Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Billionaires and Prejudice

There's an old story: what do they call a black neurosurgeon in South Carolina? Answer: Boy.

Labelling, or profiling, can be an awful thing. Our society has actually made a lot of progress in fighting prejudice. Now, sometimes there is actually something valid about it, maybe. Are Jews generally funnier, do blacks have better rhythm, are black women louder, are WASPs more repressed, are pediatricians generally nicer? There can be probabilities that pan out, and other stuff that is just labelling. Almost none of it is genetic, except blue eyes.

I play a game with myself – I see a shitty driver (no lack of them on the road), I make a prediction for gender, ethnicity, age, etc., and then I catch up and look to see who it is. My guesses have proven time and time again to have zero predictive value.

We are schooled now to beware of such labelling, and publicly we usually avoid doing it. No one disses a black on TV, we're very careful. Few people mention the predominance of Catholics and Jews on the Supreme Court, you don't hear about religious denominations for presidential candidates, you don't even hear that much about Pete Buttigieg's sexual orientation, at least publicly. We understand generally that yes, some labels mean something, but there is so much more to the individual that labelling doesn't tell us.

Which is why the internet information gatherers have been so successful. They have gathered real information on people, not labeling information, and it must work or they wouldn't be so successful as they are. In depth information works, superficial labeling information doesn't.

Which is why I'm struck with the opprobrium that Mike Bloomberg faces because he is a super-billionaire. “Do we really need another billionaire candidate?” Yes, having your own money to finance your campaign is a singular advantage. But does being a billionaire really tell us any more about a person? I mean – who could be more different than Donald Trump (maybe a billionaire, but certainly rich, at least for the moment before all the litigation after he falls), Howard Schultz, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg? Personally, so different. Policies, different. Personal style, different. Experience, different. Would we say, “Do we really need another white male candidate?” Oh, whoops, yes we would, “white male” has been dominant, so it's OK to label them. But would we say, “Do we really need another woman candidate?” Or, “Do we really need another black candidate?”

It's true that we expect officials to have a point of view that generally reflects their own personal background and interests. White males have predominated in the past and unconsciously or consciously pursued white male domination, or at least acquiesced to it. We expect black candidates to do something to help their oppressed race. We expect women to stand up for women. But, should we expect billionaires to protect their own wealth and the wealth of their financial group? Trump does it, but the others have been in the forefront of saying that the wealthy should be paying more. So to reflexively think that billionaires are in the race to protect their own wealth is demonstrably false.

Should we feel sorry for the poor oppressed billionaires? I hear your snorting laugh – I wish I had their problems, you say. Right. It's not something to feel sorry about, for them. But it is something to feel sorry about, for us. At this point in this confusing race for President, I'm a Bloomberg supporter. It's quite possible that he is really the best candidate the Democrats will have to offer. I'm not going to get into that whole discussion other than to say – you wouldn't eliminate someone like Barack Obama from consideration because he's black, and we shouldn't eliminate Mike Bloomberg because he's a billionaire. Or Jewish. Or a white male.

This whole identity thing -- shouldn't we insist that everyone have equal access to run for president, and then decide on who we want on an equal playing field?  We shouldn't want "a woman," or "a minority."  We should want the best.

Shouldn't we concentrate on the quality of their character, the policies they espouse, and the abilities they bring to the table? If we discount their candidacies because of extraneous factors, like how wealthy they are – try predicting the gender and ethnicity of the next bad driver you see.

Budd Shenkin

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Joys of Prepubescence

I remember fourth grade.  It is in the running for the best year of my life. There were so many younger kids where I had once been; I was now senior.  The older kids didn't seem to matter; they were in another world, somehow.  Fourth grade, 9 years old, king of the world!  Still no responsibilities except school, didn't have to take care of anyone else, healthy without effort, fed and housed by people who loved me, friends without reservation, almost no self-consciousness.

And, no thoughts of girls.  The hypothalamus was still quiet, the pituitary receiving no signals, just the usual background level of testosterone.  I had a "girl friend," Connie, who clearly admired me and vice-versa - she even gave me her Dixie cup ice cream when she didn't want it and everyone had their hands up vying for the gift.  But what was that, really, but a beacon for the future?  Fourth grade!

The girls must have been the same.  I see it in my granddaughter Lola's class, girls in groups, animated talk, musical theater class, play dates, videos, and still stuffed animals!  There is a little bit of recognition of boys - "I like him but I don't LIKE him..." is about as far as it gets.

