Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is a story of friendships forged and lives shaped by a little ski mountain called Butternut. Let me start at the best place to begin, the beginning.

I grew up a devout non-believer. Winter held no magic for me. It was a time to put away the baseball glove and the golf clubs, and hibernate. It was an unnecessary interruption in my life. Skiing was on someone else's radar screen. Cold weather and I had an uncomfortable truce, but there was clearly no love lost in our relationship.

One day I got married. With marriage, come a number of unexpected twists and turns (that is a tale for another day). Inherited relationships are a by product of the 'I do's.' My wife had remained friendly with a couple, Mark and Judy, she had met in college. They had married shortly thereafter. As I was introduced into the mix, I found I enjoyed spending time with these friends. Many interests were shared. One was not: Mark's love of skiing.

Several months into our friendship, I found myself up very early one morning. I was in the car, in the rain, traveling to ski for the day at a local mountain. I was ill equipped, both literally and figuratively, for the events that lay ahead. The rain continued through our journey, but did not dampen the spirits of my friend.

Eventually, I found myself at the top of the mountain, unable to see clearly due to the rain, and unable to figure how to navigate my way down the hill. I was in rain gear (basically a plastic bag on top of my clothing) and started my descent certain only that I wanted to get to the bottom. Many minutes later, having crashed and tumbled too many times to count, I came to rest at the base, my plastic covering now shredded and in tatters.

I stumbled into the bar and spent the remainder of the day licking my wounds and counting my blessings that I had survived. Through all the torture and the failure I had somehow come to the decision that this was something I could enjoy. I determined that skiing, not today and not tomorrow, but someday, would be a positive experience.

I spent the next few years, before the invention of children, making periodic attempts to improve the equation between my skis and my brain. Eventually, I could see the beginning of perception. I was no longer at risk with each and every turn, but only a few of them. Skiing was making its way into my life, but was still definitely on the periphery.

Oh yes, the children. A perfect set, a boy and later a girl, were delivered to my wife and me, about 5 years apart. As tiny turned into little, talk turned to contemplations of the slopes.

Mark, who with Judy had his first child about 2 years before us, spoke of finding a mountain where we could share this sport with the little people. It had to be close enough for us to get to on a regular basis. And it had to be gentle enough in temperament, physically and emotionally, to deal with all our frailties. Enter Butternut.

We began by time-sharing a part of a house in Stockbridge. We then moved on to a 2 bedroom house where 4 little ones and 4 not so little ones shared food, gameboys (sometimes), and tight quarters. As the years passed, each family eventually found its own place in which to spread out the boots, skis, gloves, hats, helmets, goggles and concerns of the moment.

Butternut became a staple of our winter. Our son, definitely not a competitive person, in athletics or elsewhere, did not enter the world of lessons and ski racing. He moved along at his own pace and, as he grew older, to my pleasant surprise, showed great aptitude and grace. Our daughter was a young phenom, happily soaking up the days on the trails. While she loved her time outside on the snow, she was equally as comfortable with the crayons, coloring books, and slippers we brought along for those moments when the cold, or exhaustion, brought her inside.

Soon enough, friendships were formed. Our daughter, by the age of 5, was joyfully finding her way around the mountain with her equally young friend as her only companion. While these girls could ski almost as well as the best of the adults, they had one major shortcoming. Neither of them was tall enough to reach and pull down the bar which would protect them from sliding out of their seats on the way up the hill. Fortunately, those whose job was to watch and protect skiers on their rides to their top of the mountain destinations, were diligent in their duties and happy to be substitute mother or father for a moment.

Not even into their teens, our children began creating those bonds that would have an impact on their future and on ours. One day our son met a young girl and soon enough the two became fast friends. An alliance between parents evolved out of necessity and because we found we enjoyed each others' company . In the early days, the 2 preteens used to share an over-sized chair in our friend's house. They fought for rights to the best part of the seat, like an old quarreling couple. Today, almost 20 years later, they remain friends who still find reasons to fight with one another. They have shared ski trips together, and even traveled to Spain for two weeks that was filled with memorable and strange moments.

As for those of us brought together by the circumstance of our children, our relationship blossomed. We lived in New Jersey. They lived in Brooklyn. We rented in Egremont. They owned in Hillsdale. Today, we live in side by side apartments in New Jersey, and directly across the street from one another in Great Barrington. It is difficult, in many ways, to conceive of us being any closer.

One of our son's friends became an extended family member at the mountain for several winters. A novice initially, he became more and more adept, and equally as enamored with everything skiing related. From his early days at Butternut, he eventually graduated to teaching skiing at a mountain in Pennsylvania during college. After school finished, the allure of the snow brought him to a decision to move to Colorado, where he still lives. Periodically, we get stories of his time on the slopes and an invitation to return the favor we had long ago extended to him.

Meanwhile, as our daughter grew, she became first a ski racer, and later a ski teacher (following the lead of her older brother who taught skiing at Butternut, in New Hampshire during college, and finally in Colorado). When our daughter began teaching at Butternut, she immediately became fast friends with a young red- headed girl. Through the years, their mutual love of the mountain brought them back during vacations from college. Any excuse would suffice. The red-head became a regular in our house, and on our ski vacations out west.

Once our daughter finished college, she decided she needed time on the slopes before life's other obligations interceded. Given her background in ski racing and teaching skiing at Butternut, she was a natural fit for a job out West. During her season working as a ski supervisor at Deer Valley, she met a young man who she has now been dating for 2 years. As I write this piece, our daughter is at the house of this young man, spending the holiday week with his family. His love of our daughter, I believe, is nearly matched by his love of the slopes.This dual devotion is an absolute necessity for my daughter in finding a mate for life.

My wife has been a long time member of the ski patrol at Butternut. She remains in Great Barrington this week, while I have come back to New Jersey (theoretically to be working, not writing this piece). While my wife was supposed to be alone at our house, she has had visitors the last 2 evenings. Our son's friend, the one who fought him for the best position on the over-sized chair, found her own chair in our den last evening as she settled in for an evening of watching television at our house. Tonight, the little red-headed girl was leaving work and coming to spend a few days of quality time with my wife. While neither of my children are at the house, those who have become integral parts of our world have taken up residence in their stead.

As for Mark, he is now one of the racing coaches at Butternut. Judy occupies a position of import with the mountain, and her beautiful head of gray hair marks her as a person of great distinction.

So, if you wonder what a little mountain in Massachusetts can offer you, look no farther than my story. While I am always a bit envious of those whose ski life involves big moguls and long runs, I know that what I have gotten from my years on these slopes goes far beyond the trails that lay before me. I understand that big tales can come from small places.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Poker Game

It all began about a quarter of a century ago. We were young, many still with a full head of hair. Our bellies were firm and our lives paths were just beginning. Our days were consumed with work and our nights and weekends consumed with our families. We began the poker game as our weekly retreat to the world of male bonding. It was a time for men to be boys.

Through the years it became a part of the fabric of our life. As important as the events of the rest of the week were, so did the game take on great significance. It was not the money, it was never the money. We never increased the stakes even as wealth multiplied for some (I was not among that chosen group). I always found it particularly amusing when one of the players became almost agitated at the thought of putting down a dollar (in a chip of course) that might be an unwise bet. Set against the backdrop of that person's life, the consternation had no rational basis. But, this undue concern just helped the game, and the night, take on an added import. Each dollar lost here had a meaning far beyond the reach of the rest of the world.

I took on the role of organizer. It was something that came naturally to me, as I have always liked to be front and center in social gatherings. There is always one in every crowd, and I was the one. For many years, before computers made mass communication the accepted way of doing business, this meant weekly phone calls to every potential participant. I would call all those in our entourage (at times numbering a dozen or more) and get a tentative response from some (I will have to see what is happening during the week), a hypothetical reply from others (if you are short a player or 2 I think I can make it) and a definitive answer from just a few. I would have to take notes in the yes, maybe, and no categories, and then start another round of discussions as the time of the game grew closer. The truth is that I loved this 'responsibility' as it kept me in constant contact with everyone. While the reason for the call was nominally to do the math on the numbers for poker, the involvement in what was going in with the lives of those I spoke to, was really what is was all about.

Eventually, as with almost everything else in life, things changed over the course of time. First, our children grew up. No longer did we all feel the need to be tied to the community where most of us had resided. Many of the group worked in New York. Some left their homes as their children left the nest, and resettled (at least part time) in the city. Joanne and I moved 5 years ago. Further, while some of the core group remained in the game, others did not, as life's events interceded. The fit of the personalities of some of the 'replacements' was not always perfect.

About 4 years ago, I stopped organizing the games. Shortly thereafter, the game disbanded. Many of the people whom I had seen regularly over the course of 2 decades, I suddenly had almost no contact with. The game, and many of the people in it, became just a fond memory.

But none of us really escaped from its clutches. I have periodically gotten calls from at least a half dozen of the participants asking when we were getting back together. I would always agree that this was something we must do, and then do nothing.

Several weeks ago I got an email from 2 of the original group, setting a specific date and place for the rebirth of the game. It turned out, that given the way in which some middle aged men handle internet responsibilities, the message never got out to the intended recipients. But, this oversight has now been corrected, and we are set to start anew in early January.

