Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the midst of joy, there is pain


How ironic that today is a day both of celebration and mourning. It is not only my birthday, but also the Jewish holiday of Purim, considered the most joyous on the Hebrew calendar. While my birthday is but a minor cause for celebration, Purim is a major cause for revelry and raucous behavior. It is mandated that everyone must give to charity, donate food items to friends and listen to the reading of the Book of Esther, the scroll which recalls the struggle of the Persian Jews who had been marked for destruction. The Persian queen Esther, also known as Hadassah to the Jewish people, is a pivotal character in the story. It is through her supplication to the king on behalf of her people that the evil Haman and his sons and henchmen are killed in the place of the Jews and her cousin Mordechai is raised up and given the rank of counselor to the king. Much of the public reading of the scroll, also called a megillah, involves drinking so that the names of Mordechai and Haman are not easily distinguished one from the other. Groggers or other devices for noisemaking are used to mark the mention of the villain's name and children in particular delight in being allowed to act out in synagogue while the scroll is read. The Purim scroll is a lengthy one, usually requiring a period of about 45 minutes to read from beginning to end. Because the wording is particularly intricate, abstruse and complicated, many people referred to having heard "the whole megillah," an expression that has taken on the somewhat negative meaning of dealing with a long, rambling act. Some might recall the animated Hanna-Barbera TV character Magilla Gorilla (seen above), a tongue-in-cheek misspelling for a Saturday morning cartoon show that had nothing to do with its star save the fact it rhymed with gorilla. I suspect it was the work of a Jewish writer with a wry sense of humor who came up with that ditty and convinced studio heads William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, neither of whom were Jewish, to go with that name to market the toy figures they hoped to sell when their show hit the airwaves (the show's sponsor was Ideal Toys). In any event, Purim has always been a day to celebrate the redemption of the Persian Jews and the capricious nature of life. The date of the 14th of Adar was the arbitrary date selected by purim (lots) on which all of the Persian Jews were marked for death. Jews in walled cities like Jerusalem celebrate it on the 15th of Adar. Instead, it turned out to be the day when Haman, his sons and other cronies were dispatched. The volatility of life is therefore to be celebrated. That leads me to the reason for mourning. Today is also the day that I say goodbye to a member of my extended family. My brother-in-law's father passed away in La Crosse, Wisconsin on Friday. At 92, Fred Feran lived a long life by anyone's figuring. Yet, like the Persian Jews who might have all perished were it not for a change in politics, Fred survived despite the threat from without in his native Slovakia. Born during the waning days of World War I, Feran, whose surname was at first Feuermann, grew up in turbulent times. The threat of Nazism reared its head when he was but a teenager and he and his brother Erwin fled their homeland in search of the Jewish homeland, then the British protectorate known as Palestine. As the inevitable war approached, the two brothers spent four months at sea aboard an illegal Greek ship trying to convince British authorities they should be allowed entry into the country. Finally granted permission, Feran worked as an engineer in the vital oil industry and later enlisted in the Czechoslovakian Overseas Army in Jerusalem and England during World War II. After the war ended, he was posted to Brazil, where he met his future wife Jean (Jirina), also a Czechoslovakian émigré and Holocaust survivor. The two eventually settled in New Orleans, where Fred and Jean adopted their Americanized names and he became a skilled clockmaker, working for a cousin who owned a jewelry store. Feran was so noted an artisan that huge grandfather clocks and other intricate time-keeping mechanisms were regularly shipped to and from his shop. His two children, Russell and Maureen, married and had children of their own. The Ferans became active in the New Americans Club, an organization of Holocaust survivors who had embarked on new lives in New Orleans. After retiring, Feran began to slowly lose his mental faculties due to Alzheimer's Disease and the condition was only worsened after he and his wife were forced to relocate due to the loss of their home during the time following Hurricane Katrina. Living out his remaining days in La Crosse seems unfortunate for a man whose life symbolizes struggle and overcoming the odds. Today Fred comes home to be buried and I will be present at that funeral and celebrate a life well spent, but a life that might well have been different had the times he lived under not been as trepidatious and threatening. Those who have been touched by Fred's story might want to consider a donation to the Maureen and Robert Freedland Fund for Shoah Studies of the La Crosse Public Education Foundation founded by both Ferans and named for their daughter and their son-in-law, who will administer the funds. The address is P.O. Box 1811, La Crosse, Wisconsin 54602-1811. Such a gift would be in keeping with the spirit of the holiday where giving to charity is encouraged and I would personally regard note of such bequests as among the best presents I could ever receive on my birthday. Chag Purim!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chekov's misery

