Sunday, November 18, 2018

What Price Nostalgia?

I'm pretty sure my now-classic Omega Seamaster watch was a college graduation gift. It must have been my Aunt Bea (actually my maternal great-aunt) who gave it to me. She gave me mother of pearl cuff links for use with a tuxedo when I graduated from high school and was set to go to Harvard. She had a taste for the finer things, and a taste for formality. It's kind of funny to think of what she thought would happen at college, vs. reality. For her, Harvard equaled formal social events. My paternal grandmother, another Eastern European immigrant, was overwhelmed when she heard my next door neighbor in the dorm was named Sam Saltonstall. “Stay close to him,” was her advice. She didn't know that Sam's main passion was his trumpet, and I think the famous surname weighed on him. My God, they must have thought, from immigrant to Harvard in two generations. What a country! I don't think they knew I was there to work, hard. But what the hell.

Aunt Bea was the eldest of the five Chertak sisters, “Litvaks” my father claimed, an industrious group full of hopes, I imagine. Bea had become a Philadelphia socialite. Mysteriously to me, she would arrive at our house in her Buick driven by a uniformed chauffeur from her luxurious house (at least luxurious to me) on the Main Line. But grand and blond as her entrance might have been, what arrived to the four of us kids was the warmth she exuded from her corpulent body and outstretched arms. With no children of her own, we were as close as she was going to get. How she had arrived at her chauffeur-driven status we couldn't guess, nor how she had become a socialite, which had included her membership on the board of the Robin Hood Dell, the outside summer setting for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Later on she moved into town at the Rittenhouse Plaza with her likewise childless sister Sadye. We visited them often; they noted affectionately how we liked to eat the nuts which they had on a silver platter on a coffee table, beside a slim silver bowl with a few cigarettes. As an awkward teenager with a photography hobby, I took pictures of Sadye's late in life second wedding at their apartment. I developed them and enlarged them myself, and some of those pictures were on constant private display under the thick glass table tops of their bedroom bureaus. They were still there when Sadye died and all the grandnephews and nieces reviewed the remaining contents of their lives.

My father complained that other husbands only had one mother in law but he had five – our holiday dinners included my grandmothers, Sadye and Bea, sometimes Dorothy and Bill from New York, and sometimes others. A big crowd in a small suburban development home. My Dad resented how many relatives there were on his wife's side – I don't think he thought that they sufficiently respected his rightful status as king, or maybe he just felt like an outsider with only his mother representing his side – and he seemed to resent especially Bea's pretensions, but we loved her warmth. We loved the family playing 21 (Blackjack) after the table had been cleared, with the kids “helping,” and Uncle Bill going “bank-o!” with his bet, and everyone saying “Oohhhh!” at his wild sally. When I was in high school we had a nickname for Bea, I think initiated by my friend Ed Packel - “Wide Zorch.” Even though it was mildly derisive, she loved it. When she would arrive at our house, she would say, “What is it you call me?” We would giggle, “Wide Zorch!” She would say with her widest smile, “I'll Zorch you!” I can't help smile with tears in my eyes, verily as I write this. Aunt Bea, what a character.

Aunt Sadye would reminisce about the 1920's. “They were wonderful,” and she'd shake her head a little at past enchantments. It might have been something like our 1970's. In the 20's Bea and Sadye would spend summers together in Paris every year. I have a couple of menus, one inscribed to Bea from “The Major,” whoever he was. I framed it and put it on our wall. Bea's French pretty much stopped with “Comment รงa va,” I think. But when she said it, it was with brio. The memories.

We never heard that much about their history, at least I didn't, but I heard some from my sisters, who probably heard it from my mother in girl-to-girl talk. Turns out that Bea had gone to work as the secretary of the owner of a big Philadelphia department store, House of Wenger. Before you knew it, Mrs. Wenger was out and Bea was in. At least that's the way I heard it. Or maybe he was never married, but I think he was. In any event, that explained the money, which in turn explained the social standing. He was older and gone well before I arrived, but Bea was very much there until I was in medical school. The last I saw of her was when I came to see her in the hospital and all I saw was her going to some test on a gurney, and she looked my way and said, “Buddy!” with hope and connection to her world of love, and then off she went. Like the last time I saw my Dad in his hospital bed on a Friday night as I flew into Philadelphia from San Francisco, and his “girlfriend” at his bedside said, “Buddy's here!” and I showed him a short video clip of The Producers, his favorite show, on a portable video players, and he smiled and pointed at it – another cherished memory of laughing – and in the morning I got a call that he was gone. What are you going to do?

