Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old Neighbors Get Together For Emotional Reunion (first published on September 21, 2000)

For more than a decade a lukewarm effort for a reunion of former neighbors was kicked around among several of the two dozen or so youngsters with whom I grew up in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
It’s been 35 years or more since many of us, who lived in a Sheepshead Bay public housing project, had seen each other, much less socialized. However, due to a genuine “extended family” inclination among most of us who lived there through high school, over the intervening years we’ve kept tuned into each other’s lives — weddings, births, deaths, etc. — through sporadic contact, despite the fact we’re now spread from coast to coast.
A practical reunion, therefore, seemed like a long shot at best.
My younger brother, Mark initiated the reunion undertaking in 1987. He didn’t get to see his vision materialize because he died suddenly less than a year later. However, a few of us were spurred by his inspiration and decided to fulfill his notion.
This past Sunday, a small, but warm and gratifying gathering finally took place in our “old” Brooklyn neighborhood.
Fifteen former neighbors from the six-floor, red-brick, 30-apartment building — 3641 Nostrand Avenue — showed up. Four “adults” and 11 “kids” came from New Jersey, Nassau and Suffolk counties, Manhattan, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach. In spite of the fact the “kids” are now grown-ups — over 50 with families of their own — many of us will always refer to the division of parents and children as “adults and kids.”
Sadly, in addition to my brother, many adults have also died over the years, including my father and mother. With them in mind, we ended the brunch portion of the afternoon paying homage to my brother and his proposal, and to those who are no longer with us.
That emotional moment notwithstanding, the overall feeling was festive, focusing mostly on old times and catching up about the intervening years.
Before going our separate ways, with assurances to stay in touch, most of us stopped by our old building for reminiscing and photographs.
Not only did the neighborhood noticeably change since our youth, but it was immediately obvious that the area directly outside the apartment house was modified from grass to concrete.
On uncomfortable humid summer nights, kids and adults congregated in front of the building, some lying on beach chairs, others sitting on nearby benches, to escape the stifling apartments not yet wired for air-conditioning.
We realized that just about the only thing that had not changed were the red bricks, the number of floors and the address — 3641.
Standing on the spot where we spent many hours of our formative years, we summoned up myriad memories.
With an aggregate of sophisticated toys and electronic gadgets currently available to youngsters, it was pleasing to recall the uncomplicated ways we spent our leisure time back then. There was no Game Boy®, no Play Station®, no Nintendo®. Nor VCRs, personal computers, CD-Roms or DVDs. Television could only be viewed in basic black & white.
Several leisure pastimes centered on a small, round, pink rubber Spaldeen — stick ball, stoop ball, punch ball. Other activities required no equipment at all, just a durable body for rough and tumble games such as ring-a-levio, hide-and-seek and Johnny-on-the-pony.
And there were lanyards — flexible, brightly colored narrow plastic strands that could be interlaced to make key chains, bracelets and other assorted adornments.
The more nature-minded kids would literally catch lightning in a jar in the form of small, airborne insects known as “lightning bugs,” which seemed to magically glow every few seconds.
It was, to use the familiar cliché, a simpler time.
I realize now, as do most of the “adults and kids,” that there was something extraordinary about the relationships that developed there from 1950 until 1967 or thereabouts.
The atmosphere in many city projects, compared to the reasonably more apprehensive one today, was essentially free of worry about personal safety. Anyone could walk into the building without encountering locked entrance door or security cameras. You simply walked in and took the elevator to your destination. And apartment doors usually remained unlocked during the day and sometimes at night. Just about any time you went to a friend’s apartment, you just walked in. Modesty, in my recollection, was never accidentally violated.
To gain access to buildings now, a key or buzz in-recognition is required.
Sadly, the protected ambiance and fearlessness gradually diminished, as they did simultaneously around the city and eventually across the nation, as the new decade progressed. Nevertheless, for years before the undaunted spirit changed, and children headed off to college, jobs, personal pursuits and adult lives, there was a distinct collection of families that played and prayed together.
Almost every summer our “extended family” would go on picnics to Hempstead or Valley Stream state parks. On many summer days, weather permitting, our group would head to the beach at Bay 18 on West 25 Street in Coney Island. We’d occupy an ample portion of the sands that would increase significantly when invited relatives and friends would join our gang and especially on Sundays when working fathers joined us. It was, after all, the era of pre-Women’s Lib when mothers were primarily diligent housewives and fathers enduring breadwinners.
Though every family struggled to some degree to make ends meet, we didn’t realize until years later, (to borrow the immortal phrase from Charles Dickens), “It was the best of times.”
Though all of our lives have evolved since those carefree, bygone days in the project, “36ers” have perpetuated an exceptional bond for 50 years that reaches beyond the traditional boundaries of friendship and even family.
While the ultimate American Dream may be to own a home, growing up in the apartment house at 3641 Nostrand Avenue afforded us a rewarding opportunity to form relationships that have withstood thousands of miles of separation and the test of time.

