Sunday, September 30, 2007

Thanks to Rob and let's hear it for the Sox

First, let me say thanks to all who checked in during the holiday and Sabbath period.

It's the same thing next week as Jews finish out the holiday season with a two-day holiday in which the high point is the finishing of the Torah reading and restarting it. The joyous holiday of Simchas Torah marks the reading of the last passages of the Five Books of Moses and the immediate start to reading it all over again.

Not all Jews mark the holiday in that way. Some Conservative and Reform congregations use a triennial cycle in which they read the entire Torah every three years. In any case, Simchas Torah is still a joyous holiday marking the never-ending study of the law. As it did last week, the holiday goes right into the Sabbath, so work, including blogging, is forbidden from sundown Wednesday until an hour after sundown Saturday.

Page 2, or what Brown did for us

Although I try to be fair, there is enough wrong going on in the city, region, nation and world to make it seem that all I do is complain. That may not be all that far from the truth, although I hope it is for good reason other than to vent my spleen.

Last week, something so nice happened to my wife and I that I must tell you about it.

On Wednesday, we were in the last part of a frenzy of shopping and preparing for the holiday, not only at home but in our synagogue. We were to host the congregation in our Sukkah, a temporary dwelling we erect this time each year to mark the holiday of Sukkos. We had to prepare a light meal for dozens of people three days in a row. That takes a lot of stuff.

We had unloaded our cars in front of the synagogue and we ready to lug a dozen or more packages, some quite heavy or awkward, when along came Rob.

Rob works for UPS and was delivering a small package to the synagogue when he spied our challenge and immediately asked if he could help. And help he did, moving each one of these packages from the sidewalk to the front door of the synagogue. He was much younger and much more experienced in moving things than we, so he made it look easy, but saved us a lot of time and backaches with his help.

So thank you, Rob. You did a real mitzvah, a good deed. You made our load a lot lighter and our day a lot brighter.

Hurray for Rob.

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Let's hear it for the Red Sox, the American League East champions.

Yes, I know, they were 11 or 14 games in front in May or June and clinched the title and the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs at the last minute. So what? They won.

Everyone who seriously follows any kind of campaign, sport or political, knows that things tighten up as the campaign ends. So it was with the Sox. Manny was not available for 24 games, people kept hitting Youk and J.D. Drew finally woke from his season-long impersonation of Rip van Winkle. But no excuses were necessary, nor would any be offered, unlike the fans of another team I could mention who managed to snag the wild card.

I also feel for the Mets fans...been there, done that. I hope they make the playoffs...I'd love to see a game with Petey (Pedro Martinez) pitching against Josh Beckett.

Again, congrats to the Sox. Keep playing and pulling them out as you did last night (Sept. 29, 2007.)

Now the team has home-field advantage, it means that David Ortiz and Manny need to start warming up their walk-off bats. Big Poppy, you are my granddaughter's favorite player. I know it's a lot of responsibility, but you can handle it.

Until next time...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On banks, mortgages and Ahmadinejad

It's been a while. How have you all been?

This is a busy time for me, what with all the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanna nearly two weeks ago, Yom Kippur last Friday and Saturday (Sept. 21 and 22, 2007) and Sukkos coming up tomorrow night and lasting for eight days, four of which we are forbidden from writing. With the intervening Sabbaths - also no writing - it's hard on the continuity.

At the same time, there has been a lot going on in my life, both as me and as the president of a synagogue where a vital member of the staff has been taken ill and I have had to put in much more time than usual. So, please don't take it personally, or as a lack of interest, if you don't hear from me much in the next week or so. I'll write when I can, so please check in from time to time.

I see that a number of people from across the ponds, as it were, are logging in -- England, Sweden and the Philippines in the last couple of days. Welcome and come back often.

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As a journalist for close to 40 years, it's inbred not to write about things that have happened to one personally -- in other words not to use the column to write about people who have ticked you off.

But on the other hand, if this is happening to us (my wife and I, not the royal we), then it is probably happening to people who don't have the experience and wherewithal to fight back. So, hereby hangs a tail.

