Friday, October 30, 2009

A fallen leader and a budget shortfall

Is it just me or do you notice that bad things happen in pairs, batches or concert with one another? No sooner did the news leak out that New Orleans is in the throes of an imminent financial crisis - a $28 million projected shortfall - then the death of former Governor David Treen was reported. Treen was the first Republican to grace the governor's mansion since Reconstruction. Indeed, the Solid South was already rapidly disintegrating from a Democratic stronghold and rearranging itself into a Republican haven when Treen was elected back in 1979. He served the state of Louisiana for four years from 1980 to 1984 and did so with dignity and little fanfare. The biggest challenge his administration faced was how to deal with the Democrat-controlled Legislature. His ineffectiveness in shepherding his own programs was probably what cost him his reelection in 1983. Treen was defeated by the much more flamboyant and slick Edwin Edwards, whom he had succeeded - a politician who was in many ways his exact opposite. While Treen was seen as a devoted, faithful husband, Edwards was considered a philanderer and a rake. Treen was a political chameleon, having been a member of the racist State's Right Party in the early 1960's, when it was politically expedient. However, he made the leap to the Republican Party not long after the turbulent Civil Rights period made being a segregationist a risky proposition for any serious candidate. Interestingly, one of Treen's last public outings was when he appealed this year for an early release for Edwards, now serving time in the federal system after being convicted on a variety of racketeering, extortion, fraud and money-laundering counts. David Treen was the respected elder statesman of Louisiana politics. While he never served four terms (like Edwards) or became the laughing-stock of the nation (like Edwards), he did make a mark for himself as a quiet standard bearer of the Republican Party. It's a shame. New Orleans could use leaders like Treen to help see it through its current financial crisis.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A tarnished silver anniversary

Today is the 25th anniversary, or more precisely, today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary. It's hard to believe that so much time has elapsed since that memorable day when my bride took her walk down the aisle and I smashed that glass wrapped in a napkin beneath my foot to end the ceremony. I suppose I should be grateful that the time we had together, although short, was meaningful. The decade I spent as a married man was one filled with thousands of special times and moments. Like all couples, we had our share of arguments, some of which I lost and others that I let her win. It wasn't all about winning, though. It was about sharing. She shared my bank account, my cars and my home. I shared the payments. It was a match made in banking heaven. Seriously, though, I was very happy to be married and the grieving after her passing continues to this day. I take solace in knowing the love we shared still survives in the person of my son, who, believe it or not, is planning his own nuptials in the not-too-distant future. Silver is the precious metal associated with the anniversary year of 25. In Scouting circles silver is the most precious metal linked with the highest of awards. There are Silver Beaver, Silver Antelope and Silver Buffalo for adults on a local, regional and national basis. There are also Silver Arrow Points for Cub Scouts and Silver Palms for Eagle Scouts. I feel honored to have lived to celebrate this sterling and lustrous day, although it would have been ever so much more special had she also lived to see this day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Saints are for real

Something has happened to our New Orleans Saints. Under the helm of Sean Payton's leadership, the play of the upstart NFL performers has gone from good or lackluster to great and formidable. Despite a laughable franchise history from its inception in 1967, the Saints fans have been characterized as being rabid beyond all expectations. They did have a couple of good years including that run at the NFC Championship two years ago - a juggernaut that froze on Soldier's Field at the hands of the Chicago Bears. After impressive wins in their first five games this season the Saints never trailed to any team. Until yesterday. That was when the uppity Miami Dolphins, rested after a bye week in which they were able to prepare for their contest, piled on the points and dazzled the boys in gold with a 24-3 first quarter shellacking. When the half ended, the Drew Brees-led offense had closed the gap, trailing 24-10 after a controversial decision by Miami coach Sorano led to a one-yard Saints touchdown run instead of a sure field goal with five seconds left on the clock and no time outs. To a lesser team the numbers might have been daunting. The Saints returned to the field with purpose and posted two additional touchdowns in the third quarter, but Miami answered with another 10 points, leading 34-14 at the end of the third quarter. A lesser team would have been derailed, but the Saints defense held firm and their offense exploded. Miami watched in disbelief as the Saints added another 22 unanswerd points on the scoreboard that lifted the team to an unbelievable 46-34 comeback victory. It was quite simply the most inspired comeback in Saints history, snatching victory from the hands of defeat and keeping their record unblemished. The team next takes on arch-rivals Atlanta a week from tonight in the Superdome wtih coverage on ESPN.
In the meantime, the New York Yankees head to the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies after their 40th American League pennant was captured yesterday with a win over the Califorina Angels. While this may not make any Boston Red Sox fans happy, it does lift my spirits and along with the Saints win makes me quite happy as we head toward the annual classic. Does anybody else think this baseball season has been stretched out a bit too far? It won't be long before we're talking about a player being "Mr. November."