I think it was Aunt Bea who gave me my Omega Seamaster watch when I graduated from college. Probably. My father marveled at it, I think. He told me how special it was. It was almost like it was a present to both of us. I'm wondering if he could have given it to me, but that's not the way he rolled, and proud as proud could be of me, his gifts were more utilitarian. I owed nothing for four years of college and four years of medical school, there was never any question. I took it with gratitude, but he never asked me for that. All I had to do was to do my best, which I did, and the bargain was complete.

I wore that Seamaster for years, I replaced the strap a couple of times and finally came up with a Speidel expandable band, but then other watches came, the Seamaster lost its crown at some point, and I kept it in the top drawer of my Nakashima dresser for decades. A few years before he died at age 92 when I visited my father in Philadelphia, he pulled out his new watch to show me. It was one of the first digitals. He said, “I finally got the watch that does everything I want it to do! Here it is. And I got it for free from my dry cleaner!” I guess it was a Casio, but it could have been a Timex. Date and time, and probably even a stopwatch, all powered by a little battery.

It's true, I'm my father's son in so many ways. For years now my watch has been a Casio. The latest version is a Casio W-201, $15.68 from Walmart. It did everything I ever needed; what could be better as I went from exam room to exam room? Indestructible; let my patients pee or poop on it, I don't care! The band wears out before the battery dies, amortized at what, $1.75 a year? Comfortable, waterproof, you don't have to move it on your wrist to activate a self-winding feature.

Of course, practicality isn't everything, is it? The Seamaster is just what my admiring father said it was, a classic. In these days of watches as jewelry, even though I eschew jewelry for myself, there it is, I have it. It wouldn't be wrong to wear it for, I guess, occasions, or even every day if I wanted. And its a twofer. I look at it and I remember, not only Bea and the family, but my place in it, her love, my Dad's love, the original family, their pride, their foibles. And the jewelry part is just a throw in, although I can point to it with pride.

No need to choose. It cost me $750 to clean up the Seamaster, add a new crown, and add a nice leather strap. Estimated value of this classic, $1,250. Estimated value of the superior functioned Casio, $15.68 minus two years of depreciation. I'm wearing them both. At different times.

In the end now, at least for the present, it appears that I prefer the Seamaster. Not for the luxury, that wouldn't be Shenkinesque. For the memory, for the feeling. I like it. Works for me. The memories. The mysteries that were never explained.

I wonder who this guy The Major was?

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Midterms and the Dem Organizational Problem

On the afternoon of Halloween, I went over to the Goldman School of Public Policy at Cal, where Dean Henry Brady, President of the University and former Arizona Governor and Secretary of DHS Janet Napolitano, and famous Professor Bob Reich opined on the coming midterm election. Henry discussed the four-part split of the Republican Party and the difficulty of their negotiating their conflicting interests. Napolitano discussed the closeness of the coming race and her optimism on the Dems capturing the House. Reich discussed his pessimism over the gerrymandering and voter suppression of the election, how both Democrats and Republicans had overlooked the problems of the non-college education whites over decades and the economic hardship and resentment this had caused, and how the underlying issue of the election was now authoritarianism vs. democracy, all of which left him pessimistic. He doesn't see the Trump election as an aberration, apparently. In an effort to be optimistic, all agreed that the generation of the students in the room were more engaged than any they had encountered in years, and Napolitano observed that actions and reactions are the way of politics.

When Henry read my question to the panel, which was "how come the Democrats are launching such small bore issues for the election?" Reich smiled knowingly and glanced sideways at Napolitano, who replied that the issues weren't small bore at all, health care is important, but one has to tailor arguments to each locale.  That latter is true, but the national organization's role should be to set a tone and some general perspective in a skillful, inclusive way, and not just rerun "protect Social Security" for the millionth time.