You know the bank -- it's got ads with Huns and outlaws pursuing people who use other banks' credit cards. According to the ads, the other banks don't keep their promises. One of the newest is a beautiful young girl kissing first a frog, then a turkey and finally a minotaur in order to turn them into a prince. The catchline is "What's in your wallet?"

Well, we bit. We had some money in an account with a high interest rate, so we opened an account with the "What's in Your Wallet?" bank and asked them to transfer the money into that account with the promise that the interest rate would be X and it would not change while we were paying off the balance.

So far, so good. We got a letter welcoming us. Weeks later, the transfer had not been made so we inquired. Computer glitch, we were told after numerous phone calls, lost calls and the like. Finally, weeks after the first inquiry, we were told the transfer was done.

Now, in comes the statement and the interest charge is 6 points higher than promised because our transfer amount is listed as a purchase, which carries the higher rate. So, on the phone again (sing to the tune of the Willie Nelson theme song).

Now we have dealt with banks in the past, but never run into this. You guys made a mistake, we say. Anyone can make a mistake, although we are reminded of the old James Bond rubric, once is happenstance, twice is circumstance, three is enemy action.

We can't confirm that we made a mistake, they say. We have to do research on this, they say. We'll get back to you, but we can't tell you when, they say.

The next day, we pick up a message. The bank has called and we need to call the Senior Account Management Team. Just call the main number and you will be connected to a team member.

Senior Account Management Team -- this sounds like they think Bill Gates or at least Alberto Gonzalez has called. So we call back. First a machine asks for our account number and ZIP code. Then (I must say quite quickly) a person comes on and asks for our account number and ZIP code. We ask for the Senior Account Management Team, please.

Can't send you there until you tell me your problem, says the voice on the phone. We were told to ask for the Senior Account Management Team, we say. I want to help you but cannot until you tell me your problem, the voice says. We give the voice a synopsis of our problem and say again we were instructed to ask for the SAMT. Music (staticy).

Another voice, this time male, deep and authoritative. Are you with the Senior Account Management Team, we ask. No, says the deep male voice. Can you transfer us to the Senior Account Management Team? Not until you tell me your problem, says the voice. We just went through this with the last person, and we were instructed....

I want to help you but cannot unless you tell me (you get the idea.) By this time, my wife, who is usually calm and collected on the phone, who made her living for 20 years being calm and collected on the phone, is ready to kill. We repeat the synopsis. More staticy music.

A woman this time comes on the phone. Are you with the Senior Account Management Team? Yes.


We ask if she has our file in front of her. Yes. Do you have an answer for us? An answer to what? We give her the synopsis. She says the person we spoke to yesterday has requested that the problem be solved and put that request in right after we spoke yesterday. Couldn't she tell us that yesterday? I don't know why she didn't, says the latest voice. So the problem is solved, right? I can't say that. The request has been put in. That's all I can tell you. Can we get this in writing, we ask. No, says the voice. We don't do that. How will we know, we ask.

It'll be on your next statement. What is our real interest rate as it will be on the next statement, we ask. She tells us the rate we were originally promised. Can't you reduce that to writing and send us an e-mail? No, we don't do that, the voice says. You have to wait until your last statement.

We will wait until our next statement, with bated breath. As far as "What's in Your Wallet?" is concerned, as my old boss Bill Pike used to say with a pointed finger and frowning face "That's Strike 2." One more screw-up and I can tell you what will NOT be in our wallets.

As a journalist, I would have to call the bank, get their side of the story -- why this runaround, who needs this much bureaucracy, does this happen often?

As a blogger and commentator, I can say I don't care. Things like this shouldn't happen. I don't care why they do, or with what frequency, although I'm sure I'm not the only recipient of this frustrating waste of our time. Just fix it.

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It seems the NAACP has sued a number of lenders, saying that blacks were victimized by being given sub-prime mortgages when they might have qualified for conventional mortgage loans. According to The New York Times story by Bob Tedeschi, the NAACP alleges in its suit against 11 major mortgage lenders that blacks were given the subprime loans 30 percent more often than white borrowers with similar financial credentials.

The lawsuit was announced in July, and some of the lenders have come forward to meet with NAACP lawyers to fix the problem. The suit demands regular mortgages for those who were unjustly denied them, and money to cover closing expenses for those people so they won't be financially penalized for being denied what should have been given to them in the first place.