We are now mostly out of shape and fighting the ravages of time. Some are already retired and all of us are thinking now not about raising children, but of present or future grandchildren. Our lives have taken us to places unexpected, good and bad. But no matter the years, I believe all of us are genuinely excited about the prospect of spending moments worried about whether to raise a dollar or fold. It is a bond among all of us, that neither time nor distance has broken. And so, come January, I look forward to a new tradition among old friends. It is long overdue.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Step by step and inch by inch

Gail Collins suggests that the health care reform bill, in its beaten down version, is still worth passing (The New Perils of Pauline, December 19, 2009). I believe she is right. But did right have to feel so very wrong?

President Obama is now returning from Copenhagen, where an ambitious 2 year journey into universal climate reform has dissolved into something just north of nothing. With the heart of any environmental accord ripped out, what remained was but a faint heartbeat of progress. The Times called it a "messy compromise (that) mirrored the chaotic nature of the conference which all participants said had been badly organized and run". Does this sound familiar?

In the end, the most that could be said of the climate talks was that the informal pact was a beginning. It is painfully clear, that we live in a world where competing voices on both the national and international front make any movement forward slow and difficult. Our belief that there is enough gravitas in our leader to force his vision on our country or on our world is naive and unrealistic.

We have to modify our goals. The soaring rhetoric of the President can only get us a little way down the path and the hard work has to be done step by step, as distasteful as it sometimes seems. We have to accept this diminished reality or we are doomed to a continuation of failure. To cling to the notion of perfect, or even very good, is neither appropriate nor productive. Some health care reform, is in the final analysis, better than none at all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009



Bill Cosby once told a story of a karate expert who tried to break too many bricks at one time. All he ended up with was a very badly broken hand. After that, he used to perform karate on marshmallows. It was only the illusion of power that remained.

When Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009 there was the feeling that he could break through more bricks than you could possibly put before him. He had received a mandate from the people. The House and the Senate were aligned. Everything was in place. We would see a system perform on all cylinders. All the wrongs committed that had helped diminish this country would be eradicated.

Yet now, as the year comes to a close, we are astonished at how little we understood. We sit and wonder how an 'independent' Senator from Connecticut can wield such power to further emasculate an already watered down version of a health care bill. We cringe as we watch the leaders of those banks whose very life is owed to government intervention, act with such impunity. They return our money with not a thank you, but with a 'sorry I can't be there to be lectured by you on my responsibilities'. While the President talks to them by phone and almost begs these titans to do what is right, Rome continues to burn, and the Wall Street bonuses continue to escalate.

With each passing day, we see the obstructionists, the lobbyists and the ones whose actions led to our financial undoing all continue to game the system. How could the government always be on the defensive?

We may well get a health reform package. However, with the public option stripped, the medicare buy-in gone, the abortion coverage on life support, and so many other pieces of the puzzle being eaten away, we are left with a hollow shell. Some in the Democratic party are already suggesting this legislation be scrapped, and that the Democrats use a procedural maneuver to be able to pass truly effective legislation with only 51 votes. I wouldn't stay awake at night waiting for that to happen.

We may also get financial reforms, intended to reign in the excesses of the last decade, but we know the legislation will be more window dressing than substance.Those in the financial markets have already escaped from the clutches of government control and will maneuver around any future attempts to limit their greed.

It is with sadness,frustration and anger that we look at opportunities wasted. I am looking for even one brick to break but all I see around me are marshmallows.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Closed Doors

When I was growing up in the late 1950's and early 1960's, I looked up to JFK and Mickey Mantle. All I saw in Mantle was a courageous athlete, hobbled but great despite his injuries. Kennedy was Camelot. With his 2 young children so adored by him, and a beautiful wife, he seemed to embody everything vibrant and magnificent. Both these men could do no wrong, as far as I was concerned. Only, as it turned out, they could and did do much wrong, sometimes behind closed doors and sometimes out in the open. Yet,a wall of silence protected their actions from public scrutiny and ridicule.

I thought those times were long gone. Tiger's tale proved me wrong. How did he get away with bedding everybody but your next door neighbor and none of us knew anything about it?

I understand that he is a billionaire and could probably cover his tracks better than any of us could imagine. But from all the stories that are now emerging, he was sloppy in his arrogance. Like many of the politicians, and other public figures, who have been exposed in recent years, he believed himself immune from the world of crime and punishment for transgressions. So he appeared to leave a trail of crumbs for all of us to follow.

In today's world, TMZ and a horde of other similar star gazers is often seemingly at disasters before they happen. The magazines provide endless glimpses into the private lives of those in the public eye. We are in an age where cameras are in our phones and everyone wants 15 minutes to tell their tale. If Tiger seemed prolific on the golf course, it now seems he was equally a master off it. Yet it wasn't until the tiny bump of the car that everything came crashing down. How?

Is it that we all wanted the world to believe in Mickey Mantle and JFK rolled into one? Here was someone who, from the age of 3 on, was the best at what he did. He never disappointed us in his chosen field. Was it that no one wanted to be the one who would reveal that Mantle was an alcoholic and a womanizer, or that Kennedy's perfect facade was merely that? Did we all need Tiger to be Tiger, always a bright light, and not just another success at his career but a failure in life? Is that why this story has never been told? Did no one want to be the grinch who stole Christmas?

I don't have the answers. This is a new millenium and the secrets of a Mantle or a JFK are no longer supposed to exist. Just ask Bill Clinton.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Retaining Memories


"Yes mom, I am in Utah with Robin and Steve, our friends from Philadelphia. We are visiting Alex, who is working at a mountain and will be starting graduate school in New York in the fall. We will be home Wednesday morning."

With that, I get off the phone and shake my head. This must be at least 500 times in the past 6 months that I have had the same conversation with my mom about her granddaughter. My mom is 90 years old and her short term memory is nothing but a distant memory for her.

It is hard watching a parent grow old. If we are lucky, we have a fixed image in our minds of our parents in the prime of their lives. My dad passed away almost 30 years ago. I try to remember all the things that made my dad who he was to me. Every once in a while this offending thought of how he looked the last time I saw him, ravaged by the effects of his cancer, creeps into my brain. I try to disgorge this thought from my cerebrum and replace it with the images of him that I treasure.

I grew up in the 'Leave it to Beaver' household. My mom adored my father, and made my sister and myself feel like we walked on water. My dad was the man who graduated first in his class from NYU law at 21 years of age, was an all- American fencer, a successful attorney and utterly devoted to our family. My sister, from the time she was little until this day, attempted to protect me and make sure my life was filled only with good thoughts.

I want to make my mom whole again. I want her to wake up this morning with a clarity of mind and purpose. I want her to be able to pick up the phone and discuss new matters of import and interest. I want her to be able to drive her car again, like she loved to do. I want her to be able to live independent and strong. I want the mom I remember and still see in my dreams.

But reality does not deal in sentiment. It can be a cruel and unforgiving foe. It does not let us rewind, or cherry pick those moments we get to retain. It takes us where it wants to take us. If we don't like it, that is tough on us.

My calls with my sister now always begin with, "I just spoke to Mom and she is ok , but". I never wanted to have a conversation like this with her. If one thinks that if we wish hard enough , we can make the effects of time disappear in our loved ones, I have learned that no matter the strength of your desires, it is no match for the ravages inflicted. Acceptance of what is, and not what should be, is not an easy task.

My son has a wonderful capacity of being able to look past the images he sees and hears of his grandmother and deal with her in a gentle effective manner. While he sometimes has to deal with 5 or more calls in an hour on the same topic, with my mom asking him virtually the same questions over and over, he never seems to lose his patience. We learn much about ourselves and others in times like this.

I know my mom struggles to cope with what is happening to her. She wants to say she is fine, and always asks what she can do for us, but she comprehends that her difficulties are our difficulties. She knows she can no longer remain 39, as she tried to do for almost 50 years. She knows that her role as matriarch of the family has been replaced by her taking on a new and unintended position. She can recall the glory days but she has a hard time remembering what she ate for lunch.

I start every morning by picking up the phone to tell her we are all doing well, and asking her how she is feeling. I know she will try to do the best she can to be positive, so that I can begin my day without having to call my sister and start the cycle of concern again. I know she wants us to retain the images of her as vibrant and independent, and carry that around with us each and every day.

It is now almost 9 AM in New Jersey. I am sitting in Utah, at the computer, knowing that when I finish my thoughts, I must pick up the phone. I hope it will be a good day for her. I hope she will be my mother again. I hope that there will be one day be a cure for dementia so that the next person sitting at the computer does not have to remember the good times past, but can live in the moment. I hope today is the day that the present comes back into focus for my mom. I hope.

Piece of Mind

We just got lectured in a very public forum. In his editorial in today's New York Times ('How to Mend Fences with Pakistan'), President Zadari of Pakistan gives us a piece of his mind.

First, Zadari defends his country's actions in chasing after the bad guys (Taliban and Al Qaeda) and chastises us for questioning the strength of their resolve to address what they consider a joint war against a common enemy.Then he really laces into us, reminding us of our recent actions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan that left both of these countries in dire straits. Zadari contends that we were the instrument in the past that in large part allowed the present to occur.

