Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the night before...


As a kid, I strongly remember the joy of the holiday season. It was obliquely obvious that things were different at this time of year. For starters people started treating each other nicely. Perhaps mindful that "Santa" would not reward bad behavior, even the bullies started acting right. I dare say I received very few beatings in the days leading up to the Christmas break. Trust me: with my big mouth and obnoxious attitude, there was always a chance I would be beaten for no other reason than I was small, smart or a smart ass. These holidays were a big deal, definitely surpassing importance than any other including Easter. Before we were let out from public school for the holidays we were always encouraged to sing Christmas songs prior to the big day. I remember fixating on the image of the jolly, fat Santa Claus riding his sleigh full of toys and other gifts with the flying reindeer led by the red-nosed Rudolf himself. It was all such an awe-filled time in my life. I was happy. Then one Christmas my parents dropped the J-bomb. "You're Jewish," they explained. What? Santa wasn't going to visit me and reward me for being a good child? Hmmmm...this was definitely not right. Who do I see about this? Who will fix it so that Santa would continue to include me on his list for future rides? As it turned out, there was no one to see and Santa never did make it back over to the Smason homestead. Yet, there were gifts. Knowing that withholding toys from boys and girls at that particular part of the calendar year could have a deleterious effect on a fragile child's developing mind, my parents were insightful. They always provided gifts for my sister and me, but they didn't make a big deal about it. They went through the motions of providing gifts, but rarely did they ever have me ask for anything in particular. Since I wasn't technically asking Santa for gifts, it was deemed okay. In any event it was tough being Jewish and trying to understand why Jews were being excluded from the busy end of the holiday. Thank goodness that most years Chanukah and Christmas are in close proximity, unlike this year. When I pressed my folks for an explanation, they told me about recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but it still didn't make any sense to me as to how and why this would manifest in not having a connection to Santa Claus or his reindeer with the famous crimson muzzle. Although we never had a tree or, as some Reform Jews call it, a "Chanukah bush," one of my great aunts did. Oftentimes family members would gather at my great uncle and aunt's home, thereby allowing her to host Christmas for us as a family. I also remember my favorite Christmas character was Mister Bingle, whose TV show was broadcast every year during the days leading up to the big day. Mister Bingle was created by Maison Blanche in the late 1940s as a way of spurring sales in their department store. The character was purported to be a tiny snowman with a red cherry button for a nose, an ice cream cone for a hat and holly leaves for wings. He had mittens made out of candy cane stripes and carried a candy cane. Though it was never fully explained, he was animated through the magic of the holiday by Santa Claus, whom he served as a helper along with the elves. He was very funny, always got into trouble and was the perfect foil for Christmas comedy to a kid. I always imagined meeting Mister Bingle and years later I did...or at least the chain-smoking, baldheaded store employee who did his character's impossibly high voice improvisations. If anything completely dashed my Christmas memories, that was probably it. Maybe that's why I always feel the need to connect to those simpler times when the joy of being rewarded for being a kid was not caught up in any religious rhetoric or significance. I watch Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" broadcast for 24 hours straight every year over TBS at least once or twice to recall in me of the importance of the holiday to impressionable and wide-eyed kids. Plus, looking at the father in that story going gaga over the "major award" leg lamp reminds me that one doesn't have to outgrow that incredible sense of wonder.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Two grand ladies pass

Bryan's loving memoir to his mother Gayle

The news before Christmas is not very good for a city that is so closely connected. Yesterday, the city lost two grand dames, the first a gracious, charming and vivacious ambassador for the Crescent City and the other a 95-year-old institution that local actors and the theatre public have referred to as "the old girl." Gayle Batt, a true New Orleanian from the top of her perfectly coiffed hair to the soles on her exquisite shoes, lost her courageous, long-running battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 79. Batt, the mother of actor Bryan and local politician and former city councilman Jay, was a cancer survivor at least thrice before. She worked for a large number of local charities and non-profits including the New Orleans Museum of Art, WRBH Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped, the Friends of City Park, Save Our Cemeteries, the Louisiana chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and various garden societies. She was the subject of her son Bryan's loving memoir "She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother" released this year by Harmony Books (Crown Publishing Group). A redoubtable figure who always was impeccably attired and never without a smile, Batt worked tirelessly for many causes, but her most special attachment might have been her work as a member of the board of governors of Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carré, the other victim who fell yesterday. After weeks of speculation, Cassie Worley, the president of the Le Petit board of governors, announced with regret the cancellation of the remainder of the season including the upcoming productions of "Frost/Nixon," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Evita" and "Disney's High School Musical." The theatre's production of "White Christmas," slated to have run during the first three weeks of December had previously been canceled. According to several sources, this action was necessary due to runaway costs for the maintenance of the building and other debts that are reported to top at about $1 million. Close friends of the theatre were shocked to hear that were "White Christmas" to have been mounted and had sellouts for each performance, it still would lose money. Money problems have threatened the small theatre, which boasts it is the oldest continuously running community theatre company in the United States. A few years back artistic director Sonny Borey and his entire staff were sacked. The Solomon Group was then brought in to rein in the the finances and Gary Solomon, the 20-something wunderkind was credited with keeping the company from the brink of financial doom. An article in the Times-Picayune earlier in the year gave Solomon the nod as the savior of the theatre most New Orleanians consider the best in the city. He did so by comping the services of the Solomon Group for three months, but then charging the theatre $10,000 per month for their services. Solomon brought about a number of incredible changes for Little Theatre, but the mounting debt still lingered despite the theatre making a turn towards financial stability.When Solomon was discharged by the board two months ago, speculation ran rampant about who would take over the day-to-day operations of the theatre. A recent run of shows "We Need a Little Christmas" with headliner Bryan Batt raised several tens of thousands of dollars for the theatre, but it was, apparently, too little, too late. It is sad, but out of this disaster, the seeds of redemption may be planted. Plans are afoot to see what can be done to make Le Petit more financially viable. Some sections of the building, which fronts near Jackson Square, may be sold off and the money applied towards servicing the theatre company's debt. The board remains very tight-lipped, but no one has suggested the theatre will be forced to close its doors permanently...yet. Meanwhile, the funeral for Gayle Batt will be held at Rayne Memorial United Methodist, 3900 St. Charles Avenue, tomorrow and the burial will be private. In addition to her two sons and their partners, she is survived by two grandchildren. My condolences to all the members of the family and to all those who were blessed to know her.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Right Hall, Long Time

Dr. John, middle right, at the 2003 Big Easy Awards
For those of us lucky to be residents of New Orleans or for those who long to be, there are many reasons to be smiling today. One is that the weather here has steadily risen into the 50s with highs expected in the low 60s over the course of the next days. But more important than the temperate skies and pleasing temperatures is the fact that Mac Rebennack, also known as "Dr. John, the Night Tripper" has been announced as one of the latest inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even though the actual hall is located in Cleveland, most years that new inductees are announced, the ceremonies take place in New York, the site of where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is located. Dr. John will be the third artist from New Orleans to be inducted who is strictly a performer. He follows Antoine "Fats" Domino and Lloyd Price in that category. Others like producer-arranger-composer Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew were admitted for their work in other capacities. This is a very big deal and, indeed, the good "doctor" will be singing his own version of "Such a Night" when the ceremonies are held on March 14, 2011 at the Waldorf Astoria. The fortunes of Dr. John have definitely improved since his early years as a youth, when he learned to play piano and guitar from the likes of the fabled A. J. Guma at Werlein's for Music on busy Canal Street in the early 1950s. Rebennack's early work with guitar was cut short when his left ring finger was injured by a gunshot while he defended a friend and fellow musician. After a short stint with bass guitar, Rebennack opted to make piano his main performing instrument. His work in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s as a studio musician made him a mainstay for session work with big name stars like Sonny and Cher, Canned Heat and other acts. Around the same time Rebennack began a long spiral into drugs that ended up getting him hooked on heroin for decades. Yet, during this time he produced some of his most impressive work, work that clearly established him as one of the brightest of New Orleans stars. His early start with "Gris Gris" on Atco Records developed the Dr. John Creaux persona with such classic psychedlic-tinged anthems as "Walk on Guilded Splinters." His "Gumbo" album was a retrospective of rhythm and blues songs from the Crescent City that still remains one of the most important collections ever released. Through the years his work produced other classics. His "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Such a Night" with the Meters as background musicians and Allen Toussaint as producer garnered him two of his top 40 hits during a time when radio play was essential to make a star successful. In 1986 he released "Goin' Back to New Orleans," a homage to New Orleans musical culture that included the Mardi Gras Indians. Through the years he has worked with the biggest of stars - the Rolling Stones, the Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones - and his definitive piano style has ensured his legacy as one of the country's most respected of musicians. In recent years he has worked tirelessly to highlight the plight of New Orleans following the devastation that occurred after Hurricane Katrina as well as to point to the continuing crisis this past summer from the BP oil spill. His cover of Randy Newman's "Down in New Orleans" for Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" garnered him an Academy Award nomination in 2009. Free from the cruel addiction with heroin for over two decades now, Dr. John has improved his quality of life and his musical output continues to captivate his many fans both in and out of the city of his birth.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Decisions in the Henry Glover case


