A tragedy both avoidable and predictable

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Seven children who died in a house fire in Brooklyn very early yesterday morning are being buried* today, and there obviously are no words to describe the grief of their mother and sister, who got out alive, and their father, who wasn’t home at the time.

But the rest of us should be feeling something way beyond horror, and we should be expressing something much more powerful than sorrow.

We should be angry. Furious. Mad as hell. Because this tragedy was both avoidable and predictable. Continue reading

Bullets and Burgers

When I was a kid, like most boys, I had a fascination with guns. Not an obsession. Not an all-consuming passion. But certainly an interest. The fact is, even today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a boy who never picks up a stick and pretends it’s a gun, or who never points straight out with his forefinger, lifts his thumb to the sky and then closes it.

Let’s not get into the sociological and psychological causative factors behind this phenomenon right now, because those are big words and I don’t really care. It’s just a fact: Boys like guns.

Girls like them too these days, because we teach our young women-to-be to be every bit as assertive as our future men. Even when they’re wearing pink shorts.

That’s a good thing. That’s how it is. Don’t like it? Shoot me.

Anyway, the point is . . . I get it. Kids like guns. Continue reading

Savages

 

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We sure do like our news sugarcoated, don’t we?

The cover of today’s New York Post – which shows American journalist James Foley about to be beheaded by an ISIS terrorist, an act that was captured on video and posted on YouTube – has generated predictable shock and outrage.

That’s because it actually shows the news. Dear god, what might The Post do next?!?! Continue reading

November 22, 1963 (Part III): A tip of the hat to Mr. Norregaard


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JFK was dead, Oswald was dead, and we carried on.

We went back to school, and one week later I had one of the most important moments of what would become my career. So pull up a seat, kids, and I’ll tell you all about Mr. Norregaard, the best teacher I ever had, and what happened when I violated one of his ironclad rules.

Martin Rudolph Norregaard taught English and Social Studies to 7th and 8th Graders at Brooklyn Friends School. He was likable and funny and no-nonsense. He expected excellence – demanded it, really – and made sure you knew he would settle for nothing less.

He taught us how to write. And not just how to put words on paper, but to labor over them and make sure you got them exactly the way you wanted them.

He taught us grammar and punctuation and usage. He taught us that sentences had structure, that they were a mathematical equation of sorts. And he taught us to diagram sentences, a lesson that is pretty much gone now, and not to anyone’s benefit. He taught us how to put on paper a visual display of how every word in a sentence related to the others. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions . . . They all work together. Mr. Norregaard was a drill sergeant of diagramming, and if you were in the 7th or 8th Grade at BFS, you were going to learn it whether you liked it or not. Continue reading

My first selfie

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It’s official. Selfie is the word of the year. But there were selfies long before there were cellphones.

The one above may very well be my first, taken at about 65 miles per hour while cruising alongside Jenny Lake, in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, as part of our Kerouacian tour of America in the summer of 1971.

The photo technique was totally professional. I stuck a Kodak Instamatic out the window at arm’s length, guessed the proper camera angle and masterfully took the shot, all while controlling the car with my right hand.

I have witnesses. That’s Mike to my right and Hank to his, piled into the front seat of the Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion. Kenny and Jan are either behind us or, much more likely, ahead of us in the blue Cougar.

Hank reports that Jethro Tull was tuned up to 11 on the car stereo. Who am I to argue?

And you kids thought you invented selfies.

— 30 —

Bronx cheer, 10/09/13

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Say hello, or guten tag, to Brenda Barton, an Arizona state representative who can’t spell right and can’t think straight.

Our gal Brenda decided recently that the president of the United States reminded her of a certain German dictator from back in the early ’40s. We’ll pause here for a moment while you try to figure out who that might be.

The decidedly left-wing Talking Points Memo notes that our gal Brenda posted this cute message on her Facebook page:

“Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer… where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?”

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Never mind that it should be Der Fuhrer, not De Fuhrer (It’s Der, d’uhhhh!). Let’s just consider that it is really, really offensive to compare just about anybody to that certain German dictator who was responsible for the systematic extermination of roughly . . .

