Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflections & Remarks on the Year Gone By (December 30, 2011)

I never imagined a year ago that 2011 would turn out to be so life-changing. It didn’t start with a bang and won’t end with a whimper. But, it was neither the best of times nor the worst. It was mostly just lousy.
One of the best days was July 9th when I was at Yankee Stadium with my two oldest friends as we witnessed Derek Jeter get his milestone 3,000th hit. Even in a great year, something that momentous would stand out.
A month later the worst day happened of the blue when I was unexpectedly fired.
I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions or harboring notions of a great leap forward, but as the autumn of my life begins, I hope winter's down the road a piece.
Don’t get me wrong, I try to maintain a positive outlook, but with the few setbacks I’ve had, that has somewhat diminished. Gratefully, in regards to the outlook, several friends have been supportive.
Since August, I’ve tried to adjust to being jobless, because finding one — or any satisfying employment — at this point in time doesn’t look promising.
Leads have been few didn’t pan out. Weeks after one interview, I learned I was rejected because I wouldn’t “fit in,” which might be interpreted as a polite — and legitimate — way to let me down easy, instead of bluntly informing me I was too old. Nonetheless, if I was hired, it would merely have provided nothing more than a daily activity to get me out of the house.
I’ve had about a dozen freelance writing/photography assignments, which have not been especially financially rewarding.
To keep my writing skills fresh, I started a blog, and though it hasn’t drawn many readers, I continue to post a new column weekly. It doesn’t matter who reads it, but, presumably, most are friends and acquaintances, not Internet surfers seeking a clever viewpoint. Nevertheless, I’ll keep posting, if only for my own satisfaction.
Furthermore, since I have anyone to proofread it, I’ve become a better editor though I tend to tweak it a bit even after it’s posted and find an error.
So, now that I’m accustomed to the bleak job picture, much like millions of others across the country, I spend more time than I prefer, planning activities, errands for the upcoming week and puttering around my apartment.
Being idle doesn’t mean being idle.
I’ve cut spending to equal my budget reduction, but also realized that keeping my brain functioning — and my body — is just as critical.
We’ve all been cautioned that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease it is vital to maintain brain activity. In that regard, I do the Daily News crossword puzzle and Jumble six mornings a week. They’re not extremely complex, but it is rewarding when I usually complete them.
The harder part is physical activity. I’ve become sedentary as I spend more time at the computer and watch more cable news by day and a few favorite programs at night. I’ve also been reading more. Before the weather got colder, I’d walk around the Marine Park oval several times a week. I’ve been doing that intermittently for well over a decade now and it stirs my endorphins and gives me a feeling of accomplishment.
***
Now that I’ve bared myself, to some degree, here are a few things that ticked me off in the past year.
2012 is going to be a long year — politically. Anyone who’s paid attention to domestic current events has seen the yo-yo effect that continues to dominate the Republican Party’s presidential nomination race that will likely continue until one individual is harvested to end this exhausting ordeal at the top of the news every morning.
For the last five months, unless there was a disaster or tragedy at home or abroad, cable news networks began their 24-7 time slots with “breaking news” tidbits from the Republican debates and consequent Democratic reactions.  It’s mind-numbing to watch the same news over and over. Even before the first GOP battle at the voting booth in Iowa next week, and the presidential election almost a year away, we’ve seen a dozen debates and as many lead changes for the Republican frontrunner.
Americans apathetic to the political process likely turned a deaf ear to the chaotic GOP race from the start, while political junkies, who delight in such matters, cannot seriously be looking forward to ten more months of this.
Nevertheless, this is what we’ve come to expect from our limited democratic process and relentless news coverage.
***
Some names I’d like to read or hear a lot less about in 2012 include any member of the Kardashian clan and the Jersey Shore gang, especially Snookie; Lindsay Lohan should go into seclusion and straighten herself out before reemerging, and, last but not least, Donald Trump.
Celebrity weddings should be ignored. From now on, unless a couple manages to reach their first anniversary, there should be a mandatory blackout because, as we’ve seen lately, that goal is scarce.
It ain’t never gonna happen while there’s apparently an avid audience for it, but I’d be thrilled with a lot less media coverage of celebrity gossip that passes for news nowadays.
And if you’re a fan of reality shows, wake up and smell the staged dramatics. When it comes to television programming, reality has truly lost its meaning. 
***
Went to a movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” for the first time in months and it was very good, from the riveting screenplay to the first-rate acting to the stylish, spot on atmosphere on screen. (However, a few members of the audience supplied an uncalled-for laugh track during terribly violent scenes – which I may provide fodder for another column.) I never read the best-seller on which the film is based, but this version, surprisingly, is much better than the European version I saw on DVD. Due to graphic scenes depicting sadism and murder, which are key plot points, this ain’t a date movie.  I anticipate the sequel and plan on reading the second book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy early next year.
***
Well, that’s my final column for 2011. I wish my regular and occasional readers a happy and healthy New Year. And if prosperity also comes your way, that’s great.
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