Edna Glover with a picture of her late son Henry

A jury of five men and seven women returned convictions for three out of the five New Orleans police officers who had been accused by federal prosecutors on charges of murder and a cover up scheme in the tragic case of Henry Glover. Glover's badly burned body was found in an abandoned burned automobile in the days following Hurricane Katrina and the resulting breakdown of society in the aftermath of the flooding here. Glover's celebrated case is the first to be handled by federal prosecutors who sought to punish out of control police officers who decided to take the law into their own hands. At first declared heroes by some, many of the same indicted and now convicted officers will have much to think about from their federal jail cells. The upcoming case involving the shootings at the Danziger Bridge will determine how soon other officers will be brought to justice. The true stories about all of these crimes were covered up until last year, when federal prosecutors started bringing witnesses before grand juries. In the end no one wins from a decision like this. Two officers were exonerated and the public has decried that as a travesty. But in the end we are a society governed by law, not men. When the law is applied by men who interpret it, there is always a chance that it will be applied unevenly, that justice will not be served. Yet, as imperfect a system as it may be, the capacity to punish the guilty and free the innocent remains the only thing we have in place that assures that government truly serves the will of the people. No verdict tendered by a jury will ever fully satisfy either side of the clamoring crowd. The grieving family members have some solace, but they will not have their full measure of flesh. The jurors have executed their duty to the best of their abilities and we must accept it as having been decided by dedication to their duty and due diligence. As a city, we need to move on but remember the hard lessons of Katrina lest this sad story be repeated. If such a disaster ever strikes my beloved hometown again, I hope the professionals in charge of protecting my fellow citizens will keep the law in mind and take steps to make certain that these kinds of tragic mistakes and the attempts to cover them up will never occur again.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Imagine all the possiblities


Recently, I took up the challenge of listening to all of the three-volume set of live Beatles recordings and outtakes titled "The Beatles Anthology." Included in this set were the "final" Beatles recordings of "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love," crude tapes of John Lennon that were used as background for the remaining three Beatles to play and sing against. Tragically, it was only a few years later that George Harrison fell too as a victim of cancer. Nonetheless, listening to these early and late recordings made me appreciate all the more how incredibly talented all of the Beatles were and how mournful I am at the loss of John Lennon today on what is the exact 30th anniversary of his assassination. I remember thinking three decades ago that his murderer probably wouldn't last in prison very long, that someone inside would probably kill him, too, for a chance of also becoming infamous. But that never happened and perhaps that's because of Lennon's lasting legacy of promoting peace and love throughout the world. It may seem corny, but it's still true: "all you need is love." For those born after Lennon's death the significance of his life may pale, but for those of us who grew up in the turbulent era of the Sixties and Seventies, his implacable voice of reason was somehow reassuring that bad things would work out, if only we believed. Although I have gotten older, I still do believe in the power of love, but I also know that we must not let down our guard or rush blindly into the world without looking out for danger or obstacles along the way. I trust in love, but I look both ways when crossing the street and always check intersections when proceeding on a green light. I am amazed that so many of the younger generation have discovered the Beatles and have much of their music on their iPods. With the recent announcement that the Beatles' music would now be available for sale on iTunes, a whole new generation of Lennon lovers awaits their discovery of his music. I miss John Lennon, but I thank God for the fact he was here and that the music he left behind will be with us for our progeny.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Godspeed, Mrs. Edwards


©People Magazine and People.com

With the death of Elizabeth Edwards at 61 comes the end of what had once been one of the most romanticized political couples in Washington. None of John Edwards' bad acts can undo what was a lifetime of service and commitment to her family and, until recently, especial dedication to John. She would have made a magnificent First Lady, but the question remains what kind of president would her spouse have made? The charming, charismatic figure of Southern gentility that John Edwards oozed was enhanced by the gracious and beautiful woman whose intelligence and maternal instincts were always spot on. It is a shame that the love of her life ended up being such a tremendous disappointment with his trysts and love child exposed to the world. Yet, since the scandal broke, she was a pillar of strength, never letting the public know the true depth of her hurt, answering reporters' questions, but still keeping just a measure of dignity to herself. She had endured the unthinkable before when she lost her teenage son Wade in a traffic accident. It was only after that tragedy that Elizabeth Anania, the professional name she used in her work as a successful North Carolina lawyer, was transformed into Elizabeth Edwards, a strong woman whose wagon was hitched to the political star that was her husband. Following Wade's death, Elizabeth also became a homemaker and mother to Cate, her surviving child, and, at 48 and 50 years of age, a mother to another daughter, Emma Claire, and another son, Jack, respectively. Her dedication to her children was never in question and her resilience to all she went through was, perhaps, one of her greatest strengths. There is an irony in that the man upon whom she depended and turned out to be such a disappointment will now be responsible for the upbringing and care of those youngest family members. In her absence I expect he will be resolute. I am certain he has more than his share of regrets, but there are no excuses for his past peccadillos ($400 haircuts) and more egregious acts of sexual betrayal. Yet, throughout her brave battle with cancer, Elizabeth credited him as her greatest source of strength during those moments of greatest struggle. After 33 years of marriage, the highs obviously outweighed the lows. Now that she is gone, John needs to keep in mind that how he carries on his life as a single parent will be the greatest legacy he can leave to his children. That is probably the thing that will make Elizabeth smile from her celestial resting place.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The CJN's ex-CEO in N.O.

Alan welcomes Rob Certner to New Orleans

I got an alert just before Thanksgiving that my old boss at the Cleveland Jewish News, Rob Certner, was considering coming to visit New Orleans. Since August Rob and his lady friend Debby have been traveling by a 43-foot trawler from out of Cleveland past Lake Michigan and down through the Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers as well as the Tombigbee Waterway. While Debby was winging her way to have Thanksgiving dinner with Cleveland relatives, Rob had opted to rent a car and take the two-hour trip to the Crescent City. I offered him a place to stay, but more than that a deep immersion into the city of my birth. The first day we visited Domilise's, a po-boy restaurant noted for its fried seafood sandwiches and he was amazed. Later, after taking a tour of most of the parts of the city, Rob was then instructed in the making of and the drinking of the official New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. Finally, we enjoyed a meal at Galatoire's Restaurant on Bourbon Street, a favorite of locals for decades. Rob and I enjoyed the latter part of the night sipping absinthe under the stars.

Alan and Annette Smason with Rob Certner at Galatoire's
Is there any more an iconic New Orleans image other than Jackson Square with the imposing structures of St. Louis Cathedral flanked by the historic Cabildo and Presbytere on its left and right, respectively? In the picture at the top, Rob and I enjoy a spectacular view of the river with Jackson Square behind us. The twin Pontalba Buildings on the left and right sides of Jackson Square, which are the oldest apartment buildings in America, are mostly obscured by trees (at left) and out of view on the right. (Make sure you double-click each picture to get a nice full closeup.) Then we made our way next door to historic Café du Monde to eat beignets and enjoy coffee with chicory. Rob had his coffee black and I had the more popular café au lait.

