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Wednesday, September 30, 2009


President Obama recently said, in reference to the fact that his health care proposal would force many seniors out of their Medicare Advantage plan, "These folks are going to be able to get Medicare that is just as good." 

This happens not to be true, but that is not the point of this post. The point is, Obama seems inordinately fond of the word "folks." He uses it at every opportunity. What a folksy guy! 

It actually shows what a consummate politician Obama is, because the word has all sorts of positive connotations. 

For starters, it's how people refer to their parents, as in "my folks." 

Then there's "just plain folks," to denote unpretentious people. "Ordinary folks" has the same connotations -- you know, salt of the earth types. 

Then there is the word "folklore," which implies a common history. Hitler was very fond of the word, by the way, and named the car he designed the "folk's wagon," or, as we know it, the Volkswagen. (I am not a liberal, so I am not trying to imply that Obama is another Hitler because of this very superficial commonality.) 

The expression "old folks" has a somewhat old-fashioned ring to it, as does "young folks," for that matter. It's an expression your grandmother would have used. (Your American grandmother, if not your Kenyan one, anyway.) It evokes the middle class, the heartland, a place where Obama once lived but doesn't seem to identify much with. (Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in the South Side of Chicago -- where I'm going to totally refashion my image.) 

People sometimes say "They're good folks," to ascribe a solid morality to whomever they're describing. It's not a phrase you associate with rich people. It's more....Auntie Em kind of folks. 

What Obama wants to imply by his constant invocation of the word is that he cares about these people. But repeat any word often enough and it starts to sound nonsensical: folks, folks, folks, folks, folks, folks, folks, folks....

At least that's the effect his repetitiousness is starting to have on me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Victoria Gotti

There's a fascinating series of excerpts from Victoria Gotti's new book, This Family of Mine: What It Was Like Growing Up Gotti, in the NY Post:

So far there have been sections on what happened when her younger brother Frank was killed by a car when he was riding his bicycle, and her marriage to mobster Carmine Agnello. What is fascinating about the excerpts is how everything is spun. The fellow who ran over her brother was a horrible guy who was only angry afterwards, not remorseful. (John Gotti later had him killed.) Her father -- whose main flaw seems to be that he is an overprotective dad -- didn't want her to marry Agnello, who turned out to be a louse. She had no idea Agnello was in the mob when she married him. (If she's not lying about this, she's either the stupidest woman in the world or the most willfully blind.)

This is the noise of a narcissistic personality. If you allow yourself to be pulled into Gotti's orbit, and swayed by her strong personality, it's possible to buy into some of it. Viewed from a certain angle, some of what she says is plausible, and justifiable. This was the essential conceit of The Godfather: if you paint the other guys a dark enough shade of evil, whatever you do in retaliation -- or self-defense -- won't seem all that bad.

But I've also seen the A&E series Growing Up Gotti. On the show Victoria was always complaining about something, and everything that went wrong was always someone else's fault. She made a big show of always being on the verge of losing her temper. She was manipulative, spiteful, self-indulgent, disloyal, and above all else, self-justifying. And she had that sure sign of narcissistic, or possibly sociopathic personality: she almost never smiled.

And that is the face she put on when the cameras were rolling.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The coolest guy in the room

About eight years ago. I was doing a fly set in the local YMCA pool. After I'd done a few repeats, a guy holding a baby in the shallow end asked about my swimming. He looked around thirtyish. I guessed from his build that he had probably been an ex-high school, possibly college football player. He was curious about masters swimming in general; I answered his questions patiently. I had just set my first world masters record several months before, a fact I managed to quickly work into the conversation. (In the first few heady months after setting that record this generally took me about the same amount of time it actually took me to swim that 200 meter fly, roughly two and a quarter minutes.)

I felt very much the grizzled veteran of the butterfly wars. He finally mentioned that he had done a little swimming himself.....when he was a Navy Seal. All of a sudden it was as if the entire pool had tilted the other way and all the water had gone to that end. I now felt like the little baby he was holding in his arms.

If you've been a Navy Seal, or a member of any of the other Special Forces, that pretty much automatically makes you the coolest guy in the room. It's the ultimate badge of macho accomplishment; it means you've done stuff other guys couldn't dream of doing.

A lot of guys know this, which is why some will lie and say they were in the Special Forces when they weren't. (I've met one or two guys I'm pretty sure were lying about it.) But I could tell immediately this guy was the real thing. He had an air of calm seriousness and a complete lack of bravado which made it clear he was telling the truth.

I've known other tough guys, and I've met many people far more accomplished than I am. But I don't think I've ever felt a pool tilt quite so suddenly before.

Wars should be fought by older men

Whenever you see photos of the young men killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, it's hard not to react by thinking, how tragic for these fine young men to be cut down at such a tender age.

Wouldn't it be less tragic if it were old men sacrificing their lives in these wars? After all, older men have fewer years in front of them anyway. How many parents of those killed in action haven't wished that they had been the ones taken instead?

When wars were fought with bows and arrows and swords and maces, physical speed and strength and endurance were key. (Back then, old fought beside young anyway.) When armies went on long marches, or even long horseback rides, and had to perform on minimal food and sleep, youth was a huge advantage.

Today war is more technology-based. You'll always need elite soldiers who are highly fit and can withstand hardship with the resilience of youth. But a fifty year old can drive a truck, or remotely control a drone, or operate a computer, or shoot a rifle from inside a vehicle, or serve as a cook, just as well as a twenty year old.

