Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blissful Ignorance

I deliberately remained ignorant of sickness and disease all my life. I thought if I was really quiet about it I could, in the course of (ample) time, slip up to and past the finish line without them. Knowing anything about illness scared me because by knowing it I might catch it. The slightest whiff could hurt me.

Not knowing almost killed me.

I missed all the signs. Blocked history and an earlier warning. Heeded the wrong advice. I listened to what I wanted to hear. If it let me off the hook, it was all I had to hear.

On the other hand, little to nothing shocks or surprises me. So when the bad news came, I took it in stride. Apparently too much stride: after the doctor told me I had a cancerous tumor in my throat, “a sizeable one,” he scrutinized me and said, “You’re taking this awfully well.” I‘ve since wondered how others take it. I explained to him that I’m not an alarmist, never have been. What is, is. In deference to him, I waited a respectful amount of silence, seconds, to ask, “So what’s next?”

For some of us, the further ahead of the pack we think we’ve inched in life, i.e., the healthier, happier, the better off we are… the easier we may have it, the more we privately angst about being unmerited—and getting our inevitable comeuppance, our just desserts, the divine leveler. Getting our due! We live on the edge of dreading-but-waiting for it. When it finally hits, we quiescently utter or imperceptibly exhale an “ah-ha”… “So here it is!”

What was next for me was that I was about to become a first-hand authority on one man’s cancer. Mine. Whoever said life changes on a dime shortchanged it. I found myself at that critical turning point in life when you see so much more of what you’ve left behind than what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I gave little, if any, thought to the life and death aspects of it. I concentrated on getting through it.

I’m not going to drown you in a litany of dreadful ill-, side-, or after-effects. But if you stop me on the street and ask about me, and I sense you’re sincerely interested, I’m going to give you an earful. Someone should go public with what having throat cancer really means, because so few have any clue.

There’s no reason you would think to ask me this, but I’ll confide in you. Sickness takes away your confidence. I watched mine diminish, as resultantly I diminished, quietly and distressingly. One of my closest friends, a man facing sudden, unaccustomed illness, told me he wasn’t worried, nor should I, his body had never failed him. And then it did. That immutable truth and loss haunts me.

What I learned and can share with you is that love—whom you love and who loves you—comes first and only. It starts with family, extends to friends, flows to and from well-wishers. Love, and loving support. I further learned that that loving support can (and in my case, blessedly did) come from the people whose hands your life is in everyday—the oncologists, nurses, radiologists and staff. On the grimmest of days, a receptionist’s warm smile goes right to your heart. When your doctor puts his arm around you and says, “I know how difficult it is for you,” you live for the next day.

No one should ever have go it alone, and I wonder, can someone? If my heart went out to anyone during any of my worst, this-is-about-me days, it was to the occasional patient who seemed to have no one at his or her side.

“The child is father of the man,” one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite poets, Wordsworth, became my reality. My two daughters opened doors and held them for me, gathered my belongings and shepherded me through corridors and crowds. I became my wife’s ward as well, the “little woman” becoming bigger in my eyes every day. In my second childhood I became gratefully dependent on three women, diligently taking instructions from them and earnestly asking them not only for advice, but what I was supposed to do “now.”

For “now,” I’m in the post radiation/chemo stage, “hell” weeks, as nurses accurately forewarned me. If, as another English poet, Thomas Grey had it, “ignorance is bliss,” is my newly-acquired knowledge that “hell”? At the medical offices, they commend me for being “ahead of the curve.” If you collar me on the street, I’d have to level with you by telling you that unable to see the curve, or any others on it, I derive little consolation from it. My hell weeks coincide with the season of joy.

One of the wisest of all the doctors I met ended our meeting by saying, “We’re all going to die. We’re here to see to it that you die from something else.” Looks like that’s the way it’s going to be. Grateful as I am, I just wish he’d added, “much later.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pain Humbles

I had no idea when I wrote this that one day I would confirm it.











From "The Confidence Man," Music by Jim Steinman, Lyric by Ray Errol Fox.
Performed by Norbert Leo Butz. Original Cast Records. Pain_Humbles.mp3

Monday, October 11, 2010

I Am Not Michael Douglas

I wrote the following as an op-ed piece, but faced with the reality that I’ll be unable to write anything else for awhile, I’ve decided to post it here.

I’m not on the cover of “People.” You won’t see me on “The Letterman Show.” No one will create a “We all want you to make it, and beat the dam disease” fan page for me on “Facebook.” (Whew!)

I am not Michael Douglas, but I am faced with the same health threat, treatment and odds of success he is—I, and 25,000 new cases of head and neck cancer in The United States (as of 2009) and a growing number of people being treated for throat cancer.

Michael Douglas chose to go public, very public, with his disease. I have no issue with that. What he is doing is bold and informative. He will be the Rock Hudson of his day, doing for throat cancer awareness what Hudson did for AIDS and other high-profile people are doing to destigmatize breast cancer, testicular cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. If it takes an actor to build public awareness, so be it. It might be the most genuinely productive thing to come out of Hollywood since “Birth of a Nation.”

I have wrestled for weeks with how to deal with this unexpected turning point of my life. By initial instinct, the last thing I wanted to do was to go public, and for me, publishing on this page is as public as it gets. Good news about me isn’t on anyone’s lips, blog or newsstand—I don’t have a film, play, book or really anything new to herald or promote—but any routinely random greeting these days uncomfortably reminds me how fast bad news travels, and I worry about mine catching up with me.

Everyday questions take on new meaning. “How are you?” and “How are you feeling?” have me puzzling for an answer, wondering: Does he know? Does she really want to know? Should I tell a friend what my doorman already knows? The auto-bounce-back, “Fine,” is not a viable answer.

What came to my lips at first was, “I’ve been better,” deluding myself I could ease past the moment and on to something else—the ever-handy weather, last night’s Yankee game, you!... let’s talk about you! Contrary to being a game-changer or a stopper, I learned “I’ve been better” opened more doors than it closed. Someone would let me off the hook only to wait until I was out of earshot to ask my wife or daughters what was up.

Several days ago, my reply became, “I’m all right, thank you,” followed by my walking away feeling false and awful, all the while concerned that my unsteadiness (self-perceived) would give me away and I would stumble over my own falsehood. The deceit wears on me. Doctors, advice-givers and well-wishers keep telling me how important it is for me to relax, to avoid stress, to live in the moment. But until this cathartic account, I’ve been finding the pressure of whom to tell, and when to tell if I tell, mounting and onerous. No doctor, advice-giver or well-wisher thus far has been able to tell me how “this” is done.

I haven’t made it easier on myself by demanding it be done tastefully, tactfully and (most improbably of all) sotto voce. I tell one friend not to tell anybody for now, another to let so-and-so know, please, still another that I trust his good judgment. At the end of the day, I don’t remember who knows what, and don’t care.

If Michael Douglas is a public role model, it’s fair for me to ask how he is playing this role I’m still grappling with. Is the hero of this story outwardly plucky-but-humbled, while inwardly as frightened as anyone with cancer? Did he, too, have to tell a grandchild what Poppy has is not catching? Does he have to convince more than those who know and truly love him, “I’m going to beat this!”?

