Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Nobody Sits

President Josiah Bartlet enters an event room of the White House for an appearance. The crowd respectfully rises to their feet with the exception of ultraconservative journalist Dr. Jenna Jacobs, who has been highly critical of the President. Bartlet notices this, halts his advance across the room and approaches her. Some preliminary dialogue occurs between them, leading to the following exchange:

President Josiah Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

President Josiah Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.

President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.
          - From ‘The West Wing.’ Episode: ‘The Midterms’ (2000). Source: IMDB.com.


I love this quote, taken from what is quite arguably the best television show ever created (still on Netflix, last time I checked). I could spend this entire post talking about the perils of rigid orthodoxy over rational interpretation (and I may, on a future occasion) but today, I’m here to talk about that last line and how it relates to the ‘Take a Knee’ phenomena started by professional football player Colin Kaepernick that has spread to other professional, college, and even high school sports teams.

Before I get going here, I want to convey that I understand that this is a very charged matter. Though I have strong feelings about it, I believe zealotry in any form about virtually any issue is dangerous. Consequently, I consider myself to be deeply patriotic but not nationalistic. I love my country. For all its problems, I believe it provides us with rights, freedoms, and opportunities you can’t get anywhere else in the world. On occasions when I criticize it, it’s BECAUSE I love it, because I see what it can be. Any criticism I have is driven by exasperation, not hate. My goal here, as it is with most any topic I elect to explore in this blog, is to provide a nuanced perspective on this issue. In short, stick with me, despite my initial statement, which is this:

On the surface, I find ‘Take a Knee’ to be juvenile, ungrateful, and disrespectful.

President Bartlet is 100% right. Nobody sits.

As strongly as I feel that our current President is corrupt, incompetent, and unstable, if I were present at an event at which he appeared, I would stand because that’s what the OFFICE deserves, even if the guy holding it doesn’t.

The national anthem deserves the same respect.

If Colin Kaepernick had started wearing an American flag with a big “No” symbol across it, he would have taken a LOT more heat than he has. Why is the anthem any different? Why is it okay to use it as a weapon of protest but it’s not okay to use the flag for such purposes or to sit when the President stands?

We’re going to get to the NFL in a minute but let me state initially that I think they were cowards with regard to Kaepernick. As far as I’m concerned, they should have fined him and every other professional athlete that ‘took a knee’ $5,000.00 a day until they stopped disrespecting the national anthem.

There’s an inherent hypocrisy in a multi-million dollar athlete protesting a core symbol of the very country that allowed him to be on that field in the first place and make an annual salary that surpasses what most of us will make in our entire lives. On that front, he should be ashamed of himself. I don’t feel you can compartmentalize or isolate using the anthem or the flag as a weapon of protest to a single issue. I understand that that may have been Kaepernick’s intent, but that’s not good enough. With issues like this, you have to consider how the truth is likely to be perceived, not just the truth itself. Kneeling, sitting, or staying off the field during the national anthem is divisive in a nonproductive way. When you think about it, ‘Take a Knee’ has probably done more to leech credibility from the core motivation for doing it than it has done to support it.

On a related side-note, it’s likewise ignorant and divisive of others to cast aspersions against those who share my initially critical perspective by saying things like, “So, you’re okay with police brutalizing African Americans but you’re mad at Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem?”

Despite some rather prominent progressive opinions to the contrary, I truly believe this is a matter of patriotism and respect for our nation and its icons. It is NOT a repudiation or dismissal of the very real and profound challenges we face with regard to racial inequality, police brutality, and other such issues, or the right to draw attention to those issues through civil acts of protest. Indeed, the right to protest is endemic to our ideals as Americans. Where would we be as a nation if not for ‘rabble-rousers’ like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. having the courage to stand up and declare, “This is not acceptable.”?

Respect for the national anthem and the moral imperative to draw attention to society’s ills are not mutually exclusive. Do we as citizens of this country have the right to deface the American flag or metaphorically deface the national anthem? Yes, we do. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not technically a crime to burn or otherwise deface the American flag and the matter of ‘defacing’ the national anthem has never been considered in a court of law so far as I know. Therefore, the question is not “Can we?” It’s “Should we?”

I cannot think of a single issue facing our society that would make me okay with personally defacing or destroying an American flag as an action of protest, so my take is “No, we shouldn’t.” My take is that there are other ways to facilitate change and overcome our national and cultural challenges.

But...

Of course, it’s complicated. Shockingly, there’s a lot more to most issues we contend with as a society than can be conveyed in a 15 second sound byte or 280 character tweet (don’t get me started on how I feel about Twitter, even outside of Trump’s maladjusted abuse of it).

Let’s look at the flip side.

We’ll start with the NFL. I’m using them rather than the NBA, NHL, MLB, or any other pro sports governing body because the NFL is ground zero for ‘Take a Knee.’

I’m not a sports guy. On very rare occasions, if a basketball, football, or baseball game happens to be on, I’ll watch for a while, But I don’t care how “my team” is doing. I don’t care about the World Series or the Super Bowl (though I have to say, last year’s SB was nothing short of spectacular). I don’t know any stats, I don’t know the players, I don’t own any sports logo-bearing products. I don’t schedule time to watch games and I don’t check the scores online. The closest I come to being a “sports fan” is the Olympics. I love the competitive spirit, national pride, and aspirations of excellence associated with them.

Anyway, the fact that I’m not a sports guy does not make me inherently critical of those who are or of the organizations that govern the teams. That said, I can’t deny I’m skeptical of any large corporation. They tend to drift into the sociopath spectrum of behavior in terms of how they do things and how they make their money, and it’s never enough.

I read recently that the NFL is fairly militant about keeping the game and the players free of political statements or any other ‘buzzkill’ commentary constituting individual expression. To a good extent, I understand that. Most viewers and attendees pretty much just want to turn their brains off and watch the game. They don’t look to the NFL as a political arena.

