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PHILADELPHIA PHUTILITY

 

 

The Philadelphia Phillies blew a baseball game in the final inning last night. That’s unfortunate, but not notably so. In fact, it has already happened eight times in this young season. Losing is an art form for the Phillies, the only professional franchise IN THE WORLD to have lost over 10,000 times. They hold the record for longest losing streak, too – 23 games in 1961.

When ahead in the final inning, they lose by way of home runs, errors, strikeouts, etc. Basically, they lose in all the usual ways. And once, in 1964, just once, they lost in an extraordinary way – the opposition stole home to deliver a 1-0 verdict. For non-baseball fans, stealing home in a major league game is like a total solar eclipse; it happens a couple times a year somewhere in the world, but rarely.

 

*****

I recently read a long article in the New Yorker (is there any other length?) about an author’s personal recollections of his grandparents. It’s touching and meaningful and made me ponder my own lack of such familial connections. Three of my four grandparents were deceased before I was born. I only knew my maternal grandfather, Joseph Nemerov, who died when I was nine. By all accounts, the man known to me as “Grand-Pop” was a beloved patriarch, friendly and easy-going, a hero to my mother and her siblings, and also to my father who wholeheartedly embraced him to fill a parental void in his life.

I’m certain I loved Grand-Pop, but my recollections of time spent with him are almost nil. His images in my mind are like disparate photographs, not films or even short videos. I recall the vacation boarding house where we joined him in Atlantic City, but I don’t picture him in any of my memories from there. I vaguely recall being in the backseat of a car he drove; I recall him presiding over a Passover Seder, though honestly, my memory may not be as much my own as based on a photograph I’ve seen. I remember the morning he died because I heard my mother and aunt sobbing in the kitchen downstairs when I awoke. Not knowing what to do, I stayed upstairs and tried to play a baseball-themed board game on my bedroom floor.

I’m sure I was upset about Grand-Pop’s death, and also confused, but what I most remember is feeling ashamed to be concerned about my lack of breakfast. I chose to remain hungry and alone upstairs rather than go downstairs amidst the crying adults.

 

*****

 

One of the few one-on-one experiences with my grandfather I recall, a full-blown memory with time, place and appearance, is tied to the worst historical moment in Phillies’ history.   Given the number of bad moments they have accumulated in their 125-year existence, that is saying something.

Despite their history of futility, in 1964, the Phillies approached the end of the season with a large lead in the National League standings. The city was abuzz with anticipation of the World Series where the Phillies would seek their first title since 1915. In my grandfather’s kitchen, with him and his radio, I remember settling in to listen to the entirety of the late-September game between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds. (Only weekend games were televised in that era; the radio was still prominent).

I recall Grand-Pop’s shock of white hair and vivid blue eyes. I also remember the square, brown pattern on the linoleum floor in the kitchen and white appliances. I remember the rounded radio, shaped like a toaster, and the familiarity of the sounds at Connie Mack Stadium, the beer and peanut hawkers (“Peanuts here, peeeeenuts!”) that intruded into the background of the broadcast. I recall the familiar ads for Ballentine’s Beer (“Hey, get your cold one”) and the sonorous voice of the team’s long-time announcer, Byrum Saam.   Sitting comfortably beside my grandfather at a card table, we rooted for the home team. It didn’t occur to me then that where he was born, in Ukraine, loyalty to a baseball team was as likely as my rooting for a sports team based on Mars. Most likely, he feigned interest for my sake.

Were this a story in the New Yorker, I would explain in great detail something profound about my interaction with Grand-Pop that evening. But other than the sense that I enjoyed his easy-going company (we played a card game, either “War” or “Casino” while we listened) my specific memory is what happened in the game. It was a tense, scoreless tie until the final inning, when Chico Ruiz, an infielder for the Reds, STOLE HOME to win the game for Cincinnati, 1-0. I remember trying to explain what had happened to my grandfather. “By” Saam better conveyed the amazing moment with his tone of voice – something startling and rare had occurred, but for the WRONG TEAM.

At that moment, it only seemed the Phillies had lost one game, and their unaccustomed position atop the standings wouldn’t be threatened.   Only as the next two weeks unfolded, and they lost ten games in a row, did it become clear Ruiz’s audacity had sent the team into a tailspin from which they never recovered.  The St. Louis Cardinals swooped in like birds of prey to win the title on the last day of the season. Though painful to the Phillies, I didn’t sense a personal connection in that moment, but the intervening half-century has rendered the memory significant to me.

 

 

*****

 

I’m sorry I don’t have more memories of my grandfather. In that era, his presence at every one of my little league games could not be assumed like nowadays. My youthful lack of perspective prevented me from taking more note of the times we did spend together. I hope circumstances will allow me to make more of an impact when I’m a grandfather. At present my only “grandchildren” are dogs. Stella, Boris and Bea definitely love me but I’m doubtful about my place in their long-term memories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


BOYCOTTS

In these hyper-partisan times it’s a chore to keep track of all the personalities, shows and businesses I have to boycott. There’s Papa John’s mediocre pizza due to its owner’s odious positions against raising the minimum wage and universal health insurance. There’s Fox News, the inventor of “we deceive and you believe,” and my related disinclination to watch anything on a Fox station that might incidentally benefit the Murdoch family, the owners. There is, of course, anything owned or supported by any Trump. Ivanka’s products don’t interest me nor do the con man’s golf courses or ugly ties, garish hotels and failing casinos. Thus, while I boycott the foregoing businesses, these are not painful sacrifices. It’s like skipping cigarettes or broccoli rabe, products I skip in the absence of moral or political motivations. I simply don’t like them.