OK so far. Two things caught my eye.

First, there were "a significant number" of African-Americans who said they had been given high-cost loans when they could have qualified for less expensive conventional mortgages. My question is: Why did they do that? Why didn't they seek out the conventional mortgages? If this lender won't give you what you want and what you deserve, take a hike and find someone who will. There are literally hundreds of banks, mortgage bankers, mortgage brokers and other lenders out there who issue mortgages. Sorry, but there has to be some personal responsibility. You need to do your homework.

Secondly, there were folks who said they didn't know they could qualify for conventional mortgages. To the NAACP, the state and federal housing departments, the community action agencies and the lenders: SHAME ON YOU.

The first job of the FHA, the CHFA in Connecticut and other state housing finance entities is education. In this superheated housing market that just crashed in flames, you should have been out there, proactive in seeking out those who might want mortgages, telling them that if they have excellent or even good credit, if they have an appropriate down payment, if they have a good job or a college degree in a profession that promises good income, they should at least seek out a conventional mortgage.

It's bad enough that low-income people with marginal credit and little or no down payment were buying houses they couldn't hope to afford. They needed to be told they were buying nightmares and they needed to be told by people they trusted.

Even more, you need to be there for people who earn a good income, have saved up enough for a reasonable down payment but who may not be sophisticated enough to navigate the mortgage maze. In my opinion, shame on you for letting these folks down.

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It's not often that thinking Americans can have the same reaction to our president and the head of a terrorist state. Maybe that's a bit strong, but not beyond the pale.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the shrimp with a big mouth who heads the government that is responsible for much of the terror in the Middle East and beyond, was at the United Nations today, listening to President Bush. Both deserve the Bronx Cheer.

"The people of Lebanon and Afghanistan and Iraq have asked for our help, and every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand with them," Bush said.

Under Bush, the U.S. has done great things for Afghanistan. We came in there like Gangbusters, stayed too short a time and then pulled out to chase after imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, leaving the new government there to deal with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's folks nearly by themselves.

People will say Ahmadinejad is the real bad guy here. No question -- he is behind Hamas, Hizbollah and is a major reason for the chaos that is the Middle East.. That and our stupid and wasteful attempt to bring true democracy to a country, Iraq, that is truly ruled by tribal leaders and probably should be,

For Ahmadinejad, a little advice. Go home and thank Allah that the worst thing that happened to you here was a tongue-lashing by the president of Columbia University and a group of newsmen letting you make a fool of yourself. Tonight, you will be interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, who will ask you questions and let you weasel-word your way out of answering any hard ones.

For Bush...why bother. Why say anything to a guy who believes in the Disney school of governance: Wishing will make it so.

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I haven't forgotten about the travelogue. Stay tuned.

Until next time...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

To all according to their needs, not their desires

The Fabian socialist credo has been, to paraphrase: To all persons according to their needs, from all persons according to their abilities.

In the perfect Socialist society, everybody gets what they need and contributes what they can. It doesn't matter what you can do, chances are there is a need for it -- from leading the society to picking up its leavings. And in the perfect model, each person only takes what he or she needs and all skills are equally valued.

As air-headed as it seems, it works when people want it to work and need it to work, like in the formation of Israel. Kibbutzim really worked because they were a means to an end -- a modern, safe, self-sufficient Jewish state, not an end in itself. People were willing to sacrifice self for the greater good. And it worked for a while.

It doesn't work any more because some people found their needs to be greater than others'.

If you substitute wants for needs, the whole thing just blows up. Prime example: the housing market over the past few months.

It seems that everyone wanted a house. It was the American see it on television so it must be true. From "Father Knows Best" and "My Three Sons" to today's shows, living in a house is the way to go.

When there is a want like that, there is always someone to take advantage of the people who express that want. So you have people, lots of them, buying houses when they were scraping by, who the numbers show could not possibly afford a house.

The people taking advantage of them are predatory lenders with their subprime mortgages. They offer come-on rates, mumble over or skip the part about a mortgage only being part of the cost of a house and forget about the end of the teaser rate when the payment goes up.

