Thursday, November 29, 2012


Sonia in her garden

September 15, 2012

ZAMOSC, POLAND – It’s a ten-hour train trip from Wroclaw in the west of Poland to Zamosc (ZAH-moshch) in the east, around 600 miles. When my teaching gig in Wroclaw finished at the end of August, I went the distance to visit my friend Sonia, whom I last saw over 40 years ago on my requisite post-college backpacking adventure through Europe.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a friendship enduring for so long a time over such a great distance, but it has – with little thanks to me, I might add, whose correspondence has been waning for years. In a time when Facebook has rendered the word "friend" virtually meaningless, and even true face-to-face friends get buried in your in-box, her view of friendship is about the most admirable thing on earth.

Sonia does not own a computer, and doesn’t want one. I think I know why.

We began our long acquaintance as pen-pals. If you’re under 40 you may never have heard of that term, but it was, in pre-internet days, the way teenagers could escape their little towns and find companions in most exotic places. Organizations like International Pen Friends served as clearing-houses, placing ads in youth magazines and trying to match respondents’ requests. I was studying Russian in high school at the time, and asked for someone from an Eastern Bloc country. Remarkably, given the Cold-War climate of the mid-1960's, the organization I wrote to was placing ads all over Eastern Europe, and Sonia answered one of them. The requests we wrote were forwarded, and the rest is a very long history.

When we met this time, it took a bit of adjusting to the toll of the years, but I’m glad to report that the years have not been unkind to either of us, and we fell happily in sync, reviewing our lives and the lives of our families over four decades. The hurdle of language was the hardest to jump. Our correspondence has been done partly in English and partly in Russian (I’m embarrassed to say I never learned much Polish), but it is one thing to turn out a letter using a dictionary and quite another to try to talk. Fortunately, her son Paul was visiting home from his job in London, and he served admirably as translator. When he was off seeing his friends, we did the best we could, flipping through the dictionary for key words and doing a lot of guessing.

But many of the physical surroundings spoke for themselves. Sonia lives in the five-room house her late father built with his own hands after the War. When I stayed with her family in 1970, they drew water from a well in their back garden, cooked on a wood-burning stove, and used an outhouse. All that is distant memory now. But the spacious garden is quite the same, yielding under Sonia’s skillful tending the staples of the Polish diet – cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, garlic, dill and other herbs, and at this time of year, apples and raspberries, much of which she turns into delectable pickles and preserves.

As with most of her long-time neighbors, her life remains in tune with the rhythms of nature.

Like her house, the town of Zamosc has undergone a makeover. A planned community from the start, it was built from scratch in the sixteenth century by Jan Zamoyski, a Westward-looking baron with a humanist heart, who commissioned an Italian architect to design it. The central square, with its towering courthouse and arched porticoes, is a jewel. The buildings suffered little damage during the War, and I clearly remember from my first visit what pride the residents took in them. Now, with Poland in the European Union, money is flowing in to restore the entire circumference, including the fortress walls long ago demolished by invading armies.

Unlike the buildings, the human beings of Zamosc suffered unspeakable damage, made imaginable for the present generation at the Rotunda, a garrison added to the fortress by the occupying Russians in the early nineteenth century. The Gestapo used its twenty gun-emplacements as holding areas for enemies of the state – Polish resisters, Soviet prisoners, and Jews. Execution and cremation on the causeway swiftly followed. On our visit, Sonia told me that her parents often said that the stench of burning flesh enveloped the town, and even after decades they could not get it out of their nostrils.

Now each of the twenty cells is dedicated to the various groups who died there, with pictures and plaques and sculptures and altars – and flowers, brought by survivors and their descendants, who will never forget.

Beyond the town and its history, both enlightened and tragic, lies Roztocze National Park, also once part of the Zamoyski estate. Sonia and Paul took me on a day’s outing to this magical place – lakes with sandy beaches, hiking trails along a river with cascading rapids, ancient wooden churches and the ruins of sawmills, and a spring of pristine water that people come from all over Poland to bring home in jugs.



August 30, 2012

WROCLAW, POLAND – There’s nothing quite like living on an island, especially one in the heart of a city. You feel isolated but not alone, apart but connected. You’re never more than a few steps from water, and never more than a few steps from the mainland. Add to that the fairy-tale beauty of a Medieval town, and Camelot weather with bracing rain by night and warm sun by day, and it’s as close to paradise as you can get.

That’s just where I’ve been living for the last month, on tiny Sand Island in Wroclaw ("VROT-swof") in southwest Poland, teaching English at the University of Lower Silesia. The island is one of many carved out by the Oder River, which bisects the city and, as a major north-south trade route in the early Middle Ages, was the reason for its foundation.

My apartment is right across the bridge from Ostrow Tumski ("Thumb Island"), a broad peninsula that was once itself an island and has been the seat of Catholic ecclesiastical power since the ninth century. Every morning I awake to the distant chime of monastery bells.

The only pain I’ve felt since getting here is occasionally pinching myself to be sure I’m really awake.

From a place like this it’s hard to hold your interest in American presidential politics; living in the shadow of a thousand years of history tends to make the trivial even moreso. So I’ve largely ignored it all, and it really doesn’t matter anyway; when I return to the States in October, the thoughtless bombast will be just about the same as when I left in July.

The Republican convention stirred some interest here, not for the profoundest of reasons. Last week a local news channel contacted me at the school, seeking an American to compare Mrs. Romney with Mrs. Obama. "I saw Mrs. Romney’s speech," the reporter told me. "I especially liked her red dress." Feeling unqualified to speak on current or putative First Ladies and their fashions, I suggested he find someone else.

Local news is the same wherever you go.

Poles, at least judging from those I’ve met so far, are not particularly interested in American politics. My students, all professionals with a working command of English, told me they admire the two-party system because the ideological positions are more clearly evident than in their parliamentary system with multiple parties and a confusing array of ideas, or lack thereof. If Poland is to improve, they say, it will be in spite of their politicians, not because of them. It’s education, particularly in technology and business, that will open the doors to success and prosperity, and eventually raise the standard of living to parity with the rest of Europe. But that appears to be a long way off. Quality job opportunities are still wanting, wages are low and prices high, the social safety net is fraying. Young people are leaving Poland in droves to seek their fortunes in other countries in the European Union – 200,000 last year, one student told me.

But for a tourist like me, life is fine. The Polish currency, the zloty, is relatively weak against the dollar, and accommodations, food, and transportation are most affordable. The people are almost all unfailingly cheerful, and here in this university town, almost all young adults speak enough English to help you out.

Poland’s look to the West is a two-edged sword. In Wroclaw, as in other major cities, Western (and Far- and Middle-Eastern) capital has built countless shopping malls, those icons of affluence, and they are perpetually filled with shoppers and window-shoppers. It’s an amazing contrast to the conditions I found when I visited Poland years ago under the Communist regime, where the stores were drab and the shelves were bare. But in the glitz of value-pricing and value-meals, values less tangible may be waning.

Before I left, a friend of mine, who emigrated from Wroclaw to the U.S. in the 1970's and occasionally returns to visit his family here, tried to prepare me for the New Poland. "Under Communism," he told me, "the stores were empty but the people were full. Now the stores are full but the people are empty."

I’ve not found that to be exactly true. The churches are still well-attended, couples young and old stroll leisurely through the parks holding hands, friends spend hours in the cafes talking seriously, iPhones disabled. And there are bookstores, lots of them.

How long this will last is impossible to tell.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


July 26, 2012

This is my last column from the South Bronx, at least for a while. I’m heading off to Europe for a couple months. My departure at this time is not — I repeat, not — to avoid having to experience and write about the national election campaign. Really.

I came to New York from L.A. in the fall of 1990 for graduate studies at Fordham University, located in the better-off Mid-Bronx. I chose to live in the South Bronx partly because the rent was cheap and partly to defy its worldwide reputation as Hell on Earth: Presidents posing for photo-ops amid the rubble; Howard Cosell at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series, declaring "The Bronx is burning"; Tom Wolfe painting his apocalyptic picture in Bonfire of the Vanities.

I found that all of the above was true, and none of it.

By the time I arrived, there were no big fires, mostly because there wasn’t much left to burn. But there were always little ones — the bomb thrown into a numbers joint, the tires ignited on an abandoned lot, the torch stuffed down a street-corner mailbox — small-time stuff. But memories of the big-time stuff haunted the survivors’ dreams. Mable Gray, a single grandmother turned community activist, told me early on, "I’ll never get the smell of smoke out of my nostrils."