This Brooklyn Diamond Keeps On Shining (November 17, 2005)

In conjunction with the airing of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, here's a column I wrote several years ago about one of the recipients.
Has anyone checked to see if hell froze over last week?
It might have because veteran pop singer/songwriter Neil Diamond has been receiving the kind of first-rate reviews and praise from music critics for his latest recording that are usually reserved for less popular, more hip performers.
Who would have thought that this Brooklyn native son would become the music critics’ darling 40 years after his career began as a $50-a-week songwriter?
Well, maybe not a darling, but his latest disc, “12 Songs,” which was released last week, has garnered some exceptional reviews from the likes of Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among others, including words and phrases like “masterpiece,” “unparalleled songwriting,” “returns Diamond to greatness” and “(Diamond’s) best work in 30 years.”
Despite his immense popularity – he reportedly was the biggest selling solo concert draw in the 1990s and has sold over 120 million records — Diamond has rarely, if ever, earned the kind of accolades he’s now getting from critics who typically reviled and panned the dozens of albums he’s recorded during his career. Derisive terms, such as master of schlock ‘n roll, schmaltzy crowd pleaser, bloated, over-produced, the Jewish Elvis and others, has followed him his entire career. Sometimes his detractors seemed to ignore the music as they panned his sequined, studded and beaded wardrobe.
Early in his career Diamond had a string of 15 hits in five years (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” among them), more than 40 Top 40 hits, and several of his songs have been covered by a diverse mix of artists, from The Monkees to Urge Overkill to Tina Turner to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, to name a few.
“12 Songs” was one of the most-anticipated releases of the year because Diamond turned to hip-hop and hard rock producer Rick Rubin, who had worked with such contemporary and veteran artists, as LL Cool J, Jay Z, Tom Petty and Mick Jagger, before reviving country singer Johnny Cash’s career a decade ago.
Rubin, Diamond learned, had been a fan of the singer/songwriter for years and persuaded him to go back to the basics — playing acoustic guitar and recording his songs with minimal accompaniment. In other words, forgo the dramatic atmosphere and get back to his roots — his unmistakable baritone voice and musicianship. For the first time in 35 years Diamond plays guitar on the recording.
Rubin stripped Diamond of the customary glitz and trimmings to carve out a dozen low key, reflective and passionate songs without losing the powerful emotions prevalent in his repertoire of power ballads and up-tempo songs, and backed him essentially with only a handful of musicians.
Diamond, who attended Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, has even admitted in recent interviews that he feels some of his new songs hark back to his first two albums, albeit with much more mature outlooks.
Like others who deem it unfashionable to admit, I enjoy much of Neil Diamond’s music, particularly his earlier work. My musical tastes are diverse, with a penchant for classic rock, but when someone asks me to list my favorites I rarely include Diamond, though I enjoy listening to his music and include one of his Forest Hills shows as a favorite concert. I find some of his later material excessive, but his early work, despite being nostalgic like some early Beatles’ songs, has stood the test of time.
In addition to being drawn to his music, there’s also an indirect link because of our similar roots. He is several years older than me, but we grew up in adjoining neighborhoods – he in Brighton Beach, me in Sheepshead Bay. That connection re-emerges whenever I listen to the opening stanza from his reflective “Brooklyn Roads” that recalls a time and place to which I relate: “If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my mother/Callin’ ‘Neil, go find your brother/Daddy’s home and it’s time for supper.’” (©1970 Stonebridge Music.)
As far as his loyal fans are concerned, Neil Diamond never lost his luster. And those who've enjoyed him from the closet can now unreservedly emerge.
Those who constantly condemned him for decades now concur that Neil Diamond has produced a sparkling gem.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kruger Exit Leaves Another Stain on NY State Politics (December 23, 2011)