But the "I want a house" crowd is so taken with the concept -- and who's to blame them -- of having your own backyard, of not having to deal with a landlord, of being the king of your own castle.

Now the revolution has begun and the kings are running for their lives. I don't blame them. I blame the regulators who let all this go on. I blame President Bush and his laissez-faire business attitude. I also blame some bankers.

King Solomon, in the Song of Songs, says there is nothing new under the sun. Those of us old enough to remember the housing crisis of the late-80s, knew what was coming. I remember a banker for a bank that was taken down by the huge bankruptcy of a real estate developer.

I had called him to ask about a condo complex that was going up in the Lower Naugatuck Valley. The bank had extended a few millions in credit to the developer for the project. My question was why anyone would want to buy a condo to high on a hill that it would be difficult to reach home in the winter.

The banker was shocked. It's on a high hill?, he exclaimed. The guy had handed over millions of dollars without ever seeing the projected site. The think could have been in the middle of the Naugatuck River for all he knew.

Look, it will all come out. It did in the early 90s and it will now. But many a family dreaming the American dream is now faced with the nightmare of foreclosure, of possible bankruptcy and of starting all over again with lousy credit. And I don't care what the car dealers say, if you have lousy credit, it does make a difference in more ways than you can count.

For those looking at home ownership: Go to a real bank or legitimate mortgage banker or broker. The rule of "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is" really, really is a great guide.

If a real banker is telling you that you cannot afford that house, it is worth giving the idea another good think before jumping into the muddy pool of teaser rates and mumbling salespeople.

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So, the First City Bank, the nonprofit that is financing the city's resident registration cards, is looking for a new leader.

Chandler Howard is heading for the hills of Middletown to be the boss at Liberty Bank.

I gotta tell you -- I have had dealings with Liberty Bank and I don't envy him. I'm not going to say more, but if the woman I dealt with at the Moodus office is any example...

So now, the group needs a new boss. And the bank won't open until later in 2008, rather than near New Year's Day as previously advertised. What does this mean for the illegals who got the city's card and wanted to wait to open their accounts rather than dealing with Sovereign, which needs a passport with the card in order to open an account for the aliens, or Bank of America, which I think will also take the card but probably with another official form of identification. For illegals, official forms of identification may be hard to come by.

It'll be interesting.

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O.J. is out of the clink. A lot of people are saying they hope he gets a long prison term, whether he did this robbery or was set up. They say he should do the time in any case to make up for the other case, when he was acquitted when so many people thought him guilty.

It's not good law, it's certainly not justice, but it is tempting to think like that.

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We'll get back on the road soon for our travelogue into the Land of Dixie It's been quite busy around my life, which is why I'm not writing every day. But please check in. Thanks.

Until next time....

Monday, September 17, 2007

Heading into the heart of Dixie

In spite of the U.S. attorney general nomination, the to-do about the Bella Vista aldermanic race in which a candidate is said to admit she knew neither her constituents nor their problems and the arrest (again) of O.J. Simpson, I am keeping my promise and writing Part 3 of our travelogue.

The first two parts are at for readers who were referred to this post. Those who came here on their own must only hit the down button.

In the last episode, we had spent time in Rockville, Md., visiting relatives and availing ourselves of the great variety of kosher food available in the area, as well as the tourist destinations in Maryland and Washington, D.C., many of which are free and easily reached by Metro.

I will refer from time to time to kosher establishments because my wife and I keep the Jewish dietary laws, but many of these places, including the bed and breakfast we will reach in the next episode, are tops in anyone's league.

We had decided to spend the next Sabbath in Charleston, S.C., because it is a place my wife, Susan, and I had long wanted to visit and the bed and breakfast sounded just wonderful. So, we were in Maryland on Wednesday morning and needed to be in Charleston on Friday afternoon, so we scouted out an intermediate stop.

We thought about the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but feared that roads and weather might take too great a slice out of our time, so we put that off for another time. We wanted a place with a beach and kosher restaurants and were surprised to find both in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

It was a hike from Rockville, but we figured we could spend all day Wednesday driving, and then have all day Thursday and Friday morning for the beach and eating. So off we went.