Consequently, my understanding is that NFL players are not permitted to alter their uniforms in any way or do anything in the context of a game to draw attention to themselves outside of their physical performance. I again understand this to a degree in that each player is part of a team and it doesn’t look right or feel right to have everyone on that team wearing different color jerseys or each bearing a unique message. If a player is having contraction negotiation issues with management, they can’t break out their Sharpies and write, “Will play for food” across their backs. In fact, I don’t think they can so much as wear a black armband to voice a message of condolence or solidarity.

That’s where Colin Kaepernick got into trouble. He’s obviously a passionate guy who cares about the problems and challenges African Americans and other people of color face in our society. I think he sees that it’s not just a ‘brown people’ problem. It’s an American society problem and he cares enough about it to want to use the stage he performs on to bring more attention to it.

So, how does a guy with a conscience make his statement to the world when the environment he works in doesn’t give him the latitude to do it?

He uses something that isn’t explicitly covered by his employer’s restrictions.

I doubt the NFL’s standards of conduct include a bullet point comprehensively specifying that all players are required to be present and standing at field-side during the national anthem. Even if they do, there probably isn’t a conclusive explanation of what the repercussions are of defying such an edict. If they don’t specifically address this issue, I think they should, but it’s become such an explosive issue, there would be a lot of blow-back about it that has nothing to do with the core intent of such a policy, which is to respect our national icons.

I understand why Kaepernick chose the gesture of kneeling. When he first decided to make his statement, he had no way of knowing how far-reaching the effects of his individual protest would have. He needed something simple but dramatic that he could do on his own. The problem is that he didn’t realize how offensive kneeling would be in that context to so many people. Once other sports figures started replicating the gesture, he became the focal point of a hurricane of controversy. Instead of a guy with a message, he was painted as a malcontent who hated America. His career has been fundamentally damaged by this inaccurate portrait and I think we should give him a break. I believe his heart is in the right place and that he should be respected for his efforts to use the platform of his celebrity to draw attention to authentically profound issues in our society.

About a year ago, in response to the nationwide controversy regarding ‘Take a Knee’, something very interesting happened. The players started doing something different. Instead of kneeling, they started linking arms during the national anthem. You could almost hear the ‘click’ of ideological tumblers falling into place, unlocking the door to delivering the message that ‘Take a Knee’ was intended to convey.  Even the misanthropic Trump expressed support of this revised gesture, and on that point, I absolutely agree with him. Maybe we should start calling it ‘The Linked Movement.’

Think about the message linking arms sends. It is a simple but incontrovertible declaration of solidarity. It does not disrespect the thematic message and meaning of the national anthem or the nation it represents. It enhances them. It draws attention to what really matters. At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re white, brown, yellow, red, or for that matter, an orange-skinned Oompa-Loompa. We’re all in this together. We have far more commonalities than differences. Following the Golden Rule is a recipe for peaceful coexistence between individuals, communities, and nations. Conversely, victimization of one facet of humanity ultimately harms us all. We stand or fall as one.

And that, my friends, is what America is all about.

Thank you for reading.

~~~

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Asked & Answered



“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.
It is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

- Mark Twain

____________________________________________________________________________

Several weeks ago, I was clearing out my vastly overcrowded email in-box and came across an e-survey regarding pressing issues of the day from NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. I’m on her email distribution list because I really like her. Overall, she seems like one of the good guys (or at least as close to good as politicians get these days).

I began answering the survey questions but it quickly became apparent that there were flaws in the way the questions and / or answers were written.

Though I’m idealistic by nature, I’m not na├»ve. I understand that this survey was intended for Gillibrand’s constituents. She didn’t send it to ultra-conservatives she wanted to convert. She needs statistical credibility to justify her positions on the issues and to help her prioritize what she spends her time fighting for. However, as written, the credibility of each question, the survey, and by extension, the very integrity of her positions on the issues is compromised. The objective of this post is to explore why that is and what to do about it.

But before I do, I want to point out that most or all politicians do exactly the same thing with their surveys. Gillibrand’s just happened to be the one that slid onto my radar.

Let's get to it! Here's a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA despite the fact that Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on climate change and opposed efforts to stop it. Do you think it’s important for the EPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on climate change?

  1.     Yes, the EPA should accept the reality of climate change and take action to stop it.
  2.     No, it’s not a problem if the EPA ignores science.

The question paragraph is well-written, but both of the answers are problematic.

I resolutely believe the “Yes” option but look at it closely. It doesn’t actually answer the question. It answers a related question about the perspective of the institution overall. It doesn’t address the matter of who should lead the EPA. Even so, I’d likely pick “Yes” anyway because it’s ‘true-ish’ in the context of the question, particularly in light of the “No” wording.

Now, let’s take a look at “No.” I don’t know about you, but if I had doubts about the validity or severity of the effects of climate change, I would be reluctant, even embarrassed to select “No.” Why? Because the wording implies that I’m either ignorant myself or willing to tolerate ignorance in a major government agency.

So, what’s a respondent to do? Answer the ‘true-ish’ “Yes”? Or declare my ignorance by supporting ignorance with “No”?

My core concern with the question as a whole is that the way it’s set up makes it very obvious what the ‘correct’ answer is supposed to be. And that’s not the only question that’s worded that way. The underlying message inherent in the two response options is, ‘Do you agree with me or do you not care about facts?’ It’s kind of insulting. In terms of tone, the survey question above may as well have been as follows:

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the KPA (Kitten Protection Agency) despite the fact that  Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on kitten adorableness and opposed efforts to be kind to them. Do you think it’s important for the KPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on kitten adorableness?
 

  1. Yes, the KPA should accept the reality of kitten adorableness and take action to protect them. 
  2. No, it’s not a problem if the KPA ignores science and allows kittens to be strangled.

The underlying message? “Do you agree with me or do you hate kittens?”

This is no small matter. Taken as a whole, the imprecisely-worded answers create an impression that the survey is explicitly constructed to elicit specific answers. As noted above, this compromises the credibility of all the data gathered.

However, with a few simple edits, we can clean up this semantic oil slick. This is not just a empty grammatical exercise in wordsmithing. It’s about
conveying meaning in a focused and objective manner. It's about using language like a fencing epee rather than a sledgehammer.

Take a look at these more neutral and precisely-worded versions of the answers.

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA despite the fact that Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on climate change and opposed efforts to stop it. Do you think it’s important for the EPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on climate change?
 

  1. Yes, the EPA should be led by someone who accepts the reality of climate change and is willing to take action to stop it. 
  2. No, I don’t feel it’s important.

The “Yes” response now specifically addresses the question.

The “No” response is conclusive and judgment-free. It respects the respondent’s opinion even if it’s not the one the writer is hoping for.

I’m sure you can see how these simple techniques, spiced with a dash of common courtesy, particularly in the deeply-fractured  and fact-challenged country we live in, can not only be valued in ways that go far beyond a simple survey question, but potentially transformative.

The power of words remains indomitable.

Thanks for reading.