5.1–6.0 million Jews, including 3.0–3.5 million Polish Jews
1.8 –1.9 million non-Jewish Poles (includes all those killed in executions or those that died in prisons, labor, and concentration camps, as well as civilians killed in the 1939 invasion and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising)
500,000–1.2 million Serbs killed by Croat Nazis
200,000–800,000 Roma & Sinti
200,000–300,000 people with disabilities
80,000–200,000 Freemasons [23]
100,000 communists
10,000–25,000 homosexual men
2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses

Barton, to her “credit,” decided to stick to her guns (this, after all, is Arizona), reportedly telling the Arizona Capital Times, which is behind a paywall:

“He’s dictating beyond his authority . . . . “It’s not just the death camps. [Hitler] started in the communities, with national health care and gun control. You better read your history. Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”

Well, I guess that makes it official. Obama = Hitler.

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Here’s someone else who was compared to Hitler . . .

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And here’s another . . .

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And another . . .

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I could go on. But you know what? It ain’t funny. Not even close.

Frank Bruni addressed this in The New York Times the other day, and he was dead right.

The only person who should be reasonably compared to the worst genocidal maniac in the history of our planet should be an equally genocidal maniac. And we haven’t seen him in the last 70 years, and I hope we never do. Largely because of him, over 60 million people were killed, including nearly half a million American servicemen.

So I’m sick and tired of hearing about how this is like the Nazis and how this guy is like this guy . . .

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. . . because it debases each and every one of us when we say that. Nobody is like this guy. Nobody.

Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t heard the word “Nazi” or “Hitler” or “Third Reich,” which just goes to show what an influence this evil wretch had on history. Time Magazine named Albert Einstein the Person of the Century back in 2000, but they were wrong. It was Hitler. It’s 2013 now, and I can go days, even weeks, without reading or hearing Einstein’s name. I can’t say the same for Hitler. Somehow, I seem to hear or read a reference to him every damn day.

See for yourself. See if a day goes by when you don’t see a reference to Nazis/Hitler/Third Reich. (I’ve just covered today.) They’re always there. And there’s a reason for that . . . Because an unimaginable global horror took place just 70 years ago, and we can’t help but gape in awe at the evil.

There’s a reason we say “Never Forget.” And that’s because we never should. But it’s also why we need to stop comparing people we don’t happen to like to the person we hate more than anyone else. It’s unseemly. It’s beneath us. Let’s stop.

— 30 —

Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night

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That’s me, in the spring of 1971, back when I could grow hair on my head and not on my face, about two months and another inch of hair before Hank, Jan, Kenny, Mike and I embarked on our Kerouacian trip across America.

(Because we always give credit where credit’s due, we pause to note that the photo was shot, unbeknownst to me, on the Quad at Hobart College by a William Smith freshman named Karen Platt, who one year later would take me up in a two-seat Cessna and perform several maneuvers designed to make me throw up, her way of saying thank you for being very demanding of her in the offices of our college newspaper, The Herald, of which I was editor-in-chief.) (And, thinking back on it now . . . What kind of idiot climbs into a small plane and goes on an aerial joyride with a 19-year-old novice pilot? My god, I did some really stupid stuff in college.)

But I digress. Let’s return to the photo . . .

Note that I’m playing an A-7th, capoed up a fret. That’s me, kids, playing 12-bar blues, the music of my soul.

Also note the cutoff jeans, which went in the laundry every few weeks.

But most importantly, note the Tonto headband, which almost got me killed at a truckstop in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.

Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about my night in Buffalo, and my encounter with an 8-foot-tall hulk of a man who, for a brief moment, had me certain that my life was going to end at the tender age of 20.

It’s a Saturday in late July or early August, and Mike has gotten up ridiculously early in the morning in New York to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he will join what just the day before became a four-man, two-car caravan, a story we’ll explain on another day. Mike is fairly exhausted when we meet him at the airport, so, naturally, we toss his three-man tent onto the roof rack of my 1970 Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, and, along with Kenny’s blue Mercury Cougar, begin a 517-mile trip westward. Destination: Yellowstone Park, with a brief detour to see Devil’s Tower.

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Our route should take about nine hours, according to Google Maps (which, of course, doesn’t exist yet), plus a couple of hours to walk the two-and-a-half miles or so around Devil’s Tower. But we expect it to take even less than that, because we’re college guys and we know that speed limits, like the “Don’t Walk” signs in New York, are mere guidelines, not laws. They are meant to be exceeded. Or flat-out disobeyed. We figure we’ll be traveling at 100 mph, or thereabouts.