Boner has bit the big one. Andrew Koenig, the onetime child actor from "Growing Pains," who grew up as the son of "Star Trek's" Walter Koenig, only to become a tormented 41-year-old depressive, apparently ended his own life on or around Valentine's Day. Koenig's body lay undiscovered in a remote section of Vancouver's Stanley Park for the past 10-plus days. After several days of exhaustive searching, the well-known actor who portrayed Ensign Pavel Chekov on the original Star Trek series and his wife were notified that their son's body had been found. Vancouver police have ruled out the possibility of foul play. It is another tragedy related to the inevitable consequences of unchecked depression, a disease which, if untreated, almost always leads to death or madness. The simple truth is that anyone hell-bent on dispatching himself or herself will probably do so eventually. Some people attempt suicide as a cry for help and as a mechanism for attention. Sylvia Plath had the routine down so regularly that when she figuratively stuck her head in the unlit oven, she knew just when her paid worker would arrive in time to turn off the gas and save her again. The only thing she hadn't counted on was that her helper might have missed her bus. That act of accidental tardiness proved to be fatal. It was a suicide, but one that might have just as easily been another in a series of attempted suicides. More recently, another son of an actor, David Carradine of TV's "Kung Fu" and the "Kill Bill" films carried out an autoerotic act that led to his untimely demise by suffocation. Again, it was an unintended suicide. What happened to Koenig was an entirely different matter. He suffered so much in life - perhaps because of the shadow of having to live up to his famous father - that everything seemed tedious or tortuous to him. Apparently, he was on medication for treatment of depression, but like a lot of patients who are in a downward spiral, taking those prescriptions regularly proved to be too difficult. The pain of this event should be a wake up call to those teetering on the edge. Suicide may seem a quick way out, but it has disastrous consequences for family members and it never eases the pain for loved ones left behind. I have long held the belief that suicide is the final symptom of unchecked depression, a disease that brushed many of my fellow New Orleanians when dealing with the flooding, related deaths and loss of community we experienced following Hurricane Katrina. While I never contemplated suicide or found myself unable to cope as others did, it would have been a different story had I not had support through counseling in my home away from home in Cleveland. That simple mechanism helped me to deal with the vicissitudes of life in part from having to be separated from home, hearth and extended community. Luckily, my mechanisms for self-preservation kicked in without the need for medications, but there are a number of people for whom these drugs mean the difference between a productive life and a life with no purpose. The lesson to be learned here is there but for the grace of God, would I go too. There are too many times that tragedies like these could be averted were those stricken to seek out treatment, get counseling and take their medications. For Koenig it is simply too late, but for those who have loved ones still struggling with depression, take his father Walter's words of good counsel to heart: "If you are one of those people who can't handle it any more, know people are out there who really care before you make that final decision," he said. "Talk to somebody."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I need a dozen step program

My "problem"
I don’t know if I’m ready for “Celebrity Rehab 4” or not, but I do know I have a problem. It’s hamantaschen and I know I’m addicted. Call me a junkie, if you will, but when Purim gets near, I can’t wait to fill myself with the scrumptious taste of a poppy seed- , fruit preserve- or chocolate-filled triangle of baked dough. When Purim comes around, I buy them by the dozen, gouging myself on as many as I can take in one sitting. I don’t care who sees me. I am powerless to resist this sweet tooth. It is my jones. Whatever is left over I will then freeze in gallon sized plastic bags for use throughout the rest of the year. Weeks or months after Purim, I will remove one from the bag and microwave it for just a few seconds to restore the tasty delicacy to room temperature and allow me to gobble it down greedily. I am hooked. I admit that I do this oftentimes when I am alone. That can’t be good. In point of fact I am reluctant to share with others, knowing that I can’t bear to part with my trusty stash. Then there’s my biggest dilemma: cake or cookie dough. I can no longer hide my problem. It becomes incredibly difficult during Passover when chometz (leavened items) like hamantaschen are forbidden. It is only by the hardest determination that I make it through those eight days with this monkey on my back. So, call Dr. Pinsky or Dr. Phil, I cannot calm my cravings. I know I need somebody’s help to get me through this time of year. I’m ready to buy my dough of choice and I know that that time honored adage is true: one hamantasch is too much and 1000 hamantaschen are not enough. It’s time for me to get into a program with a dozen steps to ease me out of my misery and help me with my problem. This is not a half-baked idea. I know I "knead" to do this and will, with the help of my higher power, rise to overcome my pastry dependence.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Misery loves company and Cleveland

