Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cranston's challenge

As it struggles to emerge from flooding of Biblical proportions, the Northeast has been reeling from seemingly relentless rain that has lashed the coastlines and New England for weeks. Little Cranston, Rhode Island has suffered more than most and the realization has dawned that the Pawtuxet River has yet to crest. That means more flooding is likely in the coming days. Cranston, the third largest city in Rhode Island, was named one of the safest cities in America and one of the 100 best places to live in America within the past four years, according to Money Magazine. Yet, nothing could prepare the residents of Cranston for the backlash from Mother Nature they've experienced this week. Flooding is so destructive and its effects so well known here in New Orleans. This was true even before Hurricane Katrina. We've had so-called rain events that have left residents stranded and cars flooded along city streets after a downpour of two or three hours. Sadly, some drivers have lost their lives driving underneath flooded overpasses that hid ten or more feet of standing water. Cranston's infrastructure is particularly hard hit and bridges could crumble even more in the next few hours or days. I'll be keeping them all in my prayers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Preparing for Passover

In just a few hours at sundown tonight, Passover will be here. Like a good Boy Scout, I have done all I can to ensure that I am well prepared. Last week I spent over $300 on food for just this week at the only local kosher grocery store. Remember that I am just a single person. Imagine that kind of investment spread across the entire kosher community in New Orleans or, if you will, the entire kosher-keeping community nationwide. That is a significant amount of money. Also, I have placed all of my non kosher for Passover food in inaccessible or blocked off areas so that I will only be eating food deemed appropriate for the next eight days. This is a bit of an ordeal, but there is a method to this madness. It is intended to bring to mind the period of redemption that came about when the Hebrew slaves were freed from their Egyptian masters. We are commanded to recall the time as if we ourselves had been freed. It is a period of celebration, but also a period of introspection. Starting on the second night of Passover is a 49-day period of privation similar to Lent called the counting of the Omer. Certain events like weddings and certain grooming habits like haircuts are prohibited except for one day, Lag B'Omer, which literally means the 33rd day of the count. This period, which traces back to the agrarian society that worshipped at the Temple, leads up to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Meanwhile, it is time to prepare myself for lots of matzah (unleavened bread), matzah balls, gefilte fish and a delicious mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine (or grape juice) called charoses. So, while it won't be a culinary event, it will be spiritual. Speaking of spirits, all grain alcohol including my favorite rye used in Sazeracs, Bourbon and Scotch whiskies are forbidden. That means only tequila made from agave or vodka made from potatoes are the only allowable spirits. Because it is distilled with grain spirits, rum, made from molasses, has also been deemed as not acceptable. All beers are out too. That just means there's more emphasis on drinking kosher wines. As a matter of fact, it is a tradition that four glasses of wine are consumed at each Passover seder meal. So, all in all, it's not that bad. At the seder table, the youngest child asks "why is this night different from all other nights?" This question and three others that follow it concern the practices of dipping greens (like parsley), eating bitter herbs (like horseradish or romaine lettuce), and eating matzah. So I will leave you with the modern interpretation of the Four Questions that probably should be asked by the oldest member at the seder table. "Why me? Why you? Why us? Why not them?" Chag Samayech or Happy Passover to you all!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New Passover Poem

Starting in 1998 and again in 2001, I composed poems that were aimed at injecting a bit of humor into the Passover celebration. The first poem, "The Night of the First Seder" actually won first prize in a competition sponsored by MSN's Israel and Jewish Singles Froums. The second poem, "The Lost Matzah" was never submitted to a competition, but proved to be a favorite through the years with the younger set. I was struck by my muse this weekend and came up with a rather lengthy entry that I thought I would share. It is simply titled "The Seder." I hope you like it. In case you don't know any of the Hebrew or Yiddish words, here is a glossary. Seder means "order" and is the Hebrew name for the religious readings and the order in which the particular rituals are practiced. Bubbie and zadie are the Yiddish names for grandma and grandpa, while tante is the Yiddish name for aunt. Abba is the Hebrew name for father, not the Swedish rock band. The haggadah is the book of prayers and commentaries from which everyone at the seder table reads. Matzah is unleavened bread commanded to be eaten during the period of Passover. Charosets is a delicious mixture of nuts, apples, cinammon and wine or grape juice. Gefilte fish is a combination of pounded whitefish and pike that is cooked and served chilled as an appetizer. The afikoman is a piece of unleavened bread that is hidden and returned by children late after the meal to be consumed as dessert. Two of the most well-known songs sung during the Passover meal are Dayenu ("It would have been enough!") and Chad Gadya ("One only kid"). As I indicated earlier, you are welcome to enjoy, but please do not reprint or copy this without my permission as it is copyrighted material.

The Seder

My mama called out to my brother and me
“Please wash your hands now. Turn off the TV.
“It’s time for the seder, come downstairs, behave”
And in three little seconds we had started to lave.

No sooner had we finished, we heard the door open
It was Uncle Morey, the bachelor, in from Hoboken
Next came the neighbors, the Cohens and the Franks
Then the widow Mrs. Goldberg, who offered us her thanks.

Bubbie and zadie came in with two shopping bags
Full of gifts for us kids, some still with store tags.
We hadn’t had a chance to play with those toys
When mama disapprovingly said to us “Boys,”

“Put those away now and come to the table.
Ask Aunt Rosa if she feel’s she is able.
She’s not been well lately and could use your support.”
So, the two of us went to the den with a snort.

There we found Aunt Rosa – she was fast asleep
Laid out on the coach and counting sheep.
“Wake up, Tante Rosa! The seder’s almost here.”
She was startled at first, but then said “Dear,”

“I wasn’t asleep. I was just resting my eyes.
Now help get me up you two little guys.”
The two of us helped her move to her chair
It took quite some effort, but soon she was there.

