Search Box

Monday, August 31, 2009

Evil or insane?

Anyone who reads this blog has undoubtedly also been following the sickest new item of the past week, the kidnapping of 11 year old Jaycee Dugard by Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy. Dugard was held a captive for 18 years, during which time she bore Garrido two daughters, now aged 11 and 15. The two young girls lived in a rabbit warren of tents behind the Garrido house, and had extremely limited contact with the outside world.

Dugard was called "Alyssa" and helped Garrido with his printing business. She had contact with his customers, who assumed that she was his daughter, and evidently did most of the work involved. She evidently could have escaped but didn't, which seems a perfect illustration of the Stockholm Syndrome. Dugard is now said to have "strong feelings" for Garrido, although she also feels guilty about those strong feelings. Her mother, with whom she has now been reunited, is said to be upset that her daughter is not the same girl she knew before.

To me, the most interesting question is whether Phillip Garrido is insane or just evil (the two are not mutually exclusive). He has claimed that he has spoken to God. (There are plenty of sane-but-evil-and-greedy televangelists who have made this claim.) At one point he hired a private investigator to corroborate his belief that he could control sound waves with his brain. Both beliefs are, of course, delusional, though it's always possible that was merely laying the groundwork for a future insanity plea.

Garrido was excellent at manipulation, which is a trait of sociopaths. His wife Nancy was described by neighbors as an automaton who merely did Garrido's bidding. He was successful at brainwashing the young Jaycee, although it takes less persuasive ability to control an 11 year old. Most tellingly, he was able to prevent police and parole officers from investigating the rabbit warren of (partially hidden) tents in his backyard. Garrido must have been quite convincing as a "reformed" man.

The local police are now issuing mea culpas and beating themselves up -- as well they should be.

The problem for sociopaths, though, is that the more one gets to know them, the more repulsive they are. Around the neighborhood Garrido was known as "Creepy Phil," partly because of his religious rants, partly because the neighbors knew that he was a convicted sex offender.

How did Garrido turn out this way? His mother was undoubtedly a strong influence. She has spent the last six years in an old age home, suffering from dementia, but before that lived with Garrido and his wife. The mother must have known about the girls living in the backyard, but she did nothing about it. And if she was that accepting of character fault as an older woman, she must have been the same during Phillip's formative years. The word "enabler" comes to mind.

Garrido is certainly sane enough to stand trial. He tried to hide his crimes, and that is the ultimate measure of sanity. If you know that what you did was wrong, and are sly enough to hide your crimes, then you're definitely sane enough to stand trial. He can spend the rest of his life controlling sound waves from his jail cell. If I were him, I'd stay there, too, because other inmates tend not to be overly fond of child molesters.

The authorities are now investigating whether Garrido may also be a serial killer.

The two little girls seem to be in bad shape. Garrido was originally caught because onlookers reported that the two little girls with whom he was handing out religious literature at UC Berkeley seemed to be acting like automatons. Investigators have since found that when they tried to interview the two girls, they wouldn't make eye contact with anyone. Who knows what the future holds for them.

My guess is that Jaycee will recover. After all, she had her mother's love for the first eleven years of her life, and now that she is away from Garrido, sanity should return to her life. Perhaps she will be able to bring some semblance of normalcy to her daughter's lives as well, though that seems less likely.

Addendum, 9/1/09: This morning's NY Post reported that Garrido's father said that Garrido was normal until age 15, when he suffered serious head injuries in a motorcycle accident, at which point he became violent and obsessed with sex. It may be that the father is helping set up an insanity defense, but his earlier comments certainly didn't suggest he was on his son's team. If in fact Garrido effectively became a sociopath because of head injuries, he wouldn't be the first. In the nineteenth century there was a famous case involving a railroad engineer, Phineas Gage, who underwent a similar transformation. Gage was involved in an accident in which a tamping iron was driven through the frontal lobe of his brain. He survived, and evidently retained his logical faculties afterward but his personality changed for the worse, and he became very intemperate and childlike. It's possible that Garrido also had frontal lobe damage which affected his personality similarly. Garrido reportedly also took LSD, which may also have contributed to his delusions.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The pukefest continues

Somebody forgot to tell somebody that Teddy Kennedy was never President, because for the last four days his supporters have been carrying on as if he was, doing everything but having him lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda.

Somebody definitely forgot to tell the New York Times, the front page of which has been dominated by mawkish tributes for the past four days.

For those of you who don't subscribe -- and I am ashamed to admit that I do -- the following excerpts, from a top of the fold, four column wide article in today's paper, written by Dan Barry, will show how little you're missing (italicized writing mine):

The nation said a final farewell on Saturday to Edward M. Kennedy, who used his privileged life to give consistent, passionate voice to the underprivileged for nearly a half-century. He was the only one of four fabled Kennedy brothers to reach adulthood, and he was remembered for making the most of it. (Joe Jr. wasn't really fabled, and only became famous long after his death for having been a Kennedy; and Teddy was more fabulist than fabled.)

Along the rain-dappled roadways of Boston in the late morning, and then in the sweltering humidity of Washington in early evening, people waited for the fleeting moment of a passing hearse so that they could pay respects to the man known simply as Ted. At the United States Capitol, where Mr. Kennedy had served for so long, his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, stepped out of a limousine to receive hugs, bow her head during prayers, and to hear the singing of "America the Beautiful." (This makes it sound as if Victoria was practically a First Lady; in fact the woman was nearly invisible during the 15 years they were married.)

The gray rainy day began with a funeral Mass at a working-class Roman Catholic church in Boston where the senator had sometimes sought comfort, without entourage or advance notice. Where he once reflected among the hush of empty oak pews, there now sat hundreds gathered in his honor, including President Obama; three of the four living Presidents; dozens of former dignitaries and members of Congress; and, of course, people so familiar to Americans simply because they are Kennedys.

And it was during that portion of the Mass, when prayers of hope are shared, that his grandchildren, nieces and nephews stepped up to the microphone to express once more Ted Kennedy's political and human desires:

That human beings be measured not by what they cannot do but by what they can do. (Doesn't "can" for some human beings imply "cannot" for others?) That quality health care becomes a fundamental right and not a privilege. That the old politics of race and gender die away. (And that they be replaced by the new politics of race and gender, which emphasize those two identities far more strongly.) That newcomers be accepted, no matter their color and place of birth. (Think for a moment about what that means: that US citizenship is a birthright of everyone from everywhere in the entire world. The injection of the word "color," of course, means that you're racist if you're not for unlimited immigration.) That the nation stand united against violence, hate, and war. (Didn't Kennedy approve of the original invasion of Afghanistan? And who's not against "hate"? Yet everybody feels it from time to time, especially someone as partisan as Kennedy.) And, in echo of his famous words, that the work begins anew, the hope arises anew, and the dream lives on. (It is of course impossible to argue with such abstractions, which is why they make for great stump speeches, as Barack Obama demonstrated.)

"We pray to the Lord," each petitioner concluded.

And each time, the mourners answered as one, "Lord hear our prayer." (When has the Times ever been so positive about mixing church and state before?)

After Holy Communion, Mr. Obama delivered the eulogy for the man whose endorsement in the 2008 campaign was like the passing of a sword from Camelot, helping enormously in giving this country its first African-American president. (Ah, Camelot; there was no way that cliche was going to go unmentioned amidst all this purple prose by this obvious Kennedy groupie.)