It will change in the next couple of years, to the confusion of everyone.  Junior high is the toughest, they say.  The whole rest of your life is the hardest part, I'd say.

Fourth grade!  Savor it, girls, savor it.  Fourth grade is top of the world!

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Recipe: Rock Cod à la Budd

Rock Cod à la Budd

10 minutes preparation
serves 1-2

olive oil 2-3 tablespoons
2 medium brown mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1/2 small white onion, diced
¼ orange bell pepper, chopped I/2” squares
rock cod 1/3 pound, in 1” pieces
tahini, 2 tablespoons
apricot jam, 1-2 teaspoons
honey, 1 tablespoon
½ avocado, sliced

heat olive oil in 12” deep skillet
add each ingredient serially as listed, ensuring browning for all ingredients until the avocado, which should be added only at the very end, and warmed without browning.

Serve warm.

May serve along with pasta or rice, but serving with tomato and cucumber salad is particularly recommended for the overall freshness and lightness of taste and feeling.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

My Parents' Friend Lou Wilderman

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, my parents and all their friends were first generation Jews whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe. They were all politically liberal, not a Republican in sight, and many if not most of them had been commies in the 30's. They had left that behind as they matured, and by the time I hit my teens and became aware of them. They were doctors and lawyers and one friend, Vince Young, owned a lumber yard. The women were stay at home moms, mostly, cocooned and impeded by what the world did to women in those days, except for my mom, who went back to school to be a social worker when I was in my teens. We were four children in our family, two boys and two girls, and I was the oldest. We were a close family, informal and loving, and they included the kids in their talk, at least to a certain extent. In fact, there was a lot they held back, and I think if asked I would have said, yes, that's the way it is. I knew enough not to speak too much when their friends were there, I don't think I was a very good talker anyway, but I listened, I noticed a lot, and viewed the world and their friends mostly through the eyes of my father, I think. I didn't know then that I had a good memory, but I guess that I did, because I seem to remember a lot.

My parents had what I guess it's best to call a circle of friends. They seemed to have known each for a very long time and seemed to have a band of trust. It might have been the times, it might have been memories from the shtetl of how communities interacted, it might have been the 30's and radicalism, it may have been Jews, I don't really know. But they had a circle of friends who all knew each other. Today, we move around so much, that my circle of friends is all over – thank goodness for email and free long distance. But then they were all right there in Philly.

Among this circle of friends, the famous Jewish sense of humor was alive and well. Especially among the men, I think, a good joke was never far away. Mom and Dad appreciated the jokes, but they weren’t too good at telling them. My Mom loved to laugh at jokes but could never tell them. My Dad loved to laugh at jokes, too, and he could tell a joke OK, although he would laugh after telling it, lean toward you and say, “Pretty good, huh?” which a good joke teller usually doesn't do. A good joke teller just tells the joke and looks for the reaction. My Dad made actively sure you were laughing, too.

Apparently, our families best joke teller was mother’s father, Ike Friedenberg, who grew up in Baltimore and was a boxer in his younger days, a haberdasher in downtown Philly as an adult, a wiry, bald man who seemed friendless in his old age, when I knew him. He was well known to be funny, but since my parents and grandparents didn't get along, any of them, we didn't get to see it, and we could enjoy his humor only by reputation. What a shame. Fortunately, maybe because of genetics, my younger brother and I can both tell a joke. My mother always said that I was the best audience for my brother Bobby could hope to have. “Buddy always thinks Bobby is so funny!” she would say. My Mom looked at us and sized us up a lot, and she and Dad would talk about us as though we weren't there, which was disconcerting, but there it is. They watched us, and watched out for us. As for Bobby and me, siblings always jocky for position, and since Bobby was the jokester, although he could laugh at my jokes and enjoy them, his goal was always to then say something even funnier. It's still the same way. Families, families. Brothers.

In my parents circle of friends, the funniest one, apparently, was their friend Lou Wilderman. Lou was a labor lawyer and represented unions, as would befit the politics of the circle. My Dad told me that Lou’s stories about his clients were so funny they left his audience of friends in tears. “Oh, the stories he would tell, his clients were so nuts!” said my Dad. For some reason I never met his wife. I guess that was because my parents and Lou weren't really close friends, they were just part of the same circle. But it was well agreed that Lou was the funniest man any of their crowd knew.