Then in from the kitchen daddy came in with a grin
It wouldn’t be long before the service would begin.
He poured our four glasses of good kosher wine
He inspected each setting and then he said “Fine.”

“Open your haggadahs and turn to page three
And hold up your glasses and sing Kiddush with me."
After drinking our grape juice, we washed hands once more
Then daddy passed the parsley and we knew what was in store

We had to dip the greens in salt water twice
The taste on our tongues was not very nice.
Next he held up three matzah and broke the middle one
He wrapped it in a napkin and got up when he was done.

When he returned to the table, it was not in his hand
With cunning he had hidden it, just as he’d planned.
Abba turned to my brother with a wink and a tease
“Chant the Four Questions for us all, if you please.”

When my brother was finished, mama complimented him
All the praise from friends and relatives made my head spin.
Now I love my little brother, that statement is true,
But I would’ve liked it more, if they’d complimented me too.

Somewhere around here we had another glass
Of wine or some juice for the underage class.
It wasn’t long after that, the plagues we were learning.
The waters of the Nile into blood G-d was turning.

Then next came the frogs, the gnats and the flies
Dead cattle, large boils, and hail with a surprise.
It had fire inside it that burned the ground black
Locusts and darkness set all Egypt aback.

The last of the plagues was one most forlorn
It was the slaying of all the Egyptian firstborn.
That was the reason Pharaoh told Moses to get out
And the reason the slaves praised G-d with a shout.

Dad had us drop grape juice, the others dropped wine
To commemorate the plagues, which made us feel fine.
We read in the haggadahs about unleavened bread
What bitter herbs meant and our speed when we fled.

Then daddy pointed to a lamb bone and held it up high
He spoke of a sacrifice and the reason he said why
The children of Israel were the ones G-d had spared.
I looked at Uncle Morey and I wondered if he cared.

He was starting to nod off and I nudged my little brother
Who giggled so loud, he got looks from our mother.
Then daddy got up and washed his hands one more time
But this time he said a blessing with no reason or rhyme.

He said another blessing this time for matzah bread
And when he had finished “Amen!” we all said.
Then finally, my favorite – charosets – was combined
With bitter herbs on matzah; it was less than refined.

Then all of a sudden, the haggadahs were replaced
With plates of gefilte fish having exquisite taste.
Then to throw Mrs. Frank and Mrs. Cohen for a loop
My mother brought out bowls of her matzah ball soup.

The soup was so savory and the matzah balls were so airy
The faces at the table were so happy it was scary.
But then came the brisket and the turkey and potatoes
Although Tante Rosa only wanted a salad with tomatoes.

It was a meal fit for a king or a queen or a prince
I don’t recall as festive a feast we’ve had since.
Then after dessert, daddy asked us to find
The afikoman he’d hidden somewhere behind

The painting of Big Zadie that hung in the hall
I found it quite easily and showed it to all.
Rewarded with some gelt, I felt very proud.
Everyone at the table sang out their prayers loud.

Daddy poured out glasses three and then came four
I heard Mrs. Cohen scold her husband “Nothing, more!”
It was very late now and I felt kinda drowsy
Mr. Cohen looked like he was feeling quite lousy.

My little brother and I joined in the energetic singing
Of Dayenu and Chad Gadya. Our ears were left ringing.
We ended the evening with a pledge very clear
In Jerusalem we would gather for the seder next year.

Except for Mr. Cohen everyone left feeling well fed
So, the two of us went upstairs and climbed into bed.
We had done so many things. We had had so much fun
That we hated to see the seder end its short run.

Then a thought happened to me as I started to doze
My mind was still racing as my eyes went to close.
We would do it all again at the seder, second night!
Then, alas, Mama and daddy turned out the room light.

©2010 Alan Smason

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Selling out bloggers

There's something new from the Google folks who essentially bring you this blog. They have initiated a partnership with that will allow bloggers like me to recommend items for sale on the Amazon website. Links to the site will be automatically generated and click-throughs that generate sales will be credited to the accounts of those bloggers who have installed the Amazon Integration template on their blog site. Ever since I started blogging, I have been fighting the temptation to commercialize my site and make money rather than to write on items that interest me. Ethically, I only want to write. I'm not interested in test marketing, recommending or endorsing products, no matter whose site they are sold over. As a journalist, it is my credo to write for an audience in an honest and fair manner. Oftentimes I am objective in my reporting for established publications. This blog does allow me the leeway, the luxury if you will, to be more subjective in my writing. I am writing to please both my audience and myself. As an objective reporter, it sometimes becomes irksome to have to seek out both sides of the story. It would be so much easier to make up the facts or enhance them in some way to make them more salacious or intriguing. Why let the truth disturb a reporter from getting out a good story? Unethical editors and publishers have been guilty of promulgating just such a philosophy. That is why yellow journalism, so called because of the xanthous sheets on which they were printed by rival publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, sprang up in the first place. Today it exists in the form of so-called publications like the National Enquirer and Tattler. I'm sorry, but I am not going to write about Elvis sightings or alien babies no matter how many financial inducements there are out there. Just like Alfred Nobel, Pulitzer had a late in life epiphany that brought about the creation of the Pulitzer Prize, considered one of the highest marks of achievement a journalist can be awarded. So corruption and degradation can be transmuted into decency and virtue. Apparently, though, one must wait until he has become wealthy and can see his way clear near the end of his life when morality means more than money. The sad truth is that this is a horrible time to be a journalist or writer. The economic downturn has slashed the advertising budgets of most businesses that still survive. Without advertsing revenue newspapers and magazines have been forced to reduce staff and numbers of available printed pages have decreased exponentially. That means more competition for less and less space. A timely story that might have seen the light of day a few years ago is now doomed. If it is accepted for publication, it undoubtedly will be slashed by an editor down to a more manageable size. When one considers that most journalists are paid by the word, lowering the final tally allowed means less money for writers to support themselves and their families. So the lack of finances means the temptation of selling out to Amazon, Google or Yahoo has never been more alluring. As a budding journalist in high school and college, I wrote humor columns ("With Pen in Hand and Foot in Mouth" and "Quotations from Chairman Smason"). One of my secret hopes was to take over as a column writer for a major publication or syndication circuit one day. Little did I suspect that my dream job would be a victim of corporate downsizing and economic bad times. There is little room on newspaper staffs for humor writers these days, but it could reasonably be argued these are the times when levity and comedy are probably most needed. So, dangle those links in front of me, Google and Amazon. I shall be firm and resolute, a beacon of journalistic integrity for all to see. While I bemoan the lack of available printed space and the loss of revenue for all writers, I understand these are tough times. I resolve I will do all I can to write ethically and beyond reproach for as long as I can. It's a good thing, too, because I thought I just saw Elvis walking with his alien love child.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When up is down