Thanksgiving at Commander's Palace
The piéce de résistance was the traditional Thanksgiving meal at world famous Commander's Palace Restaurant in the Garden District. The famous offerings include turtle soup and all manner of fresh Louisiana seafood. Rob and I had the turkey, while my mom enjoyed the redfish. Above we all enjoyed different desserts. Rob had the strawberry shortcake. My mom had the caramel cup custard, while I had the decadent white chocolate bread pudding souflé. All in all we had a magnificent meal to cap off Rob's visit. Rob and Debby will soon be off to visit more of the Gulf Coast, but I have good reason to believe he will be back soon.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Ten...er...Nine Commandments Hike


A rainy, but reverent Ten Commandments Hike

When things go awry, they often really do unravel. Despite months of careful planning, dawn arrived on the day after Thanksgiving yesterday amid threatening skies and a slight sprinkling of rain. It was the day of the Ten Commandments Hike, an annual interfaith six-mile event sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council that promotes religious tolerance and understanding. For eight different stops for the Cub Scouts and the full ten for the older Boy Scouts and adults, participants hike along beautiful picturesque Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues, hearing from religious leaders, each assigned a different Commandment. While intermittent sprinkling rain persisted during the morning, participants arrived at the first stop, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, geared up for a great day. However, the skies began to open up as the participants headed for the second stop just two blocks away at Mater Delorosa Church, the first of two Catholic stops. Arriving at the front steps, we found the doors barred and no one around to open the facility, much less to deliver a talk to the Scouts. Using the Scout's motto ("be prepared"), the hikers were urged to move on and they did so.They found the next stop, Holy Name of Jesus open, but the featured speaker - a retired Jesuit priest - was also missing in action. The good news was that a good Catholic Scouter was able to fill in an provide a talk on that Commandment, "Thou shalt not murder" with a little prodding from yours truly. (It is important to note that, while he felt inclined otherwise, he did not, in fact, murder me.) Meanwhile, the rain persisted, but did not dampen the spirits of the Scouts, their parents and friends. The rain ended after 3:00 p.m. for the most part, which was when the winds picked up to chill us through our bones. The final portion of the hike ended about 4:30 p.m. and the contingent took a streetcar back to the starting point, arriving at 5:20 p.m. Despite the adversities of weather, nearly all of the participants had a great time and are looking forward to more of the same next year when, hopefully, we will be blessed with better weather.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are You There Yet?


It always amazes me how crazy this Thanksgiving scene is on the nation's highways and byways for Thanksgiving. If one considers it carefully, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to have a holiday so close to all the other holidays in December, when there is another superabundance of busy travel schedules. The hubbub of airports and travel depots or toll plazas and expressways make for very trying and vexing times as college students and offspring of all generations make their way back to their parents' homes or in-laws. Yet, this is in reality a holiday about family. For most Americans it is their favorite holiday. There's not gifting or wrapping involved. The present one receives or gives for that matter is himself. We are a nation that above all else reveres family. The sight of a child coming through a portal or ringing the front bell makes every parent's heart beat a little faster as we see how they have matured for yet another year. So, too, for the offspring is the thrill of seeing their parents a little grayer for the time or perhaps a favorite aunt or uncle who, were it not for Thanksgiving, would just be content to be eating a frozen meal at home or having a special at a local cafeteria. Thanksgiving is not just the most American of holidays. It is the most genuine of holidays. For those of us who recognize a higher power, there is a need deep within to praise God and join as a family in the celebration of life amidst the certainty that life is oftentimes all too short. For many of us it would not be surprising to recall the last time we saw a relative was at Thanksgiving a year or two ago before he or she was gone. Through the haze of many different Thanksgivings we see families grow and grow older and sometimes pass away without anything to recall their memories. Perhaps one of the best things we can do on Thanksgiving is hold onto one another just a little longer and remember that life is a gift that needs to be cherished. We need Thanksgiving not for ballgames or turkey or even those delicious pies. We need to be in the comfort of home and hearth to say to each other in our own way "I love you." May the celebration in each of our homes make for happy times as we break our necks to get wherever we are going or as we prepare to meet and greet our loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Don't touch my bags, if you please...

Sometime in the Seventies it was apropos to thumb one's nose at authority. Depending on one's political slant, either brave or dumb student leaders in the midst of fighting against the Vietnam War or demanding even more civil rights would encourage us to give it "to the Man." It was clear that the Man was constituted authority and the Establishment. In the Seventies the "revolution" was fought by those who would reject the values of the earlier so-called "greatest generation." Liberated women would burn their bras and swallow birth control pills. Couples would cohabit. Men would smoke, ingest and drink just about anything at least once. All of this behavior was designed to show contempt for established norms, but basically defined a generation that openly questioned or was completely out of touch with morality. Somehow, in the four decades since that turbulent time, it is clear we are now "the Man" and we are in danger of emasculating this generation by intimidation and fear. No better example exists today than the well-meaning, but convoluted logic of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In order to protect weary holiday travelers they have put into place new screening techniques which ostensibly exist to protect us from terrorists, but which demonstrably mean an invasion of personal space and comfort. TSA screeners are seen by travelers less as protectors of our lives and more as unwanted sexual perverts, who get off on patting down their victims. Frankly, I am appalled that this has gone so far. There have been pictures and videos posted of the TSA officials going far afield in their efforts to keep the airways safe. Yesterday I saw a video of young boy, barely five whose father felt compelled to remove his son's shirt in order for the TSA officials to better be able to wand the youngster. One joker tries to blow up his underwear and everyone is now held hostage. It seems to me that the Israelis do a much better job of security in an area where they are surrounded by acknowledged enemies. Yet, how often do you hear of a youngster being forced for no reasonable suspicion to disrobe? We have become so paranoid about terrorism that we have allowed the lunatics to take over the running of the asylum. I don't care if anyone scans me or subjects me to low-level waves of radiation of whatever size or design they may desire. But please, don't touch a gray hair on my mother's head or wherever else. My "junk" should be sacrosanct and not meant to be manhandled by any TSA officer, regardless of how much they think I look like a terrorist. Luckily, I don't have to travel any time in the immediate future. I hope the TSA comes to its senses and tones down the level of sexual assaults and comes up with a practice that is both safe and secure for passengers.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Death of the new famous


©Associated Press
It had to happen sooner or later. The Internet has been such a birthing chamber for new celebrities that its stars have now become stalked and hunted down like trophies for jealous web surfers. The term for these cyber stalkers who - like Mark David Chapman - profess both a love for famous persons and a desire to kill them, is haters. The colloquialism was first used within the past half-decade to describe Internet users who, because of jealousy or envy, post abusive or profane comments. Psychologically, they are compelled to find chinks in the armor of rising stars in order to make themselves appear better. Google's You Tube is very much aware of the potential for stalking, but the very nature of Internet users to post personal information or their video images creates the environment for fame and with it attendant scrutiny by the public. In the case of Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent," the Internet established her as an overnight star. This led to an international singing career, but created a psychological episode in which she broke down, unable to deal with the sudden pressures of celebrity. Judson Laipply 's "Evolution of Dance" established him as an Internet sensation with now over five million hits of interested viewers. Like some Ponzi scheme gone awry, Internet surfers sent that video to five or ten or their friends and they to five or ten more and so on until the subject of the video entered the arena of celebrity and popular sub-culture. Unfortunately, while millions of hits on a video mean the potential for great success, there is also a potential danger of cyber stalking and assassination. There is a seamy sub-culture to the Internet of which few people are fully exposed and this has come to light with the Sunday slaying of New Orleans bounce rapper and comedian Messy Mya (real name Anthony Barre). The Internet had been the launching pad for his career and, sadly enough, after being fatally shot, curious bystanders could not contain themselves, snapping pictures of his body and posting them on Twitter via the third party Twitpic application. Several outraged protestors alerted Twitter, which has since removed the offensive photos. But the real story here is not that unfeeling idiots with camera phones could snap away and post these pictures. The real tragedy here is that Messy Mya was shot in the first place after leaving his girlfriend's shower for what would have been the upcoming birth of his first child. He was shot for no apparent reason other than his recently acquired fame. "Gangsta" rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.) are two of the most well-known victims of violence aimed at hip hop stars, but they were high-selling artists with a marked degree of visibility. Hardly anyone outside of You Tube or other places on the Internet where videos might be posted knew Barre as a "star." Another rapidly rising Internet star, Asia McGowan from Oakland, was similarly killed last year by a fan with whom she unwittingly went out on a date. The only motivation for her killing was the star status she had found on her video blogs on the Internet. Ironically, she posted a video derailing her haters and simply advised them to ignore their intended victims. In the end, though, these tragedies serve as a cautionary tale. Internet wannabe stars should not post videos or pursue a high visibility career on the Internet without considering that by doing so, they are putting themselves in harm's way. Cyber bullying which results in suicides by harassed teens has grabbed a number of headlines recently. While bullying is an identified major problem, it would seem that stalking victims through the Internet and planning their demise ramps up this inappropriate behavior another notch. It is yet another aspect of how out of sorts some sectors of our society have become. Simply put, kill a star and you gain his fame. There can be no redemption for souls who go down this tortuous path. In the meantime there is yet another family in mourning wondering why this horrible tragedy had to occur and why they will never again see their 22-year-old relative alive. Adding to the suffering for the family is that Barre's mother was herself a victim of foul play, killed in a hail of gunfire by a boyfriend nine years ago. It was in fact Barre and his sister who called police to the scene. My sympathies go out to the family. If it wasn't so sad, it would make great fodder for the Internet.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ten Commandments Hike 2010


