Letter from the Berkshires
Summer 2008
© 2008 Joel

Dear Readers,

Happiest vacation wishes to John Caris, my own Rupert Murdoch (God forbid), and Mary as they visit fascinating places in the next couple of months.

Consequently, my newsletter may not reappear until or soon after we vote. May the election’s outcome signal the end of eight terrible years.

No matter how you vote on November 4, please think of my Chinese immigrant friend in San Francisco, a Republican in that quintessentially liberal town, who serves as a poll worker because voting, for her, is still a miracle.

Pick of This Longer Letter

  • The Presidential Campaign: Parting Shots
  • The Supreme Court D.C. Handgun Decision (Big Shots)
  • A Liberal’s Brilliant Take on “Change” (Please Don’t Miss)
  • Don’t Cry To Me, China
  • Oh Say Can You, Gee!
  • Like, You Know, Rita Moreno
  • The Final Word (Believe Me!) on Hairspray
  • Foreclosures, Mr. and Ms. Jones, and We
  • Good Teachers Don’t Grow on Trees Put As Simply As I Can

Knock, Knock

At a recent concert, legendary singer Barbara Cook spoke of the great Broadway songwriters like Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill who came from immigrant stock. “I don’t know a hell of a lot about the immigration issue,” she went on, “but if they can write songs I say, let ‘em in!”

On a recent visit to the Woodside branch of the Queens, N.Y., Public Library, I was struck by the Asian and Hispanic newcomers of all ages who drop in regularly to learn.

Although undocumented immigrants pose challenges to their own well being and that of their communities, and perhaps to respect for the law and our security and resources, too, aren’t we fortunate to have many of these new Americans on board.

The Presidential Campaign: Parting Shots

Thank you, lifelong liberal reader from Manhattan, for this. “How gratifying to learn that I am not the only one to hit the mute button when Obama appears; I do so for the very same reasons cited in the newsletter.”

As to Senator Obama’s upcoming convention Stadium Speech, I ‘ll take the Sermon on the Mount just the way it is.

Fortunately, those of us in “safe states” like California and New York have the luxury of abstaining without in any way aiding the candidacy of John McCain, whose victory would be the worst outcome imaginable.

Semisweet Grapes

My readers know me well enough to know I am not indulging in sour grapes or blaming Hillary Clinton’s flawed campaign on “the media” when I assert that CNN’s Jack Cafferty and David Gergen, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, gay Republican Andrew Sullivan, Air America radio personality Ed Shultz and the editors of The New Republic were among those who did everything in their power to deride Clinton’s presidential bid.

How the first major party female presidential hopeful, a lifelong idealistic progressive, was recast by other liberals as the Devil incarnate is one of the great political stories of our time.

The Supreme Court’s Big Bang Bang

Linda Greenhouse, lately retired from The New York Times, includes the case of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which “protects the right to keep a loaded gun at home for self defense” among three defining Court opinions in her thirty year career. Though far from certain, the Court’s decision could roll back or preclude handgun bans throughout the land.

For all the conflicting empirical studies and legal reasoning the gun rights issue remains a matter of the heart. I cannot fathom my fellow citizen’s attachment to guns. Arming to protect oneself from the US military or the cops is, to me, as nutty as it gets, and I even take issue with those who own guns for self protection.

Although I’m skeptical of prohibitions, if accidental deaths, or murders and suicides in the passion of the moment are prevented by a ban on handguns, strike up the ban. A Chicago detective who gave t.v. lectures on self defense a decade ago discouraged viewers from carrying guns because, no matter how brave or decisive we think we would be, the moral human thinks twice before pulling the trigger, and in that split second the criminal, undeterred by ethics, may take away your gun and your life. Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, of the evidence in this case, “The upshot is a series of studies and counterstudies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion.”

That’s funny, because no one I know on either side of this issue has ever expressed respect for the opposing position or as much as a solitary doubt.

A Brilliant Liberal’s Take on “Change”

Excerpted from “Stirred, Not Shaken,” by Michael Kinsley, The New York Times, January 6, 2008. Joel Note: This is not to slam Obama.

“The appeal of 'change' as a cri de coeur is that it sounds dynamic without committing you to anything in particular. Any slogan shared by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is going to be pretty meaningless. Not only can voters give it any meaning they wish, it can have different meanings for different voters.

Best of all, being the candidate of change in some vague and meaningless way gives you cover to come for stasis in most of the particulars. Americans say they want change and think they want it, but there is room for doubt. The candidates for real, serious change, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, are going to be dropping like petals. And no wonder; they are scary. Change is scary.