My goodness. Is there no end to the bashing my beloved Cleveland is taking today? Following the Mardi Gras madness and the good feeling generated by the world championship of the New Orleans Saints, there is little doubt that good spirits will abound here for some time to come. But, according to Forbes Magazine, the tiny area bounded by Cleveland, Akron and Canton is the most miserable in the United States with Cleveland listed as number one, Canton at number nine and Akron at 12. When you add Toledo into the equation at number 15 and Youngstown at number 18, Ohio is clearly the runaway as most miserable state with 25% of the top 20. With a notable exception for the league-leading NBA Cavaliers, Forbes determined the combination of lousy weather, high taxes, public corruption and high unemployment present in Cleveland was their clear choice for most miserable city, beating out last year's number one, Stockton, California. Having lived there for close to two years, I agree that the weather is not the nicest. In fact I never knew what it was to see so much snow in all of my days, but I dealt with it as best I could. A good pair of boots is de rigeur in order to walk about during winter and driving in snow and ice was a constant challenge. Nonetheless, I lived through it and my car is still in working order today, almost three years since I returned to New Orleans. There is a lot to love in Cleveland, especially the arts and cultural scene there. The Cleveland Museum of Art was going through a major expansion phase during my time there, but the parts that were opened to the public were quite impressive. The theatre district is home to the largest grouping of theaters in the country outside of Broadway, which most people will find hard to believe. The downtown district is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and several noteworthy museums. Then there are special places like the City Club, which serves as a speakers bureau nearly every Friday throughout the year and has done so for almost a century. For all of the harsh conditions they must endure, the people of Cleveland have proved to be indomitable. Indeed, many of the young residents have chosen to settle elsewhere after college, yet there are those diehard Clevelanders who will never leave and cannot envision living anywhere else. My sister has lived in Cleveland for more time than she spent growing up here in New Orleans or attending school at nearby L.S.U. She seems to have adjusted and, were it not for a lack of Mardi Gras and other amenities there, I might have stayed in Cleveland longer. But there's the rub. Perhaps, if Cleveland got more into the Carnival spirit, the people there might not be so miserable. I've started in my own way by sending beads to my friends living there. Perhaps some doubloons, cups and specialty throws are needed to pull them out of their doldrums or maybe some good New Orleans cuisine. Recently, Louisiana was given top honors as being the happiest state and I can assure you that New Orleans is the happiest place in our state, despite the sluggishness of the recovery in some areas of town. Yes, we have our share of corrupt politicians, but we're having so much fun, we don't seem to mind as much. The other factor here is the amount of sunlight we experience here and the lack of it in Cleveland. There's little I can do about that other than offer my Cleveland friends an opportunity to visit the Crescent City during the darkest and snowiest of winter days.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If ever I cease to Mardi Gras

Louis Lederman, a member of the Krewe of Cosmic Debris and a jester at Mardi Gras
Like a meteor hurling through the atmosphere, there was no doubt that the mad rush towards Fat Tuesday would end very quickly with somewhat unsettling results. The black and gold tinged festival ended very abruptly last night after the final weekend of parades extended into Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, but Saints fever will no doubt continue unabated for months to come. It was an amazing ride, but still had a few surprises for those of who extended out into the hoopla or watched it unfold on TV. I did get a few hours of sleep following my return from the Krewe of Orpheus Orphescapade at approximately 4:00 a.m. With some urging, I took to the streets of the Faubourg Marigny and the Vieux Carre to soak up the latter portions of the day. Many more people seemed to be in costume or masked for the day of celebration and revelry and it wasn't hard to see that everyone was enjoying himself, from the kids taking it all in to the police officers and state troopers dealing with the huge, but peaceable crowds. Still smarting from the blows to my face from beads thrown by happy paraders on Sunday, I paced myself throughout the day and into the night with appropriate libations and wound up having a most enjoyable day. Still, there's only so much one can do and I missed the final moments of the meeting of the courts of the Krewe of Rex and the Mystick Krewe of Comus that has been an annual broadcast event for decades. It was a beautiful, but chilly day and one I will recall with great affection for some time to come. The one item of note that I did catch was the ceremonial passing of the whistle from the captain of Rex to the Rex official who will take over that prestigious post now. The new captain of Rex like the the new captain of Comus is surprisingly young and it seems this new blood may guarantee many years of continued success for the two oldest Carnival organizations. So, it's back to work for all of us today in the Crescent City, but the countdown to the next Mardi Gras has already begun.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Running for Mardi Gras