That was just what was on the front page, believe it or not. The article continues, taking up all of page A14, using the same tone throughout. I will quote just the last paragraph:

Soon, seven riflemen were firing three volleys. Soon, the shadow of a bugler was playing "Taps," as heat lightning stunned the night sky. Arlington was dark; a long day had ended. But come Sunday morning, cemetary officials say, the green of the grass will be smooth again, the hole filled, the sod laid. Only then it will feature a white wooden cross made by the cemetary's carpenter, and a white marble marker that bears the name of another Kennedy, this one as distinct and as human as as accomplished as the others, a man in his own right.

EDWARD MOORE KENNEDY, it will say. 1932-2009

The New York Times is generally known as our newspaper of record. In fact, they've never bothered to hide their biases, but it usually isn't quite as blatant as this. I hope someone there is at least a little embarrassed by this fawning article, which sounds much more like a eulogy delivered by a family pastor who happens to be a frustrated poet.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


My sweet, naive 15-year old daughter is a member of Amnesty International.

So I asked her the other day, "As a member of Amnesty, you're against discrimination, right?"

She vigorously nodded her head.

I added, "....discrimination based on race......"

She kept nodding eagerly.

".....or gender....."

More nodding.

".....or age."

At this point she got a somewhat foolish grin on her face as she sensed where the conversation was heading.

"So if you're against discrimination based on gender and age, that means I can hang out with you and your friends. Great! We'll have a blast!"

Question: are Amnesty members in particular, and liberals in general, really against discrimination based on such "superficialities" as race and gender and age? Or are they only opposed to discrimination against certain designated victims?

Answer: (not needed)

My point, of course, is that we all discriminate. If we didn't, teenagers would hang out with folks at the old age home, women would have to compete against men in the Olympics, and billionaires would date ordinary-looking women. Oh, and rich white liberals would buy homes in poor black neighborhoods. But none of these things happen. And we don't even really notice it, because we take such types of "discrimination" for granted, so much so that the above concepts strike us as utterly ridiculous, even annoying.

So people who say they're against discrimination aren't really against discrimination, since they do it themselves: they're just for paying lip service against certain types of politically incorrect discrimination.

And yes, I understand that "ageism" has never been foremost among liberal causes. It's only brought up here to make my point.

A few days later my daughter explained to me that while she and her friends don't discriminate on the basis of age, they do practice "coolness discrimination." So I was excluded on that count.

Well, I guess she's not always that sweet.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A dissenting obituary

The praise for Teddy Kennedy over the past 48 hours has been absolutely fulsome. The media, obeying the dictum that one not speak ill of the dead, has glossed over his various personal idiosyncrasies, other than brief mentions of Chappaquiddick. In fact, over the past year, they have politely refused to even speak ill of the terminal. Of course, being the mass media, they are constitutionally incapable of speaking ill of a liberal anyway.

I, being neither polite nor liberal, would like to offer a dissenting opinion.

Teddy Kennedy was a supreme hypocrite.

At Chappaquiddick, he got drunk (though he later denied it), and, intending to drive Mary Jo Kopechne to an assignation, instead drove her off the Dike Bridge. After doing so, he walked back to his motel, complained to the manager about the loud party there, and fell asleep for a while. He then awoke to ask a friend to take the blame. He phoned the police to report the accident only after he saw that a local fisherman had already discovered the submerged car the next morning. It turned out that Kopechne probably survived for two hours after the accident, breathing the air trapped in the car; had Kennedy immediately sought help, he could have saved her life.

For his crime of reckless endangerment and leaving the scene of an accident, he received a suspended sentence.

Five years later, when President Ford pardoned ex-President Nixon, Kennedy thundered on the floor of the Senate, "Is there one standard of justice for the common man and another for the rich and powerful?!"

During the 1970's, Kennedy came down solidly on the side of Judge Garrity, who ruled that schoolchildren from South Boston be bused to Roxbury, and vice versa, to achieve racial integration.

Kennedy, of course, would never have dreamed of putting his own children into the majority black Washington DC public school system. Instead he sent Edward Jr. to St. Albans, and Patrick to Phillips Academy Andover.

Kennedy has long been a strong proponent of alternative sources of energy, including wind power.

Yet when it was determined that one of the best spots for wind turbines in Massachusetts would be offshore Cape Cod, Kennedy used his influence to nix the project, saying it would ruin his view from the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport. (Can you spell NIMBY?)

Kennedy has long presented himself as a champion of women's rights, including the right to abortion. Yet as recently as 1971, Kennedy was against abortion. And his support for a woman's right not to be raped seemed to falter when he testified for the defense in the trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith, accused of raping Patricia Bowman in 1991. (Three other women were willing to testify at the time that Smith had sexually assaulted them, but their testimony was excluded; in 2004, another woman brought similar charges against Smith; and in that same time period, Smith paid yet another woman a large sum of money in an out-of-court settlement to settle charges of unwanted sexual advances.) Certainly Smith's predilections are not Teddy Kennedy's fault; yet Kennedy's testimony demonstrates that his support for women's rights stops, once again, at his own doorstep.

In 2004, when it appeared that Senator Kerry from Massachusetts might win the Presidency, Senator Kennedy had the state law changed so that the Governor (then Mitt Romney, a Republican) no longer had the power to appoint the new Senator. Kennedy said that allowing a Governor such a power would be "undemocratic."

Yet during this past year Kennedy lobbied to give Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, the power to appoint his successor when he died.

Kennedy has long been a proponent of higher taxes on the rich. Yet he has moved his entire personal estate to a trust located in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, a country with no estate or death tax.

When Kennedy was diagnosed with his particular form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, he got the most expensive and extensive treatment available, at one point going to Duke Medical Center for a three and a half hour operation (as a Senator, he was entitled to free medical care at Walter Reed Hospital in DC). Had Kennedy had the kind of insurance that he and Obama are pushing on the American people, this type of end of life care would almost undoubtedly not have been available to him. Instead he would have gotten mandatory "end of life counseling," and probably would have been told that the national health organization didn't consider it worthwhile for someone of his age to have such an operation, and if he really wanted it, there would be a two year wait for it anyway. (Okay, so they're not "death panels" -- call them "death tribunals" instead.)

So while the entire mass media is toasting the Lion of Chappaquiddick, I mean the Senate, I would like to propose another toast, to the woman who gave her life to save America -- Mary Jo Kopechne.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Whose life would you rather have led?

It is human nature to be jealous: we envy others' various successes. But most of us rarely would want to actually be that other person. By and large, there are few people we would actually want to trade places with. After all, who knows what goes on in their minds, whether they are really happy, what they actually feel. And anyway, we always have hopes for a better life than the one we're currently leading, hope for future success, and so on.

Those whom we admire don't necessarily lead pleasant lives -- which may have something to do with why we admire them. You may admire Nelson Mandela, but would you really want to spend two decades of your life in a South African prison cell? Father Damien was heroic, but would you really want to spend your life ministering to lepers, only to catch the disease yourself? As glorious as Muhammad Ali's life was during his prime, would you really want to take that many punches to the face? (Look at the price he has paid over the past two and a half decades.) John F. Kennedy epitomized glamor and power, but would you really want your life cut short at 46? JFK Jr. sparked a fair amount of jealousy, but he never even reached 40.

But every now and then, we hear about someone who makes us think, gee, I wouldn't have minded leading that guy's life. (And as we get older and we become resigned to the fact that our lives have turned out more ordinary than we had originally anticipated, the list of people we'd trade with tends to expand.)

My short list:

Warren Beatty. I don't particularly admire him or his movies (other than Heaven Can Wait). And I certainly don't admire his politics, which are Hollywood limousine liberal all the way. But boy, what a life. Getting to star in movies, be rich, and most of all, that long, long list of incredible beauties he had affairs with.