Those who learn about my condition say much the same thing to me Letterman said to Douglas—“But you look great, and you don’t sound like you have throat cancer.” Only one of us could answer, “Because I am on stage,” and follow it by flashing that unmistakable Douglas father/son smile. I would have to say: Dave, I didn’t live like Michael Douglas, I didn’t smoke (for four decades), ever drink to excess, or take drugs. I would lean closer to Dave and softly add: And I didn’t have all his women.

How am I? When I was a child, I read an old saying that put life in lifelong perspective for me, its words so profound they made it impossible for me ever to feel sorry for myself: I cried because I had no shoes; then I saw a man who had no feet. Michael Douglas, 25,000 other throat cancer patients and I can beat this! Those who put a face on conditions like these make it easier for me and others to talk about it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Autumn in New York

It’s supposed to be autumn in New York, but signs of it, if evident, are few. Days drift from sultry to balmy to lamely breezy at best, rendering evenings occasionally cool only by comparison. As seasons go, it’s no season at all. It’s too early for nature’s best show: that shocking change of indescribable colors that slips into town for a limited engagement, but too-hastily doffs its fiery bonnet and unceremoniously skips out with let’s-blow-this-town indifference.

Soon, it will be too cold for the lone street-corner sax player—whose thin, labored musical strains I hear every day well before I emerge through the arch of my building— to occupy the wee circle of prime sidewalk real estate he lays squatter’s rights to, to play, tirelessly, (tiresomely for me), the only song he apparently knows, “As Time Goes By.”

A block south of me, a man lives on the street with his dog, his cell phone, and his journals, which he has been observed to pour through, under one of those open-air phone booths mounted on a post. The wife of one well-known New Yorker routinely stops with her dog, crouches down and lingers to chat at length with him. He doesn’t lack guests to his blanketed oasis—yesterday, he was host to a young woman who stroked his disinterested dog as the two parties softly discussed... what? Assured that New Yorkers are not as indifferent as they are perceived to be, not by a long shot, I’m hoping to catch sight of whom among them will offer the man and his dog, inseparable, shelter for the winter. It has to be the best reality show going.

Nothing against man and dog, but truer to character, my heart goes out to the lonely man with a horn. In my mind, I offer him solace. But only on condition of his learning to play a new song. And, if it’s “Autumn in New York,” I readily foot the bills for every lesson for as long as it takes.

Fall is a foolish name to call a season so glorious, and, as the song says, “so inviting.” It’s autumn—in New York or anywhere else. Wikipedia says the word comes from the Old French autompne,
automne in modern French, but doesn’t state what it meant or came to mean in old or new French. That may explain why autumn gained disproportionate popularity as fall. Wikipedia also tells us, “Since 1997, Autumn has been one of the top 100 names for girls in the United States.” But I’ve never met a girl named Autumn. Or Fall. So much for Wikipedia this season.

Autumns in New York may no longer spell “the thrill of first-nighting.” Not when substantially discounted preview tickets are available. But reliably, on every Halloween every autumn, every brownstone on West 69th Street in the two-block stretch between Central Park West and Broadway becomes a story-book haunted house full of thrills and treats for children of all ages. And for the 84th Thanksgiving morning, Central Park West and 7th Avenue (in lieu of Broadway) will become the Main Streets of Anytown for the locals, who gather hours earlier to view and to cheer on the footsloggers and float-squatters of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Autumn is the season for The New York Film Festival and The New York City Ballet; for this season, the overdue arrival of the longed-for Upper West Side Trader Joe’s and, painfully, the imminent departure of the community-prized Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble; the Yankees’ post-season and Christopher Columbus’ Day; plus so much more that is distinctly New York. The season and occasion for a love song to New York that sings to all. All the more poignant, then, to know that “Autumn in New York” was the inspiration of a Russian-born composer, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, who became, in New York, the great American songwriter, Vernon Duke.

Autumn in New York,
It's good to live it again.

Listen to what Ella and Satch do with it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Believe

With my holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, less than a day away, and my happiest season of the year, autumn in New York, only a week away, it’s that introspective time of year for me when I start asking myself again what I believe.

With all respect to God, Torah and the Ten Commandments, I have discovered that what I most believe in is Respect For All. That doesn’t necessarily mean I personally respect all people, it means I
show respect for all.

High up on my two tablets is “Character is destiny.” Because I consider plagiarism a sin (against man) I’ll be quick to tell you that “Character is destiny” is not my line,* it’s Heraclitus’s, a 6th century Greek philosopher. I resolutely hold that “Character is destiny”—for good or ill. Abraham Lincoln’s life exemplified it. Gandhi’s embodied it. We learn it as children, but improvidently put it aside with “childish things.”** Pinocchio personifies the ancient adage, conversely and dramatically, as his nose grows longer with every lie he tells.

Heraclitus, as quotable as the prophets, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, may also have said, “Know thyself.” Knowing a good aphorism when he saw one, Socrates prescribed it. The Oracle of Delphi billboarded it. I wish it on others like a blessing or a curse. We know he didn’t know much, but if George W. Bush had only known himself he might have applied himself. He would have made a fine baseball commissioner. If a sober Mel Gibson would come face to face with himself, it’s likely as not he’d either cut out his tongue or his heart.

Some time ago, I was surprised to discover in retrospect that every screenplay I’d written during my misspent Hollywood tenure had a theme in common: “power corrupts” (credit to Lord Acton). How did I fail to recognize in time that every person in a powerful position in Hollywood necessary to deal with was corrupted by power? If “character is destiny,” irrefutably, I know where every executive and producer in Hollywood is bound in the afterlife.

In the absence of the aggregate—respect for all, “character is destiny,” “know thyself” and “power corrupts”—what we get is unavoidably whom we get, and that is the antithesis of what I believe, the exemplarily bereft George W. I have always thought of people as rudimentary empty vessels you can fill with good or evil. The danger resides in their sheer emptiness: who pours what into the void, and to what purpose. W’s trouble auto-started at the top—his empty head filled his shallow heart with comfy platitudes. That left far too much room in his heart for the snake in his garden, Dick Cheney, to ply it with poison.

Is that all I believe? Not in the least. I believe in helping others when I can. I believe in always trying to see the other side. I believe in recognizing what’s more important to someone than it is to me. A legacy from my father, I believe in giving the other guy just a little more to make sure he feels he has half. I believe, with all my heart, in the words of Thomas Campbell, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

Finally this day, my cardinal “commandment” is an imploration to myself and one and all always to
think. Think before you act, think before you speak. Before you do anything, pause… to think. So many of the world’s problems, so many of our personal ones, could be averted by just a little prior thought.

Time to atone.

- - -

*Nor is it John McCain’s, who used it for a title, but not only didn’t put it in quotes, but also gave credit for chapter-by-chapter aspects of it to everyone from Joan of Arc to Wilma Rudolph, from Gandhi to Mark Twain, from Darwin to Mother Teresa—but never, it appears, to Heraclitus, the man who said it. How’s that for character?
**Paul of Tarsus.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Measuring the Golden Rule

Here it is Rosh Hashanah and I’m thinking Confucius and Jesus.

Between the time God created the world and man created the Internet, prophets and pundits created The Golden Rule. They didn’t call it The Golden Rule, in all likelihood because they didn’t recognize its potential mileage. That coinage would evolve from visionary spinners.