As the year comes to a close, so does another gloomy episode in state politics. After months of speculation — and weeks before his trial was scheduled to begin — State Senator Carl Kruger pled guilty this week to four counts of conspiracy and bribery over a five year stretch.
The 62-year-old Kruger, who represented south Brooklyn communities that included Sheepshead Bay and Mill Basin, resigned from office prior to his court appearance, but, in any case, by admitting guilt, he would have automatically been discharged from the state legislature, where he served and gradually gained influence since 1994.
In court, Kruger admitted to abusing his position with details of shady schemes in exchange for official backing. He allegedly also directed state funds and sponsored legislation that he convinced colleagues to support, which benefited him, lobbyist acquaintances and their clients.
The exhaustive federal complaint gives the impression that Kruger rarely made a decision without a guarantee of money or an exchange of favors paid directly to him or funneled through an accomplice, as he deprived constituents of reliable services. His six-figure taxpayer-funded salary with its a five-figure stipend as chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, apparently wasn’t enough to support the lifestyle he preferred, which included a large Mill Basin mansion, financed, according to prosecutors, with bribe money.
Kruger was appointed head of the Finance Committee three years ago after he and three colleagues revolted against the Senate’s leadership and stalled the legislative progress with demands for specific positions of power. The arm-twisting worked, Kruger got the post, which only bolstered the self-importance that led to his downfall.
Though Kruger’s Senate colleagues never publicly condemned him, they reportedly shunned him when he returned to Albany four days after the indictment. He was expected to address Democratic senators, but cancelled when many lawmakers refused to attend.
Above all, this scandal is just the latest example of how money plays a crucial role in shaping city, state and national policies. It’s a shame that some of those elected turn into rotten apples, particularly when they see an opportunity to profit.
The New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10) cautions, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” but some politicians just don’t give a damn when temptation crosses their paths. 
New York’s legislature’s reputation is disreputable enough; more corruption was unnecessary to spoil it further. Politicians are rarely high on the public trust scale, but Kruger reduced the little confidence that remained a few more degrees.
After the senator’s arrest in March, the federal prosecutor said, “…the case resulted from an “unholy alliance of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen.”
This scandal once again spotlights what has been referred to as the nation’s most dysfunctional legislature, and should, as the U.S. attorney said, “…be another wake-up call to undue New York’s ethical morass.”
Talk of ethics reform has echoed through the halls of state capitol for years, but little is ever accomplished. We’ve heard it before — especially when elections roll around — but it never materializes. New Yorkers no longer get excited when rhetoric touches on consequential reform because we’re well aware that politicians talk a good game, but support fades like a waning moon when decision time arises.
When I dealt with the senator as a reporter, I detested his showboating tactics, but this is not a cause for celebration.  Some may gloat over this outcome and are glad to see him go, but whether or not you liked the guy is secondary to the latest humiliation for New York politics. Rather, it’s time for our state legislators to put responsibility to serve the public good ahead of any sleazy temptations. Elected representatives are not only expected to advocate our laws, but to uphold them, as well.
To make matters worse, Kruger will be eligible to collect the sizable pension he earned in office while he serves his sentence. That, in itself, is something that should end in any reform. When a state employee is guilty of felony, any pension due should be voided or, at least, reduced. After all, Kruger admitted to cheating constituents and should not collect a pension earned after admitting he committed a crime or two.
Elected representatives are accountable to voters, not donors or personal whims. However, long before Carl Kruger, others like him used their office to supersede the will of the people. It’s disgraceful, but, too often, it seems like that’s the way business is conducted 180 miles north of Brooklyn.
If the state’s politicians don’t endorse far-reaching ethics reform to reverse the web of unremitting corruption, the rotten apples will continue to make things more challenging for the honorable ones.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

End of Iraq War Closes Long, Murky Chapter in American History (December 16, 2011)

These lyrics to “War is Over” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono are particularly timely this Christmas. 
So this is Christmas and what have you done,
Another year over, a new one just begun.
A very merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear.
War is over if you want it, war is over now.