I got a frantic call the other night from a client who couldn't figure out what to do with her laptop display. It seems she was given a notification that the battery was about to lose all power and she reached for the AC cord to recharge it. No sooner had she reached for the cord, then the computer shut down. Hurriedly, she plugged it in and turned the device back on. To her horror the display on the screen was upside down! I asked her if it was a mirror image or reversed in some other way. "No," she replied. "It's just upside down. The start button is at the top and the picture on my desktop is upside down." While a rare occurrence, this sort of thing can happen from time to time. The really frustrating thing is that the mouse works exactly opposite which way you expect it should. If you move it to the right, it slides to the left. It's similar to trying to cut your hair in a mirror. The brain can't keep up with the information being supplied by the eyes. So what to do? The fix is as simple as pressing the Control-Alt-and Page Up or Control-Alt-Up keys all together at once. In case one wanted the display to move with an orientation to the left or right, simply choose the ctrl-alt and either the left arrow or right arrow. It's so simple, yet it makes people really crazy. Another interesting trick is for those people who inadvertently move the start button and task bar to the right or left of the screen in Windows. It is possible that it can make it to the top of the screen as well. To right this, one needs only a deft touch and a mouse. Find an "open"spot on the task bar and drag it to the right. Let go. Then grab it again and drag it to the top of the screen. Let go. Then drag it to the left side of the screen. Let go. Finally you can drag it back to the bottom of the screen where it belongs. This can come in handy if one is trying to click on an application with a button that falls below the task bar. This usually isn't a problem for most screen configurations that are set at 1024 x 768, but when using a 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 display size, it can be problematic.
Two local legends: WWL-TV news broadcaster and editorial writer Phil Johnson died at 80 yesterday followed by the passing of blues singer Marva Wright. Both had a profound influence on New Orleans in different ways. Johnson was a mainstay at the Jesuit-owned TV station back when it was struggling to get an audience away from WDSU-TV, the first television station in the state. Under his news directorship, Johnson guided the station to become one of the most decorated and respected in the country. WWL-TV still enjoys one of the most loyal audiences in all of the country and has had the major market share for most of the last 35 years. Wright became a star late in life. She first became a standout in her local church, singing in praise to God, while serving as the secretary to the principal at a local high school. She was criticized by congregrational members when she first began to perform on Bourbon Street and at the local jazz club Snug Harbor. They said she was singing the devil's music. Marva didn't care. She wanted to be a star and create a life for herself beyond that of a simple school system employee. She toured all over the world for the past 25 years singing blues and gospel, but fell victim to a stroke last summer, which deprived the world of her deep and brassy voice. She apparently suffered several other complications over the course of the last day, which led to her demise early this morning at the age of 62.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The surgical gloves have come off

The hotly contested Obama health care plan has finally passed the House and will most likely be revised slightly in the Senate before becoming the law of the land. This new legislation could be the most significant passed by Congress since the Medicare Act of 1965 under Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" and the 1935 Social Security Act of Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal." What has been most distressing this past week is the degree of contention between colleagues on each side of the aisle in Congress and the rancor and outright hatred being expressed by protestors outside the hallowed halls. How and why could racial epithets be hurled and gay bashing become a part of the political antipathy felt by the angry mob? There were obvious deeply held sentiments that were felt by supporters and detractors of the bill, but I was appalled that the political process became an opportunity for hate both in and out of Congress. Shame on you, John Boehner. Has anyone explained to you the meaning of the word grace? How in the world do you justify railing about the Democratic "back room" deals when the same could be said for the Republicans when they controlled both houses of Congress? It does not bode well for the future of this Congress to enact any other legislation with this kind of contention between rank and file members. Whether the healthcare legislation turns out to be a godsend or a debacle remains to be seen, but the kind of rhetoric being spun by well-meaning politicians and protestors will do little to bring Americans together. In fact it will probably have the opposite effect of creating a boondoggle in Congress and maintain levels of distrust and loathing between Democrats and Republicans. I pay for my own health insurance and believe everyone should do so, but I understand the pain of those who say they cannot afford the costs. My feeling is that something has to be done to reel in the ever-increasing costs of medical care in this country. Will this bill bring about all the change that's needed? Probably not. Will it be a good start? Probably so, but only time will tell if this was well advised or a poor choice. The doctors are claiming it goes too far and the health care insurance industry is saying it doesn't do enough. Each special interest group has pointed fingers at one another. Meanwhile, the spiraling costs of healthcare have increased exponentially and several people in need of desperate care have been denied coverage. I don't believe that letting sick people die because they don't have the money is the answer nor do I feel it is right to give them an entirely free ride courtesy of the government. Being a doctor is an awesome responsibility. Along with it comes great pressure and overwhelming costs in the form of underpayments for services from the government and skyrocketing malpractice insurance. It is such a problem that orthopedic surgeons facing $72,000 annual malpractice premiums are seriously considering retiring or working for a public institution that pays their premiums rather than hang up a shingle to practice privately. We should not deny the best care to patients because they live in poverty or have to make choices between health care and putting food on their tables and clothes on their kids' backs. But we should not forget the health care professionals too. They need to make a high standard of living and to take care of their own families. Oftentimes the problem lies in the high salaries and bonuses paid to insurance industry officials and high-ranking officers of health management firms. Many times they keep costs down within the programs by denying claims from doctors only to put the profits they save in their own pockets. While that may be a simple overstatement and not true everywhere, there are enough reported instances of such practices that they need to be considered too. So, where do we go from here? Do we continue to blame each other for overspending or being intractable? Do we point figures and ascribe blame rather than try to work with the legislation and consider where to go from here? I don't expect the major players to go away with a whimper, but I would hope they would behave like grown adults and deal with the reality of the situation. This legislation for good or bad will soon be fact. Trying to help it along and fix potential problems that may occur seem like better plans for the strengthening of America and a better course of action for all Americans.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bar none