View 10 Commandments Hike 2010 in a larger map
Map of this year's 10 Commandments Hike, sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council, BSA
Normally, at this time (less than two weeks before Thanksgiving), I have at least 100 people signed up for the annual Ten Commandments Hike, sponsored by the Southeast Louisiana Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). This year, perhaps because of the sorry state of the economy or the backlash from the the spring and summer's British Petroleum tragedy, there has been a noticeable lack of quick sign-ups for this very popular event. So, I am now going to take the veritable bull by the horns and invite all of my friends, followers and interested parties who are able to do so to take part in this year's 10 Commandments Hike. The idea of the hike is to promote religious tolerance and to promote diversity and acceptance of all faiths. There are ten stops, each representing a different faith background. At each stop one of the Ten Commandments is revealed to the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, family members, parents, friends and adult Scout leaders who participate. Everyone gets a souvenir sports water bottle with the logo emblazoned on it, a commemorative patch for 2010, a hot kosher meal (hot dogs, chips, fresh fruit and drinks), all the Kentwood water one needs and a streetcar token with which to catch a return to the start of the hike. For more details and to register online click here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

GA on my mind


New Orleans is the epicenter for what is no doubt the most important gathering of America's and Canada's most powerful and influential Jews. The biannual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), formerly the United Jewish Communities, opened in earnest on Saturday night. In addition the International Lions of Judah, an organization that honors the achievements of significant Jewish philanthropic women, is also holding its own conference here. Yesterday's full day of activities included several sessions intended to inform and energize attendees. One central theme this year is to introduce members to the Israel Action Network, a program intended to counter and neutralize the efforts of outsiders to de-legitimize the State of Israel. Yesterday Vice-President Joe Biden spoke on the commitment of the Obama administration to the State of Israel and he publicly added both his and the President's appreciation for the Israel Action Network. Later this morning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver a keynote address in another plenary session to approximately 3,000 attendees. The conference is exciting for New Orleans since the ongoing JFNA communities response to the city and the Gulf Coast has resulted in $28 million of funds being disbursed or promised following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita five years ago. This is an important conference, but it also is an opportunity for volunteers to continue in their efforts to provide service to the community here. Over 600 Hillel students are attending and scores of high school students have for the first time become active participants at the GA. There are plans for attendees to help rebuild homes and to offer assistance as part of the JFNA's continued programs intended to promote tikun olam, a Hebrew phrase that literally means "healing the world."

Friday, November 5, 2010

The fallout of the elections


Purple America - the historic shift from Blue States to Red States
So much has been written about the historic surge in the ranks of Republican elected officials over this past week that I am finally distilling much of what it means to the nation in the coming two years. First of all, Mr. President, you are in deep doo doo, but you already know that. The pollsters were predicting a Republican backlash fueled by the Tea Party movement and a country not at all happy with the present state of the economy. Even they were surprised at the unbelievable turn of events that on reflection turned out to be a Republican rout. It is true that the previous administration - a two-term Republican one at that - left the country in the midst of one of its most perilous economic times. The words economic shambles come to mind here. There is little doubt that the overspending to which the Tea Party populists are complaining began in the Bush administration as the housing crisis spiraled out of control and, like a house of cards falling down, began to trigger failures at banks and investment houses on Wall Street and around the country. The hundreds of billions of bailout money were first justified in the Bush administration, so it will be interesting to see how the incoming class of Republican freshmen and incumbents will turn against the trend they started. It is not unlike Captain Renault in "Casablanca" accepting his winnings after pronouncing how "I'm shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on in here!" The President and his Democratic supporters have themselves to blame for the public relations mess they are in, but it seems they are the victims of their own success. With majorities in both houses of Congress they had the luxury of being able to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Much of what this mid-term election will be viewed as is a reaction to Democratic hubris. Americans have traditionally reacted to those in power by voting against them when they feel they have gotten too big for their britches. The "shellacking" the Obama administration took on Tuesday should be a wake up call that unless the President prepares to become more moderate and conciliatory with Republicans in Congress, he may be the first one-term President since George Herbert Walker Bush. The change that was promised two years ago has finally come full circle. A Republican controlled Senate will be a thorn in the President's side, but Speaker-apparent Boehner should be cautioned that angry Americans will turn as quickly against Republicans should they see little progress on the Hill in the creation of new jobs and shoring up of the economy. The Tea Party movement is, after all, a populist movement and it can swing as easily back to the Democrats or establish a meaningful third party in the middle should it find neither is being especially helpful or lacking in bold leadership. Does this mean Sarah Palin in the presumptive Republican frontrunner for the nation's highest office in two years? Probably so. In a majority of the races she made endorsements, her candidates won. She has some fairly powerful friends on her side now. Has she garnered the strength and political knowhow to pull a presidential campaign off? Time will tell. But then again, for now time is on her side.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Vindication




I have been circumspect lately. There is a lot going on in my life and much of it has to do with external influences. One of those many influences over which I have no control has to do with the New Orleans Saints football team. The game that the Saints played last week against the reputedly-lowly Cleveland Browns turned out to be one of the worst ever played by a team in the Sean Payton era. At times it looked like the Keystone Follies with one thing after another happening to the Saints and the Browns prevailing in an unanticipated win. Drew Brees threw five interceptions in that one game and he had only thrown five in his previous six games. So, the mention of a "Superbowl Hangover" or a "curse" had been bandied about with greater frequency on TV sports shows and on talk radio. The winning 2009 season buoyed the hopes and dreams of the general populace. Conversely, this year's poor start (4-3) was almost untenable for those of us accustomed to winning games and by lopsided margins. There was a pall upon the city and tonight's game was a must-win for so many reasons, not the least of which was to get back the city's football mojo. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Steelers came prepared to put it to the Saints in their own home field, on Halloween night. The 6-3 halftime score showed how pitched the defensive battle was between the two teams and the gutsiest call was when Coach Sean Payton questioned whether a Pittsburgh Steeler had crossed the plane of the goal and actually scored a touchdown. After a challenge on the field, the referees determined the coach was right. He hadn't scored, but they put the ball on the six-inch line and gave Pittsburgh an opportunity to score again. Miraculously (maybe in was black and gold magic), the Steelers tried to cross the goal on three separate occasions, but were denied on each attempt, finally settling for a field goal. Drew Brees was impressive and his offensive line gave him multiple opportunities to find receivers downfield. In the end the score was 20-10 with the Saints on top. The Saints proved to the NFL they still have it and they proved to the city they still deserve all their support. I am beginning to feel the funk lift from my shoulders. Is it the Saints or some sort of voodoo that's now working? I can't truly say, but whatever it is, I like it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The return

