Letter From Los Angeles
April 2008
© 2008 Joel

We Have Us a Samantha and a Sam!

Remember the story about Adversity in the March letter, in which I named the old man hobbling down the Temple steps Sam? Sam didn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself, and neither do the people I have dubbed Samantha and Sam.

Sam is, of course, Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, approximately seventy-five years of age, who has just written a book about how he not long ago underwent chemotherapy for, I believe, lymphoma, and managed to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee through Supreme Court nomination hearings under the hot t.v. lights for hours at a time. The Senator from Pennsylvania tells us he had more important things to do with his time than focus on his own situation. He gets a “Sam,” roughly equivalent to an Oscar, from me.

Samantha, is a woman I know of who lives near San Francisco. Not only does this octogenarian joke with her caretakers and knit regularly, she never misses her regular card game and manages to walk half a mile each day to the local Starbuck’s (imagine having to go that far to a Starbuck’s!) knowing that she will soon die of disease. She’s earned her “Samantha,” has she not?

I do not presume to judge a person’s response to the threat of a potentially deadly disease. Their feelings are understandable and worthy of our compassion and respect. My argument, and I make it aggressively, is with physicians who fail to present their patients with alternatives to despair, the conventional wisdom that falling to pieces is the only acceptable response, and with those whose sole contribution is to put on a pitying face and a pitying tone in their voice.

Pick of the Letter

Four Thousand In Iraq
The True Story of How We Saved Charleton Heston’s Life
Elliot Spitzer’s Career, R.I.P.
Martin Luther King: Rev. Right
Jeremiah Wright: Rev. Wrong
Perfect School? Bad School!
Abraham Lincoln and Email
The Last Word on Life After Death, and Mary Martin, too!

Four Thousand and Counting

and the President claims our dead soldiers have laid the foundation of democracy in the Middle East and have not died in vain. I’ll take stability over participatory democracy any day, and stability Iraq once had, sadly enough, under a murderous tyrant named Saddam Hussein. Tragically, it was controllable; what’s more, it worked.

How We Saved Charleton Heston’s Life

One wintry Saturday afternoon in l960, Lloyd and Joel were taking a break from pestering every star then on Broadway when who comes toward them crossing Broadway at 46th Street but Charleton Heston. A worn trench coat stood in for Moses’ robe and Ben Hur’s cape. “Mr. Heston, may we please have your autograph?” we asked not, without some fear.

Whatever you think of Heston’s pro gun stance or the ego that rivaled Cecil B. de Milles’, the actor graciously answered “Of course!” and began to sign. Lloyd and I were on the island in the middle of Broadway and Heston had yet to acknowledge his mortality and step up out of the traffic’s way. We grabbed hold and yanked him up on the sidewalk seconds before cars sped by exactly where he had stood.

Elliot Spitzer, We Threw a Fitzer

Oh, come on. So he prosecuted call girls and Johns with gusto, which was wrong. So he broke a stupid law, wrong in itself, that criminalizes prostitution. The time has passed to do the right thing: let the people of New York decide their Governor’s fate at the next election, just as Massachusetts voters were given the chance to forgive Senator Edward Kennedy for behavior that was far, far worse.

But Elliot Spitzer isn’t warm and cuddly, and he wasn’t even liked. A hypocrite and an SOB, perhaps, but I’ll take a hypocritical SOB who protects us from Wall Street predators over a smiley faced Do Nothing any day. Try to imagine a world without the scientific, commercial, political and entertainment benefits that were given us by SOBs. In a straighter and narrower body politic we would have forgone the services of, among many, many others, FDR, JFK, LBJ , and even Spitzer’s congenial replacement as Governor of New York!

One of San Francisco’s most respected, a devout Roman Catholic herself, asked me regarding Clinton and Lewinsky, “Do you really think people were meant to be monogamous?” which expressed both her question and her position. I leave such decisions to the couple’s themselves. For some, access to one another’s bodies is a closeness they do not wish to share, while for others an “open” relationship is the thing.

And as for the Governor’s wife and daughters standing before the cameras humiliated, I only ask, “What did they ever do to be humiliated about?” If the governor broke his marriage vows he and he alone ought to be humiliated, don’t you think?

Homework: Do you think that old San Francisco doc was right?

Fill in the Blanks

If the bags under Hillary Clinton’s eyes grow fuller, Barack Obama grows any skinnier and John McCain appears as much as one day older than he already is......

You fill in the rest. The prize is one beaten up looking president-elect.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Dead Forty Years

I clearly remember my lack of surprise when Rev. King was murdered forty years ago, and how sad and inevitable that seemed.

This past commemorative weekend, I was annoyed by Tom Brokaw’s simpering over the fallen civil rights leader’s memory. Too many white Americans, it seems to me, use their reverence for Dr. King as a way to feel good about themselves.