Friday, October 23, 2009

The final pie in the face for Soupy

Today is a day of sadness for me that ranks in my mind with the date six years ago when Bob Hope passed away. Soupy Sales, the clown prince of television during the days of my youth, has joined the ranks of other great comic performers who have gone on to perform on the celestial stage. It's not that the 83-year-old Sales (born Milton Supman in 1926 in North Carolina) was all that funny. In fact, he was probably more juvenile than jovial in his comic patter. He was just plain silly and his creations of "White Fang"("the biggest meanest dog in the United States") and "Black Tooth" ("the biggest sweetest dog in the United States") were among my boyhood TV favorites. I remember the black and white world of early television and the grainy reception we had for the upstart ABC network over which "The Soupy Sales Show" was seen. Somehow that black and white medium seemed perfect for throwing shaving cream pies, Sales's trademark, and his non-stop joke telling ("Did you hear the one about...?"). Even a stellar celebrity like Frank Sinatra was perfectly at home having a pie lobbed at his kisser by Sales. Sales gained his nickname while growing up in North Carolina. His Jewish parents ran a dry-goods store and allegedly sold sheets to local Ku Klux Klan members. His other brothers' nicknames were Ham Bone and Chicken Bone. He was given the moniker "Soup Bone," which he shortened to Soupy. After a stint in the Navy during World War II where he performed for his fellow sailors over the public address system, Sales attended Marshall College, earning a journalism degree. He began his broadcast career in his home of Huntington, North Carolina using the broadcast name of Soupy Hines before journeying to Cincinnati, where he got involved with the television industry. Early in his career he changed his last name to Sales so it wouldn't get confused with Heinz (as in 57 varieties). Oddly enough, he then traveled to my former home of Cleveland, where he established himself as a local celebrity and received his very first pie in the face. Sales claimed he left Cleveland "for health reasons: people got sick of me." It wasn't long before he jumped to Detroit and became a major local TV star there. Eventually his shtick got him noticed by the network brass and he relocated to New York, where he became the darling of ABC and the delight of diminutive devotees such as I. His skits were decidedly puerile in nature, but I loved them, even if many of them went over my head. In truth I may have been exposed to modern jazz for the first time on Soupy's program, where the sweater and oversized bow-tie wearing host employed that brand of music for several of his segments. He was the precursor to the Benny Hill Show, only his show was for kids and the former was definitely for adults. There is no doubt that a part of me never outgrew Soupy Sales, and I think it safe to say that were it not for him, there would never have been a Pee Wee Herman, who was my son's favorite in his formative years. I had not seen or heard of Soupy Sales for at least a decade, but his death at a New York hospice yesterday saddens me and diminishes us all.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