Something strange and wonderful has happened. My words have returned to me. I promise I will explain which words, but first we must travel back in time, approximately five-plus years ago. It is pre-Hurricane Katrina and, like now, I am living in the city of my birth, New Orleans, preparing to visit Cleveland, Ohio. I live for the most part on the second floor of my duplex, but the bulk of my library and extensive record collection is housed downstairs. A small apartment occupies the remainder of the downstairs and I have a tenant, a young divorced man who lives there with his beloved German Shepherd. When the mandatory evacuation occurred, I was away and that fact meant little could be done to save most of my records, CDs, 45s, paperbacks and hardcover volumes which rested on custom constructed shelves there. Because pets are not allowed to evacuate with their owners to the refuge of last resort at the Superdome (this policy has since been changed), my tenant is forced to leave his pet downstairs with a few day's supply of food and water, not knowing the rising waters would drown the animal or that he would end up losing all of his worldly possessions. I am a visitor in Cleveland worried about my home and my city, but forced to watch it from afar, helpless and inadequate. As it turned out, my life would be forever changed by that storm and the flooding that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. I lived and worked there for nearly two years and my return to New Orleans required packing a great many boxes of new possessions coming from my time spent away. In the meantime my housekeeper was able to put away boxes of my possessions that had somehow survived. Since her home was also destroyed, she was away for and unable to return the city for nearly a year, living in Houston and Dallas. However, once she returned to work, she started to put things away for me that had survived the flooding. We were not able to communicate on a regular basis, so whatever she packed away for me was not clearly documented. Between those boxes holding my old items and the new boxes filled with momentos from Cleveland, much of my home has been filled over the course of the last three and a half years with all manner of things largely hidden from view. Just a little over on my second floor entrance way. Inside were my words. To be more specific, inside one of the larger boxes that my housekeeper had put away was my bound edition of my work from 1972 and 1973 as Features Editor and Executive Editor of the Tulane University Hullabaloo, the weekly newspaper over which I labored in my freshman and sophomore years. To say that this volume is irreplaceable is an understatement. How that volume escaped being soaked in the deluge that stood stagnant in my home for nearly three weeks is nothing short of a miracle. When I looked inside it, I found an incredible array of pictures and stories that I had not even thought about in over 36 years. There was the junior Senator from Delaware - a Joseph Biden with hair no less - addressing a forum at Tulane. Also, a story and picture on George Bush, the head of the C.I.A., a full 16 years before becoming President, talking to students. And the president was Richard Nixon. Wow! I cannot believe this volume has mysteriously returned to me, but I know I will treasure it for many years to come.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thank you, Mr. Coleridge

You've seen it before, but it is an incredible shot.
©2005 Sidney Smith

Today's Blog Action topic is water. Water, the most abundant substance on the planet, is a topic with which all of New Orleans is well aware. After all, the Louisiana Purchase document in 1803 ceded all of the lands owned by France to the United States except for the "Isle of Orleans." We are surrounded by a graceful bend in the Mississippi River to our western, southern and eastern borders and Lake Pontchartrain, the fifth largest U.S. inland lake (not counting the Great Lakes) to our north. Much of the land used for development in the most recent century was reclaimed from former swamp lands. Pumping out water is a big deal here, since much, but not all of the area is beneath sea level. The Mississippi River, which drains 40% of the continental United States, is the main drinking water source for the city. By the time water from the Mississippi River reaches the intake valves for the New Orleans city water supply, it has been used at least 17 times before. As it makes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River also carries with it 1.5 million tons of nitrogen pollutants. Once they reach the Gulf, they contribute to oxygen-robbed "dead zones" in the waters there, killing scores of fish in the process. Yes, we know water very well here. Perhaps too well. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been charged with the protection of the city from water incursion and has constructed and maintained a series of levees designed to keep the water that surrounds the city away from the bowl of the city. Yet, when those levees were breached due to faulty construction in the hours before and after Hurricane Katrina, the same Corps of Engineers enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Besides, they were too busy building new levees and shoring up the old ones to worry about defending themselves in court. Recently, the British Petroleum oil spill focused the attention of millions of citizens on the waters in the Gulf of Mexico as they watched the deep brown crude ooze out from the blowout preventer on live TV or as streaming video over the Internet. Thankfully, that water is now clear, but there are indications that some areas have been adversely affected and may not recover for decades to come. It is hard to believe that in some areas of Africa and Asia there is no potable water available for human consumption because we have so much water here. As to rainfall, we have much more than we need usually. If one has ever been privileged to behold a tropical downfall of the New Orleans variety, he does not find it easy to circumvent or forgettable. Perhaps the most iconic vision I have of water is the image snapped by my cousin, photographer Sidney Smith, four days after Hurricane Katrina. The photo shows my home with water nearly lapping up to the second floor of my residence. Since I was not there, I can only imagine what it would have been like to have been in the middle of the quiet as the toxic waste and polluted water rose above the cars and lawns of my neighbors. I can't but recall the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and the apropos phrase that residents here would have chosen to utter, to wit, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

Friday, October 8, 2010

New meaning for "putting up your Dukes"


When I first attended college, I will admit I was totally clueless as to how to please women in the way they expected that I would or could. Oh, I knew the basic manual. When it came down to it, I knew which part went where and what the ultimate endgame should be, but lacking significant experience in the realm of pleasing a partner kept my confidence from rising, even if other parts of my anatomy did from time to time. I admit I fumbled my way from one liaison to another until I found what I would term my first true paramour. We enjoyed each other's company immensely and I can say that it was very exciting and reassuring to finally start to get it right. Maneuvering a rendezvous was also dangerous because I lived at home and the girls dormitory in which she lived was strictly off limits to campus males. That extra level of excitement associated with finding a safe place and not getting caught by the campus police or a dorm monitor probably added to the thrill of the chase. So, 35 years later, as I ponder the Homecoming weekend for Tulane University, I am absolutely amazed that so much has changed in the interim. For one thing I just had my son graduate from own alma mater just five months ago. Because of the privacy laws put into place since I attended, he could do pretty much whatever he wanted, remaining unchecked from outside interference from his unsuspecting father or grandmother who administered his tuition. Throughout his entire academic career I never received a copy of his grades and today can only guesstimate what his final grade point average was. What I'm really bemoaning here is that the college students of today have no reins on them; they operate freely and unfettered from much of the outside influence that concerned me. Today chance or casual sexual encounters seem to occur with much greater frequency than in my day. It appears that girls are becoming sexually active at younger and younger ages and scientific evidence suggests they are entering puberty at ever younger ages too. So-called "booty calls" and "friends with benefits" would have been welcomed by my cronies and me had the times allowed them, but the sad truth is that we weren't smart enough to invent the concepts or have partners that would have agreed to engage in rampant sexual activities so frivolously. Fast forward to present time. Today we have cell phones with cameras that can capture nude photos or shoot videos in the most private of places. Young generations use texting or send sexually explicit materials through cell phones attached to the Internet, which can then be posted online or sent to non-intended sources. "Sexting" occurs with much greater frequency than we might believe and once the item has been posted, it never truly goes away. Knowing all of this, I would have expected to be non-plussed when Duke graduate Karen Owen's pretend seniors honors thesis went viral over the Internet the past few days. Titled "An education beyond the classroom: excelling in horizontal academics," the pseudo work was leaked from one, two or all three of the friends to whom she had sent the sexually charged materials including pictures, bar charts and rankings of her college hookups according to member sizes and sexual prowess. The fact this was a woman unashamedly having sex, using men and objectifying them in oh-so-many ways was revelatory and compelling. When she was contacted by different sites like Jezebel who posted the piece, she was described as contrite. She apologized to all the men she may have hurt by sending the piece to her friends, but she maintained she had not authorized the fake thesis to have gone anywhere else than the three friends to whom she had sent it. She did not apologize for having sex and did not feel embarrassed about her comments. Asked the inevitable question, she admitted she would be happy to do it all over again on as many occasions and with as many positions as she enjoyed previously. The simple truth is that the worm has turned. Owen knows that the chance she will be sued is very slight, especially when most of the postings of the PowerPoint slideshow she sent out have been modified to hide the faces of the male subjects and redacted so that texts will not identify them. Had this been a male publishing a list of his sexual conquests, there is little doubt from me there would have been an uproar and several suits aimed at picking the pockets of the satyr or knocking him down a peg or two. With the exception of the hapless fellow who got a score of three out of ten, most of the men would be pleased to read how well she was pleased. Yet, there is a sense to this incident that what is sauce for the gander is also good for the goose. The men she had sex with were almost all athletes on the Duke lacrosse and baseball squads. They could accurately be described as buff and very physically fit. While it doesn't matter, Owen is extremely attractive in her own right. To be fair, though, the protection of both sexes needs to be enforced from such unintended publicity and what is clearly an invasion of their privacy. The days of men bragging in the locker room has given way to women getting even on the Internet. Colleges will be looking to see how they fit into this new formula. I'm not sure they want their campuses to be seen as the canvas on which countless women will now paint their portraits of revenge. Suppose the guy with the three out of ten ranking does sue. What if the next release is from a college fraternity ranking the figures of the sorority members they have inducted into their...ahem...membership. The big question is does this mean that Duke and other colleges and universities in an effort to distance themselves might now require their new students to agree not to publish such salacious material in the future? Inquiring minds and friends with benefits might want to know.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bernie, we'll miss you