But we soon discover that the Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, with a three-gear column shift and packed with three people and lots of heavy camping gear, and 105 horses of power under the hood, simply can’t go uphill in third. And uphill pretty much describes the entire trip from Rapid City to Yellowstone.

So the next thing we know, we’re doing most of the trip at 33 mph, with the engine revving in second. And we have to stop to let a herd of buffalo cross the road in the Black Hills. And then Hank’s suitcase will go flying off the roof rack of the Ford Maverick, color Thanks Vermillion, somewhere along a two-lane highway in the dark, and we won’t discover it’s missing until the sun comes up, and we’ll have to go back a hundred miles or so looking for it, and that’s why a nine-hour trip will last more than 24 hours, an arduous adventure for all of us, but especially Mike, who woke up in Brooklyn, New York.

Which just goes to explain why, instead of driving THROUGH Buffalo, Wyoming, at around 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, we found ourselves stopping at 2 in the morning for some sustenance — and lots of coffee.

Now, for all I know, Buffalo, Wyoming, is a chic town these days with a multiplex theater, a Starbucks and a Banana Republic.

But that most definitely was not the case at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night in 1971, when it had a couple of stoplights, a truckstop restaurant and a serious dearth of long-haired college kids from the Northeast.

Buffalo did, however, offer a wide variety of enjoyable activities and diversions for the local population, the most popular of which appeared to be whiskey and beer. And it quickly became apparent that everyone in town was partaking in those activities and diversions.

And so it was that when Mike, Kenny, Hank, Jan and I stepped out of our cars, we immediately increased the number of sober people in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night from zero to five.

We walked into the truckstop, found a table and sat down.

And every bloodshot eye in the place was trained right on us.

The waitress, a dyed redhead straight out of Rosie’s Diner, came over and asked, “One check or separate checks?”

She then added: “You better say one check.”

We said one check.

And then we ordered whatever she ordered us to order, because everyone in the truckstop was staring at us and this clearly was not a good time to request whole wheat or say hold the mayo.

Rosie walked off with our orders, and we sat there, quietly, staying as inconspicuous as five long-haired, grubby Northeast college kids can in a truckstop full of cowboys and Indians in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.

And that’s when the giant came around to pour our coffee.

We didn’t see many Native Americans — we called them American Indians back then — in New York, but there sure were a lot of them in this truckstop. In fact, pretty much everyone who wasn’t a cowboy was an Indian, and the most noticeable one of them was the giant pouring coffee. He was roughly 8 feet tall, and he was weaving unsteadily. He’d clearly been partaking in Buffalo’s favorite pastime, though I was not about to ask whether it had been rye or bourbon, Bud or Coors. It sure as hell wasn’t Tab.

He staggered over to our table and poured our coffee, and when he poured mine, he bent way, way down, and in a very deep and loud voice, for everyone in the joint to hear, he asked . . .

“What’s the headband for, son?” (At least he didn’t inquire about my cutoff jeans.)

A lot of thoughts ran quickly through my mind. How, I wondered, would my parents bring my coffin back from Buffalo? Who would drive my car back to New York? Would this be fast or slow?

“Ummmmm,” I replied meekly, “it keeps the hair out of my eyes.”

At least I think that’s what I said, because, really, I couldn’t hear my own voice.

The giant snorted, harumphed, and said loudly, for everyone to hear . . .

“Keeps the hair out of his eyes.”

And then he staggered off to another table.

We scarfed down our burgers and sandwiches and left a very big tip on our single check and got the hell out of there.

But on the way back to our cars, we encountered three women who also had clearly been partaking in Buffalo’s favorite recreational activity, and whose pickup wouldn’t start because their battery had gone dead. So the five of us, being real Northeast gentlemen and all that, offered instructions on how to jumpstart a vehicle, got in back and pushed, and the exhaust sputtered and off they went, waving and shouting to no one in particular.

And then off we went, remarkably unscathed.

I owe my life to an 8-foot-tall Native American, who had the kindness and grace not to tear me limb from limb for wearing a Tonto headband in a truckstop in Buffalo, Wyoming, at 2 in the morning on a Saturday night.

It’s a nice place to visit.

— 30 —

SEVENTY!!!

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This just defies belief. The greatest rocker of them all entered his eighth decade on earth today.

