Archive for November, 2013


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. Last week, a four-hour Kennedy biography appeared on PBS’ American Experience. I relate it to a photo in the sports section of the November 12 New York Post. (My brother-in-law Herb has sent me clippings since Kennedy was president.) Politics and professional sports share much in common.

JFK, written by Mark Zwonitzer, spares us the details of the assassination—ground well covered. It focuses on the man and his brief presidency, appraising Kennedy’s strengths and candidly addressing his weaknesses.

My opinion of Kennedy on that terrible day in 1963—I was a college sophomore—remains basically unchanged. If anything, the documentary reinforced that stasis. I thought Kennedy was bright. I liked his appeal to youth. (What college student doesn’t think that the older generation has made a mess of things and should step aside?) I also appreciated his sense of humor. He was fast with a brilliant quip that could get him out of a tight spot.

But much of Kennedy’s popularity, as JFK points out, reflected well-crafted public relations. Camelot—the attractive couple, wealthy and cultured—struck me as completely overdone. Kennedy appeared at his inauguration without an overcoat, the image of his highly touted vigor. What the public couldn’t see was his silk underwear. The crowd cheered his poetic address. Congress turned its back on his programs.

An ardent Cold Warrior, Kennedy half-heartedly green-lighted the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba inherited from Dwight Eisenhower. Disaster followed. In 1962, he pressured Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba. Score one for our side. In return, he withdrew American nuclear missiles from Turkey. Score one for theirs. Oh, and the White House hushed up the withdrawal from Turkey. Moreover, Khrushchev may have placed missiles in Cuba in the first place because he found Kennedy, whom he met in Vienna, to be young and inexperienced.

Then there was JFK’s now-legendary womanizing. That was covered up, too. The White House also concealed Kennedy’s serious health problems. Give credit. All those pain-masking drugs would have done in lesser men. But while people speculate on JFK’s potential legacy—including Vietnam—I speculate that stress and drugs might have killed him before he completed eight years in the Oval Office.

Now to the New York Post photo: Several members of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets serve Veteran’s Day meals to troops at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton. This is no matter of wealthy athletes paying back privately. It’s a photo op. The players wear hats and aprons in the Nets’ black-and-white color scheme complete with team logo. We get a feel-good PR moment for a league in which, to my knowledge, no current American player has served in our military.

Image plays a major role in American life. But image without substance risks little lies morphing into Big Lies. This imperils our democracy.

Still, there’s one image we might wish to cling to: Diogenes, the Greek Cynic philosopher, searching continually for an honest man.

No post on November 29. The next will appear on December 6. And to all who will be lighting candles starting Wednesday night, Happy Chanukah!

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Death appears frequently in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43). It’s only fitting. I’ve been thinking about death lately. Also humor. They go hand in hand. As it says on the back cover of my upcoming novel The Boy Walker (available around the first of the year; I’ll keep you posted): death is nothing—and everything—to laugh about.

First Torah: Jacob escapes possible death at the hands of his elder twin Esau when they meet after twenty years. Jacob had been sent off by his mother Rebecca after he stole Esau’s birthright and blessing. Then things go downhill. Shechem, a Hivite prince, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Pursuing revenge, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi trick then slaughter the men of the town. The rest of Jacob’s sons go on a plunder spree. Jacob protests the murderous rampage. Simeon and Levi respond, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

There’s more. D’vorah, Rebecca’s nursemaid, dies. Then Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, dies birthing Benjamin on the road to Ephrat. (Her traditional tomb lies in Bethlehem.) Finally, Isaac dies, “gathered to his kin in ripe old age.” Yet there is uplift. Esau and Jacob together bury their father.

As to me, I’ve been noting the dwindling of my family. My Aunt Rita—my mother’s sister—is the last of my blood aunts and uncles. Several cousins have died, too. Still, life goes on. I have a wife and children. My sister Kay turned seventy-five two days ago. She has two grandsons. And I keep writing.

I’ve been working on short stories. Several reflect on death—physical and emotional. A retired astronaut contemplates the meaninglessness of life on his eightieth birthday. An actuary must live with a heart transplanted from a police officer with a terrible secret. An Israeli gangster becomes religious then disillusioned via the workings of the Satan. A painter learns that art in the highest circles is all about business.

Then there’s The Boy Walker. The beginning of the novel relates, “The Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—seizes victims arbitrarily and inflicts on their survivors wounds both horrific and seemingly irreparable.” Don’t be depressed. Preceding chapter one is a stand-up comedy bit from the novel’s narrator, Brute Greenbaum. “Dogs are way smarter than people,” he states. Then he makes his case. Brute knows.  He’s a 12-year-old English Bulldog equivalent to a human centenarian. His tongue is worse than his bite.

Death haunts not only Brute but also his father-and-son co-masters. But comedy intervenes. Lots of it. I can think of no better approach to mortality. Laughter produces endorphins, which boost our bodies and spirits. And audiences aren’t the only ones who benefit. Brute notes about angst-ridden comics: “For a stand-up, a gig is therapy. Only the patient gets paid.”

