Letter From Los Angeles
February 2011
© 2011 Joel

Bye, Bye Pharaoh

“Egyptians just played Phuck the Pharaoh, and they won.”–Joel

“I hope Mubarak leaves, and I hope it doesn’t turn to chaos.”– A thirty year old Egyptian architect.

Regarding U.S. support for repressive regimes and brutal dictators, The New York Times refers to “the tricky intersection of morality and pragmatism.” Ever find yourself in that dilemma, too?

Quotes of the Month

“The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it.... The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.....Others argue with you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own natural powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.”–David Brooks, The New York Times

“As long as (mentally ill) people are walking around and not treated, unfortunately we will see more tragedies like Arizona.”–A newsletter reader

“Say chicken bosoms instead of chicken breasts, and Hoover Darn instead of Hoover Dam.”–Ethel, our fictitious character from the final Growing Up Gay

Gung Hay Fat Choy

That’s the Chinese Happy New Year Greeting. I teased a Chinese immigrant acquaintance in San Francisco that it wasn’t fair that he got two New Years- January l and Chinese- and the rest of us got only one. Slowly the man held up three fingers and smiled, “My wife’s Jewish. I get three!”


Valentine’s Day is also known as Love Day. I hope you all got the February 14th recognition you deserve.

“If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?”–Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

“I like you because; I love you although.”–Jess Lair, psychologist

“Our God loves you.”–An unsolicited comment on a Christmas card we received from a cousin

Doctor Goof

“Damn those doctors and their tests. Mine just gave me ten tough words to spell.”–Joel (The results came back o,k.)

President Obama spoke of medical malpractice reform in his State of the Union, an idea whose time may now be here. Doctors wouldn’t have to cover their behinds with unnecessary tests and treatments. They would be freer to help patients take intelligent risks and to speak their minds instead of sticking to a script of safety. The impact of reduced malpractice insurance premiums on the cost of medical care could be profound.

Mistakes as grave as mixing up patients’ medications and treatments, or surgically removing the wrong body parts, must remain a matter for medical boards and criminal justice.

Senior(s) Matter(s)

“Arthritis does not have me.”–Arthritic pianist Byron Janis

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”–George Burns

“For those who work out regularly, age is just a number.”– Arman, lifeguard at Joel’s YMCA

Middle Class Matters, Too

I thought you might be interested in what some of the plutocrats described in the Atlantic January/February 2011 article, “The Rise of the New Global Elite” have to say about the American middle class.

The CEO of “one of the world’s largest hedge funds” spoke of a senior colleague, who “had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.”

“(Middle class Americans) demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world. So if you’re going to demand ten times the paycheck, you need to deliver ten times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to take a pay cut.” The Taiwanese-born CEO of a U.S. Internet company

“I can get (workers) anywhere in the world. It’s a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business.”–Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate

From the Cinema: The Children Are All Right

Recently we attended a screening of the Award nominated movie The Children Are All Right, which was followed by a live interview with the picture’s co- star, Annette Benning. The questions were so lowball I thought I’d get a hernia. Ms. Benning’s dress looked Saks, her eyeglass frames more Sears.

The teenage kids of a middle aged lesbian couple (Benning and Julianne Moore) decide to find the man (Mark Ruffalo) who donated the sperm that made them possible. Are you rolling on the floor already?

My opinion of The Children Are All Right is in the form of a comparison. In 1951, Lloyd’s actress cousin Ann Thomas appeared in Broadway’s Not For Children. The Daily News review began, “‘Not For Children is not for adults, either.”

Bring It Back!!!

Surely you’ve occasionally received forwarded emails from conservative friends of your conservative friends, the ones that finish with “Remember when government didn’t control every aspect of our lives?” followed by “If you believe in God, forward this to fifteen friends immediately.” I get nostalgic too.

Remember When:

Great Grandma died of food poisoning before Theodore Roosevelt proposed food safety laws?

Americans retained the God given right to starve in their old age?

Medical insurance companies told people with stage four cancer that, because the malignancy pre-existed, to come back in a year if they’re still alive?

“Queers” couldn’t serve in the military, teach kids or be employed at all? When they were photographed outside their bars by the cops and subsequently lost their jobs?

Women resorted to using coat hangers for abortions and consequently often died?

Negroes got to ride in the back of the bus and go to separate schools?

Bleeding hearts didn’t complain about government taking away their battle axes, lances, stilettos and clubs?

