Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My wife Sybil's octogenarian's lament

We now have two octogenarians in my family. My wife Sybil has just turned 80. A group of her friends are celebrating the event this week with a birthday party in her honor.
She has composed this poem to read to them...


I look in the mirror and see a strange face.
Oh, surely this image is in the wrong place.

There should be a picture, alive and aglow,
A young pretty girl with no signs of woe.

But alas I see a woman, who's old and worn,
With wrinkles and lines from the cares she has borne.

It's hard to accept
That never again
Will I get the glances of much younger men.

I really feel like I'm out of the loop.
The computer keyboard to me
Looks like alphabet soup.
The mouse is erratic and just won't behave
And I never remember the key
For work that you save.

I don't have a Blackberry, or play an Nintendo game
And all the hip-hop music
To me sounds the same.

I'm even beginning to feel quite bitter
That I have no idea
What it means to TWITTER!

And so like the poet
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high
O'er vale and hill when
All at once I saw a crowd
Not of golden daffodils
But of my wonderful friends.

I really should tell ol' Wordsworth
That a friend brings more joy
Than a daffodil.

Your love and compassion
Have helped me through the years
As you have patiently listened
To my woes and my fears.

So thank you and bless you
For helping me celebrate my special day.
Your devotion means more to me
Than I can say.
I love you all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The right-wing malcontents are bashing Obama

President Barack Obama has been in office for only three months, but already the right-wing malcontents are up in arms. Their rage was comically displayed at last Wednesday's nationwide rash of "tea parties" during which the paranoid Obama-bashers vented their spleen about taxes, soaring government spending for financial bailouts, and what they regard as government encroachment into their private lives.

The demonstrations were allegedly "grass roots" rallies. But they were actually organized by Republican operatives and promoted by the Fox News cable TV organization. Fox, which jokingly claims to cover the news in a "fair and balanced" manner, is primarily a TV vehicle for Obama-bashing.

In their outrageous claims that Obama is a socialist--or fascist, according to Glenn Beck, Fox's loudmouth, clownish commentator--their fear about higher income taxes is misplaced. The President intends to allow the Bush Administration tax cuts for the rich expire. But for those with annual taxable incomes of under $250,000 taxes will be cut. From their appearances and the rowdy behavior of the tea party participants, it struck me that few of them have to worry about paying more taxes.

In their rage about bailouts and soaring Federal debt, the tea party participants conveniently overlooked the fact that their ideological hero, former President George W. Bush, began the bank bailout parade and was responsible for turning a Federal budget surplus into an unprecedented debt load.

Aside from taxes, the tea bag demonstrators seemed equally infuriated by an alleged government encroachment into their personal lives and by an unnecessary fear that they will lose their guns. I never fail to be amused that the same people who worry about government interference into personal lives are invariably those who want to ban abortion and gay rights.

Many of the right-wing malcontents' fears would be comical if they were not so serious. Some hysteria-mongers even talk about an armed insurrection against the government and the need to prepare for self-defense.

Others worry about the newly-enacted Serve America Act, a Obama plan enabling young volunteers to work on projects involved with education, clean energy, health care, and care for military veterans. For such critics as Rep. Michelle Backmann (R-Minn.), who seems to be replacing Sarah Palin as a heroine of the right, the plan will foster national enslavement and provide "re-education camps" for young people.

The over-riding fear of the right-wing malcontents is that the U.S. is turning into a socialistic or fascist country. They are unwilling to recognize that a capitalistic-free market system like ours has been unable to cope with the current economic crisis without government intervention.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

The amazing but sorrowful side of Googling

Whenever I have nothing better to do, I often turn to Google and type in the names of old friends and acquaintances with whom I have lost contact. I'm inquisitive by nature--some might call me a busy body--and I'm curious to know what's happened to these people since I last saw them.

The other day I concentrated on men with whom I had worked during the 1950s and early 1960s at the McGraw-Hill/Business Week Washington news bureau, and I entered the names of three of them.

I was saddened to learn that they are all dead and that two other former colleagues have also passed away. According to a Washington Post obituary shown in Google, one of my former colleagues, Boyd France, died just a month ago in a suburban Washington hospice at age 88.