There were no celebrations. No parades. No dancing in the streets. No soldiers kissing girls in Times Square. The war in Iraq, AKA Operation Iraqi Freedom, sort of turned out like the month of March — it came in like a lion (shock & awe) and went out like a lamb.
While we should be thankful the Iraqi conflict is officially over, we must not forget the thousands of American combat and support troops still engaged in a war in Afghanistan — that one’s for Enduring Freedom — where they face death and danger every day. For them, there’s nothing to cheer. And though the Iraq War may officially be over, American soldiers, diplomats and other civilians remain to face the wrath of certain Iraqi factions.
Even so, the key difference between the end of this war and when the last soldiers returned from Vietnam in 1975 is that these veterans won’t be subjected to the undue scorn or derision heaped on their predecessors unjustly blamed for any connection to the innocent slaughter of unarmed civilians.
The one thing common to the end of this war, which gradually lost national support as it dragged on with no clear resolution, is that a grateful nation reveres those who served, remembers those whose lives were sacrificed and, hopefully, won’t soon forget those who came home injured in mind and body. Consequently, it is imperative that our government guarantees Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, especially those who experienced serious physical and psychological damage, are provided adequate assistance to adjust to postwar life. And, even in this struggling economy, it is crucial that businesses try and accommodate able-bodied veterans so they can make a suitable transition to civilian life.
One question that has been debated for eight years, and one that help cue a divisive grass-roots controversy, but lately has been on the minds of media pundits, newsmakers, opinion writers and the man on the street is, was the war in Iraq worth it.
How can you measure the significance of something that was an unequivocal blunder from the onset? After all, it started on the whim, or maybe a plan, of few misguided government officials — with President George W. Bush at the top of that list. In the end, the cost was 4,500 American men and women lives and an estimated $1 trillion spent on something initiated with faulty, uncorroborated information.
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama did not herald the mission as a victory when the war officially ended on December 15. This president knows we’re not that much closer to the end of the War on Terror than we were on May 1, 2005. On that day, Bush, in a badly chosen attempt to take the edge off a nation still saddened by the horror of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, prematurely declared the end of the war as he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a huge banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”
Putting aside the cost in lives and whether or not freedom and democracy really had much to do with our motives, the money spent on the Iraq War helped devastate our national economy. It also stained America’s image abroad with long-time allies, as well as Arab nations with which we hoped to craft constructive affiliations and business ties. The war also distracted us from vital international and domestic issues, but diverted scads of money to destroy then rebuild Iraq’s roads, bridges and buildings, while this nation’s infrastructure was drastically underfunded or neglected and left to deteriorate. 
Despite continuing violence, Iraq is safer today and better off without Saddam Hussein, but it still must reconcile its civil war and create a stable government if the Iraqi people can hope to live in a peaceful, secure and tolerant society.
Only time will tell if we learned any lesson from the botched misadventure where we stayed the course much too long. But, as we welcome home the troops, one in particular stands out: from now on America should develop a viable, rational approach before committing troops to fight and die in a clash that justifies sacrifice in the defense of this country.

Friday, December 16, 2011

President Bush Serving Same Old Whine from a New Bottle (December 8, 2005)

More than two and a half years ago, those opposed to the invasion of Iraq were vilified for condemning President Bush after he landed on an aircraft carrier off the West Coast and prematurely spoke of victory standing in front of a titanic banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”
Here we are, more than 2,000 dead American soldiers later — and counting — as the mission lingers and the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel isn’t even a flicker. And the longer it persists, the greater chance it has of becoming the costliest war in our history, while critical domestic agendas and vital Homeland Security programs are shortchanged and overlooked.
Last week, in Annapolis, the president spoke before a receptive audience of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen — he is, after all, their Commander-in-Chief — to defend, for the umpteenth time, and outline his war strategy, but refused to broach U.S. troop withdrawal.
Bush said that military commanders on the scene, not Washington politicians seeking “an artificial timetable,” would determine the policy for troop withdrawal.
At one point the president said, “Iraqi forces have made real progress…” but Army General George W. Casey, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, had previously contradicted Bush at a Senate hearing, stating that only one of 100 Iraqi battalions formed since 2003 is adequately prepared and capable of operating independently.
“A time of war is a time of sacrifice,” the president noted. That kind of rhetoric is easy to utter when you — and those who authorized the war at the outset — have sacrificed nothing but their reputations.
Prior to Bush’s remarks, the National Security Agency issued a report, which warned that deadly violence is a prospect for Iraq “for many years.”
The question then is how much longer will American soldiers be victims of that deadly violence?
Even most opponents of the war don’t want the president to hastily cut and run because it could put American and Iraqi lives in jeopardy, but, it’s rather obvious that it’s going to take many years for the Iraqi Army to sufficiently defend itself from insurgents, terrorists and native factions that desperately want equitable representation in the new government.
Before the chest-beating speech, nearly two-thirds of Americans polled disapproved of Bush’s Iraq policy. In its aftermath that number shrunk a bit, but the president’s popularity is still at the lowest level of his presidency, due largely to the situation in Iraq.
This war was an unequivocal mistake from the onset. The unprovoked attack on Iraq in March 2003 was nothing more than delayed retaliation in response to the worst attack on America in history. It had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, nor did our soldiers come across any evidence of weapons of mass destruction that dictator Saddam Hussein was supposedly stockpiling to use against us. Incidentally, in the speech Bush never alluded to those motives, which, perhaps, he finally realizes, few still believe.
The only reasons the president got nearly unanimous approval from Congress for the Iraqi action was because politicians were undoubtedly troubled about post-9/11 backlash back home. Voters would have judged a “No” vote as opposition to terrorist retribution. More politicians, however, might have voted against the attack if they were not suckered in by faulty intelligence.
With the GOP suffering a few losses in last month’s elections and hoping to avoid additional reductions in next year’s Congressional elections, it’s reasonable to speculate there will be an announcement about troop reduction just in time for voters to remember that move when they go to the polls eleven months from now. While President Bush continues to rehash his “stay the course” policy, it’s only a matter of months before that course will be changed for political gain rather than common sense.
It’s all in the timing, just as the president went on the stump to defend the war to bolster his image in the eyes of an American public that is growing more and more restless with each attack on American forces.
Not much — except the number of GI deaths — has changed since May 2003. It’s the same old whine in a brand new bottle.
It’s time for President Bush to realize that though pulling out troops may not be a plan for victory, it is, ultimately, a sensible strategy to save American lives that would begin to put an end to one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history.