~~~



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Life on the Tracks (redux)

This is a story about my father, Jerome Orkin.

I still remember hearing him tell it himself when I was much younger. In fact, I still vividly hear his voice at certain points in this retelling. I have endeavored to keep certain aspects of the story fairly sparse to prevent my ‘writerly’ sensibility from ‘filling in the holes’ and thereby compromising the purity of the details and events. This is not my story. It’s his. I consider it an honor and a privilege to present you with this brief glimpse of a life well-lived.

I first posted “Life on the Tracks” to “Orkin’s Law” back in 2012 but I decided to revise, expand, and repost it in honor of Dad’s 80th birthday, which was on December 26, 2016. He left us on October 30, 1992 and not a single day passes where I and the rest of my family doesn’t miss him.

Throughout my daughter Julianna’s life, I have spoken of him to her. I like to think that through my memories, as well as those of my mother Carol and my brothers, that despite never having met him, she has some sense of him, who he was, who he endeavored to be. Sometimes, I like to imagine what a blessed, beautiful thing it would have been for them to know, appreciate, and help each other in this life.

Though my dad was certainly not meek, this did not preclude him from being gentle. This gentleness, this inherent compassion and warmth of spirit, as well as his playful sense of humor, would undoubtedly have formed half of a bridge that would have fit quite harmoniously against the one Julianna has created herself thus far in her young life. Hers contains a complementary gentleness, a huge, loving heart, and a gracious sense of humor (albeit one with sparks of subversive mischief scattered in the mix).

Elements of my story, ‘The Lost 95’ touch on related feelings, thoughts, and some fairly high-end metaphysical suppositions regarding such a relationship (among other matters), but suffice to say, the very thought of my dad and my daughter sitting in a diner having breakfast together, just the two of them, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

And now, the tale...

A good portion of my dad's adult working life was spent as a trackman for the Long Island Railroad. The guys he worked with frequently (and unwittingly) provided him with verdant source material for entertaining vignettes he would share with us around the dinner table, the heart of our home. Though generally soft-spoken, even reserved in public, Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and was a fine storyteller.

As funny as many of those stories were, they didn’t change the fact that life on the tracks entailed a lot of difficult, physical work, some of it life-threatening. Despite his caution, Dad was injured more than once on the job, on one occasion breaking his arm and leg after being hit by a railroad tie, the long, square, wooden beams that anchor the metal train rails in place.

During bad winter storms, he would be called in the middle of the night to help clear snow and ice from multiple train platforms and miles of track. Refusing such “invitations” was not a viable option. Even outside of the tacitly mandatory nature of these calls, Dad’s deep sense of responsibility with regard to taking care of his family prevented him from turning down most any opportunity to make overtime pay. Though our family wasn’t destitute, we still really benefited from any extra money he could make. Further, having grown up very poor himself, I think he was more driven to provide for us than he otherwise would have been.

Sometimes, after receiving one of those late night / early morning calls, Dad would be gone for two or three days, grabbing a few hours of sleep as he could on the school bus-style vehicle he and his crew used to get from site to site. If we got hit with a particularly brutal stretch of winter storm weather, he might return home for a day off (most of which he, by necessity, spent sleeping) followed by few days of “normal” work hours. Then, he’d be gone for another two days.

On one occasion, he brought home a strange pair of black gloves, stiff and shriveled like the hands of an old corpse, far too small for him or even for me, as a kid, to wear. I remember examining them in wonder as he told us they had indeed been his gloves. At some point during his shift, he had gotten some sort of industrial strength de-icing solution on them. As a result, they started shrinking so fast, he’d just barely had time to strip them off before they would have constricted around his hands to excruciating effect.

Summer had its share of difficulties as well. He and his crew tangled with bees and hornets, poison ivy and nettles. They had to remove the bodies of animals hit by trains. They spent every working day completely exposed to the sizzling sun, the heat absorbed, amplified, and mercilessly radiated back out through the metal rails.

On the lighter side, we would often tease Dad about his annual workman’s tan: chestnut brown from the waist up, bone-white from the waist down. At one point during his time working with the LIRR, his work zone enabled him to frequent a deli where my then teenage cousin, Donna Reese worked. She always gave him a free cup of coffee and of course, all efforts on his part to explain why she did that were met with sarcastic responses of, “Riiiight. She’s your ‘niece.’” with implied air quotes. 

On a side note, I remember him finding it amusing that the LIRR's central office would periodically receive irate phone calls from daily train commuters complaining that the trackmen were "standing around doing nothing!" whenever they saw them. Such well-meaning Good Samaritans clearly didn't take the time to think it through and realize that it's pretty hard to work on train tracks when there are tens of thousands of pounds worth of train cars rolling over them.

On another side-note (last one, I promise), I remember coming home from school one day to find Dad standing by the kitchen table skeptically regarding the cover of a record album my brother Milton had purchased that day. This seemed a little odd to me since he had fairly eclectic musical tastes but glancing over, I quickly identified the source of his consternation. The artist was Bob Dylan, which wasn't an issue. The name of the record: “Blood on the Tracks.” 