You sometimes hear people say that wars should be fought by old men because they're the ones who get us into wars. But the number of old men who actually make that decision is very small. (And it would be fine with me if those old men were conscripted.) The vast majority of oldsters have no more say than anyone else.

What is true is that an older guy is simply giving up less future.

So why not have wars staffed by, if not the elderly, at least the older? One potential problem is that older people might not take orders quite as well. And they might be less susceptible to the sort of mild brainwashing that the military sometimes uses (think the few, the proud, the Marines). But these are small tradeoffs given what's at stake.

We should raise the upper age limit for enlistees from 42 to 60. You wouldn't get all that many older enlistees, as older men lust for engagement and adventure less, and feel less need to prove themselves. But you would get some, especially with this recession. Deploy them overseas in positions which don't require the ability to march for twenty miles with a forty pound pack. Older men can't do that as well. But they can die better. Or at least less tragically.

What should the penalty be for a false rape accusation?

(At left, Jesus Ortiz, Kevin Taveras, Stalin Felipe, and Rondell Edwards; above, Danmell Ndonye)

When I first read about the September 13th "gang rape" of a Hofstra student, and saw the picture of the four young men accused (pictured above), my initial thought was, what a bunch of scumbags. My second thought, of course, was to idly wonder if the victim was black or white. (Please don't bother to tell me the same thought wouldn't have gone through your mind.) It also occurred to me that these guys did not particularly resemble the kind of men you often see in crime reports: they mostly had the look of soft, lighter-skinned, middle class blacks.

The story reported by the newspapers was that one of the men had taken the young woman's cell phone and not given it back, forcing her to follow him into a room where the four men had raped her. I just assumed this was what happened, and didn't give it any further thought.

A few days later the young woman's story unraveled after the police detected numerous inconsistencies, and a cellphone video surfaced which showed the entire incident to be consensual. The woman, Danmell Ndonye, then confessed to police that her story had been concocted in order to conceal from her boyfriend what had happened after a frat party. She evidently didn't want him to think her "easy."

Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice has now announced that Ndonye's punishment will be to undergo a yearlong mental health program and perform 250 hours of community service. In other words, some free counseling and 31 days of work, during which time she gets to live at home.

The young men whom she accused -- the real victims in this case -- were jailed for four days before the charges were dropped. Had they been convicted, they might have received ten or more years apiece.

Wouldn't justice require that she be subject to the same level of punishment she tried to have inflicted on them?

(An aside: what kind of parents name their child "Stalin"? Joseph Stalin was the worst mass murderer of all time.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Susan Atkins, RIP

Manson family member Susan Atkins died Thursday of brain cancer at the California Central Women's Facility in Chowchilla. She was 61. She had gotten a fair amount of publicity this past year, both because it was the fortieth anniversary of those infamous killings and because she had been up for compassionate early release due to her terminal illness.

The following account is an excerpt from the Linda Deutch AP account of her death:

"I was stoned, man, stoned on acid," Atkins testified during the trial's penalty phase.

"I don't know how many times I stabbed (Tate) and I don't know why I stabbed her," she said. "She kept begging and pleading and begging and pleading and I got sick of listening to it, so I stabbed her."

She said she felt "no guilt for what I've done. It was right then and I still believe it was right." Asked how it could be right to kill, she replied in a dreamy voice, "How can it not be right when it's done with love?"

(Ah, the Sixties. Turn on, tune in, drop out.)

While still in her teens, she ran away to San Francisco where she wound up dancing in a topless bar and using drugs. She moved into a commune in the Haight Ashbury district and it was there that she met Manson.

He gave her a cult name, Sadie Mae Glutz, and, when she became pregnant by a "family" member, he helped deliver the baby boy, naming it Zezozoze Zadfrack. His whereabouts are unknown.

(What are the odds that Zezozoze Zadfrack has had his name legally changed? And if you were him, would you want your whereabouts known?)

When actress Sharon Tate pleaded for her life, Atkins famously said, "I have no mercy for you, bitch. I don't care about you. I don't care if you're going to have a baby or not. You're going to die and I don't feel anything about it."

Tragically, Atkins never got her compassionate release.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Whatever happened to black music?

Music, as Tolstoy said, is the shorthand of emotion. Great music can transport you. It can make you feel sad, or romantic, or joyful, or nostalgic.

When I was a teenager, Motown music used to make me feel euphoric. Or it would fill me with an inchoate longing (okay, I was a turkey). Sometimes, the music would evoke both emotions at the same time.

There were many great black performers back then.

It's amazing how many great songs The Supremes had. (I'm having a hard time finishing this post because I got sidetracked by a Youtube Supremes thread, and it's hard to write while absorbed by music, which stimulates a different part of the brain.)

The Temptations were similarly prolific. The Four Tops, ditto.

Whenever I would hear The Jackson Five's ABC at a high school party, I would feel like getting up to dance (as I said, I was a turkey).

Jr. Walker and the All Stars produced lots of similarly great dancing music.

To this day, listening to Clarence Carter's Slip Away makes me want to screw up my face in an expression of sublime bliss and sway to the music (okay, so I'm still a turkey).

Otis Redding's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has pretty much the same effect. (People never look dumber than when they're moving to music, but that doesn't stop me.)

I just listened to a Sly and the Family Stone album yesterday, which sparked this post. My favorite Sly song, Hot Fun in the Summertime, still brings back that sense of inchoate longing. (It also now evokes a strong feeling of nostalgia for my youth, a time when I actually experienced very little of the "hot fun" Sly describes; my sense is that when one does have it, the inchoate longing disappears).

