Saturday, December 05, 2015


Wet cement
My chance at immortality
Weather permitting.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Memorable Games

There will always be an England, thank goodness.

The 2012 London Olympic Games concluded last night with a closing ceremony only the English could stage.  Pop stars from the last fifty years, huge fashion photo blowups circling the stadium like mobile billboards, and a host of mod-rockers reminded a worldwide viewing audience precisely how the English view themselves.  Masterpiece Theater this wasn't!

These games were a huge success by any standard.  More than ever they put behind us the Cold War era with its politicized judging and doping scandals.  There are still controversies, to be sure (the Chinese continue to excel at cradle to athletic grave training), but they do not insinuate themselves into individual performances on anything approaching the scale of the past. 

There is still too much volleyball in this viewer's opinion.  The IOC  should choose between beach and indoor versions. The Synchronized swimming, race-walking and rhythmic dancing are not sports either.  Why not include ballet if athleticism and grace are the standards by which sports gain Olympic status?

Reviewing the medals totals of the previous 29 modern Olympiads it is interesting to note how often the host countries excelled in the early years leading up to the middle of the last century.  After that, sports machines and cold warriors took over as the United States, Russia, China and East Germany dominated.

In London, the top three were again the US, China and Russia, but England surged into fourth place with a surprising display in everything from rowing to distance running to boxing.  Their medals total certainly underscores the notion of home-field advantage, but happily the judging was unbiased and ecumenical.  More than a few commentators observed how the English stiff upper lip broadened into a wide smile on many occasions at these Games.

The Games move on to Rio in 2016.  One is tempted to think Carmen Miranda and the samba are waiting in the wings if London's homegrown extravaganza was any indication.  Apart from the ceremonies, however, Brazil will be hard-pressed to outdo the successes in London.  These were truly sporting events to remember.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Games Do Go On

The Beijing Olympics have ended. Next up is London, which will host the games in 2012. To mark the occasion, thousands of Chinese bathed in glowing hues passed the torch to an aging rock-and-roller, an ex-patriot soccer player and a double-decker bus. There will always be an England.

The games just concluded were notable for their majestic opening and closing ceremonies of astonishing human coordination and spectacle punctuated by nearly colorless performances save for Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. A few other Olympians might have impressed but NBC never gave them a chance to show themselves in prime time. Instead, with an always obsequious Bob Costas serving as host, NBC's delayed broadcasts disproportionately featured beach volleyball with Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who, frankly, became a household joke among many viewers I know. Serve, set, spike. Serve, set, spike. We learned far more than any of us ever wanted to know about this duo than about any other athlete save Phelps and his mother. Meanwhile, many traditional Olympic sports of longer-standing pedigree were given short shrift. Give the Peacock network a perfect ZERO for a sense of proportion if nothing else.

The host city looked magnificent in televised images, especially those breathtaking aerial views of a modern city deliberately and effectively sanitized for its prolonged moment in the spotlight. Nobody does diving, table tennis and limited access better than the Chinese. Still, there was no taking away from the impression that China is ascendant, energetic, efficient, ebullient and determined. The Chinese government may control every aspect of life tightly -- abusing human rights with little or no constraint, displacing hundreds of thousands of inconveniently located citizens, placing barriers in front of unsightly sites -- but they also encourage the pursuit of excellence in many facets of human endeavor while the West, especially the United States, continues to expend enormous energy trying to legislate private morality.

Ever since Nazi Germany the Olympic subtext has been national and racial superiority. Jesse Owens' lonely assault on Arian supremacy was followed by the playing out of the Cold War pitting Soviet collective superiority, the East German sports and doping machine and Cuba's export of revolution against the rugged individualism of America and, to a lesser extent, her allies. By 1968 small portions of the American team itself were in open rebellion and in 1972 terrorism in its now familiar face thrust itself into the middle of the games.

The Chinese are too smart and ambitious to cast the Beijing games in such Manichean terms, but make no mistake they were out to prove the superiority of their system of near cradle to contested teenage years worth of unrelenting regimented training of their athletes. Though the Chinese overall medal count fell short of the Americans, the total of Gold Medals garnered by their Olympians topped all comers by a wide margin.