Boyd I shared a small office cubicle for about 10 years. We used to joke that we spent more time with each other than we did with our wives. Boyd covered the State Dept. and developed an extraordinary roster of diplomatic news sources. He was also the National Press Club's chess champion.

Boyd's father was a prominent corporate and civil rights lawyer. I remember that one day his father visited him and discovered that Boyd had no will. His father prepared one for him, and Boyd brought it into the office and asked me to sign it as a witness.

I casually read the will and was so impressed that I asked Boyd whether he would object if I copied the will's contents and used them as the model for my own will--with the names, of course, changed. I did not have a will of my own at the time. Boyd did not object. Today, so many years later, my current will is still essentially based on the one prepared by Boyd France's father.

Boyd's career began in France where, in 1947, he became widely publicized as the young reporter who swam out from a Mediterranean port to interview the Jewish Holocaust victims aboard the Exodus, the famous ship which the British had barred from landing in Palestine.

My next Google discovery was a reference to the Donald O. Loomis Memorial Scholarship in Journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was established to honor the man who, as co-head of the Business Week Washington bureau's news desk, was involved in hiring me for the magazine in 1952. Don died in April 2008 at age 93.

The scholarship is awarded for achievement in journalism and for "the demonstration of a well-rounded range of activities and interests outside the classroom as exemplified by the life of Donald O. Loomis."

I e-mailed the university, inquiring how to extend my belated condolences to his son, David Loomis, a sponsor of the scholarship. Don had been in the Washington bureau for 35 years and was, indeed, the type of renaissance man who would inspire the scholarship applicants.``````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````ould
In addition to being my primary editor, never failing to sharpen and improve my writing, Don was a lifelong, ardent athlete who was my frequent tennis partner. He also introduced me to golf, but on that score he failed. I never could develop enthusiasm for the game.

I received an acknowledgment from Don's son, David, a longtime newspaperman who is now a journalism professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. David had some more sad news, informing me that another longtime Business Week colleague, Dan McCrary, who was his father's close friend, died this past January at age 77.

I had worked with Dan both in Washington, where he covered the Justice Dept., and in New York, where he edited what Business Week called "the front-of-the-book," the magazine's section on latest news events.

I also typed the name of another former Washington colleague, Seth Payne, into Google. I was always intrigued that Seth, who had been raised on a ranch in New Mexico, was a merchant marine officer during World War II. He later became a naval reserve officer.

With his Navy contacts, Seth backed me up in my assignment as Business Week's Pentagon correspondent while working on his own beat, science and technology. When the Russians launched Sputnik, creating a new journalistic specialty, space technology, Seth also took on that assignment.

The Google reference revealed that he had established the Seth Payne/Evert Clark Award in 1988 to honor Clark, his longtime friend and Business Week colleague, who died that year. Seth Payne himself died several years later.

The award is granted annually to a distinguished young science journalist. I did not know Clark, a science and aviation writer who later worked for Newsweek magazine, very well. During my time in the Business Week Washington bureau, Clark worked in an adjoining office for Aviation Week, which like BW was a McGraw-Hill publication.

But I had the same kind of office intimacy with Payne that I enjoyed with Boyd France. A glass wall separated Payne's small office cubicle from mine, and his desk was opposite my desk. We could not avoid closely observing each other at work each day. Both Payne and I became the fathers of boys at the same time, prompting us regularly to compare notes on our new sons' development.

I regard Google as one of the technological wonders of our time. It is an extraordinary source of information of all kinds. My search for information about former colleagues, however, brought me both sadness and a reminder of how honored I was to work with these men of great talent and character.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

MEMOIR: Job-hopping and networking

My job as a press officer and editor with the U.S. Interior Dept.'s Fish & Wildlife Service, about which I wrote in my last Memoir, was was my first job after my 1946 Army discharge and my college graduation in 1948.

My career there was short-lived. I resigned a year later when I was informed by the U.S. Civil Service Commission that I was about to be "displaced" by a disabled Army veteran who had job preference over me. He had received a medical discharge after six months of military service because of stomach ulcers. (I had served in the Army three years, more than two of them overseas.)