Mick Jagger. He's been Jumpin' Jack Flash for the better part of five decades now. He's as rich as anyone could want, never became a rock drug casualty, and still seems to have his faculties and health. Forty-five years after he complained of not being able to get any satisfaction, he still has to guard against paternity suits. (A small price to pay for his lifestyle.)

Pablo Picasso. Considered by many to be the greatest artist of the 20th century, he lived until his nineties, and radiated animal vitality right till the end. Read a quick sketch of his life and it becomes quickly apparent that he wasn't particularly nice. Then again, he didn't have to be. Women came flocking because of his genius, and stayed for the same reason, no matter how he treated (or portrayed) them. He gave off the aura of a living god, if not a saint.

What inspired this post was thinking last week about the life that Usain Bolt must be leading now. We all have stressful events in our lives -- often a public performance of some sort. Usain's most stressful moments must come when he is performing onstage in front of the world, running at the world championships. But he seems loose and happy right up until the moment the gun goes off, then he is happy again right afterward -- ecstatic, in fact. (How traumatic for him that he actually has to concentrate for those ten or twenty seconds that the race lasts.) Some people are born with the dial on their personalities set at happy; Bolt seems to be one of them. I don't know what the future holds for him. But in the meantime he's healthy, handsome, rich, and probably has women lined up outside his door. I'd certainly trade my next four years for his.

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes, I am every bit as shallow and superficial as this post makes me sound.

Addendum, 8/26: I just asked my son whose life he would have wanted to lead, and he said either Genghis Khan or Richard Burton (the 19th century English explorer, not the 20th century Welsh actor). Far better choices than mine (I would probably have picked the 20th century actor).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mark Twain quotes

Mark Twain, famous as the author of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, is another writer whose sayings have become so common that we don't even realize they're his. His curmudgeonly personality is probably better illustrated by these lines then by his novels. A sampling from (italics mine):

A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.

A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

(So true; if someone consistently describes others as "lazy," you can be sure that he is the same way.)

A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.

A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

(Not quite true, but I wish it were.)

All generalizations are false, including this one.

Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.

Buy land, they're not making it anymore.

(How many realtors realize they're paraphrasing Twain?)

"Classic." A book which people praise and don't read.

Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.

(I'm afraid I've committed the realtors' sin there.)

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

(Does that statement have any relevance to today's politics?)

Don't let schooling interfere with your education.

Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.

(I've seen that on countless curio shop plaques, but never had any idea it was Twain who came up with it first.)

Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.

Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

(I've had to go a lot longer than that.)

I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.

There is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.

It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

(I've heard that so many times that I can't help but think, it is better to keep your mouth closed and have people think you a plagiarist than to open it, quote this expression, not give its provenance, and remove all doubt.)

It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.

(There are so many coaches who use this one I'd always figured one of them had originally come up with it.)

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

(Hmm, never heard that one from a coach.)

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.

Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.

(A useful expression for both political parties, in turn.)

Man is the only animal that blushes -- or needs to.

Man was made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.

My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately, everybody drinks water.

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.

Principles have no real force except when one is well fed.

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Such is the human race, often it seems a pity that....Noah didn't miss the boat.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

The lack of money is the root of all evil.

(The perceived lack, anyway.)

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

(I want to scream whenever I hear this, but it's not Twain's fault so many morons repeat it ad nauseum. And it's not even one of his better lines.)

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it's a sure sign you're getting old.

Oscar Wilde has the reputation as being the supreme coiner of epigrams, but Twain was better. (And Tolstoy better still.)

Tolstoy quotes

(Painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin)

If you, like me, are basically middle brow, you've probably heard a lot of expressions whose derivation you're not familiar with. A few years ago I had occasion to look up a quote from Tolstoy, and was surprised to see the number of expressions of his which I had heard somewhere, but hadn't realized were his. I was even more surprised to see the number of great lines I hadn't heard.

If you, like me, have neither the patience nor the time to wade through War and Peace in search of these lines, here is a sampling. (The italics are mine; I'll refrain from writing "how true!", even though that is my reaction to most of them):

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

(Losing weight and gaining money do not count.)

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.

The only thing we know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us.

(Certainly economic, if not physical.)

Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but is essential for right thinking.

War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves.

(My sense is that most of those who wage it have no conscience to stifle.)

He had heard that women often love plain ordinary men, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful mysterious exceptional women.

History would be an excellent thing if only it were true.

Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.

Boredom, the desire for desires.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.

A beautiful woman utters absurdities; we listen, and we hear not the absurdities but wise thoughts.

(God knows how many times I've been guilty of this; it seems to happens to me less these days, and I am the poorer for it.)

I have discovered nothing new, I have only perceived what I already knew.

The Christian churches and Christianity have nothing in common save in name: they are hostile opposites. The churches are arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity, death; Christianity is humility, penitence, submissiveness, progress, life.

Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.

(As illustrated by the movie Shallow Hal and by the perspective with which we view our bank accounts.)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(It is not Tolstoy's fault that this has become such a cliche among movie reviewers.)

Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.

Even in the valley of the shadow of death, two and two do not make six.

(It sure can seem that way, though.)

He never chooses an opinion; he just wears whatever happens to be in style.

(How many people do you know like this?)

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means -- except by getting off his back.

If you want to be happy, be.

(C'mon Leo, you know that's easier said than done.)

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.

(I do that all the time, which is why I never get any work done.)

There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.

A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.

(Myself, I only pretend -- for purposes of this blog -- to have a small denominator.)

I sometimes wonder if the greats like Tolstoy would have been as prolific as they were had they had an internet and video games to distract them.

In any case, it's good that we have superiors like Leo to fall back on when our own wells run dry.

Coming soon: Mark Twain.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Caster Semenya

(Below, Caster Semenya of South Africa; on right, Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia, circa 1983)

There's been a fair amount of publicity over the last few days about Caster Semenya, the South African who won the women's 800 meter run at the World Championships in Berlin. It seems there is some question as to whether she is genetically a woman; she is to be tested by the authorities to determine her real gender.

This is evidently a less simple question than one would think, and involves opinions from geneticists and endocrinologists as well as a visual inspection by regular doctors. I once heard that one in 10,000 babies is born hermaphroditic; such babies are usually operated on soon after birth to allow them to identify one way or the other.

It seems highly unfair that Semenya should have to undergo this very public humiliation. At the very least, they should have conducted the tests privately, without fanfare. After all, no one is accusing her of cheating. If she is deemed not to be a woman, it will merely be an accident of birth, not a purposeful attempt to gain an unfair advantage.

If you find a very masculine woman viscerally off-putting (as I usually do), you should remember that she can't help the way she was born any more than the rest of us can.

(If the above paragraph sounds both trite and smug, that's because it, uh, is.)

There have been plenty of very masculine women who've succeeded in athletics in the past, and none in recent history (at least at the Olympic or World Championship level) have been forced to undergo such a public trial. This isn't to even mention the women who have become much more masculine through steroid abuse.

Jarmila Kratochvilova, the world record holder in the at 800 meters with a 1:53.28 (Semenya won with a 1:55.45), made Semenya look like Thandie Newton. Kratochvilova at her peak in 1983 could bench press 200 pounds, an astonishing feat for a female middle distance runner. Yet while people at the time wondered whether she was on steroids, no one ever forced her to undergo a humiliating genetic exam. (Or if they did, it was done out of the public eye.)

Semenya should be afforded the same courtesy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Liberal infighting

Feminists are incensed about the latest campaign poster, shown above, from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

They say, predictably enough, that it demeans women. Jessica at Feministing described the billboard as "fat-shaming." Other feminists reacted similarly.

Tracy Reiman, a PETA spokesperson, said, "Trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach. PETA has a free 'Vegetarian Starter Kit' for people who want to lose pounds while eating as much as they like.

