Friday, March 27, 2015

The Scorecard with Iran

In Iraq we are battling together, if not side by side. In Yemen, we fight against one another. And then there is Syria where we seem to be both allies and enemies. And all of this is just sidebar to tense discussions on its nuclear present and future. Let's just say we have a complicated relationship with Iran.

How are we to come out unscathed from this mess? How is this region going to coalesce when one needs a scorecard just to determine who is sitting in the home team dugout? It has the feeling of an endless maze where every path leads only to the next dead end.

For the President trying to thread the needle it appears an impossibly complex conundrum. And with each action taken, he seems only to escalate the enmity both here and abroad. There are no easy answers, only ever more complicated questions.


It was a staple of my life for over two decades. Thursday night poker. Like in a million other homes around the country. Young fathers, and in later years, not so young fathers, with a night off from the realities of the universe. Like clockwork,year in and year out. As certain as death and taxes.

We each had our role. Mine was that of organizer and happy guy. There was sloppy, goofy, sleepy, dummy and a host of other parts performed by the members of our cast. Bad jokes, bad cards, bad food and extraordinarily good times. It was a kind of Norman Rockwell image of my hometown. 

Faces came and went. But the core group remained intact. That is until the next stage of life intervened. Kids moved out, houses got sold, routines of existence changed. Early retirement beckoned for one of two. And then, one day the game disappeared. Like so many other parts of our journey, what once was forever more, vanished. It became nothing but a stored memory.

A decade passed with little thought or desire of resurrection. Those poker evenings lasted until the early morning hours. Now, at the time of night I would have been returning home, I am typically heading to the bathroom for at least the second attempt at emptying my bladder. My bedtime is edging ever closer to the dinner bell. 

A few months ago, talk of a reunion began. It was almost like one of those old rock groups who gave lip service to bringing the band back together for one final tour. But polite conversation mushroomed into something much more real and yesterday I found myself rummaging through the closet looking for the TNP chips. 

And there I was crossing the George Washington Bridge heading to an apartment in New York City to renew long lost friendships. At 8 PM I was sitting at a table with 6 other guys who looked far too much like my images of my grandfather. I was the only one without gray hair, but that was because mine had left the building decades before. 

It was funny how easily we settled into our old rhythms and banter. Of course there was the obligatory conversation of our memory lapses, as each of us studied the cards in our hand, and then studied them again seconds later, having forgotten what we were holding. And any issue that required mental gymnastics ( "you can use 2 cards in your hand if you choose this row of common cards, and 3 in your hand if you choose that row") proved almost maddeningly incomprehensible, no matter how often or how clearly the explanation was given. 

But it brought us back to the best of times in our lives, when we were young with visions of what lay ahead, with families that gave importance to every moment. These were friends who were there with us at each and every important turn. It was this feeling captured in the context of a poker game, something more, much more than the passing of a few dollars from one pocket to the next. 

And in my mind, and my heart, I still imagine myself as that younger me. With a endless universe of people and possibilities. 

As the evening wore on, it was as if the decade of time apart never happened, as if we had played last Thursday. The same bad decisions were made by the same players, the smart guy won money just as he won nearly every other time we played in the past, sleepy called it a night shortly after 10 PM and the diet cokes that sat next to many of the players when Clinton and Bush were in office, were still there. And guys still put the wrong number of chips in their hand to declare whether they were going "high or low".

At the end of the evening, we promised this would once more become a regular part of our routines. Of course, once a week will now become once a month. And the nights will end much closer to the beginning of the late night shows then their conclusion. 

But time, at least for this group, on this night seemed to reverse itself. We were no longer the social security crowd, but our younger selves, full of laughter and life, eager to hold onto all those in this room as friends, and to be forever young.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Horace Mann Shuffle

My son says that I have no rhythm. If I try to follow the beat of a song while I am driving a car, my finger tapping more resembles Morse code than something with any connection to the music. But once I get on a dance floor,  a magical transition takes place. Or so I thought.

It is known as the Horace Mann shuffle in my family. It is my signature move, the one that separates me from the rest of the sixty plus crowd. It is kind of like the hokey-pokey, where I stick one foot out, really to the side, and then return it to home base with perfect timing.  I know the crowd is watching and quietly applauding. I get it. I am used to the silent accolades,  understanding the audience is too shy to come to me with their kudos.

Last night we were at the wedding of my niece. She married a young man who happened to go to the same high school as I, the same college, is also an attorney, wears his heart on his sleeve like his new uncle in law, and does a very good imitation of the Horace Mann shuffle. You can draw your own conclusion.