And this is what are friends think of us. When we wonder if we will ever be able to escape the quagmire of the middle east let the words of Zadari resonate in our minds. We have shown ourselves not to be a reliable ally. There is a level of distrust for our country and our level of commitment that will never go away, no matter how many dollars we pour into a country or how many of our soldiers we put in harm's way. We will always be disliked and we will always be asked to leave on the next train.

Zadari does soften his rhetoric and ends his piece in a conciliatory tone. He speaks of a partnership with our country, one in which he seeks our assistance in making sure that there is a 'robust democratic Pakistan' that will serve as the best hope for a secure future. However, while he admits to needing us, Zadari clearly doesn't want us getting in the way.

When our battle with those who are on our side is this hard, there would seem no realistic possibility of achieving long term goals in this region of the world. We have been incapable of recognizing this harsh and inescapable truth. It is time we learned.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Shell Game

It has the feeling of a 'shell game'. The hidden, moving parts that we seem to chase forever. When we finally turn over the shell, we learn our eye has been fooled and our mind has played tricks on us. As President Obama announced his intentions of our coming and going in Afghanistan I could only wonder, isn't Al Qaeda in Pakistan?

We were told once more last night that this fiasco commenced as a reaction to 9/11. We did not move forward in Afghanistan until our request for that government to turn over Bin Laden was rejected. We went in, made progress, and then dropped the ball as we let a cornered Bin Laden escape. Instead, we turned our attention for years to a country where weapons of mass destruction did not exist and Al Qaeda had no stronghold. In the meantime, Bin Laden moved on.

Now we are advised that the Taliban, dispersed and defeated in those early days in the Afghanistan war, has reconstituted.We are told that we must renew our efforts to destroy their will and their capacity to hurt us. But, the real epicenter for our sworn enemy, Al Qaeda, lies across the border. It is estimated that less than 100 of Bin Laden's legion reside within Afghanistan. And yet, we are not and will not be committing our troops to finding and destroying those in Pakistan who daily plan our undoing. President Obama made vague reference to shoring up Afghanistan so there is one less potential safe haven for Bin Laden's crew. Is that the point of escalating a war?

It feels like there is always another reason to stay, always another reason to fight. As we put out fires in Iraq and now Afghanistan, Al Qaeda sits in Pakistan and hides under a shell we can't even locate. While we try to clean up a second mess, I can't help but wonder where will we next turn our attention. Pakistan, while not our enemy, is home to over 65 nuclear weapons at last count. It is the from here that the terrorists plot our demise. If the situation there destabilizes, don't we owe it to our country to head to that country to fight our actual enemy? And what about North Korea and Iran who hate us and move ever forward in their efforts to obtain nuclear powers? It seems like a never-ending dilemma.

I believe that President Obama is trying to clean up the mess he inherited in Afghanistan. But I think his task there is next to impossible, and even should he somehow declare mission accomplished in the future, I will not be certain what that mission was, and where we go from there.

We have become a nation addicted to the notion that we must not only face down actual threats, but we must act pre-emptively so that these threats do not materialize. It is the worst of many bad ideas that former President Bush left behind.

We are fighting today in Afghanistan to keep them from becoming a future haven for terrorists. There will always be a perceived possibility of lurking danger as we gaze around the globe. Until we change our thought process, and limit our actions to a response to imminent threats to our national security, we will keep looking under the wrong shells and coming up empty handed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Jerk

Sometimes I can be a real jerk. I am one of the legion of drivers, mostly men I would suggest, who suffer from 'road anger'. It is not quite road rage but it is still very ugly and very unnecessary. Last night, my poor daughter was on the receiving end of one of these breakdowns in my capacity to reason. It left her in tears and left me embarrassed and ashamed.

It all started innocently, as these things almost always do. I had volunteered to drive Alex back to New York City after she had made a quick visit to us in New Jersey. She had a 6 PM class and we started our journey at 5 PM. Big mistake.

From the first, there were signs that this was going to be less than easy. As we struggled to cross the bridge and get to the East side, I decided to take the 178th Street exit, and make my approach to the Harlem River Drive through the streets of New York. You see, one of the lessons learned from years of driving certain routes, is that there is always a short-cut. While traffic may be at a standstill all around, you alone know a way to get to your destination on time.

I did manage this part of the trip relatively well and was on the Drive in short order. But, it was clear that I needed no further delays. I could tolerate no more deviations from the plan, or Alex would be late for class. Thus, internally at least, I began to escalate.

At 132nd Street, the bottleneck appeared. It was a crawl in front of me. I would now pull out another trick from my bag, exit the highway, take the side roads for about a mile, and emerge, unscathed, below all the traffic. Only I didn't. The streets of the city were tied up. Every turn I made only brought a different set of problems. I seemed always to be heading into another disaster.

As my ability to extricate myself from the mess was proven to be ineffective, my attitude and demeanor declined dramatically. My daughter was reading a book in the car that she was thoroughly enjoying. She was frantically trying to finish it on the way to her class, so she could pass it on to me to deliver to her mother. Alex was animated in her discussion concerning the premise of the story and how interesting it had been to follow the journey of the main characters. With my outbursts, cursing the decisions I had made in the car, I had created a stink in the vehicle. Alex put down the book and stopped talking.

When my tirade continued, not directed at Alex, but clearly implying some fault on her part, my daughter began to cry. It jolted me back to reality. What was I doing? What was I saying? What could possibly be so important that I had created this scene?

Alex told me she would never ask me to drive her into the city again. She was right. I wouldn't want to be in an enclosed area with this idiot if there was any other choice.

I have been a repeat offender of this type of behavior for many years. I have always 'gone off' for no purpose and to no end other than to hear myself rant. I have made those around me uncomfortable and unhappy. Yet once the moment passes, I brush off the incident and even take offense if someone questions my attitude.

After I dropped Alex off at her destination, I felt terrible. I wanted to continue the apology to her that I started the moment she began to cry. She had gotten out of the car without tears or anger, but my penance felt far from over. I knew she was going into class and would not emerge for at least 2 hours. The entire trip back to NJ was one marked with guilt. I felt like turning the car around, heading to her class, and bursting in to continue my mea culpa.

As soon as I got home, I asked Jo and Richie to 'text' Alex (yes, I am that limited), to announce my arrival at home and advise that my stupidity had no bounds. Soon thereafter the phone rang. Alex had gotten a break in the middle of her class. She was fine, all was forgiven. I told her that I would be right back to pick her up at the end of class to drive her home. She laughed in a way conveying that everything was ok, that she still loved me, and that I could have the privilege of being her father again tomorrow.

I hope I can learn a lesson. I want to take the worst parts of me and discard them, but this baggage is not so easy to unload. However, the next time I am in a traffic jam and about to dissolve, I will try my best to remember the events of last evening. If that doesn't stop me in my tracks, then I think you will have to consider me a lost cause.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A New Low

I have circled this Wednesday on my calendar. On that day there is an event of potential historical significance that I hope to witness. However, it is not the best part of me that draws me in. The New Jersey Nets are in the process of beginning their season with the most consecutive losses in league history. Wednesday the record for futility is set to be established. It is being present at a train wreck that is my driving force.

Actually, if I appear at the arena that evening, it will be my second trip there in a few weeks. On a recent Tuesday, the radio spot advised that there were tickets available for that evening's game, both near and far from the court, for $10. This was too good to pass up. That night, as Richie and I approached the ticket booth, I asked hesitantly if there were actually tickets downstairs for the giveaway price advertised. Soon, I was holding 2 beauties in my hand. As Rich and I descended the steps, we moved ever and ever closer to the court, until we settled in the best of the $175 seats. The place was still virtually empty. It would not get much fuller for the balance of the night.

Even when this franchise presented a good product in times past, people stayed away. Now, with a hodge podge of ill fitting players, and a stated intention to relocate the team to Brooklyn as soon as the litigation ends and the construction moves forward, there is virtually no one interested. The possibility is substantial that this team could not seat a full house if they gave away all of the tickets.

There is an upside. The truth is that after spending a season attending Yankee games, it is refreshing to be able to leave your seat, get an ice cream, paid for with a $5 bill, get change, and be back watching before the time out is over. You feel like the people serving you need to strike up a conversation to combat the boredom and the loneliness.

Maybe there is another reason to become part of a cult group following this futile, lonely little team. The Knicks are a high priced disaster, so there are no better options in sight. Maybe on Wednesday I will actually root for this team. But not too hard, as I definitely am most interested in being able to say I was there at the coronation of the worst ever. While I may be far from perfect, this team may soon redefine just how far away from perfection is possible.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The new reality

As the bizarre world of reality TV introduces us to an ever expanding group of those who want us to watch them do whatever it is that they do, I want to throw these ideas out for consideration. (I looked no farther than today's newspaper for my inspiration):

1) Catch me if you can - Following the life of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan as he decides whether to give up the cause for a 9 to 5 job.