Okeanos Queen Martha Elizabeth Dart at Gallier Hall with sidekick

Yesterday was a real workout. After what for me was an unusual night of at least four hours of sleep, I awoke to prepare myself for the challenges of being the announcer for four day parades at Gallier Hall. Being prepared is a bit of an understatement. No matter how well I held up my end of what was needed, I was still dependeent on lots of external factors and other people to do what had to be accomplished. After finding a parking spot within three blocks of Gallier Hall, I walked the ten blocks to the hotel where the Queen of Okeanos' mother was hosting a special breakfast in her daughter's honor. All of the royal maids of Okeanos and their mothers were smartly attired in dresses or suits. Each maid donned an attractive hat. The queen, Martha Elizabeth Dart, was resplendent in a white suit with a crown symbolizing her reign. The limousines carrying the royal party had a bit of a problem. Because the four parades needed motorcycle escorts to their respective staging areas, the New Orleans Police Department's Motorcycle Division was hard pressed to provide a full escort until after the 10:00 a.m. start time. As a result, we had to "buzz" the parade route on the way to the uptown staging area, making our way through Carnival crowds already camped out on Napoleon and St. Charles Avenues. Two stretch limousines, which were in reality converted SUVs, carried the maids, a male escort and yours truly in one and the mothers and the captain of the krewe and a female escort followed behind in the other car. The police did a great job getting us to where they thought the beginning of the parade was, but it soon turned out they didn't know where they were going. We got within a block of the start of the parade and I stopped the caravan, grabbed a dozen yellow roses intended for the king's float and ran like the dickens for three blocks bouquet in hand. After handing the flowers to the aid on the king's float, I ran back to the waiting limousines, while the officers conferred as to what route would get us to the reviewing stand in time for me to announce the parades. I marvel at my breakneck speed in making it through the obstacle course of people and parading units. A bit out of breath, I waited for another two minutes while the motorcycle escorts and the drivers figured out a suitable side street on which to turn. These stretch limos were quite long. Finally I made a suggestion and off we went. As it turned out, we made great time getting back. However, by the time I got into the stands, the Knights of Babylon parade was already at Gallier Hall. It took a bit of running up the marble stairs and negotiating through the crowd, but the toast from the city to Sargon XLV went off magnificently as my adrenaline kicked in yet again. The parade, rescheduled from Thursday night's rainout, passed by in rapid order due to the fact they had no marching bands. It seemed to be less than ten minutes in length from the time of the toast to the time the trailing police and fire department units were passing the reviewing stand. It was then time to announce the arrival of the royal party. I called out each maid's name and her parents and introduced the Queen of Okeanos, Martha Elizabeth Dart, to my announcer's booth. After the captain's wife was introduced, all of the mothers of the maids were allowed into the mayor's reviewing area. Within a few minutes the 61st parade of the Krewe of Okeanos winded it way to the former New Orleans City Hall. The theme "Okeanos Asks: 'Will You Be Mine?" was an obvious homage to Valentine's Day The Krewe of Mid City followed right behind with 18 bright and dazzling floats decorated in alumninum foil of many colors. Another parade and another two toasts to the 2010 king and queen. Finally, the crowing achievement of the day came about when the impressive Krewe of Thoth, the second largest Carnival krewe behind Endymion passed in review. It was a huge parade with 42 floats in total and the theme "Thoth's All Mixed Up," a tribute to libations and potent potables like the White Russian, Margaita and Fog Cutter. The final toasts were done by recently re-elected Councilperson Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, but the parade seemed to last forever. It was a great day for Carnival, but I must admit I was plain tuckered by the time that the Krewe of Bacchus was set to roll with Drew Brees as its celebrity king. Brees was picked to be Bacchus several months ago when the Saints were still undefeated and when a Super Bowl win was still an unrealized dream. It was the third parade Brees has been in since the win last Sunday in Miami. He was in Orlando at Disney World for their parade on Monday, in New Orleans for the Super Bowl parade on Tuesday and, following stints on the Ellen Degeneres, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey shows managed to get back in town to portray the Roman god of wine. Meanwhile, I am ready for the Greek god Morpheus to take over. Sleep...sleep...sleep.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The run to the finish

The last few days have been a whirlwind of excitement in the city. Tuesday's parade honoring the world champion New Orleans Saints was unlike any ever held before. That's a lot to consider because, after all, this is a town known for putting on parades. The cooperative effort by several Carnival krewes who "loaned" Barry Kern of Blaine Kern Productions twelve floats on which the team owners, players and coaches would ride was unlike anything ever seen in New Orleans. It was the biggest parade ever held in downtown New Orleans and the track took only a couple of miles. Estimates were that 800,000 fans came into the downtown area to cheer on the boys in black and gold. That's incredible when you consider that the latest census estimates have the New Orleans population at a little over 300,000. Usually, the celebration of Carnival intensifies in the last week leading up to Mardi Gras. This year is decidedly different. The Saints celebration party brought out every politician to Gallier Hall including both U.S. Senators, the governor, the mayor, the entire city council and most of the legislators who hold sway in Baton Rouge. Since that parade set a very high mark, the pattern could be likened to a rollercoaster ride that starts at the top, quickly plummets and then must start the climb back to the top. Wednesday the Krewe of Ancient Druids rolled through the city and I was there to announce the parade at Gallier Hall. The night before there were thousands there. The Druids parade with a theme titled "Holes" offered a funny exposition for a determined crowd that braved chilly winds in the Crescent City on Wednesday. Thursday's night parades were rained out, which mean the cancellation of the Knights of Chaos satirical parade and the postponement of the Krewes of Muses and the Knights of Babylon. Muses rolled last on Friday night's in what were four different parades one behind the other. Babylon chose to reschedule for Sunday in the morning. Yesterday's day parades include the Krewe of Iris, the oldest women's Carnival organization and I was pleased to be selected to provide music for a special group of ladies in the 25 float presentation. The spectacular Krewe of Endymion parade paralyzed the city last night on what has become known in recent times as Samedi Gras. The krewe featured Saints owner Tom Benson as the grand marshall and the 2400-plus members enjoyed the Endymion Extravaganza until the wee hours of the morning. It is only fitting that the announcer for Endymion is none other than Jerry Romig, the Saints announcer for the past 42 years and the announcer for Endymion since it began. So, I must leave to attend duties for announcing at Gallier Hall the four parades for today: the Knights of Babylon resecheduled from the rainout on Thursday night, the Krewe of Okeanos, the Krewe of Mid City and the second largest Carnival organization, the Krewe of Thoth.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The new hizzoner