École du freak

New Orleans has long been a mysterious and exotic place. The locale has been the backdrop for myriad tales revolving about voodoo and ghosts. Witches, seers and voodoo priestesses like Marie Laveau wielded unlikely power over segments of the population due to their so-called powers. Several highly successful franchises from cult writers like Ann Rice and others have focused on vampires and other fictional creatures that go bump in the night. So, it is not surprising that the production company for "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" set up shop here last spring and started filming at a number of locations all over town for four months. Based on the first three of the twelve-volume "Saga of Darren Shan" by Darren Shan, the film stars John C. Reilly, Willem Dafoe, Jane Krakowski and Salma Hayek among others. While the Shan books don't specifically mention a particular city setting, New Orleans serves nicely as the fictional setting for this first film. Notice I said first film. I fully expect this one will be turned into at least two other sequels. It's just such a natural. The interesting point is that the young stars of "The Vampire's Assistant" are seen early in the film attending high school. The weird aspect here for me has nothing to do with the script. It's just the simple fact that the school depicted is, in fact, my own alma mater, the former Alcee Fortier High School, reorganized and renamed following Hurricane Katrina as Robert Mills Lusher Charter High School. Literally located a scant 15 blocks from my present domicile, Fortier High School was also my dad's school. His brother also attended. My Great Uncle Joseph Smith was the art instructor there for nearly 37 years from the day the school's doors opened. It does give one pause and I may check out the film just to see how many other scenes feature familiar settings.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Upstaged by a runaway balloon

Imagine the city of New Orleans rolling out the red carpet for the first presidential visit of Barack Obama'a administration. Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Mary Landrieu, Mayor Ray Nagin and a host of dignitaries are on hand to welcome the president to New Orleans for the first time since taking the nation's highest office. Cameras are rolling and reporters and correspondents are hurrying from pillar to post to cover this short stay the entire duration of which will be less than four hours in length. The New Orleans population is collectively holding its breath, hoping the coverage will draw interest from outsiders who need to know about the slow progress being made towards recovery in the city. Four years after Hurricane Katrina's landfall this is a public relations opportunity that demands worthy network coverage and insight from commentators and pundits alike. Suddenly, a news flash is broadcast. A runaway helium-filled weather balloon is aloft with a six-year-old aboard. CNN cancels its scheduled broadcast with U.S. Representative Anh Cao to cover the plight of this potential disaster. The ravenous news industry pulls out all of the stops and New Orleans and its plight takes an immediate back seat as this "high priority" news event overshadows any previously planned coverage. After two hours of non-stop network coverage, a sudden downdraft forces the balloon to the surface and inside...gasp!...there is no six-year-old. Meanwhile, the president addresses a town hall meeting and only one person - a college student - asks a question which causes President Obama to have to address the question of what the federal government is actually going to do to help the city make its recovery. Pretty soon, after several 10-second video clips have been shot by the national media to represent the city's plight and his response, the president is winging his way aboard Air Force One back to the White House. Embarrassed city and state officials have their heads spinning trying to figure out what went wrong. By the time the story of the missing six-year-old gets sorted out, it is revealed he has been hiding in a closet in a room in his house while the nation's eyes were fixed on the runaway balloon. Questions are posited about the father who constructed the balloon and whether he was using the story for his own ends or not. New Orleans loses out. So, sorry, CNN says, but they just had to cover the breaking news story. Better luck next time. In the meantime I would like to make a suggestion. The next time President Obama is set to return to New Orleans, let's put all of our city and state leaders into a lighter-than-air ship and have it break free of its mooring. I can just see the headline now:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Inconvenient Blog