Interstate 95 is a really boring road in Virginia and North Carolina, but it's the most direct route south, so we dealt with it for hours. The speed limit in North Carolina was 70 for the roads we took, so that was an advantage.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating: Take along some kind of book on tape or CD. The radio in that area is not inspiring, despite NPR's best efforts. We took along two, and nearly played all 22 CDs during the trip.

We took I-40, which leaves I-95 about an hour south of Rocky Mount, N.C. We were tempted to stop in Rocky Mount, which is where New Haven police and a member of the Edgewood self-protection group went to learn about community policing, but were able to conquer the temptation.

I think we stopped for gas in Johnston County, N.C., at a country store that could have been right out of the Andy Griffith Show. The gas pumps were out of the 1970s, with rotating wheels showing the amount purchased and the gallons. I stood in line in back of three locals who seemed to have an overabundance of adrenaline and Gomer Pyle accents.

I-95 and I-40 in North Carolina didn't have any rest stops on the highway, but there were facilities at most exits. The exits were well-marked as to brands of gas or restaurant offered. We stopped at the first Starbucks sign we saw on I-40 and were rewarded with a large, clean truck stop with the advertised Starbucks as well as a large and well-run store carrying everything from candy bars and soda to more serious truckers' needs.

We found the farther south we went, the cheaper the gas became. We filled up for $2.49 a gallon in Charleston the third week of August, and could have saved a couple of cents a gallon if we searched further.

After couple of hours cruising along at 70-plus, we left I-40 near the Outer Banks and the USS North Carolina for the ubiquitous U.S. 17, which led us into North Myrtle Beach. Route 17 follows the coast from North Carolina all the way to Charleston and Savannah, Ga (it actually starts at the Maryland-Virginia border near Frederick. At times, it's a quick four-lane road devoid of traffic lights. The Business Route 17 is like the Boston Post Road, lined with all manner of businesses.

We reached our hotel, a Best Western in North Myrtle Beach, and found it to be as advertised and actually a bit cheaper than Orbitz had quoted. We're still trying to get that straightened out.

That night, we learned the difference between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach-- the hard way. They're two separate municipalities separated from each other by two other municipalities. They do, however, roads with the same names. You have to ask whether something is in North or regular. We were looking for a restaurant on 8th Avenue North, which was a couple of blocks from our hotel in North Myrtle Beach. We found only houses in the vicinity.

The restaurant was in Myrtle Beach, more than half-hour's drive away. We were glad to have LaBriute meals with us. We later walked on the beach, along with many others, and watched professionally handled fireworks miles away (legal) and the ones set off by kids a few feet away (also probably legal--this is South Carolina).

The next day, we sampled the wonderfully warm surf, the Lazy River and the pool at our hotel. We walked on the beach a lot and got the lay of the land. We headed for Myrtle Beach and Jerusalem Cafe, a kosher restaurant-store run by Israeli transplants. The falafel and hummas were really good...the rest so-so. The next day, we found the other kosher restaurant, Cafe M, where we had a good breakfast and got a quite good tuna and veggie wraps to take on the road.

Myrtle Beach is a mix of Cape Cod on steroids and Las Vegas, plus lots and lots of golf courses. People from the North come to plan golf most of the year, and there are courses catering to all levels of expertise. There are also enough bars to keep the golfers well oiled, including a few "gentlemen's clubs."

For those who play mini-golf, there are all kinds of those courses, too, from plain to extra fancy. If you love souvenir and T-shirt shops, just send in your change of address form. The place has one after another after another. You get the idea.

Myrtle Beach lived up to expectations, but that's enough for today. Next time, heading even farther south into Dixie as we get to Charleston, where the War Between the States began and hasn't yet ended.

Until next time...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

City can be democratic while being Democratic

The only people who were surprised by the Democratic-primary results in New Haven yesterday (Sept. 11, 2007) were those who also are surprised that the sun comes up each morning and always rises in the East.

That still doesn't mean that the city has to move politically in lockstep.