The billboard is certainly provocative, which is what an effective ad is supposed to be. But will it win over adherents? If I were a fat woman....I'm not sure how I'd react. By drawing attention to my obesity, it might give me slightly more motivation to slim down. But calling me a whale probably wouldn't endear PETA to me.

(Guys, on the other hand, seemed to find it funny. PETA's offices were evidently inundated with calls reporting beached whales after the billboard went up.)

PETA has always managed to draw attention to itself. The organization first gained fame when its members splashed paint on the fur coats of women in New York City.

It's hard to argue with their primary cause of preventing cruelty to animals. But it's easy to argue with their destruction of others' property. And with their tactics.

A few years ago PETA compared the farming of animals to the Holocaust. In their 2005 campaign, "Are animals the new slaves?" they juxtaposed pictures of chained animals with black slaves.

One PETA pamphlet titled "Your Daddy Kills Animals" showed a cartoon of a man cleaning a fish, and said, "Until your Daddy learns it's not fun to kill, keep your dogs and kitties away from him. He's so hooked on killing defenseless animals, they could be next."

Their most famous campaign involved naked women posing for pictures with titles like "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." The list of women includes Eva Mendes, Christy Turlington, Holly Madison, Khloe Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Dita von Teese, Alicia Silverstone, Charlotte Ross, and many others. These models always struck me as having an exhibitionistic streak. They who wanted to pose naked and PETA allowed them to do so not only without any hint of moral opprobrium, but with an air of actual moral superiority. A real twofer. (Several of the women also posed for Playboy.)

I guess the idea was to make vegetarianism seem sexy.

To me, it made vegetarianism seem vain and self-indulgent.

As far as winning fat women to their cause with their latest billboard, they might as well try to convert all the members of the canine and feline families to vegetarianism as well. They'd have about as much success.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Yesterday Usain Bolt broke his own world record in the 100 meter dash by an amazing eleven hundredths of a second, an astounding margin for the shortest Olympic event. It's been apparent since last summer in Beijing, when he started to pound his chest and showboat thirty meters from the finish and still ran a 9.69, that he had that kind of time in him. But to actually see it was still astonishing.

I have to wonder if some black people winced at his behavior before and after his races. He seems the personification of the old-timey stereotype of the happy go lucky black, an image many blacks have moved away from.

Bolt is constantly clowning around, even right before the start of his most important races. His most well known pose is that of an archer about to release an arrow. Yesterday he also covered his face with his hand and would then remove it to reveal a different expression each time. He playfully made himself up in the mirror of the camera lens, smoothing back his eyebrows and making sure his hair was in place. He made a gesture with his arm that seemed meant to evoke a plane taking off, as if that was what he was about to do. (The movements he made with his body after the starter's pistol went off came as close as any human being has ever come to actually approximating a jet.)

Bolt's playfulness in Beijing was a departure from the way most sprinters behaved previously. In the past most had felt obliged to play the role of badasses, posturing and flexing their muscles beforehand, game faces on all the way. But now that Bolt is the hottest thing in sprinting, the other sprinters have started to imitate him. The majority of finalists yesterday felt obliged to do some sort of mugging for the camera as their names were announced. The new version of cool seems to necessitate showing that you don't take the big event too seriously, and that you can even make a joke out of it.

When you spawn a host of imitators, you know you've really arrived.

About the only sprinter who didn't clown around beforehand was Tyson Gay, who looked as if he was about to jump out of his skin at any second. Gay had been touted beforehand as Bolt's biggest competition. He certainly didn't disgrace himself, becoming the second fastest performer in history with a 9.71.

After the race, Bolt was the picture of uninhibited joy. He ran fast for another 100 meters or so, then took two victory laps, hugging various people in the stands as well as a mascot on the field. At one point he ran into teammates Asafa Powell, the bronze medalist, and recruited him to show the latest dance steps from Jamaica.

Personally, I find Bolt very appealing. I love his lightheartedness and lack of pretension. I admire -- and envy -- his ability to stay relaxed at the biggest events. His joy after his victories certainly seems spontaneous and genuine, in contrast to the obviously scripted celebrations of other athletes I've seen. I'm not sure I've ever seen another person express such pure, unalloyed happiness after a race. (By contrast, Michael Phelps often seems to have an angry, aggressive demeanor after his races. Many Americans seem to be imbued with that "We're Number One!" mentality, which can come across harsh and gloating, especially to the rest of the world.) The closest I've ever seen Bolt come to fist-pumping was in the 100 in Beijing, when he started pounding his chest 30 meters before the finish. (But even that was at least spontaneous; there's no way his coach would have ever countenanced a mid-race victory celebration.)

I even think Bolt is clean (not on steroids.)

I only wish I could enjoy life that much.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Augusto's immediate future

There's nothing that fascinates people more than interracial conflict, unless it's the story of a crime victim who fights back -- successfully. Bernhard Goetz is still a household name twenty years later; Charles Augusto Jr. may be on his way to becoming one.

The NY Post, the Daily News, and even the Times had stories this morning about Augusto, the white shop owner who shot the four thugs who tried to rob his store in Harlem yesterday, killing two of them. The four men, two of whom had criminal records, entered his restaurant supply store brandishing a 9mm gun and demanded money. When Augusto told them he had none and asked them to just leave, they started pistol whipping his employee of 19 years, J.B. (who also happens to be black.) At that point Augusto pulled out his shotgun and fired three times.

Augusto later said, "I would have been happy if they'd all run out the door. I'm sick to my stomach over it....I'm sad I couldn't talk him out of it. I'm sad there's fathers and mothers with no sons today.....I don't feel like a hero. I would have felt like a hero if I could have talked that kid into going home."

(Spoken like a true hero.)

All of this has been covered at length in the newspapers.

Augusto will probably be somewhat surprised to find how he's treated in the near future.

He'll find that the media attention will wane, but not as quickly as he expects.

His business will pick up, as restaurant owners want to meet -- and reward -- the man who made a stand.

Police officers will stop by from time to time, just to check up on him, and when they do, they'll emit very positive vibes.

Local Harlem residents sick of crime will stop by to tell him he's a good man.

His two longtime employees, J.B. and his bookkeeper Dorothy Gates (who had the gun also pointed at her), will probably be extra solicitous of their 72 year old boss.

He'll find that old acquaintances will make an effort to get back in touch, and when they do they'll treat him like a hero.

All of which may cause Augusto to reevaluate his status.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Moral vanity as a political position

There was a clip of Brad Pitt on Yahoo this morning. He was being interviewed in New Orleans, where he has been helping rebuild the Ninth Ward. The interviewer asked about the t-shirts that have been appearing which say "Brad Pitt for Mayor" (of New Orleans). Pitt replied, "I'm running on the gay marriage, no religion, legalization and taxation of marijuana platform. I don't have a chance."

He was being somewhat facetious, but at the same time he seemed to be just brimming with pride. "I don't have a chance," he said, looking very pleased with himself, as if it took courage to state views so out of sync with the rest of Hollywood.

Yes Brad, you are that rare, bold iconoclast who's willing to stand up against the conservative Hollywood establishment and state your uniquely liberal views.

It never fails to amaze me how people will take credit for moral courage for spouting conventional views. The only thing it would take courage for a Hollywood celebrity to do would be to point out the vacuousness and moral vanity of all the movie stars who congratulate themselves on their liberalism. Their political stances almost always seem to be based on a vague sense of political correctness and what they think will make them look good, rather than a reasoned analysis of the history, social ramifications, and the costs and benefits of any particular issue.