No one remembers who came in second. England, take note.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The New Order

Among the most famous ongoing gags from the first season of Saturday Night Live was the one in which Chevy Chase, anchoring the news on Weekend Update, would announce breaking developments that "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!" The Spanish dictator had lingered on his deathbed for months before succumbing and the major networks had felt compelled to broadcast updates of the death watch continually. SNL went them one better.

During the intervening 33 years much has changed in Spain. (See my post immediately below.) Yesterday, the last of Franco's Spain was buried for good as the Spanish national soccer team captured the Euro 2008 crown and announced to the entire world, not just the sporting portion of it, that a new order reigned in modern Spain.

The win by Spain over a good but not great German squad was the Spaniards first international triumph in a major championship in forty-four years. It wasn't as if Spanish soccer had suddenly improved. The Spaniards were always highly regarded; indeed, by most accounts, Spanish soccer during the intervening decades was characterized by high expectations, considerable skill and consistent under achievement. The reasons were many but the one most cited by the experts was the fractious regionalism of the country itself, a legacy of Franco's vengeful authoritarianism. Apparently, those internecine hostilities invariably undermined the teams Spain assembled and sent forth to do battle. More than once a better player was left off an international squad simply because an Asturian or Andalusian player was needed to fill out the team's quota of choosing members from every corner of the Peninsula.

The 2008 squad was different, however. In assembling it, the coaches and powers-that-be chose the best players regardless of the cities and towns of their native birth. Instead of Galicians or Catalans they chose Spaniards. If all of the best players were natives of the same village, so be it! The result was a swift, skilled and aggressive team who were among the favorites coming into the tourney and who played up to and beyond expectations throughout it.

Now they are champions and all of Spain is celebrating. They are a fitting symbol of the new order. The old one is buried and best forgotten.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Spain Then And Now

My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Granada, Sevilla and Madrid. For my wife this was her second visit to Spain and first to Andalusia. For me it was my fourth overall and the first time I revisited the south in forty years.

The Spain I first knew as a student in Granada and Madrid in 1966 and 1968 is long gone. Then it was a dictatorship, ostracized by the West for Franco's "neutrality" in WWII, and sealed off from its neighbors by a combination of its own paranoia and slow recovery from a brutal Civil War. Politically and religiously deeply conservative, it hardly benefited from the largess of the Marshall Plan unless, of course, one considers the location of a major American airbase and sub base on its soil beneficial to the local economy.

Today, it can be argued Spain is one of the most liberal countries of Western Europe in many respects. Vibrant, progressive, thriving, vital. One sees it everywhere from the sophistication of Madrid, which four decades ago was a dowdy and officious capital in name only, to the extensive public recycling and conservation projects. Cultural life and national patrimony, always rich, are experiencing a renaissance. The Prado, one of the world’s great museums, has expanded and is now one of three important museums within walking distance of each other, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia forming the other two-thirds of this golden triangle. Everywhere there are signs of urban renewal and reclamation.

Forty-two years ago when I first landed in Spain, the generation that fought its Civil War, a conflict that inflamed world passions as much as Vietnam did in ours, was exhausted and spent. By comparison, today's youth have grown up in a democratic society whose transition has been relatively smooth. (The 1981 coup attempt, shockingly recent but virtually overlooked when one considers post-Franco Spain, was never really a serious threat to the new state.)

Reminders of the Civil War are still present in unexpected places, the Reina Sofia Museum with its most prized possession Guernica being principal among them. (In an adjoining room a propaganda film runs continuously. Made during the Civil War, it pleads the Republican cause. In another, Robert Capa's pictures from the Civil War fill the walls. And the Guernica does not sit alone; all of Picasso’s prepatory sketches line the adjacent walls and enrich our understanding of his intense probing for the final expression of his grief and outrage.