Competing religions pounced on it, bequeathing history one of the earliest recorded instances of plagiarism. Notwithstanding, it’s a 24K maxim, an “ethic of reciprocity,” as it’s been called. You can see why “ethic of reciprocity” never caught on.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is the “to be or not to be” of maxims. Screw up any one of six or seven key words and you’re in danger of altering the meaning—and the effective cadence.

If you’re an English-speaking Confucian, you believe his words are, "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you." If you’re a Buddhist, the words you would use are, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Since both expressions preceded the Christian Era by six centuries, copyright law does not apply. A good thing too, since Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, Bahá'ís, Brahmans, Jainists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Jews all have their very own rhetorically-mnemonic versions, so subtly varying that the host of do-not-dos begin to sound like doobie-dos. (And there’s scant evidence Sinatra ever had an ethic of reciprocity in mind.)

I think of the Golden Rule on this day of my new year because during this period of reflection it saddens me that the only person I can identify as living by it completely is my seven-year-old grandson. In this, the 21st century of the not-so-good-Christian era, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you has become Do unto others as you would have them do unto others, or, Do unto others before they do unto you. I’m not just playing with words:

Consider that everyone and most action today is motivated by greed, which has its own “golden rule,” pontificated by that contemporary fictional “prophet,” Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” the egocentric justifying, “Greed… is good.” And we see the results of what Wall Street did “unto others” with that carte blanche.

Consider that our country is run by men and women who seem to lose sleep only by virtue of plotting how to undermine each other’s efforts to do something for, i.e., “unto others,” i.e., for, our country.

Consider that in our xenophobia we attack from fear of being attacked, breed hatred because we’re hated because we breed hatred, discriminate indiscriminately out of blind ignorance cynically-fueled. We perpetuate the worst in ourselves to preserve what we mistakenly cling to as our past national, individual and collective, best.

The Talmud states, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." I rest my case.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dodger, the Joint-Custody Dog

When a day starts with the New York Times declaring, “Today, record-challenging heat…” no good can come from adding more heat to it. So, I’m eschewing all public and personal reflections for another week and extending the Dog Days.

Just when you think you think you can’t bear to wipe your wet brow one more time, a cooling breeze wafts across your forehead in the form of—what else?—a lovely story. Since Dodger, pictured above, is not shaggy, and his story, so far as we know it, is not long, this is anything but a shaggy dog story. Dodger, rescued from a pound, is a survivor in joint custody.

Adrienne Albert is a contemporary American composer who loved and lost a dog named Mahler. Mahler, a fawn-colored greyhound, used to sit—cross-legged—on Adrienne’s sofa without budging an inch to make room for anyone else on it. We’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I didn’t approve of Mahler’s manners. He could tell, and could be quite surly about it.

Adrienne longed for, more accurately pined for, a new dog. Her neighbor, Stephanie Burns, rescues dogs and finds homes for them. Stephanie, a truly devoted “dog person” in Adrienne’s admiring eyes, found Dodger at the pound, and not a moment too soon, because he was slated to be put down the next day.

Stephanie did what Stephanie habitually does—brought him home with her to place him with a good family. But Dodger, as you will see, has a way with women. After spending just a wee bit of time with him, Stephanie fell in love, so in love she couldn’t bear to part with him. She decided she would keep him.

Stephanie has two other dogs, one she’s unable to find a home for because he, Buster, has a personality disorder, no doubt from being a dog who needed rescuing, the other, a wonderful beagle named Molly.

Scheduled to be away from home for a month and knowing how Adrienne craved another dog, Stephanie asked Adrienne if she would like to take Dodger for part of the time. Would she! In the time it took Adrienne to say “Yes!” twice, she fell in love with him.

In the course of her bliss-time, Adrienne, aware Stephanie was coming home, asked if Dodger could spend the night. (This begins to sound like a French film.) Stephanie, a modern woman, said she’d already sent Adrienne an e-mail to that effect, namely, suggesting they could share Dodger. They assumed Dodger’s swagger-the-tail complicity.

The result: the two women have the doggonedest of all worlds. Joint custody of Dodger. By day, he lives with Adrienne, who composes at home and often goes out at night. By night, he’s Stephanie’s, whose schedule is the reverse. At the beginning of every week, Adrienne sends her 7-day schedule to Stephanie, who comes to pick Dodger up for several hours each day and brings him back before his bedtime, which is substantially earlier than Adrienne’s, but Dodger is either none the wiser or very cool about it. Before long, conversely, when Adrienne will be traveling, Stephanie will be spending more quality daytime with the happily bi-domiciled Dodger.

It’s all in a Dog’s Day and it’s happening in Los Angeles. Stephanie hopes it will spur additional ways for people to adopt dogs. Citing an existing “huge” animal overpopulation problem, she emphasizes, “If people can work out a joint custody situation, then more dogs can be saved.” Now doesn’t that warm your heart and cool your brow at the same time?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Treading the Last Waters of August

In Ancient Rome, the Dog Days extended from July 24 through August 24, still the case, according to Wikipedia, “in many European cultures.” Not many Romans in sight these days, but maybe it’s purely cultural that so many French, Italians and Germans come to New York to suffer weather New Yorkers flee to France and Italy (but not Germany) to avoid.

No one in his or her right mind would have opted for the stifling, roasting summer of 2010 here. If the French had a word for it, it was yuch. On this day after the Dog Days, I recall sweltering in better New York circumstances….

I was ten minutes away from meeting a friend at “Alice's Tea Cup" (one of my two daughters’ three restaurants, I relate with pride) on a late August afternoon when my elevator went dark and came to a standstill. I used the light on my cell phone, its battery already low, to find the alarm on the panel. I hoped to let someone know I was trapped, but the alarm was as dead as the lights and the fan. The air in the elevator grew stifling. I began to peel off one layer of clothing at a time, folding and stacking each new article neatly beside me on the elevator’s leather bench, where I had resignedly seated myself in darkness, envisioning being discovered, eventually, flashlights shining on my dank, naked body. I imagined the woman waiting for me—an Ambassador, to make me feel worse—thinking I’d knavishly stood her up. I mused over a scene from “Sweet Charity” where Charity and her high-strung beau are trapped in a stopped elevator, and he reads a sign that says, “Capacity: 2000 pounds” and, in a panic, cries, “I weigh 163, how much do you weigh?!”

Trying to preserve my battery for an ultimate emergency, I sporadically dialed and finally reached our doorman, just long enough to learn from him that it wasn’t the elevator alone, nor the building, lacking electrical power—it looked like it could be Manhattan’s entire Upper West Side, possibly the East Coast, that was effected. It was more than plausible; I’d been through this East-Coast-blackout-thing before (which reminds me of another, salacious, only-in-New York story I don’t know you well enough to tell—yet.)

Hours later, I heard voices calling to me. My rescue squad had arrived; I didn’t care what took them so long. “Can you find…” and they described two locks or latches on the elevator doors. I used the scintilla of battery power remaining to search, grope… and find them, as the phone-light dimmed and died. Following shouted instructions, I released the contraptions and… is this madness?... opened the doors! Into pitch darkness. “You have to jump,” a voice instructed, adding
sadistically, I thought“from the elevator.”