In all of the hoopla leading up to the New Orleans Saints becoming world champions at the Super Bowl, there was a citywide election Saturday that set into place the officials who will lead or continue to lead New Orleans for the next four years. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2006 Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu attempted what would have been unthinkable prior to the storm: to be elected the first white mayor of New Orleans since his father, Maurice "Moon" Landrieu held that august office. The elder Landrieu, for whom the so-called "Moonwalk" at the river and Jackson Square is named, also served as President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Health and Urban Development and is the father of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and Verna's husband. The pitched battle between incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu four years ago resulted in Nagin's re-election after an enormous campaign in which large numbers of displaced voters were bussed in from areas as far away as Atlanta and Houston. Landrieu's entry into the race seemed a gamble at the time and Nagin mustered his forces together in a well-organized campaign that put his administration back into power for another four years, but the margin of victory was hardly convincing. Landrieu fought a good and decent campaign, but lost out by a few percentage points in what was his second mayoral attempt. Nagin was still a force to be reckoned with, but his attitude with the media became strained. It wasn't long after that election that City Councilman-at-large Oliver Thomas, the heir apparent to Nagin, was swept up in a kickback scandal discovered by federal authorities as a result of another investigation. Thomas's meteoric flame out occurred over a three-day period when he resigned from city office and pled guilty to the federal indictment secured against him. Thomas is still in the federal slammer counting the days until he is released. As the media continued to pound Nagin for alleged indiscretions including a family link to a business set up to work with Home Depot and several "business" trips to Hawaii and other locales, confidence in Mayor Nagin began to wither. Some media reports suggested he had, in fact, already moved to Dallas. One of the most controversial episodes occurred when the mayor's office was requested for his 2007 calendar as part of a public records request by both WWL-TV investigative reporter Lee Zurik and the Times-Picayune. An office spokesman stated that the request could not be fulfilled because a good portion of the mayor's e-mails had been "accidentally" deleted. What followed were several months of accusations and challenges before the Louisiana Technology Council and its partners were called in to help clarify the matter. Eventually, they restored the missing e-mails and concluded that the "accidental" deletions were, in fact, deliberately done by someone with a great deal of technical savvy. The press conference LTC called to go over the affair was seen by City Hall as disloyal and grandstanding. In any event, the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation made sure it copied all of the missing files, but nothing yet has come of that. The lack of an incumbent made this most recent race interesting to be sure, but when Landrieu qualified at the last minute, some cried foul. Even though he had already ruled out a run in a decision last summer, the astute politician must have known that the field of candidates that had announced was weak at best and poor choices at worst. When the vote was tallied on Saturday night, Landrieu had won in the first primary by a whopping mandate of 66% in a field of 11 candidates. Political newcomer Troy Henry followed Landrieu's impressive 58,276 total with 12,275 votes. Landrieu had garnered a sizable majority of the black electorate as had his dad before him to secure the mayoralty in another race conducted with dignity and little negativity. Personally, I am looking forward to Landrieu's leadership. I've known him for a long time and respect him as a legislator, an upstanding citizen and a devotee of the arts. His administration may mark yet another turning point in New Orleans that could signal the recovery is well on its way to restoring the city to its full glory.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We Had Our Dreams Answered Tonight (W.H.O.D.A.T.)!