Following the death last week of crooner Eddie Fisher and longtime Hollywood actress Gloria Stuart ("Titanic"), came the tragic announcement yesterday of the passing of comic Greg Girardo of TV's "Last Comic Standing." Fisher, the popular Jewish singer with standard hits like "Oh, My Papa" died from complications from hip surgery. He was the former husband of Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds and the father of actress Carrie Fisher, who herself became an icon for the 70's and 80's generations because of her role as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Stuart was 100 at the time of her death and so her passing was not entirely unanticipated, but she had been a major mover and shaker in the acting community since the Silent Era. Girardo, 44, whose appearances at numerous Comedy Central roasts were often laced with obscenities, was not considered a top-tier comedian. Indeed, he struggled for much of his career to make a bigger name for himself, but no one could have expected that the unshaven comic would accidentally take his own life. He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday, but died Wednesday, despite the efforts of doctors there to revive and stabilize him. Early this morning it was revealed that the so-called "Prince of Hollywood," Tony Curtis had expired from cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants as Bernard (or as he liked to refer to himself) "Bernie" Schwartz, the future Hollywood heartthrob had a very hard upbringing in the Bronx, suffering beatings by his father and dealing with the rantings of his schizophrenic mother. At one point he and his younger brother Julius were institutionalized when his parents could not take care of them any longer. Although he was reunited with his parents after a month, the teenager was further traumatized four years later when Julius was killed as a 12-year-old after being struck by a car. In "American Prince: A Memoir" he noted how he endured countless incidents of anti-Semetism throughout his time on the mean streets of New York. The handsome and charming young man spent his time as a seaman in the Navy during World War II and used money from the G. I. Bill to finance his study of acting prior to his moving to Hollywood. His early screen roles were not memorable and, as was the norm during the studio era, he was encouraged to change his name. He picked Tony Curtis, taking on the first name from his favorite novel "Anthony Adverse" and his new surname from the Anglicized name of his favorite uncle named Kurtz. Among the roles for which Curtis garnered fame were those opposite Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," Burt Lancaster in "The Sweet Smell of Success" and his future wife, Janet Leigh, in "Houdini." His work with Sidney Portier in "The Defiant Ones," in which the two played escaped convicts handcuffed together, won him his only Academy Award nomination. Curtis, whose well-publicized marriage to Leigh was not long lived (nine years), was known about Hollywood as a major womanizer with reported trysts with Monroe and Natalie Wood among dozens of starlets. He married five other times. He was also the poster boy for drug abuse, having admitted to dosing himself on everything from booze to marijuana to cocaine and heroin. He checked himself into rehab on several occasions, but admitted that it was always a struggle for him. Ironically, his 23-year-old son Nicholas from his longest marriage to his third wife (Leslie Allen), died in 1992 from a heroin overdose. Although he did appear in several movie roles in his later years, Curtis turned his professional efforts towards painting, commanding $25,000 per canvas for his post-Impressionist works. A little-known passion for Curtis was his work with the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture he founded in 1998 in the memory of his father. Serving as the honorary chairman, Curtis funneled funds into Hungary intended to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries there. He dedicated his efforts to the 600,000 Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and even worked as a spokesman for Hungarian tourism. Following a bout of pneumonia in 2006 from which he barely survived, the actor was confined to a wheelchair, but made steady progress and was able to promote his latest book, "The Making of 'Some Like It Hot': My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie," released a year ago. Curtis was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder during the summer. He is survived by his widow Jill Vandenburg Curtis and four children.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting a grip on Groupon



It would seem the latest craze to hit the social networking scene is Groupon, a perfect marriage between marketing for local businesses and the Internet. Frankly, I am amazed at some of the bargains that are trotted out daily in e-mail blasts to my account. Some are hard to resist: a $200 night's stay for $89 at a nice local hotel, half price meals at local eateries, half off tickets for Mississippi riverboat cruises, and a manicure-pedicure combination at a spa for just $35. Not that I'm in the market for a manicure-pedicure, mind you, but at that rate it's hard to resist. I'm not too sure that I would relish being in a retail business and offering these group discounts on a one-time only basis via Groupon. True, it would probably bring in more traffic, but in the end, how many of these bargain hunters will return to pay full value on a later trip? It seems to me that no matter how good the pedicure is, I would never consider it unless it was at a bargain basement price. For those ladies who wear sandals or attractive evening shoes, it might be a more common practice, but as for me, my dogs are usually penned up in Reebok walking shoes or on formal occasions encased in black patent leather shoes. It makes little sense for me to preen or primp in that department. Besides, what would I paint on my toenails?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

When a fast goes fast...


There's nothing like praying to keep one's mind off hunger. It turns out the Yom Kippur fast was a lot easier on my system than the Fast of Gedaliah, held a week ago. While I admit I am not typically as observant as to include both fast days in the week leading up to the Day of Atonement, circumstances made it easier for me to consider that option this year. Last Sunday morning I awoke at 5:34, which was three minutes too late to eat, according to rabbinical authorities. The previous day I had had a very large meal late in the day due to it being Shabbat Shuva and a special program we had at the synagogue. The program involved the Zeitouns, a married Muslim couple, who appeared at Gates of Prayer's Bart Room, the meeting place and temporary sanctuary for Congregation Beth Israel. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American house painter endured unbelievable horrors and was unlawfully imprisoned for over a month, in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The irony of the tragedy is that he personally rescued several people trapped in their homes by canoe when the levees broke and the flood waters rose in Broadmoor and other sections of New Orleans. News reports a few days before his arrest in his own home labeled him a hero and described his efforts at saving the lives of many people trapped in their homes. Kathy, his wife, and their children had been evacuated to Arizona during this time and simply stopped hearing from him after his arrest and eventual incarceration at Hope Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. The entire story was detailed in a best seller by Dave Eggers titled "Zeitoun." (For more info, click here.) Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is considered one of the most important on the Jewish calendar. Because of the continuing controversy over the building of what has been variously labeled as the Islamic Cultural Center, the Cordoba Project and Park 51 two blocks from Ground Zero in New York, Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Israel and Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer Synagogue (Reform) invited the Zeitouns and their joint congregations to meet and discuss the greater questions of religious freedom and racial profiling, which had contributed to Zeitouin's arrest and imprisonment. It was the first time the Zeitouns had been in a synagogue and a very unusual program to say the least. So, because of this special program, I didn't begin to eat any meal on that Saturday until late and that meant not eating dinner prior to seeing a play that evening. I did decide to have a steak about 11:00 p.m. that night, figuring I would rise early and enjoy breakfast before the fast or have that late night meal and its high protein content keep me sustained for the following day. As it turned out, my late rising made the latter choice for me. On reflection I think I was more affected by dehydration than by a lack of food. That's why I think the praying, staying indoors for the most part and, perhaps, the sense of community at the services yesterday pulled me through the day with little or no ill effect. So, in five days it's yet another Jewish holiday, Succot, the Festival of Booths that commemorates the wandering for 40 years in the dessert. Thankfully, that holiday has a lot of eating inside the sukkahs, or temporary huts, that are erected on the sides of Jewish homes and synagogues. No more fasts for a while, but I guess I had better get my feet in shape because there will be lots of dancing in the days to come.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy New Year 5771