Because of the intensely physical nature of the work, turnover among LIRR trackmen was pretty high. Further, Dad, along with many of his coworkers, was periodically moved to other crews due to redistribution of work or other factors. As a result, he encountered a lot of different guys on various crews over time and many of them knew of him even if they’d never met him personally or worked directly with him. By the venerable age of 35, Dad was sometimes referred to as “The Old Man” or “Pop” (a term he disliked so much he didn’t even let his kids use it) by a great many LIRR trackmen.

Dad wasn’t a “life of the party” type of guy but he was nevertheless liked, respected, and trusted. His “titles” were generally used with good-humored respect but there were a few trackmen who didn’t exhibit the good will toward him that he deserved. Sometimes, they were condescending. Sometimes, they viewed his experience and “old age” with arrogance and treated him accordingly.

On one such occasion, one of the bigger, younger guys he didn’t know well challenged him, saying, “You wanna lay track with me, Pop? Think you can keep up?”

Dad wasn’t a proponent of this kind of testosterone-driven, beers-with-lunch braggadocio and he wasn’t easily provoked to rash action, but he had a lot of pride and a refined moral compass, a desire to see things set right.

He considered the request and responded, “Sure...”

The younger guy smiled, eager to put The Old Man in his place.

“But we work at my pace, not yours,” Dad informed him.

The trackman confidently agreed, assuming the pace didn’t matter, and they got to it. But by the end of that long, hot summer day, Dad’s cocky coworker got schooled with a rather forthright lesson in humility and common sense.

You see, the thing was, The Old Man wasn’t the strongest guy on the tracks and he wasn’t the fastest. But he didn’t have to be.  He could swing a hammer All – Day – Long.

In this story, we find a timeless message about the value of consistency and durability over flash & bang theatrics. There will always be someone stronger, faster, smarter, funnier, richer, more attractive, more charismatic. But at the end of the day, I’d much rather be the tortoise than the hare.

Thanks for the lesson, Dad.

