Thursday, August 25, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (8/25/05)


Who was Major Deegan? The Major Deegan for whom the expressway is named was William F. Deegan. He had trained as an architect and saw service during the First World War locally, constructing military camps and bases in the New York area. Major Deegan helped to organize the American Legion in New York, served as its state commander and was deeply involved in improving medical care and employment opportunities for veterans.

Active in Democratic politics and a close friend of Mayor Jimmy Walker, Deegan was serving as Commissioner of Tenement Housing when he died at the age of 39 in 1932, following an appendectomy. In signing the ordinance naming a new 1.5-mile link between the Grand Concourse and the Triborough Bridge in his honor in 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, also a friend of Deegan, reminisced about being "captivated by his charming personality."

The original Major Deegan Boulevard was widened and lengthened into an expressway that also bears Major Deegan's name. It survived a later attempt by Gov. George Pataki to change its name to honor Joe Dimaggio.

What makes Jeanine run? Looking back on the events of August 10th, Jeanine Pirro, 54, three-term Westchester County District Attorney, may wish she had consulted a psychic or Tarot card reader before kicking off her campaign on that date. Ever since May, when Mrs. Pirro announced that she was considering higher state office, she has been mulling possible bids for governor or state attorney general. Experts agree that the latter office would have been a shoo-in for her. Instead, she decided to take on the most formidable opponent of all: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was a kickoff reminiscent of an incident in the 2000 campaign of Rep. Rick Lazio on the day before he accepted the Republican nomination to challenge Hillary Clinton in her first run for the Senate, While marching in a Memorial Day parade and waving to the crowd, he tripped and fell smack on his face. The result was a swollen lip that required eight stitches.

Mrs. Pirro comes to the campaign with some heavy baggage: a husband named Albert, the felon and disbarred lawyer who served time for filing fraudulent joint tax returns that illegally deducted luxury automobiles, legal expenses in unsuccessfully fighting a paternity suit over a daughter he had fathered eight years after his marriage to Jeanine, high-tech electronic gates for their kitschy home, and the care and feeding of Wilbur and Orville, their pet pot-bellied pigs. Husband Albert, whom she had met at the Albany Law School, had put the kibosh on her political career in 1986, when she had to give up the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor after he refused to release information about his law practice.

August 10 was a series of fiascoes occurring with a tempo like that of an exquisitely timed Buster Keaton comedy. The first happened in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where she was to make the official announcement launching her campaign. At eight minutes into her speech, she read the words, "Hillary Clinton" and turned the page to continue. She suddenly became mute and did not finish the sentence. She furrowed her brow, She frantically shuffled pages. After 32 seconds of embarrassed silence, she turned to an aide and asked for a copy of missing page 10. It was provided, and she resumed speaking. But the ordeal wasn't over. After only 15 seconds, she seemed to lose her place in the text. Another silent gap followed, this time lasting eight seconds.

Other than these gaffes, to impartial observers it seemed like a good speech with which to start a campaign. She described her work as a prosecutor and talked about growing up in upstate New York. She admitted to being a red Republican on fiscal matters but one with broad blue stripes on social issue like abortion and stem cell research.

The would-be candidate's major complaint seemed to be that Hillary Clinton could conceivably run for President while serving in the Senate for a second term. "New York deserves a senator who will give her all to the people of New York for a full term," she maintained--a questionable position. With 13 months to go before the primaries and 16 months to go before the election, this leaves her open to the counter argument that the citizens of Westchester also deserve a full-time District Attorney.

Mrs. Pirro's speech included a confusing sound bite involving welcome mats and doormats, obviously intended to be a trademark of her campaign. She claimed that Hillary Clinton "asked us to put out the welcome mat and New York did--but now she wants to use New York as a doormat to the White House."

Queried about policy issues like the deficit, she begged off, saying, "This is my first day in the campaign." At one point Michael McKeon, Pirro campaign spokesman and Gov. George Pataki's former director of communications, lost his cool and used an obscenity in responding to Ben Smith of the New York Observer, who had the temerity to ask when the would-be candidate would learn about the issues. The usually affable McKeon apparently forgot Dan Quayle's admonition about not getting into a fight "with someone who buys printer's ink by the barrel."