In honor of the 43rd annivesary of my Bar Mitzvah, which occurred yesterday, I have elected to do something either very brave or very stupid. I have decided to sing the two most difficult parts of the service I sang those two score and three years ago at my regular worship services tomorrow at Congregation Beth Israel. These consist of the Maftir, or final Torah reading, and the Haftorah, the reading from the Prophets. To say these two pieces are difficult is an understatement. Without including the opening or closing prayers, the Haftorah runs over eight and a half minutes long and is marked by specific cantillation marks that must be sung exactly right. While the Maftir is not nearly as long, it must be read entirely from the Torah scroll from memory and without any helpful punctuation or cantillation marks and is an entirely different melody. I am understandably concerned about misproununciations and singing off key, which is likely to happen given my present state of mind and busy schedule. I ask myself how in the world did I do this when I was only 13? Was I that much better a singer? (Maybe) Did I have a better head for memorization? (Probably) Can I be fearless and tackle this with great resolve and determination? (Unlikely at best) It has gotten to be such a problem for me that I am now trying to think of inventive ways to bow out gracefully. Suppose I broke a leg, for example. How about being needed for some Scouting event? But no. The rabbi and the gabbi are both not letting me get out of it. After all, they remind me, I volunteered in the first place and there's no one else to back me up at this late time. So, here I stand on the precipice looking down at the valley below, knowing in my heart there is no salvation for me, but to take this literal leap of faith. However battered and bruised I will be, I'm hopeful I will survive my ordeal. I'll let you know on the other side, but in the meantime, say a prayer for me.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wearing of the green day

Since today is St. Patrick's Day, I thought I would share a bit about it. It is a great holiday to observe, even if it only means being in a parade. Genealogically speaking, St. Patrick's Day is a day that has little to do with my family history, which has a great deal of Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian and Polish lineage. There are, of course, many devout Irish Jews, some whose family lines can be traced back for centuries. One of them, Rabbi David McLashley, married my first cousin Sharon in Los Angeles three years ago. Believe it or not, he actually lived in New Orleans and attended my synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, back in the 1970's, when he was but a mere lad. But when one considers the history of Ireland and its religious and political split between the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland and the mostly Anglican section of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, Jewish influence seems infinitesimally small. Nonetheless, Rabbi McLashley is a testament that there are Irish Jews who are proud of their heritage. I recall riding in a St. Patrick's Day Parade with my Uncle Harold many years ago. He never passed on an opportunity to parade. A bona fide Shriner from the clown unit, Uncle Harold was in fact my dad's very good friend and not a blood relative or related to me by marriage. He was a playful rapscallion and a great pal to a young impressionable youth. Unlike most of my parents' friends, he was a confirmed bachelor. He seemed to have a procession of different girlfriends, all of them very attractive. Although he might be considered morbidly obese, this silver-tongued rascal was light on his feet and a very good dancer. Many a night would he and my father hang out at the Fountain Bay Room of the old Roosevelt Hotel. My Uncle Harold would ask a young lady to dance and tell her he didn't know how. After a difficult time on the ballroom floor, stepping on her feet slightly, he would return her to her table. As the music was starting again, he would ask her to dance again, much to the lady's chagrin. "No, I think you taught me how to do it right," he would insist. Of course, on the second time, he would skillfully oil her around the dance floor and she would realize she'd been scammed. Most of the time, the ladies would laugh and catch on that he was a lovable scamp. From there the evening would take on new dimensions. It was rare that his face would be slapped or that the ladies in question wouldn't want to get a bit closer to this very charming and somewhat dashing figure. When Uncle Harold dressed up as a clown, he wasn't necessarily interested in making a good impression on the ladies. He was being his irrepressible self, entertaining kids and making people laugh. He particularly enjoyed blowing up long, skinny balloons and twisting them into all sorts of animal shapes and designs to delight the children. As part of his clowning, he picked up an old jeep that had been lying dormant for some time. He painted it a horrific shade of vomit green and putrid yellow and for several years invited seven or eight people to join him in the many different Irish parades which followed Mardi Gras. One evening I recall being in the parade held in the Irish Channel. My gym coach, Johnny White, happened to be in the crowd that night and he knew I wasn't Irish. "Smason, what are you doing in this parade?'" he bellowed. The sign on the jeep read "Irish Luntzmen," a reference to the fact most of the occupants in the car were Jewish. I turned to the coach and I said to him, "Coach, you've heard of Irish stew, well, I'm Irish Jew!" I don't believe he was impressed because the next time he saw me in class, he uttered his most famous of phrases: "Smason, take a lap." Another time in the Metairie St. Patrick's Day Parade, usually held the Sunday before March 17, I was dressed in a full E.T. mask. Don't ask me what E.T. had to do with being Irish. It seemed to make perfect sense to me. The mask was very large, but very confining and gave me limited view. It was hot inside, but had lots of room in front, extending at least two inches out from my face. Thank goodness, because at one point on the parade route, a drunken reveler called out to me, "Oh, E.T.?" As I turned toward him to give him a pair of beads, he reared back and slugged me in the mask with his fist. The force behind the blow had me land inside the back of the jeep as it moved on along the street. My mom was in the back with me and after helping me get righted, proceeded to launch several epithets at the man in question. Why he did what he did I'll never know. Maybe he didn't like aliens. Maybe he was by nature combative. Whatever it was, I'll never forget how lucky I was his fist only glanced off the rubber mask and that he never made full contact with my face. Perhaps that is what they mean when they say "the luck of the Irish." Or do you think I'm merely kissing the Blarney stone?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Recent passings