And thank you for reading.

~~~

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Harbinger of the Douchepocalypse

“One word. Made up. Douchepocalypse!”
          - Barney Stinson, ‘How I Met Your Mother’


So here’s the thing. I get how people have differing, even polarized political ideologies, how they have different priorities in terms of what we as a nation need to do and how we need to do it. However, zealotry in any form is dangerous. ‘Toeing the party line’ is not, in my opinion, a viable strategy for change. In fact, just the opposite is the case.

Though I’m registered as a Democrat and agree with many of that party’s tenets, some of my views are on the Republican spectrum. I’m okay with that. If someone asked me to identify my political affiliation, I’d probably respond that I’m in ‘The Common Sense Party’ whose core belief is simply this: “The person with the best idea wins.” Granted, determining what the best idea is can at times be immensely challenging but within that statement lies an undercurrent of objectivity, receptivity, and flexibility of thought, a willingness to consider alternative points of view regardless of their source.

That is a lesson our two-party political system needs to learn. As I’ve written about previously, they have completely lost their way, devolving into a perpetual game of one-up-man-ship. They not only stick to their own agendas with superglue-like adhesion; they actively attempt to derail anything the other party does, whether it’s good for the country or not. It’s not their job to fight for their own agendas. It’s their job to do what’s best for the country, regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on and who comes up with the idea. I think there’s a compelling case to be made for dismantling the current political party system and starting over.

Anyway, my slightly paradoxical point in establishing this atmosphere of flexibility and common sense is to unconditionally excoriate the Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump. My need to do so has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he’s a Republican and everything to do with the fact that his words and actions illustrate him to be a boorish, mean-spirited, narrow-minded, misogynistic, bigoted, narcissistic, manipulative, grandstanding blowhard who lacks the intelligence, integrity, morality, and compassion to earn him the right to have a cup of coffee with any decent American citizen, let alone run their country. The fact that perhaps one out of ten of his opinions may have some degree of validity does not preclude him from being comprehensively unsuitable for the job.

I’m not going to bore you with an overabundance of quotes or video clips depicting his abominable behavior. You can find hundreds of them on your own. This post is more about theme than specifics.

The power of Trump lies in his willingness to pour gasoline on lowest common denominator emotions and fears, mercilessly set them aflame, and use the ensuing chaos to his advantage. He is a human sound byte, spouting key words and phrases that sound impressive and meaningful but actually have no substance whatsoever. Think about the short, emphatic statements he uses to convey his intentions as President:

          “We’re going to build a wall.” (immigration)
          “I know more about ISIS than anybody.” (terrorism)
          “I’ll have great relationships with Russia and China.” (foreign policy)
          “Law and order.” (racial tensions between the black community 

               and the police).
          “We’re going to make America great again.” (his entire platform)


He has few if any actual plans to solve the nation’s problems. Whenever possible, he actively avoids answering questions. It’s far easier to cast aspersions at others than put the time and effort into truly understanding the issues and creating a cohesive strategy to contend with them. He has essentially seduced a large number of people in this country with his lowbrow, dumbed-down ideology, his inability to exhibit self-restraint, and his delusional but no less effective willingness to paint himself as someone who “tells it like it is,” someone who is “just like us.”

Please believe me when I say that Donald Trump has absolutely no connection to anything resembling an average citizen of America today. He is not only removed from reality; he’s devoid of it. He has no understanding of what it means to live little more than paycheck to paycheck as most Americans do today. He has no conception of the struggles we all face.

The most telling statement of the entire first presidential debate in my opinion was one he was justifiably condemned for. In response to Clinton suggesting that he has used the tax laws to avoid paying taxes, he couldn’t help interjecting, “That makes me smart.” This is typical corporate sociopath thinking. There is no moral foundation within this mentality. It is soullessly mercenary.

Side-Note: Though there is ample opportunity for corporations to make more money than they know what to do with in this country, it’s never enough for them. They’re constantly scrabbling for more, more, more; by any means necessary. The fact that big corporations have a moral obligation to give back to the country that birthed them and thereby contribute to the overall wellbeing of our nation isn’t on their agendas. “We can make more money by dumping our US factories and call centers and moving them overseas.” “We can dodge paying taxes if we center our operations overseas and/or use the loopholes in the (cripplingly arcane) US tax codes.” The biggest problem with the underlying conceit of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court case (easily among the most obscene legislative rulings in the history of our country as far as I’m concerned) is that if corporations were actually people, a large percentage of them would be diagnosed as clinical sociopaths. Think about some of the major components of enterprise in this country: banking and other aspects of financial services, real estate, insurance, pharmaceuticals, big oil (and don’t get me started on the gun lobby and the power they continue to wield over us). These and more have all amply demonstrated that they cannot be trusted. They will do whatever they can to perpetuate their own agendas. They act in unequivocal self-interest; nothing more. 

Anyway, back to my primary topic. I do not believe that Donald Trump actually wants to be President. He just wants to win. What greater ego stroke is there than scoring the biggest job on the planet? But actually doing the job? Seriously. He doesn’t know how to play nicely with the other children! He doesn’t have the patience to truly negotiate, compromise, or listen to anyone other than himself. He’d swagger across the world stage when he felt like it and let his VP and cabinet take care of the nuts & bolts stuff he doesn’t have the patience or knowledge to be bothered with.

And if he loses? Not a problem. He’s already establishing his Quintessential Narcissist Escape Route: “I didn’t lose. The system was rigged.” The notion that his contemptible character and ignorance of the nuances of the country’s problems and how to solve them may ultimately be refuted by a majority of Americans in November is not a possibility he is capable of accepting.

This is not the person we want representing our nation to the world. He typifies every negative American stereotype there is. He is an unmitigated embarrassment to what it truly means to be an American.

That said, despite his demented, Cro-Magnon, rodeo clown theatrics (and perhaps to some extent, because of them), I believe he has a pretty good chance of winning the election.

Here’s why:

Hillary Clinton has problems.

She has in my opinion, been conducting a largely terrible campaign. Running ads telling everyone that Donald Trump is a douchebag is a waste of time. The people who support her already know it. The people who support him don’t believe it or they don’t care.

Say what you want about Hillary Clinton. Love her or hate her, agree with her or disagree with her. The bottom line is she has the documented, verifiable experience, credentials, and knowledge to do the job. She has a broad-based, informed understanding of the issues and has the intelligence to contend with them. Donald Trump doesn’t. That’s her strong suit. That’s what she should be using to sway undecided voters. Perhaps more significantly, that’s what she should be using to sway the large numbers of still-disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters who are seriously considering either staying home on election day or making a protest vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, neither of whom has what it takes to be President even if they had the momentum to win the election.