He’s been at it for more than half a century, and he still has the moves of a 20-year-old.

I’m gonna put Let It Bleed on the turntable and play it all night.

Happy birthday, Mick! Start me up!

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Mrs. Watkins and the Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky

BFSPull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you the story of Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins and how she unwittingly and unknowingly led me to my firm conviction that there is no Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky.

It’s a long one; go grab a beer.

But first, some background, because all of this might not have happened if I hadn’t screwed up third grade, when Mean Old Mrs. Murphy sent me straight on my path to hell, or wherever those of us who don’t believe in the Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky go when this life is over.

I had mastered the fine art of silent reading long before I entered third grade, and I reckon that was very inconvenient for Mean Old Mrs. Murphy, who more than anything liked order in her classroom. If it was reading-aloud time and the class was on Page 9 of the latest Alice & Jerry book, then Mrs. Murphy was going to make damned sure that every kid in the class had his or her page turned to Page 9 and was ready to read out loud when called upon.

And everybody meant everybody.

Well . . . everybody but me. Because I thought Alice & Jerry were supercool, and I just couldn’t wait to find out how their latest adventure was going to turn out. And did I mention that I had mastered the art of silent reading?

There was the rest of the class, their books dutifully opened to Page 9, and there I’d be, inevitably, tooling merrily along on Page 30 or somewhere when Mrs. Murphy, inevitably, would call on me to read out loud.

And every time, inevitably, I would have to ask Mrs. Murphy, in front of all my classmates, “What page are we on?”

And Mean Old Mrs. Murphy, inevitably, knew exactly how to handle an upstart 8-year-old. This situation called for public humiliation!

“I see Stephen isn’t paying attention again,” she’d tell the class, inevitably.

And so I knew well before Columbus Day that third grade was gonna be one tough slog, because there would be just too many inevitablies before summer vacation came along.

And then there was the issue of that poem we had to recite out loud, in unison, at an assembly, the one for which we prepared for months. It started out like this . . .

“The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

Listen real close and you’ll hear 8-year-old Stevie, his nose buried in Page 30 of an Alice & Jerry book, whispering the third-grade equivalent of . . .

“WTF?”

I knew very little about shepherds and wanting. And this being Brooklyn, N.Y., there were very few green pastures that some shepherd could maketh me to lie down in. And even if we could find a green pasture, where the hell were we going to find a shepherd?

And then we got to the “anointing my head with oil” part. That just sounded weird.

Now, I could memorize stuff OK. I knew, for example, that Crest had been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care. I could relate to that. But there was no way in hell I was going to learn that twenty-third psalm. I mean, seriously, what’s a psalm? And why’s it got a “p” in front?

And how come we didn’t have to memorize the first twenty-two before we got to it? How come I can’t skip to Page 30 but Mean Old Mrs. Murphy can skip right to Psalm 23?

Clearly, I was doomed.

And so it was that my parents got me the hell out of P.S. 197 and sent me to Brooklyn Friends School when it was time to be a fourth-grader.

BFS was a cool school. I quickly made friends and I became quite fond of my new teacher, Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins.

You remember Mrs. Watkins? This is all about Mrs. Watkins. (Literary device courtesy of Arlo Guthrie.)

Aside: Mrs. Watkins is the teacher in the picture at the top. I’m there, too. Bet you can’t pick me out, unless you went to BFS.

Flash forward a few weeks and we’re in class one day when Mrs. Watkins, for some reason, decided we would discuss everyone’s religion. (This was OK, by the way, because BFS was a Quaker school. Reciting the 23rd Psalm in a public school one year earlier was definitely NOT OK, but we digress.)

Mrs. Watkins went around the class, and each kid had to say what his or her religion was. Just about everyone was Jewish or some variety of Protestant. This being Brooklyn, there were a lot of Catholic kids around, but they went either to public school or to parochial school. We had a smattering of Quakers in the class, too, this being a Quaker school and all.

So we were going through the class, and Howard said he was Jewish, and Ryan was Protestant, and Michael was Jewish, and Raye was Protestant, and Stephen was Jewish, and Laurel was Protestant.

And then Mrs. Watkins called on Robert, who over the past few weeks had quickly become one of my best friends in the whole world, which means an awful lot to a New Kid in School. And Robert stood up and said:

“I’m an atheist.”