Watch a youtube video of Jackie Wilson singing Lonely Teardrops, his signature hit. He was the first of the great singer/dancers.

Sam and Dave's Soul Man was another song which just infuses your body with its rhythm. (A beat alone can't accomplish this, by the way; it must be accompanied by a tune.)

Tina Turner's River Deep Mountain High is one of the all time great rock and roll anthems, a piece which actually reaches the grandeur it aspires to.

Stevie Wonder was another incredibly prolific artist.

Marvin Gaye may have been the greatest of all. His music encompassed two completely different styles, both of which he was great at. I challenge you to listen to Got To Give It Up and not move to the music.

Today's black "music," rap and hip hop, are simply not music. Melody is the essence of music, and it's entirely missing from these genres. Neither high volume nor aggressive lyrics can disguise that fact.

Listening to Motown when I was younger always made me feel jubilant. Today, hearing rap "music" just makes me feel like turning off the radio.

Listening to Motown and looking at the album covers was part of what caused me to go through my own wow-black-people-are-cooler-than-white-people phase (which lasted for about six weeks when I was 14). These days, hearing rap blasting out of a nearby car makes me want to move to Vermont. Or maybe Iceland.

I don't think it's purely a function of my age. Listening to the old Motown tunes still fills me with admiration for the genius that went into them. And watching Youtube videos of the old performers brings back memories of how I used to admire their tightly syncopated moves. Watching a video of today's rap performers makes me wonder why anybody would ever pay to see that? Rappers are truly the modern artists of the music world: no talent, but lots of attitude.

A lot of people's main complaint about rap music is that the lyrics are misogynist and racist and promote violence. My take is, anyone who would let his attitudes be shaped by rap music is pretty much of a writeoff to begin with. But please, at least give me my offense melodically.

It sometimes happens that you get a tune stuck in your head, so it just endlessly loops around and drive you crazy. (That happens, just so you know, when the song is interrupted before finishing. If you want to exorcise the tune, play it again and let the song finish.) But that doesn't happen to me with today's music. And the reason is, today's songs have no hook. There is a beat, but no melody.

The same is true, to only a slightly lesser extent, with white music. Whites only perform rap in a very derivative way, but even with mainstream pop, the melodies just aren't as catchy. When was the last time you got a Taylor Swift tune stuck in your head? I can go into a gym these days, and if they're playing modern music, I can walk out halfway through a song and there's absolutely no chance the tune gets stuck in my brain.

Maybe I should be grateful.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Of all of ACORN's many transgressions.... of the most egregious is that their front line operatives were stupid enough to buy this guy's pimp act.

James O'Keefe, above, with co-undercover investigator Hannah Giles, looks more like Ichabod Crane. Or like a prep school bullying victim. He certainly wouldn't have stood a chance against those 13 year old Salvadoran girls he said he was going to turn out.

Granted, he wasn't dressed like that when he visited the ACORN offices with Hannah Giles. He borrowed his grandfather's old derby hat, threw on his mother's ratty old chinchilla, and carried a cane he bought at a dollar store. My, what a great disguise. (It has to rank right up there with Clark Kent's glasses.)

The good folks at ACORN also took Hannah for a prostitute.....well, that's more understandable. (She looks like Ashley Dupre's younger sister.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

New York's next governor?

(Above, Andrew Cuomo, New York State Attorney General; on left, Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, villain in The Godfather)

When President Obama's emissaries asked the unpopular Governor Paterson of New York last year not to run for reelection in 2010 "for the good of the Democratic party," what they meant, of course, was "for the good of Obama." Obama's strategists saw Andrew Cuomo as the best Democratic bet to beat Rudolph Giuliani in the next gubernatorial election. (Cuomo was the only one who consistently polled ahead of Giuliani, who has since disavowed any interest in running for Governor.) Since Giuliani was seen at the time as a potential Republican threat to the President in 2012, Obama's people wanted to stop him in his tracks. But ever since, Cuomo has been the presumptive Democratic nominee and front-runner.

On Saturday, Cuomo finally announced what everyone already knew, that he was running for Governor.

I actually think Cuomo has done an excellent job as Attorney General. Of course, it's easier to look good as AG than as Governor. Just ask Eliot Spitzer. As AG you get to satisfy the public by going after the obvious bad guys, a role which tends to make you look like you'd be right at home at the Round Table. As Governor, you have to, well, govern, a role which tends to make you look like just another politician. Giuliani went through much the same evolution. Giuliani was an excellent U.S. Attorney General, going after the Mafia and insider traders alike. He was an okay Mayor, and got far too much credit for simply being in office and not falling apart on 9/11. And he was a dismal failure in his most recent political incarnation as neocon Presidential candidate.

When Francis Ford Coppola was casting for the role of Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, the evil Mafioso in The Godfather, he looked for the greasiest, most menacing actor he could find. He settled on Al Lettieri, who played the role with a wonderful unctuousness. ("Michael," he purred with his oily baritone after shooting Don Corleone, "It was only business.")

Every time I see a picture of Andrew Cuomo, I'm struck by how much he resembles Lettieri-as-Sollozzo. Coincidentally, Cuomo's father, former NY governor Mario, an avowed liberal, was long rumored to have Mafia connections. I don't know if this is true. But I do know that Mario Cuomo was given a $50,000 campaign contribution by Anthony Scotto, a made member of the Gambino family, when he first ran for lieutenant governor. (Who knew the Mafia were such bleeding hearts? Or maybe it was only business.)