In conversations with a few cab drivers I asked what had become of “los grises”, the gray-clad police one saw everywhere, and of the Guardia Civil, their tri-cornered black hats and green uniforms a common and intimidating sight? Both drivers referred to these vestiges of Franco’s police state as “bastards” and “thugs”, public utterances that would have literally been dangerous in the past. The Guardia Civil can still be glimpsed maintaining their vigil at public buildings, military installations and other sensitive sites, but their public presence is much less conspicuous, Behind the scenes, however, they remain an important national police force. Los Grises have been replaced by a more modern looking force, just as formidable in appearance, but not nearly as plentiful.

Despite these reminders of the Franco years, for Spain's worldly youth of today the Civil War is not really that much closer than the Peloponnesian War. Their war is the global one on terror and in Madrid, especially, they know its effects all too well. Not only do the airports have the now-standard security practices, so do the train stations with high-speed service to the capital, their platforms guarded by checkpoints and screening devices. Internal strife has not altogether disappeared, either. In the north of Spain, ETA, weakened but hardly extinct, continues to wreak havoc. The day we departed for the U.S., the separatists killed a civil guard in a bomb attack.

In the Spain of 1966, 27 years after the Civil War ended, the streets were still filled with beggars, the blind, the disabled and the walking wounded (less politically correctly referred to then as "mutilados"). They are largely gone now, too, most from old age and disease, but no state can simply banish the disabled from its midst. Today Spain has developed a sophisticated health care system and social services network (what Western European nation today is not offering better health care for ALL of its citizens than the US?) that doesn't simply warehouse people in the streets. There were two big lottery systems in the ‘60’s, the national and the one specifically sold by and benefiting the blind. The latter has been replaced by ONCE, an organization that uses proceeds from lottery sales to provide employment for the disabled. Their kiosks have replaced the wooden stools of four decades ago.

Some things never change, fortunately. Each evening, all of Spain still enjoys the paseo, the stroll during which every ambulatory inhabitant of the peninsula sallies forth. Joining them each night, Ellen and I made note of the physical evidence of Spain's evolution since my first visit. The oldest generation invariably features a husband and wife of decidedly small stature and, most interesting, nearly equal height. The middle-aged generation, on the other hand, is taller than their predecessors with the differences in height between men and women more pronounced. And the younger generation? They are much taller, with the full range of body types and heights (though very little obesity). They look like, well, everyone else their age throughout the Western hemisphere and Europe.

Spain has literally grown.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Adventures Of A Craigslister

In the weeks leading up to our recent move from suburban Wynnewood to Center City Philadelphia my wife and I concluded we needed to divest ourselves of some possessions. We were motivated by more than a desire to reduce the overall load and thus expense of moving; several pieces of furniture we owned had either outlasted their usefulness or we had come to the conclusion they were never very useful in the first place!

To our surprise, nearly everything we owned, especially furniture, was a candidate for deaccession. Having heard of craigslist for years, I decided to investigate what was involved in listing our items for sale there. To my delight, the process was simple and the cost nothing.

Among the items failing to meet our criteria for surviving the move was an antique wooden baby crib we rediscovered in our basement. It had resided there, disassembled, ever since our last move nearly seventeen years before. We brought it upstairs, dusted it off and began to reassemble it, no mean feat since it was put together with dowels and grooved slots rather than hardware and had two rows of spindles on its long sides that had to be aligned in order to fit the top railing on them. After 45 minutes we had the piece reassembled and I photographed it for posting that evening, a Sunday.

Monday morning I turned on the computer in my home office at 7:30AM and there was a response that began the way nearly every inquiry about a listing on craigslist begins: was it still available? Unlike the live auctions on Ebay where the bid status and remaining time are clearly posted, one never knows if an item on craigslist is still available unless, of course, it has been sold and the owner, not wishing to receive more emailed inquiries, deletes the listing.

I replied to the email informing the sender the item was indeed still available and provided my phone number suggesting she call. Within minutes I received another email asking whether or not it was too early to call. "Of course not," I replied. "Aren't we communicating now?" A few minutes passed and the phone rang. It was Sally.

"I love the crib. It reminds me of the one that was in my grandmother's house. When can I come see it?"

"Anytime you would like," I answered. "I work at home. When would you like to come?"

"How's Thurday?"

"Fine. I will send you directions. Where are you coming from?"

"Steubenville, Ohio."