There is nothing contemptible about a reluctance to change. Most of us have it pretty good in this country, and can’t be blamed for wanting things to stay that way. For that to happen, though, still requires some wrenching changes. The list isn’t surprising, or really very long, compared with the list of our blessings. We need to use less energy and borrow less money. We need to fix our schools and reform our health care system. We need to end a stupid war.

Is this what people mean when they demand 'change?' Are these things what the candidates mean when they promise to deliver it? If so, great. But all of these (except, maybe, ending the war) will require some changes that are unpleasant. We as a society have shown no tolerance for unpleasant changes, and politicians have shown no enthusiasm for trying to persuade us that they might be necessary.

If all you want is happy changes, you really don’t want change at all.”

Doesn’t that last thought apply to all aspects of our lives?

Don’t Cry To Me, China

Chinese nationals around the globe have been incensed over demonstrations against the upcoming Beijing Olympics and are said to hunger for revenge. Brings to mind the exchange between President Harry Truman and Russian Ambassador Molotov, in which the Ambassador exclaimed, “I’ve never been talked to like that in my life,” and Truman famously replied, “Carry out your agreements, and you won’t get talked to like that.”

Of course no one has the right to threaten and harass the individuals who carried the Olympic torch, and a difference between staging a protest and throwing a fit exists. We take a step backwards, however, when we conclude, “ We’re fine ones to talk” and leave it at self satisfying that.

American foreign policy and history need not be perfect in order to engage the Chinas, Sudans and Myanmars of the world on their record on human rights. Yes, we should set a far better example, and yes, we shouldn’t deliver self righteousness lectures, but to justify remaining silent while people elsewhere are being woefully abused because we once owned slaves and screwed the Indians is an abdication of moral responsibility worthy of shame.

To set the record straight, I checked my views with a Native American activist speaker at the World Affairs Council of Northern California a couple of years ago and he wholeheartedly agreed with me.

Reader’s Corner

John in New York tells the true story of listening to Candice Agree on a classical music station and numbering Alyson Wonderland among his fellow congregants at Church.

When asked by Joel what to call restaurant customers if waiters are now “servers,” Chuck from the Berkshires came up with, “Eaters.”

Oh Say Can You, Gee!

The New York Times dance critic recently bashed, justifiably, a Mark Morris ballet of Romeo and Juliet in which the star crossed lovers end up alive. I hear a popular singer plans to alter some lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and a production of Hamlet in Central park invites playgoers to the tale of a “zany college kid and his crazy girlfriend.” Awesome!

At the very moving annual Fourth of July reading of the Declaration of Independence at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Ma., a reader added “and women” to something about “men,” a zippy revision that prompted politically correct applause.

To save expense (to the show’s investors, not ticket holders), actors in the musical Sweeney Todd now play all the musical instruments too. Why not go all the way and have one actor play all the leading roles? Can you imagine South Pacific with the same performer as Nellie and Emile? Some enchanted evening.

What would s/he sing, “I’m In Love With a Wonderful I?”

Like, You Know, Rita Moreno

Addressing this June’s Mills College commencement, actress Rita Moreno used these words to mourn the deterioration of the current generation’s language skills.

“College students who use the term ‘he goes’ in place of ‘he says’ and whose sentences are riddled with ‘you know?’ and who cannot complete a sentence without inserting the word ‘like’ at least three times....My advice: Stop it this minute.”

Hairspray: Free At Last

Having now seen the Divine movie, the 2007 movie musical and now the stage musical in summer theater, I’m grateful I will never have to endure another Hairspray again. For a guy who hated the styles, songs and culture of the early, though not later, 1960’s, John Waters’ creation is a fingernail across a board.

In Hollywood’s version, John Travolta’s portrayal of Edna as a hypersensitive creature who hides her inner magic within a fat filled frame, distinguished from Harvey Firestein’s heartier characterization, was truly inane. The choice of Christopher Waken as the age seventy looking father of a high school kid for any reason besides bankability challenges my imagination. Nicki Blonsky as their daughter Tracy, by the way, broke the mold by being superb.

Hairspray ought to be subtitled “Notice Me.” The indefatigable Tracy, whose philosophy prefigures liberations to come, claims not to seek fame but for us all to “dance together,” a laudable sentiment that I think misses the story’s point. Hairspray’s main idea is best expressed in a line from another musical, A Chorus Line, “Everyone in America wants to be a star.” In the Age of Television, and now with YouTube, most of us aspire to celebrity and consider its attainment our right.