In my home ward, the 26th, Sergio Rodriguez handily beat Alan Felder in a vote against background of a federal investigation into whether Rodriguez's running for re-election while holding a job with the New Haven Housing Authority, which gets federal funding, violates federal law. That law forbids people who work for agencies getting federal money from running for public office. Eight of the other nine races ended with mayoral-backed candidates defeating those backed by unions or otherwise running against City Hall. New Haven is that kind of town.

As a journalist in Meriden and Hartford and Westhersfield and Southington, I had never registered with a political party because it's a conflict of interest. That rule is waived for reporters, editors, columnists and editorialists who live in New Haven because to be anything other than a registered Democrat in the city is to disenfranchise yourself.

The Democratic party that has a stranglehold on New Haven politics has almost always had one head -- boss has such a negative ring. New Haven and Connecticut have a long tradition of united leadership. In Connecticut during the good old days, If you wanted a job in state government or to run for state office, you saw John M. (Bailey). If you wanted to run for office in New Haven, you went to see Arthur (Barbieri). That's just the way it was.

The leaders made sure you weren't a complete idiot and that you knew which side your bread was buttered on. so jerks like John Rowland and Joe Ganim and especially Phil Giordano don't get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and gum up the works.

So New Haven is and probably will always be a one-party town. There used to be about one-tenth the number of Republicans registered as Democrats, with about three times the number of independents as Republicans.

That doesn't mean that the Board of Aldermen has to go along. There were some pretty nasty intramural spats during the development craze of the 1980s in New Haven, as I remember.

The aldermen who signed off on (rubber-stamp has such a negative ring) the Shartenberg giveaway can start by looking critically at what the mayor offers. That includes you, Sergio.

In shining the light of publicity on your employment situation with the Housing Authority, Alan Felder did you a big favor. It's out in the open now. You can go from here with no fear or favor, except to the people of the 26th Ward.

It's the same with all the aldermen and alderwomen. Just because you sit one the same side of the political aisle with the administration doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they do. I wish the Republicans in Congress would learn that lesson -- there would be fewer Americans dying and being horribly injured in Iraq while Osama bin Laden thumbs his newly darkened beard at us from Afghanistan or Pakistan or wherever he's hiding out.

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Just a note about yesterday.

Six years ago, another Democratic primary had to be postponed on Sept. 11 because of the unwarranted and dastardly attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and Flight 93 over Pennsylvania.

As a journalist, I had worked on coverage of such events as the deaths of three popes, the Challenger disaster, TWA 800, Lockerbie, a number of wars around the globe, Entebbe, innumerable elections and the like, But Sept. 11 was was more personal. I was working for Gannett in Westchester. I remember driving to work on Sept. 11. I don't think I ever got below 85 mph. The cops seemed to know, and although I must have passed a half-dozen sitting on the side of the road, nobody challenged me.

We put out an extra that afternoon. Usually, reporters and photographers put on their armor when they covered an event in which people have died, but this time, they came back shell-shocked. You could see it in their eyes. They were covered with a grey or white ash-like substance, especially the camera people. Few talked about what that was and when someone asked, we said it was all cement and building materials and paper residue. One photographer had snapped his shutter 10 seconds after the famous flag-raising shot was taken by a New Jersey shooter. He got the scene with the flag already up. That picture was Page 1, and it was a crap shoot about which was the better photo. The other one got the nod, not because it was a better photo but because someone picked it up.

After the press rolls on most major stories, you sit in your chair and are exhausted but also exhilarated. You want to have a drink somewhere with colleagues and swap stories, savor the moment.

It was different with Sept. 11. On Sept. 11, you just wanted to go home and take a shower. Although you didn't get any of that grey-white sustance on you physically, you needed to wash it off emotionally.

There were weeks and months of coverage after Sept. 11. Newspaper colleagues from Oklahoma City sent suggestions on coping. They were experts after covering what had been the nation's greatest terror disaster up until that time. Mental-health professionals were brought in. Human resources distributed materials on stress disorder.

Despite all that, nobody who went into that pit during those first hours and days or anyone who talked to or even looked at those who had descended into that pit will ever be the same. The families of those who will never return, victims whose bodies or clothing or hair made up part of that awful grey-white ash, are still trying to cope.

Six years later, we are all still trying to cope.