I didn't resent my "displacement," for I was eager to extend my career into a wider field. Moreover, I had already landed a new job as a staff writer for The Machinist, the weekly newspaper of the AFL-CIO International Assn. of Machinists. It was only a temporary three-month summer job, but I had a far greater personal interest in labor affairs than in fish and wildlife.

I had been recommended for the union job by Bill Doherty, the Interior Dept.'s director of information. He was familiar with my work, having had to approve the Fish & Wildlife Service press releases that I had written before they were distributed. His recommendation represented my first experience with the phenomenon of "networking" as a tool for getting a job.

The Machinist was a far more professional newspaper than most labor union publications. Its editor, Gordon Cole, had been a Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and he had made the paper more than a mere personal house organ for the union's leaders.

In my new job, I reported and wrote about such matters as labor-management contract negotiations, labor-related political issues, organizing campaigns, and union elections. I also wrote the union president's opening statement at a Congressional hearing on a bill to ban discrimination against workers because of age.

During my temporary stay with the union, I took a formal civil service exam for the job of "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)," my job title at the Fish & Wildlife Service. It was the first time the exam had been conducted in about 10 years.

I passed the exam, but that did not assure immediate employment. I had to find a job opening in a Federal government agency. But I now had regular civil service status to qualify for employment without being vulnerable to displacement by applicants with some type of job preference or political influence.

However, when my temporary job with the Machinists Union ended, there were no Federal job openings available in Washington. Nor could I find a journalistic job in the private sector. After two months, I became discouraged about my prospects. Reluctantly, I returned to New York to live with my parents because I could no longer afford to live on my own.

But the job market for journalists in New York was now even tighter than it had been when I graduated from college, because four daily newspapers had recently folded.

Shortly after my return to New York I got a lucky break. The director of information of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, Larry Klein, phoned me, offering a job similar to the one I had had with the Fish & Wildlife Service. I was now on the civil service register, which made me eligible for the position.

I had been recommended to Klein, a onetime editor of the AFL-CIO United Auto Workers Union's paper, by Gordon Cole, my boss at the Machinists Union. It was another demonstration of the importance of professional networking.

I was now on my way back to Washington.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

My life with music

I cannot play a musical instrument, and I have never taken music lessons. I cannot read music. And I can barely distinguish the playing quality between a Yitzhak Perlman and a journeyman violinist in the back row of a major symphony orchestra.

Yet I am an avid lover of classical music and a frequent concert-goer. All day at home, I have a good-music radio station or a selection from my vast CD collection playing in the background. My tastes range from the old war-horses, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, to more modern composers such as Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

I believe that my love of classical music was stimulated by my 8th grade teacher, Mrs. O'Mara. She conducted a class called "Music Appreciation" and required her students to maintain scrap books with pictures of prominent musical concert performers. The project competed with my scrap book of major-league baseball players, but my collection seemed to meet Mrs. O'Mara's standards.

I still remember some of the techniques she used to introduce us to the major classical composers. When she came to Schubert, for example, she taught us to sing: "This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished," using the basic melody that flowed through his never-finished final symphony.

The musical influences at home were minimal. We had an old piano in our apartment on which my mother had taken lessons when she was a child. But I don't recall ever hearing her play.

She encouraged me to take lessons. She had a distant cousin, Sidney Sukoenig, who was a prominent concert performer and a conservatory teacher during the 1920s and 1930s, who was willing to teach me. I turned down that opportunity because it interfered with stick ball and touch footfall.

I must have had some inherent musical talent, however, because with one finger, I was able to pick out virtually any melody on my mother's old piano, without knowing exactly what I was doing.

My father used to play operatic and Jewish cantorial records on our old Victrola, but I don't think his attraction to vocal music influenced my love of symphonic music.

I try to educate myself about good music by reading the music critics in the general newspapers and magazines that cover the music scene. But it is not very helpful when I encounter something like the following recent review in the New York Times of a local performance by a Russian pianist, Alexei Volodin, playing a Bach Partita with the London Symphony Orchestra:

"He played the Corrente with sparkling energy and brought a wistful nostalgia to the Sarabande," the critic wrote. "Mr. Volodin clearly articulated the multiple voices hidden in the thicket of counterpointe in the concluding Gigue, whose grandeur he aptly conveyed."

What is an untutored music lover like me, who can't tell a sharp from a flat, to make of that?

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