It was people like Mrs. Gray that saved the South Bronx. Stalwartly committed to her church and her neighborhood, refusing to budge in the face of the chaos surrounding her, hoping against hope for a better future, she was for me a prophetic model. Worn out from her battles, she died a decade ago, just as things were beginning to turn around. Standing like Moses on the mountain-top, she saw the promised land but was not able to enjoy it herself.

If she can indeed survey the earth from heaven, she’s undoubtedly pleased with the fruits of her labors. The South Bronx today looks remarkably different, with thousands of new housing units, higher-quality food stores, bustling commercial activity, well-maintained streets and parks.

It could have been otherwise, were it not for the role of the churches. The preserver of dignity and solidarity among African-Americans since slave days, and the second home to Latino immigrants in this strange land, the churches were the only truly viable social institution left here — and most of their pastors knew it. In the mid-1980’s, a couple dozen churches banded together under Saul Alinsky’s community-organizing model to form South Bronx Churches, which for two decades was a thorn in the flesh of New York City public officials, prodding them for decent housing, quality education, responsible police protection, clamp-downs on drug-dealers. SBC mustered thousands of their members for rallies and City-Hall protests which even the likes of Mayor Rudy Giuliani could not dismiss. Vast numbers of vacant lots were appropriated for new apartments and community gardens; some of the housing was built by SBC itself. The corrupt city educational system was reformed. The streets were cleared of drug-traffickers. Money poured in for infrastructure and for incentives to commercial development. Gradually, the downward inertia stopped and the upward inertia began. It’s building to this day.

Most impressive was the determination and the staying-power of the clergy, many of whom spent their entire ministries here. This was particularly true among the Catholics. A good number of their pastors grew up in the South Bronx when the area was largely Irish and Italian, and when they were ordained in the 1960’s, inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the civil-rights movement, they requested parishes in their old neighborhoods. Priests with names like Gavigan and Gigante led parishioners with names like Gray and Gonzalez to agitate for justice. They worked without stint to make Jesus’ message of good news to the poor a living reality.

What has most touched me over my years here is the riches of those who are poor. Having so little, they gave so much; having nothing but each other, they shared their lives. Their spirit of community, mutual love, and genuine joyfulness is something I’d rarely seen before and may never see again.

So it’s off to the Old World for me. I’ll send reports.
July 26, 2012


July 12, 2012

Late on a sweltering Saturday night, the parents of a twelve-year-old South Bronx girl hurried in panic to the Tremont Division police station to report their daughter missing. That afternoon, they said, she’d gone to confession at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church on Webster Ave. and 171st Street, telling her family she’d meet them later at the ballfield in nearby Crotona Park, where local teams were playing. She did not show up; maybe, they thought, she’d gone straight home. Towards dusk, they returned to their apartment on Third Ave. near 172nd Street, but found it empty. Bewildered, her parents knocked on the doors of neighbors and friends, but turned up nothing. They went back to the big, wooded park — perhaps she’d gone there and got lost — but as they walked the trails in the dark, calling out her name, they were assaulted by a gang of thugs and fled in fear.

"We don’t know where else to turn," they told the precinct captain. "Could you please help us?" "I have no one to send out," he replied. "Go and look for your own child."

She was found early the next morning, in a vacant lot on Third Avenue near her home. She was barely alive, her naked body riddled with stab wounds. Neighbors rushed her to the hospital, but it was impossible to save her; the knife had pierced her lung and heart.

The girl’s name was Julia Connors. That Saturday night was July 7. The year was 1912.

The South Bronx of that time was a rough-and-tumble place, densely populated, with wave after wave of immigrants jostling for space — not unlike what it is today. First came the Germans in the mid-nineteenth century, then the Irish, then the Jews, all seeking to escape the reeking tenements of lower Manhattan for a better life in the Bronx. Last to arrive before World War I were Italians fleeing famine in Sicily. Into this ethnic patchwork Julia Connors was born in 1900.

Just a few doors from the Connors’ home, police found the site of the murder — a vacant apartment on an upper floor. The bathtub was awash in blood; the girl’s rumpled clothing lay nearby. A bloody trail led to a dumbwaiter, into which the perpetrator had stuffed the mangled girl and lowered her to the ground floor sometime before dawn. He carried her to an empty lot across the street, covered her with a blanket, and vanished into the night.

At her funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victory on July 9 — with the church and the street packed with parishioners, friends, curiosity-seekers, reporters, photographers, and police — the priest, Rev. Thomas Kelly, sternly warned all parents that "children are not safe in the parks and streets and nickelettes of this vicinity," and cautioned them never to allow their children to walk the neighborhood unchaperoned.

The "nickelettes" — the most recent name for the movie-houses that were springing up all over the city — were the particular target of Father Kelly’s wrath, "the source of the worst iniquity. In spite of the warnings parents may receive, they continue to allow their children to go to these places."

Curiously, on the night before the funeral, the proprietors of one nickelette set up their operation in the very lot where Julia’s body was found. A New York newspaper covering the story, the Evening World, did not mention what movies were shown, only that "the following announcement was repeatedly flashed last night upon the screen ...: ‘Anybody in this audience who knows any facts which might lead to the apprehension of the murderer of Julia Connors will kindly call at the box office without delay.’"

Many people called at the box office. Among them was a Mrs. Cohen, who told a World reporter that she’d recently confronted a man who had offered money to her eight-year-old daughter: "He spoke with a foreign accent, I would say he was a German and not an Italian." Another was Anna Levinson, described by the paper as "a good-looking girl of sixteen years," who said that "an elderly man with a mustache ... ran after me, and catching my skirt, tried to drag me down on the sidewalk. ... His eyes were big and wide, I judged him to be an Italian."

The police took all these stories lightly, except for one. Florence Molz, a schoolmate of Julia’s, told police that she had seen Julia walking in the park the day of her murder with "a foreigner with dark whiskers." Two local men were immediately arrested, and Florence positively identified one of them. When that news hit the press, mayhem erupted all over the Bronx. As David J. Krajicek, who wrote about the murder two years ago in the New York Daily News, describes it: "No unshaven man with an accent was safe in the Bronx. An Italian immigrant was beaten by a mob .... Another was nearly lynched .... An Armenian sleeping in Crotona Park became a suspect, police said, ‘because he had whiskers and no home.’"

After two days of questioning, little Frances broke down and admitted she had made everything up. "The child proved herself a prodigy in deceit," reported the World, having "led the detectives on a merry chase." The suspects she’d fingered were immediately freed.

After many fruitless leads, police finally tracked down the culprit, Nathan Swartz, age 24, whose parents lived in the apartment adjoining the scene of the crime and had hurriedly moved away. On July 18, 1912, he was found in a flophouse on the Lower East Side, dead, with newspaper clippings of the murder scattered about the room. A rambling suicide note, written in the margins of the clippings, read in part: "I am guilty and I am insane. It was caused by the beautiful makeup of women. I am sorry I done it, but I get crazy, as I often do and you can’t blame me or anyone.... I was born with a weak will and power only for love."

The tale of Julia Connors so resembles the ones people in the South Bronx see almost daily on the news and may even have experienced personally that it could have happened on July 7, 2012. Murder, gang violence, racism, and the indifference of law enforcement are no strangers to this place.


June 22, 2012
Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He’s the self-unmade man. While his peers were getting their MBA’s, he was getting arrested at anti-military protests. While they were making money, he was making soup. Last year, as he approached age 65, the Social Security Administration informed him that his total lifetime taxable income was $2,553.82.

He’s the guy the flower-children thought they’d always stay, until they hit 30 and figured they’d better buy life insurance. Jeff Dietrich’s insurance policy was drawn up by his Agent on the Mount: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself."

He’s the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, fresh out of college and dodging the draft, he dropped in at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on L.A.’s Skid Row — and never left.

Fortunately for the world, the leaders of the Catholic Worker community saw talent in the lad and immediately made him the editor of their bimonthly eight-page tabloid, the Catholic Agitator. He’s been at it ever since. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has collected almost 80 of them into a book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly biting humor, Dietrich’s essays reflect and amplify the vision of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two radicals who rejected Marx’s social analysis for Jesus’, and Lenin’s brutal Communism for gentle communitarianism in solidarity with the poor.

His great awakening came In 1970. While hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed off to prison for burning draft files. "As I listened to their story," he recalls, "a light suddenly went on in my head. This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today. He’d be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"

That was his satori, the Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly and permanently into place. In an instant, Catholicism, whose dogmatism and institutionalism had suffocated his spirit as he grew up, was revealed in its essence: "We were not supposed to worship Jesus," he writes, "we were supposed to practice Jesus."