Let's hope that Andrew, if elected, breaks free from the pattern that has dogged other AG's. And let's hope that resemblance to Sollozzo is purely physical.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Just an observation

One of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I read the wedding section of the NY Times every Sunday. (Please don't tell anyone.) It's actually fun, if you're the type who likes to look for correlations.

One thing I've noticed is that the guys who marry each other (the Times seems to make an effort to report on every gay wedding it can) tend to resemble each other to a startling degree. This is not the case with gay women who get married. With them, it is often apparent which is the "husband" and which the "wife."

Lesbians obviously have their own versions of "tops" and "bottoms." But I'm not sure how to interpret the gay men's choices. They often look like very nice guys, the kind who would just fall all over themselves being politely helpful if you asked for assistance. But one can't help but wonder if there isn't a certain amount of vanity, or even a deeper narcissism at play.

With heterosexuals, the strongest correlation seems to be between the amount of money the men make and the beauty of the bride. You can't always be absolutely positive how much money a guy has, but you can certainly get a sense from his occupation, or lineage. And looks, while subjective, are a matter of general consensus. It's not a perfect correlation, but it's close.

Where men are concerned, it all seems to boil down to vanity or buying yourself a beautiful wife. Take your choice.

Not a pretty picture either way.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Control freak"

An article on Yahoo this morning stated that his coworkers called Raymond Clark III, the suspected murderer of Annie Le, a "control freak."

I've long found this phrase code for "sociopath." What kind of person wants to -- or even worse, needs to -- control other people? A domineering, bullying, manipulative personality.

The kind who, if crossed, might strangle a 92 pound girl and stuff her body into the crawl space behind a wall.

In other words, a sociopath.

Keep that in mind the next time you meet a control freak.

Kathy Griffin

(Kathy Griffin pretending to fall drunkenly out of her limo)

If you asked me who the funniest male comedian I ever heard was, I'd have a hard time choosing between Howard Stern, (the young) Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and maybe two or three others.

By contrast, there are very few truly funny female comedians. I saw Paula Poundstone perform on TV once, and she didn't make me laugh once. (Not even close.) Whoopi Goldberg manages to make her stew of bitterness and leftist politics completely humor-free. Rosie O'Donnell, in her stand up act, is about as funny as her spiritual sister Roseanne Barr. We're supposed to laugh when we hear them curse at men; I don't mind cursing, but by itself it is not humorous. And it should be said of all of the women mentioned in this paragraph that if you can't laugh at yourself, you shouldn't be in comedy.

Some comediennes, like Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin, had one basic joke which they repeated endlessly and which we we were supposed to feel an affectionate nostalgia for. (No thanks.) Lisa Lampanelli at least has variations on her oh-what-a-whore-I-am theme. Ellen Degeneres is mildly amusing in a gentle way. Sandra Bernhard can be mildly amusing in a perverse way, though she cloys awfully quickly. Sarah Silverman is quite daring, though she may be slightly more daring than funny. (The pc crowd excuses her ethnic humor by saying she is making fun of the stereotypes; in fact there is absolutely no difference between her jokes and classic ethnic humor. "Paying homage to the stereotypes" would be a better description.) And Joan Rivers is actually excellent, though her attempt to promote her daughter as the heir to her comedic throne is ill-conceived.

By far the funniest comedienne I've ever seen is Kathy Griffin.

Griffin is utterly fearless. She openly embraces all of the sins which we are supposed to avoid, or at least disguise. She makes no effort to hide her unbridled schadenfreude ("For me, every pound that Oprah gains is a hug from Jesus"). She is playfully honest about own ambition, having her small staff (including her mother) phone members of the Emmy Awards committee to ask for their votes.

When she won her Emmy, Griffin started her acceptance speech with, "Now, a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn't help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan [another nominee] would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now." E! deleted her comments from the televised broadcast of the event, and the Catholic League immediately condemned her "obscene and blasphemous comment." Griffin's reaction: "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?"

Griffin is constantly getting into trouble. A couple years ago, when she joked that 10 year old Dakota Fanning was entering rehab, the E! channel felt obliged to apologize for her. Even Steven Spielberg, who had just directed Fanning, publicly rebuked her.

Griffin's TV production company is called Inappropriate Laughter. Three of her television specials have been titled: Kathy Griffin: Straight to Hell; Kathy Griffin: Strong Black Woman; and Kathy Griffin: She'll Cut a Bitch.

She will, too. While she openly basks in the aura of older celebrities, she tends to make fun of younger celebrities, especially the ones who are in rehab (or should be). She can also be scathing about gays still in the closet. She used to call Clay Aiken Clay Gayken, and habitually refers to Ryan Seacrest as "she."

Griffin is most ruthless with herself. She complains about how her plastic surgery hasn't made her look any better. She discusses what an easy lay she is. She talks about how desperate she is for money, and how she wants to get free things the way other celebrities do. She has announced that she is available to hawk any product, any time. And she makes fun of her own marginal status in Hollywood (her TV show is called "My Life on the D-List").

She has the camera follow her everywhere; she once had a book signing where virtually no one showed up. (Most celebrities would be too mortified to let that footage air; she was not.) When she made an appearance with Paris Hilton, who was besieged by the paparazzi, Griffin pretended that they were following her, too, and plaintively asked them to leave her alone (though they were clearly focused exclusively on Hilton).

Griffin is affectionately brutal with her own mother, an alcoholic. She arranged for her mother to meet her heroes, has her mother live with her, and supports her financially. But Griffin also deadpans that she is going to fire her mother if she doesn't do her job better, and quiets her with "Here, have another drink Mom".