Now I have to interrupt myself to tell you that many years ago an actress-friend was downtown at a city building stepping off an elevator when it abruptly moved, and she was cut in half. The memory, when I allow myself to have it, haunts me. “Jump?” “Yes!” Into a black hole. I took a deep breath, braced myself… and, ready to absorb the painful shock that would shoot through my legs when I landed… jumped! And landed softly, immediately, less than a foot below. I stood there stupidly, not knowing what came next. A door opened, the only door on the floor, and a housekeeper stood waiting for me to enter. Sting’s housekeeper. Sting’s apartment. Behind her, an anxious doorman and super. We passed through Sting’s apartment, past his row of mounted guitars—which, I have to say here, I’ve seen in a better light. The rear, service staircase being the only entree by stairs to our apartments at present, I exited Sting’s back door and slowly climbed the five unlit flights to mine—this was so distinctly unglamorous, so mundane now—and knocked at my back door. My wife, Jean, monitoring news of the blackout by portable radio in a kitchen lit dimly by a battery-operated lamp, opened the door, surprised to see me. She had no idea that I had been in our building—been in our elevator—no more than 75 feet away the entire time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I’ll be frank. I’m a Jew and I’m not looking to take an Arab to lunch.

My wide circle of friends doesn’t include one Muslim. I had a Pakistani doorman I got along with so well I would jokingly inform him we were keeping an eye on him, warn him I could have him deported faster than he could say Allah akbar and offer him a cupcake at noon “to celebrate the first day of Ramadan.”

I’ve rubbed shoulders with Muslims throughout the Middle East and at the UN, and rubbed the PLO’s most prominent Palestinian in America, Edward Said, the wrong way. I’ve had better relations with Baha’is, Buddhists and Coptics.

So, when I support the right and the propriety of Muslims to create and maintain a place for prayer, i.e., a mosque, anywhere in The United States, it’s not for them—it’s for us.

I do so with some reserve, even with trepidation. Conceivably, a mosque could be a mask for ill. But we have to take that chance. Not to do so would be tantamount to treason for all we stand for. All we profess to stand for.

That would start and end with freedom. Not freedom in the abstract, not freedom in slogan or song, not even freedom as our bromidic birthright—but the freedom we uniquely enjoy as citizens of The United States, freedom we are granted, freedom we are remarkably entitled to—by right and by law, by tradition, precedent and practice—specifically by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of The Constitution of The United States.

Setting The Constitution, the flag and apple pie aside for a few minutes, let’s examine this polarizing, complex state of affairs in simple English, a language that pols, pundits and some plain fools are cynically unwilling and seemingly unable to speak.

The mosque at Ground Zero that everyone is so emotionally-charged about is only one facet of a 13-story community center containing a mosque. It will also include offices, meeting rooms, a gym, swimming pool and basketball court, facilities for lectures, forums and weddings, and a performing arts center.

Simple. A community center. Not on Ground Zero, but two blocks from Ground Zero. Two blocks from the “hallowed land” self-righteous and self-serving knee-jerks-with-opinions have self-hallowed. Land only the families of the 3,000 victims (victims, not “martyrs”), not politicians or pundits, have any right to sanctify, and, unless they’re entitled to wear vestments, only totemically at that. Not to overlook that in Manhattan, two blocks away is a good distance from anything.

Ten blocks from Ground Zero is a narrow, two-story mosque that has yet to alarm or rile anybody. It was founded 25 years ago by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam whose American Society for Muslim Advancement intends to build the disputed community center. Even closer, a mere four blocks from Ground Zero, is a basement-level mosque founded 40 years ago. Not only do both mosques predate 9/11 by a great many years, but also, the latter preceded the Twin Towers by several.

Not so simple in the hearts and minds of demagogues and dogmatists. “A mosque steps from Ground Zero,” according to the topography of The New York Daily News. Forewarns The New York Post “…where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems."

An opportunity for an opportunist to weigh in. House Minority Leader John Boehner said the decision to build the mosque wasn't an issue of law, “whether religious freedom or local zoning,” but a matter of respect. So, a man sworn to uphold the Constitution of The United States of America puts “respect for a tragic moment” before law or the Constitution—in an election year.

Not to be out-voiced (in an election year), national Tea Party leader Mark Williams objected to the mosque by declaring that Muslims worship "the terrorists' monkey god." Does anyone care what manqué 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had to say? Just as I thought.

Article I, Section 3 of The Constitution of The State of New York declares: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind…” That is in addition to the inalienable rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of The United States. We have the categorical manifesto of the President of The United States: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

I don’t believe you stand for any policy or principle in part. You either stand for something or you don’t. The men who wrote The Constitution put religious freedom first among The Amendments for a reason. It might not coincide with my choice, if given one, but I’ll stand by it confidently, and, come to think of it, proudly.

With similar logic, and passion, I feel I have no choice but to support the right of The American Society for Muslim Advancement to build its mosque where it chooses—in spite of doubts that it may be ill-advised. “This is America…”

"Unshakable" is absolutely right; it can be no other way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sidewalks of New York

Rutted and cracked, stained with gum and takeout and tears, pounded by wayfarers, dancers and do-nothings, still, something in our pavements glitters—not with gold, as myth would have it, but with essence, as New York theology would confirm. Eau d’ ordeal, tincture of rush, elixir of anecdote. The Sidewalks of New York.

Everybody has a story. A scam, a mugging, a hustle. And, unsurprisingly, every story has a punch line. Why squander a good misadventure?

An elderly Jewish woman told me of exiting El Morocco years ago when an armed man emerging from the shadows warned her, in her words, “I have here such a big gun.” My daughter’s friend, Clement Hill, reacted to news of Lauren’s mugging by commenting on Facebook that he “didn't realize that mugging was still ‘a thing’… seems so 1980s,” then added, “I hope you told him he was being very passe." (That’s two punch lines!) Another friend, screenwriter Richard Potter followed with, "I barely touched you. You fell on your own."

I reported a new hustle weeks ago by a man who no doubt retrieved a container of food from a trash basket and worked his way up the street with it, deliberately running into people as if they weren’t looking where they were going, letting his ever-dwindling portion of food thud to the ground and then guilting his victims into compensating him with cash for a new meal.

Muggers aren’t noted for their humor, but scammers—you bet! Just last week, a perfectly average-looking man in his 30s, gesturing toward a nail salon with a quickie massage table visible through its storefront window, asked me from ten feet away, “Can you pay for me to get a massage in here?” When I shook him off, he called, “I’ll let you watch the expression on my face while I get it.”

My friend, raconteur Herb Graff, would have given him $10 for that line. That’s what Herb gave a panhandler who asked for $10 for “A down-payment on my co-op.” That’s what he gave the one soliciting money for “The United Negro Pizza Fund.”

Writer Tom Bisky describes a scammer who was, “and still is, in a class by himself. Ten years ago, on a corner of Rockefeller Plaza, he somehow managed to sell me a ‘free’ baseball cap for $10. I don't remember a single detail of his spiel. I just recall thinking that ten bucks didn't seem all that much for a sturdy-seeming baseball cap. Plus, I really wanted to get away from the guy, so it amounted to ‘hush’ money I was glad to pay. Today, if I were put in charge of giving a lifetime achievement award to New York's most brazen, balls-out scammer, he would win hands-down. From time to time, I pass the same Rock Plaza corner—and he's still there, with his baseball caps in hand. For at least a decade, he's been scamming royally at one of the nerve centers of New York tourism. In fact, he's a ‘nerve’ center unto himself, because he's never more than a few yards from one (or more) of New York's Finest. So, if any of us ever really gets this guy's number, we should retire it. Among Gotham's major-league scam artistes, he's like Ruth and DiMaggio rolled into one.”