2) Taking stock - The daily trials and tribulations of trading on the floor of the stock exchange

3) At war, 24/7 - A soldier's view in Iraq and Afghanistan

4) Shop til you drop - A store manager at one of the big malls reveals the secrets of the trade

5) I'm so excited, I'm uninvited - The life and times of serial gate crashers

6) Run - Following the secret lives of those trying to elude the FBI

7) Settling in - A construction worker on the West Bank wonders whether he should be looking for a new job

8) Off course - Airline pilots and their 'distractions' in and out of the air

9) First Amendment - How the choices of what is fit to print are determined

10) $ - A look at the dollar and what it really buys in the world of politics

11) Terror - The District Attorney, preparing for the trial to bring a terrorist to justice in New York

12) Don'tbai - A real estate salesman in Dubai thinks about a new career

13) Running on empty - An economist struggles to find a way to revive a failing economy

14) Temping - Once highly sought after, these individuals now find themselves willing to do what was once 'unthinkable' just to keep going.

15) In the Woods - Tiger, tiger and a world in which he must always burn bright.

16) Blogging for a living - We all have dreams, even me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Outsider

As millions of us gathered for family reunions at Thanksgiving, a common sight repeated itself in many households. In the middle of conversation, there would be a sudden disruption. In our quest for ever expanding technological advances, we have introduced a new guest to our party. In recent times, with endless text messages, email notices, access to files, and the ready availability of a world of information, an outsider has intruded. As cell phone applications grow, our attention to the moment shrinks.

I would suggest a rule, at least for this one day, that all phones are to be checked at the front door. There should be a suspension of search and seizure laws, as all guests get patted down before entry. Anyone seen violating this mandate during the Thanksgiving feast should be sent home without a second helping of stuffing. A non-sport fan will be required to sit through a full afternoon watching football, next to the uncle who has never witnessed a touchdown or interception he couldn't dissect.

I was speaking with one of my favorite, unnamed, relatives at yesterday's feast. Suddenly her eyes darted down and her fingers moved in furious motion. When she looked back up, I gently chastised her. I took a look at the phone she was holding. Her message read "What? Why?". Somehow, I had the feeling that this disruption was not of monumental significance.

I am not criticizing anyone who has moved into the 21st Century. I am stuck early in the last decade and am rapidly losing contact with most of the rest of the world. But, my lack of comprehension should not be confused with a lack of ability to understand the implications of what is transpiring.

It no longer warrants an "excuse me," or any other indication when you break away from the moment. As thoughts hang in mid-air, there is suddenly a superseding event. There seems to be no safe haven. I have been on walks with friends, in the car, at a dinner in a restaurant or even waiting for a movie to begin, when this interruption plays itself out in full view. Can't one even pretend that this action is caused by some emergency?

I understand that many, if not most, will think that this is just a needless rant and that I am the one who must amend my thought process to be accepting of a new reality. I assume that someday I will become a convert and will wonder how I could have been so wrong in my thinking. Until that day comes, I would ask that, at least in our conversations, you only have eyes for me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


David Brooks poses "The Values Question" to us today. On the day before Thanksgiving, when so many have so little to be thankful for, how can he call a decision on whether to provide care for those in the greatest of need a "brutal choice"? Can we possibly sit around our tables, surrounded by loved ones, with bellies full, and think that "eas(ing) the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth" is a debate we should be engaging in? We have a moral obligation, on this day in particular, to do what is right.

Mr. Brooks asks who we want to be. I don't want to be that person who decides there is a basis to deny coverage to the millions who suffer. We know that failure to pass health care legislation will mean certain death to some of those who go without. We are a society that should pride ourselves, above all else, on protecting the health and well being of our citizens. Mr. Brooks talks of a "sweet spot" where there would be no trade off of money for essential services. Maybe the health care bills proposed do that, maybe they don't. The debate, on the floor of the Senate is certain to carry on that conversation until Christmas. On that holiest of days, if the question of Mr. Brooks were to be raised before the 100 assembled, could even one find voice to deny a warm blanket of security to those most in need?

We are a society that has lost its way if we seriously consider the continuation of "poor people living in misery" an acceptable trade off for more turkey on our plates or another present under the Christmas tree.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The "uh-0's"

As we close in on the end of a decade, we search for the catchphrase that will capture the essence of the first ten years of the new millenium. I think I have it : " The 0 no's".

From the fall of the Twin Towers to the fall of the stock market, from the ongoing disasters in Iraq to Afghanistan, from the voices of those Republicans in opposition to this administration, one phrase has been constant, "oh no".

On that day in 2001, when the towers disappeared, what was once there for all of us, not only physically but psychologically, was turned to nothing.

When the greed overcame us, and in 2008 our economic complacency was suddenly gone, we had less than when we started the decade and less certainty in our own futures. Much ventured but nothing gained, and we had lost our economic underpinning.

Under the command of a President who did not back off from a fight, no matter how stupid or ill conceived, we found ourselves wandering through the Middle East, invading a country that we later discovered had not in fact taken part in the attack on our nation, and did not possess the weapons to hurt us. After years of disastrous decisions, we now remove ourselves from one battlefield and head towards another. Most of us see that nothing good emerged and fear a never -ending dance with no positive ending.

From January 20, 2009 to the last tick of the clock in this decade, if there is one thing we can be certain of, it is the Republican opposition to anything and everything suggested by this present administration. Vote after vote, and discussion after discussion, is marked by a single Republican theme: Nothing, but nothing, will get done on your watch. No matter the issue, no matter the need, "no" was all that mattered to them.

We watch in horror, in disgust and in bewilderment. The "O's" have been marked by one event after another that have made us less comfortable, less affluent, less meaningful in the eyes of those who judge us, and less willing to do what we must to make it better.

We are ending a decade where we have not stepped up, but have seemed to step backwards. The "zeroes" have not been good to us. In its grasp, and when we look back, we will find this to be a time where "oh, no" dominated. It has been 10 years of zero in so many more ways than just the calendar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

7 Days

"My dad's in trouble". Hearing those words, I jumped from my chair and ran into the room where Jo was talking. "They are taking him to the hospital". We said nothing further and prepared to leave the office. Then the phone rang again. Mike was gone.

A week has passed since those terrible calls. As I reflect on what has transpired in that time, I am overwhelmed by the grace and dignity exhibited by my wife and her mother. From the first, there was an acceptance and an understanding. Mike had long suffered, and was more than ready to let go. Jo and Harryette did not choose to see this as something other than what it really was.

It is hard for some not to find fault in this type of a response to the death of someone so dear. They would say that you have to be mourning, you have to be hurting, you have to be inconsolable in your private moments. But, it is, to my mind, a show of great strength to be able to be true to your own feelings.

There was no real sadness attached to the events of the past 7 days. Certainly there were moments, but these were few and isolated. In fact, there was much more laughter than tears. There was a bonding with our family and that of Jo's brother Steve, as we told of events old and new, some stranger than others, all meant to bring a smile. Mike would have loved to see all of us sitting around the dinner table enjoying each other's company. Some stories sounded more like fiction than fact. That made them all the more interesting.

We are all settling back into our routine again. Enough time has passed that it is socially acceptable to be ready to participate in the events of the world. But Mike would not have wanted us to do anything but go right back to living. He wouldn't have found it necessary, or even appropriate, for us to have mourned. He had wrung everything he could out of his days. Harryette understood that and did great honor to Mike in her response to his death.

I have always found my mother in law to be full of class. After watching her the past week, she has only been elevated in my estimation. I thank her for making those horrifying minutes after we received the call, slightly more bearable. As a family, she, Jo and Steve, made the last week one that I will long recall, not in sadness, but with a certain warmth and fondness I could never have anticipated.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Yankee Doodle Dandy

This World Series had the feeling of the last act in George Steinbrenner's very long running play. Filled with emotion and drama, it was interpreted as a fitting tribute to the man. When the triumph was complete, he was treated like a present day George Gipp. "Win one for the old man" had become the rallying cry for his troops. In truth, he was more like an early version of Donald Trump. Yet, Steinbrenner, in his declining years, had become venerable.

He was the face of the group of investors who purchased the team in 1973 for less than what he paid his designated hitter this year. He was a born-on-the-4th-of-July patriot, and he was full of bluster.

He attacked his foes, and often his allies, with relentless fervor. In one memorable beer commercial, he argued with his on again-off again manager Billy Martin about the reason the beer they were drinking was so well liked. In a self-parody, the spat ended with a pre-Trumpian "you're fired" of Martin.

In 1974, he pled guilty to making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign, and was suspended from baseball for 2 years (subsequently reduced to 15 months) by then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In 1989, President Reagan (who coincidentally had portrayed George Gipp in the movies) pardoned him for this transgression. By 1990, Steinbrenner was banned from baseball for life for having paid a small time loser $40,000 to dig up dirt on a star player (Dave Winfield) who had the audacity to sue him for failing to make a promised contribution to a charitable foundation the player had set up. In 1993, the ban was lifted.

He angered his star players, Reggie Jackson and Winfield, most notable among them. He treated his managers with little respect. He benched Don Mattingly for failing to cut his hair, during a time when Steinbrenner was himself suspended from the game for the Winfield incident. He claimed to have injured his hand in a fight with 2 Dodger fans during the 1981 World Series.