"You're kidding," I blurted out.

"No," she said. "We just moved here from Spokane, Washington. Where is Wynnewood?"

"Just outside Philadelphia, clear across Pennsylvania," I said, simultaneously looking up "Steubenville" on Google maps.

"Great. We are just on the other side of the Ohio border. I've never seen Pennsylvania," Sally enthused.

"Well, I cannot say the trip across the Pennsylvania turnpike is exactly enchanting," I warned her.

"No problem. Send the directions. I will be there Thursday."

I hung up and appended directions from Steubenville, OH, to the directions to our house I already had pre-saved on my computer. I emailed them to Sally.

A few hours later my phone rang. It was Sally.

"My mom and I had to drive into Pennsylvania this morning to pick up a used laminated countertop we are installing in my sisters's house. Anyway, we figured we were already in Pennsylvania so we might as well keep on coming. Can we come today?"

Flabergasted, I said, sure. Sally further informed me she had left her house before my email with the directions arrived. I told her to take the turnpike all the way east and call me when she was approaching the Valley Forge exit. From there I would walk her through the rest of the trip. I glanced at my watch and calculated she should arrive some time around 4PM.

Four o'clock came and went and no call from Sally. At 4:30 I called her cell phone.

"Sally, where are you?"

"We just passed through Fulton County," she replied.

Again, I consulted Google maps. "Fulton County!! You aren't even half way here. What happened?"

"We got lost getting from the place where we bought the countertop back to the turnpike."

"The hard part comes on this end," I moaned. "OK, call me when you hit Valley Forge."

At 6:45PM the call came. Sally handed the phone to her mother who wrote down the directions. I told her to call me as she approached our street and I would meet her outside. Our house was one of several in a small group of Tudor homes known as English Village and it was confusing to visitors as to which driveway belonged to which home.

As she approached the house Sally dutifully called and I went outside. A minute later a huge double-cab pickup with a camper on the bed rounded the corner. I waved and Sally pulled over. Out jumped Sally, all 5'2" X 5'2" X 5'2" of her. Next came her mother, all 5'1" X 5'1" X 5'1" of her!

They were covered in plaster dust, which Sally explained came from some of the demolition work they'd been doing earlier that morning at her sister's house. The camper was also covered with dust and mud as well. Clearly it had seen some hard living.

"Would you like to come in and use the bathroom?" I asked.

"Sure, but can we see the crib?"

I took them into the living room, where the crib was standing, and Sally immediately exclaimed, "It's gorgeous!"

They freshened up and we took the crib outside and carefully loaded it into the camper, which was occupied by a ten foot long laminated kitchen countertop that projected part way out the back of the truck. After the crib was loaded and secured Sally asked me, "Do you have any other antiques or old things for sale?"

"We do have a quilt I was about to list."

"Great. Let's see."

I brought out the quilt and opened it up. Sally never hesitated. "How much?"

"One hundred dollars," I said.

"I'll take it." Sally's mother peeled off another two fifties from the roll.

While all of this was going on my wife ascertained Sally was 32 years old and the mother of eight children. They had moved from Spokane to Steubenville because they were Catholic and they wanted to live in a community where there were more Catholics. She could have stopped in Chicago, I mused, but I thought better of saying anything.

When everything was paid for and loaded Sally asked where there were some restaurants and motels near by where they could spend the night. They also asked if Valley Forge was worth visiting. I told her there were plenty of places to eat and stay nearby in King of Prussia, PA, and that the area was also convenient to Valley Forge. I looked up some names of motels in King of Prussia, gave them directions and off they went.

I calculated by the end of this little excursion Sally and her mom would have driven at least 700 miles or more to buy a crib and quilt, would spend a large sum on gasoline for a vehicle that probably got 8 miles to the gallon downhill, spend a night in a motel and eat at least a few meals in restaurants. I also concluded they appeared pleased as punch about the whole thing and so were we.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cheap Entertainment

Democracy, as we all know, is messy and no where is that more apparent than on craigslist, the every man's eBay.