Special Saints yarmulke and black and gold beads with fleur-de-lis atop Times-Picayune
While most everyone woke up this morning thinking only of the game, I had other responsibilities. I was supposed to be announcing the Krewe of Carrollton parade at historic Gallier Hall. It was my duty to welcome the fourth oldest parading organization to the streets of New Orleans on behalf of the Honorable Mayor C. Ray Nagin and the City Council. I dressed in my tuxedo with special fleur-de-lis studs and cuff links and wore a special black and gold fleur-de-lis that hung from a a pair of gold beads. Just for special consideration I also wore a special suede yarmulke (skullcap) to keep me connected to my Jewish community here and in Cleveland, where I lived for almost two years following the Hurricane Katrina diaspora. It took me less than 20 minutes to make the drive from my home, park and walk into the building that formerly served as the New Orleans city hall. The day was crisp, the crowd downtown was sparse and everyone enjoyed the Mardi Gras spirit with popular Saints songs interspersed with Carnival tunes on the loudspeakers there. I gave deejay Charles "Bam Bam" Belonge (which is pronounced Buh-LONG-jay) a special CD of several other songs he was lacking, which he eagerly played and asked if he could keep. In the spirit of Carnival and the kinsmanship I felt with him and everyone else who was hoping for a Saints victory I agreed. It seemed forever before the parade arrived, but an hour and a half after they started, they were there. I announced the parading units and floats as they passed by with the theme "It's a Small World," but as soon as the trailing police and fire units had made their way past the announcer's booth, I was on my way home, looking to park myself in front of my TV for the duration of the game. I kept my yarmulke on throughout the game, prayed and hung tough as the Saints pulled away from the Colts in the second half. No sooner had the game ended, then I was off to Bourbon Street and the French Quarter sans my yarmulke. It would have been yanked from my head in a flash. There is no doubt I was the only person walking in the masses of humanity wearing a tuxedo, but I didn't care. The Saints had won the game and given the citizens of the city and the entire Gulf South - some still living afar - a redemption beyond any they could have envisioned four and a half years ago in the wake of those dark, swirling floodwaters. Pride in the individual team members and the way they persevered in the face of their greatest challenge is to be expected. But the team gave back to the city more than a simple trophy. They gave them hope and promise and a reason to keep fighting back as recovery efforts go on. The smiles and elation of the crowd were not fueled by alcohol tonight. They were fueled by an uncommon love for our city and what it means to live here. The Bible tells us that Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years. The Saints, lovable losers for decades, had suffered for 43 years and had only managed a few shots at post-season play, those coming only in the last two decades. Tonight we won it all and in so doing froze a moment in time that will forever be remembered as a victory of spirit and purpose. To all of those naysayers who questioned why New Orleans should be rebuilt after the storm, I offer them a picture of Drew Brees holding high the Vince Lombardi trophy with a smiling Sean Payton looking on. It means more to us than a win on the scoreboard. It is our redemption and a shining symbol of what we have endured and what can be achieved with drive, determination and guts. Who Dat!
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Friday, February 5, 2010

Mi Zeh? Mi Zeh?


Rabbi Robert Loewy with his Saints jersey (Photo by Judy Bottoni/AP)

Leave it to a rabbi to come up with a Hebrew translation of "Who Dat? Who Dat? Who Dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who Dat?" Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer Synagogue in Metairie came up with the full expression "Mi Zeh? Mi Zeh? Mi Zeh Omer Yach-vosh et Ha-tsa-dikim? Mi Zeh?" sometime before the NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings. I take an advanced adult Jewish education course from Loewy on a weekly basis, so I learned of his translation just after the last game the Saints played. He said he worked to try to come up with the right words that would suffice. One of the major stumbling blocks is that the concept of a "saint" is foreign to Hebrew. There is a term for being righteous, which is translated variously as tzadik or in the plural tzadikim and the rabbi determined that was probably the best word choice. The major problem in getting the phrase out to others is that the Hebrew fonts have to be installed on computers before they'll understand the characters and, as most gradeschoolers know, Hebrew reads from right to left, has no punctuation and, oftentimes, lacks vowels. The English transliteration works well enough and it has established Loewy as a local Saints enthusiast. LIke every other segment in the greater New Orleans community, the Jewish community is very fired up about the Super Bowl game on Sunday. But that won't stop the first of the major parades from rolling tonight. Even the Sunday parade schedule has been bumped up an hour so that fans will be off the streets and inside their homes or favorite lounges by kickoff. Saints fans believe they can win. They know their history and look back only a few years ago when Peyton Manning's little brother Eli and his team, the New York Giants, swept the heavily-favored and undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. That wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. If you can conceive, you can achieve. Down here everybody is waiting with abated breath for the start of the game. Even moreso they are hoping that the end of the game will have the Saints on the winning side of the score. The game plans are done. The players are ready. It's time for some football, Shabbat and Mardi Gras, although not necessarily in that order. Mi Zeh?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Recovery, digital forensics and Hippo

