Sunday, April 27, 2008

Are the oldest Americans the "happiest Americans"?

The Associated Press recently reported on an academic study that concludes that "the oldest Americans are the happiest Americans." The study was conducted by a University of Chicago sociologist, Yang Yang, who claims that her research shows that "life gets better in one's perception as one ages." That's because, she says, older people generally have learned to be more content with what they have than younger adults.

The idea that with age comes happiness is supported by a Duke University social scientist, Linda George, who was not involved in the University of Chicago study. AP describes her as "an aging expert." I don't know how old she is.

People tend to think, George says, that "late life is far from the best stage of life, and they don't look forward to it." That dismal view, George claims, should be discarded because of the new research finding that old people are the happiest people.

The University of Chicago study was conducted over a period from 1972 to 2004. Its findings are based on periodic face-to-face interviews with what is described as a nationally representative sample of about 28,000 people, ranging in age from 18 to 88. I don't know how the study handled the issue of widespread depression among elderly people.

Maybe I'm just an 83-year old sourpuss, but I'm highly skeptical about being told categorically that old people are the happiest people in America. I'm also a onetime graduate sociology student (circa 1948), and I'm dubious about grand conclusions that are based on limited but supposedly representative samples.

I've always questioned the validity of social science research that treats so many emotional or psychological matters quantitatively as if they are mathematically measurable. I don't believe that the degree of one's personal happiness can be statistically stated. I wish that I could agree with the Chicago study's finding. In all candor, however, I think its conclusion is nonsense.

How can one generalize on the matter of happiness? I certainly do not enjoy the kind of personal happiness that the University of Chicago researcher claims she found among elderly people. I've had my aortic heart valve and right hip replaced, and I have survived prostate cancer. And, of course, I suffer the general aches and pains that come with geriatric territory and that limit my physical activities.

The best that I can say about my degree of happiness is that I am content with my lot in life. If I had been included in the Chicago study, I would probably have been simply described as "not unhappy."

That is pretty much how I would describe the state of mind of most of the many older people I know. I live among legions of senior citizens. My wife and I live in so-called active adult communities in New Jersey and Florida. One community has about 1,750 homes, the other about 950. Residence is restricted to people who are at least 55 years old and to younger spouses.

The degree of one's happiness, of course, depends on personal circumstances--the state of a person's health, how active is the person's social life, and the nature of a person's family relationships. I am confident that most of my fellow residents would scoff at the simplistic notion that age comes with happiness.

If it were only so!


Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Democrats are handing the Presidency to McCain--and woe is us!

The Democratic Presidential primary race has degenerated into such a nasty battle--largely caused by the Clinton camp's unprecedented belligerence--that I fear that Sen. John McCain will win the November election. The Democratic candidate will have run out of steam by then. Many of the party's disaffected members, plus independents, are thus likely to vote for McCain.

Sen. Barack Obama seems to have tied up the Democratic nomination. But I think he is not as electable as some of the candidates who dropped out of the primaries might have been. Nor would Hillary Clinton be any more electable against the Republicans because of the political baggage she carries.

I believe that Senators John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd--and perhaps even Governor Bill Richardson--would have been stronger candidates against McCain. Unfortunately, they apparently lacked the "glamour"--and the money--to beat Obama and Clinton for their party's nomination. In short, the media overlooked them because of the phenomenal presence of an African-American and a woman who might become President of the U.S.

The Republican attack machine is already undoubtedly assembling all the ugly stuff that Hillary and her surrogates threw at Obama, planning to regurgitate it during the actual election campaign. With even more venom, we will be hearing once again about Obama's controversial church pastor, his alleged Muslim connections, his neighbor the Weatherman bomb-thrower, his failure to wear a flag pin in his lapel, and his so-called "elitism."

So be ready for another four more years of George W. Bush's disastrous domestic and foreign relations policies! McCain once fancied himself as a maverick who often strayed from the Administration's positions. To gain the Republican nomination, however, he has pandered to the party's right-wing base and has become a Bush clone.