Taken as a whole, these essays confirm that primal experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen.

He is an autodidact, and often states he is not a scholar. But his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge and intuitive insight greater than many academic professionals’. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists from Jacques Ellul to George Will, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.

For Dietrich, Catholicism is all about food and its transubstantiation. Bread is not just bread, it’s the substance that unifies humanity. The ritual of the altar and the ritual of the soup kitchen are two dimensions of the same Eucharist: "Just as Christ ... feeds us with his body," he writes, "so we also ... feed the poor." There is "no distinction between our daily lives of service to the poor and our communion with Christ in the Eucharist."

Most impressive is his eye-opening exegesis of Scripture. As always, his focus is on food, particularly why some grow fat while others go hungry. The Hebrew Scriptures, he argues in many articles over many years, consistently point to "big agriculture" and its ensuing mercantilism and militarism as the central problem. In Dietrich’s view of sacred history, after the expulsion from the self-sustainable Garden of Eden, the human trajectory of exploitation runs in pretty much a straight line from the farmer-murderer Cain and the hybris of the Tower of Babel right up to today’s global agribusiness: Those who grow the food hold power over those who don’t. The mission of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Synoptic Gospels, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions, religious and secular, that work to keep them that way. It’s not by chance, he shows, that Matthew’s Gospel juxtaposes King Herod’s banquet, where the main course is John the Baptist’s head on a platter ("not a typical dinner party arranged by, say, Martha Stewart") with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Thus the "power lunches" of Washington, where "decisions are made that consign the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless to death" stand opposed to the soup kitchen at the Catholic Worker: "When food and hospitality are shared outside the money economy, the kingdom of God has come near."

Again and again he insists that the fundamental message of Jesus has been hijacked by institutional Christianity, from Constantine painting the Cross on the shields of his soldiers to the religious empire-builders of the present day. (Cardinal Roger Mahony’s multimillion-dollar cathedral, built overlooking Los Angeles’ Skid Row, is a particularly easy target.)

Dietrich despises the political co-optation of religion, as in "Christian Family Values." The Jesus of the Scriptures, he points out, is no poster-boy for this movement, having rejected his family ("Who is my mother?") and demanded that his disciples also leave theirs to follow him.

Read Jeff Dietrich, and you’ll never read the Gospels the conventional way again.

All this heavy thinking, mind you, has been done in the spare moments when he wasn’t chopping celery, breaking up skid-row fights, and pouring blood on the steps of City Hall (though his 40-some stints in jail for civil disobedience did give him larger blocks of writing time).

Inspiration for his writing comes from the streets, and most of these essays are intertwined with stories of the alcoholics and addicts, the down-and-out and desperate, the incarcerated and infected that he deals with every day.

"The poor are not nice!" he writes. "The poor are a pain in the neck." Yet "without the poor, there is no cross, there is no Resurrection, no Easter, no Christianity." For Jeff Dietrich and his fellow Catholic Workers, the victimization and liberation of the poor lie at the center of the Mystery of Faith.

Like his mentor Dorothy Day, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself, Dietrich’s is a voice crying out in the food desert, from the periphery of the System, calling those deep within the System — politician and prelate, capitalist and consumer — to practice justice, to practice Jesus.


June 22, 2012
"I’m healthier than I’ve ever been in my life," a friend of mine told me recently. "I take care of myself. I eat right, I exercise, I keep a positive attitude, I trust in God. I’m going to live to be a hundred."

Such a wonderful spirit, I thought to myself. Her contagious optimism never fails to cheer me. She’s 63 years old, and forever young.

Still, I was troubled by the context in which those words came up.

I was asking her about health coverage.

My friend has been unemployed for over a year and can’t afford to buy insurance. "I won’t let it bother me," she said. But it bothers me.

No matter how careful you are, stuff happens. Some drunk runs a red light and plows into your car. You know the exact way to lift heavy boxes, but your back goes out anyway. You go to your doctor with the flu and find out it’s leukemia.

All this is obvious, but I will belabor the obvious here because it does not seem to be obvious to politicians and even to significant numbers of the citizenry. It’s obvious to my friend, though — she’s as practical as can be — but she knows that dwelling on things like accidents or illness will in fact make her sick. She refuses to allow herself to imagine not only the physical suffering involved, but — and perhaps even more shattering to her peace of mind — being reduced to indigence, a lifetime of the savings she hopes to lavish on herself and her children wiped out by medical bills.

She’s almost 64. If her luck holds for a little over a year, Medicare will cover her. That’s a relatively short time for luck to hold, but what about those who are younger?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 million American adults under age 65 lacked health coverage in 2010. Each one of these individuals, particularly the middle-aged and those with dependent children, faces either the anxiety over, or the reality of, losing everything in a medical crisis. In 2014, the provision of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare or National RomeyCare) mandating taxpayers to purchase health insurance if their employers don’t provide it, and subsidizing their premiums based on income level, is scheduled to take effect. It will not help those 50 million right now, but once implemented, it will go a long way towards making health coverage available to all.

Excuse me. "Once implemented" is at this moment not correct; it’s "if implemented."

Sometime this month, the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the ACA, particularly the mandate. The constitutional issue at stake seems ridiculously unrelated to the care of the sick: the Commerce Clause. >
The question as framed by opponents of the law is this: The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, but does that include the authority to force citizens to purchase things, including health insurance?

During the arguments before the Court in March, Justice Antonin Scalia, no foe of the flippant, reprised the worn-out green-vegetable hypothetical bandied about for months in state houses, lower courts, and the libertarian media: If Congress can make people buy health insurance, can it also make them buy broccoli?

Actually, it’s a good question, and the mandate may fall because of it. Under the present system, health insurance is a commodity to be bought and sold, really no different from broccoli.

The legal arguments on the question are exceedingly arcane, and it will be interesting, if not entertaining, to read the justices’ opinions. But the problem that the Obama administration and the Congress would not or could not address in the ACA, the problem that has brought us to this pathetic juncture, is the very concept of health coverage as a commodity. By refusing to eliminate insurance companies from the health care business, the ACA has asked for and got the broccoli argument. Had Congress simply extended the existing Medicare program to all ages, health coverage would no longer be an item of commerce but a public responsibility.

What troubles me most is not that politicians wouldn’t do this, bought as they are by the insurance business, but that so many ordinary citizens would be swayed by the old "socialized medicine" scare (while at the same time vigorously defending Medicare for the old!), when each and every one of them knows people who face, or face themselves, the possibility or reality of financial devastation from an accident or illness. It is equally surprising that businesses of all sizes would not lobby forcefully for universal health care, which would relieve them of the administrative burden of selecting health plans for their employees and the moral burden of dropping health benefits altogether, as many are now doing.

I keep thinking of my friend and the 50 million like her. Shouldn’t she, and they, and all of us be allowed to flourish in the knowledge that no matter what bad luck may befall us, our economic security will remain?

Health care, like education, infrastructure, and fire and police protection, is a universal need. How can it not be considered a universal public commitment?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


May 24, 2012

As usual, it all started with Joe Biden.

"Look," he said on Meet the Press on May 6, "I am the Vice President of the United States of America. The President sets the policy. But I am absolutely comfortable with," basically, anybody marrying anybody (space does not permit printing his entire sentence).

In rhetorical contrast, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked if he supported same-sex marriage, he replied in three words: "Yes, I do."

I now pronounce you ....

It was Duncan's laconic response that some construed as a harbinger of an administration-wide position; why else would a cabinet officer weigh in, when he could have said the question is irrelevant to his job? But that was not to be.

Apparently taken by surprise at his subordinates' remarks, President Obama finally evolved to the point of offering a hesitating, rambling endorsement, marked by many pauses and restatements and using his I'm-just-folks voice, in his interview with Robin Roberts on ABC on May 9: "At a certain point, I've just concluded that — for me personally — it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that — I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

The key word here is "personally." He said he didn't want to "nationalize the issue": "I continue to believe that this is an issue that's gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage." If he were a state senator, he said, "You know what? I think that — I would have voted yes" on same- sex marriage legislation.

This long interview was telling in its tenuousness: Of course I support full legal rights for gays and lesbians; of course I now realize that "civil unions" relegate same-sex couples to "less than full citizens"; of course I sympathize with "folks — who — feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as — between a man and a woman"; of course same-sex marriage laws must be "re — re - respectful of religious liberty, that — you know, churches and other faith institutions — are still gonna be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are."

Clearly, the President is not as absolutely comfortable with same-sex marriage as his V.P. claims to be, not only for the obvious political implications but "personally."