To non-Jews, the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah is a rather odd holiday in many ways. But don't worry, it can also be confusing to many of us Jews. That's because the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle wherein every month begins with the announcement of a new moon over Jerusalem. This was fixed many years ago by rabbinical authorities. Thus, every "day" begins at sundown. But it is not strictly a lunar calendar as is the case with the Islamic calendar. There is a specific passage in the Bible that prohibits the Passover celebration from being held in any other season other than Spring. Because of this, there are dechiyot (adjustments) that add an extra month in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19 of a 19-year cycle. As a matter of fact, if there is a date in the Jewish calendar that falls on a specific day of the Gregorian calendar (i.e., 1 Tishri=Thursday, September 9), it will fall on that same day and date every 19 years. Under a strictly lunar calendar specific holidays or celebrations, as is the case in the observance of the Islamic period of Ramadan, move from one season to another. The Jewish calendar is thus both a lunar and a solar calendar and is very accurate, although not perfect in any sense of the word. Normally, one would suspect that New Year's Day would be the first day of the first month. That would be a very wrong assumption. Because the original calendar was based on an agrarian culture dealing with planting, praying for rain, reaping and harvesting, the days now reserved as Rosh Hashanah actually occur on the first two days of the seventh month. The very first month on the calendar is found in the spring in the month of Nissan, which coincides with the season when the Exodus from Egypt occurred, and was used administratively during the era of the kings. The modern celebration of Rosh Hashanah was instituted after the destruction of the Second Temple. Scholars note that the original references in the Bible to the holiday were both Yom Hazikaron ("The Day of Remembrance") and Yom Teruah ("Day of the Sounding of the Shofar"). The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement") are called the "Days of Awe," a period of introspection and privation. It is said that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur. It is one book we all hope to be in year after year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love's Labor Day lost


I've been told that "wtf" doesn't stand for "wait till Friday," but there's no authority I can consult on this. I remember when I was a teenager distinctly hearing from my Uncle Irvin that "t.g.i.f." meant "thank God it's Friday" and that "p.o.e.t.s" meant the same thing, more or less, only the phrase was less than clean. When I was in college George Carlin's "seven words" sketch was very popular, but I believe that several of his prohibited-from-broadcasting words are actually heard on a regular basis these days over satellite radio and cable TV. Several have apparently sunk into generally approved acceptance. As a former broadcaster, I had a code of conduct to which I adhered. I never wanted to say anything over the microphone that couldn't be heard by somone's grandmother as in good taste. Yes, I might drop a double entendre every now and then, but it was usually not done in bad taste. Comedians today take a different tack. Programs oftentimes have so many bleeps in them, it's hard to follow them. I can't understand why the people on Jerry Springer and Maury Povich's programs are allowed to say whatever they want with seemingly no repercussions. It's as if the syndication suits have determined as long as we have a machine to bleep out the profanity, let them say whatever comes into their puny little minds. I have always contended that vulgarity, profanity and obscenity are the byproducts of a poor vocabulary. Yet, why is it that today - Labor Day - do I feel like standing from the highest tower and shouting out w.t.f.? It's because a relationship I once treasured has changed forever today and I both mourn its passing and cheer its morphing into one of simple friendship. This is the apex of ambivalence and the nadir of nihilism. Perhaps it is a wonderful thing that Rosh Hashanah is only a few days away. It will be a new year and a new start to work on those things that are right in my life and release the ones that are not productive or might even be considered toxic.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September song


While many of us look to September as the month that signals the end of summer and ushers in traditional things like college and regular season professional football games, I am always struck by the very first day of the month. That's because it is the birthday of my late father, Dr. Arnold Smason. My dad was an O.D., which is a doctor of optometry, an eye specialist in the correction of the human lens. He was quite good at what he did, but excelled in a great many other things too. He did his early morning regimen of crossword puzzles (both of them) and the Jumble® before he finished his morning coffee. And he always did them in pen. I marveled at his energy and industry. He ran two offices - one downtown and another in the bustling Metairie suburb - and arranged his schedule so that he saw early morning and late afternoon patients downtown and late morning and early afternoon patients in Metairie. He did this six days a week and managed to still find time to handle a number of other chores including being active in the Jerusalem Temple Shriners and his Masonic lodge, where he served as treasurer. As a college student during World War II and a child of the Great Depression, he knew that hard work would eventually pay off in his realizing the American dream. But with the war came new challenges and dangers. He elected to become a chemical engineer due to his mathematical prowess and keen understanding of science. Many of his graduating class members were sent off to fight overseas and many of them perished. I am sure he would have served had he been drafted, but another fate awaited him. As soon as he graduated, my dad was given a military deferment and ordered to report for important civilian work at a little town in Tennessee that had blossomed practically overnight into the third largest city in the state. He became a specialist dealing in uranium gas at a complex in Oak Ridge that would, in less than a year, become famous as the place where the first atomic bombs were manufactured. He admitted to me many years later that even he had no idea what they were working on. It would seem only a few higher ups knew what the Manhattan Project was about and only those with a need to know were informed as to what the ramifications of this important work would portend. After the war and his release from service to the country, he settled back in New Orleans expecting to be snatched up in the wake of revitalization in the petroleum engineering firms that were headquartered there. He sent out numerous resumés, but was never granted an interview that resulted in a job offer. At the time there was no law prohibiting a firm from asking applicants personal questions on the application. Every firm requested he state his religion along with name, address and phone number. Curiously, when he wrote down "Jewish" on the form in the space provided, he never got a call back, even though others with less experience did. After a year and a half of waiting and hoping, he decided to go back to school and enrolled at the Southern Illinois College of Optometry. Three years later, after attending classes, teaching, dipping ice cream and holding other assorted odd jobs he graduated with his O.D. degree. He came back to New Orleans and in short order became the head of the optical department at Maison Blanche, then the largest department store in the busy downtown shopping district. In a story I read on his appointment, it was noted he was the youngest department head at the busy downtown location. It wasn't long after that he was married to my mom and had started his family. He became noted as an outstanding optometrist and one one of the first in the city to offer what we now know as "hard" contact lenses for his patients. He eventually left Maison Blanche to start up his own practice, which he kept downtown at various locations. Later he took on work for the Cole National Corporation, which outfitted the optical departments at Sears and Montgomery Ward stores. Due to state laws, optometrists either worked for themselves or for other doctors, but they were compensated for sales they made through the optical departments at Sears and other locations run by Cole. Cole National was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, by a very interesting and dynamic fellow named Joseph Cole. At one point in the 1990s, it was the third largest optical retailer in the country. Interestingly, this is yet another connection I have to Cleveland, the site of my exodus following Hurricane Katrina. In any event some 15 plus years after he passed away, I am still thinking about my father and the legacy he left behind, especially on his birthday every year.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Harry Shearer's "The Big Uneasy"

Harry Shearer, producer, director and writer of "The Big Uneasy"
©Alan Smason

Harry Shearer is a man on a mission. The mission is one of information that everyone who lives in New Orleans already knows, that the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster, but in reality a man-made disaster. Shearer's film premiered last night in New Orleans and in 200 other movie theaters across the country. It was intentionally shown on the day following the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in Louisiana In order to maximize its impact. In the film "The Big Uneasy" he lays the blame for the levee breaches squarely on the shoulders of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Shearer's provocative film tells the story of what he believes is a coordinated campaign nationwide to discredit those that differ with the "official" version of the flood that suggest the levees fell victim to the high winds and storm surge that topped the levees. The film revolves about several respected engineers and a whistleblower within the Corps who all have reached the conclusion that the system of levees failed due to shoddy construction and bad engineering on the part of the very agency assigned with the task of protecting the city. The biggest star of the film is recently dismissed L.S.U. professor Ivor van Heerden (currently suing the state for wrongful termination), whose now dismantled Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge eerily predicted that a direct hit or near miss of a substantial hurricane could bring about catastrophic failures of the levee system and cause the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (called "Mr. Go" by locals) to overflow its banks. Van Heerden is joined by University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea in what is a well-documented indictment of the Corps of Engineers. Their findings and detailed analysis show that the levees collapsed from beneath ground and that they never were topped by the storm surge associated with the storm. John Goodman figures in the film with the comic relief of "Ask a New Orleanian," a series of questions that give more than answers. Voice overs included several by fellow New Orleans residents Brad Pitt and Jennifer Coolidge, who along with Shearer's on camera narratives were eager to help set the record straight. Shearer said that the reason he felt compelled to make the film - financed entirely out of his own pocket - was that the news media has not told the story. The Corps is exempt from any damages that might arise out of flood-related damages from the structures they maintain by law, but as Shearer so carefully points out, it has an incestuous relationship with Congress. Congressmen consider the Corps as their favorite tool to implement water projects in their home districts. Set asides make Congressmen appear to be doing something and can guarantee re-election of incumbents. Although it is a serious film, there are moments of levity in the documentary that help keep it moving along at an enjoyable pace. Like Pitt, Goodman and Coolidge, Shearer was not born in New Orleans, but came here to live and enjoy its many amenities along with his wife, singer-songwriter Judith Owen. Many celebrities like Sandra Bullock and Nicholas Cage have found the music, the food and the lifestyle too hard to resist. Shearer has made a point for his adopted city and assumed the title of a documentary film maker in the process. Known for his starring role in "This is Spinal Tap," but in more recent years for his many voice characterizations on "The Simpsons," Shearer unabashedly stated he used "Rupert Murdock's money" to fund the film. Good show, Harry. Good show.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Obama Nation