Iraq, One Year Later: Mission Botched, Not Accomplished (April 15, 2004)

With the formal end of the war in Iraq this week, I post this column that I wrote after its first year.
Almost one year after President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier moored off the coast of California and triumphantly boasted, "Mission accomplished," and major U.S. combat operations in Iraq were over, the situation, to put it succinctly, is a bloody mess.
That presidential moment, preceded by a male testosterone-induced jet-landing stunt, has proven to be untimely because hundreds of Americans have died since then, not in the name of freedom or to counter Muslim terrorism, but to transform Iraq into a democracy.
Iraqis dancing in the streets last spring, rejoicing over the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has been replaced by frequent acts of random violence. Today, once jubilant Iraqis are, no doubt, as much concerned about what the future holds as are American families whose military sons' and daughters’ tours of duty were abruptly extended last week.
Indeed, the only thing that’s been accomplished in the last twelve months is to entangle this nation in a billion-dollar-a-week struggle that’s slowly paralleling the quagmire we endured for fourteen years in Vietnam.
This time, though, it’s starting off more lethal!
According to the Reuters news agency, Department of Defense data designates the start of the Vietnam War as December 11, 1961. In the first three years, nearly 400 Americans died in Southeast Asia. As we enter the second year in Iraq, the war borders on chaotic, while the number of American military casualties is fast approaching 700, including some 50 KIAs last week. There are more pockets of resistance now than following the "Shock and Awe" bombing campaign that preceded ground combat.
As the war drags on, the tragedy that precipitated it is being investigated by a commission, which is revealing staggering evidence about the incompetence of the nation’s domestic and international intelligence agencies and negligence of top government officials.
Mind you, this bipartisan, independent authority was adamantly opposed by the Bush Administration. It was authorized only after various family members of 9/11 victims persisted in their effort to obtain answers about the terrorist attacks that took almost 3,000 lives.
The commission’s report, scheduled to be issued by midsummer, will likely focus on the ineptitude of the FBI and CIA, particularly the rivalry that has traditionally led to keeping each other out of the loop when it comes to sharing vital information. If nothing else, there has to be a complete overhaul of how these agencies operate — and cooperate — from now on.
We know now that the critical report – the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S." — the administration grudgingly declassified last week, contained little new information, but still deserved attention because it pointed to something in the wind.
When former White House counterterrorist chief Richard Clarke, who served America’s last four presidents, recently testified before the commission, he claimed he tried on numerous occasions to warn the president and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice about the Al Qaeda threat, but was always rebuffed since they seemed more obsessed with overthrowing the Iraqi dictator.
However sincere, Clarke’s testimony was a bit tainted by the fact he’d recently been promoting a book in which he denounced the Bush administration’s negligence in the months preceding 9/11. Clarke maintains that Bush was focused on ousting Saddam Hussein while Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were afterthoughts.
When Rice appeared before the commission last week, she was unyielding, yet unconvincing and uninformative, in her defense about disregarding the Al Qaeda threat, but did support Clarke’s criticism of FBI and CIA bungling of information.
From the information gleaned thus far by the commission, it’s highly improbable anyone in the White House could have been prevented the 9/11 attacks, nevertheless, it is evident that the Bush administration was mindful of something in the air, yet failed to take appropriate action for what they judged to be vague "patterns of suspicious activity."
The altered process in reacting to suspicious terrorist chatter since 9/11 is agonizingly unmistakable every time the White House issues a terror alert upgrade based on any speck of evidence it collects.
If the Bush Administration were as vigilant to warnings of domestic terrorism as it was to foreign intelligence reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, perhaps they would not have to be on the defensive now.
If President George W. Bush hopes to earn a distinguished place in American history, and win a second term in November, he can start by taking responsibility for what happened on his watch — from intelligence breakdowns to the botched mission in Iraq — and restore the deteriorating confidence of the American public.
Once and for all, Mr. President, we need to hear the truth. We can handle it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Trump: Sideshow Distraction or Serious Contender? (April 21, 2011)