It's the way a lot of other heterosexuals feel — conflicted. They believe that same-sex couples should enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples; they believe that same- sex couples should be able to call their unions marriages. But they also believe that religious traditions with a "narrow" definition must be respected for their integrity and in no way be considered discriminatory in the eyes of the law.

This last point indicates that same-sex marriage is not a Fourteenth-Amendment, civil-rights issue in the same way that racial and gender bias are. Instead it is a First-Amendment, disestablishment issue. Just as the state can neither establish nor prohibit the exercise of religion, so too should the definition of marriage be left to individuals, religious bodies, and other social groups to interpret in their own way.

I have long argued (see my blog,, for other articles) that the unaddressed problem in the so-called "marriage wars" is the presumption that a definition of marriage must be written into law. But I would contend that the word "marriage," because it no longer holds a uniform meaning, is no longer a viable legal term. It is instead a personal and cultural one, a symbol of sexual intimacy, love, and commitment — qualities that are beyond the scope of law.

Contemporary marriage law is essentially contract law — it deals with the distribution of property and other obligations and privileges between the partners and toward their children. The development of the right to privacy over recent decades has eliminated the state's interest in the partners' sexual activity, inherent in every definition of marriage. Thus I would propose a more realistic description of the legal contract: a generic term such as "domestic partnership," universally applicable to any two consenting adults regardless of gender. Eliminating the presumption of sexual activity implied in the word "marriage" would also allow states to extend the contract to other family configurations — for example, to two relatives or friends with an interdependent commitment to one another but who would never want to be considered "married."

Such an approach would extricate the state from the impossible task of defining marriage to everyone's satisfaction. It would resolve the predicament that courts, legislatures, and now the President find themselves in, forced to take official positions on a matter that is essentially personal. The meaning of marriage would be returned to the people, where it properly belongs.

Unfortunately, this won't happen any time soon. The sad fact is that marriage has become an ideological football, when actually it's all about love.


June 7, 2012

I can't put it off any longer. It's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.

The problem with writing about Mitt Romney is that there's so little to write about, and with what little there is, there's so little to think about.

I'm not alone here. Even the top left-leaning pundits are stymied. Most of what they come up with — family dog on top of car, wife's two (or is it three?) Cadillacs, prep-school hazing incident, etc. — is a grasp at straws. The paucity of political plunder is so severe that they keep recycling the same old stories and gaffes while waiting for new ones to turn up.

The now-iconic photo of a distant Romney delivering a major policy speech to an almost empty stadium some months ago is worth a thousand words, among which are "almost empty."

This is a guy who has given new meaning to the term "stump speech." Even in so-called newsmaker interviews, the clichés are all the same: It's socialism-this and repeal-that, jobs here and jobs there; a businessman will Trump (sic) a politician at governance; cut taxes, cut spending, more and still more for the military; Afghanistan without an exit, Syria without a solution; Russia as Evil Empire, the U.N. as Evil Umpire; Israel: Good, Iran: Bad.

With a platform as wobbly as that, you'd think a couple well-placed nudges from Obama would make it collapse right under Romney, but no. For one thing, Obama never seems to know the weakest beams to nudge, and for another, nobody ever went broke underestimating the sway of slogans and simplisms on the American people.

Having a stump for a candidate is nothing new, but the possibility of electing one should quicken the recent memory of the citizenry. After eight excruciating years of hosting G. W. Bush in my car by day and my home by night, I thought no one could be worse in terms of public presence. But Romney's soporific inflection (even in excitement), his inarticulation, his forced flippancy almost make you long for the Good Ole Boy. Almost. Even if you end up voting for him, the mere fact of having a person with such a persona heading up a national ticket makes it embarrassing to be an American. If I weren't such a stringent supporter of minimalist government, I'd call for a "No Candidate Left Behind" law.

Barack Obama should be able to parry Romney's feeble thrusts with his nimble rhetorical swordsmanship, but those erstwhile soaring speeches of "hope" and "change" have played out disappointingly in the face of practical governance, and it's unlikely he'll be able to entrance a less desperate and more critical electorate the second time around.

Obama's real chance to best Romney is in debate, but his scripted wizardry before the crowds doesn't translate to a give- and-take format, and having a lackluster opponent will only increase his tendency to stammer and plod. If only Newt Gingrich could have had a go at him.

The Etch-a-Sketch candidate should easily be defeated by his own device. How can one vote for a man who'll switch colors like a chameleon to fit any background, a man who sidesteps his own decent record as a governor, a man who's been running for President for years and yet claims he's not a politician? What does such a disposition bode for a presidency? In addition to giving new meaning to the term "stump speech," he's given new meaning to the word "change."

But there he is, running neck-and-neck with an incumbent whose foreign policy offers few complaints except from the war- hawks, who's passed a health-insurance plan lifted from Romney's previous incarnation, who bailed out an auto industry Romney had sooner let die, and who, far from being a "socialist," has hewed a course so moderate it's annoyed many to his left.

Romney is neck-and-neck because slogan is more alluring than substance. But watch out, America: Behind the slogan is a vacuum of ideas.

There's no there there.

Monday, May 7, 2012


May 3, 2012

Now that he's beaten back his opponents and is marching unhindered to the Republican convention, I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.

But hell, it's springtime, and the world is awash with color and newness. Who wants to write about Mitt Romney in the springtime? I'll write about woodpeckers instead.

For the last couple weeks, I've awakened at first light to the rattle-tap of a woodpecker on some nearby tree. It occurs in spurts, a couple seconds at a time followed by short breaks, consistently through the early morning, then stops for several hours, then resumes in late afternoon and goes on till dusk. The noise is so loud it successfully competes with the jackhammers of Con Edison workers, who have been tearing up the street to lay down new conduit.

On pleasant days I've ventured out with binoculars to search for the suspect bird, but of course, just when I think I'm close, the rattling stops and I'm unable to spot it. I'm a lousy birder.

The reputation of the South Bronx does not lend itself to images of nature's wonders, but there is in fact a forest ecology here. A full quarter of the Bronx is parkland, more than any of the other four boroughs of New York City. Much of it has been developed for human use — playgrounds and ball fields and golf courses (three of them) and lawns for picnicking — but even in the most utilitarian spaces, like 130-acre Crotona Park two blocks north of here, ancient tall trees abound, and there are still many hefty ones shading the streets, hardy survivors of the decades of urban devastation. It's an agreeable habitat for birds of every sort, including large predators like red-tailed hawks, which I often see peering down from low-hanging branches at potential prey — pigeons, rats, squirrels, and off-the-leash Chihuahuas.

The only two kinds of woodpeckers I've actually seen in the neighborhood are the downy, a red-headed little lovely about the size of a starling, and the northern flicker, a larger bird with striking gray-and-yellow plumage. Birders have sighted several other species in the Bronx, such as the mid-size red-bellied, the majestic top-knotted pileated, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, though these have been found mostly in heavily-wooded areas in the New York Botanical Garden and Van Cortlandt Park, a few miles north of here. So I'd say my guy is either a downy or a flicker.

We all know why bees hum, but why do woodpeckers peck? Of course, they peck to eat, drilling into a tree's bark to expose tasty insects, grubs, and often whole colonies of ants living inside. They also peck to excavate cavities for nesting. But most of the pecking we hear in the spring — the rapid-fire tapping that wakes me up these days — is, say the ornithologists, their version of other birds' warbles and songs, their way of staking out territory and attracting mates. In the forest as in the concert-hall, every symphony needs a drummer.

And as with all drummers, the woodpecker's governing principle is "The louder, the better." They'll always select instruments with the best resonance — hollow trees mostly. Where humans dwell, however, they go for heavy metal — gutters and drainpipes — to produce a sound powerful enough to show who's boss in the neighborhood.

The bird people say that every species of woodpecker has a unique drumming pattern of precise rapidity, duration, and pauses between sets. The downy, for example, drums at 14 taps per second; other kinds do 20 or more. The Cornell University Ornithology website features audio clips of woodpecker drums to assist birders in identifying species by ear, offering these words of encouragement: "With practice, most drumming sounds can be recognized with a high level of confidence." I've listened to all those clips and can barely tell one from the other. I'm no birder.

Another very practical question is: Why don't woodpeckers beat their brains out? Boxers get punch-drunk from blows to the head; do woodpeckers grow dotty after a season or two of passionate drumming? The answer, expectedly, is no. As ever- trustworthy Wikipedia puts it: "Woodpeckers have evolved a number of adaptations to protect the brain," including "short duration of contact" with the wood, "the orientation of the brain within the skull" (a half-turn different from other birds, "which maximizes the area of contact between the brain and the skull"), and "small brain size."