My wife and I have been packing our belongings, preparing for a move back into the heart of Philadelphia after nearly sixteen years in the suburbs. In so doing, we have tried to abide by a few simple rules when trying to determine whether or not to keep something or sell it: (1) if we haven’t used an item in several years, out it goes; and (2), if a piece of furniture was acquired cheaply long ago and hasn't improved with age, it's time to sell. Toward that end, craigslist, has been of calculable albeit modest value financially and incalculable value as a form of cheap entertainment. My wife and I have literally had hysterics on numerous occasions, not over some of the things we’ve seen listed but rather with regards to the pictures people post with their items.

Hard as it may be to believe, there are a substantial number of pictures posted that are badly out of focus. That's right, utterly and hopelessly out of focus. It’s difficult to imagine what the sellers were thinking. If someone agrees it is very useful to include pictures of an item they wish to sell, takes one digitally, sees instantly it is out of focus, and says, what they heck, that’s good enough, one has to wonder about the written description of said item, which presumably requires more effort. (We will ignore for the moment all of the dark pictures posted. Not everyone can be a good photographer when it comes to lighting, but nearly everyone should be able to focus.)

Then there are those budding entrepreneurs who take their digital pictures vertically, which display horizontally unless they rotate the images 90 degrees CW when processing them out in the various software programs available. Yet, many don’t bother. Instead, they post the picture sideways, in essence saying, if someone wants this thing, let him crane his neck! Some sellers actually post multiple pictures and all appear sideways. Once in a great while someone else will post a picture upside down! We laugh until it hurts.

Then there are the pictures of, say, bookshelves surrounded by clutter on all sides and in front, literally spilling over with knick-knacks, books and other flotsam and jetsam. It is nearly impossible to see through all the clutter to the item itself. You know it's there, holding up all that junk, but it's difficult to determine what color it is let alone its condition. And what are we to make of those sellers who take multiple pictures of, say, a breakfront or cabinet, and post as many as three or four views, all of them close-ups that fail to show what the overall piece looks like?

It’s all so entertaining...and it's free.

Friday, November 03, 2006

They Always Get Their Man

The other evening I was preparing to undergo a sleep study at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. As the technician readied me for the test with an assortment of wires, leads, patches and other small indignities, I turned on the television to watch some local news.

During the broadcast, Fox 29’s crack investigative team presented their latest "triumph" in the station's ongoing effort to weed out the scoundrels and miscreants in our midst. In this case they had been surveiling a city worker from Wilmington, DE, who was apparently double-dipping. Our crack investigative team followed this fellow, a water meter reader, as he drove to work one morning in his company car. Once there, he went inside, presumably punched in, and then departed to make his rounds. Or at least that's what his boss must have assumed. But not our crack investigative team, who soon revealed that the subject drove to where his own car was parked, changed into a different "uniform" and reported to work at another institution where he spent the majority of his day laboring. From there, our crack investigative team followed him as he returned to his city-issued car, changed back into his Water Dept. uniform, reported back to said Department, and presumably punched out.

Later in the piece, our crack investigative team confronted the worker and asked him whether or not he thought what he was doing was fair and balanced, a rhetorical question if ever there was one (and one tinged with a bit of irony considering the network doing the asking). Naturally, the double-dipper wasn't happy about being questioned on camera. In fact later in the broadcast, on a separate occasion, the subject got more than a little huffy when the crack investigator pressed the point.

So, what was this scoundrel doing on the taxpayers' dime and dollar, our crack investigative team wondered out loud no less than 25 times during the piece? It turns out he was on the payroll for Habitat for Humanity. Yes, that's right, our double-dipper was helping to build shelters for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Not Toll Brothers. Not Hovnanian. He was working for Habitat for Humanity. Now, I am not excusing his malfeasance in the least, but I have to admit I was a little bit ambivalent when I learned just who he was working for when he should have been working for the good people of Wilmington.

So, by the way, was the technician who was prepping me for the sleep study. He kept repeating over and over again, "Habitat for Humanity??!! They're going after this guy and he's working for Habitat for Humanity??!!"

Our crack investigative team didn't stop there. They interviewed the local head of Habitat for Humanity who admitted on camera he was both surprised and dismayed to learn of his employee's double life. Our crack investigative team was unsuccessful in interviewing the head of the Wilmington Water Dept. but we can be sure being the crack investigative journalists they are they will pursue the matter to the end.