New York newspapers saw Pirro's first day on the campaign trail as less of a perfect 10 dive into statewide politics and more of a belly flop. The New York Times reporters Patrick D. Healy and Al Baker called it "a fiery but rocky start." Reporters Greg Smith and Joe Mahoney used a biting lead on their Daily News story of the day's events: "It may have been a hot day in the dead of August but Jeanine Pirro froze up."

The Post's Linda Stasi also concentrated on Pirro's 32 seconds of silence: "While mistakes happen and you get past them (except if you're Rick Lazio), what was startling is that Pirro, a woman I personally and professionally like very much, hadn't memorized the thing and seemed unable to improvise." Summing up, Ray Hernandez of The New York Times said of Mrs. Pirro: "Most New York voters do not seem to have any idea who she is." Her supporters cried "Foul," and accused the media of piling on. But the tapes were there for everyone to see, and besides it was a slow news day.

After the Waldorf disaster, her next stop was Albany, where she arrived 20 minutes late. With the wide stone Capitol steps as a backdrop, she began speaking. About a minute into her speech, a reporter called out, "Jeanine, we have no sound." "You have no sound?" the exasperated candidate asked. The reporter explained, "You'd be pretty upset if you had no voice on the evening news." Jeanine killed time by chatting with reporters. "I'm still running for U.S. senator," she jested.

When the technical glitches were finally corrected, she resumed speaking. Three minutes into the speech, she decided to try the welcome mat sound bite again--but she mangled it. "When Hillary Clinton first came to New York, she said she wanted to be a New Yorker. We put out the doormat," Pirro said and hesitated. Realizing her error, she tried to recover. "And now she's using that welcome mat as a doormat to the White House." The metaphor was unsalvageable.

Buffalo was the next stop. Here in the state's second largest city, home of her alma mater, SUNY Buffalo, it started to rain on her speech. An aide opened an umbrella to hold over her, but a gust of wind turned it inside out. She hastily shortened her speech as the rain began to come down in torrents. It was the last straw.

Not quite. The final blow was the blooper that turned up on the Jeanine Pirro web site. In a reference to the Mohawk Valley, it spelled the valley's name as "Mowhawk."


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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (8/18/05)


Facts I never knew 'til now. The natural world is full of oddities. Here are a few:
+ Many butterflies and most flies taste with their feet. When a fly walks across your food, he's tasting it.
+ Birds have far better sight than most other animals. The giant condor can see small rodents on the ground from as high as 15,000 feet.
+ Humans are not particularly good at seeing in poor light. Animals that see well in poor light are most active at twilight.
+ Color blindness is present in 5 to 8 percent of males (depending on race) but only in 0.45 percent of females--a distribution that proves the deficiency is sex-linked.
+ Humans are better at seeing color than most other animals. Cats, cows, dogs, pigs and sheep do not see colors. A red cloth is of no interest to a bull. On the whole, animals that are themselves brightly colored are able to see color.
+ Humans have stereoscopic vision for the same reason tree-dwelling animals have it is needed for leaping from branch to branch.
+ Snakes do not hear the music played to them by snake charmers.
+ Humans are not particularly good at hearing as compared with many other animals. Horse, rats, mice, cats and dogs can all hear higher pitched sounds than man can.
+ Bees are able to hear by feeling vibrations in solids. Their buzzing is something they do not hear--they feel it.
+ It is no mere figure of speech to say that we are "weak from laughing." Laughter brings the flexor muscles of our lower limbs into activity.
+ Humans spend a fifth of each night's sleep dreaming.
+ The size of the human brain is not related to intelligence. Very intelligent people have had smaller brains than some retarded persons.
+ The bee and the ant have minute brains. Tests show that they are almost incapable of learning.
+ Chimpanzees have learned to work for token rewards--poker chips--which they trade for food. They acquired great confidence in the power of this "currency" and would work on problems for chips as readily as for food directly.
+ One reason foreign languages cannot be learned perfectly after the age of eight is that subtle differences in sounds are no longer heard.
+ In humans there are only four primary tastes: sweet, bitter, sour or acid, and salty.
+ All breeds of dog, from the tiny Mexican Chihuahua to the giant St. Bernard, scratch at the same rate--about four scratches per second.

Ricochet words. You use them all the time, but did you know what they are called? Echoic or duplicative words, called ricochet words, are often used for humorous effect. The mere repetition of a sound tends to intensify the meaning of the root word. A good example is "hugger-mugger," meaning "skullduggery." It is thought to be a variant of "hoker-moker," from the Middle English mokeren (to hoard or conceal). Thus the meaning of secrecy or underhandedness inherent in the root word is strengthened by repetition.