How these creatures can get up day after day and beat out the same old message without variance and without brain-damage is amazing to me.

Don't you wonder the same thing about presidential candidates? Maybe it's for similar reasons.

I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.


April 26, 2012

"I'm 84 years old, and I can say any damned thing I want to!"

You've heard that one before. If you qualify in the age category, you may have even said it yourself. It's a great exit strategy for an embarrassing slip of the tongue, usually evoking a good laugh all around and a comfortable transition to other topics.

But not if you're Günter Grass.

The Nobel laureate, the conscience of post-war Germany, the most renowned living German literary figure, found himself in scathing water early this month when he published his latest poem, "Was Gesagt Werden Muss" — "What Must Be Said."

What he felt must be said concerns the ongoing international furor over Iran's nuclear shell-game, and the international silence over a nuclear shell-game that another country may be playing as well.

"Why do I speak only now, / Aged and with my last ink?" he asks in the midst of the poem. Because, he replies, "even tomorrow may be too late" — and here, he's not only speaking about his own future.

Though he's 84 and can say any damned thing he wants to, this is obviously not a work of impulse. That he used the vehicle of poetry, where every line is crafted and every word has a purpose, to set forth his position only makes it the more irrevocable. He knew full well what he was doing, though he may not have exactly known the consequences.

Despite their rigorous construction, poems are often more existential than prose; they reveal in a highly formal way the progress of a thought, and so it is with this one.

He begins in the passive voice: A "right of first strike" that could "annihilate the Iranian people" ("enslaved by a braggart," he adds) is being invoked because "it is conjectured that an atom bomb is in construction."

He then sets up an ironic parallel. Like Iran itself, the country claiming the first-strike prerogative — and which, he writes, "I forbid myself to name" — also holds "nuclear potential," also has kept it secret, also has refused inspection.

Why the "universal silence" on this apparent contradiction? he asks; why his personal silence? His conclusion: "The verdict of ‘Anti-Semitism' is familiar." Though still unnamed, the country in question is now clear.

Compounding the irony, Grass then indicts his own nation for "delivery to Israel" (at last he speaks the word) of "Another U- boat, / Whose specialty consists in guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence / Of a single atom bomb is unproven." (In February, Germany sold a sixth Dolphin attack submarine to Israel after having donated two of them outright following the 1991 Gulf War and sold the others at deep discounts.) Whether this was done "on a purely commercial basis," or "with nimble lips calling it a reparation" doesn't matter to him; "The nuclear power of Israel endangers / The already fragile world peace," and "We — as Germans burdened enough — / Could be suppliers to a crime."

The situation to him is so critical that his guilt-induced silence toward the military policies of "the land of Israel, to which I am bound / And wish to stay bound," must be broken.

In the penultimate stanza, he expresses hope that his words "will free many from silence" and "prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger" — unnamed — "to renounce violence and / Likewise insist / That an unhindered and permanent control / Of the Israeli atomic potential / And the Iranian atomic sites / Be authorized through an international agency."

You have to wonder what Grass thought as he hit the "Send" button; we all know that feeling. Did he expect "the verdict of Anti-Semitism"? He says so himself. Did he expect that this work might diminish his reputation, already called into question by his late-in-life admission that he'd served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II? Surely. Did he expect his poem to open up honest discussion by Germans about their attitudes, positive and negative, toward Israel? So he may have hoped. Did he expect that his words would be exploited by his own avowed enemies, the Neo-Nazis? He may not have thoroughly considered that one.

His doomsday scenario, a preemptive atomic attack by Israel against Iran, sounds unthinkable, perhaps reflecting the paranoia of old age. But if in fact Israel has the bomb, and if, as has been speculated, Iran's nuclear development facilities are buried too deeply underground to be penetrated by conventional weaponry, and if Israel is indeed determined to "take whatever steps are necessary" to remove the Iranian threat, the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable.

Whether or not Grass's fears are justified, his very legitimate question remains: Would not the cause of peace be furthered if the international community sought, and Israel agreed to, the same accountability for its nuclear projects as for Iran's?

It's astounding that twenty years after the end of the Cold War, a Hot War is even conceivable. But the nuclear torch has been passed to a new and widening generation of nations equally mesmerized by mass destruction, from manipulative North Korea to unstable Pakistan and even to prosperous India, which just last week tested a missile that could send an atom bomb into the heart of China.

The mutual threats by Iran and Israel may be an elaborate bluff. But games like this have been played before — "at the end of which," Grass remarks in his opening lines, "we as survivors are at best footnotes."

In that respect, at least, he is right.

Here is the poem in German, followed by an English translation:
Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange, was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen

geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende
wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag,
der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte
und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte
iranische Volk auslöschen könnte,
weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau
einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

Doch warum untersage ich mir,
jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen,
in dem seit Jahren - wenn auch geheimgehalten -
ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar
aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung
zugänglich ist?

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes,
dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat,
empfinde ich als belastende Lüge
und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt,
sobald er mißachtet wird;
das Verdikt 'Antisemitismus' ist geläufig.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land,
das von ureigenen Verbrechen,
die ohne Vergleich sind,
Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird,
wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch
mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert,
ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel
geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität
darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe
dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz
einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,
sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang?
Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft,
die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist,
verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit
dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin
und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?
Weil gesagt werden muß,
was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte;
auch weil wir - als Deutsche belastet genug -
Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten,
das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld
durch keine der üblichen Ausreden
zu tilgen wäre.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr,
weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens
überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen,
es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien,
den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr
zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und
gleichfalls darauf bestehen,
daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle
des israelischen atomaren Potentials
und der iranischen Atomanlagen
durch eine internationale Instanz
von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern,
mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser
vom Wahn okkupierten Region
dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben
und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long

What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.

It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people--
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation--
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, an atom bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no testing is available?
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force--the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
The very crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But through fear of what may be conclusive, I say what must be said.

Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I think my origin,
Which has never been affected by this obliterating flaw,
Forbids this fact to be expected as pronounced truth
Of the country of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we--as Germans burdened enough--
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
Prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
Of the governments of both countries.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
In the end also to help us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


April 5, 2012

Jesus is back on Broadway. In the revival of the hopelessly dated Godspell, he appears as the Profound Clown (not to be confused with the Holy Fool); in the revival of the more durable Jesus Christ Superstar, he appears as the victim of mass hysteria, glorified and vilified by the media, then literally crucified by the politicians (thus its durability).

A few miles uptown in the South Bronx, where "revival" has a different meaning, Jesus made an appearance too. Every year, on Palm Sunday, he takes to the streets as his followers ritually reenact his 15 minutes of worldly fame — the day he rode into Jerusalem as the contrarian king, "meek and riding on an ass," while his momentary enthusiasts strewed palm branches in his path.

Last Sunday, at the corner of Webster Avenue and 168th Street, several hundred Spanish-speaking parishioners of St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church gathered in chilly and threatening weather to hail their King once more. Living in the bottom 25 of the 99%, they authentically represented the participants in the original, primordial event — the powerless, the illegal, the hungry, the homeless, the very ones that a certain politician recently declared he's "not concerned about" because "they have a safety net." These folks knew that already. They know all about the concern of politicians and about that fraying net. Here, with their church, they've found true concern, and a safety net that will never break.

There was some verisimilitude in the march. The people clutched palm fronds (imported from Florida; a few more years of climate change and New York may be growing its own). And yes, there was a donkey heading up the parade, and a native Bronx donkey at that, rented for the occasion from the Equestrian Center in Pelham Bay Park. The church's pastor, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, books one every year. Most of them have been big enough for a middle-school kid to sit on; this time they sent over a beast the size of an Irish wolfhound. But no matter — he was adorably cute and well-behaved, and ablly supported a fearless and frolicking little girl.

Father Fenlon told his congregation this was a "bilingual donkey," qualified to march both in the Spanish procession and in the English one that preceded it. His light-hearted words evoked the Biblical story of Balaam's ass, the talking donkey, recorded in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers. The donkey rebukes his master for mercilessly beating him: "What have I done to you?" he pleads. "Am I not your own beast?"

Perhaps the donkey and the child had a conversation too. "If Jesus was a king, why didn't he ride a powerful white horse instead of a pack-animal like me?" "I don't know, donkey." "Nobody got it then, dear, and nobody gets it now."