Hot on the heels of the tragic demise of 80's heartthrob Corey Haim comes news of the death of Peter Graves, 83, the TV and movie actor best known for his role as Jim Phelps on the CBS series "Mission:Impossible." Many trivia players will know that Phelps was the younger brother of James Arness, TV's Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke." As a youngster, I first became aware of Graves when watching him as the adult star of "Fury," the children's Saturday morning show about the raven-haired horse and his friend Bobby, who lived on the Broken Wheel Ranch. When "Mission: Impossible" first hit the airwaves, it wasn't Jim Phelps who led the Impossible Mission Force, but Steven Hill, whose character was Daniel Briggs. Hill, who would later go on to play Adam Schiff on the original "Law and Order" series for a decade, didn't pass muster with the suits at Desilu Studios back when Lucy and Desi were still at the top of their game. After the first season ended in 1966, they decided to hire Graves to take over as the leader of the IMF and the rest was TV history. Graves, along with then huband and wife team Martin Landau (Rollin Hand) and Barbara Bain (Cinnamon Carter), Greg Morris (Barney Collier) and Peter Lupus (Willie Armitage) were the other original cast members. After Landau left the series, he was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, who had finished playing Spock in another well-known Desilu Studio show. Nimoy played The Great Paris, who like Hand, was a master of disguise. When Bain left the series, she was replaced by a succession of female leads including Leslie Ann Warren and Lynda Day George. But through the rest of the series it was Graves as Jim Phelps who selected the members of his team at the opening of each show and accepted each mission with the knowledge that should any of his IM Force members be caught or killed, the Secretary would disavow any knowledge of their actions. Graves reprised his role as Phelps on an Australian remake of the TV series for a couple of years in the early 1980s, following the tragic death of series creator Bruce Geller in a plane crash. Around the same time he starred in two of the immensely popular "Airplane" movies in which he played Captain Clarence Oveur, a pilot who seemed to have a questionable attraction to young boys ("Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"). More recently he became the voice of Biography on the A&E Cable Network and did several self-deprecating roles on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. He was featured for several years in the role of Colonel John Camden on the WB Network's "7th Heaven" series. Graves was featured in Otto Preminger's 1953 movie "Stalag 17," in which he was eventually outed as the Nazi spy planted to prevent P.O.W.s from escaping (sorry if I spoiled the movie for those that hadn't seen it). It was only this past October that Graves received his well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Reports say he was returning from a restaurant with one of his daughters celebrating what would have been his 84th birthday in four more days when he collapsed in front of his Hollywood home from an apparent heart attack. Graves's rugged good looks and prematurely gray hair made him a standout on the small screen. He received a Golden Globe statuette in 1971 for his iconic role on TV, but never picked up an Emmy, no doubt because the character development on "Mission: Impossible" was specifically kept to a minimum as part of its rapid-fire and action-oriented scripts punctuated by a running soundtrack designed to heighten viewer tension.
Congratulations to the planners of the first annual New Orleans Limmudfest, a two-day event that began Saturday night, but mostly centered on Sunday's all-day schedule of learning sessions on a variety of topics of interest to the Jewish community. Titled "Learning and Lagniapped," a keystone to the program is its commitment to diversity. New Orleans is the 46th city in the world permitted to hold a Limmudfest, which originated in the United Kingdom several years ago. New Orleans follows similar Limmud (Hebrew for "learning") events held in the U.S. in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angleles, Atlanta and Denver and is by far the smallest community sanctioned to hold a festival by Limmud International.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The opera that wasn't

As I prepared for the weekend, I talked with my mother in advance. She had reminded me that we had an opera coming up on Friday night. Sometime since college I have been an aficionado of the opera. It was a musical taste that developed slowly, but I have become more and more enamored of it as the years have passed. It is interesting that much of my opera collection was housed upstairs and was not affected by the swirling floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina and decimated most of my record and CD collection. So, most of my opera collection survives even today. I was rather looking forward to "The Flying Dutchman," ("Die fligende Holländer") Richard Wagner's monumental work of the ghost ship that returns to port while sailing the ship for eternity until doomsday. It is one of Wagner's most approachable works and stands on its own unlike many of the operas that make up the Ring cycle or long-winded pieces like Die Meistersinger von Nurenbürg that ramble on for hours. The New Orleans Opera Association has long presented memorable performances of Wagnerian operas, but hasn't attempted to stage anything as grand since the recovery from the 2005 storm and related flooding. Imagine my chagrin when a friend of mine informed me that the opera was next week. I called my mother and couldn't reach her by telephone, so I left word on her voicemail to check what the tickets read. You guessed it. The opera is next Friday, not tonight. I guess it really doesn't matter, but I wish it was tonight. I had such great expectations for the production and now I have to wait that much longer to hear the fat lady sing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Domestic affairs and entanglements