President Obama talks on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
Yesterday for reasons only the powers that be can explain, I was inside Xavier University awaiting the address by our nation's 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama. I had been given press credentials in the course of working in my capacity as a reporter and sometimes editor for Southern Jewish Life Magazine. The waiting game is always unnerving for reporters. The byword is always hurry up and wait for every member of the Fourth Estate and even worse for television or still camera photographers. The setup time recommended for them by the White House was 7:30-8:30 a.m. Mind you, the speech was scheduled to begin around 2:00 p.m., so getting up at the crack of dawn to place equipment and mark off one's spot was not especially appetizing to many members of the news media. Nevertheless, those are the rules and don't ever forget that the rules exist to keep everyone in check. The Secret Service and other White House staffers were running around the auditorium, checking out even the slightest hint of impropriety. I behaved like an angel, of course. When the Internet connection was not available, I didn't even complain. When the place they allowed me to sit was located behind the riser for the cameras, I didn't even murmur my discontent. I could, after all, still see the stage through the legs of the cameramen and, after all, that's what long camera lenses and binoculars are for, right? I heard the President talk about many things. After talking about his lunch, which made me hungry, at Parkway Bakery and Tavern (alligator sausage and a shrimp poboy), he mentioned the dedication of the volunteers who have helped rebuild New Orleans. He talked about the tenacity of people like Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University who promised only a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina that the nation's only black Catholic university (and the only one founded by a legitimate saint) would rise from the ashes like a veritable phoenix in just a few short months. To his credit, the university did just that, reopening its doors to students in January of 2006. The President also acknowledged the hard work of students like Jade Young, Miss Xavier 2010, who came back after the hurricane and focused on her studies. As a freshman pharmacy student, she introduced the nation's chief executive and told the audience of how grateful she was to her school and to all those who helped support her during the travails experienced during the rebuilding and recovery efforts. When the President and First Lady appeared, the cheers of the crowd of supporters and politicians rang out loudly in the auditorium and in typical fashion, the President spoke with eloquence and simplicity in promising that the federal government would never desert New Orleans in the future. The only promise many of the local political figures like Governor Bobby Jindal would have liked to hear was that the White House would consider suspending the current moratorium on Gulf oil rigs. But that didn't happen and probably won't for some time to come. It was a wonderful day for people to discover that New Orleans doesn't consider itself a victim anymore. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was in attendance and shook my hand as he left, has long stated that we have shifted from rebuilding the city that was into building the city we want in the future. He and his sister, U. S. Senator Mary Landrieu, appeared earlier in the day on nationwide TV broadcasts of "Meet the Press" and on local broadcasts, acknowledging the solemn occasion of the fifth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. It was a remarkable day of remembrance and a special day of looking forward, not backward, as the city and state moves ahead with such things as master plans and other efforts designed to make the city even stronger than it is now.

Friday, August 27, 2010

First Person commentary in the Cleveland Jewish News


For nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina I worked as a staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (CJN). Today's online CJN edition features a First Person commentary by this humble reporter on the fifth anniversary of the storm (a smaller piece was slated to be published in the paper itself). The CJN is an unusual community newspaper, which is run by an independent board that serves the estimated 80,000 Jews living there. Since my return to New Orleans, I have continued to submit stories of interest to the community members there, including several on conditions here in New Orleans as well as the evacuation from Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Considered one of the top such newspapers in the country, the CJN continues to make incredible strides in journalism and with innovations to their web site during a tenuous time in the economy and a downward trend for the newspaper industry in general. My commentary can be found here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26 five years later


My Broadmoor home three days after Hurricane Katrina
Double click image to see flooding
©2005 Sidney Smith

Five years ago I landed in Cleveland for a few days vacation. My son and mother, the only other members of the family, had already left for college and aboard a cruise ship, respectively. My visit was to be personal but, unfortunately, short. I was due to spend the weekend there with family and friends and would be winging my way back to the Crescent City on Monday morning with an expected return in the early afternoon. I spent the first evening, August 26, enjoying a meal at Fire, a restaurant run by executive chef Doug Katz and located in historic Shaker Square. Following the wonderful cuisine there I passed by the windows of a major supermarket undergoing construction. Large signs on the windows announced the grand opening of the new Dave's Supermarket in five days. I peered inside the windows and noted that there seemed to be little progress to indicate they would be open for business in less than a week. I clearly remember thinking how much I regretted I would not be able to see them open their doors. The next day I attended worship services at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and was honored to hold high the Torah scroll, an honor afforded few visitors in a service. It was later that afternoon that I went to check my e-mail and noticed several urgent stories over the Internet later that warned that Hurricane Katrina, a minimal strength storm that had struck Miami just the day before, had reorganized into a major category four storm over the warm Gulf of Mexico waters with further strengthening likely. The satellite pictures showed a massive system beginning to take aim at New Orleans. I was understandably upset. I needed to get back to New Orleans in order to protect my home and hearth. Frantically, I began trying to arrange for a ticket back home, but the lines were crazy busy and it was apparent that no flights were going into the city for the foreseeable future. An e-mail from Continental Airlines on Sunday notified me that my return ticket was canceled. That afternoon and night was a sleepless one for me as I held my breath, hoping that the 175 m.p.h. winds category five storm would miraculously miss the city. As it turned out, the storm did diminish slightly as it came ashore. Estimates are that it was a powerful category three storm with maximum sustained winds near 135 m.p.h. when it hit the city, veering off to the east just enough that a direct hit was registered in nearby Bay St. Louis and Diamondhead, Mississippi. I watched local New Orleans TV newscasts over the Internet, news reports that could not be seen by those in the local viewing area due to widespread power outages there. All of the local studios able to broadcast had evacuated to Baton Rouge or Jackson, Mississippi. Several news teams were stranded in the flood waters that followed the levee breaches at the Industrial Canal and with cell phone towers down no calls were getting in or out of the city. I watched in horror as Mayor Ray Nagin announced that the Twin Spans, the two elevated highways that crossed Lake Pontchartrain and joined the I-10 from New Orleans East to Slidell on the North shore, were gone. Gone! It was surreal. By the time the floodwaters from the New London Canal arrived at my home on Tuesday, August 30, there was nothing to impede the flow of the water leading from Lake Pontchartrain. The water climbed to five feet and stayed there for close to two weeks before the pumping stations began to work the almost impossible task of pushing the toxic soup out of the city. By the end of the third week the water was nearly gone from inside my home, but the toxic black mold and green mildew had started to consume everything left behind: books, albums, pictures and all the walls. Cabinets had exploded and the contents of their shelves were spilled onto the floor. By the time I arrived back home seven weeks later, I could not believe the utter destruction that awaited me inside and out. My entire time in town was limited to a period of just 36 hours before I had to get back to the airport for a return trip back to Cleveland, where I was now living. Because there was no electricity in the Broadmoor section at that time, there was no way to do any work past sundown as I tried to claim any items not ruined by the waters or rendered unusable by the mold and mildew. I made it back to Cleveland late Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Dave's Supermarket in Shaker Square had been opened for six weeks. and doing brisk business. As it turned out, I had not only witnessed its grand opening, but ironically shopped there in the interim. Thanks to my having registered as a Katrina refugee with no visible means of support, I paid for my groceries with an electronic debit card - food stamps, if you will - provided to me by the State of Ohio. Such a change in fortunes is not unusual in those that survived Hurricane Katrina.