As the procession made its way the half-mile up Webster Avenue to the church, the marchers shook their fronds and sang lustily: "¡Hosanna!" "¡Alabaré!" "¡Viva Jesús el Rey!" Cars pulled up to the priest, unmistakable in his red robes; he gave the drivers a palm and a prayer. High above the street, in the towering public-housing projects, tenants leaned out their windows and waved. Curious customers poured out of the bodegas and the liquor stores, some of them joining the crowd for a block or two with their bags of soda and chips or a pint of E&J brandy ("Easy Jesus," they call it here) in their pockets.


After the people had entered the church, their mood abruptly changed. In the Catholic liturgy of Palm Sunday, the procession is followed by the Gospel account of Jesus' trial and execution. The reading is done in oratorio fashion, with a narrator, the priest or deacon as Jesus, various individual speaking parts, and the congregation as the chorus.

When the trial of Jesus reached its climax and the befuddled Roman governor Pilate asked what the crowd wanted him to do with this guiltless man, the entire church roared out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" — as lustily as they'd sung "Hosanna!" just minutes before.

"Liturgy" in Greek means "the work of the people." It's not performance, it's participation. It's not the Great White Way, it's just the Way.

On Palm Sunday, it's real-time immersion in the unchanging fickleness of human nature, and no million-dollar musical can match it.


March 22, 2012

As details emerged about the identity of the soldier who allegedly murdered 16 Afghani civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, I called up a college classmate of mine, a physician who for several years had worked part-time in the family-practice clinic at the man's home base, Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. I wanted his opinion about what the U.S. Armed Forces' own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, in 2010 called "the most troubled base in the military."

I was not ready for what he said first.

"I had him as a patient a couple years ago," he told me. "When I saw his picture in the paper, I recognized him. I don't remember what I treated him for, but I recall his face. He seemed like a good guy to me — nothing unusual about him. This thing was a real shocker."

The profile of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, now being pieced together by the media, reveals the same sentiment of disbelief among his family, childhood friends, and fellow soldiers: The person who did this is not the person we knew.

As unusual things go, it is not all that unusual. You see stories more often than you'd like about mild-mannered men who randomly gun down passers-by on the street, and loving moms who drown their kids. What makes this case more unusual than most is its context.

"I don't know if it's the most troubled base," my friend said, returning to my question. "It may be because it's just so big, and it's primarily for the infantry. They're the ones who do the whites-of-their-eyes fighting, and for some of them it's bound to seep out in other ways, both over there and when they get home."

I asked if he had any ideas about Bales' motives.

"Who knows what made him do it?" he mused. "Maybe he thought that committing some unspeakably horrible deed would finally bring the troops home — the Afghanis would demand that the Americans leave, and the American public would demand it too. Maybe he thought he was sacrificing himself for a greater good.

"Or," he continued, "he could have snapped from the paranoia that all the troops feel over there, where they can't ever tell who the enemy is and isn't. The very same people you meet at those friendly town meetings — even women and children — may be just the ones who are triggering roadside bombs. It's not war with uniformed targets and defined battles followed by periods of calm. The soldiers live in constant fear and suspicion. It's no wonder that most of them have some degree of PTSD. The trauma and stress are not so much from battle as from the constant anxiety and uncertainty."

"Plus," I mentioned, "the paranoia for this guy was endless. He went to Iraq in 2003 and returned twice more after that. The papers say that after his third tour he'd trained to be a recruiter but they sent him to Afghanistan instead — even though he'd injured his head and foot his second time around."

"This is a huge problem," my friend remarked. "Back and forth, back and forth. Even when you're home, there's no closure because as long as we're over there, there's no close."

"Then there's the nation-building business, the hearts-and- minds thing," I added. "Trained to kill and trained to heal at the same time — and on the ground there, both are jumbled up together. It isn't like those World War II newsreels of the troops handing out Hershey bars to a crush of happy kids while their parents cheer their liberators. When you pour your energies into trying to do good while you know all along that many of the people there resent your presence and want you gone, that's a frustration that could easily turn to rage. I'd bet most of the soldiers feel it but somehow they sublimate it. This guy didn't."

"War for almost ten years," my friend reflected. "It sickens me. The brunt of it all has been borne by a very small number of people. The all-volunteer military shifts the responsibility for war away from the public at large. If more people had their own sons and daughters drafted into service, they'd have not been so complacent about these wars."

Who knows why Sgt. Bales did it? Even a trial, by its nature, may reveal little of the truth. But there's one thing for certain: In the midst of the war without, he was fighting a war within.


March 15, 2012

PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

So wrote that intractable cynic Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1906. His definition still rings true after over a century, even when peace, in international affairs, is a decidedly relative term.

I'll give you my own definition, aways subject to change: Peace is a short episode of amnesia leading to the unwitting reenactment of past wars.

Having already forgotten Iraq, the war based on rumor, and Afghanistan, the war based on revenge, and most recently Libya, the war that was never called war, Republicans in Congress and on the presidential stump are already turning their bellicose eyes to Syria.

Actually, Libya wasn't forgotten, it was mythologized. It's now seen by most Americans, military and civilian alike, as the truly Lovely War, orchestrated but not executed by the United States, approved in a vague way by the United Nations, expending all that pent-up European firepower so long aching for blessed relief, and with no loss of Allied life to boot. What could be better? It was a test-case and model for the New Warfare: state- of -the-art, conducted from above, noble in purpose, limited in scope, started and ended in seven months.

But even Lovely Wars have unlovely consequences. While the NATO forces may have helped the Libyan rebels trap and skin that old fox Qaddafi, they left a leaderless land, with a nominal government unable to rein in the numerous factions still flush with armaments plundered from the dictator's vast stores. The place is a literal panoply of powder-kegs, just waiting for a spark.

Senator John McCain — and remember, he could have been President — is leading the fight to fight in Syria, calling for a Libya-like strategic bombing campaign to cauterize the ruthless forces of Bashar al-Assad's regime and establish "safe havens" to serve "as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance" and provide space for the opposition to "organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad."

This must be done, he said in a speech on the Senate floor on March 5, without authorization by the United Nations, and not by coalition forces but by the United States alone, "the only one nation that can alter this dynamic" of Assad's brutality.

"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary," McCain asserted, "but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."

Old war-hawks never die, they just lose their eyesight.

In response to this speech, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "This is an extremely complex crisis. Intervention at this time could very well exacerbate problems inside the country."

No kidding. If McCain thinks action against Assad would be another Lovely War, he should consult his World Almanac:

Libya: Total area, 680,000 square miles; population, 6 million; population density, 8 persons per square mile.

Syria: Total area, 16,000 square miles; population, 19 million; population density, 265 persons per square mile.

Any child can see that air strikes in Syria, no matter how precise, will inevitably result in a "slaughter" of non- combatants exponentially greater than occurred in Libya (the number of which, by the way, NATO has refused to investigate or disclose).

Though he may not know his demographics, McCain surely knows his geography, which makes his stance crazier still. Libya is bounded by Egypt, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is bounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon — almost every one of those countries a hot- spot in itself. Any interested teenager can see that bombing Syria could blow the Middle East apart.

And then there's that military-aid component. Even without the air strikes, shoveling armaments to the opposition forces is a recipe for internal disaster. It's doing for Syria from the outside what Qaddafi did from the inside, providing the opportunity for the "Free Syrian Army" — whatever that is — and "other opposition groups" — whoever and however many they are — to annihilate not only Assad but each other.

Such actions would further defile — and in a far greater way than those against Libya did — the spirit of the Arab Spring, a movement that has toppled dictators and democratized governments by the disciplined practice of nonviolent resistance. Indeed, there are many in the Syrian opposition — perhaps a majority — who continue to reject force of arms as an instrument of regime change. Unilateral intervention by the U.S. would in fact "alter this dynamic," as McCain put it, but in perverse ways he seems unable to conceive.

As Gene Sharp, the political theorist whose booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, formed the blueprint for the Arab Spring movement, wrote: "The historical record indicates that while casualties in dead and wounded must be expected in political defiance, they will be far fewer than the casualties in military warfare. Furthermore, this type of struggle does not contribute to the endless cycle of killing and brutality."

The stories of repression and murder that are smuggled out of Syria daily are truly appalling, and McCain and his sympathizers, like almost everyone else in the world, want to put an end to it.

But his alternative would be so much worse.


March 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW:  Broken and Shared, by Jeff Dietrich
Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2011
418 pp., illustrated. $29.95

Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He's the self- unmade man. While his peers were making money, he was making soup. The Social Security Administration calculates his total lifetime income to be $2,553.82.

He's the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, he dropped in at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on L.A.'s Skid Row and never left.

