Archive for February, 2012

IN MEMORIAM… RIP The Ole Grey Goose and The Great Helmsman

| February 26, 2012 | Comments (0)

(Dear Bloggers, Blogettes and, yes, you Mademoiselles over there in France.  A warning to you all: Yours Truly has a severe case of cabin fever today. It’s too cold to venture outside – the Hudson River wind is roaring up the canyons of the Upper West Side – so I can’t escape the ominous pile of papers on my desk from the US Department of Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that scream out FILE ME ! Yet I can’t seem to settle down and perform my “taxing” duty for Uncle Sam just now, so what to do? A curative blog  posting seems the ticket. So please fasten your seat belts for what may be a bumpy ride. Sissies, debark now  before it is too late to ditch me !)

Yesterday at the gym – I do seem to spend more than a little bit of time at the Y, don’t I – I found myself on the treadmill moving forward on a  loose rubber belt at what for me  is a brisk pace – 3 .3 miles per hour – when suddenly I lost patience and snapped, sick to death of the dialogue I was witnessing on CNN between four squabbling feminists – two from the Left and two from the Conservative Right. I think the issue being shouted about was, what else, vaginal probes. I jerked the head set from my ears and hit the CLEAR button returning to a blank, silent screen.

After a few minutes of respite, I fell into a  relaxed mode and started humming. Before I knew it, I could hear myself singing softly, a lilting little ditty in a vaguely minor key that went: “Go tell Aunt Nancy, go tell Aunt Nancy, go tell Aunt Nan-an-cey, the old grey goose is dead.What made her do it, what made her do-o it ? Go tell Aunt Nancy the old grey goose is dead ! ” For the next twenty minutes, I continued chanting those lyrics –  the only words I could remember from this childhood song of  long, long ago – until the treadmill control panel flashed its pat-on-the-back to me, “Congratulations ! You’ve finished your work-out !”  Stumbling off the sagging belt, I wondered to myself, “Where the hell did Aunt Nancy come from !”  Later in the purgative mists of the steam room, my head cleared and it occurred to me that I had  first heard Aunt Nancy’s plaintive ballad (a precursor to the NYC “rat on your neighbor” subway announcement “If you see something, say something!” ?)  as a child of five playing on the edge of my grandmother’s tomato fields. A gaggle of sharecropper children, grimy little creatures, were torturing an already dead frog with a twig as one of them delivered an incantation about an old grey goose and Aunt Nancy. The whole performance lasted no more than two to three minutes; then they were gone, following their parents to pick another row of  prickly tomato vines, leaving me with the mutilated carcass of a defunct toad and the unmistakable instructions to  “Go tell Aunt Nancy! ” That was 68 years ago.

I was told or heard or read that childhood songs and doggerel have been passed down  over the centuries along an infantile, below-the- radar highway as children played in caves or worked in cotton fields or slaved on inhumane assembly lines in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Even the shortest exposure to a lyric would be retained for a lifetime by the quick,  incredibly retentive minds of  the very  young.  (At 73 I can’t remember much of what I did yesterday, but I recall with  clarity across the decades the admonition that  I needed to pass on to Aunt Nancy information about the old grey goose !) I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure I did my part at some point transmitting the unfortunate news of the aging goose to my playground peers who, in turn, must have repeated the news to their peers. So let’s set the history detectives loose on  the goose  and Aunt Nancy and see what they come up with. Maybe the unfortunate bird met her fate back in 1066 on a Sussex plain, consumed  by the cooking fires of one of William the Conqueror’s encampments ? It would have been Tante Nancy back then. An early Coq au Vin ?