As cherry trees blossom in Washington DC, so do budding presidential candidates. While there are about a dozen Republicans thinking about entering the race for the White House in 2012, no one has officially committed.
With the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary scheduled for next winter, it’s unlikely Barack Obama will have a challenger from his own party, but it’s a whole ‘nother story for the Republican side.
But, so far, the current leader of the GOP pack in the polls looks like the joker in the Republican deck.
Donald Trump hasn’t thrown his proverbial hat into the presidential political ring, but he has been flirting with the idea for several weeks. Although, he must be getting serious because Trump has expressed a change of heart — known as a flip-flop in political circles — on a couple of issues that deeply divide the two major parties. He once supported universal health care and was pro-choice on abortion, but now opposes the former and is pro-life on the latter, knowing he must bow to conservative principles to be a potential candidate. He recently acknowledged, “I’m pro-life. I think that’s a big social issue.’’
At least that’s a relevant matter, compared to the one he’s focused on lately. Trump has joined that group of birthers, who, despite ample evidence to the contrary, refuse to acknowledge that Barack Obama was born in the U.S. It doesn’t matter if Trump and the birthers doubt the authenticity of Hawaii’s birth records; the President is a citizen no matter which way the facts are twisted. Trump must get past this issue or it’ll spoil any chance he has to be a presidential contender.
Ya have to wonder, who’s acting crazier of late, Donald Trump or Charlie Sheen? Sheen is ahead for now, but after Trump’s latest remarks, “I like blacks” and calling LaGuardia “a Third World airport,” the billionaire’s slowly gaining on the unrestrained actor.
It’s been rumored Trump might announce his intentions to jump into the GOP race next month on the season finale of his TV reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Another indication came last week when he informed NBC not to include the popular show on its 2011-12 schedule, since the network would have to offer equal air time for Trump’s opponents.
With many voters fed up with politics as usual from both Democrats and Republicans, Trump appears to be riding a wave of frustration and dissatisfaction that was evident with the formation of the Tea Party not long after Obama took the oath of office. As a result, he holds the top spot, by nine points according to the latest polls, in a potential field of experienced and novice politicians.
Yet, if Trump wants to be taken seriously, he must get serious — and fast. On the other hand, unless a viable GOP contender overtakes him, this Clown Prince of Politicians just might talk his way to the top of the Republican ticket next year.
And that would be a sad state of affairs even though he would stand little chance of unseating Obama. When all is said and done, Donald Trump will not be the Republican Party nominee in 2012.
First of all, how can Trump be a suitable fit with conservatives’ family values? He’s been married three times and had a very public affair while still married to his first wife. Right wing memories must be limited. They were quick to condemn President Clinton’s extramarital affair and his pre-White House trysts, but when their advocates are exposed in similar circumstances, they merely look the other way. If that’s not the definition of hypocritical, than what is?
Secondly, Trump has never been one to shun the media spotlight. Even so, if and when he does announce his candidacy, he’s going to have to show a lot more than a birth certificate. With the ubiquitous Internet and 24/7 prying eyes of the media, he’s going to have to submit to a vetting process and scrutiny that he managed to avoid as he built his real estate empire.
There’s little doubt Donald Trump’s a wheeler dealer — he’s got the billions to prove it. Though he’s got more money than his likely opponents combined, if Trump enters the presidential political arena, he’s going to discover there’s nothing he can hide (can’t wait ‘til they interview his hair stylist).
 Anyway, while his incessant diarrhea of the mouth gets media attention, it only confirms he’s nothing but a sideshow distraction.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stephen King Reigns With Captivating Journey Back In Time (December 9, 2011)