Today is Blog Action Day, a worldwide effort by 5,000 fellow bloggers to spotlight one issue to which we can all add our own spin. The topic for today is climate change. I will be one of the first to admit the topic didn't seem to be of any particular interest to me five years ago. Oh, yes, there was that troublesome hole in the ozone over Antarctica and deforestation in several tropical rain forests seemed to be causing some problems in South America. But it wasn't until the summer of 2005 that the full impact of climate change - specifically that dealing with global warming and the causal effect of creating killer hurricanes - literally came home to roost. The devastation left behind the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made me pay close attention. As a result of the impact of the former and the resultant flooding caused by poor civil engineering, climate change became a topic of keen interest to me and my fellow New Orleanians. I freely admit that I have never seen "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's film that explains all of the causes and effects of climate change upon the ecology. Moreover, I have never taken a college level course on the subject. I am just a common-sense, laid-back fellow who reckons that we cannot continue to plunder our planet of riches, befoul and litter the landscape and affect the biosphere in myriad ways without repercussions like depleted ozone levels, acid rain and killer cyclones. It is true that the United States has been one of the leading culprits in defiling and desecrating the earth and its fragile ecosystem, but there are also many among us who recognize the folly in that and are now provocative advocates for change. Being green makes sense, but changing the habits of the American public will take time. Paying huge amounts at the gas pump made many of us rethink using cars and wasting fuel. Now that the price of a barrel of oil has plummeted from its peak a year and a half ago, the pressure seems to have lessened. The fact is the world is in the same shape as it was before; we're just paying a bit less due to man-made factors. We have been responsible for poisoning the atmosphere with thick billows of smoke from coal-burning energy plants and have greedily gorged ourselves on gallons of gasoline. Despite our track record, we are insisting that Third World nations and countries with burgeoning populations like those found in China and India should operate at a level far less than we had done just a few years ago. We need to set the example in order for those people to not think our actions as hypocritical. If we do nothing else than start to think about what we have done, we will have made a good start. Beyond that, though, we should clearly delineate goals and plan for a future that includes considerations that will slow, deter and countermand man's global effect upon climate change. Like it or not, we have the ultimate responsibility to take care of our fragile home and leave it in the same shape, if not better, than we had it handed to us. To do nothing less would be unconscionable. To do nothing would be criminal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rehabbing before performing

This picture was one of several taken yesterday at a single ranch style home in Meraux, Louisiana. Located a scant quarter-mile from the sprawling Murphy Oil Company complex, the house was being rehabbed by a number of out-of-town volunteers under the direction of the St. Bernard Project. Among the dedicated volunteers was none other than Neshama Carlebach, the peerless Jewish songstress seen at left, whose passion of bringing New Orleans back towards the road to recovery was never more evident or brilliantly expressed than that which she demonstrated by floating wallboard and applying joint compound (mud) to a room she built all by herself. Carlebach, the daughter of the famous "singing" Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, is in town to headline a special benefit concert tomorrow night (October 15) at Touro Synagogue at 8:00 p.m. Along with 16 members of the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir led by the Reverend Roger Hambrick, Carlebach will also be joined on stage by legendary New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis and other unannounced players in a performance of original songs written by the late Rabbi Carlebach. Carlebach's producer and drummer Marc Amborsino was at her side yesterday, along with his wife Rozan, applying mud to sheetrock and doing what he could to help finish the project. Ambrosino and Carlebach were both in the Crescent City in 2006 for the New Orleans Jewish Music Festival held at Howling Wolf. It is very gratifying to see performers actually roll their sleeves up and get dirty in helping the city's recovery, but the opportunity to raise much-needed funds to battle hunger is even more important. The "Go You Forth" concert will raise money for the St. Bernard Project and the New Orleans Food Bank through Mazon, the Jewish organization that provides food and grants to aid the hungry. Mazon literally means "food" in Hebrew and the concert is Carlebach's dream towards making a significant impact on the recovery here in order to help former residents return to their city. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door. Group sales are $10 each, but must be purchased through the Mazon site. For more information call Touro Synagogue at 504-895-4843. The Go You Forth concert will be a wonderful opportunity for all of the New Orleans area to take part in an interfaith program that embraces the Jewish legacy of Rabbi Carlebach and the collective talents of Neshama Carlebach, the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir, the legendary Ellis Marsalis and others. It will be a convergence of different worlds – Jewish songs, gospel and jazz – all designed to bring divergent folk together in worship and praise towards God. In a way it's a success already even before the first notes have been heard because of the generous spirit of giving by Carlebach and her band members in making this concert happen. If you are able to attend, fly to the "Go You Forth" concert and be a part of this experience. If you are unable to attend or live out of town, consider making a donation to Mazon or the St. Bernard Project. It will help and will definitely be appreciated.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Neshama Carlebach arrives in New Orleans for benefit concert