Aunt Nancy and the poor bird have followed me relentlessly since our mutual re-discovery on the treadmill.  At a recent house-warming party  given by Burmese friends to celebrate the purchase of their new home in the suburbs of Staten Island, I realized how really dead the old grey goose was now. Because of my life circumstances, I have spent much of my adulthood among Southeast Asians  of Buddhist and Muslim persuasion. Both of these cultures are replete with gatherings of all sorts – house-warmings, weddings, circumcison rites, ordinations into the monkhood, funerals -which entail  tight group connection and communication to celebrate or mourn, as the case may be. I can say these events represent, for me,  one of the most rewarding forms of social contact I have experienced combining food and friendship with a non-invasive display of “faith” – the monks arrive in their saffron robes, they chant, you feed them, they leave, you feel good about it, everybody settles down for talk and fun.

But after the Buddhist chants and prayers and the ceremonial feeding of the monks at the recent Staten Island gathering, the atmosphere  was somehow different.   Everybody was mostly quiet. Where was the camaraderie and conversation?  The hum of people exchanging news, the boisterous sounds of their children playing and chatting, developing the social skills they would use later on in their adult lives? Except for a small clutch of older adults who had gathered in the kitchen talking in the old-fashioned way,  almost all of the younger crowd –  teens,  pre-teens, even the toddlers  – were focused on their “apps” – cell phones, Ipods, tablets, computer games; nobody was talking. I mentioned to my host how different this gathering was compared to earlier functions he and I had attended. In his Southeast Asian way, he smiled and shrugged, leaving me to draw my own conclusions about what was happening to all of us, not the least of whom, Aunt Nancy and the happy inter-play between children that was supposed to set the social pattern for the rest of their lives. After the party was over I took my leave of the guests in the kitchen. When I poked my head in the living room where  more than a dozen youngsters were poring over their electronic devices, my goodbye to them was returned with silence. NOBODY  looked up from their tiny screens to even wave farewell. Teen zombies, a collection of the living dead, I mused as I headed out the door.  Did this house-warming signal the beginning of the end of civilized social intercourse as we have known it for centuries ?

 When I got home after a bouncey ride on the Staten Island Ferry, my Burmese host called to thank me for coming to his house and to invite me to join him  in April  on a trip to Yunnan, China. We would fly to Hong Kong and then head directly for Kunming, he said. “Sounds good,” I replied. And the purpose of the trip ? To buy tea, he informed me. Then began a description about the wonder and curative powers of  a Chinese herbal brew called  Pu-er Tea. My friend said this tea had changed his life since he started taking it several years ago. At age 65 he said he felt like a new person.  Now that his supply was running short – he did not trust local suppliers in Chinatown, he said –  he felt he had to go back to the source and buy another two years’  supply of the real thing.

 My friend, Freddie, and I  have been consulting each other for going on forty years about our respective health issues and concerns, so how could I  pass up  a trip like this one ?  Freddie assures me that the US Customs will not confiscate what to me seem like rather suspicious-looking boxes of an exotic  foreign product. So I  am considering joining him. Yunnan in the Spring sounds absolutely poetic. As a clincher to convince me that Pu-er  Tea is the way to go, Freddie mentions that the Great Helmsman (forget  the Great Leader and the Dear Leader!) Chairman Mao was a life-long consumer of Pu-er Tea and in great quantities. It kept him going on the ten-year Long March and he is said to have  tossed back a cup just before his epic swim in the Yangtze River.

I think Freddie had just committed the cardinal sin of providng too much information thereby giving me serious second thoughts about the trip and the tea.  I had just finished reading a fascinating and meandering history of the Korean War.  Among the minutae offered up in the book was a gossipy profile of Mao. It seems  the  benefits realized by the Chairman from  Pu-er ingestion  were…err… counter-balanced  by certain other results.

Chairman Mao  had green teeth.


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WAKE UP AMERICA ! It’s All About Hobby Horses !

| February 13, 2012 | Comments (1)

(A friend of mine, a legislator, a  Senator who is Chairman of his State’s Committee on Education, recently recommended in a learned and compelling oped article that America make greater efforts to educate its citizens. Here is my reaction to his wise and well-meant words.)