Perhaps a sociologist could explain why crowds in our city dependably make a story better. Cindy Bigras relates that she was pick-pocketed on Madison Avenue during her lunch hour. When she caught the culprit and seized her wallet back, passersby “started bitching at me” for slowing down the foot traffic.

Linda Amiel Burns drew a better-natured crowd. “In the days when Bloomingdale’s had revolving doors, a man with a green raincoat pushed himself into my section, and in a split second I could feel that my handbag was lighter, reached into it and found my wallet was gone. The mugger had a partner who tried to steer me in another direction, but I saw the green raincoat and ran after the guy like an obsessed maniac. A crowd began to follow me as I kept screaming, "Give me back my wallet!" It did occur to me that he could turn around and shoot me, but nothing was going to deter me at this point. This guy represented every man who had ‘done me wrong,’ and I was crazed and kept running after him. Suddenly, he turned around, threw the wallet at me, and ran off. And the crowd cheered and applauded.”

And why not? It’s street theater. On the Sidewalks of New York.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Bilderbergers?

Many years ago, striding through Times Square in the early daylight following an all-nighter, my eyes were drawn to three stocky men seated at a bare table in a vacant, unlit Broadway cafeteria. Through a smudged plate-glass window, they looked as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders. In my eyes, attending church was clearly not on their agenda. I mused aloud to a companion that these three men met at dawn every Sunday morning to decide the fate of the world for the week. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to having a conspiracy theory.

Now I have the Bilderbergers to ponder. Never heard of them? Of course not—that’s the point. They hide in plain sight.

The Bilderbergers are not a radio couple like the Bumsteads or Bickersons. They are members of a global elite who gather once a year behind secured doors to discuss the weighty global issues of the future. The present is already past history to them.

The Bilderbergers’ first conference was held in 1954 at the Hotel de Bilderberg, in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands. Choosing anonymity almost to the point of pathology, they are named, presumably by themselves, after real estate. Hence, The Bilderberg Conference, The Bilderberg Group, The Bilderberg Club, the aw, shucks, just folks Bilderbergers!

Just folks like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Sofía and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince Charles of Wales. American folks like Presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Senators John Edwards, Tom Daschle, Chuck Hagel and Sam Nunn. And current Governors Rick Perry of Texas—and, according to the record, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, present in Chantilly, Virginia in 2008. Or was he in Argentina?

Initially, the Bilderberg Conference organizers fashioned their invitational list to include two participants from each nation, one to represent a conservative viewpoint and the other, a liberal perspective. To this day, attendance remains by invitation only. But who extends the invitations and who accepts is shrouded in as much secrecy as what the devil they do when they get there. "Bilderberg's only activity is its annual Conference,” states a 2008 press release from the American Friends of Bilderberg. “At the meetings, no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued…" A Hudson Institute statement on Bilderberg declares, "We seek to guide global leaders in government and business." The 2009 Bilderberg conclave took place in Athens, Greece. And look what happened to Greece!

How do some 130 rich and famous, powerful and royal, participating members of the Bilderberg “society” avoid attention, much less scrutiny, year in and year out? Why does the media always look the other way? And why are the Bilderbergers so shy about being Bilderbergers? Bill Gates initially told everyone he was going to a medical conference in Barcelona instead of to this year’s Bilderberg gathering in Sitges, Spain. I love that Tony Blair lied to Parliament about attending Bilderberg in 1993. Not so with U.K. Prime Ministers for and aft, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown and Britain’s present PM, David Cameron. Not content to keep to their own counsel after whatever they did for or to their countries or others’, Bilderberg alumni include Former Prime Ministers from France, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Iceland, Poland, Canada and Sweden; Chancellors of Germany and Ministers of Ireland; EU Commissioners; UN, WTO and NATO officials.

In the world of finance, the former and present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker and Ben Bernanke. Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Most, if not all, of the world’s major bankers. Factor in an international array of charlatans of industry. And, the token guests at any power-appointed party, academics and eggheads.

If you’ve been overlooked and feel unfairly slighted, it may make you feel better to know The Bilderberg Conference refused to include Japan. In 1972! The courtly Bilderbergers are, after all, a world-class group. I’m applying for membership. In the name of Sarah Palin.
Complementary sources:
Thanks to Dick Atkins@A-Films for his valuable input.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Distant and Aloof, Inc.

I’m thinking of making myself unavailable. It worked for Madoff.

Going to open an office smack in the middle of an inaccessible area. Hard to get to is easily as cool as hard to get.

I’m going to call my company Distant and Aloof. Or, all the bigger and better, Distant and Aloof, Inc. “Inc.” as in “inconvenient.”

I’m going to have an unlisted number—in the Yellow Pages. A welcome mat reading NOT IN. A doorbell that rings like a barking dog. “Inc.” as in “incommunicado.”

The more inaccessible I am, the more my prospects and peers will seek me. Not only will I turn down all work, but I’ll also turn down work for all my clients—if I deign to have any, because I think I’ll turn down clients as well.

Then I’ll sit back and let everyone flock to me. Isn’t that what we all do—flock to those who are supposed to know more than we know? To listen for nuggets of wisdom. And the more they charge—or distantly and aloofly offer to discount—the more confident we are in the superior knowledge we think we are getting from them. Individuals and institutions begged Bernie Madoff to take money he couldn’t refuse.

We humble ourselves at the altars of those who impress us with so little need for us. We place blind faith in remote sages, physicians and clergy, lawyers and psychoanalysts, who tell us what’s wrong with us in Latin. Our insurance, taxes and tithes don’t entitle us to a translation.

We wait endless hours in doctors’ offices. Did you ever try to keep a doctor waiting? Try my prescription. Finally admitted to the inner sanctum of a specialist after an inordinate wait sans explanation or apology, I told him I intended to deduct what I estimated my time was worth from what his fee indicated his time was worth. I got his full attention. I don’t think I got the full benefit of his knowledge—but I left his office feeling better.

In mind of that now, I’m having second thoughts about Distant and Aloof, Inc. I don’t think I can ever be one of the busy people I can’t get to.

One of those busy people was Kenneth I. Starr—“I.” as in “incarcerated.” By playing as hard to get as his role model, the more-than-mini-Madoff money manager not so aloofly “distanced” more than $59 million from his starry clientele. This morning’s New York Times reports that Starr “asked to be released from jail on bail of $2 million” and “would be in the custody of his wife, Diane Passage.” Starr-Passage—what an inviting name for a company catering to the want-to-be richer and more famous! How cunning of the man not to use it.

I clearly don’t have what it takes. I answered my phone half-a-dozen times today. I shmoozed with my doorman and stopped for acquaintances as I walked with my wife. So I’m folding Distant and Aloof, Inc. before it opens.

Anyone have the number for The Wizard of Oz?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slam, Scam, Thank You Ma’am

This is not about Ringo. But as a postscript to a concert you leave on a high only to walk smack into a low, it rocks.