Well, it had to happen. The final word in the David Letterman extortion case came in yesterday and the word was "guilty." Former CBS producer Robert "Joe" Halderman admitted in open court that his so-called treatment for a movie and a possible book was, as Letterman had stated publicly, a thinly-veiled attempt to wrest millions of dollars from the "Late Nite" talk show host. In the end Halderman admitted his role in the scheme, accepted a six-month prison sentence and four and a half-year period of probation and will be forced to provide 1,000 hours of community service in restitution. For Halderman it was the best of all possible outcomes because he would have undoubtedly been found guilty by the court and could have served a decade of hard prison time over this incredibly stupid act. Letterman, who contacted New York police over the matter, took his share of licks in the process. He publicly addressed the issue on his October 1 show, admitting he "had sex with women who worked" on his show in various capacities, but claiming the he had not cheated on his wife nor had any affairs following his marriage to Regina Lasko. The apology to his staffers was awkward enough for the comedian, but having to admit to being a womanizer to the public ramped up what he himself called his "creep" factor. Letterman, who had been linked romantically for a decade with former staffer and head writer Merrill Markoe, had hooked up for a short time with Stephanie Birkitt, who later became Halderman's live-in love interest. She reportedly moved out in August of last year. Halderman, an award-winning producer (seven Emmy Awards and an Alfred du Pont Columbia School of Journalism Award recipient) had devised his scheme between the time Birkitt moved out and last September, when he initially contacted Letterman and put his plan forward. Halderman's career, which included a long-term stint in London and work with the Winter Olympic Games XVIII, has now been suspended and it is doubtful he will be able to work in TV production in the future. He has been forbidden to speak out about the plot and cannot enter into any contracts in which he would reap profits such as a book or movie deal. The unsung victims from this tragic affair may be Halderman's divorced wife and two sons, who will probably lose child and spousal support payments while Halderman decides what course the rest of his life will take while imprisoned. Had the case gone to trial, it might have gone very bad for Letterman too, who might have had to admit just how many women literally worked under him. Frankly, it seems to me that Letterman, who named his production company Worldwide Pants, might well have been well advised to have kept his own on.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My eulogy

The following is a transcript of the eulogy I delivered March 6, 2010 at Temple Sinai for my brother-in-law, the late Russell George Feran. The picture above was taken a little over a year ago at the rehearsal dinner for his daughter's wedding to Gary Cohen of Chicago.