I do agree with the points  you make about the US  needing to pay more attention to education in this country so that we can be more competitive in world markets. But I believe there is a constraint present in America today that severely hampers excellence in a workforce that goes beyond mere education.
I think this constraint may be partly generational and partly cultural and has to do with convenience and personal desire  often being more important than actually having work and paying the rent and getting a job done. I will not go so far as to use the negative handles of selfish and lazy, but those words do come to mind when I ponder what I see. Perhaps the best labels I can use are: IT’S ALL ABOUT ME  and LET’S TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT.
American workers, for the most part, do not seem to have the flexibility and motivation that their foreign counterparts (Chinese, for example) possess. You see this mind set in reluctance to work overtime, to move to another location for a job, to take on tasks that “I’m just not ‘into’ doing” and a number of other job-related attitudes that make many American workers less attractive to hire (or outsource to) than foreigners. Americans seem less interested in performing with excellence; striving thus seems somehow “square” and un-cool.
 Also, what kinds of jobs turn Americans on ? When I was young,  being a nurse or a librarian or a teacher or a fireman were the things to be. Today the role icons are super-models, rappers and basketball players, pursuits that don’t necessarily move a country forward.
So …an American worker, in my view, can have all the right educational qualifications – all the diplomas and certificates he or she needs – and still not measure up to motivated foreign work forces. Productivity also encompasses attitude.
Perhaps we are still living in the economic dream-world that characterized most of the second half of the 20th century in the US when things were so good – and easy – for most of us that we got spoiled and particular about what we would and would not do. Luckily for me, I preceded that generation – I am proud to state that I am PRE-Baby Boomer having been born in the good ole year of 1939 – and I remember, perish the thought,  working as a child; from helping with chores as a tot on my grandmother’s Maryland farm, to taking summer jobs beginning at age 11 just as soon as school let out for summer vacation. As a child, I developed strong work habits. I toiled as a busboy in a diner, as a laborer in a photo processing plant (at age 12 !) and so on until I went away to college.
Then in the evening after classes at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked as a waiter in a sorority for rich girls, Kappa Kappa Gamma it was called. The cook and boss of that sorority operation was a large black lady with a drill sergeant’s voice named Mattie and we white boys were scared shit-less of Mattie. That was in 1957. In Alabama the horror of police dogs and fire hoses may have been felt by blacks just trying to go to school, but in Mattie’s kitchen in Philadelphia the reign of terror was on the flip side. Let a plate be dropped and Mattie was there with a raised frying pan and a threat to banish the clumsy (white) oaf who couldn’t serve with three loaded plates balanced on his outstretched arm.  Did I love that job? Not really; there was no pay, but I got a good free meal in the pantry after serving the society girls and took away kitchen goodies for my breakfast next morning. But I do digress!
Where are the summer jobs today? Kids don’t have them and apparently don’t want them; they would rather “hang out” and play with the expensive video games Mom and Pop buy for them (on their credit cards). Mexicans now do the jobs I used to do as a boy. So to me, the habit of working just isn’t as engrained in the American work ethic as it used to be. We may no longer be living in 20th century Fat City, but old habits and attitudes die hard and take time to change. We have yet to wake up and smell the coffee, to get off our butts and do whatever is necessary to pay the rent even if we may not be crazy about what we are doing.
Work hard and eventually you will be rewarded, I was told; no matter what you start out as. My father graduated with a Master’s degree in chemistry in 1932 and considered himself lucky to find a job as an assistant short order cook in some greasy spoon serving dock workers in Baltimore. Thirty-five years later after he had passed away, he was remembered in Japan for the great things he had done for the Japanese to alleviate their helplessness and poverty following the crushing post-World War II defeat. The Oglesby Foundation was established in Japan and a statue of him erected in gratitude. So starting out as a burger flipper can lead to great things. Again, how I do digress !
But back to education. From my experience here in New York City, being a teacher and talking to people, other teachers as well as students, the quality of education today is an issue, not just the quantity. While education may be more widespread and more people may possess diplomas, what do those pieces of paper mean ? The rigor and quality of a high school education has declined sharply in recent years. Once a high school diploma really meant something in terms of what was actually learned in school; today the level of “literacy” has dropped sharply. Perhaps this is partly due to the advent of the internet and its impact on what being “literate” means. Taken in total, while there is more “information” out there, and the network of educational institutions is much more widespread and more educational opportunities are available, I don’t feel the end result is always a higher QUALITY of education.
To give another example, several years ago a family member of mine completed a two-year business college degree here in New York City. Midway through his program there was a “changing of the guard” with many of the older teachers who had been there for decades retiring or being phased out. He said the change in the quality of his curriculum was like night and day. Whereas the older faculty had been exacting, resourceful teachers who demanded the best of their students, the new crowd of professors were, by and large, a “whatever” group who graded on the curve, never gave a mark below B and generally lowered the standard of the school to the point where graduates, when they left the college, got a piece of paper – a diploma – but what they took away from the school was literally that, the piece of paper and precious little more.
There are some frightening examples of  late about Americans no longer being able to perform certain jobs because they don’t have the physical and mental fortitude to carry on with the work at hand. We hear sad stories of farmers in the South watching their crops rot on the vine because recent, restrictive immigration laws deprive them of the Latino workers willing and able to harvest crops. Native-born Americans who are recruited in their place cannot last more than a day or two on the job; they are simply not up to the physical demands of hard work. Similar stories are told to me by  US-based factory workers from the Third World who are replaced by American citizens  who cannot stand the pressure and demands of laboring on the assembly line. The result is a lose-lose situation where all parties suffer: the factory is idle and both American and immigrant workers are without jobs. While the goal of more education might be to lift workers out of low-paying jobs, the bottom line is: you have to start somewhere. And factory jobs, tedious though they may be, can pay well.
So I think recommending that we all be more educated is good and necessary, but let’s beware that substance and quality should not suffer. Not just MORE but more of WHAT ? And attitude is something that impacts strongly on our education. If we are not willing to perform tasks with excellence, accommodation, flexibility, imagination and a certain amount of humility, productivity will be below par even if a person is highly educated. I remember my father had a colleague who was Harvard-educated, but worthless on the job. Dad was a plain-spoken man who used to say that a fancy degree wasn’t worth an ass-hole on a hobby horse if its possessor had an “I’m better than you” attitude. Thanks, Pop, for your learned words !