Ever watch an episode of NCIS and marvel how Abby Sciutto (played so expertly by New Orleanian native Pauley Perrette) can recover data off a hard drive that's been shot, set ablaze or otherwise damaged in a way only a Hollywood scriptwriter could devise? It must be fiction, you will undoubtedly assure yourself, otherwise why couldn't the computer technician recover data off the hard drive that died with a simple whimper last week? Aren't they the same thing? After all, if it happens on TV, it must be steeped in fact and reality. So what gives? Has my computer technician been misleading me? Why did I have to buy a new computer workstation or reinstall my operating system and lose all of my data? First of all, we need to make two distinctions. There is data recovery or digital forensics and then there is a recovery of the operating system, meaning the Windows, Mac, Linux or other operating system along with attendant applications like Word or Quickbooks. I think most of us will recognize that the computer drive that's been used for target practice is not likely to come back to life. However, if there were critical data needed on that drive, it might be able to be recovered and then copied to a healthy system. The ability to return a crashed drive back to healthy status requires a great deal of knowledge and forethought. Doing something silly like keeping an extra hard drive plugged into a new operating system install can have dire consequences later. Tuesday night I learned quite a bit more about about both data recovery and digital forensics when the Louisiana Technology Council invited their members and interested parties to learn from two experts who have been movers and shakers in these two areas of computing technology. The first was Chris Read from Carrollton Technology, one of the lead partners with the LTC in the project which resulted in restoring thousands of what the LTC and Carrollton jointly concluded were deliberately deleted e-mails from the New Orleans mayor's server. These e-mails were the subject of a public records request made by several local reporters including WWL's Lee Zurik at the time (Zurik now works for crosstown rival WVUE-TV) and the Times-Picayune. Also included in the forum was Golden Richard, III, a professor at the University of New Orleans, considered one of the foremost local digital forensics experts. He talked about how data is like an unwelcome visitor; it never truly goes away when you'd like it to do so. So-called registry "scrubbers" or rewriting programs intended to "wipe" hard drives of data are no match for Richard or any of his peers and students. Richard has been used by several federal groups to assist authorities in determining criminal activity by suspected purveyors of child pornography, for example. As Richard explained, sometimes a simple dumb act like not securing one's wireless access could have disastrous consequences. Richard gave an example of a person wrongly accused in hosting child pornography over the Internet, when it turned out it was his pedophile neighbor "stealing" his wireless access. By the time the facts were sorted out, the unlucky person who was accused had lost his computers, had his good name sullied and had endured a great deal of aggravation and unnecessary stress. If this doesn't scare you into placing security on your wireless access, I guess nothing ever will.
Maurice "Hippo" Katz, a well-known and attuned political confidante of major players on both a city and statewide level, passed away on Tuesday morning. Katz, 75, a local character earned his nickname for his wide girth when he was still a very young man. A successful insurance executive, Katz was noted for his political insight and he counseled many candidates for public office over the course of five decades. He was often seen holding court at Ruth's Chris Steak House with such powerhouse politicians as Edwin Edwards, Harry Lee and Aaron Broussard. Although he was accused of being a bit too close to some politicians who had influence and sway, Katz was never convicted of any offense and carried on business with several local governments and entities. That fact seems to have been ignored in the Times-Picayune obituary, which ran today. Much of the article addressed charges that were never proven and Katz's survivors and friends were left scratching their heads over why the newspaper felt it necessary to trot out information that was salacious at worst and misleading at the very least.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The rollercoaster ride to redemption