All flights—of fancy or reality—come down to earth. For four happy people hot off Ringo’s 70th at Radio City, the landing strip was the sidewalks of New York, on 6th Avenue. (Be it ever so hubristic, there’s no place like an Avenue of the Americas to a New Yorker. It’s 6th Avenue.)

Mantra-like rounds of “With a Little Help From My Friends” still ringoing in our eardrums, we’d barely taken ten steps when one of us, Dottie, seemingly still too on air to keep to her own space, inadvertently—or was it carelessly?—ran into a pedestrian coming from the opposite direction. Bear in mind I said “seemingly.”

On impact, a clear, plastic-hinged “deli” food container flew out of the man’s arms, tumbled downward to land with a crunchy thud, opened and scattered its contents on the pavement. “Oh.., my food!” despaired the forlorn victim in the face of our identifiable surfeit. His small portion of food lay at our feet, its spicy aroma admonishing us for our clumsy lapse of urbanity. The moment went to Dottie’s heart.

Dottie has been a New Yorker for two-and-a-half-years, i.e., not long enough to be a New Yorker. A young woman of eye-catching savoir
flair, we have to take it on faith that she comes from McKees Rocks, PA, population 6, 018, just outside of Pittsburgh. She works as a hostess at "Alice's Tea Cup" while plotting eventually to open her own edgy coffee shop.

Dottie’s heart went out to the poor man. Chagrined, she thrust her hand into her wallet and pulled a bill from it. His arm was outstretched before hers was. He took the bill, said thank you almost inaudibly, and departed.

We asked how much she gave him. A twenty, she said. When asked why so much, she explained it was all she had. Guilt pays—someone else.

We walked about ten yards—and ran into a small pile of food. Ironically, it looked like and smelled like the first pile. Something smelled rotten. We walked another ten or fifteen yards and found, yep, another small pile of food. We started to backtrack, passing glimpsing “Peace and Love” concertgoers and inspecting tourists. Mound by mound, we confirmed that Dottie’d been had. At a loss at the moment to do anything else, we took pictures of the food with our cell phone cameras and went to dinner.

As we recounted the hustle, a new one to us, over a good meal, the unfleeced three buying, Dottie described to us how she had seen the man coming toward her and tried to get out of his way, but couldn’t—he just kept coming at her. So much for “seemingly”—she wasn’t at all remiss, or careless, or oblivious. She was scammed! We were all taken in. And Dottie E. of McKees Rocks, PA, is $20 closer to being a New Yorker.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ringo With a Little Help From His Friends

Who in the world could be invited to Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday party brunch and miss it? My two daughters and I did.

Ringo Starr began the celebration of his birthday, July 7th, at 10:45 with a private brunch party at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square. We three Foxes arrived as it ended, at 11:45. Anyone familiar with “Foxtime” won’t be surprised; we had the hour of the coveted invitation wrong.

We had excellent tickets for the evening celebration at Radio City Music Hall, but I hadn’t intended on going downtown—a long Manhattan mile and a half—twice in one natal day. Anyone’s. Not even for “Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band.” However, with a little help from one of my daughter Lauren’s closest friends, Ringo’s press agent Elizabeth Freund, I wavered. We were invited to another reception for the Starr at seven sharp!—one hour before his show. It occurred to me that, having met the only other surviving Beatle, Paul, not to meet Ringo was something like meeting Hansel, but dodging Gretel.

In an austere, notably “unmusicated” VIP suite at the Music Hall, we were joined by a dozen or more invigorated hirsute, hunched and hobbled sixty-somethings we could more or less identify as oldies-but-goodies rockers, but didn’t recognize—and their uniformly svelte companions, whom I still strongly suspected were one and the same quick-change genie.

Ringo entered and immediately began to mix. From no more than several feet away, you notice (and marvel at) how good he looks—trim, vigorous and buoyant, and happy—so genuinely, he makes you happy. And, like that!, he just about walked into me, we shook hands and chatted briefly. Believe me, you’ve had the same conversation, the passing exchange of pleasantries with someone, at any party you’ve been to.

If I had any thoughts about slipping away from the show, Elizabeth dispelled them by telling us emphatically that whatever we did, we should not leave early. That was tantalizing. Lauren and I wondered privately if it might be possible Paul McCartney would materialize, the ultimate magic trick.

I tired of rock concerts some time ago, fortunately while I still had my hearing. Tired of strobe lights in my eyes and obstructive bodies with arms and bottoms waving in opposite directions, largely in my face. But I was impressed by each “All Starr” taking his star turn. Then I got my first big treat, Ringo singing,
Yellow Submarine.” Not long after, Ringo singing, “Act Naturally.” And all at once, in half the time of a Yankee game!, it was the finale. And all those oldies-but-goodies guys were filing onto the stage and joining Ringo for, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Pretty good! Then, Yoko Ono joined them. I like her as little as the most passionate Beatle fan likes her, and less than that on a visceral level. Nevertheless—impressive; she’s there. Moreover, she and Ringo are stage center, singing. Which must mean they’re talking.

I’m a little disappointed. I had hoped to see Paul on that stage wishing Ringo a “happy…” not just any happy birthday, but a happy 70th. A Beatle turned 70 years old! Still, it’s quite a show, and it’s Yoko and it’s Ringo’s friends and I’m glad I stayed for it.

And all around me, people are standing and singing and screaming and clapping their hands, and raising their arms and whatever rises with them and waving to outdo themselves. This is Ringo’s “Peace and Love” message coming to fruition for him and for them, at least as far, by far, as “Peace and Love” can carry on this July 7th. “Yes I get by with a little help from my friends/ With a little help from my FRIENDS!” Fortissimo! And everyone’s leaving the stage, waving goodbye to the audience. And Ringo’s saying things like, “You’re a great audience” and “I love you, New York” and “Thank you, New York” and he’s waving… goodbye! And he’s gone.

And the house lights come up. And New Yorkers actually seem to have had enough. Time to take their heat to the hot streets. But my eyes are on two guys scrambling to the stage and frantically working to set up a very tall amp smack stage center. And I’m looking for the screens to drop down. This must be it—Paul McCartney via satellite from somewhere in the world where he’s performing. And that’s OK. Paul’s going to wish Ringo a happy birthday!

And out comes Paul McCartney.

This is what they mean by raising the roof! An audience already on its feet doesn’t know what else to do but sit down and thrill and glow. Two Beatles on the same stage, Paul, stage center, guitar in hand, and directly above him on a raised platform, Ringo at his drums. And Paul is singing in that high, powerful voice, a Lennon-McCartney rock-happy “Birthday” song to Ringo. And Ringo descends and joins Paul on stage, and there they are, side by side, mike to mike, soon one’s arm over the other’s shoulder, then Paul kissing Ringo’s cheek and, if I heard correctly, saying, “I love you, man.”

And all I could think of were the two men who weren’t there and why they weren’t there, and try as I did to resist, my eyes filled and tears trickled. And the party was over. Two classy men, icons of our time no doubt, casually, unceremoniously left the stage.

And when the lights came up again—no question it was over, where could it go from there?—all who were around me were awed and elated and not so much saying anything as grunting their inexpressible wonderment.

New York Nights.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Listening for Gilad Shalit

I’m listening for two words I fail to hear: Gilad Shalit. Who? That’s my point.