Reforms Needed If Death Penalty Remains Sentencing Choice (Jan. 10, 2008)

The debate over the death penalty is alive and well, even as the latest surveys show that about two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment, compared to 35 years ago when that figure was barely a majority. The United States is one of the few industrialized countries in the world that still executes criminals and opposing the death penalty used to be political suicide for most politicians. But that is gradually changing.
This week, the United States Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a Kentucky case to determine whether or not lethal injection qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In recent months, this dispute has halted executions in Florida and California. The Sunshine State reacted after it recently took 34 minutes - twice the usual time - and two injections to execute a prisoner. If the court rules the deadly three-drug cocktail is excessively painful, it could limit executions nationwide, as well as force the 37 states that still have it to rethink or even end capital punishment, once and for all, as most industrialized nations did years ago.
Years ago, most states switched from the electric chair to lethal injections, as a more humane alternative, and would likely be reluctant to restore "Old Sparky," as the former method was often referred to, if the shots are deemed cruel.
Only five states - Texas, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and California - have carried out the majority of executions in the last 31 years. Fourteen states abolished it and five others have not put anyone to death in several years. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been more than 1,000 executions. Last year, that number reached a 13-year low of 42, compared to an average of 300 from 1982-1999, while only 110 defendants were sentenced to death, another record low.
In 2004, nine years after Governor George Pataki signed the death penalty into law - a period when there were no executions - the Court of Appeals ruled New York's death penalty was unconstitutional and advised a moratorium until the legislature amended the law to make it acceptable. A year later, an assembly committee defeated an attempt to reinstate the death penalty. Since then, the state legislature has failed to make the necessary changes to satisfy the court. Therefore, the state's death penalty remains in limbo with only one man - convicted in the Wendy's restaurant slayings seven years ago - is currently on death row in New York.
As the New Year began, Governor Jon Corzine signed a law making New Jersey the first state to ban the death penalty in 40 years, and ordered eight death row inmates imprisoned for life without a chance of parole. His action pinpointed a new trend about the death penalty controversy in the last decade.
Due largely to new technology, fresh evidence has exonerated scores of prisoners in two dozen states, allowing them to walk out of prison, instead of walking the Last Mile to the execution chamber. Advocates argue that the death penalty deters crime, prevents recidivism and provides emotional compensation for victims' families. Opponents contend that capital punishment does not deter criminals more than life imprisonment, while it violates human rights, leads to executions of some who are wrongfully convicted and largely discriminates against minorities and the poor, whose sentences might otherwise be a life behind bars.

A Rush to Judgment — Without the Facts (first published July 29, 2010)

No one was left blameless in last week’s media circus that humiliated Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department official, forced to resign after a segment from an out of context video was scattered over the Internet.
Right wing activist blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a two-minute snippet — from an as yet unnamed source — on his Web site that suggested Sherrod was making racist comments without noting it was part of a longer video in which she actually made a stirring case against prejudice, resulting in a inaccurate news story that rapidly snowballed.
No sooner did the video surface on YouTube than conservative media “broke” the news that a black member of the administration of a black president made reverse racist remarks before a black audience. Faster than you can say the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, almost every mainstream cable and broadcast outlet — regardless of which side of the political spectrum it leaned — also reported the unconfirmed story.
Once again, the Internet with its slapdash blogosphere, in competition with the 24/7 news media, has become an occasional millstone for modern journalism. In the relentless fixation to get a jump on “breaking news,” one of the fundamental principles of responsible journalism is commonly overlooked — checking facts and sources – and the public is sometimes left with unverified concoctions that swiftly spread like an out-of-control wildfire before the facts are revealed to quash it.
Perhaps more damage to Sherrod than what the media lemmings reported was the bureaucratic bungling by the Obama Administration and the NAACP’s embarrassing knee-jerk reaction and mishandling of the matter.
As the misinformation mushroomed, Sherrod’s embarrassment was compounded by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who forced her to resign before validating the source of the racist allegations and before having the common decency to allow her to present her side of the story.
In a 43-minute speech at an NAACP meeting last March, Sherrod recounted how 24 years ago — before she was a government employee — her prejudice against a white farmer, stemming from the release of her father’s white murderer when she was a teenager, underwent a transformation. She said she had “come a long way” and admitted that she’d learned the lesson that “it’s not about race; it’s about those who have versus those who don’t.”
Whether or not Obama was aware of or sanctioned Sherrod’s dismissal is not known, but the incident demonstrates how the White House has become reluctant to tackle some conservative criticism, apparently thinking it will improve the President’s chances for reelection in 2012.
MSNBC commentator Keith Olberman last week urged Obama to act more decisively and, to reinforce the suggestion, reminded him of a line uttered by a fictional counterpart in the idealized movie, “The American President.” The movie President acknowledges during a televised press conference, “I was so busy trying to keep my job; I forgot to do my job.”
During a seven-minute telephone call to Sherrod on Friday, Obama reportedly shared some of his own personal experiences, and urged Sherrod to “continue her hard work on behalf of those in need.”
The NAACP, probably afraid of the backlash from what they assumed were racist comments, immediately condemned Sherrod, stating the organization has no place for bigotry. After learning the whole story, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, apologized to Sherrod claiming his organization had been “snookered.”
What a shabby excuse! It was the responsibility of a respected, century-old civil rights organization to look into the matter and view the entire video before condemning someone over a doctored segment from a right wing source known for using misleading pieces to smear progressives.
When the facts came to light, there were more instant apologies and backtracking, yet conservative media members made an ugly situation uglier when a few accused the White House of “railroading’ Sherrod and going off “half-cocked” in the initial handling of the news. No pun intended — particularly considering the topic — but isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?
This fiasco, unfortunately, confirmed that bigotry in America continues to be an issue we have yet to overcome, but also made it crystal clear that the competition to be the first to report breaking news is a matter that needs more accountability from reputable news organizations before witch hunts, half truths and innuendos are circulated in a headlong rush to judgment.

