn Nostalgia, and as a way of remembering Matt. I am posting a poem that he wrote for our class' 20th anniversary in 1986. It captures, I think very well, the memories of 45 years ago as they were experienced 25 years ago.

Thank, you, Matt. We are thinking of you, and remembering you with love.

Twentieth Reunion

Of James Madison High School, Class of 1966
August 1986

We have come a long way
From that fragrant warm day in June
When we graduated from James Madison High School.
A long way from our freckled faced innocence and naivety,
A long way from our making out in any available
Movie theater balcony.
A long way from our exploring coffee houses in The City.
(Listening to early Bob Dylan, and Peter. Paul. and Mary),
A long way from shooting hoops and all night poker games.
(Smoking a pack of cigarettes at a single sitting),
A long way from our puppy-love crushes and embarrassed giggling.
A long way from bowling and ice-cream sodas on The Highway,
A long way from our Senior Singing.

But. we have come so far
That tonight we are back to where we started:
Young again, in Reunion.
How many crushes are being felt tonight?
How many giddy embraces are being renewed?
How many petty grudges are being finally laid to rest?
How many silent "what ifs" are being said?
Tonight we return to Brooklyn
To explore who we were and what we've become;
To marvel at our survival

Of two decades that took us from
Cozy tree lined streets to the carnage of Vietnam,
From the quiet of Bedford A venue
To the rioting in Newark and Detroit,
Our private adolescent distress turned into political protest,
The jubilation of winning Sing, transformed into
The celebration of the Woodstock Nation.

Classmates: We have made it!
Tonight is our assertion that we are learning longevity,
That we have become what our Yearbook inscriptions predicted we'd be;
We have mastered nervous breakdowns, bad breaks, and broken hearts,
Divorces, motorcycle accidents, demotions and false starts,
To take our place as safely ensconced adults;
Contending with mortgages and ulcers,
And a growing inventory of memories.

Some of our children are even college aged!
Their rooms already empty, except for the posters
And trophies and car keys.
"Now I know what our parents suffered through",
We mumble to ourselves in ever increasing frequency,
As we marvel at the unbroken circle
Of our children teaching us about our parents' worries.

We are a vast and powerful network, our Class of '66,
We sing for a living in Los Angles,
Own a business in Rio de Janeiro;
We have Doctorates in psychology, geology, meteorology,
We travel to Hawaii to take Nature photographs,
And England to manufacture woolen pants,
We sell insurance and real-estate and hosiery,
We are home-makers, house-husbands, caterers,
And of course, doctors and lawyers.

Let us also not forget our Classmates
With whom we shall not in body be reunited tonight?
Who of us has died of AIDS?
Or is home alone crying for lack of money or sanity?
Our who died in Vietnam,
Or in a car crash a long time ago on a lonely road in Iowa?
For them, our dear departed ones, let us also be a bit silent tonight.

Tonight we are poised on the poignant fulcrum of Reunion.
The uncertain future faces us with a wistful, beckoning smile,
The past, our common youth, with tearful eyes
Waves and wishes us a gentle "Good-bye".