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Tonight (Sept. 12, 2007), Jews all over the world will mark Rosh Ha'Shana, the start of the High Holy Day season. This year, the two-day festival runs into Shabbos, so observant Jews will not work, or write, or be plugged into the world.

This blog is therefore shut down until after Shabbos, which probably means Monday.

To all of those in the Tribe, have a wonderful New Year celebration and a great Shabbos.

For those who have read the first two installments of the travelogue, please be patient a few more days for the next installment: Heading into the Heart of Dixie. It will come. Really.
For those who have not read it, please see

Until next time...

Friday, September 7, 2007

Ciao, Giorgio, and maybe Ciao, Sergio

What's with Sergio?

Sergio Rodriguez, the 26th Ward alderman, works for New Haven's housing authority and thereby hangs a tale.

According to the New Haven Independent, his Democratic rival for the aldermanic seat, Alan Felder, has challenged Rodriguez's right to run for re-election because of his job with the housing authority. The federal Office of Special Counsel is looking into whether Rodriguez's candidacy violates the federal Hatch Act, which forbids people who work for agencies receiving federal funds for running for public office.

According to the Independent story, Rodriguez says a loophole in the law allows him to serve and run.

One wonders whether this arrangement meets the conflict of interest test, which should have no loopholes.

Our system of government calls for checks and balances -- a legislative branch, in this case the Board of Aldermen, balancing and checking up on the actions of the executive branch, in this case Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

Although the Housing Authority isn't technically a part of city government, it really is. If the mayor asks that the agency find a job for somebody, they usually get the job since the head of the agency is a mayoral appointment.

I guess the question then is whether our alderman can be truly independent of the mayor's office and do his checking and balancing. The vote on the Shartenberg site proves that they cannot. This giveaway is even worse than the deals the late Biagio DiLieto made with David Chase's companies that gave Chase the Shartenberg site. At least then, the city got City Hall renovated as part of the deal that allowed Chase to build the Connecticut Financial Center next door to City Hall on Church Street.

Part of that deal was that Chase was supposed to build a parking garage on the Shartenberg site. Obviously, that was never done, but the city did get back the site, one of the most valuable in the city because it takes up the block on Chapel Street between State and Orange streets. Now, it sold the site, worth millions, to the developer for $1.

On the other hand, Sergio Rodriguez has been a popular and responsive alderman. I watched him at a block watch meeting last month. The residents obviously liked and respected their alderman. Residents said later that he had been excellent at returning calls and trying to solve problems. He kept prompting residents to call him with problems.

He did, however, seem to have a "what can you do" attitude on problems where he would have to knock heads with the mayor's office.

There's a primary in the 26th Ward, among others, for the Democratic nomination. Those who feel that the conflict of Rodriguez's employment is a deal-breaker must vote for his opponent, who obviously is an unknown quantity.

The Independent framed the race as pro-City Hall against anti-City Hall, especially with regard to the city's laissez-faire attitude for undocumented aliens. It is rarely that simple.

My politics mentor, the late George Athanson, said history teaches that those out of power favor change until they get into power, and then oppose change. So if Alan Felder is activist to get into power, he may find that the only way to get along is to go along, a position that would put him in the same box Rodriguez finds himself.

It's a lot to think about, which is a nice change, since there is often no contest for alderman.

Think about it, then go out and vote, as long as the feds allow you to have a choice.

Rest well, Luciano

Back in the late 1970s, my wife and I, along with our young daughter, were living in the wilds of Moodus, Conn., and watching the world through a black and white television set. That changed after we watched an opera singer on PBS. Even through the tinny speaker of the tiny set, a brilliance and wonderful love of the music came through.

We ran out and bought a color set with much better speakers. It was worth it to hear the wonderful voice of Luciano Pavarotti and to see the great operatic performances being offered.

Pavarotti died this week at age 71, not from the high living and overeating, but from cancer of the pancreas.

I never met Pavarotti but he was instrumental in getting me a job.

I was applying for an editor's job at what became The Journal News, Gannett's papers in Westchester County, N.Y., after a stint at the New York Daily News that ended when the late Robert Maxwell bought the paper and laid off hundreds of workers, including me.