Lou was of average height, wore tortoise shell glasses, I think, was rather pale, and spoke self-consciously, interspersing short little laughs as he told his anecdotes, keeping people going with his ability to modulate his speech, and build to a climax. He had a little urgency in his voice, he talked in little spurts, and then there were the little chuckles as he delivered the little humorous observations along the way. I think what was more remarkable to me than just him, was the regard all the others had for him when he talked. They were all primed for the joke, or the series of humorous observations, even before he started talking. They wouldn't want to miss a word.

The other thing that was remarkable about Lou was that he was also a serious, verified hypochondriac. It was the days before health foods, but if there were a rumor that cinnamon was good for one’s health, be assured, Lou would be taking cinnamon regularly. What a combination that was for a man! An extraordinary sense of humor, and a serious case of hypochondria.

The best story about Lou, and the only one that I retain, is one that Lou told about himself. I doubt that I heard him tell it first hand, but I know my father told it more than once. I know that because my father told every story more than once. Here's how it went.

It was springtime in Philadelphia, and it was a beautiful day. The leaves were on the trees, the birds were chirping, the sky was very blue. Lou was walking down the streets of center city Philadelphia on this beautiful day. He felt great! What a time to be alive! Then he thought - what should he do when everything was so perfect?

By happenstance, he was walking up Lombard Street and came to 19th Street. There on the corner was the Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Immediately, Lou knew what to do on this beautiful day. He said to himself — what better thing to do on a beautiful day like today? I’m going to treat myself to an X-ray!

I'm laughing again as I recount this story, told by Lou about himself, gathering all his friends into his own mishegoss. My Dad loved to tell this story, and to laugh with astonishment and affection, and to make sure that you laughed, too. Imagine Lou – he knew he was nuts with his hypochondria, and he knew he couldn't do anything about it, and he knew that he could laugh at himself as much as he laughed at the antics of his clients in the unions. Maybe with today's drugs Lou could have been cured, I guess, probably, but maybe not, I don't know. In those days you lived with a lot of stuff we give medicine for today. Then they only had psychiatry, and everyone was distrustful of the Freudians, and that was pretty much all psychiatry had to offer. So they laughed.

Like so many funny people, I think that Lou might have been one of those people funny on the outside but tortured on the inside. Maybe his humor and his hypochondria were accompanied by racing thoughts, I don't know. Maybe he was tortured and creative. He did write a play, or a movie script. I remember I actually saw the bound script, and was amazed — an ordinary man that I knew actually wrote a script? I imagined, knowing Lou, that it was a comedy.

But it wasn’t. It was a tragedy of some sort. He showed it to his friends in his crowd and they marveled that he had written it. Someone asked, I think it was Vince Young, the owner of the lumber yard (who sold the lumbar yard and retired for a while, then reentered the labor force as a social worker of sorts for a hospital), who would you like to get to play the part of the protagonist, if you could actually get a movie made? Lou came up with an answer that showed he had been ruminating about it, although he had to know that getting it produced had to be a pipe dream. Anyway, he answered that he would like Paul Muni to give it a shot. Paul Muni, I thought, that's pretty strange, a man of the past. Paul Muni? I knew him only as a name. You could see that Lou was a dreamer. But what a dream – Paul Muni, a man of serious mien and purpose, to be the star of a play you wrote. Wow. That would have been something. But I knew it was kind of crazy when I heard it.

I think that this play was the last time I saw Lou in person, and maybe after that there could have been a mention or two of him, but times changed. My family had started out in West Philadelphia not far from the Penn campus, moved to the suburbs for the schools, and then moved back to center city when all the kids were out of the house and to college and beyond. I think they lost track of Lou as everyone got older and moved on to other friendship groups, but only to a certain extent. The group kept in touch enough so that my sisters heard that when Vince’s wife died and Morrie Samitz, the dermatologist member of the group died, Vince and Morrie’s wife Doris lived out the rest of their lives together. My sisters wondered if anything had gone on before the spouses had died, with a little spice of prurient interest. Strange, I thought, Vince and Doris? Things sure do change.

I really don't know what happened to Lou after the play. I have an inkling I heard something once, but I'm damned if I know what it is. I wish I knew. I wish my parents were still here and I could talk it over with them, ask them for the followup, and so that my father could correct my story as I have written it down here, as he surely would, hiding his admiration for my writing, and his pleasure at having his own life remembered and even chronicled a little. But I would know that his love for me would be in there.

If they were here, and if we would talk about Lou, I know that they would smile, perhaps a little sadly. Sometimes you are happy and you don't know it, or think about it, until afterwards.

Budd Shenkin