My English professor and advisor at Alfred University, Mel Bernstein (z”l), once told me, “Never lose your sense of humor.” Who knows? Laughter just might inspire the Malach HaMavet to raise a glass of California Chardonnay or a Manhattan and toast, “L’chaim! To life!”

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Those of us who saw the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan on TV remember the glee with which he emphasized that the universe contains stars numbering “billions and billions.” If only a small percentage host habitable planets like Earth, Sagan proclaimed, life must exist elsewhere. Now, more refined numbers are coming in.

In Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle, science writer David Perlman (yes, sometimes people think I’m him) reported on calculations by a team of planet hunters from UC Berkeley. It seems that our Milky Way Galaxy contains 50 billion stars resembling our sun. These stars serve as hubs for 11 billion planets the size of Earth. Each orbits its sun at a distance yielding temperatures mild enough to enable the existence of water—and thus life.

I did my own math. Unfortunately, my calculator couldn’t display a number as high as 11 billion (11 plus nine zeroes). So I wrote the number down and struck through two zeroes. Bingo! If biochemical processes work out on just one percent of those planets, 110 million of them harbor life.

But let’s say biochemistry works out on only one-tenth of one percent of those 11 billion planets. We’re down to “only” 11 million planets. That’s a bunch. Moreover, this is just in our local galaxy. Estimates of the total number of galaxies range from 100 million to 500 million. Odds seem reasonable that life exists elsewhere. And if just one percent of planets with life host intelligent life…

Can we find that intelligent life? In 1985, Lily Tomlin starred in a one-woman Broadway show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” by Jane Wagner. It later came out on film. The show left audiences laughing. It also left them continuing to search since they to exit the theater for the everyday world.

Indeed, it can be tricky to locate intelligent life right here on Earth. Mark Twain wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Human nature is perplexing. We boast impressive knowledge of the workings of the universe. We also indulge in immense cruelty and folly. Where does humanity stand in the greater scheme of things? The 18th-century Chassidic rabbi Simcha Bunem understood our dual nature. He taught: Every person should have two pockets. In one should be a note stating, “For my sake the world was created.” In the second, a note should advise, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Cognitive dissonance led me to write a short story, “Beautiful!” A former astronaut feels great unease on his 80th birthday. He can’t help considering the overwhelming awe he experienced in space and the plight of a homeless man in his suburban neighborhood.

I could list humanity’s greatest accomplishments and failures, but you know them. What none of us knows is whether intelligent life actually exists out there and in what form. This arouses in me a measure of fear. Not that, as in much science fiction, intelligent life on another planet may be different from us. But that it may be much the same.

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Less than twenty-four hours after coordinated attacks left more than 750 Holiday shoppers dead and twice as many wounded, the White House conceded the likelihood of a terrorist operation.

President Obama also urged shopping malls throughout the nation to reopen tomorrow. “We can not, indeed we must not, allow terrorists to derail our Holiday shopping and thus set back our fragile economy.”

The President and top security officials conducted a videoconference with the mayors and chiefs of police of the cities in which the shootings occurred: Orlando, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Tucson. The governors of Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Arizona attended.

A White House spokesman acknowledged that the attacks could not have been foreseen despite extensive security procedures. “Naturally, no one suspected anything was amiss. The shooter teams in each city made themselves practically invisible by walking into malls carrying AK-47 assault rifles with orange tips on their barrels.”

Federal law requires orange tips on the barrels of replica weapons to identify them as non-lethal collectors’ items.

Eyewitnesses in Dallas said that a young girl called out, “Mommy, those men have guns. I’m scared.” Her father then scolded her: “See those orange tips? Those nice men just want to have fun. Don’t you go trying to spoil someone’s Christmas.”

Members of Congress demanded that the F.B.I. bring the perpetrators to justice. They cited video cameras in all of the malls as playing a major role in the investigation. They acknowledged, however, that the shooters wore masks portraying Santa’s reindeer and elves when entering the malls.

The National Rifle Association challenged protests by groups supporting tougher gun laws. An NRA spokesman stated that sufficient federal laws already exist, and that the Second Amendment protects Americans’ rights to have toys and take them anywhere. “Let’s remember that Americans love guns. Who wouldn’t want a replica of an AK-47, not to mention the real thing?”

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Dem.-Cal.) hinted that Mrs. Pelosi might consider initiating legislation banning replicas if she can find adequate support among fellow Democrats. “Of course, serious discussions won’t be conducted until Congress comes back from its Holiday vacation. The Minority Leader also understands that this is a hot-button political issue that could endanger Democratic seats in the House.”

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (Rep.-Ohio) dismissed as “anti-American” the possibility of a vote banning replicas coming to the House floor.

In a related matter, investigations continue into the October 22 police shooting that killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, California. The boy carried an AK-47 replica known as an airsoft gun, which uses compressed air to propel plastic pellets. California law requires an orange tip on the barrel of replicas but not on airsoft guns.

Manufacturers of airsoft and related paintball guns declined comment on the Holiday shootings. They cited respect for the dead and wounded.

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