The most courageous politico on the scene today is probably Clarence Thomas, who has earned the undying enmity of the vast majority of black Americans by daring to break away from their narrow self-interest and near-monolithic political stances. Thomas is against affirmative action, for the death penalty, and has generally sided with the police and against defendants in cases involving unreasonable search and seizure issues. For this he has been called an Uncle Tom and a traitor, and is widely reviled by black people. Yet in the face of all that he continues to stand up for his principles.

Regardless of whether you agree with his stances, you have to admit that he shows real courage, unlike Brad Pitt and his ilk.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

False rape accusations

This morning's NY Post carried an article about a woman named Biurny Gonzalez who confessed to her priest that she had falsely accused a man, William McCaffrey, of rape. McCaffrey was convicted based on her testimony and has now served four years of a twenty year sentence.

Gonzalez concocted the story of the rape so that her friends -- who'd been left without a ride when she drove off with McCaffrey -- wouldn't be too angry with her. Her friends had in fact attacked her when she returned that evening, and a friend of hers, Aurora Pujols, says now that she probably bit her. Those bite marks had been shown by Gonzalez to the nurses the next morning as proof of her rape by McCaffrey. The nurses found no other physical evidence of rape, but McCaffrey was convicted anyway.

When a woman falsely accuses a man of rape, she is trying to get him sent away for a long period of time. Justice would only be rendered by her serving a prison term of equal length.

After Crystal Mangum falsely accused the Duke lacrosse players of rape (a DNA swab revealed that she had the sperm of three different men inside her, but none of them were Duke lacrosse players), she walked away scot free. No charges were ever brought against her. Where was the justice there?

The Tawana Brawley case, by the way, was entirely different from Mangum's in this regard. The 15 year old Brawley said she was raped by six white men, but never identified any of them. It became clear later on that she had concocted the rape story in order to escape punishment from her stepfather, whom she was terrified of. She told her lies out of fear, not out of spite. So her punishment should have been whatever is appropriate for a 15 year old who commits perjury and wastes the time of law enforcement officers -- not for someone who tries to get someone else falsely imprisoned. And there is a huge difference between someone who is merely trying to escape punishment from a brutal stepfather and someone whose goal is to completely ruin someone else's life. (It wasn't Brawley's fault that her case snowballed into a national scandal because Mssrs. Jackson and Sharpton thought they could milk some publicity from it.) The only person who leveled an accusation against a specific individual in this case was Al Sharpton, who had the gall to actually claim that one of the rapists was Stephen Pagones, the Dutchess County District Attorney. (To this day Sharpton has neither withdrawn the accusation nor apologized for it.)

In a case like Gonzalez's, who at least had the decency to recant after McCaffrey had served four years, she should only have to serve four years, not the twenty that he was sentenced to (though he hasn't been freed yet).

Any law which mandated that a false accuser would have to serve an equivalent term would certainly discourage guilty accusers of coming clean, which means that in a case like McCaffrey's the innocent man would have even less hope of release. That's obviously not good. But at least in cases where an accuser is proven to be lying, and the man is not convicted, there ought to be a penalty which approximates the sentence the man would have gotten.

If a woman perjures herself to falsely land a man in jail for, say, ten years, that's the penalty she should get. It's only fair.

Of course, one problem with rape trials is that the evidence is not always clear cut. When a stranger jumps out of the bushes and holds a knife to a woman's throat, there is no question about the crime which has been committed. But date rape-type cases often degenerate into he-said-she-said, was-it-consensual-or-not issues, which by their nature tend to be gray areas.

Still, an obvious false accusation -- as with Gonzalez, or Crystal Mangum -- should have serious consequences.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not sure this one will interest even swimming fans

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Questions for Hillary Clinton at future press conferences

Most of the major news services this morning carried the story of how Hillary Clinton exploded in anger when an African student asked her what "Mr. Clinton" thought of a Chinese loan offer to the Congolese government. (The translator's exact words were, "What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton?")

Hillary's brittle personality was on full display.

"My husband is not Secretary of State, I am!" she responded. "If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband!"

(Note to Hillary: next time calmly respond, with a smile and a wink, "I haven't asked my husband about that yet, but when I do, I'll be sure to get back to you. In the meantime, believe it or not, I'm actually the Secretary of State, and what I think is..." You'd be surprised how many people you can win over that way.)

It's doubtful that Hillary could actually pull that off; she's lacking the gene for self-deprecation and charm the way an albino lacks the gene for melanin.

ABC News later said that the translator had made a mistake and that the student's actual question was about what President Obama thought of the issue. But no matter. Hillary had already flown off the handle.

Because this is so much fun to watch, I'd like to suggest some questions for Hillary at future press conferences:

"What will you be making your husband for dinner tonight?"

"Exactly how far do you think you would have gotten in politics on your own if you hadn't been married to the President of the United States?"

"Because you were on State Department business in Africa, you missed your husband's 63rd birthday party, held in Las Vegas -- you know, the place where what happens there stays there? How much do you think he missed you?"

"The entire time you were in Africa you never once mentioned the abhorrent practice of clitoridectomy which many African families perform on their young daughters. Doesn't that indicate a sort of tacit approval?"

"During the Presidential campaign Barack Obama grudgingly described you as "likable enough." Do you think this is a fair characterization, and if not, why not?"

"How angry are you still that this young usurper, Barack Obama, came along to take your rightful place as President?"

"Given that you and your husband are both on the road so much, how do you manage to keep the romance alive in your marriage? Are there any special things you do for Bill in bed?"

"When you're doing Bill's laundry, how do you get rid of those really tough stains? You know, like the one found on Monica Lewinsky's dress?"

It would be preferable for these questions to be asked in Third World countries. Since it is politically correct to realize that those countries have not yet reached the stage of political correctness, Hillary will be forced to swallow some of her anger. This will make her ultimate explosion all the more entertaining.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Southern California prisons on lockdown

A riot resulting from tensions between black and Hispanic inmates at the Men's Correctional Facility in Chino has resulted in all ten prisons in southern California being put on lockdown to prevent further outbreaks of violence. (I'm not sure how the prisoners from the different facilities communicate with each other so well as to be able to coordinate their riots.)

According to the NY Times, during the 11 hour riot, "prisoners smashed windows, tore down gates, and used whatever they could to battle one another." Damage to the facility was extensive, and 250 inmates were injured.

Friction between blacks and Hispanics is growing outside the prisons, too. Whenever they live in the same neighborhood there are tensions. Mass fights have even broken out in various public schools.

But it is in prisons that such conflicts are at their most lethal. Check out one of those A&E or History Channel documentaries on prisons sometime. They're fascinating. Life in a maximum security prison is at its rawest and most elemental. It's pretty much a vision of hell on earth.

The gangs in prison break down strictly along racial lines, as do loyalties.

Is this a vision of life after society collapses? I can understand why Charlie Manson, who had spent over half his life in prisons -- or juvenile detention facilities -- before he committed murders, saw a race war coming. Any large prison population is waging an ongoing race war which the guards try to keep under control.

Outside prison, black and Hispanic gangs often dominate poorer neighborhoods. White street gangs are less common. (You never hear of Aryan Brotherhood types terrorizing suburbia, or even a trailer park.) Inside, whites must join the AB, or the Nazi Low Riders, or any number of other white gangs, for protection, often to keep from being raped. Prisoners automatically regard prisoners of other races with suspicion; there is never any doubt about who the enemy is.

Inmates cannot afford the luxury of political correctness.

Charlie Manson himself has been receiving a fair amount of publicity lately because it's the fortieth anniversary of those infamous murders. He's certainly more famous than most prisoners, but his sociopathy is typical. His mother, an alcoholic, once tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. (Think he had a strong bond with her?) He committed his first (homosexual) rape at age eleven. And while he had his followers drop LSD, Manson himself never took it, since he viewed the drug as a way of keeping his acolytes more pliable. His attitude towards others is common among many of the inmates, a large percentage of whom are sociopaths.