Other examples of ricochet words are boob tube, chitchat, fiddle-faddle, harum-scarum, hoity-toity, hodge-podge, hot shot, namby-pamby, Ping-Pong, and super-duper.

News junkie no more. I don't know about you, but I've lost interest in what purports to be news, particularly as purveyed by 24-hour news networks determined to fill each day's 1,440 minutes with endless repetitions of the latest manufactured scandale du jour. The public has been complicit in this, allowing itself to be hooked on the new narcotic of so-called "breaking news" dangled before viewers. The problem is that these programs have ceased to be about news--the important events that are happening in the world--and have become fixated on what is little more than lurid gossip. The private misfortunes of individuals are caught in the media's relentless spotlight and exposed for the delectation of the masses. Ironically, the ancient Romans' fascination with agony in the public arena is now replicated on our television screens and also in some irresponsible newspapers.

Terri Schiavo's cruel starvation became a media football; we free our pets of incurable health conditions more humanely. The death agony of Pope John Paul II was covered by reporters and commentators like circling vultures. Similar hordes waited to bring the world the verdict in the Michael Jackson trial. Runaway brides, shark attacks and a missing teenage visitor to the tropical island of Aruba--the networks force-feed us more manufactured news than anyone could humanly want to know.

The common denominator is the desperate search for items that can be reworked, massaged, bent, twisted, analyzed and argued over so as to yield enough variants of the same story to fill the void left by the failure to pursue genuine news. What should be a few minutes of solid information is made to yield endless repetitions of essentially the same information by highly paid card-readers and talking heads posturing as experts.

We are being fed so much deceptive pap masquerading as news by our docilely submissive media, this indigestible mass may soon rise in our collective gorge and choke us. Their excuse is this is what the public wants. I may only be an army of one, but I hope that others will register their displeasure and boycott this drivel by using the on-off button on their remote controls.

Changing a brand name. George W. Bush coined the phrase "war on terror," and he is fond of reminding us that he is "a wartime president." Administration spinmeisters, sensing the unfavorable overtones of words like "war" and "wartime," have minted a new name for the war on terror. It's now the high-sounding "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism." Nevertheless, the President is stubbornly clinging to his characterization of it as a war on terror. Perhaps he fears that use of the word "struggle" will make him "a struggling president."

Only Madison Avenue could think that substituting the word "struggle" for "war" would change anything. When President Gerald Ford was faced with staggering 20 percent interest rates, these same people sold him on the idea of getting everyone to wear a large button reading WIN, standing for the slogan "Whip Inflation Now." Fat chance. It never happened.

No matter what they try to call it, don't let anybody kid you. It's a bitterly fought fourth-generation war, plain and simple--one we were poorly equipped to fight. Witness the recent decision to equip the entire U.S. occupying force in Iraq with new, improved body armor.


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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (8/04/05)


Watch out, here they come! The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the right of municipalities to condemn private property so that it can be developed by for-profit developers was disappointing. Westchester could use an Ikea store--but this seems like a high price to pay for one.

What's a schnorrer? A schnorrer--the word is from Yiddish--is one who habitually takes advantage of others, a parasite or leech. "Someone who goes through a revolving door on your push," as one Borsht Belt comedian put it. (The Borsht Belt was the cluster of resort hotels in the Catskills that nurtured many Jewish comedians. A staple of each hotel dining room was borscht, beet soup served with a dollop of sour cream.)

Yiddish, largely a melding of German and Hebrew that originated in Eastern Europe, has contributed many words to the English language. Called Yiddishisms, they are described technically as "borrowings" by lexicographers. Here are some other familiar words that have migrated from Yiddish:

Chutzpah means utter nerve, brass or gall. The classic example is the fellow who murders his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

is trash, junk, inferior merchandise; in the clothing trade, any poorly made garment. Kitsch describes anything of poor quality, often pretentious and in bad taste, but of wide popularity. Example: the sentimental poetry of Edgar A. Guest. Schmaltz literally is melted fat, usually chicken fat, but the word is now applied to any excessively sentimental piece of art or music.