Yet, with the passage of time, the gruffness of the "Boss" seemed somewhat less menacing, a little less maniacal. The commercials with Martin, and later the bumbling fool lampooning of him in "Seinfeld" softened his image.

Ultimately, as the effects of old age took away most of the bravado and diminished his capacity to rule with an iron fist, all that remained was an open pocketbook, a passion to succeed, and a somewhat vacant stare of an old man about to lose his way.

What is now left is our own Yankee Doodle Dandy. While the first King George (Herman Ruth) built his home here in 1923, our King George now had his own shiny new house and a championship trophy to proudly display inside. For a man who had invested in theater productions early in his career, this is a culmination of a 36 year running hit in New York. He certainly has put on a great show.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Survival of the Richest

They got our money. Now they want to cut the line to get our vaccines. I don't think so.

In a public relations no-no, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs are among those companies to whom New York City health officials recently distributed doses of the swine flu vaccine. While we wait to protect those of us in high priority groups who may be most vulnerable, and hope there is enough vaccine available soon, some of the big boys don't have that problem.

We are told by Goldman that "like other responsible employers" they will "supply it (the vaccine) only to those employees who qualify". I don't know, but I have some nagging suspicion that not everything those at Goldman say is absolutely accurate. Beyond that, even if it is a true statement, don't you think that maybe these companies don't deserve a priority dose of anything else from us?

Why don't we do this in reverse order of size and power? Why don't we say that everyone who is homeless, who is on welfare, who is living in a shelter, who has felt nothing except the distress of being forgotten and ignored, steps to the front? Why aren't their children, or their elderly parents, or those who have been the most vulnerable and the most overwhelmed, for once deemed to be the most worthy of our attention? These people who have not had access to medical care, who are most at risk of not getting the needed attention, should be the ones who are now permitted to step forward.

We have all suffered what we see as a continuous wrong in catering and giving a helping hand to those at the top of the food chain. We have felt that they have stepped on those below them in their climb to the top and are willing to ignore the pain and suffering below. To make them or their loved ones appear to be important and more worthy of our care is not the message that we should be sending. Let them call their doctors and wait, like the rest of us, for their shot. That would be a dose of reality.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

27 and one

As I began the walk over the 155th Street bridge, a strange sensation suddenly captured my attention. While I should have been filled only with excitement, I was struck with a feeling of melancholy. I was headed to my second home, Yankee Stadium, and Game 6 of the World Series.

I had received the call earlier that afternoon. It was my nephew advising that his wife might be able to obtain an extra ticket for what would prove to be a very big party. It was very touching and very unexpected. Everyone who has been in my company over the last half century has been subjected to my Yankee mania. I had never, in all the hundreds of times that I had been a spectator, been witness to the ultimate conquest. This was, at last, a chance to be there when the promised land was reached.

Yet, during that stroll towards a culmination of a lifetime of watching and waiting for this day, I felt very alone. While I was meeting up with my nephew and would eventually spend 4 innings sitting with him, my seat and his were not together. I would ultimately be sitting by myself, among 50,000 strangers. This was not the perfect setting for the perfect ending.

I have spent each and every moment of each and every Yankee game I have ever attended in the company of those I care for, both friends and family. The Yankees, it turns out, provide a backdrop for my pleasure. What I love more than the team, is the time with my Dad, with my friends, and for the last 20 years or so, with my children.

We recently had the very good fortune to have been in possession of two World Series tickets to Game 2. We had a very big battle among my daughter, my son and myself to see which two of us would go. But, the fight was not what you would think. We all fought NOT to go. It was a case of each of us wanting the others to be the fortunate ones. It was surreal and it was beautiful.

My daughter was out of the country yesterday when I got the call from my nephew. My son was not up to attending. Thus, I could not hand off the prize to either of them. But in my walk towards the Stadium last night, I was reaching for their presence.

I know I must seem the fool. I am as grateful as can possibly be, to my niece and nephew. I thoroughly enjoy my nephew's company and we had wonderful moments together last night, rooting our guys on. But throughout the night, and especially in those innings where I was seated among others who were sharing their thoughts and emotions with people special to them, I felt very much isolated. Intellectually, I knew this was idiotic. Emotionally, I missed my children intensely.

I received calls from both of them throughout the game. My daughter, from her remote locale to which she had flown earlier in the day, my son from the home he shares with Joanne and me. I could sense their feelings for me.

By the last two innings, I had found my way back to my nephew. With the last out, I gave him a big hug, and a heartfelt thanks. I had been a spectator to history, to an event so important in the world I inhabit.

I made my way out of the Stadium after the game to the streets where thousands were holding the largest street celebration you could imagine. I walked alone back across the 155th Street bridge and waited for Joanne and Richie to pick me up. Crossing from the Bronx back to Manhattan, I turned around to give one last look towards the season that was. I said my silent thank you to the Yankees and to my nephew and niece. It was an evening I will never forget, but not just for what happened on the field. It was a unique evening in my life in ways I could hardly have imagined.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reading the Tea Leaves

Election results came in from New York, New Jersey and Virginia. The party preaching change, proved to be a winner. Who could have imagined that, at least in some locations, it would be the Republicans, a year after their repudiation by the voters, who would raise their voices and hold up their heads and their hands as the party vowing to lead us out of the morass?

Yet, it is hard to get too excited, or too depressed, depending on your party affiliation, by what occurred yesterday. Virginia has historically been a Republican state, has a long track record of bouncing the party in charge from office in mid-term elections, and had the winner beat the loser again, four years after an earlier defeat in a race between the same opponents for a different post. In New York's 23rd, it was in fact a Democrat who garnered that seat after the Republican effort to oust its own candidate and endorse a third party conservative, failed. A stranglehold on this district by the Republicans disappeared. In the New York City mayoral race, despite the enormous amount of money the popular Republican two termer poured out of his own pockets, he was nearly beaten by a much lower profile Democrat. Finally, in New Jersey, a Democratic governor who was supposed to right the ship based on his Wall Street background, sank like a rock. What does it all mean?

Principally, as the exit polls reveal, the rising number of independent voters were voicing their dissatisfaction for the party in power. Times are tough and the reaction of those dismayed, distressed, disturbed and discouraged was to throw out the old and bring in the new. It mattered little what was being said by either candidate. It was a referendum on tough times hanging on way too long. The 23rd had belonged to the Republicans. The ownership of the governor's mansion in New Jersey and Virginia changed party affiliation. Only Michael Bloomberg, in a city he owns, both figuratively and literally, was able to hold off the rushing tide and hold on by an astonishing close margin. No, it was not Democrat alone who faced expulsion. It was anyone unlucky enough to be in power during the bad days.

We are a country that is becoming increasingly frustrated and disenchanted. Even those of us who want to see this administration succeed in dealing with the enormous challenges laid at its feet, are getting tired of waiting. The consistent voice of the people yesterday was that whoever is in charge, Republican or Democrat, is in trouble as long as we feel that we remain troubled. If, by next year at this time, significant improvement is neither seen nor felt, those whose seats are at stake are in very serious jeopardy of walking out with heads bowed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Let me put in an official complaint. Stop with all the political robo calls.

I have been bombarded in the days leading up to the election. I have received personal greetings from elevated politicians like President Obama and Governor Corzine to locals running for town council. I have been faux contacted by anyone and everyone who has seemingly anything to do with the political landscape. Do I really have to be subjected to all this noise?

I have an idea. Give me the home number of all the politicians who wish to address me. I will record my thoughts and robo call them (only during dinner of course) to give them chapter and verse on the issues that are of concern to me.

We don't want you to chase us into our homes. I don't need to be repeatedly reminded to vote. I don't appreciate the continuing interruption and quite honestly, no one else does.

So, next election, if you want my vote, don't harass me. Your campaign slogan should be ' Vote for me and I will leave you alone at dinner'. You can buy me with your silence.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Endless Hour

I am in significant discomfort. My thighs are shouting at me. Bending and sitting are almost out of the question. Resting my backside on the toilet seat and rising from that position may take the use of a crane. I have begun working out with a trainer.

After years of prodding, and one excruciating bulging disc, I understood that I did indeed have to strengthen my 'core'. If I was to have any chance of not spending my later years looking like I was continually searching to find a penny on the ground, I would have to do something far more significant than think happy thoughts about my back.

I am doing the beginner's beginner exercises. The third session took place yesterday (I am so grateful that I got a week off after the first 2 sessions, due to the vacation plans of my leader. I am seriously thinking of paying her to take a vacation every month). I was required to do lunges in which I was made to walk like Groucho Marx did, in all those movies. I cramped up in both legs after about 10 seconds.

On the bike, with the weights, then to the mat, moving always moving. Struggles pile up on one another. I do nothing well and some things worse than others. I can't even understand the basic instructions given to me, nor the control panels of the machines. I am totally uncoordinated and I dress badly. I was told by my family to get longer shorts to be sure my junk stayed hidden. I have started to wear basketball shorts that end well below my knees. I now look even more ridiculous than before.

Do you remember when you were in that class in school where it seemed like the hands on the clock never moved? Who knew they had moved that clock into the exercise room.