Seeing the inmates on these documentaries often makes me wonder, have I ever walked by a guy like that on the street but not realized it? That thought almost inevitably leads to another: thank God for prisons.

Another thing these documentaries show is how clever and resourceful the inmates are at communicating with each other, smuggling contraband, and creating weapons. Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising, given that they have nothing to do there but think about ways to circumvent the system. Schooling or not, there is a definite intelligence at work there.

Put a bunch of inmates from a maximum security prison on one desert island, and a group of sociology professors on a similar island, and my money would be on the inmates to survive longer. (Put them on the same island, and the contest would be over in very short order.)

I've seen prison movies as well as documentaries. The movies which come to mind starred Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Steve McQueen, and Tim Robbins. These movies usually feature a noble (white) hero who must battle an evil warden with the help of his friends inside, some of whom are black. Oh, and he might have to (successfully) fight off as one or two bad inmates as well, though they are usually merely stooges of the evil warden.

Ah, the gritty world of incarceration as presented by Hollywood.

First, in a real prison all of those guys would have been someone's bitch. Well, maybe not Eastwood. (I'm not looking down my nose at anyone here; in that situation I would most definitely be someone's bitch myself.) Second, none of those white protagonists would have had black friends inside. No matter what their intentions, had they extended the hand of friendship across racial lines, they would probably have found that what they ended up extending was the ass of friendship. After which they would probably have been stuck with a shiv by the Aryan Brotherhood for their racial disloyalty. I have no doubt that some wardens are evil, but most of the guards and wardens interviewed on the documentaries just come across like normal cops.

And all of those heroes in the movies are inevitably involved in exposing some large-scale corruption. But the first -- and really only -- order of business inside any medium or maximum security prison is simply survival.

If you ever have the urge to commit violence, just watch one of those documentaries first. It'll dissuade you.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Obama -- A man who repays his debts

Say what you will about Barack Obama, the man doesn't forget a political favor.

The autoworkers' unions endorsed him in '08, and have been reaping the benefits ever since.

When Chrysler went bankrupt, Obama handed the company over to the unions, who had previously had no ownership stake, in a unique arrangement which flouted all heretofore observed bankruptcy procedures. The bondholders, who should have become the legal owners of the company, were left with almost nothing.

Ditto for GM.

Obama even wants to get rid of the secret ballot, whereby workers can cast their ballots regarding whether to unionize in private. Obama wants to make all union votes public, exposing the workers to all manner of intimidation, from both unions and employers. (That the unions want to get rid of the secret ballot and management does not tells you which side intends to do the intimidating.)

The cash for clunkers program is yet another payoff to the UAW. Why not cash for old washing machines, or old ovens, or air conditioners? (Hint: the UAW does not manufacture those.)

Has there ever been an endorsement which has paid off more handsomely?

Well, maybe. Goldman Sachs was the largest contributor to Obama's campaign, with $994,000, a tad less than a million. But those employees who gave have been paid back in billions, not only by the bailouts, but by the administration's toothless proposals to cap executive pay, and by their overall hands off attitude towards Wall Street, a stance which has been shaped in part by Goldman puppet Timothy Geithner.

During the next campaign I'm going to donate as much money as I can possibly afford to the Obama campaign, and give him my official endorsement to boot. It's an investment that should pay off handsomely.

The most famous guy I ever met

This is, I promise, the last of the "ever met" series. For those of you who've been complaining to me about their length, I offer this small hook: this one puts me in a bad light.

There are different degrees of fame. There is the Oh-yeah-I-remember-him type of fame that someone who, say, is a one-hit wonder gets to have. (The one hit can be in a field other than music.) This is the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol once so famously promised us all.

Then there is the star-in-his-field kind of fame. Sportswriter John Feinstein, for instance, enjoys this sort of renown. He’s written bestselling books, and has appeared regularly on television. If you don’t follow the sports he covers, you wouldn’t know him. Yet he’s well known enough that people who are fans or who have read his books get slightly goofy when meeting him for the first time.

Then there are the stars who transcend their field. You needn’t be a cycling fan to know who Lance Armstrong is. Wherever he goes, he’s treated with adulation, and the press reports on the minor circumstances of his life simply because they know people will be interested. Stars of this magnitude tend to carry themselves a little differently.

Finally, there is the Beatles-at-their-peak sort of fame. This is when bodyguards become necessary, and people tend to lose their minds a little around them.

There are many ways to become famous. Athletes, politicians, heroes, and antiheroes all have their moment in the spotlight (though they generally don’t complain as much). Some are famous through accident of birth, such as royalty. Presidential offspring – temporary royalty – also tend to get a lot of attention.

The case can be made that no child in history was ever more famous than young John F. Kennedy Jr. He slid from his mother’s womb right into the goldfish bowl, and he never escaped. Photographers were invited into the White House to photograph the President and First Lady playing with their children, and consequently the American public felt a strong connection to the telegenic family. John’s fame was not quite Beatles level, but it was close. To put it unkindly, his was a Paris Hilton sort of fame, the oft-cited “famous for being famous” type of celebrity. It wasn’t admiration, because he hadn’t really accomplished anything of note. At the same time, the public view of him was colored by an element of affection, because we had grown up with him, and he with us.

By comparison, all the First Offspring since have seemed mere pretenders. (When was the last time you heard of Lynda Byrd Robb, Tricia Nixon, Susan Ford, or Amy Carter?) Of course, not only were all the others already born by the time their fathers occupied the Oval Office, most were well past the age of cuteness. None of their families have ever been described as America’s royal family, not even the Bushes, who, strictly speaking, have more of a dynasty going. None had the advantage of having the most glamorous couple of the twentieth century as their parents. And none of the succeeding Presidents captured the public’s sympathy by dying so young and dramatically.

And just as importantly from the public point of view, none of the other offspring were as good-looking as John Kennedy Jr. So, young John grew up to become America’s crown prince.

Whenever I would read about John in the press, my main feelings were usually envy and resentment: why should he get so much attention? Why should he get all those good-looking girls? I never thought he was that handsome, yet people talked about him as if he was just down from Mount Olympus. My feelings were somewhat leavened by a twinge of sympathy whenever I read about his reputation for slowness. (Has anybody ever failed in more public fashion than when the NY Post put “The Hunk Flunks” on its front page after he failed his bar exam?) But the primary feeling was still jealousy. I suspect most guys of our approximate vintage reacted the same way.

The vast majority of us have roughly the same reaction to hearing of some movie star complain about the price of fame: “This is what you wanted through all those years of casting calls, so don’t complain. And being a highly paid movie star depends on public recognition, so you can’t have it both ways. Anyway, you seem like the type who’d actually be upset if people didn’t recognize you.”

Mixed in with this disgust is an undeniable envy. Who among us wouldn’t like to work only a few months a year for millions, have the press take our simple-minded opinions seriously, enjoy our pick of sexual partners, and have people treat us as if we’re demigods? The difference with John, of course, was that he never asked for his fame.

Perhaps the best way to sum up John’s fame would be to say that even other famous people always seemed thrilled to meet him. President Clinton, who positively glowed at the mention that he “evoked” JFK, once hosted Jackie and John and Caroline at the White House, and was obviously thrilled to meet the family. Princess Diana, in New York once, asked to meet him and entertained him in her hotel room. And so on.