My ears perk up when I hear words of particular personal interest through the din in a restaurant or other public place. “Yankees.” A certain writer’s name. “Israel.” A special song. Today’s op-ed. A name from the past. At any moment I pluck keywords out of the buzz and babel. But nowhere, at anytime, do I hear “Gilad” or “Shalit.”

Since he’s probably not part of your table talk either, permit me to tell you about Gilad Shalit. On a Sunday morning in June of 2006, Gilad, a nineteen year old corporal in the Israel Defense Forces, was abducted from an army post on the Israeli side of Gaza’s southern border by a Hamas ambush. He is thought to have suffered a broken hand and a light shoulder wound in the attack.

We’ve heard a lot about the “humanitarian” flotilla and the Gaza blockade over the past five weeks. But the
real blockade is the barely-mentioned, complete sealing-off from the world of one young prisoner of war, Gilad Shalit, by Hamas.

The International Red Cross has repeatedly requested, and been denied, access to him. The Papal Nuncio to Israel was unable to secure his release through the Catholic Church's Gaza-based parish. Egyptian mediators got nowhere with Hamas.

After two-and-a-half years of Gilad's isolation in captivity, The Deputy Chief of the Hamas Political Ministry told an Arabic daily,
Shalit may have been wounded, and he may not have been. The subject no longer interests us. We are not interested in his well-being at all…”

The only contact Gilad has had with anyone outside his Hamas imprisoners is three letters (one to the Egyptian mediators), an audio tape released after one year of captivity, and—as a result of Israel’s fulfillment of its offer to release 20 female Palestinian detainees and prisoners in exchange for a video proving Shalit was still alive—a video shared with Israelis via television last October.

This blockade, longer by a year than the Gaza Strip’s, is anything but humane. Shalit has been imprisoned by Hamas more than four years.

As Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak observed regarding the 1.5 million people in Gaza needing humanitarian aid, “Only one of them is locked in a tiny room and never sees the light of day, only one of them is not allowed visits and is in uncertain health”—the young captive Israeli soldier who isn’t getting it.

The same is true of attention, basic human, humane,
humanitarian attention. Google “Gilad Shalit” or otherwise search for him on the Internet—you’ll find shockingly little, especially for a young soldier whose sole transgression, in common with soldiers of every other country in the world, was serving his country. On people’s lips? Not only is “Gilad Shalit” not on their lips, but not on their minds or even remotely in their cognizance.

Not for the first time, the Israelis are faced with a governmental “Sophie’s Choice.” The “choice” in this instance is the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange for one Israeli captive held by Hamas: Shalit.
That's the price I am willing to face to bring Shalit home, said Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu six days ago.

Israel sets great store in recovering every captive. Leviticus 19:16 reads, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.
In 1957, Israel returned some 5,000 POWs to Egypt for one Israeli pilot, Jonathan Etkes. In 1968, 4,338 Egyptian soldiers taken captive six months earlier by the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War were exchanged for 11 Israeli soldiers captured by Egyptian forces. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers abducted by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In 2008, the Israeli government voted to exchange an untold number of living Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the dead bodies of two soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah militants two years earlier.

I don’t hear anything like “humanitarian aid” without also hearing “Gaza,” Palestinians,” “the flotilla.” I don’t hear “blockade” without “Israel” and “outrage.” “Gilad” would catch my attention anywhere; I might hear it across Madison Square Garden. “Shalit” would resonate. I think I’d catch it whispered at a dog’s pitch. Try me.

My gratitude to Uri Dromi for many of the details in this entry.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

4th of July Illumination

Knowing that the 4th of July casts a heavy shadow on reading anything but beverage labels, I seek to write something that can be read by the light of the silvery sparklers and beneath the rockets’ red glare.

We should probably be asking each other what we’re doing on the 2nd of July. The “4th” commemorates a momentous vote taken on July 2, 1776, approving the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain. John Adams wrote to Abigail that Americans would be swilling beer to celebrate July 2nd for generations to come. Something to that effect.

On the 4th of July of 1776, the Declaration of Independence may have been signed by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, its chief author, and others. But according to carpers and grousers, and notably also, one reliable source, History News Network, “most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later.” Not until January of the following year did Congress send signed copies to the thirteen states.

So, when did we start to celebrate? Philadelphia threw a big party on the 8th of July. (Have a happy 8th?) George Washington and the Continental army, encamped near New York City, heard the news, and perhaps the celebratory fireworks of muskets—colonialists will be colonialists—on the 9th of July. Georgia didn’t have the news until the 10th of August. And it didn’t cross the ocean to the British until August 30th, give or take a day or two.

In its first days, The Declaration of Independence was read aloud publicly as widely as its text was published. The likely reason for the oral rendering was to bolster the courage, and blood-sugar levels, of the militiamen about to confront the punishing British forces.

The same day we tend to look upon as the birth of the United States of America was initially observed in random American towns by enacting the ritual death of the English throne via mock funerals.

One year later, apparently no one thought of paying tribute or otherwise distinguishing the 4th of July until the 3rd of July, which totally ruled out forever by rejoicing Americans any reconsideration of the 2nd of July as a special day of any kind.

Precisely fifty years after the signing that probably wasn’t, on the 4th of July of 1826, Adams and Jefferson both died. While it’s an extraordinary coincidence, its mention rarely finds a place at the picnic table.

My favorite 4th of July? 1986. “The 4th of July of the Century.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Long-Term Unemployment of the American Mind

Reporter: Name a country that begins with U.
American: Yugoslavia?

This man may be allowed to raise children, enter public spaces, and vote.

Reporting from America, Julian Morrow of Australia’s award-winning TV show CNNNN, queried Americans:

A country that begins with U?
Second American: Utah.

It got me to posing a question to myself.

Ray: What is it that the American people have over the people of other countries?
Ray: Flagrant stupidity laced with unmindful arrogance. And not a hint of shame.

For most Americans, ignorance has become a lifestyle. They take pride in not knowing. It’s their birthright not to know! Failing to acquire little or any knowledge en route to not knowing is a bona fide rite of passage. But it is the not knowing, in and of itself, that marks the achievement of the ultimate status—never looking smarter than the guy next-door, the gang at work, or the gals in the car pool. What so proudly we hail ignorance.

Reporter: Who won the Vietnam War?
Young woman: We did. [She laughs. Calls to others,] Wait, were we even in the Vietnam War? [Off-camera response.] OK, good.

When they don’t know if they know, they giggle. It’s anything but cute. O’er the land of the free, obliviousness is a plague. These are not illiterates we’re witnessing; if they were, we could feel for them. No, these are people who comprehend and speak English well enough to leave not a shadow of a doubt: they’re too dumb to know they’re dumb, too numb to know they’re numb.

Reporter: A country that begins with U?
Third American: U-topia?

They barely know anything about anything. But they have opinions, dogmatic and diehard, about everything. They just don’t have the easy answers.

How many sides does a triangle have? Damn, four? There’s no sides… one?

Who is Fidel Castro? A singer. Kofi Annan? A drink. Tony Blair? A skater. An actor!

What religion are Buddhist monks? Islamic... I don’t know. What’s the religion of Israel? Israeli, Muslim, Islamic, and Catholic, probably, according to four different people.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are famous for… Judo-wrestling? Al Qaeda is a wing of… the Masonic Order?

Had enough? If you’re a glutton for more cultural punishment, go to “Americans Are NOT Stupid.” 24 million people already have. Can’t tell how many Americans, but note how defensive the comments.