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A dilemma is presented by Chick-fil-A. Here’s the problem: Several years ago, when taking cheap shots didn’t appear to have negative consequences, Chick-fil-A’s bible-thumping owners expressed their feelings against marriage equality and gay rights, in general. They helped fund a referendum their preferred political party used in a cynical (and successful) effort to prod their old and hateful core to vote.

After a backlash, the owners retreated behind a semi-sincere effort to “not offend anyone” and have been circumspect and non-controversial in a corporate way ever since. But I’m confident the owners of the company continue to harbor views I would consider hurtful and would express them openly if it didn’t cost them money. In addition, I’m certain whom they supported for president. I tend to wish for nothing but failure for such people. Accordingly, I know I should continue to boycott their restaurants.

Unfortunately, my new home is only one minute from a Chick-fil-A. I pass the building nearly every day, often more than once. When I returned late from a long tennis match hungry for lunch, and didn’t wish to drive out of my way, I recently offered myself an indulgence. “Just once,” I rationalized, “you can go to Chick-fil-A. Maybe they’ve changed. It’s proper to forgive and forget, at least occasionally.” (Even as I thought that last thought, I knew it didn’t sound like me; I didn’t really believe it, and I knew I was simply justifying an indefensible moral position).

As I entered the restaurant, I felt a tinge of embarrassment as though every person there sensed my hypocrisy. I wished I were wearing my “Bernie for President” tee shirt so I wouldn’t be assumed to be among the 71% of Caucasian males who voted for the con man.

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But no one looked at me. I approached the counter. An impossibly cheerful and scrubbed young man wearing a tie asked: “Good afternoon, sir. What would you like?”

Taken aback by his pleasantness, I stumbled, but eventually uttered: “Um, ah, the basic chicken sandwich and fries, please?”

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“Will you be dining in?” he asked.

“Hunh?” I said.

“Will you eat in or take out?” he asked, smiling patiently.

“Oh, I’ll stay, ah, sit, ah, dine here,” I stuttered, hoping my use of “dine” didn’t sound mocking since he really, really seemed sincerely interested in my choice and he really, really seemed to consider what I would be doing with my chicken sandwich and fries to be “dining.”

“And your choice of beverage?” he asked.

“My drink?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Iced tea. Can you mix unsweetened and sweet fifty-fifty?”

“Of course, sir,” he said. “That will be my pleasure. Thank you so much for your order. We’ll bring your meal to your table.”

 

*****

 

My earliest boycott performances were spotty. In middle school, around 1970, I became aware of Cesar Chavez and the campaign to boycott grapes on behalf of the United Farm Workers. Gifted at rationalization, I avoided seeded grapes and red grapes for several years. But I really liked green grapes, and convinced myself they were picked by fairly treated workers.

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Later, when car shopping became relevant to me, I joined many of my co-religionists in not considering a Mercedes or Volkswagen due to their Second World War complicity in the Nazi cause. When my eye caught a cherry red BMW circa 1983, however, I rationalized its purchase on my childhood misunderstanding that BMW was a British company. I knew better by then, but…the car was really beautiful.

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Subsequent boycott efforts lacked political motives. Like most people, I avoid restaurants known to be dirty, stores known to have unpleasant salespersons, etc. But what to do about a restaurant displaying sanitation scores of 100%, friendly workers, and unsalted waffle fries made just the way I like them? This brings me back to Chick-fil-A.

 

*****

 

I take my seat and observe the cheerful and bustling scene around me. Customers run the gamut from toddlers to senior citizens, from every ethnicity, and, I imagine, every gender preference. After only a minute, a young woman with a broad smile brings my meal to my table and sets it before me. “Would you like ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce?” she asks.

“Just ketchup,” I say.

“Here it is,” she says, as she retrieves several packets from her pocket. “Y’all just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I behold the food before me. In a neat cellophane package is my chicken sandwich. It is hot and juicy, the chicken tender, the pickles zesty, the bread fresh. I’m not claiming this to be a healthy or gourmet choice, but for a fast food sandwich that costs less than $6, it’s good. And the fries? They are plentiful, soft and hot. The table and tray are immaculate. The iced tea is cold and tasty.

“What,” I ask myself as I eat, “am I going to do about my boycott?” Finally, I have an idea. After I eat, I seek out the “Suggestion Box” and write the following to the manager: “I enjoyed my meal today. I would enjoy it even more and, probably more often, if Chick-fil-A would issue a statement in support of all people, no matter their preferences in gender, color or political persuasion. Such a statement should be issued on rainbow paper.” I drop my suggestion in the box.