With more than four dozen novels and several short story collections on his resume, Stephen King is one of the most successful authors of his generation and hardly needs more validation to confirm his talent. All the same, he recently received another accolade when his latest best-seller, “11-22-63,” was selected as one of the New York Times’ ten Best Books of 2011. Maybe literary snobs and others who have rejected his work until now will now realize it’s time for a second look.
In its praise, the Times noted, “Throughout his career, King has explored fresh ways to blend the ordinary and the supernatural.”
Over the years King has been criticized and praised, but in this passage from an article in the Times Magazine in 2000, Cynthia Ozick put the debate in perspective: “Never mind all the best sellers and all the stereotypes — this man is a genuine, trueborn writer...He writes sentences, he has a literary focus and his writing is filled with literary history.
Eight years ago when King received the National Book Foundation’s prestigious award for lifetime achievement, cranky members of the literary elite grumbled because his body of work, they argued, "had little, if any, literary value.” Much of the negative criticism faded as his career progressed and his work became more infused with grand splashes of humanity, passion and emotion, not to mention his partiality to weaving in repeated pop culture signposts that his Constant Readers (King’s affectionate term for his fans) treasure.
King was pigeonholed as a horror writer from the start but, even when he detoured, critics and some readers still shunned his work. Nonetheless, he scares the heck out of us when he tackles eerie ghost tales or other creepy elements, then can offer a riveting plot about every day horrors, such as domestic abuse, the loss of a child or a spouse or other life traumas.
Stephen King excels with long novels — “11-22-63” and three others are more than 700 pages — as well as compelling shorter stories, particularly “Different Seasons,” a quartet of non-horror novellas, including “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.” (The latter was the basis of the hit movie, “Stand by Me.”) Though most of King’s works are packed with minor diversions they seldom seem like padding or slow down the narrative. Yet, when the story cuts-to-the-chase they prove to have bona fide ramifications.
“11-22-63,” which recently debuted in the top slot on the Times’ best seller list, is no exception. King’s time travel plot is a tactical departure and a fresh foray in the realm of historical science fiction, but it still supplies page-turning suspense that readers anticipate when they curl up with a King story.
King touched upon time travel in 1979’s “The Dead Zone.” After a crippling accident the main character wakes up with the capability of second sight and, at one point, asks the physician guiding him through his recovery, “If you could go back in time to change history, would you do it?” That inspiration prods King’s newest protagonist.
Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of mid-20th century American history might have guessed that the title refers to the day when President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The tale also brings up the uncertainty that if we could we go back and change things, how will it affect the present?
A few previous time travel and alternate histories have effectively blended fact and fiction. My favorite is “Time and Again” by Jack Finney to whom King notes in the afterword that he almost dedicated the book. The “Twilight Zone” episode, “No Time like the Past,” written by series’ host Rod Serling, had the protagonist go back in time to alter three historic events. But, after he fails he realizes it is impossible to change the past. 
  With that in mind I started King’s opus, curious as to how one of the world’s most successful authors of the last thirty years would handle time travel. Early on, King makes the reader aware that each time the past is visited, there is a reset and everything achieved on the previous trip is erased, which makes his time travel credible and terrifying. After discovering a secret portal back in time to 1958, Jake Epping, an English professor in Maine, spends five years on a mission to stop JFK’s assassination, and revise the course of history. Along the way, the man, now named George Amberson, tracks Lee Harvey Oswald and meets a beautiful high school librarian, who becomes the love of his life — that sets up a secondary conflict.
King builds the tension to a nail-biting climax without scaring the heck out of us. Nevertheless, it would be daunting if the past could be changed, knowing someway, somehow, someone would use it not only for good, but evil.
Unlike private memories, November 22, 1963 is a defining moment that reshaped the national consciousness and became a collective bookmark for most Americans over 50. (A watershed event, as King calls it, like 9/11/01 is for another generation.) The date generates instant recall of where we were when we first heard the shocking news. It’s summons up Walter Cronkite’s emotional broadcast of Kennedy’s death, as well as photos of blood on the First Lady’s dress, countless images of the wounded president slumped over in the back seat of an open-roof limousine preserved in the haunting Zapruder footage we’ve seen dozens of times.
For baby boomers, King’s journey also evokes nostalgia identified by such bygone cultural icons as cheap gas for gas-guzzling American-made cars, early rock and roll on AM radio, rotary telephones with words for exchanges before numbers and frequent scenes of smoke-filled rooms before the habit was a health hazard.
One thing’s certain, if Stephen King found a portal to go back in time he wouldn’t change a thing in this marvelous, captivating novel.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bits & Pieces from the Attic in My Mind (December 2, 2011)