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FAITH ….Is It Powered by Mystery or Reason ? Or Both ? Or Does It Really Matter?

| February 8, 2012 | Comments (0)

(Dear Reader, As I begin this posting, I must confess to you that I am much more comfortable writing about “lighter” topics – gossip, my favorite recipe, the state of the world as seen from my rowdy street in the South Bronx…you get the picture, I’m sure, especially if you have read some of my earlier, less weighty articles, frothy material, I must admit. But today I feel compelled to pursue a more lofty topic, the issue of faith – how and why we get it …and sustain it. Without realizing it, I got ensnared in this heavy topic  while watching televison over dinner a few nights ago. The program on the tube dealt with Tajweed, or competitive Quran recitation and I became fascinated by the fact that many, if not most, of the participants were non-Arab-speaking Muslims from such countries as Senegal and Bangladesh who recited passages from the Holy Book without really understanding what they were saying. Faith without comprehension. I couldn’t get this thought out of my head, so please bear with me for the next few paragraphs while I puzzle out to myself what this “faith thing” is all about !)

My friend, Miz G, freezing, as we speak, in the City of Light, had this to say about my “dilemma” : How much does anyone who quotes the holy texts (of any religion) understand of the arcane vocabulary from ancient passages ? She continues by rightly observing that one can sing-song a laundry list, and, with the right amount of smoke and mirrors, achieve religious fervor …and total submission to God (as an animal-loving atheist, she prefers the handle Dog to God; that’s God spelled backwards if you didn’t get it !) Latin liturgy is a good example.