I was asked by Phyllis and Leslie to say a few words about Russell, my brother-in-law for nearly the past quarter century. This is a somewhat daunting task, because as I interviewed some of his other relatives and close circle of family and friends, I found one inescapable fact: that Russell has always been a bit mysterious. He definitely marched to the beat of his own drum and was, in part, a conundrum wrapped in a veil of inscrutability. Russell had quite a number of acquaintances and business contacts, but it seemed to me Russell made his way through life by following his own dictates. He had keen insight about business and he always knew what he should do to best provide for his family, but he never shirked hard work, toiling for long hours and without fanfare. The Radio Shack franchise he maintained from 1974 through 1987 was very successful and he amassed a sizeable portfolio of Tandy Corporation stock in the process. When I first met him, prior to my marriage to Sally, I found him to be a very likeable fellow with some very strong opinions about many things: politics and religion in particular, but also certain people. He could quote chapter and verse about why he liked or disliked certain things and few could ever dissuade him from speaking his mind. Most of what he had to say rang true. Knowing the horrors his father and mother faced during the Shoah, he had little patience for Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Like a latter-day Renaissance man, he was always keeping his mind focused on things that interested him. He admired many different objects d’art and several graced his West Bank residence, but, most particularly, he was drawn to new technology. Russell was responsible for me buying my very first personal computer, but believe it or not, it didn’t come from Radio Shack. It was part of a deal. Russell was always working deals. As it turned out, a lady expressed an interest in getting an affordable computer system for her brother, a student just entering Loyola University. At that time to get a hard drive with a color monitor was considered a very good deal. Russell found a Magnavox system with a hard drive and color monitor on sale at D.H. Holmes. The cost was $600, so Russell bought two: one for himself and one for the lady’s brother. But then, she turned him down because it didn’t exactly meet her brother’s needs to support spreadsheets. That was when he called me on the phone. “Have I got a computer for you,” he said like the true salesman he was. He was right. It was a good deal, but it was not without its challenges, which I shall attempt to explain to you. Although it worked on DOS (that’s the disk operating system from Microsoft), it lacked enough RAM (that’s random access memory), to enable it to utilize a MODEM (named for the terms modulate and demodulate), which would allow me to access the Internet by telephone. After several additional hundreds of dollars of improvements, it finally did work. Thanks to Russell, I was surfing the Net in the early 1990’s with that computer, whose 762 Kilobytes of available hard drive space would be considered miniscule by today’s standards. Russell and I talked frequently about computing and many years later, when I became an expert on building and fixing them, I advised him and repaired or configured most of his personal computers. As a matter of fact, when I last talked to him a week ago today, he told me he was going to have me re-configure his laptop once he got back home. Prior to his work with Tandy Corporation, Russell had long been an avid amateur radio operator, what some of us uninformed outsiders would colloquially refer to as HAM radio. He eventually amassed an incredible collection of short wave and amateur radios along with an antenna array that was the envy of many of his fellow operators. W5RGF was Russell’s vanity call sign assigned by the FCC, which incorporated his initials. He used that for his e-mail address on AOL and even went so far as to obtain a Louisiana vanity license plate to display on his fire engine red Mazda sports coupe. Again, it was one of the many things that interested Russell – a car he would unfortunately drive just a few times due to the return of his Crohn’s disease. Some might ascribe his purchase of the Mazda to a mid-life crisis, but he truly loved that car and what it represented: status, freedom and in his own way a kind of sexiness he lacked in his other vehicles. I recall him picking me up one day at my record store and offering me a ride, which I eagerly accepted. It was one of those special times when he shared one of his interests with me. As the car careened through the streets, the roar of the engine reached a high pitch and I saw him skillfully working the clutch and the gearshift as he moved it from first gear all the way to fifth. As I held on at times for dear life, he flashed a slight hint of a smile. He was simply having fun. Many of you know Russell was an avid philatelist. Again, it was an area that interested him greatly. He rarely opened up to share with me some of his more valuable stamp collecting finds, but that was okay with me. When he wanted to share, he did. Russell was a lifetime member of the American Philatelic Society and the president of both the Westside Amateur Radio Club and the Label Katz Lodge of B’nai Brith. He was especially interested in being a member of B’nai Brith and actively recruited me to join that body, if not for anything else, than for the excellent medical insurance they afforded members. When I had emergency surgery due to a double inguinal and femoral incarcerated hernia in 1985, I found out that my wife’s health insurance had not been properly extended to cover me as her new husband. Because of Russell looking out for me, a B’nai Brith policy underwritten by Mutual of New York was literally in my mailbox that very afternoon when I needed it most.Unfortunately, Russell became quite the authority on health insurance and the high cost of hospitals and nursing home care over the course of the last thirty years. Following the initial incidence of Crohn’s disease and two surgeries from 1970 to 1978, he was essentially free of any outbreaks until 1992. That was the time when Russell thrived as a Radio Shack franchisee with his West Bank store. When he sold the franchise back to Tandy in 1987, he was set to embark on a different kind of business, RGF Enterprises. RGF Enterprises was an interesting opportunity for Russell. Allied with various first responder charities, his employees made telephone solicitations on behalf of a number of benevolent organizations across the country. The business, which utilized telephone trunk technology and allowed long distance calls to be made as local calls from New Orleans, flourished for a time until his disease returned and eventually the more important aspects of his health forced him to turn the business over to his manager. Throughout the time my wife Sally was alive, she and Russell had an interesting relationship. Like many, her fun-loving nature drew admirers like bees to honey. It might have been the case of her irresistible force that initially drew him to the Sobel family. Their friendship grew stronger and closer with Russell personally helping her refinance her beauty salon business in 1988, because he thought it was the right thing to do. But if he enjoyed Sally’s company, early on, he used that friendship to get to know Phyllis better. He admitted, he fell in love with Phyllis and used his friendship with her sister as a ruse in order to court her. As he proudly told his daughter not so long ago, “she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.” Throughout their marriage, Phyllis and Russell had many wonderful times, especially when they could travel together. True, they did have their occasional bumps in the road, like all married couples, but there was no doubt he was ever devoted to her. Throughout his medical ordeal, Phyllis stood by his side, insisting that only the best of professionals administer the finest medical science and care to her ailing husband. Russell went into crisis after crisis, especially in the last decade. Indeed, he always seemed to come out of the worst situations a little shaken, but still defiant as always. Although he didn’t always express himself with words of tenderness and affection, Russell truly loved his bride and for those of us who knew the couple in better days, the foundation of commitment they had to each other was unshakeable. Likewise, if there were a special jewel in his life, it could only be his beautiful daughter Leslie. I watched as the flower girl at my own wedding in 1984 grew up into a beautiful young woman and how her father viewed her with great pride. I saw that expressed again in his twinkling eyes last year when, weak and feeble, Russell attended Leslie and Gary’s wedding. He beamed with joy, especially at the rehearsal dinner at Antoine’s the night before when he seemed to be having the time of his life. I am certain that Russell was delighted in Leslie’s choice for his son-in-law and I am sorry that Gary didn’t get to know Russell better when he was in more robust health. Beside Phyllis and Leslie, Russell truly loved all of his other family members including his mother and father, Jean and Fred, and his sister Maureen and her husband Bob and their children. I can well attest that the dynamic between a brother and sister can be fraught with tension and competition. Maureen and Russell had their sibling rivalry moments, but their attachment to one another has also been lasting and the Freedlands ability to care for the older infirm Ferans in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the years since Hurricane Katrina was especially appreciated by Russell, who knew he was unable to do so. When he departed this world on March 4, it was only four days after his father Fred was laid to rest and, ironically, on the very day that his father-in-law was to celebrate his 94th birthday. Perhaps it was Russell’s way; his inimitable sense of timing, because from now on the date of March 4 will be forever known as a day of sadness, a day when a good and resolute man beset with a profusion of health issues had his final release to the dismay of his closest family and friends. We will all miss his indomitable spirit and his enormous heart. It was Russell’s tremendous heart that kept on beating throughout every medical crisis he endured, even when his other organs were no longer functioning well. He was a great friend, a tremendous brother-in-law and a kind uncle to my son and his other nephews and nieces. I am indebted to him for his support of my efforts with the Boy Scouts of America and I recall how we talked several times about the annual Jamboree on the Air when Scouts use amateur radio bands to communicate with one another around the world, an event in which Cantor Colman has taken part. And so, W5RGF, it is with a heavy heart that we bid you a fond adieu...a 73... on this your final signoff. And with respect and reverence we say to you... over and out.