A lot of comedians simply stopped being funny when they became famous. Eddie Murphy is a case in point. Watch Raw, his show from the early 1980's, to see what a supremely talented young comedian he was. His stand up act is now ancient history, and these days he makes movies like Daddy Day Care and Dr. Doolittle, both guaranteed not to draw the faintest of chuckles. It's an old story: comedian becomes rich and famous, his head gets big, he loses touch with normal people, he loses his sense of humor. It has already happened to Chris Rock as well (although he also lost his edge partly because he became more pc).

It'll be interesting to see how Griffin evolves as she becomes more of an A-lister.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to read people's minds

One of the pleasures of the internet is reading the comments that follow online articles. These are generally much more honest than the articles which precede them. The journalists themselves simply have too many masters to serve. They must satisfy their publisher and editor; they must be careful to steer well clear of anything actionable; they usually are supposed to make an effort to at least sound impartial; and they are supposed to keep a high moral tone. What little emotion ends up being expressed in their articles often feels manufactured, or at least strained through the sieve of political correctness. What's left is bland corporatespeak.

Anonymous commenters, of course, have no reason not to be honest. So their unvarnished observations and raw emotions, unlike their real names, don't remain hidden. Hatred, that most honest of emotions, is often disparaged by the mainstream (i.e., liberal) media, which of course only ascribes it to conservatives. But it is an emotion which tends to go hand in hand with any strongly held political viewpoint, and that becomes immediately evident upon reading any of the comments.

Many of the comments also show more common sense than the articles. (Honesty is a prerequisite for common sense.)

This is especially true after an article about a crime or a hot button political issue.

The most interesting thing about the comments is the way that people almost always choose sides on any issue based on race. Under cover of anonymity, people feel much freer to say what they really think -- which often has a lot to do with ethnicity. So a lot of intemperate comments are made from both sides, to the point where the ensuing discussions turn into mini race wars. This is, of course, what makes them so interesting.

The other thing commenters are much more open about is looks. No self-respecting journalist would ever end an article about Annie Lebowitz's financial troubles with, "Whichever way it is resolved, whoa, is she ugly!" But no self-respecting commentariat would ever let such an opportunity pass. ("Is it just me or does she look like an older version of Howard Stern with his hair dyed blonde?").
Ethnicity and looks are two things that are always on people's minds, even though neither is supposed to be mentioned in polite company, other than in pc (read: intrinsically dishonest) ways.

Yes, there are lots of morons who post, and people who can't spell, and people who write in all caps. But a surprising number of the comments are quite witty. I am far more likely to get a silent chuckle (if not an "lol") from them than from the article -- which, due to editorial constraints, must take a more measured tone.

If you want to take the temperature of the populace, look at the comments. Wading through a few dumb ones is a small price to pay to get to read peoples' minds.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When you're asked for a donation

Earlier this week a friend asked me (and a lot of other people) to "sponsor" him in a half-Ironman Triathlon, a fundraiser for melanoma research. This is a guy who -- even though we're not close friends -- has done me favors in the past. So I gladly parted with a little money.

But if you're like me, you find most such requests highly annoying. You have to either say no and look like a cheapskate, or part with money for a cause you probably have no interest in. It's an unpleasant choice.

It has become a tradition for these requests to be coupled with participation in an endurance event. I've never quite understood the logic there: you're running a marathon to prove something to yourself, to be able to say you completed one, to lose a few of your extra pounds, and because it is good for your health -- so therefore I should pay money to your favorite cause?

I always want to tell these people, if you feel so strongly about this cause, instead of training for the marathon, just get a second job and contribute all the money you earn from that.

There was a local 70 year old who several years ago became the oldest man ever to swam the English Channel. He had asked for contributions to a church in Haiti beforehand, and, just because swimming the Channel at his age would have been such an incredible feat, I gave. He made it. I was all set to make him one of my heroes, but when he came back, he just wouldn't stop talking about his swim. This made him something of a local joke. Every time anybody talked to him, he would always manage to segue onto the subject of his glorious conquest. When he went to parties, he would bring a tape of his swim, and insist that everyone watch. He would carry his photo album around and show it to everyone he met. He became utterly intolerable.

It finally dawned on me that this guy was so insanely egotistical that he needed to think he was doing it not for his own glory, but for a noble cause. In fact, he didn't seem to really care about the church all that much, because he never mentioned it after his swim; all he talked about was his swim. But he sure seemed to care about his self-image.

Maybe I should subscribe to this logic, and ask people for a contribution to a fund for abused children every time I do a particularly hard workout. After all, it does hurt. And how much more noble would it make me feel to think that I was suffering so that those poor children could have a better life. It would almost be as if I were Jesus Christ on the cross, suffering for others' sins.

I honestly think that a milder approximation of that line of thought goes through the minds of many who ask for a contribution in the name of their athletic endeavor.

(By the way, the fellow doing the half-Ironman is not like this at all. He doesn't pretend to be noble; if anything he exults in his occasional naughtiness. He is the opposite of the Channel swimmer.)

I used to work in an office where coworkers would come around soliciting donations for their favorite cause on a regular basis. I eventually developed an impregnable defense. Whenever someone would stick his hand out, I would reply, "Sure, I'll be happy to give a hundred dollars to [your cause], if you give a hundred dollars to [my favorite charity]." They would always look discomfited, but of course had no choice but to say yes. After all, they had started out by asking me for money, and they would have looked really hypocritical by turning me down. And I would still look good since I was, after all, willing to give. I would then give a hundred dollars less to my own charity at the end of the year, while that charity would still receive, either directly or indirectly, the same amount I had originally intended to give. And at the end of the year I would only be out that same amount of money.