During the course of the evening, I showed off my powers whenever and wherever I could. My cousins, my wife, even a chair served as appropriate props, mere background for the wonder of me.

Towards the end of the night, I spotted my daughter and soon began yet another version of the shuffle. This time my son and his phone were within close range.  A minute of two later I was staring at a screen with what appeared to be some maniac in the midst of a seizure. I was moving around without any seeming purpose or precision. A jump here, a lunge there. Fingers, arms, legs, torso, all doing their own thing, none in any seeming relation to one another, and certainly not having even a remote attachment to the music playing in the background. While my daughter was dancing in this very cool, very controlled manner, I was performing  something that appeared to be a violation of almost every law of nature.

How could I have been so wrong all these years? Why had no one stopped me before? I now understood that I was that person at all those occasions who people talked about afterwards. The one who you and I referred to with snickers, "did you see what that guy was doing?" Why hadn't I taken the persistent comments of my family as gospel, rather than mere signs of envy?

Hey, I blog. I blog alot. About everything. I love to make fun of myself and my myriad shortcomings. But even I have to draw the line somewhere. This was beyond embarrassing. This approached the level of a word that has not yet been created.

This is not to say that you have seen the last of the shuffle. It is an almost involuntary movement on my part. Once the music begins, as surely as the out of time finger tapping will occur, so will the foot begin its mysterious journey out to the side and then back. The fingers will point, the shoulders will shake, just a little. My wife will smile in the manufactured way in which all of us are compelled to at one point or another in our lives. And I will once more look around the room, just briefly, to see who is watching me perform my signature move. Long live the Horace Mann shuffle.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Republican Budget


("The House Budget Disaster")

It is not so much a budget as it is a declaration. A continuing resolution on the part of the Republican party to wage war, both abroad and at home.

This is a political animal who looks for myriad ways to fund our department of defense, to be ready for the next battle. Despite the fact that we are a nation weary of bringing back our dead and our physically and psychologically wounded from conflicts that have gained us little but ever growing enmity, the Republican psyche requires that we carry a big stick and a big price tag for all our toys.

In our own country, there is the perpetual cry by the right (and how ironic that such a word should have any attachment to this group) to undercut the underclass, to find ways to diminish their existence and to make them feel they do not warrant a fair and decent life. Their health care rights attacked, their unemployment benefits slashed, their access to entitlements (and how ironic that such a word is deemed by the Republican party to be infected with such a negative connotation) forever threatened or removed, their very being treated like a stain upon this nation.

The Republican position on the proposed budget is not a matter of semantics or numbers, but a statement of contempt for those who do not fit under their definition of acceptable. It is a call to prepare to terminate enemies both foreign and domestic, not to protect the welfare of our nation but to line the pockets of the wealthy at the very heavy expense of the poor and the weak.

It is a budget that once more establishes the ugliness and moral shortcomings of the party that somehow has turned its own brand of fear and hate mongering into a position of power and control in the Congress of the United States.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lost and Found


It all began with a late afternoon notice of possible credit card fraud. Recent purchases in New York City triggered the alert. Looking at the particulars, it was clear that the charges were not made by anyone in our family.

It was 5 PM on Saturday. We had been trying to reach our daughter Alex all day. She was not responding to our calls, or emails, or texts. That was very unusual for her. Worse, her phone was immediately going to voice mail. She never turned her cell phone off.

She had alerted us that she intended to do some work during the day. I had attributed the silence to her commitment to get something accomplished, or maybe to some other innocuous cause that I had not considered. But now, I was getting worried.

This was not the first time there had been fraudulent use of one of our credit cards. But, never in the city where our daughter lived.. Maybe it was in fact someone who had our daughter's card in their possession and was trying to use it. But where was our daughter?

My wife and I had dinner plans, and I didn't want to do what I always do, jump to the worst of all conclusions. On our way to the restaurant, we called our son and asked him to keep trying to reach his sister, and to let us know as soon as he heard something.

When we arrived at our destination, I had my wife text our daughter's good friend and co-worker to see if she had any information. When she wrote back that she didn't, that it was in fact unusual that the phone was off, and that she had made tentative plans with our daughter for the day but hadn't heard further, our collective concern exponentially increased. Our daughter's friend said she was leaving her apartment and heading over to Alex's to see what she could learn. She would knock down the door if she had to.

My son was now checking his sister's bank account and other credit cards to see if there was any unusual activity on them. 

