Letter From Los Angeles
May 2008
© 2008 Joel

It Took a Republican Appointed Supreme Court
of California to overturn the ban on same sex marriage in the State, an honor California now shares with Massachusetts. Get government out of the marriage licensing business, the best heads tell us, and leave that function to religious institutions, including, of course, gay and gay friendly churches, synagogues, etc. Even atheists can tie the knot at Unitarian houses of worship, I am told.

It Took John Stewart
fielding a call in on Larry King Live, to hit the nail on the head. To the inquiry, “Do you think America is ready for a woman or a black president?” the political comic answered, “Was the country ready to elect a moron in 2000?”

Thank you John and Mary Caris, my loyal publishers and San Francisco stringers, for that tale.

It Took Einstein
Albert, specifically, to declare that there were two certainties, the universe and human stupidity, but that he wasn’t sure about the universe.

Old Al summed up my deepest held conviction better than I ever could. You know how we criticize one another for anthropomorphizing animals. Sometimes I think we anthropomorphize ourselves.

Pick of the Letter

Political Invective, Let the Dirty Times Fly
“Disney Wars;” Bambi Having Sex?
Great (American Musicals) Course on Tape
Gray Matters, Amen
At Last: Fools About Schools

First, My Stand on Barack Obama, Put As Simply As I Can

Why would I, who agrees with many of Barack Obama’s positions, longs for an end to the Republican era and would love to elect a black president, though more for the good of African Americans and our national honor than to feel good about myself, hit “mute” and look aside when Obama appears on the screen?

Time magazine correspondent Mark Halperin explained that voters, particularly younger ones, are more enchanted with the idea of Obama than with his ideas. Precisely.

Senator Obama’s manner and, in my view, his unmerited elevation to Adored One will get him nowhere with me. I’ve read that in meetings with Senate colleagues, Obama is known to expound on his righteousness to the exclusion of getting down to matters at hand. I just can’t remember encountering an individual as full of himself since Jimmy Carter, the Savior of 1976. Just my luck Obama will be the alternative to John McCain, for whom I would never vote.

I thought I was alone in this until some family members, liberal Democrats at that, cornered me and expressed a disdain for the Senator that far exceeds mine. Please know that I am not attempting to change minds, nor am I deluded into thinking that I can. I just want to be heard.

Let The Dirty Times Fly!

If you think the Democratic primary battle has been uncommonly nasty, consider some tidbits from an old, old article I’ve saved from US News and World Report entitled, “Political Invective: It’s Not What It Used to Be.”

Did you know that in the race of 1852, candidate General Winfield Scott was called, “a carbunkle-faced old drunkard?” Even Lincoln opponents called him a “liar, thief, tyrant, buffoon, gorilla, third rate and just plain ugly.”

Sainted John Adams called Alexander Hamilton ”a bastard,” while Adams was accused of procuring girls for himself and his running mate. Andrew Jackson was said to have been a murderer, a bigamist and an adulterer. Grover Cleveland’s having sired an illegitimate child was brought to the attention of one and all. The current president’s implying that Barack Obama is the terrorists’ choice turns out to be more traditional than we would prefer.

The writer explains, “One reason for the nasty tone of early elections was that much of the campaigning was done by stand-ins and through party pamphlets. In the days when news traveled slowly, rhetoric had to be strident to get attention.” So what is today’s excuse?

If you have any favorite campaign slurs I have overlooked please let me know so I may include them in upcoming letters.

Bambi Weeps

over the contents of James B. Stewart’s hard to put down volume entitled Disney War, which I’ve had to put down often due to its 545 page action packed length. It seems the successors to Walt and Roy Disney and their cute little friends have been among the most backstabbing, bloodthirsty, self-serving studio executives since films, theme parks and television began. Whether or not you appreciate the Disney product from the l980’s on or have made a profit owning Disney shares, author Stewart offers ample opportunity to cringe at how, under Eisner, Katzenberg, Ovitz, et al, the Magic Kingdom’s sausage was made.

One example that had me in hysterics, never a good place to be at 1:00 a.m. when your partner is trying to sleep, was Eisner’s command that a segment of Fantasia II feature all the Disney cartoon characters of yore in a group wedding ceremony in which they carry their not yet born offspring with them down the aisle. As Stewart suggests, more politely than I would have, are we to imagine that Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Minnie Mouse have had sex?