Fortunately for the world, the leaders of the Catholic Worker community saw talent in the lad and immediately made him the editor of their bimonthly eight-page tabloid, the Catholic Agitator. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has culled almost 80 of them for his new book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly ironic humor, Dietrich's essays reflect and amplify the vision of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two radicals who during the Great Depression rejected Marx's social analysis for Jesus', and Lenin's monolithic Communism for simple solidarity with the poor.

In 1970, while hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed for prison for burning draft files. "This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today," he recalls thinking. "He'd be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"

It was his satori, that Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly into place. Suddenly, the Catholicism of his childhood, dogmatic and institutional, was distilled to its essence: "We were not supposed to worship Jesus," he writes, "we were supposed to practice Jesus."

Taken as a whole, these essays confirm that experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen. Out of modesty he says he is not a scholar, but his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge greater than many academic professionals'. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.

Most impressive is his informed and eye-opening exegesis of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Not surprisingly, his focus is on food and why some grow fat while others go hungry. The Hebrew Scriptures, he argues in many articles over many years, consistently point to "big agriculture" and its ensuing commerce and militarization as the root cause, from Cain the farmer (scorned by the Hebrew God for Abel, the hunter-gatherer) to today's global agribusiness: Those who grow the food hold power over those who don't. The mission of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions that keep them that way. He shows that it's not by chance that Matthew juxtaposes King Herod's banquet, where the main course is John the Baptist's head on a platter ("not a typical dinner party arranged by, say, Martha Stewart") with his feeding of the 5,000 from their own resources. Thus the "power lunches" of Washington, where "decisions are made that consign the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless to death" stand opposed to the soup kitchen at the Catholic Worker: "When food and hospitality are shared outside the money economy, the kingdom of God has come near."

Many other assaults against conventional wisdom await you, such as why Jesus is hardly the exemplar of Christian Family Values.

This book will either drive you crazy or drive you sane.

Read it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


March 1, 2012

I used to love writing letters. Even as a boy, I wrote to anybody I thought would write back — aunts and uncles, cousins by the dozens, kids I'd met on summer vacation. In high school, I joined a pen-pal club and found new correspondents in Holland, Slovenia, Poland, and even a girl in the Soviet Union during a mid-1960's thaw in the Cold War (after about a year, no more letters came). By the time I was 16, I fancied myself a polyglot — I knew at least half a dozen languages, but only two words in each: Par Avion, Mit Luftpost, Correo Aereo. I met people all over the world without leaving my bedroom.

I visited our post office regularly, spending chunks of my allowance on the latest commemorative stamps. I never became a stamp collector because stamps weren't meant to be kept, they were meant to be used.

For my foreign correspondence, I bought aerograms, long sheets of delicate, sky-blue paper that you folded in thirds and sealed up on three sides. I doubt the Postal Service even makes them anymore.

I also used to love getting mail — not just letters but magazines, newspapers, sales pitches for electric trains and baseball souvenirs. I'd send away for just about anything to keep the family mailbox full.

As far as I can remember, throughout my entire childhood our neighborhood in Norwalk, Calif., had exactly two mailmen, now for correctness called letter-carriers. They knew not only the numbers on the houses but the people inside them, taking time for a friendly chat as they handed over the cards and letters. Mailmen in those days were an essential part of the fabric of the community, and some of them, I'd bet, knew more about the personal lives of the folks on their route than even the parish priest.

I hardly write a letter anymore, and I hardly ever get one. The mailbox is still full, but now it's mostly junk — and as advertising becomes more and more Google-specific, even the junk will eventually disappear.

My passion for letter-writing started evaporating maybe a decade ago, along with practically everybody else's. This is commonly attributed to the advent of e-mail, but I know there's more to it than that; the dynamic is more complex than the mere substitution of one medium for another.

The difference between an e-mail message and a handwritten letter is both quantitative and qualitative. E-mails — and now Facebook and, quintessentially, Twitter — are more like the long- gone telegram, where you say what you have to say as if you were paying by the character, complete with a clever vocabulary of abbreviations: "r u ok? :)"

The handwritten letter is just the opposite. It demands the lavishing of time on your recipient, allowing your mind to range widely and creatively. Even on the rare occasions when I do write a long and thoughtful e-mail, sitting at a computer screen can never produce the intimacy elicited by putting pen to paper in a unique hand that has evolved since childhood. Sure, you may change your e-mail font to Comic Sans for a supposedly personal touch, but typefaces are just a bunch of pixels designed by somebody else.

I know all this, I believe all this, I love all this — but I can hardly bring myself to write letters anymore. Why?

There is something in the "communications culture" that thwarts me. Being in constant contact with everybody everywhere has diminished my desire to be in close contact with somebody somewhere. I no longer "have time" to sit at my desk, pen in hand, chewing on the top and staring out the window, thinking of just what to say and just how to say it, devoting my whole attention to one single special person even for 20 minutes. Now I can FW some cartoon or article to a dozen people at once, personalized only by a message that reads: "What do you think?" The ease of instantaneous, worldwide communication has rendered me unable to communicate.

This whole column has become a bittersweet digression from my original intent for it — to write about the financial woes of the United States Postal Service and its latest proposals to do something about it: close half of its 500 mail-processing facilities, eliminate "unprofitable" post offices, halt Saturday delivery. I'll have to deal with those issues later.

Several weeks ago, amidst the detritus of the daily mail, I found a handwritten envelope. I tore it open, half-crazy with anticipation. Inside was a three-page letter from a friend I hadn't heard from, e-mail or otherwise, for months. For a brief moment I felt the exhilaration of years ago, devouring the contents, delighting in her cursive style and even in the crossouts. Especially the crossouts.

It took me nearly a month to "have time," but I wrote her back yesterday. It was an attention-deficient agony, but it put me in touch with a person I'd long forgotten: myself.

A 1974 10-cent stamp commemorating the Universal Postal Union features a Gainsborough painting of an elegant woman pensively reading a letter; the caption on the stamp is: "Letters mingle souls."

I used that stamp, plus 35 cents' worth of others, on my envelope to her.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


February 16, 2012


Just when things were looking brighter for Barack Obama, just when the economy was edging up and unemployment was edging down, just when the Republican candidates (save one) were scrambling to find another three issues besides jobs, jobs, and jobs, here comes a special-interest group that in one narrow respect is more powerful than even the Big Banks: the U.S. Catholic bishops.

The bishops, coached by a crafty team of advisers, have learned a lot about politics in recent years. In the 1980's, their sweeping, book-length pastoral letters decrying military buildups and promoting economic justice were incisive and edifying but largely ineffectual. Policy-makers listened politely to the prelates, then ignored them.

Now they've wised up. They've determined, as all good politicians do, that hammering at one issue, backed by one principle, can yield impressive results.

The issue at hand is birth control, and the principle is religious freedom.

Oddly, the issue itself is a non-issue to most Americans, Catholics included. Contraceptive services are regarded by governments in general and by most people at large as an integral component of public health. Even many who are strongly opposed to abortion support contraception as the best preventative. Surveys indicate that 98 percent of Catholic women have used some form of artificial contraception sometime in their life. In the Catholic Church, the topic has rarely been mentioned from the pulpit for years, and in marriage counseling and confession, many priests treat the use of contraceptives as a matter of individual conscience based on the circumstances. Why then would the bishops take this on?

Because, objectively speaking, they had no choice.

The Catholic doctrine that sexual intercourse must always be open to procreation — paradoxically, even among the sterile — was unilaterally promulgated over 40 years ago by Pope Paul VI, overriding recommendations to the contrary by his own scholarly commission on the subject. Theologians have long debated the moral gravity of this teaching, but grave or less grave, it's on the books. Bishops by their office are compelled not only to teach it but also to ensure that Catholic institutions do not facilitate the use of contraceptives, either directly or through their insurance plans.

It is true that up until now, the U.S. bishops' policy on contraceptive coverage has not been unambiguous. Some states like New York require insurers to provide such coverage without exception, a regulation that individual Catholic dioceses and agencies have contested in the courts (and generally failed). Large dioceses have gotten around these mandates by insuring themselves, and have allowed standalone Catholic institutions like hospitals and colleges to deal with the problem in their own ways. Fordham University here in the Bronx, for example, prohibits prescribing contraceptives in its student health clinics but reimburses students for obtaining them elsewhere, and covers them for its emploees.

Once the mandate went national through the Affordable Care Act, however, the body of bishops had to act. The principle at stake was the free exercise of religion, a centerpiece of the Bill of Rights, and now this was a federal issue, not a state or local one.