In Iraq, for example, McCain intends to keep U.S. forces at roughly the current level. The situation appears to be growing worse there, however, despite the White House's glowing and absurd claims of the "progress" produced by the highly-touted and amorphous "surge."

Under McCain, there will be no talk of a troop withdrawal in the foreseeable future, even as American casualties continue to soar, billions of dollars keep being wasted, and Muqtada-al-Sadr's pro-Iranian Mahdi army carries out his new threat to wage an all-out "war for liberation" against the U.S. If the situation becomes even more critical, it is conceivable that McCain will want to ship more U.S. troops to Iraq. Such a move would have to lead to consideration of a draft and would provoke widespread political unrest that would rival the Vietnam anti-war movement.

How can we expect a man who didn't know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims to cope with the convoluted situation in which U.S. troops are performing as referees and policemen in the battles between those two sects, the growing conflicts among factions in each sect, and the infiltration of sectarian militias into what is supposed to be a national army?

And yet McCain echoes the Bush Administration's nonsensical argument that the U.S. presence in Iraq has made our nation "more secure." The truth is just the opposite. Because of our occupation in Iraq, we have been distracted from the war in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas against the Al-Qaeda organization, which was responsible for 9/11 and still represents a genuine threat to national security. Meantime, the nation's defense capabilities have been so weakened that our generals worry whether the U.S. is capable of contending with a new military challenge.

And in the midst of the most serious economic crisis in recent history, what can we expect from a new President who casually reveals that he is ignorant about economic matters. He has already foolishly declared that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, made amidst soaring Federal expenditures and a ballooning national debt, will be retained.

To bolster has right-wing credentials, McCain talks again about privatizing Medicare and shows little interest in the universal medical care issue. He also now seems obsessive of the so-called "values" social issues-- the "pro-family" and "pro-life"causes that did not figure so prominently in his agenda before the Republican primary race.

Worst of all, McCain has embraced the fanatical belief that the free market can cure any economic problem, minimizing the need for government intervention in the current economic crisis. That is, if you are not Bear Stearns.

Fortunately, a Democratic-controlled Congress is likely to be elected despite a McCain triumph. I hope it can prevent the blunders and excesses of another Republican in the White House.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

MEMOIR: The games we played

I am amused when I hear suburban mothers talk about having to make "play dates" for their children. There evidently aren't enough kids on their streets or neighborhoods with whom their own children can play. So arrangements must be made to obtain playmates.

I then remember what my childhood was like on the teeming streets in the Bronx during the mid-1930s and early 1940s. The center of my boyhood play was the single block on Clarke Place, located on a hill that extended eastward from Walton Ave. to the Grand Concourse. As I recall, there were at least eight five-story apartment houses on that street. I would estimate that each building contained an average of 75 apartments.

This meant that there were about 600 families on that single street. The result was an abundant supply of play mates of both genders and a wide range of ages. There was no need for mothers to arrange "play dates." One quick look out of my kitchen window would immediately inform me whether there were friends outside available to play with.

Despite the absence of conventional athletic facilities in our neighborhood, sports dominated my childhood. My friends and I had an unusual assortment of games that were suitable for a narrow, hilly street with parked cars on either side and a steady stream of traffic. Aside from auto traffic, we had to contend with peddlers on horse-drawn wagons selling milk, fruit, vegetables, and other merchandise. We were thus forced to accommodate ourselves to piles of horse manure as we played.

We were very imaginative in devising games derived from baseball. The street was usually crammed with people walking or standing on the sidewalks, and hundreds--perhaps thousands--of vulnerable glass windows and doors providing a backdrop for our game. Obviously, we could not play regular baseball with a hard ball. It was acceptable, however, for two boys to simply play catch with a standard baseball if our adult neighbors were not inconvenienced.

Our most popular game was called "stickball," using a broom stick and a rubber ball in place of a bat and a regulation baseball. The ball was either a pink-colored "Spaldeen," a brand-name ball manufactured by the Spalding sports goods company, or a used tennis ball with the felt cover removed.