I’m not going to eat at Chick-fil-A often, but each time I do, I will leave a similar note. If my suggestion is ever followed, I will declare an end to my leaky boycott and urge everyone else to do the same.

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FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

*****

 

I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

*****

 

In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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*****

What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


                 SWEATSHOP SUFFERING

 

Okay, I didn’t really “suffer,” but I did spend an afternoon completing menial tasks in a Brooklyn-based industrial work space. My daughter, Kelly, owns a start-up company manufacturing menswear-inspired clothing for women. When we visited several weeks ago, my wife, Katie, and I were given the “opportunity” to help out in the sort of “all hands on deck” efforts that are the hallmark of a hungry, new company.

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Along with a potential for carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand, I gained appreciation for an oft-overlooked or taken-for-granted object, namely: the extra button that is included with new shirts. Would you believe attaching such a button, when done manually (Ralph Lauren and the like doubtless use machines), can be an eleven-step process?

 

*****

 

Some background is necessary. Kelly and her wife/business partner, Laura, are necessarily detail-oriented.   They shaped, tested, modeled, designed and discussed every aspect of their line of shirts for nearly a year before the first thread hit the first sewing machine. They aspire to provide their customers nothing less than the highest quality, sustainable, and affordable (but not too affordable) garment possible. In that way, they aim to build a following that will endure and grow.

The buttons I attached to 150 shirts, or so, were, therefore, not ordinary buttons. Sourced from the nut of a tagua tree harvested in Equador, and milled elsewhere in Latin America, they are delivered to Brooklyn in recyclable packages. Each of the company’s three styles of shirts sport a different button, naturally, selected specially for their particular color. While an undiscerning eye such as my own could not easily distinguish between buttons, I learned that buttons are to be taken seriously.

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Here’s the process: (which Kelly promises will be streamlined in the future)

  1. Take an appropriate (as designated on a computer printout referencing each shirt) button from the bag after figuring out which are “ivory” which are “bone” and which are “plain old white.” (In doing so, I felt I nearly understood, after forty years of wondering, what Procol Harem meant by “whiter shade of pale.”)
  2. Take a two-inch by one-inch paper envelope from a box of such envelopes and apply the company name, Kirrin Finch, using an ink stamp, making sure the writing appears dead-center in the front of the envelope;
  3. Place the button inside the envelope;
  4. Punch a tiny hole in the top of the envelope using a small hole-puncher;
  5. Place an adhesive tag dead-center on the back of said envelope promising: “A button and a smile from Kirrin Finch”;
  6. Disentangle a four-inch thread from a pile of such threads, akin to separating one piece of spaghetti from a plateful;
  7. Thread the thread through the little hole in the envelope;
  8. Open the second button from the top of the shirt;
  9. Trim any extra thread from the opened buttonhole with miniature scissors;
  10. Pull the string through the buttonhole, tie a knot to secure the baby envelope, and re-button the button to secure the string.
  11. Breathe a sigh of relief and… repeat.

Note that several entries combine functions. I didn’t want to list fifteen or sixteen steps, but I could have.   Please forgive me, but I couldn’t help thinking that if there WERE a task appropriate for child labor to complete, this is it.

 

*****

 

In the interest of family comity and all-around “good guy” behavior, I completed my extra button task with sufficient efficiency to be offered another task. Thus, confirmation of the axiom: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Job number two involved separating groups of buttons into plastic sandwich bags in groups of ten. These would be used for the eventual manufacture of future shirts. Again, I had to separate the now-familiar piles of stunningly similar-looking buttons and count to ten, like a pharmacist counts pills. Unlike a pharmacist, however, my efforts would not be “life and death.” Or so I thought…

After I’d completed ten bags, Kelly chose to double-check my counting. How this happened, I don’t know, but the first two bags she checked had twelve and eight buttons, respectively. This calamity represented the low-point of my career as a no-wage worker.

“If the seamstress gets a shirt order with the wrong number of buttons attached,” said Kelly, distraught, “the whole process stops.”

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I pictured myself with Lucy and Ethel stuffing my face with chocolates as the assembly line sped up. Though the rest of the bags contained the correct number of buttons my fate was sealed. “You’re fired from this task,” she said.

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I shook my head with sincere regret and embarrassment, but at the same time, my mind drifted towards retirement from clothing manufacturing. I pictured the delicious Italian dinner that approached in just a few hours like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Kelly interrupted my reverie, however: “I have something you can’t possibly screw up.”

“Oh, good,” I said, sincerity draining away.

“You’re tall, and these shirts have to be put up away,” she said, indicating several piles of shirts and several empty cubbyholes high up in a wall unit behind a table.

“I can do that,” I said, with enthusiasm. I recalled the task my father often assigned me in his clothing store, fifty years earlier, to break down empty boxes. What satisfaction can be gleaned from a simple-minded activity that cannot easily be messed up!

I distributed the shirts by size to their appropriate spots and chastened from the button experience, double-checked my own work. After fifteen minutes, all of the shirts were put away and Kelly finally called it quits for the day.

“You’ve shown yourself semi-competent with buttons,” she said. “The next time you visit, maybe we’ll try you out on collar stays.”

Oy.

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