I hope to never see hide of Hairspray again.

Foreclosures, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and We!

I can only imagine how it must feel to lose or be on the verge of losing one’s home, and I have nothing but sympathy for those who are in that spot. I support measures which assist homeowners in trouble and ensure this crisis is not repeated, which, when all is forgotten, it surely will be.

Our parents, who art mostly long up in heaven, were more than satisfied to be of this country’s middle middle class and to be blessed with abundance while their overseas contemporaries starved. They never forgot, or let us forget, what life was like in the Great Depression. Did you know that in 1935 the vast majority of America’s farmers had no electricity in their homes? Try living like that on for size.

Then, post war, the almost unimaginable growth of mortgage owing, home owning middle class and ubiquitous conveniences and luxuries not yet taken for granted, and the proliferation of thousands of hands grasping to put your money in theirs (does anyone remember the books of Vance Packard?), by which I mean the culture of mass marketing and consumption.

I’m not condemning those who are barely getting by, and I have only contempt for businesses which encourage people on the margins to borrow and spend. But what of those of us who live up to the limit, keep up with the Joneses and do as they’re sold? Not only do we fill our shelves and lives with stuff, we’ve become conditioned to mock those who don’t.

“You don’t have a, or do a (luxury item or experience)? I don’t believe it! What’s wrong with you?”

Or, “You can to afford to take that trip, buy that car, live on that street. When are you going to start enjoying your money (like they know how much you have or have not)? You taking it with you?”

Well, we’re spoiled. Does the fifth car have to be this year’s model? Couldn’t the children share a bedroom or at least a closet or a bath so that mom can drop her third job and dad retire before he’s 99? Is a private school necessary when the public schools in your suburban paradise are just as good?

Would not a little restraint be good for our souls? In his indispensable volume, How To Want What You Have, Timothy Ray Miller reminds us that human nature always wants more, and counsels us how to deal with that reality in very constructive ways.

What is it we’re buying with our dough? Sometimes, compensation for the time, effort and sacrifice necessary to make the darn stuff in the first place. Satisfying the neighbors’ expectations, of course, or living up to some image that caught our fancy in a novel or on t.v. And every loving parent desires their children never have to grow up as they did, with only two annual trips abroad, merely one or two full-time maids, and getting what they wanted to buy only 90% of the time.

And something infinitely deeper. We imagine that net worth buys self worth, and display even more, don’t you think? A lifestyle we can barely afford just follows from that.

Economists tell us that when home prices were on the rise Americans felt rich and spent accordingly. While feeling rich feels great and can do wonders for the self esteem, would it be out dated to suggest that we can feel rich and good about ourselves in other ways as well?

Good Teachers Don’t Grow on Trees

Because this letter has been long, and because it’s summer and school is out, I’m content to pour the foundation for the exploration of American educational issues to follow. To succeed, I am going to need more feedback and assistance from readers who have taught or who have trained or supervised teachers than I can say.

To put it as simply as I can, education is what happens in a classroom between the teacher and the kids. Those interactions are the critical focus to which all agendas and power trips take second place. The other players, ranging from school administrators and unions to parents, politicians and the public have but one responsibility: enabling teachers to do a crackerjack job. On this less than perfect planet agendas and games exist and are the central command’s responsibility to control.

The public and their taxing authorities are responsible for enabling school boards, who in turn enable chancellors and superintendents, who enable their staffs and building principals, and so on down the line. These players, and not necessarily a principal and all her teachers, need to be made an example of when public schools fail.

The general public, especially parents, ought to get down on their hands and knees before teachers who, against all odds, make an honest effort, or, in some cases, bother to show up at all.

Only somewhat more diplomatically, I once wrote to Teachers College, Columbia President Levine, from whom I never heard back:

“The unspoken reality is that even among the pool of Americans who could possibly be enticed to enter teaching, there simply aren’t enough individuals who possess the skills or personality traits to become Our Miss Brooks or Mr. Chips. For in addition to loving children and loving learning, an uncommon shrewdness in understanding, motivating and controlling young people is required. And more.

A prospective teacher must have the stomach for a job most people in their right minds would not accept. There simply aren’t enough women and men who are willing to work for the lousy pay and often lousier, dangerous and undignified conditions prevalent in many of the schools about which we fret. To think otherwise is fantasy. Yet, to achieve the goal of smaller class size and better education we need to recruit legions of intrepid souls and figure out how to make each a star.”

More when we’re back in the Fall. Until then, a happy, safe summer to all!

Archive 2008