I don't know about you, but I wanted to sleep a whole lot better that night, wires notwithstanding, knowing that of all the double-dippers in all the world our crack investigative team leaned on this one. I wanted to, but couldn't!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween In The 21st Century

For the second consecutive Halloween the number of trick or treaters at our front door was down from the previous year. Despite the overall decline, the usual suspects emerged out of the darkness including witches, devils, fairies, princesses, ghosts, cowboys and girls and people dressed up as urinals. Yes, that's right, every year at least one unabashed youngster dresses up as a urinal and cruises our neighborhood. When the child in question rings our doorbell instead of extending a plastic jack-o-lantern, pillow case or paper bag for the candy, he or she points to a depository clearly ringed by a toilet seat. As of this writing, the transaction is not accompanied by a flushing sound, but, no doubt, that will come when a new, improved version of the outfit containing an embedded microchip hits the stores.

This year's assortment of revelers did mark a new departure in behavior, however. At least six of them arrived at our door throughout the course of the evening and extended their containers with one hand while talking on cell phones with the other. Like those people in a check-out line who reach into their wallets or sign a credit card receipt while simultaneously carrying on a conversation on their cell phones, these youngsters were too otherwise engaged to utter the usual "Happy Halloween" or "Trick or Treat". Instead, they gathered up their goods and, still chatting away, moved on with just a nod.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Shredding The Past

I shred my past last week. Not entirely, as it turned out, but a sizeable portion including most of last fifteen years or so.

All of this effort was in anticipation of moving to a new home that will likely be half of the size of our existing residence. Among the first casualties of such relocations are the drawers and boxes of documents one accumulates. In my case, this meant both business (I work at home) and personal records, those generated on my own and the collected works of my marriage.

In an era of hyper-consciousness and sensitivity with regards to identity theft, one must go to extra lengths to insure nothing of use to the criminal mind is discarded intact. Financial statements. Bank statements. Cancelled checks. Credit card statements. Correspondence from the IRS. Each document must be inspected to determine if it must be retained or can be safely discarded as is or must be reduced to slivers of paper.

Some documents escape the shredder. Investment transactions showing cost bases are a must lest one wants to risk paying the maximum capital gains if audited. Correspondence regarding legal matters lives to see another day, though hopefully not in court. Depreciation schedules, any accountant will tell you, merit a very long shelf life.

Of course the most fascinating aspect of this exercise is the opportunity afforded to review one’s life. There’s really nothing quite like a stroll through a given year’s business records to jog the memory regarding a certain client’s parsimony. And who would imagine that a simple invoice could stir recollections of a difficult project and its successful execution? Receipts for purchases long since discarded or outdated reminded me how quickly tastes and technology change. Did I really pay over $1400 for a fax machine in 1987?! How many times did we use that treadmill?

A few boxes contained personal correspondence, some of it with people whom I hardly recalled or with whom I had lost touch long ago. There were numerous letters from the potter from Lopez Island via Cambridge and Nairobi who drifted in and out of my life over the course of a year or two. I reread a few of them before concluding there was nothing they could add to the already faded memories. There were newspaper clippings from a boyhood friend who inexplicably stopped talking to me after fifty years. One packet contained all of my report cards from elementary school through high school, dutifully saved by my mother. When she moved into a retirement community several years ago, my brother and I helped her discard some of her own past (and ours). The report cards, among other items, escaped the waste basket then and made themselves comfortable in my home. Now they had to go, but not before I reviewed them carefully for signs of who I was to become.

By the end of the week I had produced sufficient recycled matter to require seven separate trips to the town dump. Each time, I filled my car – trunk, back seat and front passenger seat – with 30 gallon garbage bags brimming with shredded paper. And each time I returned home to survey the situation, looked around and much to my chagrin realized I’d hardly made a dent. By all appearances, nothing had changed. Everything looked more or less the same as when I started. After all, virtually everything I shredded had been out of sight in the first place, in file drawers, cabinets and storage boxes.