Russell, Molly and me

It's been a very trying week for my extended family and for me. Some of it I'm still trying to process, I must admit. It's been said, there is a greater purpose to life than we mere mortals can intuit. We know we are all destined to die from the time we can understand the concept. Yet many of us deny the undeniable even when the spectre of death looms large and we face our own demise with a sense of dread that is all too brief. We then move on because to be absorbed with death and dying would be unproductive and could be seen (in as polite a way that can be expressed) as being largely egocentric. With an ironic sense of timing my brother-in-law, Russell Feran, passed away on Wednesday, only a few days after his nonagenarian father was buried here last Sunday. For the members of Russell's family it means an end to his suffering from Crohn's disease that first surfaced in 1970. With treatment and care he was free from any intrusion of Crohn's from 1978 until 1992, but as the doctors remind us, there is no cure for Crohn's disease. Often it can recur with no warning and its effects can be extremely debilitating. Russell's final bout with the disease began in 1992 and eventually led to years of nursing home care and numerous trips to various hospitals as his organs eventually shut down, kidneys first and finally his liver. I spoke with him in his hospital room just a few minutes after leaving his father's funeral last weekend. He was cogent and his mind as sharp as ever. When I returned to visit him two days later it was a different story. By then he was on pain medication and sedated to the point where he was not lucid. It was apparent he was in the last stages of his suffering, shriveled into a fetal position and striving to be comfortable as he fought as best he could the onset of his final release. We had been prepared for his transfer to hospice, but it became apparent that he was much too weak to even consider such a move. I would like to think that his last few days were mitigated by the pain medication, but it seemed he was quite uncomfortable and almost manic in the way he shook violently, touching his head and mumbling verbage that made no sense to onlookers. If there was one thing that kept him going throughout his ordeal, it was his strong heart, a heart that kept on beating as he addressed each medical setback through the last 18 years. At the same time as my brother-in-law's demise, I received word that Molly, a mixed breed dog my girlfriend owned had also peacefully passed away in her sleep. Molly was 12 years old and so it was understandable she would die sooner than later. Yet, my relationship with this sweet raven- and white-haired, part-border collie stretched over six years. She was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina when I first espied her, a spirited escape artist, who showed her incredible breakneck speed once she found her freedom. There were few fences she didn't climb over or under and few gates she was unable to squeeze by. When she was in Cleveland, I ended up walking her during snowfalls and rainfalls and I looked forward to many of these constitutionals even if it meant my having to pick up after her. She enjoyed her time in New Orleans too, although she was slowing down in these last few weeks. Recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Molly took her medicine religiously and seemed to be back in good health. Apparently, she didn't suffer any ill effects and simply didn't wake up last Wednesday morning. I know I will miss her sweet and charming character and the fact she is gone seems hard to fathom. It's a sad fact that the loss of both of these relationships will continue to reverberate in my life for some time to come. Rest in peace, Russell and to you, too, Molly.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Marching on

The adage about March coming in like a lion has been particularly apt these past few days. Heavy sustained winds and plummeting temperatures have accompanied uncharacteristically grey days. As grey as the skies may be, a sense of dread has also been present. This is due in no small part to the recent passing of one of my extended family (see February 28's blog "In the midst of joy there is pain") as well as the concurrent health crisis of his son, my brother-in-law Russell. Russell is very sick; make no mistake about that. He has fought a long battle with Crohn's disease, a malady that attacks an unusually large number of Jewish men of Ashkenazic (central and East European) heritage. Crohn's disease is an inflammatory affliction of the lower bowel that starts with pain and diarrhea, but can, if untreated, lead to debilitating and life-threatening consequences. There is no cure for Crohn's, but there are treatments that can lead it into remission. It is truly ironic that my other brother-in-law has also suffered from Crohn's. In both cases it manifested in them as young men and, after one episode, essentially vanished for decades. Then, without warning they were each suddenly and horribly stricken again with debilitating intestinal pain. Luckily, my other brother-in-law had a recurrence last year that was found to have been caused by aspirin therapy to prevent heart disease. He has recovered completely. That has not been the case with Russell. The disease has progressed over the past decade in a sinister fashion. Prior to Hurricane Katrina he endured several corrective surgeries and only with the grace of God survived. He was confined to a hospital bed in his home and was constantly connected to intravenous feeds for his sustenance. Since the storm he has been cared for in hospital facilities outside of the city and eventually returned to New Orleans when health services were restored. More recently he has been confined to a nursing home with a host of other problems including renal failure. He has made several trips to the hospital over the course of the last decade. His ability to undergo kidney dialysis has been compromised lately because he has been put on pain medication. The two are incompatible and unless he goes off the drip for pain, he cannot undergo dialysis. Now it appears his liver functionality has also been greatly diminished. Russell has moved back and forth into consciousness, appears jaundiced and is about to be moved to hospice care for short term care for what is considered a terminal case. With the recent passing of his father from Alzheimer's disease, family members are reeling. We are hoping for the best, but knowing that little can be done other than to wait for the inevitable. This is an insidious disease that robs young people of their lives and makes living an intolerable and almost unendurable ordeal. Oftentimes surgery results in having to live with the ramifications from one or more colostomies and, when the bowel becomes even more diseased, fissures can occur, which must be drained. Americans with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are at a much higher risk for contracting colorectal cancer. For more information check out the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.