Monday, September 26, 2011

No Matter What, Aging Boomers Can’t Defy Inevitable (September 26, 2002)

"Mirror, mirror on the wall—is that really me?"
Some aging baby boomers — my peer group — may recite that narcissistic fairy tale mantra in their daily routine. Vanity, in spite of everything, is one of the seven deadly sins.
Others may not be as obsessed about self-image, but now and then can’t help but notice an increasing number of gray hairs, nose hairs, ear hairs, no hairs, facial wrinkles — ya know, ‘laugh lines’ — sagging body parts and, perhaps, pot bellies, escalating waistlines, thighs and love handles.
The latter approach may be a lack of vanity. After all, aging baby boomers generally appear younger than previous generations did at this stage of their lives. No doubt healthier, more appropriate diets and exercise are significant factors.
For the last six years the post-World War II generation—the largest segment of the population who are collectively known as Baby Boomers—has been crossing the dreaded 50-year age barrier. (Geez, remember when we thought anyone over 30 was old!) Visions of retirement now dance in our heads.
A recent survey revealed that baby boomers are the most active when it comes to physical fitness as we attempt to maintain suitable waistlines and control gravity that naturally take their bodily tolls. We belong to more health and fitness clubs, practice yoga, walk, run, and exercise more than any other age group. Health is the primary reason, but vanity, no doubt, plays a role, too. Hey, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with good grooming and wanting to look good!
Surely, weight-conscious boomers are the key reason there’s some new, unregulated fad diet popping up every other week. Professional nutritionists insist there’s nothing yet that effectively promotes weight control — except fewer trips to the ‘fridge! The government recently chimed in claiming that most fly-by-night weight loss strategies are scams. What a surprise!
Scientists recently found that our innate passion for food may be connected to our primitive ancestors’ fixation with their next meal. Therefore, the characteristic for sustenance is in our genes. Remember, an obsession with the wrong foods may gradually cause a problem fitting into our jeans.
With all the scientific advances in the last 50 years, the aging process has been extended but not retarded. The fountain of youth remains elusive as ever. The only possible avoidance for aging might be the chilling cryogenic route. Have yourself frozen until remedies for aging and every disease known to man are discovered.
The bottom line: we’re trying to stay healthier and live longer than previous generations.
Modern and alternative medicines also play a vital role in stemming the aging process. Not to mention a host of fashionable cosmetic techniques that can alter one’s appearance as well as shed years and pounds, if you’re willing to shell out thousands of dollars.
In addition to surgical transformations, the cosmetic and other industries that hawk self-maintenance treatments and products, including moisturizers, exfoliants, hair colorants, collagen, Botox, revitalizers and what have you, claiming to slow the external aging process, had combined sales estimated at more than $7 billion last year.
While most baby boomers undoubtedly consumed a variety of good and bad foods, and smoked or ingested a variety of legal and illegal substances in their rebellious youths, as they’ve aged and taken on the role of responsible adults, they’ve adopted restorative, more wholesome lifestyles as they approach The Golden Years. (That future may not be as golden as we dreamed if the economy doesn’t improve and corporate charlatans and greed aren’t contained.)
During our lifetimes (about 20,000 days so far, give or take a few) many diseases have been wiped out; life expectancy has been extended. So, if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time fretting about gray hair, nose hair, ear hair, no hair and other external physical changes, stop it right now. You can’t defer the inevitable, nor deny your mortality.
Before you go to bed at night, look in the mirror, but don’t ask who’s the fairest of them all. It really doesn’t matter.
Life, for the most part, is good. Just smile (see the laugh lines?), keep a twinkle in your eyes, be grateful if you have a mouthful of teeth — and be happy for those who love you, the friends you have, what you’ve got. And think about tomorrow — it’s another day closer to retirement.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Will Financial Woes Stamp Out U.S. Postal Service? (September 23, 2011)