The net effect was that the person asking for a donation would effectively end up donating the money going to his own cause himself -- which is the way it should be.

I alerted my coworkers on the trading desk to this tactic, and eventually people learned that if they came around to our desk asking for a donation, they would get their money -- but it would cost them.

As long as you don't feel you owe the person soliciting, I recommend this tactic to you.

Caster Semenya update

The latest report on Caster Semenya is that the gender tests indicate that she is a hermaphrodite. Although a visual inspection reveals her to be female, in fact she has no womb and in place of ovaries has internal testes, which give her a testosterone level three times that of the normal female.

It is ironic that word of this would be released right after You Magazine came out with that ridiculous makeover they did on her last week. Did they think that changing her hairstyle, slapping some makeup on her, and throwing some stylish clothes on her would somehow prove her hormonal mix was normal?

It is unfortunate that the whole matter has been made public. A competitor in the 2007 Asian Games was disqualified on similar grounds; she later tried to commit suicide. Let's hope that Semenya is more resilient.

If the initial reports are true, then Semenya should obviously no longer be allowed to compete in women's races. But no one should lose sight of the fact that she is not a cheat. There is a world of difference between Semenya and Marion Jones. Jones knowingly took steroids and human growth hormone, and then lied about it, brazenly and self-righteously. Semenya was simply born the way she is, and until these tests were conducted, neither she nor her family had any knowledge of her anomalous internal sexual organs.

I read recently that of the three thousand women who were tested at the Beijing Olympics, eight had a Y chromosome. This isn't all that surprising; many top women athletes have more than the usual level of testosterone. This is why they are as strong as they are, and possibly why they gravitated to sports in the first place. But the point is, we never heard of any of them. Their tests were conducted in private, as they should have been, and the women were never exposed to public humiliation. The same should have been done for Semenya.

In the meantime, her last name certainly doesn't help. (What do her "ovaries" produce? Semen? Yeah.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Since the early part of this decade, it's often been said that there was an upsurge in patriotism after 9/11. But what exactly does patriotism consist of?

Here's a stab at a two part definition. First, patriotism consists of the extent to which you favor the interests of the country over your own narrow self-interest. Thus, someone who lobbied his congressman for, say, a cut-rate timber lease with the implicit promise of a substantial campaign contribution would be showing a distinct lack of patriotism. (As would the Congressman if his vote were swayed by the potential contribution.) Likewise, anyone who feels that his ethnic cohorts should be favored at the expense of rest of the country is less than patriotic. (Such a person might be loyal to his co-ethnics, but he is not patriotic.) And, of course, anybody who favors the interests of a foreign country over those of the United States is an out and out traitor.

Secondly, patriotism consists of asking how much you would be willing to sacrifice for your country. By this definition those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice -- by enlisting -- show the highest degree of patriotism. (Of course, many enlist in order to have a job, or to get job training, or simply for the opportunity to legally shoot people; so this picture is a little fuzzy.) Those willing to pay their full share of taxes also show patriotism (though I've never heard of anyone so patriotic as to voluntarily pay more taxes than necessary.) Those agitating for war show no patriotism -- unless they themselves are willing to enlist. And those agitating for others to pay higher taxes while themselves evading them likewise show a great deal of hypocrisy, but very little patriotism.

Having said all that, I must admit I've never felt particularly swayed by patriotic sentiments myself. The sight of a piece of cloth with a stars and stripes motif moves me not at all. And I'd prefer not having to sit through the national anthem at every sporting event I attend; it always strikes me as a waste of time. To me, the idea of being loyal to a chunk of a continent containing a 300 million people seems silly.

I believe in loyalty to family and friends, not to colleges or corporations or countries.

I have found, in keeping with Samuel Johnson's famous dictum, that those who pay the most lip service to the concept of patriotism are invariably scoundrels who exhibit the least loyalty to family and friends. And these same people invariably have a very self-serving definition of patriotism, one which allows them to reap the largest benefit from government, while paying the smallest price. Whenever I hear someone going on about patriotism, I get the feeling that I'm about to be screwed over.

(An aside: I've also found that those teammates or, especially coaches, who express the most concern about how the team does are usually those who care the least about the individuals on the team. Coaches will always tell you there's no "I" in T-E-A-M, but in fact there is an M-E, that that "me" is usually the coach himself.)

Having said all that, I've always been grateful I was born in the United States, because this is the greatest country in the world by many measures, including standard of living, social mobility, and freedom of speech. Even other countries which have have relatively high standards of living often can't boast all three of those things to the extent that we can.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kinky Friedman quotes

Any quoting jag would be incomplete without Kinky Friedman, the fellow above who bears a passing resemblance to Richard Boone. Friedman first achieved fame (and notoriety) with the formation of his second band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. They sang satirical songs like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore." After his music career stalled, Friedman started writing detective novels set in New York City.

When Friedman ran for Governor of Texas in 2006, one of his goals was "the dewussification of Texas." Friedman placed fourth in the six person race, getting 12.6% of the vote.

The following quotes are from his gubernatorial campaign, his books, and his interviews:

A happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life.

If you elect me the first Jewish Justice of the Peace, I'll reduce the speed limits to 54.95!

I just want Texas to be number one in something other than executions, toll roads, and property taxes.

Remember, the legislature is the joke, not our campaign.....I think we've got a real, real shot.