Huh???

More than two dozen 9-year-olds listened very intently, because this was a new word. What the hell is an atheist?

An atheist doesn’t believe in god, Robert told the class.

WHOA!!! WHAT???? How can that be possible? EVERYBODY believes in god. Haven’t met him, haven’t seen him, never heard a word from him, but . . . he’s there, right? I mean . . . Who doesn’t believe in god? I’ll bet even Eddie Haskell believes in god.

But Robert didn’t believe in god. Which, of course, meant that his parents didn’t believe in god, because really . . . where do you get your religion from when you’re a 9-year-old? If your mom and dad are Klingons, then you’re a Klingon, and Klingons hadn’t even been invented yet.

And that’s when Kindly Old Mrs. Watkins set the wheels in motion. It’s been more than half a century, but I still remember the exact words she said to the class after Robert shocked the world.

“Let’s continue,” she said, “and see if we can find a religion for Robert.”

WHOA!!! WHAT????

I was barely 9-years-old but I already knew this much:

Robert was my friend, and if he didn’t have a religion, he certainly did not need one. Robert was doing just fine.

And this got me to thinking, and once you start thinking about your religion, I reckon all hell breaks loose. If Robert was doing just fine without a god, I thought, I could do just fine without one, too. There was room in this classroom for TWO atheists!

So let’s move ahead four more years, and I’m studying for my bar mitzvah. And since I attend a Quaker school a long subway ride from home, I can’t go to Hebrew School at the end of the day with the rest of the Jewish kids in my neighborhood. And besides, my father’s mother is very, very orthodox, and so I am going to be bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue.

Yeah. Me.

So my parents hired an Orthodox rabbi to come to our home twice a week and tutor me so that I could read my Haftorah with style and class, surrounded by about six guys wearing black suits who would be speaking no English. This part was actually pretty easy, because Hebrew is a phonetic language. Lean the letters, learn the vowels, and you can speak it even if you don’t have a clue what you’re saying.

So all was going fine and well until the day Rabbi Aronoff (I think that was his name) showed up with these black straps and a black cube and told me they were tefillin —  also known as phylacteries. Two more new words. They didn’t look any prophylactic I had ever heard of, but hey, you learn something new every day.

Rabbi Aronoff showed me how to put the black cube on my head like a miner’s flashlight, and how to wrap the black straps around my arm, and he told me I was supposed to pray every morning with these things on. But he didn’t say what would happen if I didn’t.

I don’t have time, I told him.

Find the time, he told me.

Yeah, like that’s gonna happen, I said to myself.

So for a few months, Rabbi Aronoff would show up twice a week to tutor me, and every time he’d start out by asking me if I’d been putting on my tefillin and praying.

And remember . . . this whole atheist thing is still nagging at me.

Now Rabbi Aronoff was a decent guy, so when it came to answering the tefillin question, I most definitely did not want to hurt his feelings. So I told him, sure, I’m putting on my tefillin. You betcha.

I waited a bit, and, remarkably, no lightning bolt crashed through the window. It turned out you could lie to the rabbi and nothing would happen.

A couple of months later, I stood among a bunch of old men, all wearing black suits, facing a large congregation — men downstairs, women upstairs — and recited my haftorah. I didn’t have a clue what I was saying, but I said it just fine. And, again, amazingly, no lightning bolt crashed through the window.

Half a century later, I’m still standing.

Robert had it right all along. There is no Big Bad Invisible Voodoo Guy in the Sky.

So here’s a tip of the hat to Mrs. Watkins, who set all the wheels in motion.

— 30 —

Worth reading II, 07/03/13

Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis shouldn’t be sainted for her filibuster (Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post)

I like Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis. I admire her intelligence, chutzpah and tenacity.

But her elevation to national heroine, essentially owing to her ability to speak for 11 hours straight without a break while wearing (how many times did we hear or read it?) “rouge-red sneakers,” is absurd….

… when the question of whether we should destroy human life at any stage is reduced to theater, leaving many journalists gushing like breathless red-carpet commentators, we have lost more than a sense of decorum.

One may agree with Davis’s principled stand on the Texas bill, which, she argued, tried to do too much. Even so, a little less glee from the bleachers would seem more appropriate to the moment.

This is one helluva read, regardless of where you stand on abortion. Now read it.