I was vaguely aware that John had been kept separate from his cousins, and that Jackie had not allowed him to become the degenerate that many of them had. John seemed instead to have become a bit of a narcissist (in the superficial, not psychological sense of the term), constantly exercising and showing off his body. But that may have been because his body was one of the few areas where he compared favorably on his own merits, rather than merely being given a pass because of his lineage.

I noticed that John was a bit of a public Rorschach test. A trader who worked with me was insecure about his intelligence. One afternoon he gleefully said that he had seen JFK Jr. at a Knicks game the previous evening, that he had come in wearing a baseball cap backwards on his head, that he hadn’t known where his seat was, and that he looked clueless.

A gay guy once told me that he thought JFK Jr. was gay.

A woman who worked in the Manhattan DA’s office at the time John worked there once told me, “Well, first of all, he’s really a hunk. I mean, he’s really handsome. But he’s also really dumb. One time he had to ask where [a certain reference book] was; that’s one of the most basic books you need if you’re going to work in a DA’s office. And he didn’t even know where it was!” It occurred to me that she only said how handsome he was to show she had nothing against him, so that she wouldn’t look biased when she took delight in talking about how dumb he was.

When I started work on Wall Street in 1984, I joined the Downtown Athletic Club to have a place to swim. John Kennedy joined soon after he started working in the Manhattan DA’s office in the late Eighties, and I would see him in the weight room and the pool. People were always aware that he was there, but nobody ever approached him, and he went his own way. One thing I noticed about John was that whenever he would be in a public place like the weight room, he would never look at other people. He always kept his eyes focused on the weights or the floor or out the window.

So I was quite surprised when I was finishing up my workout in the pool one evening and he asked, “What are those things?” I explained that he was referring to Zoomers, a type of foreshortened fin designed to allow a swimmer to practice at competition speed, and also to condition his legs. I asked if he wanted to borrow them and he quickly said, “Oh no,” but when I said I was about to take a shower and could collect them afterward, he said sure. When I came back ten minutes later, he said, “I see what you mean about the legs. They really are great exercise.”

I went home, told my wife about the conversation, and didn’t think much more of it until about three weeks later, when I heard someone saying, “Hey! I was hoping I was going to run into you!” in an extremely friendly voice. I looked up and saw John pulling up on his bicycle. I couldn’t quite believe that he was being that friendly. In fact, he was so friendly that for one crazy moment I thought he might actually have been gay, despite his public reputation. But unlike the usual disgust and unease I felt if I thought a homosexual was coming on to me, I felt nothing but flattered. At the same time, because there was that sliver of doubt in the back of my head, I was somewhat reserved, which in retrospect was the right way to play it.

I gave John a phone number where he could buy some Zoomers, and saw him sporadically around the DAC after that. Sometimes I ran into him in the pool, and we would do a set together. He was always polite and friendly, but the thought that he might be gay vanished almost immediately.

One time he told me, “I like the DAC. People are cool there, they’ll leave you alone.” By “you” of course he meant himself. But it didn’t seem to me that the people at the DAC were all that cool.

If I were talking to John, people who knew me would just walk up and stand there. I knew I had no choice but to introduce them: if I hadn’t, each of these people would never have forgiven me for not having given them their one chance to meet him. So I would go ahead and impose on John by introducing them. He would dutifully extend his hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” But somehow none of them ever seemed able to keep their heads around him. Whoever got introduced would continue to just stand there with a foolish expression; they inevitably had nothing to say. John would then excuse himself politely and go on with his workout.

One time I happened to introduce him to a partner at my firm (I was a lowly vice president). The partner, who almost never phoned me, phoned me twice the next day, neither time for any pressing reason. I knew that he wanted to talk about John, but wanted me to bring the subject up. Or perhaps he had told his wife about meeting him, and his wife now wanted an introduction. (I didn’t like him, so I didn’t give him the satisfaction.)

Another effect John had was that whenever he was around, people – while pretending not to notice him -- would act much more jovial, and would also laugh a little louder. But it was a hard, forced jollity, and it always seemed obvious that they were doing it for his benefit, to get his attention and show what happy, happening people they were.

This must have been irksome for John in a vague, subtle sort of way, but there were also much more awkward incidents for him to put up with. Another trader on my desk once said that he knew somebody who knew John in college, and that a group of students were talking politics with him one day, and the subject turned to Jimmy Carter. One of the guys blurted out, “I really hate that guy – I’d like to shoot him!”

In any case, John sent everybody’s radar screen onto high alert. My wife said that whenever John was in the DAC the women’s locker room would be atwitter with talk about him, and the women always seemed to track his movements.

I once told a woman who swam at the DAC that I had pointed her out to John and commented on her nice-looking legs, whereupon he agreed. The woman beamed and gushed, “Thanks for telling me that.” I could tell I had made her day.

One evening I worked out with him, then swam again the next day. I was doing a kickboard set with my wife, when I heard someone yell, “Two days in a row? You’re an animal!” I looked up to the pool balcony see who was yelling, but my goggles were fogged and I couldn’t see who it was, so didn’t respond. My wife told me who it was a few seconds later, but by then John had already disappeared. When I said hi later, he was a little unfriendly, and I realized that he must have thought I was snubbing him in order to somehow gain status with my wife. I wondered how often people used him this way.

Nobody ever acted normal around him. I tried to fake it. I think I succeeded, because I was told by several people that I was the only guy at the DAC he was friendly to. But it was just an act. I was never anything less than screamingly conscious of whom I was speaking to whenever I was with him. Whenever I spoke to him, internal sirens were always wailing, “JFK Jr.! JFK Jr.!”

I tried to treat him as I would have anyone else. One time when I hadn’t worked out with him for a while, I bumped into him at the DAC and gruffly asked, “Hey, when are you going to grow a pair of balls and start doing sets with me again?” He seemed to like that.

Another time I mentioned to him that I had seen him on TV the night before (on a boring public access cable show about New York City). He asked what I had thought of it, and I replied, “It wasn’t my type of show, but you were good.” I was purposely lukewarm, just because I knew that most people would have fawned all over him and lied, telling him how great the show was. (My response wasn’t dishonest, but it was calculated.)

Had I ever said exactly what was really on my mind, it would have come out something like, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to John-John! Hey, so what’s Jackie really like? Oh, and did you really make it with Madonna?”

I’ve always despised name-droppers (it's a very poor substitute for accomplishing something on your own). But I felt that same urge. I would mention to friends that I had met him, and then feel embarrassed that I had done so, even though they would always be curious to hear about him. My connection to the crown prince almost seemed to give me a bump in status. Of course it didn’t, but somehow it felt as if it did.

Many of these friends would subsequently start off their conversations with, “So, have you seen JFK Jr. recently?” (Though they were theoretically my friends, they were far more interested in hearing about him.)

I remembered once reading that Jackie Onassis had once said that one of the worst things about being her was that people would start to act very precious when they were around her. I even felt that tug once or twice around John. (I resisted.)

I remember one time he told me that he had looked for my house in the Hamptons one weekend, but couldn’t find it. Another time he told me he had phoned me at work, but been hung up on (which happens all the time on trading desks). Both times it had made me feel good, in a way that was far beyond what I would have felt with anyone else. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

One evening I was chatting with Dave, the guy who had called JFK clueless, in the weight room at the DAC, and John walked up. He started talking with me; the conversation lasted for about five minutes. The next morning Dave announced to our trading desk, “Hey, did you guys know that John is good friends with JFK Jr.?! Those guys are like that!” and he held up two fingers together to indicate closeness. I immediately made clear we weren’t close, but everybody expressed amazement and asked why I had never mentioned this. I have to admit, I basked in my moment of reflected glory. Here I was, someone whom John was friendly to because I treated him “normally”, and I was exulting in my connection to him in a way that would undoubtedly have disgusted him.