Mis G continues with a childhood anecdote that makes the point with humor. As a child growing up in Lapland in the very north of Sweden, she and her little mates learned and misunderstood a psalm meant for kids which went : “Tryggare kan ingen vara…”  meaning:  “Nobody can be more secure than a child in God’s flock.”  But she and her friends, she said, invariably heard this preachy homily as “Trygga rakan…..No shrimp can be more secure….”  She confessed that this passage gave her food for thought especially when the family meal consisted of crevettes and everybody around the table were chomping on those little pink morsels. The point being, we sing and chant and accept even if we don’t really understand. As in, “Be quiet and eat your shrimp, little girl !”

Another friend, steeped in both Hindu and Catholic faiths,  has opined that “it is not necessary to understand the exact meaning of religious texts; the mere reciting of them is enough to derive spiritual benefit. So if this is the case, what are we to say about the juxtapositon of reason and mystery when we adopt a given belief ? And should we subject the scriptures of various holy books to rational scrutiny ?

After numerous burnings at the stake for attempts to do so a few hundred years ago, the Christian Bible has been translated into the vernacular and exposed to examination and analysis by both believers and skeptics thereby revealing it to be, at least in many of its key passages, an outdated and eccentric text. The Quran has, wisely, not been made available in widespread translation, thus preserving the mystery of the original ancient meaning.

Several  quirky examples from the Bible will illustrate my point.

Leviticus 18:22 states that homosexuality is an abomination. With gay marriage the law of the land in many advanced countries today, this passage would seem problematic. Is clean-cut, hockey-loving Canada,where saame-sex marriage is the law of the land, a country drenched in sin ?

But let’s leave that one behind and look at what the Bible says about parenting in Exodus 21:7  which sanctions selling one’s daughter into slavery. Leviticus 25:44 gives us even more room for bondage, saying that we may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. In the case of the USA I assume this would mean it’s OK to buy slaves from Canada and Mexico, but not Venezuela…? How about Cuba ? It’s only 90 miles from Miami and the GOP says Cubans  are  already living like slaves anyway. Surely there would be wiggle-room for purchasing a few Cubans ?

On occasion, although I really don’t like doing it, I am obliged to work on Sunday. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that I should be put to death. Should I give second thought to this reckless habit even though I get over-time pay?

According to Levicitus  11:10 eating shellfish is  also an abomination. I am wondering:  is it a lesser abomination than homosexuality ? What if you’re allergic to lobsters ? I guess being taken to the ER answers that question.

My aunt curses alot and often she mixes and matches, wearing  clothes made from two different kinds of fiber. Is it really required that I organize all of her neighbors to come together to stone her to death as prescribed in Leviticus 24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn her to death in a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws  which is called for in Leviticus 20:14 ?

Pious cherry-pickers who defend the Bible would patronize me and say, with an expression of loving kindness reserved for the less-than-bright, that OBVIOUSLY these outdated  scriptures are NO longer to be honored and obeyed. But tell that to fundamentalists who would just as soon run a queer out of town as they would have their daughter marry a Muslim or  Jew. If these passages of the Bible are out-dated, WHICH segments of the scripture are still au courant ?
And who has the power and authority to decide which ones are good and which are bad ? Jerry Falwell ?  Tom Cruise ? Mitt Romney? As a Committee ?

So, Dear Reader, my conclusion is, with regard to religion and its scriptures : ignorance is bliss. But what do I know ? I am just a card-carrying atheist ! Let the Faith and Mystery Crowd keep their beliefs…as long as they don’t rain on MY parade.

I promise the next posting will be more fun…as merry as a flock of   God’s shrimp !






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TAJWEED AND AMERICAN IDOL … Singing for God and Fame

| February 5, 2012 | Comments (3)

Last Wednesday, following our usual evening pattern, my partner and I watched television as we dined. Prime time  televised fare is less than appealing to me, but habit leads us to fill the kitchen with  sounds of the Wheel of Fortune clicking to Bankrupt  or a frenzied hopeful butchering Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey on  American Idol  try-outs.