Attempting to beat back the firestorm, on Friday the President announced a shift in policy. Rather than requiring objecting institutions to pay for birth control through their insurance plans, he proposed requiring insurers to pay for it themselves. This looked workable from the monetary standpoint, but the bishops, after a moment of hesitation, refused to buy it because contraception, no matter who paid for it, would still be written into their insurance plans, amounting to tacit approval.

And the administration thought it was all about money.

The sad thing about this flap is that if the country were on a single-payer plan, this issue would never have come up. Without having to subscribe to private insurance plans, Catholic institutions would be free of guilt-by-association. Hospitals and college health services would refuse to prescribe contraceptives just as they do now, but people could get them elsewhere simply by showing their Medicare-for-All card.

Thus the true culprit in this case is the very concept of private health insurance as a component of universal health coverage, be it ObamaCare or RomneyCare. Were health care publicly funded, there would be no First Amendment recourse.

Perhaps the President could try something truly creative by bypassing the insurers altogether and funding, even purchasing, contraceptives directly, as the federal government does for immunizations. The bishops would object to that too, but solely on the basis of their theological opposition to contraception, which has virtually no support in the public square. They'd be far less likely to get their way in Congress, given the longstanding federal policy of funding birth control through Medicaid and other government agencies.

This issue of contraception has turned out to be stickier than L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits. Our national mastodon is sinking in the ooze, but the Republican saber-toothed cats, attacking their beleaguered prey, may well end up sunk in it themselves.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


January 26, 2012

The Republican voters of South Carolina turned the race for President on its head last Saturday by turning themselves on their heads. In the space of less than a week, Mitt Romney's double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich in the polls became a double-digit deficit in the voting booth. The candidate deemed most electable was unelected.

For Mitt, it was the perfect storm; for Newt, it was the perfect wave.

The PAC ads may have had something to do with it, but moistly it was the debates. Pressed to disclose his tax returns as his dad George had done in his own bid for the nomination in 1968, Romney the Junior got that deer-in-the-headlights look and finally blurted out, "Maybe." Asked to estimate his tax rate, he stammered, "It's probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything because my last ten years, my income comes overwhelmingly from some investments," immediately evoking in his listeners the "Buffet Rule," Barack Obama's tax-the-rich proposal based on billionaire Warren Buffet's critique of a tax code that gives investors like him a lower rate than wage-earners like his secretary. Then there was that remark calling the $374,000 he'd earned in speaking fees last year "not very much," which opponents quickly pointed out is around ten times South Carolinians' average yearly income. Add to all that the millions he's stashed in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, and you've got a little income-inequality problem here.

Suddenly Romney was transformed — or rather, transformed himself — from Horatio Alger to Jay Gould, from boot-strapper to robber-baron. Suddenly it looked like he just might do to the country what he did in his years at Bain Capital, his private equity firm: take it over, milk it for a few years, and flip it to the Chinese for a tidy profit. His flustered responses to these questions made a lot of people think that he was not the solution to the nation's problems but a primary cause.

For Gingrich, it was the same, only opposite. Pressed to comment on his second wife's allegation that he'd asked her for an "open marriage" so he could consort with Callista without having to move out, he took the lash to the media, his choice whipping-boy, for their petty preoccupation with the personal. Asked about his own tax return, he trotted it out the next day, revealing he'd payed over 30 percent, looking by comparison like a middle-class schoolteacher instead of the guy that got $300,000 a year from Freddie Mac to serve as their historian. As the debating progressed, he got that tiger-in-the-headlights look, yellow eyes burning brightly in the night, confident of forcing the Romney victory van to a screeching halt. At every turn, his rhetoric buried his reality.

The ironies are dizzying. Romney's tax rate — actually 14 percent, based on the returns that he grudgingly released on Tuesday — makes him Exhibit A for Obama's Buffet Rule and renders laughable his own proposals to eliminate estate taxes (yes, one day he too will die) and to "hold the line on individual income tax rates," most especially his own. Gingrich's self-serving repentance for his marital compromises — no dust-and-ashes there — must surely be suspect among Evangelical voters; leopards, especially of the political breed, are unlikely to change their spots. Nor could voters in general consider trivial his financial shenanigans and reputation as an erratic tyrant as Speaker of the House; those spots are even less likely to change. Yet they swallowed their suspicions and flocked to him in the final hour, demonstrating that the supposedly hard-core principles of family values and personal integrity turn to mush in the desperate desire for someone to unseat Obama. Even the squeaky-clean, up- from-the-working-class Santorum, acceptable to them in every principled way, they rejected as too much of a niche-candidate.

Now the ever-hopefuls are blanketing Florida with ads and debates in anticipation of the next showdown, January 31. But somewhere down there, in the swamps and on the beaches and amidst the foreclosed homes, an unexpected threat lies in wait. After spending millions on ads and bloodying one another in debates, they face a specter lurking in the mists who may wrest the nomination from their grasp as dissatisfaction and deadlock loom down the line — an apparition, a Burning Bush.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012


January 19, 2012

The South Carolina primary is coming up on Saturday, and — surprise! — the Republicans may have found their nominee much sooner than anyone expected, even a month ago. Mitt Romney, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (without the angst), The Man Nobody Knows (just one step down from Jesus, whom the book by that name calls "the world's greatest business executive") — is charging to the convention, despite being The Man Nobody Wants. His once- formidable opponents are shriveling like prunes in the Southern sun.

Jon Huntsman, lower in the polls than comedian Steven Colbert, dropped out on Monday. You wonder why he never got any traction — he was the most reasonable of the lot (maybe that's why), thoughtful, composed, balanced, experienced both nationally and internationally (ditto), good-looking, family man, his Mormon faith a non-issue (as with Romney this time around; another hurdle of bigotry cleared?). Perhaps he was too much of a wonk to win; perhaps it was the China connection (colluding with the enemy, and I don't mean China); or perhaps it was the sense that he really didn't crave the job, just wanted to serve the country. Whatever the case, the media ignored him and the public wrote him off.

Another one down. Rick Perry's next, running a smidgeon above Colbert, though his hybris won't let him drop till Saturday night at the earliest.

The future's not bright for Newt Gingrich either, whom the voters have finally concluded is too erratic and delusional to trust with high office.

Evangelical groups got together last weekend to draft an A.B.M. ("Anybody But Mitt") treaty and endorsed Rick Santorum to represent the family-values agenda and the Art of Tea, but it looks like many South Carolina evangelicals will turn to Romney the Electable.

Lastly but not leastly is Ron Paul, the libertarian fly in the anointment, whose views are simultaneously attractive/repulsive to both the left (demilitarize/deregulate) and the right (deregulate/demilitarize). His ideological consistency and blithe disregard of polls, focus groups, and issue-du-jour spin is entirely refreshing: Liberals long for a liberal Ron Paul, conservatives for a conservative one. But Paul can be just who he is because he knows he'll never be nominated; the ones who have real hopes almost always have to be double- talkers.

Romney, in fact, is the anti-Paul, and it's no wonder Republican voters are gritting their teeth while marking their ballots. He's the chameleon of chameleons, turning from blue to red to fit the background. He's as shallow and insipid as any candidate since James Buchanan. His sole desire is not to do but to be, which sounds pretty Zen but it's pretty high-school — what he really wants in life is not to act as president but simply to be president, and his history has shown he'll make any accommodation in order to one day bask, however fleetingly, in the adoring glow of the nation.

This is a candidate without a single fresh idea. At least Herman Cain came up with 9-9-9 and Gingrich with mining the moon and repealing child-labor laws. All Mitt can do is parrot the threadbare Republican laundry-list: dismantle "Obamacare," (or is it "Romneycare"?), cut taxes, shrink government, drill-baby- drill, equate the effectiveness of national defense with the amount spent on it, and of course, that perennial bill of goods, "create jobs."


In the frenzied months before Iowa, Republican voters kissed one frog after another, hoping for their prince or princess charming, and all they got was warts. Now it looks like they're giving up and settling for the boy next door. Think he'll have the moxie to beat that big guy across the street?

* * * * *

Uh-oh. I'm channeling Andy Rooney: "Did you ever notice how many presidential aspirants have one-syllable names? This time around you've got Mitt, Newt, Ron, and two Ricks. In the recent past you had Joe, Mike, Fred, Bill, Al, Bob, and probably others I can't think of at the moment. Why is this? To show they're tough? (You know, like ‘Spike.') To show they're just folks? ("Shucks, just call me Al.") To show they're not all that serious? Maybe that's it. It's just a small point, but it'll keep me wondering till next week."