Today is Friday. My pain level seems to be moving ever higher but I hope it soon begins to recede. With much luck, and much Advil, I may be feeling pretty good by Monday, the day of my next workout. Welcome to my cycle of pain.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Partners in Crime

The US presence in Afghanistan feels like an uncomfortable fit on so many levels. Our CIA financial support and alliance with one of the apparent drug lords, who just happens to be the brother of President Karzai, is but one more head shaking example.

We struggle to deal with aligning ourselves with the best of a bad lot. We want to put our considerable weight behind a government that is credible to both the Afghan people and to the world that is watching. But we have had to twist the arm of the President to have a 'do-over' election which was mandated by an earlier vote marked by rampant fraud.

Now we learn of the CIA's willingness to look the other way while the President's brother allows the drug trade to flourish, to his considerable benefit, and to the detriment of those trying to eradicate this trade. The Taliban, we are told, rely heavily on the money generated by the sale of drugs, to sustain themselves. For President Karzai to be our partner in trying to rid the area of Taliban, and yet to have a brother who is sleeping with the enemy, makes our support for this government even more suspect.

Handing over money to Karzai's brother and looking the other way at his actions is like having to pay a bad guy to be an informant. We hold our nose and close our eyes. That has been part of our strategy through the years, as we have paid local warlords to abandon their allegiance to the Taliban. But is this what we are left with at the highest levels in Afghanistan?

We are in a critical moment in this country. We have decided, for better or for worse, that this area has become the new epicenter of our focus. We are in desperate need of a credible local partner. This latest story to come out of the region can only add to the feeling that we are hitching our horses to a broken down wagon.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Where is the Paperboy? (or Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth)

What time is it? A little bit after 8 AM was the reply. This was the second Sunday in a row that our paper had not arrived in a timely fashion and it was disturbing the rhythm of my day. What was going on?

It grew closer to 8:30 and still no paper. I don't think the paperboy is going to get any Christmas present this year, I announced. Then the phone rang.

What is happening with our delivery Jo asked. We partied too hard last night and the paperboy is not moving so quickly this morning. This was totally unacceptable.

You see, our closest friend lives directly across the street in Great Barrington. Each Saturday and Sunday morning, for about 2 years now, we have had absolutely free home delivery by him of the NY Times, together with bagels. We have come to expect prompt and efficient service. Delay caused by anything short of catastrophe the night before is not an excuse.

I met up with my friend this morning,and chastised him for his lack of effort and his unwillingness to live by the schedule I had established. I am sure he understood the possible ramifications of any further failures on his part.

We have developed a strange and wonderful bond. However, bonds can be broken. This is now an official warning that he is on a very tight leash. I will be standing at my door at 8 AM the next Saturday we are both in the Berkshires. If there is no paper and warm bagel in my hand at that time, I will have to think seriously about our future together. You see something for nothing may just not be good enough.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Curse - Part 2

In the recesses of my mind, it lingers. It speaks to me in my moments of uncertainty. As Nick Swisher flied out to center field and the series headed back to New York, the refrain in my head kept repeating itself. Was the curse of the Bambino transferred from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 2004?

From 1918 to 2004 the Babe had cast a spell over the team that traded him for a song and a dance. Yet, if we search our memory banks, we remember that the great Bambino did not end his career wearing the pinstripes of the team that traded for him in 1918, and whose House he built in 1923. He was discarded by the Yankees like an old worn out shoe and finished his playing days in 1935 wearing a Boston Braves uniform that must have seemed both foreign and demeaning. Maybe his early revenge was against the Sox, but possibly the ultimate prize was payback for the Bombers' transgressions.

I was at game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2004, when the curse was lifted from the shoulders of the Sox. It was a palpable feeling of dismay that settled upon me that day. Kevin Brown was not a warrior and to place any trust in his resolve was an invitation to disaster. As the Red Sox flew around the bases and the fourth straight loss descended, a weight was lifted from one team and settled on another franchise.

Until World Series victory number 27 is completed, I will live with a doubt that was born on that terrible October day. Since then, a startling lack of consistency in post season pitching has doomed the Yankees to repeated early exits from the playoffs. We now have CC and AJ to calm our worried souls and bring us, once more, to our rightful place, but the job remains incomplete.

The gloom created by those 4 straight losses in 2004 will disappear for moments at a time, but will not go away. Last night I thought, ever so briefly, that with the 2 run lead in the 7th inning having come upon the Yankees with such swiftness, maybe the clouds were parting and the sun was about to shine once more. In my desire to drive all the demons away, I would have considered a 9 out call to the bullpen for the great one, Mariano. You see, the team would have received a 7 day all expenses paid vacation back to New York by winning last evening. But fate, and maybe the Babe, would not let such a scenario play out. Thus, we now await Saturday night, and the next installment of this series.

I ask the Babe, in all his greatness, to forgive the Yankees' trespasses. Vengeance is ugly, Babe. Let go of your anger, and bring us victory on Saturday and then against the Phillies. We do not curse you, but cherish your memory. Let's be friends once more.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Slap on Their Wrist, and a Slap in Our Faces

I believe in this administration. At least, I want to believe in this administration. But they continue to test my patience as they seem to be unable to turn words into meaningful deeds. Their struggles are no more evident than in the latest pronouncement on the oversight of the monies being paid out to 7 firms who have received billions and billions of dollars in bailout aid.

While we read in another front page article in today's NY Times of 500 people signing up to try to win 1 job paying $13 per hour, we are simultaneously advised that the top 25 earners at 7 companies who survived due solely to our largesse, may only have to settle for being very rich this year. Let's see, 175 people in total receive diminished compensation while millions of people do without. It doesn't take a math major to determine that there continues to be a staggering inequity here.

The companies who fall under the watchful eye of the government, are only those like AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America and Chrysler who have been unable to repay the government the monies delivered to them at the height of the crisis. Many others have shrugged off the continuing downturn as little more than an annoyance. For those companies whose ships have been righted, and who have handed back their government loans with a wink and a smile, there are no reprisals. These giants are about to pay bonuses larger than ever and there is NOTHING being done to stop them. Greed runs rampant in these institutions.

What message are we receiving when there is nothing but a symbolic slap on the wrist for all the pain and suffering caused by the misdeeds of these companies? Further,when the worst of the worst now are now once more living in excess without so much as a hint of remorse, or recompense, we feel deeply wronged. When one opening at a truck driving school in Indiana results in applications from a former IBM business analyst with 18 years experience, a former director of human resources and someone with a master's degree and 12 years at a top accounting firm, we know that something is still terribly amiss.

We continue to learn the ugly truths about the political process. Movement, we are told, is accomplished in slow, imperceptible ways. Early this year, the President spoke of the economy being like a big ocean liner, not a speedboat, that doesn't turn around immediately. When those who so abused our system remain unchecked except for the smallest of empty gestures, and when the trickle up economy has hardly seen a trickle, we search the horizon for answers. Sometimes it is hard not to feel like the big ocean liner we are on is the Titanic and all we see is an iceberg when we look ahead.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Too Smart for Wall Street? (Updated)

To the Editor:
I have an alternative explanation for Calvin Trillin to consider (Wall Street Smarts, NY Times, Oct 14, 2009).

The economic debacle on Wall Street was fueled by an intellectually and morally bankrupt administration that (as once and future partners of those involved in the chase for unlimited bounty) allowed lack of regulation and lax enforcement to create an environment where unchecked greed was not only made possible but was also encouraged.

UPDATE: You can read this post in today's (Oct 19, 2009) New York Times letters to the editor section (under the heading "Did the Smart Guys Destroy Wall Street?").

I am a bit dazed and confused by this. I have now been published in the letters section of this newspaper 5 times in the last year.

Meanwhile, I stumble along in my 'other life' doing things like last night, where I asked Richie to google directions for me and then gave him the wrong address. If it weren't for Joanne's quick thinking in the car, I would, much as I seem to do in many ways on many days, be headed for parts unknown. The brain is a mystery.

Apologies to email subscribers who may have received multiple notifications. We experienced some technical difficulties this morning.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The dinner guest

I have had to confront life's harsh realities each of the last two weekends. Maturity motivated me to act in ways foreign to my instincts. While my inner voice was screaming for someone to turn on the television, the screen remained dark. I was a guest at dinner parties, while my beloved Yankees were battling the elements and the enemy.

Sure, I was allowed to talk about the game. Everyone at each of the gatherings was aware of the depth of my obsession. However, much of the evening's conversation focused on various topics that I find myself immersed in when in the company of others without my myopic interests.

Time and effort had gone into the planning of each of these events. I understood that it would be an insult to our host and hostess, and a blatant sign that I was a boorish idiot if I made too much of a fuss. Even as I made periodic momentary retreats to capture slivers of what was happening, I knew I had to tough it out.

Actually, both of these evenings were much fun. The food was excellent, the smiles were genuine, and there was a flow to the conversation. By the way, I am not just sucking up to my friends who may be reading about their efforts.

But, by the time dessert was served and eaten, I had lost all pretense. On both occasions, as the last morsel passed my lips, I made a hasty exit into the den. I only hoped that I had met the mandates of civility and could now spend the remaining part of the evening screaming at the sights and sounds of little men running to and fro.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Should Rush Be Thrown for a Loss?