I admit I was drinking a Guinness.....but I did not swallow."

Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get.

When I'm governor, I'll be the first Governor with a listed telephone number.

The first thing I'll do if elected is demand a recount.

I even went so far as to become a southern Baptist for a while, until I realized they didn't hold 'em under long enough.

If you're patient and you wait long enough, something will usually happen and usually it'll be something you don't like.

It was a nice neighborhood. If you liked neighborhoods.

As a general rule of thumb, if you thought of New York as a Negro talking to himself and of California as a VCR with nothing to put in, you wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Golf is the only opportunity that middle-aged Wasps have to dress up like a pimp.

They say God created whiskey as a way to keep the Irish from taking over the world.

Every time you see a beautiful woman, just remember, somebody got tired of her.

I'd felt that a man without a woman was like a neck without a pain.

Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.

I'm too young for Medicare and too old for women to care.

On the whole, I preferred cats to women because cats seldom if ever used the word "relationship."

"I'm not afraid to die," I said. "I'm not afraid to live. I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to succeed. I'm not afraid to fall in love. I'm not afraid to be alone. I'm just afraid I'll have to stop talking about myself for five minutes."

They say that death is just nature's way of telling you to slow down a little bit.

Sleep came slower than a frigid woman.

I knew I wasn't as stupid as I looked. No one was.

The guy standing on the tiny stage never missed a chance to take a simple idea and intellectualize it until it disappeared completely.

Memo to parents

After a lifetime (my daughter's) of being treated cavalierly by a supercilious child, I have come to the following (somewhat self-justifying) conclusion:

If your kids don't take you for granted, that's when you're doing something wrong.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New England Masters newsletter

An article (written by me) about my father and me (on page 2):

NEM story

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Flip, Flop

Barack Obama made a lot of promises during his campaign and it would be unreasonable to hold him to all of them. Some he hasn't gotten around to, and some fell by the wayside because he didn't have the Congressional support, even from his own side of the aisle.

But there are other issues on which it seems he was just paying lip service. You decide whether he really changed his mind or was just saying what was expedient during the campaign.

At the outset of his Presidential campaign, he said he was a strong believer in the public financing option for Presidential campaigns. But when it became apparent that his fund-raising machine was having more success than previously hoped, he opted out, and chose private financing. (Go where the money is, Barack.)

Obama, throughout most of his life, had been a strong supporter of Palestinian rights. But when crunch time came towards the end of his campaign, he delivered a speech to AIPAC that made Benjamin Netanyahu look like a Hamas supporter. (Will th ereal Barack Obama please stand up?)

One of his constant themes during his campaign was that he was going to change the culture of Washington, and eliminate earmarks: no more business as usual. But as soon as he became President, the first bill he signed -- the "stimulus" bill -- was basically nothing but earmarks. Many of the items were payoffs to various Democratic politicans, such as a $30 million park for Nancy Pelosi's district, and $9 billion for high speed rail, some of which will go towards financing Harry Reid's longtime dream of a fast train connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

During his campaign Obama said he was a consensus builder who would reach across the aisle to work with the Republicans on various issues. But on most of the legislation he has pushed, the Republicans have not been consulted at all. (Even when the Republicans had a majority, they at least included the Democrats in their meetings.) When the Republicans complained, Obama simply said, "I won." (In other words, I can do whatever I want.)

When David Souter first announced that he was retiring from the Supreme Court, Obama said that he would be looking for a replacement who would interpret the Constitution strictly and not legislate from the bench. Then he picked Sonia Stomayor, whose entire career has been spent legislating from the bench and doing her best to ignore the Constitution. (If you pick a Quota Queen, does that make you a Quota King?)

Obama portrayed himself as the post-racial President candidate who, because of his dual heritage, would unite the races. The truth is pretty much the opposite. Obama showed his true color (not colors) at the outset of the Gates affair, when he automatically called Officer Crowley and the Cambridge Police Department "stupid" for having arrested Gates. When it turned out that Gates had behaved like a hysterical ninny during the incident and that Officer Crowley had taught a course on how not to racially profile, Obama backtracked. But it was his initial reaction, not the press release a couple days after, that gave us a glimpse of the real Obama.

Obama had presented himself as a champion of gay rights during the campaign. But his administration has argued several times for the Defense of Marriage Act, the bill most anathema to the gay community right now. The media pilloried noted political thinker Carrie Prejean (Miss California USA) for voicing an off the cuff answer to a question about gay marriage that pretty much put her squarely in Obama's camp. Yet they've pretty much given Obama a free pass on the issue (surprise!).

All of this makes me think that there is a lot of subterfuge involved in the health care bill as envisioned by his administration. What parts of the health care bill might he be lying about? That it won't insure illegal aliens? That it won't drive private insurers out of business? That it will not cut back on health care for elderly?

He says all these things, but it's hard to trust what Obama says given his history.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


You've probably heard a lot of cliches about how time is so precious, you should live each day as if it's your last; life is so short, so seize the day; today is the first day of the rest of your life; and so on. If you're like me, you probably think, ah, how true, but then promptly forget about the concept and become engrossed in whatever else is occupying your attention at the time. (While not quite managing to seize the day.)

One recent experience caused the idea to sink in a little more deeply than usual.

I had occasion to be in a large college athletic complex, and wandered the corridors of the building a bit. The halls were lined with photographs of every one of the college's teams for the past hundred years or so.