As I ate sushi with our friends, I tried not to dwell openly on what was occupying my thoughts. But, I was harboring images of those families who put posters of their child all over the city. I am, even in the best of times, a major league worrier, really an all Star worrier. My son calls me a Jewish grandmother. I told myself that if the meal ended and there was still no answer, I would allow myself to go into full meltdown.

Can there be more terrifying a circumstance to contemplate? We all have seen the images and read the tales. For someone like me who believes the worst until he is proven wrong, who raced home from work one day, honking my horn at any car in my way, narrowly avoiding disaster when our son was half an hour late coming home from grade school, this was all playing out as my most terrifying nightmare.

And then the cell phone rang.. Our son had gotten through to his sister. She had been asleep. But it turns out this had not been a normal sleep. Alex had been suffering from a sinus infection early in the week and had been prescribed a series of different drugs to knock it out. It seemed their cumulative effect was such that she went to bed at midnight on Friday and woke up at 6 PM on Saturday. 18 hours of continuous slumber, phone off, no texts, no emails, nothing. It was as though she had disappeared. And, in my mind and that of the rest of our family and at least one friend, she had.

Thankfully, the worst turned out to be  a credit card that was canceled and a daughter slightly disoriented after pulling a minor Rip Van Winkle.

It was strange to hear my wife and son tell me that, for once in my life, I may not have blown something completely out of proportion, that maybe the facts were there for me to begin my "what ifs". It was a kind of vindication, realizing that after decades of misconstruing and misinterpreting the signs that I had, for a few scary moments, ample reason to be who I always am.

Such is the story of the nutty father and the lost and found girl who never left her room.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Open Letter of Revolt

The Republican party by its overt effort to diminish the power of President Obama has undermined the office itself. This was not an intended lesson in constitutional law but a statement of open revolt in Washington.

It was disgraceful when the House invited a foreign leader into its chambers to chastise and criticize the framework of the negotiations so painstakingly inching forward with Iran. But that attack pales in comparison to the letter of warning to the world that this president's acts can be neutered.

This iteration of Republican politician is unique in its blatant disregard of protocol. Emboldened by its successes in the past election cycles, it has read these gains as an open invitation to blur the lines between the executive and legislative branches.

President Obama has been forced to endure endless insults and insinuations. The hard liners on the right have clearly demonstrated a loss of respect not only for the man but for the meaning of being elected  President of the United States. The 47 who believe they have enlarged their own reputation with this latest salvo, are sadly mistaken. They have instead only made themselves smaller and in the process diminished the greatness of our democracy.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

King v Burwell

King v Burwell is not about statutory interpretation. If it were, the conclusion of the Supreme Court would be a resounding rejection of the claims of the plaintiff. No, this is a matter that tests the limits not of judicial wisdom but political prejudices.

The history behind this legislation could not be clearer: the intended expansion of health insurance coverage to the broadest extent possible. State versus federal exchanges as the predicate for subsidies was nowhere evident in the enormously extended and heated debate. It is a mirage created out of whole cloth well after the ink was dry. Yet now, there is strong likelihood that at least 4 of the justices seated in the most elevated of all positions will bend logic, ignore facts and present fictional options in an attempt to undo what their conservative brethren have been seeking in what seems like a 100 votes in Congress.

Make no mistake, this is a case solely about whether the Affordable Care Act should live or die. For those who seek the death penalty there is no lengths they will not go to reach a conclusion supporting the executioner's right to proceed.

It is a sad commentary regarding the Supreme Court that we can not look upon this body as one whose holy grail is a search for justice. Rather, we have come to understand, and seem resigned to accept the notion that some of these men and women sit not as impartial arbiters but active proponents of the same perversions and preconceptions that mar our political landscape. This is far from what we have a right to expect or demand of those who are supposed to be not only our brightest but our best.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bibi and the Empty Chair

This was Bibi's version of the Clint Eastwood empty chair speech: intended as a direct attack on the President and a rebuke of his policy. This was not the Republican party sanctioning a mocking monologue but rather the Congress of the United States. And its intent was to permit a foreign leader our biggest stage to announce the incompetence and serious miscalculation of our leader.

I understand the misgivings about trusting Iran to abide by its agreements. And I am well aware of the limits of the proposed resolution. But to subject Mr. Obama to such humiliation with the blessing of Congress was an ill conceived and ill intended insult.

Leave the empty chair act to Mr. Eastwood. Rising to applaud a foreign leader's words of disdain for the course of our negotiations with Iran did nothing to enhance our reputation but only diminished our country and the office of the presidency.