Throughout the past week the feeling among the residents has been a mixture of elation and nervous anticipation. Several sports memorabilia and T-shirt shops were served with cease and desist letters a week ago by lawyers representing the National Football League. The recipients of the letters included several mom and pop shops that protested the action along with outraged fans. The lawyers claimed that the NFL and the New Orleans Saints organization had trademarked the term "Who dat?" and fans who had been using that cry to rally the team for decades took umbrage and offense over the suggestion that their phrase could be laid claim to like a caveman might take a wife. The term "who dat?" has had a rich history, having been traced back to minstrel shows of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Various individuals have claimed to have been at the onset of the popularity of the phrase, some stating it was used traditionally by Cajuns, while others suggested it began outside of the state in nearby Mississippi. More recently the cheer, if we can call it that, was used as a taunt in the mid-1980s by a local high school football team that had racked up some impressive wins. That corresponded to the rise of the Saints organization as a contender in the NFL rather than the Aints of earlier days when embarrassed fans wore paper bags on their heads, espying the games through cutout holes. Several fans began to use the cry "Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat?" at games, but then it began to snowball after local sportscaster and New York Mets legend Ron Swoboda oversaw a recording session with several New Orleans Saints football players and local legend Aaron Neville one evening. The songwriters incorporated the "who dat?" cheer into the traditional Dixieland favorite "When the Saints Go Marching In" with a catchy New Orleans "second line" backbeat. The record took off like a rocket and was heard over the local airwaves for much of the last two decades and more. For the NFL to claim ownership of the term as an intellectual property was a bit of a reach and the fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Even high profile politicians like Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter invited the football league to challenge him, promising he would be printing up T-shirts for his electorate with the "who dat?" phrase emblazoned on them. "Sue me," he reportedly shot back to the NFL amid the obvious delight of his electorate. The backlash was so great that the NFL, accustomed to strong arm tactics in other cities, was put in the curious situation where they had to rethink their position. Before the beginning of the Pro Bowl weekend they clarified their claim. Only where the term "who dat?' is used with the obvious New Orleans Saints black and gold color scheme and their name would there be grounds for legal action by the Saints and the league, they contended. It still went down loyal Saints fans' throats like day old warm beer. Their outcry was unmistakably opposed to the league and to a lesser attempt at Tom Benson's Saints organization. Even the staid Times-Picayune decried the NFL's action in an editorial. It is curious that the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans, Louisiana, the Saints and Scouting cannot be trademarked or copyrighted. It has existed as a symbol for centuries and the Saints are the only NFL organization that cannot lay claim to it as their exclusive symbol. The dust has settled on that hot topic now that the team members have journeyed to Miami and begun to work on their game plan for Sunday's game. Coach Sean Payton has been tight-lipped about what he plans on doing in Supebowl XLIV, but today is Media Day, the first major day of coverage by sportswriters and reporters from across the globe. Like ravenous piranha fish they will descend on the players and coaches and start the turnstiles of endless coverage that will pervade all media up to and including the kickoff. Local fans are starting and ending conversations with the "Who dat?" phrase, but the anxiety levels are definitely building. The two best teams in the NFL are getting ready for a shootout. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, would be the local favorite were he not playing against his dad's former team. The trash talk on the local radio talk shows have dealt with how to get to Manning and keep him off his game. Sunday afternoon well over one thousand men donned dresses, slipped on high heeled shoes, applied makeup and bandied boas as they marched in memory of local sportscaster Buddy "D" Diliberto, who had made a promise to his faithful that should the Saints ever get into the Superbowl, he would wear a dress. Sadly, he passed away prior to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and the horrible damage done to the Saints playing facility at the Louisiana Superdome. WWL radio sports reporter and former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert led the rally in a special black and gold sequined number designed by his daughter, who works in the fashion industry in New York City. I liken this period of time to the veritable calm before the storm or the period on the rollercoaster when it is making its slow and steady climb to the top just before all hell breaks loose as it plummets toward the ground. All I can advise to everyone concerned is hold on tight. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Busy Month

For being the shortest month, February promises to offer more than its share of excitement. Indeed, the month will end with my birthday (as it does three out of every four years), but this is not about me. First of all, unless you've been sleeping or in a coma (and if you have been, prepare yourself now), the New Orleans Saints are in the Superbowl! That means the next week will be the culmination of 43 years of wishing and hoping for diehard fans. Whether the boys in black and gold take home the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy has yet to be decided, but the fact there is a team from New Orleans playing in the big game does give all of us pause and a reason for impromptu partying and cavorting. Oh, yes, there's also a mayoral election in New Orleans that will be decided outright or the field of characters narrowed by next weekend. All the while that all of that is going on, the steady progress towards Fat Tuesday and the schedule of Carnival parades continues to loom large. The first parades of consequence have been held this past week and the major parading organizations get started this coming weekend, the Superbowl notwithstanding. For the past three weeks I have been announcing several Carnival balls, serving as the narrator and scriptwriter for several krewes, as the organizations are known. As the krewes get their respective floats prepared, the anticipation rises and the size of the crowds along the parade routes will increase exponentially too. As the Superbowl excitement begins to pitch higher, so too does the Mardi Gras fervor and as soon as the nation's best NFL team is determined, it will be time for the biggest and bawdiest of the parades to make their way onto the streets of the city. Hand in hand with the parading on the weekend following the Superbowl will be the appearance of the Adventure Base 100, a huge 18-wheeler that has already been to Sacramento, California and is making its way towards Austin, Texas. Adventure Base 100 is a Boy Scout experience intended to capitalize on the anniversary of the BSA, which will be in one week on February 8. The interactive exhibit includes all kinds of activities for youth and adults and will be in the Krewe of Hermes parade on Friday night, February 12 and then housed at the Audubon Zoological Institute on Saturday and Sunday, February 13 and 14. Thousands of youngsters and parents will have an opportunity to see for themselves what will be several thousand square feet of exhibit space, made possible by the BSA with the support of the Southeast Louisiana Council. After Mardi Gras ends, there will be several other local events that will keep me busy including the Scout Shabbat being held February 20 at Congregation Beth Israel in their present quarters in the Bart Room of Gates of Prayer Synagogue in Metairie. This will be the first time a Scout Shabbat has been held at Beth Israel since 1999 and the first one assisted by Beth Israel Rabbi Uri Topolosky, an Eagle Scout from Troop 613 out of Silver Spring, Maryland. The very last of the month brings the holiday of Purim, probably the most fun of all Jewish holidays. So, as you can see, there is a lot to be had this month. Wish me luck because I know I'll need it.