A sewer-covering in the middle of the street served as home plate. First base and third base were marked off in chalk in empty areas between parked cars. In an emergency, a car itself would serve as the base. Second base might be another sewer-cover, if it was located far enough up the street from home plate. If not, it would also be outlined in chalk.

Our idea of a power-hitter was a boy who could hit the ball the length of at least two sewers. In terms of distance, that was our equivalent of a hit into the bleachers of a regular baseball field. But with no physical barriers to hold him back, a speedy outfielder was expected to catch the ball on the fly.

The police considered stickball to be a nuisance, if not a hazard for innocent pedestrians. We were therefore frequently harassed by the cops who tried to stop our game. We handled that threat by posting look-outs--boys considered too young and unskilled for our level of play--at the end of the street to alert us. If cops were spotted, the game was temporarily halted.

Because we were on a hill, we usually played stickball without pitching. We often competed with teams from neighboring streets. When we played them on our block, we enjoyed a competitive advantage against opponents unaccustomed to playing on a hill. Of course, we were handicapped when we had to play away games on level streets, especially if the opponents insisted on playing with pitching.

Our stickball teams normally ranged in size from four to as many as eight players, depending on the number of kids looking for a game. When we didn't have enough men for stickball, we played alternative games with such quaint names as box ball, triangle, punch ball, baseball-off-the-wall, and curb ball. These were primitive approximations of conventional baseball, depending on the architectural features of our street and its buildings.

These games were based on the amount of space on the street and the number of available players. Triangle, for example, was played across the narrow street with two contestants and two imaginary bases. One boy slapped a rubber ball with his bare hand, trying to avoid the reach of his opponent. The opponent's failure to catch the ball was the equivalent of a hit in conventional baseball.

We also played games that were our primitive versions of basketball and football. The nearest regulation basketball court was about 10 blocks away at the local school yard. The kids living closest to the school yard monopolized the school's basketball court. Rarely if ever did those of us from Clarke Place get a chance to use the court during non-school hours.

We devised our own basketball game, using the lowest rung of an apartment house's fire escape. That was the "basket" and the sidewalk was the "court." Our "basketball" was the same type of small rubber ball that we used to play stickball.

We had two games derived from football. We naturally played without tackling, so shoulder pads and helmets were unnecessary. We did, however, play with a regular football. In place of a tackle, the runner would be "brought down" with a two-hand touch. But blocking was allowed, and as a skinny kid I would frequently have to contend with guys considerably heavier than me when I played on the line. I preferred playing as a wide receiver. I was a fast runner, and I would rush down (or up) the street, trying to outrun the defensive back to receive a pass.

We played with as many as six men on a team. A run around end often required the ball carrier
to sprint on to the sidewalk, contending with baby carriages and assorted on-lookers. I still recall one incident in which the runner smashed his knee on an apartment house wall while on an end-around play. It was a brutal collision, and the player was rushed to a hospital. As an adult, he was still sufficiently disabled because of the accident to be rated for limited service when the Army drafted him during World War II.

When we didn't have enough players for touch football, we played a game called "association" with a rubber ball. (I never knew the origin of the name.) The objective was the same as in regular football--i.e., to get the ball across a designated goal line.

The goal line was usually a sewer-cover. As few as two men on a side could play this game. It was simply one man throwing the rubber ball to his team mate, who would try to dodge the defending opponent and run across the goal line without being tagged.

As I look back on these boyhood experiences, I wonder whether the young boys who now require "play dates" have as much fun as my childhood friends and I did in those ancient days, playing primitive street games that substituted for conventional sports.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

MEMOIR: My father's Hasidic family

I've always boasted that my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Samuel Reichek, was probably one of the first Hasidim to settle in the U.S. In 1906, he brought his family to this country from the Czarist Russian-ruled region of Poland, arriving aboard the S.S. Fatherland after a brief stay in Antwerp, Belgium. My father, the second oldest of his four sons, was nine years old.