Side Note: Despite my “wipe the board and start over” note above, I do believe that the concept of a viable third party is very much worth talking about and cultivating but the fact is we’re not close to being there yet. At this rather ominous moment in history, where so much depends on the choices we make over the next several years, casting a vote for Stein or Johnson is the equivalent of pulling on a “Make America Great Again!” t-shirt. I am confident you will find it be very ill-fitting very quickly. Underestimate Donald Trump at your peril.

I wouldn’t classify myself as “disaffected” but I would vote for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton any day of the week, despite her having (in certain respects) a more diverse curriculum vitae than he does. Further, I think Bernie would have mopped the floor with Trump because whether you agree with his ideologies or not, Bernie Sanders inspires a quality that Hillary Clinton is sorely lacking in: Trust. No one can question (certainly not to the degree they do with Clinton) where Bernie Sanders stands on things. He states his position, puts his words into action and remains consistent in both.

On the other hand, if we were to take a survey of what people don’t like about Hillary Clinton, I’m quite confident that the number one answer by a 75% or more margin would be “I just don’t trust her.”

I’m one of those people.

I believe that a lot more has been made of her email scandal than is warranted. To be honest, I don’t particularly care what’s in the missing emails. I suspect they’re more embarrassing than dangerous to national security. What I very much care about is the fact that other than saying “It was a mistake for me to use a private server and I’m sorry,” we have no conclusive answers about why she did so. Nor do we have any conclusive answer as to what actually happened to all those emails. Given all her political experience and savvy, how can anyone believe that it simply never occurred to her that using a private server for government business was a bad idea? How can anyone possibly accept that she has no idea what happened to all those emails? The answer is: They can’t. Even her most diehard supporters have concerns regarding what this email thing and its underlying issues are really about and if they tell you they don’t, they’re either lying to you, or they’re lying to themselves.

There’s more.

Just to jump back to Sanders for a second, I remain very deeply troubled by Clinton’s (to put it generously) conscious unwillingness to act against the DNC’s plans to keelhaul him if he got too close to her by the convention. If they’d spent half as much time not underestimating Trump as they did freaking out about Bernie Sanders, this race wouldn’t be as close as it is. This is more about the stupidity of the DNC backing Clinton over Sanders in the first place than it is about Clinton herself but I can’t help but feel that it paints a picture of her as someone who is willing to do quite a lot of questionable things to get what she wants, regardless of who happens to be standing in the way.

Another serious concern of mine is that she appears to have a lot of ties to a lot of people with a lot of money. I question how steadfast and thorough she’s truly going to be with regard to shifting the catastrophic imbalance in wealth distribution in this country when those actions may threaten her funding for her second term.

Side-Note: the President should have one term of six years. The bottom line is, no matter who they are or what they think is best for the country, they always spend their first term not rocking the boat too much to ensure they have the same or greater level of support for reelection. If they only have one term to do the job, they can leave it all on the field with impunity. Giving the President only one term would make us a better, stronger country.

The point is, both candidates have less than desirable qualities but one is far less desirable than the other.

Trump and his supporters believe he’s going to stomp into the Oval Office and “fix” everything but his penchant for animosity, finger-pointing, and exclusionary thinking make him about as likely to pull the country together as a jellyfish is likely to win a tap-dancing contest. Further, he’s got so much resistance on both sides of the aisle, he’d be hard-pressed to get much if anything accomplished.

However, this does not preclude him from having a potentially devastating effect on the credibility of this country around the world and quite possibly further polarizing other nations against us. Domestically, his slightly modified “trickle-down” economics plan will have exactly the same effect (probably worse) than it did the first time we tried the concept: Multibillion dollar corporations (his own interests among them) will get their “more, more, more” and the rest of us will continue to slide toward economic obscurity.

Hillary Clinton isn’t doing herself any favors in terms of her campaign by continuing to devolve into the “Not Trump” candidate. Further, she will continue to be dogged by trust issues because her actions, as well as her unwillingness to explain them in a satisfactory manner, have illustrated her to be someone who bears watching.

That said, the fact remains that Clinton is not even close to being as potentially destructive to the wellbeing of our nation domestically and internationally as Donald Trump is. Indeed, he is a clear and present danger to everyone and everything around him. That has nothing to do with Democrat vs. Republican. It has to do with Trump as an individual lacking the intelligence (both emotional and analytical) and strength of character to even make the D-List of candidates for the job of President of the Unites States of America.

Does it seriously suck that we are often faced with a “lesser of two evils” situation in our current political climate? You bet.

Does that make the choice any less clear?

No. It does not.

Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Power of One


On Monday morning, November 16, 2015, my daughter Julianna was dismayed by the fact that her high school did not observe a moment of silence for the people who lost their lives in Paris, France during the terrorist attacks there the previous Friday, 11/13.

That afternoon, she visited the school office to ask why not and was met with a perfunctory “There was something wrong with the PA system” though announcements were broadcast to the entire school that morning and “We’re not supposed to talk about ISIS” (a term I despise using in reference to terrorists. *Isis* is an Egyptian Goddess of nature and magic who has been around for thousands of years. But I digress…).

The point is, neither of these explanations had any substance. The conversation concluded with Julianna being told, “You can leave a note for the principal if you want.”

So, she did.

On Tuesday morning, November 17, 2015, West Islip High School observed a moment of silence for the people killed in Paris.

This simple sequence of events tells us quite a lot.

The first thing it tells us is that I have a remarkable daughter. She has a sensitivity, awareness, and compassion regarding certain things that is, to put it lightly, uncharacteristic for a girl of fourteen. I am both proud of and humbled by her integrity and character.

My wife Nancy and I take the job of being parents very, very seriously. We view the responsibility of raising a kind, loving, and decent human being not only as our moral obligation as citizens of this planet but as a truly holy endeavor. As part of that process, since toddler-hood, we have consistently encouraged and empowered Jules to respectfully ask questions and speak her mind. However, it’s ultimately up to her to pick up that torch and run with it.

Clearly, she has.

This leads us to the next thing this story tells us, which is that I may well have to bail my daughter out of jail one day for engaging in an act of civil disobedience.

Moving on…

Another thing it tells us is that the principal of West Islip High School, Dr. Anthony Bridgeman, possesses impressive leadership skills. This matter was the very definition of a teachable moment. He could have politely dismissed Julianna’s concern with a “Thank you for contacting me” platitude. Instead, he gave the matter the consideration it deserved and capitalized on his potential to positively impact the lives of his students.

On an individual level, Dr. Bridgeman provided Julianna with enormous validation. She raised her voice and that voice was heard. She may well carry this experience with her for the rest of her life.

On a broader level, he provided the students of West Islip High School with an opportunity to perceive the world from a global perspective and demonstrate compassion and empathy for others. Paris may be 3600 miles from Long Island but we’re all part of the same team: The Human Race Team. Senseless tragedies there are senseless tragedies here.