After Dave announced to my coworkers that I was friends with John, one of them looked at me appraisingly, and said, “I guess you’re the kind of guy he’d like, because you wouldn’t be that impressed by who he is. (Though I’d like to accept the compliment, it wasn’t true -- in the least.)

One time I phoned his number to let him know that he had forgotten his Zoomers at the pool and that I had them. When I saw him at the pool a few days later, I mentioned that I had left that message, which he said he never received. He laughed and said, “They probably thought you were crazy.” His office undoubtedly got all sorts of crank calls for him, and had gotten into the habit of shielding him from them.

We all want what we can’t have; that’s human nature. It’s why expressions like “the grass is always greener” and “forbidden fruit” ring true. The one thing John could never have was to be treated normally. This was actually something he craved, but it would forever be out of his reach.

John seemed to have two ways of speaking; one was with a very upper class, cultured voice. The other was one I can only describe as a “stoner” voice. He seemed to affect it at times in an effort to appear normal. For as badly as he wanted to be treated like everyone else, he wanted to appear normal as well.

One time, speaking about his summer plans, he said something about intending to be “lying on a beach with a beer in my hand.” It seemed an attempt to appear a regular guy, something he would obviously never be able to convince anyone he was.

The burden of expectations on John must have really been crushing. This may have been part of the reason he didn’t want to give up his youth. When he was still working at the DA’s office, he would trudge to the DAC wearing a backpack, looking for all the world like a college – or even high school – student. (It is perhaps a tribute to the country we live in that its crown prince could walk around unescorted, unprotected, safe in the fiction that he is just another citizen like the rest of us. Princes in other countries don’t get such freedom.)

John continued to roller blade and ride his bicycle long past the age when most do so. And he never made an effort to dress up. It was as if he was putting adulthood – and the expectations that followed – off for as long as he could. (Of course, he also knew from experience that people were going to treat him a certain way no matter how he dressed.) Even when he started his magazine and seemed to come into his own a bit, it still seemed as if that were a way of entering the political arena everyone expected him to participate in with only one foot.

He certainly came across as quite intelligent when you chatted with him. After getting to know him a little, it occurred to me that his initial failure to pass the bar exam was simply another expression of reluctance to go down the path everyone else seemed to have chosen for him.

My feelings of envy never entirely disappeared, but they were leavened with sympathy after seeing that wherever he went, whatever he did, he would never be able to escape the sort of reaction he got at the DAC, if not worse. One time he went to Europe on vacation (I knew this from the headlines) and came back with a beard. I actually didn’t recognize him at first, so asked, “Does your beard allow you to travel incognito?” He replied, “Yeah, sort of – well, not really.”

This was why he took many of his vacations in out of the way places, such as a kayaking trip to Newfoundland – there would be nobody there to bother him. I became less envious of all the exotic vacations he had taken.

I also understood why he had grown so attached to his dog. The dog acted towards him like it would have towards any person, and – unlike me – actually felt that way, too.

It used to be said that people would always remember where they were when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Most of us will probably also remember where we were when we first heard that John’s plane was missing. I was surprised how sad I ended up feeling, and also surprised at why.

I felt sad the way the rest of the country felt sad – because John-John, the little boy we had grown up with, was dead, and who among us could ever forget the image of him saluting his father’s coffin? I think I felt sadder about that that than I did at losing a personal acquaintance (I couldn’t honestly say we’d ever been friends – only friendly acquaintances). Yet here I was, theoretically a quasi-friend, mourning his death more in terms of what he represented than as someone I knew. When it came to John, I could never get past who he was, to who he was. I suspect just about everyone else he ever knew had the same problem. Other than the fact that it was cut short, this may have been what was saddest about his life.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Goldmine Sachs

During the 1980's and 1990's, Goldman Sachs used to get wonderful publicity. Journalists would inevitably laud the firm's stated ethos of teamwork and their supposed lack of a star system. Goldman's oft-stated philosophy of putting their clients first was repeated by gullible journalists as if the investment bankers who populated the company had had a hard time deciding whether to go to Wall Street or join the Peace Corps. Their dictum of being "long term greedy" referred to their philosophy of making money in the long run by cultivating trust and good relationships; this would be regurgitated as scripture as well. And the steady stream of Goldman alumni who ended up in positions of power in various administrations were spoken of as if they were motivated purely by public spirit and not by ego.

Having worked at Goldman from 1984 to 1996, I can attest that this spin was misleading. Stars did exist, and most everybody wanted to be one, but the people most successful at becoming one were almost always the most sociopathic, or at the very least, narcissistic personalities. (Not that this made the firm any different from any other large corporation.) Clients (the firms and municipalities they gave investment banking advice to) and customers (the funds to whom they sold their products) were viewed with all the compassion that con men show their marks. And I've never met a greedier group of people -- either short term or long term.

But the journalists who covered them always swallowed the company line whole.

No more.

Ever since the bailout last year, journalists have turned a much more jaundiced eye on the firm. This reflects the public's mood. Did Goldman really deserve a full payout from AIG after the government bailed out the failing insurer? Why are all these traders and bankers getting million dollar bonuses when their firms would have gone bankrupt if not for the taxpayers? Why this cozy relationship between the federal government -- which is staffed by Goldman alum -- and Wall Street?

Matt Taibbi recently wrote an article for Rolling Stone Magazine in which he famously described Goldman as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jabbing its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

This is a far cry from the kind of (non-squid-generated) ink Goldman used to get back in the 80's.

In an effort to counter the negative perception, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein recently instructed his department heads to tell their traders and bankers to avoid conspicuous consumption, in hopes that it would stem some of the negative public feelings about the firm. Unfortunately for him, news of that internal memo got out and was widely publicized yesterday. (What's worse, having some emmployees buy fancy houses or cars -- which would probably only attract very local notice -- or having it publicized that the CEO wants them to spend their gazillion dollar bonuses a bit less ostentatiously quietly in a transparent attempt at good PR?)

Blankfein was probably not too thrillled about this morning's article on Page Six of the Post titled "Goldman Sachs Wives Hate to Wait":

"GOLDMAN Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein has warned his employees to avoid high-profile spending, as The Post reported -- but his wife evidently didn't get the memo.

Laura Blankfein and her friend Susan Friedman, wife of another Goldman honcho, Richard Friedman, caused a huge scene at Super Saturday in the Hamptons last weekend when they arrived at the event before the noon start time and balked at waiting in line with the other ticket-holders.

"Their behavior was obnoxious. They were screaming," said one witness. Blankfein said she wouldn't wait with "people who spend less money than me."

Another observer said the women were so impatient, it was as if they were waiting on line for a kidney transplant instead of a charitable designer clothing sale.

Friedman shouted at the event organizer, "You have lost so much money because of this . . . Why should we be treated like the $650 donors?"

Sources said Blankfein and Friedman had bought tables with blocks of tickets going for $833 apiece, as did many of the women who were waiting patiently in line, happy to raise $3.4 million for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

In the end, the hot-headed duo got in at 12:03 p.m., three minutes after those who arrived before them.

No word on how much of their husbands' money they spent. But Lloyd Blankfein -- wary of bad publicity over the big bonuses he and his colleagues expect to collect at year's end -- has called for an end to conspicuous consumption.

A Goldman Sachs executive was quoted in yesterday's front-page Post story, "[Blankfein] wants to make sure we're not being seen living high on the hog." A Goldman Sachs rep did not respond to requests for comment left at the offices of both Lloyd Blankfein and Richard Friedman."

I'd love to have been privy to the ensuing telephone conversations between Mr. and Mrs. B this morning.