The Hasidim are an ultra-Orthodox Jewish mystical sect whose religious practices display far more emotional fervor than other Orthodox Jews. Their men wear beards, black hats and coats, and their rites are marked by dancing, singing and hearty consumption of alcoholic beverages. Hasidism has been described as being "unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God's commandments."

My grandfather founded and headed what was undoubtedly the first Hasidic American synagogue, Beth Hasidim de Palen (House of Hasidim from Poland). It was originally housed on the second floor of a tenement apartment house on Manhattan's Lower East Side. To my knowledge, the congregation no longer exists.

There are many dozens of Hasidic sects, organized largely on the basis of East European geography and on the leadership of individual 18th and 19th century charismatic rabbis. My grandfather belonged to the Gerer Hasidim. The name stemmed from the Polish home town, Gora Kalwaria, of the sect's founder. According to family lore, the Gerer Rebbe (the sect's leader) personally urged my grandfather to go to the U.S. to establish a Hasidic presence in New York.

My grandfather, whom I never knew, would probably not appreciate my boast about his role as a pioneer Hasid in this country. I do not know of any one in my family who still has links to the Hasidic community. My father, Meyer (Yehiel Mayer) Reichek, was estranged from my grandfather after my father quit a New York religious seminary at the age of 18. My father wanted to adopt a secular life far removed from the provincial Hasidic lifestyle.

My paternal family came from Ostrow (also known as Ostrava), a small Polish town in the province of Lomza. My grandfather, the son of a lumber dealer, was a highly regarded Talmudic scholar. He was ordained as a rabbi but never earned a livelihood as a clergyman.

My grandmother, Gussie (Gelya) Reichek, was born in Grodno, a town that was also in the former Czarist Russian-ruled region of Poland; it is now in the independent country of Belarus. Her maiden name was Kuchiniak. She had a brother who decided to "Americanize" the family name when he came here. He was not very imaginative. He changed his surname to Cohen. Grandma also had several sisters in this country, but I never knew them very well.

Grandma's father was an adherent of another Hasidic sect, the Alexander Hasidim. He was a ritual slaughterer, the religious Jewish functionary who butchers kosher meat. Arranging a marriage to a man with my grandfather's impressive religious credentials was considered a social coup. The couple never met until the night of their wedding.

The newlyweds settled in the groom's home town, Ostrow. My grandfather had a pragmatic, older brother named Mayer, who recognized that Talmudic scholarship was insufficient for the support of a family. He was a prosperous businessman who staked my grandfather and his bride to a venture producing vegetable oil. When asked what my family did in Europe, I've jokingly boasted that they were in the "oil business," without mentioning the "vegetables."

My grandfather's brother and his children never migrated to the U.S. I learned only in recent years that some of his offspring perished during the Holocaust. At least one grandson survived the Nazi death camps and settled in Israel. A grand-daughter, who survived as a wartime laborer in Soviet Uzbekistan, eventually came to the U.S. It was through her that I became aware of the tragic fate of some of my relatives.

Unlike his brother Mayer, my grandfather had no interest in business. My grandmother, however, displayed great talent as a businesswoman. Almost alone, she successfully ran the vegetable-oil business. Meantime, my grandfather continued to devote himself to prayer and Talmudic studies.

When the family settled in New York a century ago, this occupational pattern was repeated. Grandma ran a tiny dairy store while raising five children. Her husband was primarily occupied with his religious endeavors. Their marriage was evidently an unhappy one, and they separated about 20 years after arriving in the U.S. I do not know whether they were ever formally divorced.

In the mid-1930s, my grandfather grew discontented with what he regarded as a lack of religious piety in this country and decided to move to Palestine so that he could die in the Holy Land. My father helped my grandfather board a ship and never saw him again.

My grandfather died in 1950, separated from his family, in a Hasidic home for the aged in Jerusalem. My daughter was born four years later. Her Hebrew name, Avigayil Shoshana (my grandfather's first name, which he never used, was Abraham) is a memorial to the paternal grandfather I never knew.

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