At the reception afterwards, I spoke with Napolitano, whom I had not met before. I asked her about Diane Feinstein's decision to run again at age 85, observing that I imagined that she could not really answer the question. She said that she liked Diane, that she was surprised that she had run again, and then wanted to say more, but then agreed with me that she really probably should not say anything else. She asked me what I thought.

I told her that I was appalled by DiFi's decision. If she had retired, there would have been many competent applicants for her job; it was a rare chance for someone younger to move up. I said that I thought it reflected the Democrats' misunderstanding of the task at hand. Their task is to find the younger leadership within their ranks and nurture it. If one views the Democratic party as an organization, what organizations need to do is to assure their vibrancy as they move forward, to identify, to nurture, and to promote the talent for leadership within their ranks. Think of it as a corporation. There, competent leaders would be conscious of the need to find and promote the talent, and not to let it languish. They would look out and say – “Look at her, over there, down in the ranks. She's great! Let's move her up! Let's get her more experience, more authority, develop her!” That's not what we hear from the Democrats. Instead, the gerontocracy keep their places as long as they can, and aspirants for higher office are left to fend for themselves. That's one way to let leadership emerge, but to my mind, not the best way. It's too chaotic, and it doesn't select for competence.

Then, probably thinking that this was the perfect opportunity to drill for an opinion from a random but well-informed Democrat, she asked me what I thought about Pelosi. Happy to be asked, I phrased my answer as artfully as I could. I told her that Nancy had done a wonderful job in her career, and she should be honored for it. But the Congress is a complex organization. There is an inside job and an outside job. Chuck and Nancy might do a wonderful job on the inside operations, but as Trump has shown, there is a crying need for doing the outside job, of speaking to the country and leading its thought. Trump is good at this, and the Democrats are Little League compared to him. They need to compete with him better on the battlefield of public opinion. This requires new leaders; we need to refresh the screen. Obama reflected that after eight years he was required to leave, and although he regretted it (and although we certainly have come to regret it,) he thought it was a good thing. Organizations need to refresh. So, to conclude, I think it's time for Nancy to move on.

And in fact, that's not enough. The Dems need to consider there whole operation in terms of fostering leadership. I had coffee a few weeks ago with six-term Congressman Jerry McNerney, who now represents the Stockton area. Jerry is a scientist, which makes him a rarity in Congress. He would be a natural for leadership of one of the scientific committees, energy or environment. But because of the seniority system, which the Republicans have abandoned but the Democrats have not, Jerry will be forever mired far down on the committee membership list. This sort of process makes Congress a dead place for leadership development; the best will abandon it or be unhappy and un-influential. This is the description of an ailing institution. And it seems to me that the Dems don't seem to understand that this is their problem. If the Dems are conscious of their decades long losing, they might consider the need for leadership, and they might consider how their organization is sabotaging their ostensible efforts to win.

Or, to put it differently, if I have to listen to Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Tom Perez orate on TV once more, I'm going to scream.

Napolitano told me she agreed with me. Then I told her that if the election went badly, as Bob Reich feared, then the entire leadership of the Democratic Party should resign, just as would happen in the UK after a failed election. Just as I said this, Reich came up to us, gave me a little startled look as he heard my peroration, smiled, and then thanked her for coming to the session, and she replied that it was very refreshing for her to get out of the President's office and to participate, and I excused myself since I had been monopolizing her time and she should really mingle more.

Before I left, I also told her that while I understood Reich's pessimism, I had found a source of optimism within the recent tragedies. Look at the reaction of the congregation in Charleston after the murders there, the reaction at Margerie Stoneman Douglas High after those murders, and in Pittsburgh after those murders. The deep understanding, the dignity, the bravery, the spirituality, the commitment to democratic action and the better angels of our nature displayed at all three areas (all of them disenfranchised, note – youth, Blacks in the South, and urban dwellers,) the principled and civil way they spoke out against Trump, spoke of a deeper spirit of America that will not be trampled over. We might have a difficult row to hoe for a while, a large part of our governing body has shown itself to be craven and corrupt, but in the end it is the spirit and traditions of a people that are the determinative forces, and I have faith in America.

I do.

Budd Shenkin