I looked at some of the photos and idly wondered, which one was the star athlete? Which guys were the smart ones? The ladies' men? Which one was the secret homosexual? Which ones went on to great success? Which ones didn't? Which ones died young? Sometimes you think you can detect the first four things from the photo, but usually you can't.

Then another thought sank in. The young men in all of the pictures were at the same point in their lives. They all had their entire lives still in front of them. And they all had hope, a commodity that tends to accompany unlined faces (and high hormones).

It was hard not to wonder what their lives were like. Because they were young, though, their concerns were probably pretty similar. Perhaps during wartime they were worried about going off to war. But other than that, their concerns were probably the universal collegiate ones: grades, girls, getting a job after graduation.

The other thing it was hard to avoid thinking about is how old they are now. Looking at the pictures of teams from the 1980's, I thought, these guys are middle-aged now; some may be unrecognizable from these photos. Looking at pictures from the late Sixties and early Seventies, when longer hair was in vogue, I wondered how many still had their hair.

Going back to the Fifties, I thought, if these guys are still alive, they're definitely oldsters by now. The guys from the Forties are mostly probably dead; some may even have been killed in the war. Any athlete surviving from the Thirties is well beyond the normal life expectancy. And from the Twenties, not one could be surviving.

All those young, hopeful faces, dead and gone forever.

When you contemplate these things, it's hard not to feel some sadness about the inevitability of decline. You also get a little sense of, what's the use of it all? We all scurry around like madmen, trying to make something of ourselves, but then we all end up in the same place (underground) anyway, so what was it all for?

When you're in this frame of mind, you're more susceptible to the messages listed in the first paragraph: live each day as if it's your last, etc. They sound trite. But they're also true -- which in turn is why people repeat them, and why they sound trite.

Life is fleeting. You really should grasp it. But therein lies the problem. How exactly does one grasp life? If you really live each day as if it's your last, that would, for most people, entail acting with scant concern for the consequences. So chances would be greater that it would be your last. Which really would make life fleeting.

Plus it's humanly impossible to continually live your life a constant level of peak emotional intensity, any more than you could run a marathon every day.

One thing you can do is compliment people, if they deserve it. It's an inexpensive way to make people feel good, and if you do it well, you can make people feel very good. That's something you should definitely do it before it's too late.

One of my neighbors seems to be on his last legs; his heart is giving out. I haven't seen him in his yard or driveway recently, and am afraid that he may be confined to his bed. I had intended to tell him what I thought of him, but now it may be too late. He's always been the best type of guy: Manly, but not macho. Friendly, but never intrusive. Helpful, and never asking a favor in return. Complimentary, but with no agenda. And completely trustworthy. (All qualities I tend to associate with WWII guys, which is what he was.) I should have told him that this is what I thought of him, but never did. Because he's significantly older than me, it never really felt as if it were my place to do so. But I do sort of regret never saying anything.

Then again, I'm not sure exactly how I would have conveyed these sentiments without sounding as if I were prematurely reading him his obituary, so maybe it's better I kept my mouth shut. (On a computer, I can say exactly what I want, no more and no less, thanks to editing; in person, I've never been able to edit myself as well, and my words comes out wrong disturbingly frequently.)

So the lesson of this post is.....Actually, I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's, since you can't really always seize life by the throat without neglecting your day to day responsibilities, at least be generous with the compliments.

A little plagiarism

I just read a post by Vincent Farrell titled "It's always sell the news" on (the subscription offshoot of The post was about the market's reaction to various government statistics. What I want to share is his last paragraph (which has little to do with the rest of his post):

Do we really need so much government? Consider this (with thanks to Sydney Williams): The Pythagorean Theorem contains 24 words; the Lord's Prayer has 66 words; Archimedes's Principle is 67 words; the Ten Commandments contains 179 words; The Gettysburg Address, 286 words; and the Declaration of Independence has a puffy 1,300 words. But the U.S. government regulation on the sale of cabbage contains 26,911 words. Enough!

I know, it's not a fair comparison. Still, it does give one pause.


When I first considered writing a blog as a way to vent, I tried to register several names on this Google-run ("") host. Most of the names I thought of had already been taken.

"Politicallyincorrect" was taken by a fellow who wrote in a foreign language (I couldn't even tell you which). He had four entries, all from 2002.

"UNPC" had exactly zero entries. The author had put in a little heading at the top, "A view of pop culture with the reality that pop culture doesn't recognize," but then never wrote anything. I guess it will exist in cyberspace that way forever.

"Realist" had the same number of entries, zero.

"Afterthoughts," ditto.

There was another name I looked up at the time, I can't remember what it was, that had exactly one entry: "School sucked today." That was it.

(If that was the one time the blogger was moved enough to post, school must have really sucked that day.)

Having seen a number of other blogs, I'm struck by how much so many of them resemble diaries. What the blogger had for breakfast that morning, how his day at work went, how his workout went. As an inveterate navel-gazer, I understand that temptation. I try not to succumb. Unfortunately, not entirely successfully.

It used to be said, pre-internet, that writing letters to the editor was the first sign of incipient insanity. The same could easily be said of blogging since it pretty much consists of the same activity: screaming into the wilderness. Maybe even more so, since a letter to the editor which was actually published would undoubtedly get far more eyeballs than the average blog.

All of which proves that the above mentioned bloggers, all of whom wrote little, are all saner than me.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of blogging-as-a-sign-of-maladjustment came last week, when it emerged that Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper of 11 year old Jaycee Dugard, had his own blog.

Maybe Garrido can use his blog as the centerpiece of his insanity defense.

I know I have mine lined up -- 190 entries worth -- for when I finally run amok.