I know a good one about Minnie, Mickey and Goofy, but I’ll tell it to you one on one and only upon request.

American Musicals Are Great (and So Is Their Course on Tape}

If I’ve neglected to recommend The Great Courses on DVD, CD or audiotape produced by The Teaching Company, I may have truly let you down. My tapes on American Literature, Greek Tragedy, Dante, Mark Twain, Human Language, the Old and New Testaments and others, which are just a fraction of the Teaching Co’s offerings, all of which are extremely affordable and some of which (shhh!!!) are available at public libraries, keep me, to use Arthur Miller’s words, “abreast of my ignorance.”

Great American Music: Broadway Musicals, taught, played on the piano and occasionally even sung by Professor Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute, is among the best of the best courses on tape I have ever heard. You know of our love of and family connections to the American theater. Messenger clearly, thoroughly and most entertainingly takes the listener through eras ranging from The Minstrel Era, Ragtime Years, Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, The Revue, the Jazz Age, the Golden Age of Broadway, Rock ‘n Roll musicals and the Big Bucks present, refreshing our memories of Gershwin, Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Al Jolson, Jerome Kern, Sondheim and so many others along the way. From him you learn music, theater ways and American cultural history, and it’s all fun.

I’ll share something I hadn’t known, and likely you haven’t either. You know the black shuffle of the Minstrel days that has been used to denigrate black Americans as slothful, quirky, no good things? The origin of this slow, exaggerated dance style was a sly imitation of the dances well off Southern white folks did at their 19th century levees.

If this course appeals to you go to www.Teach12.com and bone up on how to go back to school at your own pace at home or in the car, with no one to answer to and no exams beyond your annual physical at the doc’s.

Gray Matters, Amen

If you’ve watched PBS T.V. lately you probably know of their series about the human brain and the wisdom of Daniel G. Amen, M.D., author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. I must have profited so greatly from the Doctor’s advice that I forgot to write about it, as promised, in May’s letter.

Ways in which Dr. Amen suggests we improve our brain functioning include getting a minimum of six hours sleep each night, avoiding drugs and, particularly in older people, excessive booze, drinking plenty of water, eating lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and some fats, especially Omega 3 fatty acids found in tuna and salmon, and taking multivitamins and 12 grams of fish oil supplements each day,

Learning things new and very different, such as a language, a musical instrument or new recipes is of the utmost importance. Playing more of the card game or crossword puzzle you’ve enjoyed all of your life, for example, doesn’t count; new and different does. For physical, intellectual and mental health, daily exercise is “a fountain of youth.” Aerobics and coordination improvement can take the aesthetic form of dance lessons if you choose.

Obesity doubles one’s risk of Alzheimer’s. The doctor recommends eating a rainbow of colors and plenty of “brain foods” such as orange juice, red bell peppers, tuna, turkey, spinach and green tea. You’ll like this one. The incidence of heart attacks and strokes decreases 50% among those who have sex at least three times a week. Homework: get to work, right now!!!

Overall, new learning, a healthy diet, exercise, meditation, enough sleep, social connections and the thing I mentioned in the paragraph above can work wonders for how we function and feel.

One more item, which I cannot overstate. Dr. Amen recommends we silently and frequently express gratitude for the things in our lives we love. That idea is expressed more fully in an invaluable book entitled How to Want What You Have, which I promise someday to review.

Amen offers two simple paper and pencil helps. His “one page miracle” consists of writing on a single page what you want and keeping check on it at home or at work. In other words, don’t just drift.

And my favorite, to combat the ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts), which of course none of us ever has, each day put aside time to talk back to such thoughts as one would with any opponent and ask “Is this true?”

Thank you, Dr. Amen.


Our Public Schools, Part I: Fools About Schools

Anyone who has gone past kindergarten can tell you what is wrong with our public schools. The teachers are no good, their unions worse, the parents don’t care, the kids are rotten, administrators never worked in business, the schools are underfunded and teachers underpaid. End of subject. Ain’t it awful? Problem solved.