People’s wealth was flaunted and Congress operated solely on their behalf? (Oops!)

Irish (Jews, Italians, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians......) Needed Not Apply?

Teachers had to work three jobs to make a living?

Men died in unsafe mines and foundries, women and children worked in factories seven days a week, and employers didn’t have to worry about unions?

And, more recently:

You called the police or fire department and no one answered because the funding had all dried up.



“Decimating a crowd with something rather sharp and bad intentions is unattainable. Would Second Amendment fetishists support a handgun ban if it were legal to carry spears?”–Joel

We’re heartened by the slow but relentless recovery we’re told Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is making. Thirty years ago, Broadway legend Mary Martin was seriously injured in a San Francisco auto accident. Martin was the Peter Pan who begged the audience to applaud and declare they believed in fairies to save Tinker Bell.

The day Martin left San Francisco General after making unexpected progress, doctors and nurses leaned out the widows, clapped and shouted, “I believe!” Peter Pan began to cry.

A Heartfelt Letter from a Reader about Tucson and Mental Illness

A faithful friend and reader in Los Angeles shared her insights about the tragedy in Tucson. Her comments are informed by personal experience with a bipolar son who now leads a productive mainstream life.

“Everyone is missing the whole point of the tragedy as far as I’m concerned,” she writes. “The real danger is not guns, wack jobs, hate speech. Our real danger is the mental health laws.” In California, and elsewhere, “the mentally ill cannot be picked up by police unless they ‘do something.’” She had been told by police that her son had “the right to be delusional as long as he had not hurt anyone.” (Joel: that almost gets most politicians off the hook!)” “They may not show signs of their illness at times,” she cautions, “and, yes, obtain a gun.”

Mental illness, she continues, is a brain disorder far more common than cancer, and that “one out of four families in the U.S. will have a loved one with. mental illness.” Despite this, “California just cut more funding for mental illness.” She rightly concludes that “government does not want to take care of the mentally ill.”

The mentally ill may act more strangely than people with heart disease or cancer, but they have as little to be ashamed of. The shame for inadequately dealing with their illness is not theirs.

Note: Minds on the Edge, a Fred Friendly Seminar presented by PBS in October, 2009, is available in its entirety online.

Race in America: A Welcome Discomfort

In January we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday, and February is African American History month. What better time to share these reflections with you.

Last spring I was staring into space at the Farmers Market in Hollywood when I sensed something happening nearby. A rather large African American family was patiently awaiting for me to move so they could pose for a group picture. “I’m sorry! I’ll get right out of your way” I told the crowd.

“No, no,” one of the men insisted. “Come join us. You stand there.” Suddenly I was in the back row of a family photo with my arms around strange shoulders and my face in an idiotic grin. “Cheese,” snap, and it was over. As I turned to leave I kidded, “I don’t know which relative you’re going to pass me off as, but that’s your problem.” Everybody roared.

(Did you honestly think that African Americans were going to be spared the Joel treatment?)

In San Francisco I helped with the 1990 census. Enumerators are required to ask each respondent’s sex and race despite its often being obvious. When I inquired about one African American man’s wife, he answered “black.” “And your son,” I continued. “He’d better be black!” We laughed so hard we almost fell on one another. Another welcome discomfort.

Recently, at my YMCA, three white jocks and their African American equivalent began to shower. The black man sang loudly and way off key. “Three white guys are trying to shower in peace,” one of his friends said, and he laughed so hard I thought he’d lay an egg. A welcome discomfort, too.

In the late 1990’s, on San Francisco’s subway, I sat down next to one of “them”- a child- and buried myself in a book. “What are you reading?” the little voice next to me piped. The voice’s owner, a bespectacled African American boy of eight or nine who looked like a little professor, won me over instantly. I explained and we chatted about the book’s subject until we came to our stop and his mother, seated elsewhere (deliberately?) dropped by to help him off.

The mom thanked me profusely for putting up with him. “No, I think your son is great,” I answered. “At the least he’ll be a lawyer, and maybe president some day- if you live that long.” “You want to keep him?” she joked back. “Nothing doing! That pleasure’s yours.” As they headed home I turned around to see them both wave back at me.

That’s where the welcome discomfort comes into play. African Americans no longer feel they have to play subservient or hostile, and I’ve been liberated from racism’s consequences too. We so want to be the friends we could have been all along that it brings us close to being giddy. And feeling very, very good.