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and daughter Neshama (© Joan Roth)

Neshama Carlebach, one of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's two daughters and the most well-known performer who has followed in his illustrious footsteps, has already arrived in New Orleans. Carlebach is working in St. Bernard Parish rehabbing a home today as a precursor to her upcoming "Go You Forth" concert to benefit Mazon, the Jewish group that fights hunger. Thursday evening Carlebach, who has felt an affinity with New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina, has been mortified with what happened to the city in the wake of the flooding that followed the storm. Her most recent CD release, "Higher and Higher" on Sojourn Records came out today. On it she is joined by the 40-member Green Pastures Baptish Church Choir (led by the Reverend Roger Hambrick) in ten songs penned mostly by her famous rabbi father, known to many the world over as "the singing rabbi." Produced by Mark Ambrosino, this CD is part of Carlebach's vision to help the city of New Orleans recover. The project is called "Soul Journey" and it is her hope that this will be one of many such concerts to help the city and the musical community here recover and prosper once again. Carlebach makes it no secret that she loves the music that has come out of New Orleans, especially that from jazz giants like Ellis Marsalis, who will also perform this Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m. at Touro Synagogue. Sixteen members of the Green Patures Baptist Church Choir (including Rev. Hambrick) will join Carlebach on stage as well. Tickets are only $18 in advance and $20 at the door. Group tickets are $10 each, but must be purcharsed through the Mazon site. For more information call Touro Synagogue at 504-895-4843.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Weekend?

For most Americans the weekend may have seem like a setup for the federal holiday of Columbus Day, but to the Jewish community, it was more than that. This past Friday evening was not a typical beginning of Sabbath. It was the ending of the Succot holiday and for the Reform community it was the combination of the Shemini Atzerets and Simchat Torah holidays on that one day that began at sundown and continued until Saturday evening. Like the Reform community, the more observant Jewish community observed the Shemini Atzerets holiday on Friday evening, but the holiday of Simchat Torah was not begun until Saturday night. The differences in the ways the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities observe these holidays can be startling. Most Reform Shemini Atzerets/Simchat Torah services are very quick and maintain a goodly degree of decorum. By contrast the Conservative and Orthodox services tend to be much longer and, especially with regards to Simchat Torah, tend to become more raucous and rowdy as the gift of the Torah is commemorated with lots of singing and dancing. The children really enjoy this holiday. They parade around the sanctuary with toy Torahs and flags denoting their love of learning. For adults there are opportunities for liquid libation to make the celebrations even more meaningful and, sometimes, hangovers plentiful. The truth of the matter is that in hindsight I celebrated the gift of the Torah a bit more than I should have, but what good is staying sober when a federal holiday looms so close behind? The interesting thing is that after a wild night of carrying the Torah scrolls around the sanctuary amid singing and dancing, it all started anew on the morning. It was like something out of the old Ray Milland film, only instead of the delirium tremens and pink elephants, there were lots of Torah scrolls. Thank goodness for Columbus Day on Monday.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