Lastly, the story of ‘Julianna & the Moment of Silence’ provides us with a cautionary lesson. In these troubled times, public discourse is often leeched of substance by the ideological parasite known as ‘Political Correctness’ which can be defined as the science of attempting to please everyone and thereby saying nothing. It has become so engrained in our society that we often instinctively employ the spirit of the concept to diffuse potential conflict (or even discussion) rather than address and resolve it. When Julianna voiced her concern, the initial reaction was to deflect it harmlessly off into the trees without any actual engagement or resolution.

But there’s more to life than smoothing the bed sheets.

Let us all work harder to defy this destructive inclination to diffuse rather than resolve. Let us face our ideological challenges head-on with a robust combination of courage, tenacity, emotional intelligence, and compassion. As human beings, we have been blessed with the gift of sentience, the capacity to reason, to see the big picture, to work together, to envision an ideal and construct a plan to achieve it. Ultimately, we all benefit from such efforts.

And that, my friends, is something to be thankful for.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, November 9, 2015

The King of Anything

As some of you are aware, my uncle, Leonard Hochman passed away on Wednesday, 11/4/15 after a long, hard fight against cancer (a fight that included overcoming pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal types). As in many such circumstances, at the last, cancer ended up being almost incidental to other tangential medical issues creating a cascade effect that proved impossible to overcome, even for him.

I was given the privilege of saying a few words at his memorial service and I thought I’d share them here. I modified the original somewhat to reflect this written version.

Given that Lenny was an incredibly vivacious, larger-than-life character with a great sense of humor and an equally great capacity to see the humor in himself, I began by taking a show-of-hands poll of those in attendance to determine how many of them have personally voiced or thought the following sentiment during an interaction with him:

“Lenny! For God’s sake!”

Naturally, a large percentage of the attendees raised their hands.

That, my friends, is the mark of a life lived out loud.

Alternately hilarious, loving, generous, insightful, helpful, and at times, thoroughly exasperating, Lenny was absolutely impossible to ignore. He was formidably tough, physically and mentally, a perpetual and charismatic showman, and a one-man family history encyclopedia. In short, he lived life ferociously. He was the King of Anything with an opinion on everything.

This latter quality often made for some entertaining… well, let’s call them “discussions” between him and his sister, my mom Carol. Both are fiercely intelligent and passionate about their beliefs, and though their routinely disparate opinions were usually well-considered and well-informed, Lenny was not entirely innocent of periodically employing information that can only be described as “factualish” when the actual facts did not fully suit his opinion. Regardless, these discussions often concluded as they went to their separate corners with my mom rolling her eyes and muttering (not unkindly) one of two things:

1) “Uh! He’s impossible!” (which brings to mind a snatch of dialogue from “The Big Bang Theory” in which Penny declares to Sheldon, “You’re impossible!” As she heads for the door in exasperation, Sheldon responds, “I can’t be impossible. I exist. I’m improbable.”).

2) After a particularly heated “discussion,” Mom would use a variant: “Uh! He’s such an idiot.”

I remember one occasion where they were haggling over some issue and after a few minutes, I heard Lenny say, “Wait, we actually agree?” and my mom replied, “Yes. We actually agree,” resulting in a momentary phenomena akin to the appearance of Hailey’s Comet, which comes around every 75 years or so: They were both speechless.

Perhaps Lenny’s greatest magic was that his impossibility never quite precluded him from being eminently endearing and lovable. If I had to pick two especially fond moments to remember him by, I would pick these:

At some point in recent years, Lenny was at my mom’s house. He seemed to have a special fondness for my daughter Julianna and would always take time to speak to her and make her laugh. On this particular occasion, Lenny somehow came upon the topic of egg creams. Jules had never had one, of course, and within moments, he was briskly preparing one for her. His grin of proud satisfaction as her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Wow! This is really good!” on tasting it was heartwarming. Though you can be sure that at some point in the near future, my family and I will be drinking egg creams in his honor, I’m quite confident they will not be anywhere near as good as his.

The second moment I’d like to share took place at Lenny & Tina’s apartment in Queens. We had gone over there for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We did not generally exchange actual gifts on such occasions but I happened to come across a quote that I thought he’d appreciate so I formatted it for presentation and printed it out for him. I can still hear that big, booming voice announce, “Oh, Stevie, this… this is perfect,” as he tacked it onto the wall.

The quote, by the writer Gore Vidal, could quite easily serve as Lenny’s epitaph (or at least a PS). It reads:

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
          -    Gore Vidal

The world was a far more interesting and entertaining place with him in it and it will certainly be less interesting and entertaining without him. If the phrase “one-of-a-kind” could be applied to anyone, I think we can all agree that someone would be Lenny Hochman.

He will be sorely missed. We will not see his like again.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Building a Better Temple

Sinai Reform Temple of Bay Shore, NY died on June 26, 2015, the date of its final service, at which I officiated. Its gravestone arrived on Friday via Priority Mail in the form of a hundred page document dripping with legalese ratifying the temple’s dissolution into B’nai Israel Reform Temple (BIRT) of Oakdale. It provides an opportunity for dissenters to present what amounts to “just cause” to refute the merger at an imminently forthcoming court hearing. I won’t. I don’t have the money. And with my work commitments during the summer, I don’t have the physical time. Besides, the chief proponents of this debacle have been extremely industrious in ensuring that everything has gone their way. Everything is all tied up in nice, neat little bows. I’m not surprised. They had a lot to gain. I respectfully submit that had they devoted even half the time and effort they expended on destroying the place on saving it, we’d have a small but thriving congregation.

Sinai Reform Temple did not die peacefully or justifiably. Indeed, it was raped and murdered, its violated corpse looted of valuables without hesitation, mercy, or remorse. The perpetrators of this crime, Apathy and Avarice, are seasoned destroyers of life, hope, and possibility. They have ruthlessly mangled the perceptions of countless well-intentioned individuals throughout their ages-long campaign of unrepentant desolation, ensnaring them in inescapable nets of obfuscation. They have set many a moral compass spinning in confusion, allowing them to at last come to rest pointing in the wrong direction.

Apathy and Avarice have killed before. They will kill again.

As with so many other things so tragically lost before their time, though Sinai Reform Temple leaves behind a multitude of good deeds done in its decades-long history, it likewise leaves behind a vast ocean of potential that will now forever go untapped. Only the swirling mists of history and memory remain where once it stood, full of hope, beauty, and grace. We will never see its like again.

As some of you may be aware, I (along with some others) spent the last year or so swimming against a rather determined tide to save Sinai Reform Temple from its premature and wholly misguided end. It was not pleasant. I learned some deeply discouraging lessons about the power of apathy and the willingness of otherwise decent and intelligent people to narrow their vision in a way that allowed them to justify destroying a 68-year old institution and looting its coffers for their own benefit and self-aggrandizement. Though some of the chief engineers of this travesty will avow that they did it “for the good of Judaism on the South Shore” or some other nonsense, the cold, hard reality is they did it for themselves. They were too apathetic to try to save the place and too greedy to stand down or walk out the door as they should have and left SRT to those who wanted to save it. But of course, trying to save it would have left far less money in the bank in the event a reinvention plan ultimately failed and we had to merge at a later time.