My interest in our schools goes beyond the value of good education in a democratic society. My mother taught for thirty-five years beginning in 1932, I taught for eleven years in New York City, most of my readers are or were teachers, and the American approach to public education is as emblematic of Einstein’s comment on human stupidity as it comes. How is that for starts? Fasten your seat belts, dear readers, we’re going to talk some truth.

Allow me to introduce the cast. We have our children, teachers, parents, supervisors and administrators, school boards, politicians, the public, teacher training colleges, politicians, the media, and educational writers and scholars. Coordinating their efforts and making sense of it all is almost no one at all.

Teaching in the schools of today’s large American cities is not for sissies. An African American graduate of the Harvard School of Education we have met abruptly changed careers when her Washington D.C. students saw fit to set her hair on fire one fine day. A guidance counselor in a more privileged Rhode Island told us that even though one of her colleagues was cleared on charges brought by an eight year girl that the teacher “hated” her, the excellent teacher’s record was forever tarnished. A young former teacher we met in San Francisco explained that he left the profession because all of the “constituencies” I have mentioned above were against the teachers and he had gotten no support at all. I believe that young man hit the nail right on the head.

My approach will be to consider each “constituency” at a time, beginning with the kids. Their attitude toward school is learned from their parents, the general tenor of the times and their peers, be they the inner city poor or the suburban or private academy privileged. What they all share is that they are young, in the process of growing, deserving of respect and to be given every chance. A basic ground rule is that while the children are there to be served and are indeed the raison d’etre of the educational endeavor, they are by no means in charge. Boundaries must be set and rules learned and adhered to with consequences that follow as night follows day. But the kids’ well being comes first, and I mean that in a real but not politically correct sense.

Children are expected to frequently be silly and immature. What explains the prevalence of that behavior in the rest of our cast?

School boards I know little about, but membership on these Board is widely considered to be the bottom rung on the ladder of a political career that consumes the educational policy makers’ time. In San Francisco, where I lived for almost twenty-five years, school board members were reputed to take cash kickbacks from school principals in exchange for providing proper service to their schools. The Community Boards in New York City were dissolved because of rampant corruption.

Top ranking administrators, especially Superintendents of Schools, come in all sizes and shapes. Once upon a time they worked their way up, gaining experience first in the classroom and then running individual schools. We’re way beyond that in 2008. Former army generals, businessmen and women and, in New York City, a former US Assistant Attorney General known for his efforts in the Microsoft antitrust suits (we’ll get to him later}, are now in charge. The credo is “Don’t just sit there, do something. Anything. Anything at all.” And when you hire a competent superintendent, bully and humiliate him or her out of town, as America’s Mayor Giuliani did to Ramon Cortines, Or, if the Supt. is an egomaniacal bully, and I’m thinking of one well known case in particular, pass her or him on to another big city district without a word.

I wonder if community superintendents, who head schools within city districts, are sill treated the way one distinguished school professional was in early 1970’s New York. His Community Board, wrongly it was widely believed, dismissed this school veteran for petty, political reasons. One day I had to get a ranking individual at headquarters to o.k. an insignificant in-service course I was required to take and found myself in a windowless cubby of an office which contained an empty desk top and the discarded superintendent himself. He refused to make eye contact until I asked if I could have the honor of shaking his hand, at which point I discovered that the poor man’s eyes were dead.

Principals, they’re next. In hiring a replacement for the principal of a Manhattan school in which I once worked, the parents’ screening committee was so anxious to hire a “minority,” yet so clumsy and absurd, that they concluded an interview with one particular candidate who suited them in every way except the certainty that she was black by asking, as an aside, if she were Italian. Nice?

Having been an itinerant speech teacher I got to see the highly competent, the politically appointed and the mentally disturbed heading individual schools. In those days, candidates for school principal had to have first served as assistant principals and then pass a rigorous series of tests designed by a City Board of Examiners. I saw all that fall apart, too.

But the teachers, Joel, the teachers. When are we going to hear about them? What did that 19th century tease Rudyard Kipling say about another story for another day? Or another newsletter coming up soon?

Next Month

Our Schools Part 2: Teachers, DUI of cell phones and booze, the U.S. real estate mess, the race for the White House and, little doubt, a summer surprise or two.

Archive 2008