China 13 years later

Thirteen years ago my mom and I closed our family-run record store and hopped a series of flights to San Francisco. From the city by the bay we were destined to depart aboard an overnight flight to Hong Kong, then still a crown colony of the United Kingdom. Following a harrowing landing between buildings in Hong Kong (I remember seeing laundry items hanging off balconies just outside my window), we boarded our ship, the Crystal Harmony. It wasn't long after that we were on our way steaming in the South China Sea towards our first stop: Manila in the Philippines. Many of the crewmembers were Phillipino, so it was a very anxious time on ship as we prepared to dock. Many of them were looking forward to seeing family they hadn't seen in as long as 11 months. On the other hand, I was looking forward to being in the historic Philippines, a hot and humid country that reminded me quite a lot of a Caribbean nation. We heard from tourist guides who talked unflatteringly about former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda and her penchant for shoes. There were glowing references to Corazon Aquino, the female president who had been succeeded by her defense secretary Fidel Ramos, only a few years before. From Manila, we headed toward Taipei, Taiwan on the island nation formerly known as Formosa or Nationalist China. From there we began to be buffeted by high seas and powerful winds as we attempted to make port at Okinawa, Japan. We never made it due to two powerful typhoons (Zane and Yates), which made travel in the South China Sea perilous. At one point we had 40-foot waves and 60 mile-per-hour winds. The captain made the inevitable decision that the typhoons were not going to get out of the way, so he blew off the stop at Okinawa even though it meant breaking a taboo: no ship had ever traveled directly from Taiwan to mainland China. After all, this was an act of God. Although I never heard for sure, there were rumors on board ship that the ship's owners would have to pay a fine of $50,000. No to worry. We weren't paying. Nevertheless, after being buffeted by waves and dealing with powerful winds that made travel on the outside decks impossible, we arrived under sunny skies in Shanghai, the most populous city in China. At that time it had a mere 14 million people. By contrast, today Shanghai is home to 20 million souls. It had been my idea to go to China in the first place. We had finally arrived and Shanghai was a thoroughly modern city with practically everyone wearing Western style clothes. It was not unlike Philadelphia or Baltimore, only bigger and with more Chinese people. I marveled at the way they embraced capitalism and Western ways, despite towing the official Communist Party line. The Shanghai skyline was being transformed from a somewhat large colonial town marked by mansions and well-appointed hotels into a modern mega polis with a burgeoning downtown area overshadowed by cranes and skyscrapers. The significance of Shanghai as a final stop for Jews fleeing the Holocaust was recounted by tour guides and I felt a deep amount of gratitude for those that kept the community there safe, even if they didn't allow them to travel further to America or Australia. A stopover in Dalian was somewhat unimpressive until one was made to understand that all of these rows of large apartment buildings held over 10 million inhabitants. We met with a "typical" Dalian family that brought us into the apartment six of them shared. The kitchen was tiny and the living room doubled as a bedroom at nighttime. Throughout the entire trip we only ate food on board the ship. We were advised not to trust any food or drink not packaged or bottled. Even the bottles weren't entirely safe. When we arrived at our hotel in Beijing, we were all given bottles of water. Even though the water was not chilled, some of us wanted to open them and slake our thirsts. No, we were told. That water was for us to brush our teeth. We were told not to swallow it. Beijing had 12 million people living there in 1996, making it the second largest city in China. Today that figure is 17 million. What brought all of this back to mind was that the first day we arrived in Beijing was October 1, what would be considered a counterpart to our Independence Day for the Chinese people. Today the celebration goes on for a week. Back then the holiday was just beginning to enjoy the large traveling period (similar to our Thanksgiving) it has today. The Forbidden Temple, the Winter Palace, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven are all just memories today. In 1996 the siege of Tiananmen Square had yet to occur and Li Peng was bringing a sluggish Chinese economy to the world stage where it would soon become a major player. In the 13 years since my initial visit there, Hong Kong has become an integral part of the financial makeup of China and the new airport has made landings less scenic, but infinitely more safe. More recently, an Olympics Summer Games was held in Beijing with the most elaborate opening and closing sequences. The once clean air of Beijing has given way to smog and acid rain, but the powers that be have come up with solutions to make the city more bearable. For the big ceremonies being held today, the Chinese government actually came up with cloud seeding procedures that cleared away any threat of showers or overcast skies. In the 13 years since I was first there, the Chinese have gone from talking about the weather to changing it. Wow. A lot has happened in the interim. Today the Chinese people own more of the American capitalist infrastructure than we may wish to know. The world's most populous country is filled with many dynamic and progressive people today, yet they are still not truly free. That said it is still important to know the freedom they enjoy today is probably much better than they've had in any other period. Yes, a lot of change in 13 years. Who knows what the next 13 will reveal?