I was never “inspired” by Dr. King’s spoken cadences (but, oh, those same words in print!), his stage presence, the subliminal sex appeal I am grateful he never had, or because “everyone else” admired him; rather for his courage, his gigantic gamble, his screwups and moments of despair, his monumental leadership, his genuine Christian virtue and, far from least, the rightness of his cause.

Now you know more about how I judge public personalities. Call me as cold as Clinton; like it about me or not.

Of course I have a funny story about this marvelous man, too. You know I was a speech therapist in the New York City schools, and in the l970’s a new high school named after Martin Luther King, Jr., and keep your eye on that Junior, was about to open near Lincoln Center. Sad to say, because of extreme violence, that school no longer is.

At a meeting of speech teachers our boss, a dear friend until she died, announced that one of us would be reassigned to the new school. Mouths opened and jaws dropped. “Joan,” I could barely get out, “We’re only licensed to teach in elementary and junior high schools. None of us qualifies for duty in a high school.” I was backed up by my colleagues’ heads shaking affirmatively up and down.

For the first time since we knew her Joan got mad. “Don’t tell me this isn’t a junior high. Listen to the name, Martin Luther King Junior High School.” “But Joan......” “No buts. You’re just trying to get out of a tough assignment and I’ll transfer any teacher I damn well please.” With that she turned colors and we broke for lunch.

Fortunately, over lunch one of our most diplomatic members made Joan understand that Junior was part of Dr. King’s name. Joan reverted to being a sweetheart, and to her we never mentioned the subject again.

Another Reverend: Wrong!

We’ve heard enough of Jeremiah Wright to last a lifetime as far as I’m concerned. Call me old fashioned, but in no Christian or Jewish house of worship of which I’m aware does a member of the clergy violate the Commandment about taking God’s name in vain, much less place God’s curse on his or anyone’s nation, and keep his job. Maybe I’m just behind in Blasphemers 101.

That said, could we please not hold parishioner Obama responsible for Wright’s wrong and get on with what is really matters in Campaign 2008?

What’s that? Hillary Clinton is relishes watching her opponent squirm? I wouldn’t put it pastor!

Abe Lincoln Online?

Tom Wheeler has written a book about “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails.” Our l6th president famously spent sleepless nights at the Telegraph office monitoring the progress of the Civil War, yet, we are told, he sent telegraph messages, which were the latest technology of his day, only as a last resort.

Lincoln’s preference was for face to face communications, followed by handwritten letters and, as that last resort, the telegraph.

Like other great figures in the history of the world, Abraham Lincoln knew people, but unlike so many less successful leaders, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln achieved his aims by turning his adversaries and rivals into friends.

To be truly successful we might want to adopt old Abe’s communication preferences and practices over those of the copycat next door.

Perfect School? Bad School!

When still in her forties, an extraordinary scholar and teacher named Eileen Mullady took over as Head of School at Horace Mann School, of which I am an alumnus. You may know of the current controversies surrounding this college prep hall of ivy in Riverdale, N.Y.

From an edition of the Horace Mann Magazine of not too many years ago, Dr. Mullady tells us “without hesitation what a great school is NOT. It is not perfect. Perfection is too often reached through a lack of ambition.” What could she mean?

“Perfection doesn’t tolerate error or messiness, but relies on control, and its educational reward is deadly. Perfection runs counter to great learning.”

“Great schools,” she goes on to explain, “work differently. They are wildly ambitious, at almost all costs, and are at constant risk. Every person who teaches and learns in a great school thinks, with each ambitious undertaking: 1) I’ve never done anything like this before; 2)This will be harder than anything I have ever tried; and 3) Anything at all could happen.”

Aren’t you, too, eager to apply Mullady’s principles to the conduct of your own life, regardless of your age or current condition?

The Very End: Surprise!!!

What becomes of us after we’re gone has been the preoccupation of just about everyone since the first man and woman dropped dead in their cave. Death, a Teaching Company course on tape tells us, is a relatively recent phenomenon, given the eons gone by. Simpler organisms simply split and live on, whereas we advanced ones have the privilege of dying.

When asked his views about life after death, the now dead and possibly surprised former chair of Harvard’s Dept. of Philosophy, Robert Nozick, a libertarian scholar and confirmed atheist, conceded that “Life is full of surprises,” and “perhaps death will be, too.”

The late actress Mary Martin had the best take of all. She approached her imminent demise from cancer, I have read, as she would have faced any other opening night.

Next Month

If you think this campaign Is rough, read highlights of an article entitled “Political Invective Is Not What It used To Be,” and if you think Snow White, Mickey and Goofy were cute, wait for my review of James B. Stewart’s Disney Wars! Also, the beginning of some long awaited and very controversial words on our public schools; “Great American Musicals,” a great Teaching Company course on tape, and of course the latest on Campaign 2008.

Archive 2008