Marge Schott was a majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990's. Her repeated remarks showing bias against Jews, blacks, gays and Japanese people led to her being banned from running her own team for a three year period from 1996 to 1998. We now learn that Rush Limbaugh is hoping to join the fraternity of owners in the National Football League. Much as my daughter says about the wearing of Spandex, ownership in a professional sports enterprise is a privilege, not a right.

We have had an ongoing discussion over the past years about the damage done in the sports world by the use of performance enhancing drugs. Central to the debate is the question of the message that our athletes are transmitting to a world that is watching and listening so intently. Athletes, and the owners who they work for, do have an impact on our society far greater than the sum of their wins and losses. Lives are changed by how these people act and what these people say.

Mr. Limbaugh is a divisive figure. Some revere him for what they see as his unflinching honesty. Many find him to be boorish at best and a Marge Schott type at worst. From his limited time behind the microphone as a sports analyst, to his current perch as the not so silent voice of the conservative movement, Mr. Limbaugh's prejudices have repeatedly surfaced. The National Football League should not endorse Mr. Limbaugh and give him another platform from which to espouse his views, especially when those views are so disparaging of many who would be in his employ.

All the Good and Bad Ideas That Are Fit To Print

A post by Richie Jay

Though I try to read most of the New York Times each day, I am a mere mortal, and there are simply more words in each issue than I have the capacity to process. So, after scanning the front page and maybe a few science articles (it is Tuesday, after all), I often flip to the op-ed page. The New York Times has a reputation for being liberal--and this is an arguably true description of their editorials--but what makes their op-ed columns and letters different from most other papers is actually how diverse they are ideologically. In addition to having a slate of both liberal (i.e. Krugman, Rich) and conservative (i.e. Brooks, Douthat) staff columnists (and they used to have Kristol, who swung the median ideology of all their columnists about 10 steps to the right), the Times prints submitted op-eds from across the political spectrum. (An aside: Much like the length and depth of its news articles, this is a testament to the intellectual rigor and openness to criticism and debate of the Times, characteristics not shared by most other American publications and media outlets).

Today being no exception, the op-ed page is filled with a variety of ideas from across the political spectrum, some more specifically ideological than others.

In good ideas, David Brooks (yes, I can see eye-to-eye with conservatives) praises recent trends in academia, where the line between 'soft' social sciences and 'hard' natural sciences is blurring, each side helping to inform and improve the other, as well as to improve public policy (though his last sentence about 'policy wonks' seems tinged with conservative cynicism). He explicitly refers to the growth of "social cognitive neuroscience," a field I was fortunate enough to dabble in as an undergrad and as a grad student studying, what else, public policy. At Dartmouth, I worked in a social cognition lab, where we studied how cognitive processes affect and are affected by attitudes about race, gender, and class (i.e. How do people think, feel, behave, and process information, and does this differ depending upon the race, class, or gender of the people they are working with/talking to/reading about?). My advisor there, Dr. Jennifer Richeson, has since gone on to receive a MacArthur Genius Award for her work, and continues to be an innovator in the field. At Berkeley, I worked with Dr. Jack Glaser, whose social cognition work on racial profiling has helped inform real-world criminal justice policy.

In bad ideas, the Times printed an op-ed co-written by Virginia Republican George "Macaca" Allen (Why do we continue to take him seriously?) and Virginia Democrat Paul Goldman (ah, the bipartisanship of bad ideas!). In it, the two argue that the best solution for our dilapidated and outdated schools is not to adequately finance their maintenance, renovation, and construction, but instead to support huge tax breaks for private developers, who can buy the schools, rehabilitate them, and then profit by renting the schools back to the districts indefinitely. In addition to adding a profit motive to public education, a dangerous precedent, the two fail to consider the long-term costs of such a process, and they fail to consider the possibility of funding school districts to engage in these projects themselves (with no added cost for profit), dismissing that as costlier than subsidizing private for-profit developers to do the same thing (without showing the math). They also argue that there should be a "level playing field" between the public and private sectors, but fail to see the irony of arguing for massive tax breaks for private entities in the same breath. It's worth pointing out that this staunchly anti-government, pro-privatization ideology is in large part responsible for the economic mess we find our country (and, by extension, our school districts) in today, and Allen and Goldman show woefully little awareness of this fact.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hole Once More

The first was short, low, ugly and lost. The second, I didn't even see. Welcome back to the wonderful world of golf.

Having been laid low by my back surgery, four months later I was given clearance to begin my battles anew. Maybe, I should have waited a little longer.

I was instructed to only play 9 holes initially. I did not even last that long, and to be quite honest, it had nothing to do with any recurring pain as I had none. It was the psychic battering that drove me from the course.

I had decided only to play every other hole, so as to not place undue strain on my back. The best part of this experience turned out to be the holes I did not play.

I met my friends as they finished the second hole. By the time the third green was in sight, I had already advised each of them as to the specifics of my surgery. I figured that would, at least in some small measure, explain the dribbles, the mishits and the shanks as I tried to follow the bouncing ball. It made embarrassing take on a whole new meaning.

The wind seemed to blow its hardest as I was in the middle of my backswing. The ball, when it did go in flight, seemed totally unimpressed with the force I tried to impart upon it. Is that the best you got, it seemed to say.

By the time we reached the 8th hole (and only the fourth I was playing) I was hoping for rain. My tee shot headed in directions unrelated to the fairway. I had felt the smallest of twinges upon completion of the swing. I announced that I was already through for the day, as I had courageously made one too many efforts to prove how tough I was. I gingerly entered the cart (to emphasize the point) and rode with my friends until the 9th green, where I bid them a fond farewell.

I was invited to join them for future adventures, but I know they were just being nice. This has been the lost season and now it had the perfect imperfect ending. Wait til next year is all that is left at this point. I am uncertain whether that is a promise or a threat.

Nickeled, Dimed, and Fee'd to Death

A post by Richie Jay

This is a letter I've been meaning to write to Chase ever since the federal government decided that it would be good for the American people to spend hundreds of billions of dollars supporting banks that are "too big to fail," while consolidating the banking industry into the hands of just a few enormous banks who couldn't give a crap about their customers, and don't really have to, since their market share is so great and the competition is not.

This letter specifically lists the concrete changes that Chase has made to the accounts of millions of assimilated WaMu customers like me, in an effort to reduce our benefits, no matter how trivial the cost, and increase our fees, no matter the impact.


To Whom It May Concern:

From my most recent statement:

"Starting 11/2/2009 there will be no Chase fee for the first two non Chase ATM inquires, transfers and withdrawals each statement period through 2/2/2010. After 2/2/2010, all non Chase ATM inquiries, transfers and withdrawals applied to your account will be assessed the standard non Chase ATM fees. Please call us at 1 800 935 9935 if you have questions."

I'd like to formally express my displeasure with the way that Chase has handled my checking account since taking over WaMu. At WaMu, I grew accustomed to straightforward account terms with no hidden fees and common sense benefits. After Chase took over--despite gaining millions of valuable new customers and tremendous market share in the process, and despite significant assumption of debt by the government to sweeten the takeover deal--things changed for the worse, and continue to do so. Just a few examples of the loss of benefits and addition of fees that Chase has applied to my account, and perhaps those of millions of other former WaMu customers like me:

1. At WaMu, debit cards paid either a 3 cent reward for every transaction, regardless of PIN or signature use, or gave a donation to a school of my choice with each swipe. Chase's free rewards programs are more limited (no PIN use, for one), and in fact my debit card appears to be ineligible for any free reward program at this time.

2. At WaMu, one returned item or overdraft fee was waived automatically each year, and the credits accumulate for each year as a customer. At Chase, I can special request one waiver per year after getting hit with a fee, and there is no carryover.

3. At WaMu, I could make free external transfers to and from personal accounts at other banks online. At Chase, this service costs $3 per transaction. This change is listed only deep in the fine print, and not in the summary of account changes in the merger booklet. (Update: Chase states that this fee is still waived for former WaMu customers)

4. At WaMu, most deposits became available same day. At Chase, most deposits become available next day.

5. At WaMu, free ID theft services were offered to all customers. At Chase, this free service is not offered.

6. At WaMu, high-yield savings accounts were offered, even to customers who maintain only modest balances. At Chase, the savings account rates are laughable--there are no options that allow anyone with less than $15,000 in the bank to earn more than 0.02%, which in essence means that Chase is marketing no-interest checking accounts with greater restrictions as savings accounts and money markets. Holding on to literally trillions of dollars in deposits and $2.1 trillion in assets, and leveraging them to lend even more, Chase can certainly afford to be a little more generous without harming profitability, and to fulfill its stated goals of helping Americans through very difficult economic times and giving back to the communities it serves.

Warm-fuzzies, from Chase's own literature: "We believe that building a strong, vibrant company, one that stands the test of time, will eventually benefit not only our shareholders, but everyone we touch. It is what enables us to give back to our communities. In one sense, we view ourselves as a small business. If we were the neighborhood store, we would give kids summer jobs, sponsor local sports teams and support local organizations. We operate this way in many of our communities around the world, striving to be as supportive as we can."