You’ve read of my informing our housekeeper that she had brown skin when I was four or five. I don’t know how she could have lived another minute without that knowledge. She gave me that malarkey about being been left longer in the oven. When my parents learned of this I got my first lesson in what was known as race relations: don’t tell.

Mother drove me through Greenwich Village when I was still in elementary school, approvingly pointing out interracial couples holding hands. Her mother, on the other hand, distrusted “colored” folks. A lovely black woman in the street made a fuss over six year old Joel in his sailor suit. Grandmother quickly pulled me away with, “You don’t know what they want.”

My support for African Americans, ideals like brotherhood momentarily aside, is genuinely selfish. I get off on people feeling they belong, and something else. An African American doctor might some day save my life, a black lawyer save my ass. And a person of color might bestow on me the gift of love or friendship.

As a kid I only knew two black boys my age. Nothing was as dull as our Sunday visits to my father’s mother, except for her building’s porter’s son. He lived off the alley, which I thought was magical, and as we played he complained about his freezing ears. Unlike the hyper aggressive middle class white kids in my neighborhood, this boy was simply there for me.

When I was ten we spent Easter in Atlantic City. The elevator operator’s grandson, who lived with him in the hotel, enjoyed my company. No question about our instant crush on one another. We were unequivocally equals. I was sad for years after because each time I used the elevator I handed his grandpa a dime.

I was brought up in a liberal household. Regarding racial equality my parents were true blue. In the 1930’s, they went to supper clubs in Harlem, not as curiosity seekers but with African American friends. That doesn’t imply mutual acceptance, of course, but I never sensed a racist attitude from my parents in my life.

In 1957, in the wake of Brown vs Board of Education, school desegregation was creating a sensation. As a high school freshman then I wrote to Herblock, the famed Washington Post cartoonist. Draw President Eisenhower on the golf course, I suggested, with the caption “Is the fairway the fair way in the South?” I received a touching signed rejection. My plea for Negro rights with my father’s Republican family was met with silence.

Suddenly, in the 1960’s, I became what I would call a bigot. I disliked the trappings and rebellious spirit of the times and engaged in my own rebellion. I voted for Goldwater and longed to live in New York’s then infamously intolerant suburb, Bronxville, like the Upsons in Auntie Mame.

Why this former champion of equality and fairness opposed civil rights kept me wondering for years. I felt that Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching at me, not speaking to me, but that was only part of it. The “Negroes” of my childhood were uncommonly accommodating and I had gotten used to that. When we visited my father’s native Harlem in the 1950’s, residents smiled at me and exchanged greetings with my dad. To the degree black courtesy was born of servility I now find deplorable. Could we have really loved our mammies yet not have labored for their liberation?

As the struggle for civil rights became more heated, black coworkers at my summer job no longer looked at their white colleagues They muttered about their rights and wandered on. At home, the maid started talking back. Then came looting, which New York’s liberal mayor Lindsay turned his back on, and burning cities. As white college students risked their lives for civil rights, I focused more on their self righteousness than on the rightness of their cause.

When I started teaching in the mid-1960’s, the wrath of black New Yorkers came down hard. Schools were taken over and white teachers and principals dethroned. When middle class white parents mimicked this behavior my attitude hardened and I moved to California.

On a trip to Canada a decade or so later I had a revelation. Ever walk around Montreal at midnight? Black Canadians are so much more relaxed than their American counterparts, and no one finds them cause for fear. I learned the lesson of all lessons: If we want people to be decent, treat them decently. That applies to every kind of people in the world.

In 2011 we still have no African American neighbors in our L.A. condo or in our Berkshires summer community, and not more than one or two lived in our former co-op in New York. I can count my living black friends on one hand.

The unemployment rate for African Americans is double the 8% for whites. The black middle class is undoubtedly affected; last in, first out. Inner cities continue to bear poverty, crime, drugs, police abuse, and schools that cannot meet their needs. Bill Cosby is correct: a pervasive victim mentality and disdain for education doesn’t help. Nor do African American HIV denying, homophobic churches.

In 2009, on the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, an African American professor from Princeton proposed we look beyond the slowdown in overt racism and roll back the legacy of discrimination by changing policy. I’d have no discomfort with that at all.

The newsletter will reappear in April with the start of a mini series about America’s public schools.

Joel: Letters