It’s no surprise that the problems of the United States Postal Service (USPS) have become unmanageable over the last decade and have led to its escalating economic crisis. Despite the record 213 billion pieces of mail it processed just five years ago, “snail mail” struggles to compete especially electronically and, since then, its volume has dropped 22 percent and its deficit has ballooned.
Earlier this month, Postmaster General Patrick Donohue announced that the USPS was more than $12 billion in debt and, if Congress didn’t allow it to consolidate, eliminate Saturday delivery and borrow money, it would be “on the brink of default” by month’s end and possibly forced to shut down by next summer.
As the nation’s financial woes continue to get top billing, a federal bailout would not be too popular. And, with various alternatives to snail mail, public opinion might not accept such a bailout as practical.
Another problem is unprofitable post offices that continually take in less than they cost to operate. Consequently, almost 4,000 post offices have been targeted for closing, starting in January, including five of the 54 that serve Brooklyn.
On top of that, about a third of its workers (more than 120,000 employees) may have to be laid off. In fact, the USPS said that it would now have to examine half of it post offices across the nation and determine which ones to close over the next decade.
The USPS is reportedly already reaching out to convince local merchants to add a “village post office” to their business to replace some that close.
The USPS was established in 1971 as an independent, self-sustaining agency of the federal government, almost two centuries after Benjamin Franklin was named the first chief of the constitutionally-mandated Post Office Department. But, less than two years later, its first major competition began to surface when Federal Express was capable of faster package deliveries by ground and air. In 1975, UPS emerged and promised delivery service to every address in the continental U.S.
Within a few years letters and correspondence could be transmitted almost instantly via fax (short for facsimile), the transmission of scanned printed material (both text and images) via a telephone or other especially designed devices.
Meanwhile, as these new services and devices were being used more and more by businesses, the only changes at the post office were higher postage rates.
Modern technology gave USPS its toughest challenge and what may ultimately prove to be the knockout punch in 1993 via the quickly advancing Internet that allowed correspondence to be sent electronically in seconds or minutes depending on the capacity of the document.
Despite its independence, however, Congress still regulates the USPS and must authorize any changes. The agency’s operating expenses are derived solely from the sale of stamps, postage, products and services since it receives no tax dollars. However, its 560,000 workers are federal employees and, therefore, reap government medical and disability benefits, among other compensation, which is estimated to be 40 percent of the benefits paid annually by the government.
And the biggest outlay for Post Office goes to employees, which is the crux of its financial dilemma. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average postal worker earns more than $83,000 a year in wages and benefits. Postal worker compensation is much higher than that received by private workers, who also pay more for health benefits than postal service employees. That generosity is a result of poorly negotiated union bargaining. Now it’s time for the union to make drastic concessions or stand idly by as tens of thousands of workers get laid off. In this economy, that would not be a wise option; but it is necessary since almost half of the postal service’s debt is for retiree’s future pensions and benefits.
In recent years, the USPS has slashed billions of dollars and reduced its workforce by more than 125,000. But that obviously hasn’t helped.
It’s confounding that while the USPS cannot make changes without Congressional approval, how its union managed to bargain for such liberal employee benefits and contract terms, such as banning layoffs, regardless of its financial status.
Has anyone considered that perhaps federal legislators, with one eye constantly on the next election, deliberately ignored union demands since the recipients of that bounty, who could sway family and friends how to vote?
Despite the abrupt inconvenience, particularly for seniors who spurn technology and would suffer the most by its demise, the United States Postal Service appears to be headed for the scrap heap of concepts that couldn’t keep with up contemporary advances.
The Wall Street Journal once cited it as “the most inefficient monopoly” in the nation after the public school system.
That description is unlikely to change and, unless someone comes up with a pragmatic strategy to renovate it and make it more competitive for the 21st century and beyond, the Postal Service could vanish into history much like another extinct method of mail delivery the Pony Express.