7. For several years, even as a checking customer at WaMu, I used a credit card issued by Chase. After taking over WaMu, Chase changed the terms of the credit card rewards program so that only Chase checking customers could receive the existing rewards program. Chase treated me as a non-Chase customer at the time (even though WaMu was fully owned by Chase for half a year before this change in terms occurred), and dramatically cut my rewards program. After my WaMu checking account became a Chase checking account, it still took several months--and the hassle of opening, and then closing, a new Chase credit card, and getting different answers from phone reps and branch bankers--until the Chase checking customer rewards were restored to my credit card (although less generous than they had been).

8. Lastly, one of WaMu's most important common-sense and customer-friendly policies was the lack of WaMu fees on ATM transactions. Customers were still incentivized to use WaMu ATMs to avoid steep fees assessed by other banks at their ATMs. Now, however, Chase has decided to profit from the misfortune of customers not near a Chase ATM, charging $2 per transaction--on top of the up to the $3 charge by the ATM owner--for any non-Chase ATM transaction. This is a sleazy move especially considering that the continued lack of ATM fees was explicitly announced in the merger materials, and it is one that will cost customers millions, if not billions, of dollars, for a service that probably costs Chase virtually nothing at all. Furthermore, Chase still collects millions, if not billions, of dollars from all non-Chase customers who use their ATMs. Those fees alone should be sufficient for Chase to continue extending this modest but well-loved courtesy to former WaMu customers (heck, let's not be selfish. They should extend this courtesy to all customers, as many other banks do. Some banks are even more generous, refunding the fees that other banks' ATMs charge, but I'm willing to start small here.)

9. This one's an afterthought, because these are policies that don't affect me or other former WaMu customers, but it should be noted that customers who have the misfortune of having started at Chase (rather than WaMu) lack even more no-nonsense benefits like free checking accounts with no minimum balance, that also come with free cashier's checks and money orders, free booklets of standard checks, and free outgoing wires; These remain grandfathered to former WaMu customers, but unavailable to regular Chase customers (Some Chase customers can get some of these benefits, but none of them can get all of them in a standard free checking account). I fear it is only a matter of time before these benefits--like the ATM fees--get 'ungrandfathered' as Chase adds billions of dollars in fees to its former WaMu customers.

Taken alone, each of these policy and term changes may seem to be a minor nuisance. In fact, I am personally unaffected by several of them. But, taken together, they demonstrate the worst proclivities of the most enormous American companies, the strenuous drive to profit at all costs, even if it means causing measurable financial harm to the very customers (and/or taxpayers) who keep you in business, as you slowly nickel-and-dime them to death.

That'll be $2.50,
Richie Jay


Postscript: While this blog post is ostensibly about my mundane personal experiences with and observations of Chase Bank, the larger point I am at least trying to make through this one example is that a barely-regulated, highly-concentrated, too-big-to-fail financial industry is bad for all Americans. Fortunately, Robert Creamer did that for me today on the Huffington Post. You can dismiss mine as a rant about minutiae, but I hope you find his to be an intelligent analysis about the state of our nation.

UPDATE: It is worth acknowledging that a Chase customer service representative actually responded to this message within hours, and did so quite thoroughly. While the answers may have been somewhat scripted, many of her responses were actually thoughtful, and she addressed nearly every point I made above, in order. Though the bank merger guide does not waive the external transfer fee for standard WaMu accounts (and does explicitly for other account types), she stated that the $3 fee is waived for former WaMu customers. However, I am also told that I can enroll in the free debit card rewards program, but Chase's own website refuses to enroll my card, deeming it ineligible.

A Beginning, Middle and End

What is 140 characters or less and capable of standing on its own as a work of art? Hint fiction.

Life and death. War and peace. Love lost and found. Sadness, happiness and everything in between. If you can put these ideas into a twitter length piece, you could have a best seller on your hands.

An anthology of tweet stories are due to be published soon, with accomplished authors like Joyce Carol Oates contributing short thoughts.

Off the very top of my head, I have composed 4 possible submissions:

"She was young, but not for long. He was on the hunt, she the prey.The autopsy reported he had been stabbed over 70 times."

"The diagnosis was death. The result was a life he never imagined."

"The occupation of Washington by the united forces of the middle east created a new world order. Our democracy was now a footnote in history."

"'President Palin, the North Korean President is on the line.' 'Hang up,' she replied."

If you can't say it quickly, don't say it at all. We are a society living in soundbites. How much less is there to say?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finding No Peace

Thomas Friedman's "The Peace (Keepers) Prize", while an intended tribute to our military, instead creates certain fictions that only do our present soldiers a disservice.

Friedman, fantasizing on the Nobel acceptance speech that President Obama should give, says "if you want to see the true essence of America, visit any military outpost in Iraq or Afghanistan" to see "young men and women... who work together as one, far from their families, motivated chiefly by their mission to keep the peace and expand the borders of freedom".

Yet, 3 days ago, the Times of London reported that "American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned"... Many feel that they are risking their lives - and that colleagues have died- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them". The article, based on the comments of 2 Army chaplains, spoke of these religious leaders having counseled many soldiers angry about being there, in a state of depression and despair who "just want to get back to their families".

In fact, in August of this year the Army reported that it had begun planning a mandatory training program to try to combat rising rates of suicide and depression among soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of Mr. Friedman's fellow op ed contributors, Frank Rich, today wrote that in our desire to give a rational basis for our presence in Afghanistan, we have created false realities of what is going on. As Mr. Rich questions, "why let facts get in the way?". Mr. Rich asks why we are considering increasing our troop presence in a country where, he suggests, there remain less than 100 Queda insurgents. (Two Wrongs Make Another Fiasco, NY Times)

It appears to me that Mr. Friedman tries to make the facts fit his opinion piece so to give a clean image to honor soldiers past and present. He would have done better to provide the harsh truths and do real honor to those who now serve in an engagement they do not understand and can no longer justify.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Exhibit A

This is what Abner Doubleday had in mind.

With each event adding another layer of drama, I kept calling my children, who were attending the game. All I could hear on the other end of the line was the sound of 50,000 people being enveloped in the moment. My son or daughter's screams to me were drowned out by the pure energy of the crowd.

The bookends were home runs by the 2 men paid huge sums of money to propel this team to victory. Early on, and then in the most crucial of moments, there were base running gaffes by each side. There were times of triumph and tragedy in waves.

My friend Howie always tells me that being a spectator at a baseball game is like paying to watch the grass grow. Last night, my friend, was Exhibit A as to why you are so very wrong.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today. It is striking that this award would be presented to a President who is so new to his post, and who is still struggling to gain his footing. The award appears to be given in large measure as a repudiation for all the errors that former President Bush committed in 8 years of misguided bravado. To Bush, you were either with us or against us. Obama recognized the fallacy in that logic. His efforts to begin to repair the damage caused by past errors serve as the predicate for today's announcement.

We do have a President committed to dialogue with our 'enemies'. He has opened up a line of communications with Iran. He has traveled to Cairo to speak of an understanding of the Muslim world and apologize for errors made in the past. He has attempted in his speech in Prague to begin anew the dialogue on nuclear disarmament. He has set the course of discussion on a rational path.

There must, however, be concern that his words have not yet produced concrete results. Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime of efforts, including brokering of a mid-east peace between Israel and Egypt. Al Gore was recognized by the committee only after he produced a book and award winning film awakening us all to the inconvenient truth of global warming.

In contrast, Mr. Obama is at the beginning of his journey. Not only does he face a world where Iran and North Korea are ratcheting up their efforts on nuclear capabilities, but his own landscape for peace is strewn with obstacles in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and Pakistan in the days to come. Can a President who may be committing us to more years in what many now perceive as unwinnable war, be seen as the most shining beacon of peace?

I applaud the President for his efforts, as the committee states to "create a new international climate" and his ability to "capture the world's attention and give its people hope for a better future". He has fashioned a more positive global image for America.

Former President Bush set the bar as low as it could go for American diplomacy. President Obama now hopes to bring us back to a place where words do not always have to serve as weapons, but can be tools to move us in a forward direction. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, much like the American people, have expressed their belief in Obama's vision of change and hope for a better future. Only time will tell if words produce desired results.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The view from under my desk

I read the op ed from Thomas Friedman in this morning's NY Times (Our Three Bombs) and immediately wanted to hide under my desk, much as we were instructed to do as children. Once there, we were supposed to be somehow safe from the Communist menace. In Mr. Friedman's analysis, today there appears to be no place of refuge large enough to shield us from the unrelenting problems that attack us on all sides.

I pulled up the First Inaugural Address of FDR, as I tried to think of some moment in our past where we felt trapped by enemies on multiple fronts. But in 1933, all Roosevelt saw on the horizon was the economic woes that had created our national anxiety. When he spoke of fear as the nameless, unreasoning , unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance, this concern was directed, for him, only on material things. There was not a mention in his speech of the perils of a second enemy who would await us on foreign soil 8 years later.

From the assessment of Mr. Friedman our enemies now seem too many and our problems too massive to ever conceive of being in a position tomorrow, or for as many tomorrows as we can see, to finish our work. It is a sad commentary that we live in a world where, at least in Mr. Friedman's view, it seems likely we may never again be able to emerge from under our desks.