  I follow up last week’s cornucopia with this potpourri. As the year winds down I decided to empty the attic in my mind where I stored these bits and pieces.
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Like she’d done many times before, last June Stella Harville and her black boyfriend visited her parents and attended the family’s all-white church in rural Kentucky. After the service, a member of Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church told her father that his daughter’s boyfriend, who had sang before the congregation during one service, couldn’t sing there anymore.
However, after that, church members, with their attitudes firmly rooted in the 19th century, voted 9-6 to bar interracial couples from church services and functions after members of the congregation said they would walk out the next time Chikuni sang.
By the way, funerals were the lone exception to the ban. Good to know they at least respect the dead.
The motion that the church “does not condone interracial marriage” drew an avalanche of criticism and leaders scrambled to overturn it when the church’s national organization was inundated with angry phone calls, as well as a deluge of e-mails.
They pastor nullified the vote last weekend, but his reason wasn’t exactly humane or righteous. Pastor Stacy Stepp said that the decision was reached because the vote “violated church bylaws” since it was not done in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.
Does that mean if a subsequent vote is taken months from now and the rules are followed, the pastor would allow such segregation IN A CHURCH?
We’re a decade into the 21st century and Southern white Christians act like the Civil War just ended.
So much for inalienable rights and equality IN CHURCH!
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When one youngster recently asked where the North Pole is during a geography lesson, the teacher, at a school in upstate New York, apparently told her class of second graders that there is no Santa Claus and that Christmas presents were brought by their parents.
Like the church members in Kentucky (see above item), here’s another example of an adult with little compassion. Or maybe the Nanuet, NY educator was just rehearsing to play Scrooge in a local production of “A Christmas Carol” and was taking the “Bah, humbug” routine way too seriously. 
The Santa myth was debunked again a few days later when a news anchor for Fox News  the defender of fair and balanced reporting — in Chicago told her viewing audience that kids should be told Mr. Claus is just a myth.
The teacher and the female anchor should get coals in their stocking this Christmas.
C’mon, we were all young once and even those of the Jewish faith, like my brother and I, and other non-Christians at one time may have believed that a stocky bearded man, sometimes known as Kris Kringle, brought all the toys. Or was it Hanukkah Harry?
There’s no reason to lie to children, especially if they’re old enough to understand the truth.
Let’s not forget the last part of the 1897 New York Sun editorial, published after an eight year old Manhattan girl wrote the newspaper to inquire about St. Nick’s validity: “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
“…he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
For a child, believing in Santa Claus is comparable to an adult having faith in a Supreme Being  you either have it or you don’t.
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It’s time our federal — and state and local — lawmakers think about this. When they make laws, they should not be exempt. Laws should apply equally to everyone — rich, poor, senators, representatives, judges, etc. If they don’t like it, they need to find another career path.
They make the laws, but they should not be above the law.
Last month, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” ran an eye-opening segment alleging that some of our senators and representatives have been making money by indulging in the type of insider trading in the stock market that would probably have most of the rest of us thrown in jail.
This week, the House Financial Services Committee proposed new restrictions to limit insider trading to restore a degree of confidence from a nation that likely has more faith in Santa Claus (see preceding item) than our elected representatives.
What’s most upsetting is that past attempts to ban the practice met with little support in Congress. But now that some light has been shed on the issue, all of a sudden there’s a rush to end it.
First of all, none of the investments made by senators and representatives, which reportedly reaped them healthy profits, was illegal. Furthermore, previous studies have indicated that lawmakers’ portfolios tend to do better than that of your average investor.
 “60 Minutes” reported that the insider trading was bipartisan with both Democrats and Republican partaking, including House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The report indicated that due to members of Congress being privy to specific information as they consider legislation, they have legitimate access that the public does not, which, because of a lack of regulations, allows them to make investments that may add to their annual incomes.
Congress only seems to be taking up this issue at this time to prevent its approval rating, which was about 9 percent at the moist recent polling, from falling any further. Alabama Republican Spencer Bacchus, chairman of the committee, promised a vote next week to restore the public’s trust, adding “If this is the answer so be it.”
In other words, Congress knows this trading on information not available to the public looks like they have an advantage over the average investor, so they better make some changes before OWS protesters are joined by more of the 99 percent to march on the Capitol.
This is just another example of the arrogance of some politicians who, once they take office, tend to legislate what’s not necessarily best for constituents, but rather what will likely benefit them. Any elected representative who follows that career path, not only should be exposed and voted out of office, but deserves no respect.
To avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest and cronyism, Congress must create reforms with rules that put an end to legislators and their families trading in stocks based on any information obtained as part of any Congressional activity.
After all, when America adopted the phrase “In God We Trust” as its motto 55 years ago, it didn’t give our lawmakers leeway to toss aside the trust we should have in them.