That night the Idol auditions were particularly cloying. One contestant, it seemed, could not let go of the word “love” in the final refrain of her song,  prolonging and strangling the L Word in a  melismatic Full Nelson – ” Lu-uh-uh-uuvvv” – that caused me to run screaming from the kitchen, hands over my ears. For those of you unfamiliar with the technique of melisima, it is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several notes in succession; in less technical jargon, drawing out a word to what are sometimes boringly unnecessary stretches, as in the painful example given above. Mariah Carey is perhaps the most famous practitioner of the melisima technique; while it has brought her renown and fortune, others have been less successful in its use.

After an over-the-table altercation that involved my partner’s snatching the remote from my hand and my grabbing it back, I landed on a channel that featured a most fascinating program from Cairo, Egypt – Koran(Quran) reading or Tajweed, the recitation of the holy scripture of Islam according to prescribed guidelines.

Tajweed is an Arabic word meaning proper pronunciation and recitation of the Quran. It consists of a set of rules on how the Quran should be read, the Quran being the central religious text of Islam.  According to that religion, the Quran contains the verbatim words of God and is regarded as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language.

Forgetting the murderous melisima of American Idol, we sat in rapt silence watching and listening  as  young contestants from all over the world rocked and swayed in other-worldly concentration, delivering song-like incantations from the holy book. One contestant – a Bangladeshi –  was particularly adept and adorable. Ten years-old, clad all in black with only her face visible, bright eyes framed by serious spectacles, she delivered her recitation of the verses with such perfection that the panel of serious-browed judges was visibly in awe.

She was followed by a slender teen-ager from Senegal whose delivery was marked by fluid  body movements and voice intonations that made his  presentation a bit too unique for the traditionally-minded Arab judges. Apparently my partner was of a similar mind, for in the middle of the boy’s recitation, I was stunned to hear him say, “No, no, no…he’s pronouncing those words wrong ! ”

In disbelief at what I had heard, I asked Arif to repeat himself and, once again, he said clearly to me, ” That boy has those words all wrong ! ” I knew, ofcourse, that my partner had grown up a Muslim and that his Mother had been the headmistress of a Madrassah (Islamic religious school). Fluent in Arabic, she passed Arab language reading skills on to her students and to her  twelve children. But I did not know that Arif had memorized large passages of the Quran and had himself participated in Quran recitation contests as a child. As the Tajweed contest continued and Arif persisted in commenting on the pronunciation skills of the entrants, I became aware of just how thoroughly he knew that holy book.

What he told me was even more interesting when he explained that while he was fluent in reading and writing Arabic, he actually understood very little of that language and that the meaning of most of the passages he had memorized from the Quran were, so to speak, “Greek” to him. He further explained to me that in his native country, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, the actual meaning of the words of the Quran, are not understood by the people who read, memorize and recite them. So it was with many of the young participants at the Cairo Quran Recitation contest who were not from the Arab world and were not Arab speakers. The young Bangladeshi girl, who performed so brilliantly and ended up winning third prize, did not understand the words from the holy book she had memorized. 

I find it incredible that such fervor and faith can be generated in the minds and souls of people who don’t really know what it is they are reciting.  Yes, I realize that these young students are told the meaning in a general sense of what is contained in this holy book, but basically because they don’t know the Arabic language, they do not know what they are reading. And there appears little chance that the Quran will go the way of Catholic liturgy which moved  from Latin to the vernacular in its recent modernization.

I also find it  incredible that I could live with somebody for 31 years without knowing that he had memorized the Quran – or at least major parts of it – and was expert to the point that he could critique readers at a Quran recitation contest !

For me, the world is indeed a strange place ! I know  the young Quran readers are reciting for God and that the American Idol warblers are throwing out their melisima in hopes of becoming famous. But surely, as they perform before proud, nervous parents,  there is a bit of the other for both groups – fame for the Quran readers and reaching God for the Idol camp. And what is wrong with that ? Nothing !

I continue to be dazed by the knowledge that I have lived with an ex-Quran reader for over three decades.  What other secrets about my partner will reveal themselves  as the years pass ? I hope he won’t hold back too long and that he will divulge other gems from his past; after all, I can’t wait too long. I turn seventy-three  in few months !



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