So, what about a country that begins with U?

Reporter: What about this one? The United States of America.
Fourth American: Mmm...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Liberal Theory of Relativity

The Yankees are winning games, so I don’t care if the Celtics are. While oil keeps spilling into the Gulf, I can be patient with our super’s inability to staunch the water trickling through my toilet bowl. As long as people of all faiths respect what the Jewish people continue to contribute to the arts and sciences (and belt an occasional show tune), they can judge us all they want. Everything’s relative.

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” goes the proverb. Maybe my new eyeglasses have something to do with it. Maybe it’s that my grandson has started losing his teeth and I’m not losing mine! I have perspective.

I know to eschew the Yankees v. Phillies and Celtics v. Lakers long enough to hear my president address the country about the oil spill. Setting myself apart from 51% of the country, I know I can listen, respectfully and objectively, to what he has to say.

I’m prepared for him to begin by stating “our nation faces a multitude of challenges,” and to enumerate, “At home… to recover and rebuild from a recession…” and “Abroad… taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists.” I do a perspective check for “wherever it exists.” I have it in my rear-view mirror.

We get to the big challenge: “Because there has never been a leak of this size at this depth, stopping it has tested the limits of human technology.” And the limitations of human beings!, I want to add, but there’s no time—the president is “multituding” the challenges: “…just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge.” I’m ready and waiting with perspective on this one. Much as I wouldn’t wish any ill spill on President Obama, far better it happened on his watch than his predecessor’s, so that W’s VP couldn’t assemble “a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers” from
BP “to tackle this challenge.”

It didn’t take long for President Obama to provide the undeniable perspective, vividly. With one word: epidemic. “The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

I listen and learn that “30,000 personnel… are working across four states.” Jobs, I think. “Thousands of ships and other vessels are responding.” Heartening, I think, but am relieved that a flotilla from Turkey is not among them.

It’s nigh onto the fourth inning at Yankee Stadium, I’m guessing, when the president says, “…if something isn't working, we want to hear about it,” and I know he isn’t thinking of my toilet.

Friday, June 11, 2010

SOS: From an Israeli Naval Commando

I am posting the following letter without comment; readers can form their own conclusions. It was written by a member of Shayetet 13, the elite Israel Defense Forces naval commando unit that intercepted the flotilla ship bound for Gaza, the Mavi Marmara, on May 31st.

Dear Friends and Family-

This is Amir writing you after reading what you sent to my father.

As you know, it was my unit and my friends who were on the ship.

My commander was injured badly as a result of the "pacifists" violence.

I want to tell you how he was injured so you could tell the story.

It shows just how horrible and inhuman were the activists.

My commander was the first soldier that rappelled down from the helicopter to the ship.

When he touched ground, he got hit in the head with a pole and stabbed in the stomach with a knife. when he drew out his secondary weapon-a handgun (his primary weapon was a regular paintball gun- "tippman 98 custom") he was shot in the leg.

He managed to fire a single shot before he was tossed from the balcony by 4 arab activists, to the lower deck (a 12 feet fall). he was then dragged by other activists to a room in the lower deck were he was stripped down by 2 activists.

They took off his vest, helmet and shirt. leaving him with only his pants and shoes on. when they finished they took a knife and expanded the wound he already had in his stomach.

They cut his ab muscles horizontally and by hand spilled his guts out.

When they finished they raised him up and walked him on the deck outside. he was conscious the whole time.

If you are asking your self why they did all that here comes the reason.

They wanted to show the soldiers their commanders body so they will be demoralized and scared.

Luckily, when they walked him on the deck a soldier saw him and managed to shoot the activist that was walking him down the outside corridor.

He shot him with a special non lethal bullet that didn't kill him.

My commander managed to jump from the deck to the water and swim to an army rescue boat (his guts still out of his body and now in salty sea water). that was how he was saved..

The activists that did this to him are alive and now in turkey treated as heroes.

I am sorry if I described this with too many details, but I thought it was necessary for the credibility.

Please tell this story to anyone who will listen.

I think that these days you are one of Israel's best spokesman.

Thanks and Shabat Shalom!


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Club, A Knife, A Metal Bar, And Thou...

We’re a millennium beyond the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam extolling “A Jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness.”

The last time I sailed the Mediterranean I didn’t say to my wife at 4 a.m., “Let’s go up on deck to look at the moon, or wait for sunrise… and bring a club and a knife with you—and a metal bar, if you have one handy."

The last time I joined a protest, I was armed with a candle. That, and what feels like a millennium of separating the wheat from the chaff since then, brings me to grapple with the grand flotilla “peace” movement.

The Israelis were mugged. Their commandos may well have turned the wrong cloud at the wrong time, but as misguided, unwarranted, over-the-top or downright foolish as their method may have been, they dropped into a trap. The do-gooders were lying-in-wait for them with open armament. As a shipboard bard might have versified wistfully after the drubbing and retaliatory fire, “A club, a knife, a metal bar, and thou beside me swinging in the wilderness.”

Let’s deal with this summarily. The Israelis blundered, hugely. But the flotilla of 546 “peaceful” activists knew what they were sailing into and what they were inviting by doing so. There’s history!—a three-year blockade; accordance with maritime law; previous flotillas intercepted; and Egypt’s co-existing blockade and independent use of force, lethal and conveniently overlooked.

Anyone desiring to stage a world-wide attention-getting event couldn’t do better. And that’s what the “humanitarians” of the six-ship flotilla wanted. According to a prior statement from their Gaza Freedom March, “A violent response from Israel will breathe new life into the Palestine solidarity movement….”

So, let’s think about this. Why does Israel have to justify inspecting the goods of six ships, or even one, from a foreign country entering its waters and bound for its shores? What country does less? What country today doesn’t have customs officers or the equivalent? What country allows anyone entry without a valid passport? What country in this day and age doesn’t have a responsibility to its citizens to protect them from harm, external or internal? The United States has a Coast Guard. And a Border Patrol. China built a Great Wall to thwart intruders from the north. Imperial Russia chose a wider gauge for its railroad tracks to prevent invasion via rail from Europe.

In 2008, a United Nations provision called for ships belonging to Iran’s state–owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, known as Irisl, "to be boarded and inspected at sea or in port if," according to this morning’s New York Times, “there are ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ they are carrying contraband forbidden by Security Council resolutions on Iran.” The Times’ report continues, “In three boardings, two by the United States Navy and one by Israeli commandos, authorities said they had discovered a virtual arms bazaar, including thousands of Katyusha rockets, grenades and mortar shells, believed to be intended for Hezbollah.” A virtual arms bazaar! How much evidence do Israelis, or their even-handed critics, need?

In New York City, a new Jewish Community Center deems it necessary to block its entrance with concrete posts to protect the lives and limbs of all those on its premises. I’ve yet to see a Manhattan church or mosque that has had to resort to such measures—upright reminders, sadly in particular to children attending to learn “Thou shalt love…” by Commandment and social ethics, that they are hated and randomly in danger for being what they are. Try to tell me Jews have no right to protect themselves and their children—and then, that the Israelis have no right to intercept a flotilla that may carry ill to them or to blockade an area that dispatches, by air and land, missiles, mines or suicide bombs of death, disfigurement, dismemberment and destruction.