How much less? I am so glad you asked. At the time this process started in earnest a year ago, Sinai Reform Temple had over 2 million dollars in the bank from the sale of our building a year or two before (we had been leasing space since then). If managed and utilized properly, that money could have provided us with a truly remarkable opportunity, one that none of us will ever see again: The chance to build a better temple.

With some assistance, I created a viable framework that would have allowed SRT to move forward in our originally intended goal of reinventing our congregation. It was a plan, incidentally, that included a contingency clause that would have allowed us to merge at a later time if the plan didn't work.

I would have been the person spearheading that effort and I have no doubt that there would have been times when I would have deeply resented the accompanying stress, aggravation, and commitment of time required to do the job right. But I would have done it anyway. I would have done it because it was the morally right thing to do. The plan would not have been easy to enact and there’s a pretty good chance it would have ultimately failed but it was well-considered and built on a foundation of faith and possibility as opposed to the apathy and avarice driving the dissolution.

Even if we had burned through a staggering 1.5 million dollars of that money over the past year to fund the plan and it ended up netting us nothing, we still would have had $500,000.00 in the bank. Given that our congregation had dwindled to about 45-50 people at the time of SRT’s death, that left about $10,000.00 per person to finance membership and other perks at another temple for five, maybe even ten years. It would have been more a more than sufficient final gift to our congregants.

As it stands, with Sinai Reform Temple’s death came a very big bus ticket; one that ensures lifetime membership and assorted perks for all concerned. That’s what most of the board wanted. That’s what they sold to the bulk of the congregation, and that’s what they got. There is no possibility the money will ever run out within the lifetimes of even the youngest SRT members. Clearly, a healthy dollop of spiritual materialism goes a long, long way.

Some may think me hypocritical in deciding with my family that we will begin the next phase of our Jewish journey at B’nai Israel Reform Temple but such an allegation is inaccurate. I and my family no longer have a temple to go to. Our temple has died. The one that’s geographically closest and therefore, the one we’re most likely to drive to on a Friday night, is the one in Oakdale. The struggle to save Sinai Reform Temple never had anything to do with B’nai Israel as an institution. It’s been around a long time and has what appears to be a fairly thriving congregation. Had we not initially visited Sinai Reform Temple and been so captivated by the warmth of the congregation and the charisma of the remarkable Rabbi Emily Losben, it’s entirely possible we would have ended up at BIRT to begin with. I have no reason to believe that it’s not a wonderful, albeit different place than the one I came from. Even if for some reason that turned out to not be the case, though the financial benefits of attending BIRT can’t be denied, the bottom line is, if it doesn’t fit my family, we’ll find somewhere else to go. Most any temple will work with most any family to come to a viable financial arrangement. If they don’t, find yourself a temple that does.

Whether they're willing to acknowledge it or not, those members of the SRT board of trustees who dedicated themselves to its destruction abjectly failed the very institution they were elected to protect. To brutalize Robert Frost’s classic line, they took ‘The Road Most Easily Traveled,’ ‘The Road Most Convenient & Self-Serving.’ They mortgaged their responsibility to the founders of SRT to carry it into the future against a really good deal. They should be ashamed of themselves. And if they’re not, they should be even more ashamed of themselves.

I believe with unwavering conviction that the manner in which the dissolution process was conceived, constructed, and conducted was, to put it lightly, rife with profound ideological and logistical flaws. Though it had an outward appearance of perceived transparency, the truth is it was often underhanded, secretive, and at times overtly antagonistic toward anyone who tried to get in their way. Individuals on the board that I had had respect for or even considered friends stood by and watched as my erstwhile co-president censored an article I wrote for our temple newsletter expressing an alternative to dissolution, attempted to silence me during a congregational meeting, and engineered an attempt to remove me from the board over a typo. Before this process started, she is someone I would have described as a good friend. Now, despite my generally forgiving nature, she is someone I can visually identify.

I could spend another several thousand words recounting the details of the conflict, relaying my thoughts and feelings about it, the things I could and should have done to dismantle the whole, revoltingly greedy debacle of it. Those details mean little or nothing at this point so I will begin winding down my post with this:

My defiance of the dissolution freight train required me to think outside the box and make some choices that no doubt infuriated certain members of the board and possibly some congregants as well.

I. Don’t. Care.

Indeed, over the last several months, I’ve conducted several exploratory and investigative inquiries about this matter in my head and my findings are absolutely indisputable:
  • My eyes are clear.
  • My head is held high.
  • My moral compass is resolutely pointing North.

The actions I took were driven by what I believed was right with every iota of my being. My only regret is that I wasn't able to do more to stop that train before it drove Sinai Reform Temple off a cliff.

So, where does this leave me?

Well, the first order of effect is pretty ground-level in scope: It leaves me thoroughly disheartened. It is an unfortunate truth that we are often at the mercy of the small-minded and narrow of vision. For purely self-preservational reasons, I will play no part whatsoever in the administrative affairs of any temple or similar organization for the foreseeable future.

The second order of effect is more esoteric in nature. Long before the atrocity of SRT’s death, I have struggled with matters of faith, with the nature of God, about how much S/He is truly capable of and how much s/he truly cares about what we mere mortals do from moment to moment. This experience has not been helpful in assuaging those concerns.

Despite the relative doom and gloom of much of the above, I feel it’s essential to note that it does NOT leave me without hope.

My theological / spiritual skepticism is not borne of doubt about whether there is a God. The inherent miracle of life, of existence is simply too remarkable, too spectacular, too exquisitely beautiful and joyful to be the result of momentarily congealing chaos. There simply must be more.

I believe there are forces out there, forces we do not and cannot fully understand that nonetheless wish us well; forces that will help us if they can.

I believe that there is ample opportunity to discover wonder, magic, and joy in our restless quest for goodness and meaning in this life.

Many years ago, I heard the following quote on the television series ‘Beauty & the Beast’ starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. The show significantly amplified my respect and admiration for poetry and introduced me to my favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. This quote, from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ typifies the thoughtful, meditative, and hopeful perspective I so love about his work.

“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once, beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

-    Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Lastly, I leave you with a far simpler and more contemporary quote from performance artist Henry Rollins. I came across it a couple of years ago, loved it, and added it to a special collection of quotes I keep on my PC. But as with many such things, it eventually slipped beneath the waves of active memory. However, in preparing materials for the final SRT service, I rediscovered it. And you know, I think it just may be my new mantra. The quote is this:

“My optimism wears heavy boots, and is loud.”

-    Henry Rollins


May God bless the spirit of Sinai Reform Temple.

Thank you for reading.