A klutz describes a clumsy or stupid person and derives directly from the German klotz, meaning a clod or blockhead. A nebbish is an ineffectual, weak, hapless unfortunate. The word is an Anglicized version of the Yiddish word nebech. Nebbish is related to another Yiddish word, schlemiel, a habitually unlucky bungler, a perennial patsy. The name comes from Shelumiel, in the Bible [Numbers 7:36] a leader of the tribe of Simeon, who lost every battle he engaged in. A nebbish has been defined as the person who picks up what the clumsy schlemiel knocks over. A schnook is a stupid or easily victimized person, a sucker or dupe.

To kvetch, not commonly recognized as a Yiddish word, is to nag or complain in an insistent manner. To schlep something means to move it clumsily from place to place, usually with difficulty. To schmooze is to talk casually, to chat.

One's shtick is one's characteristic attribute, talent, trait or trademark, like Groucho's painted-on moustache, Chico's Italian accent or Harpo's muteness.

Advice from Prince Otto. President Bush doesn't speak German, but he would be wise to heed the warning of Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor" who created the German empire, "Wehe dem Staatsmann, dessen Argumente am Ende des Krieges nicht so ├╝berzeugend sind wie zu Anfang." (Translation: "Woe to the statesman whose reasons for entering a war are not as convincing at the end as at the beginning.")

Sad state of the world. Every January the President delivers a State of the Union message to the American people. But what if someone undertook to deliver a State of the World message about the planet someone once likened to "a big blue marble" floating serenely in space? Would the text read something like this?

The world's population is increasing exponentially; the world's food supply and water are not. In fact, clean drinking water has become increasingly scarce for this growing world population. The same is true of arable land and water resources for crop irrigation. Living conditions and income have plummeted in Africa and Central and South America. Megacities now boast teeming populations well over 10 million, many in the Third World: Bombay, Karachi, Delhi, Jakarta, Cairo. In fact, today half the world's population now lives in cities. Third World countries are experiencing a demographic "youth bulge" resulting in severe unemployment and the potential for unrest. Pre-adolescent children have become the cannon-fodder pressed into service as combatants in some Third World Countries.

Population growth has accelerated in the 22 countries comprising the Arab League. Between 1980 and 2005, their combined populations grew from 167 million to 280 million, a jump of 68 percent. (In the same period, the U.S. population grew 30 percent.) In ten years, Arab League countries could have 50 million jobless youths, up from the present 15 million, frustrated and fuming over the indignities and restraints imposed upon Arabs in the past by colonial powers. Such disaffected populations are seedbeds for Islamist terrorism, fanned by Saudi petrodollars and fanatical Wahabi sectarianism.

Multinational corporations that prefer to do business with corrupt, nondemocratic regimes continue to grow in wealth and influence.

More than 37.2 million adults and 2.2 million children are now infected with HIV. This is more than 50 percent higher than the number predicted by the World Health Organization in 1991. The area of Africa south of the Sahara has 10 percent of the world's population but is home to more than 60 percent of all people living with HIV. In some countries in Africa, HIV/AIDS has reached epidemic proportions. Almost 40 percent of the population of Botswana and Swaziland are infected.

Thanks to increased air transportation, no part of the world is more than 24 hours away from any other part. This facilitates the spread of new strains of old diseases, such as influenza, making worldwide epidemics almost a certainty.

Drug traffic has exploded worldwide and money-rich cartels now have incomes and expenditures exceeding the budgets of many poor nations. In some areas drug trafficking cartels are the de facto government.

Nonrepresentative autocratic Third World governments are promoting religious and ethnic animosities to cover up their own corruption and mismanagement. Fanatical ethnic and religious groups are growing increasingly violent, attracting new adherents in countries in Asia, Africa and South America, especially in areas where effective government is lacking.

Sectarian violence is increasing between clashing evangelizing religions groups (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism) in rapidly growing Third World countries. The United States and Great Britain now occupy Iraq, a Muslim country in the Muslim Middle East, with a largely Christian military force whose presence is resented and exacerbates tensions and concerns throughout the Muslim world. Hostility is growing over the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower.

Despite incontrovertible evidence that the planet is growing warmer as a result of increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, little is being done to curtail our profligate use of hydrocarbon fuels. Competition for the world's dwindling petroleum resources is increasing, spurred by the swelling appetites of new industrial giants like China and India.

Have a nice day.


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