One of the questions on a general-knowledge test was to identify Placido Domingo. I said he was the second best lyric tenor in the world. Phil Hall, the managing editor who was doing the hiring, called me into his office and asked me what I meant by that answer, since Domingo was obviously a much better singer than "that overweight clown", meaning Pavarotti. I countered that I didn't even consider "that carpetbagger Domingo" worthy of sharing a stage with my Luciano, since Domingo started out life as a baritone and had admitted he became a tenor because that's where the best roles were.

We had a delightful 45-minute debate and, after I reminded him I was there for a job interview, he said he had no doubt about my abilities as an editor, but would never allow me to be a music critic. He hired me the next day.

We have delighted in Pavarotti over the decades, including the Three Tenors. I even enjoyed his "Yes, Giorgio" movie where the 300-plus pound tenor played a sex symbol opera singer. His love for life and food will always be remembered, but it was his singing, his soaring voice, his ability to sing near high C in almost a whisper, his multi-octave range that will always live.

Thank heaven we live in an era where, unlike the great Enrico Caruso, there are methods of sound reproduction that can capture his wonderful renditions for the ages.

Sleep well, Luciano, confident that your voice can now take its heavenly rightful place.

By the way, the Go South travelogue will resume next week with Heading Into the Heart of Dixie

Until next time...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Heading south as it rains on our little parade

We had reservations for our trip, but not about it.

So, on a soggy Sunday, we headed for the Mason-Dixon Line, the invisible barrier between North and South. Maryland, our first stop, is below the line, although it was kept in the North camp during the Civil War by troops from nearby Washington.

Talking to the people in four Southern states, we found two things were universally true: the Civil War is neither considered civil nor called civil -- it's called the War Between the States and it hasn't ended. There has been a truce in the minds of many Southerners for the past 142 years, but they have not lost.

It's good to keep in mind that the wounds of war, although not physically maintained except in some historical restorations, are still felt in many quarters.

So, on a soggy Sunday, we took Mapquest's advice and headed across the George Washington Bridge and I-95, headed for Rockville, Md., where my stepmother lives in a wonderful assisted-living residence that's part of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

It was not an easy journey. Please see

I didn't want to expand too much on it at the time, since we were on our journey and one is loath to let all and sundry know that one is away from home, for unfortunate but obvious reasons.

Stay to the left: geographic, not political, advice

Heading south on I-95, we found a number of truths: First, the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike, we found, were cleaner, better maintained and had more of what we were looking for than those in Delaware and Maryland. The gas is also cheaper, although it is not self-service and the people who pump gas, we have found, are sometimes a bit slow.

Although gas in Connecticut is still around $3.00 a gallon, we bought gas in South Carolina for $2.49 a gallon and could have saved a couple of cents on that by searching a bit more.

In any case, in order to get to Maryland, you need to cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and then continue south on I-95, the Delaware Turnpike, all 11 miles of it. That will cost you $6. Get an E-ZPass before you go. Just do it.

Whatever you do, stay to the left when paying the bridge toll. It's not well-marked, but take our word for it. You see, after the bridge toll, there are two ways to go on I-95 -- south toward Washington or north toward Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. You want to stay to the left to continue south, and stay out of the Mixmaster of cars that need to cross as many as a dozen lanes of traffic.

On our journey south, we didn't, and it cost us nearly an hour between the bridge, toll and Mixmaster. We crawled across Delaware. I'm still waiting for my $3 from the governor.

Maryland, my Maryland

Washington, D.C., is one of the best and certainly one of the least expensive places to tour that there is. Anywhere.

That doesn't mean meals and hotel rooms are cheap -- they run from pretty inexpensive to bank-breaking. Stay in Maryland or Virginia and take the Metro. The Metro is clean, relatively safe, not that expensive and most tourist places are near a Metro stop.

Your taxes at work, for a change

The National Mall is not a shopping center, but a few blocks of open space surrounded by some of the best museums anyplace on Earth. They're great, there is something for everyone and (wait for it) they are all free. From the Air and Space Museum to the Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden to the Museum of Natural History and other parts of the Smithsonian Institution, you can spend weeks touring them. Don't forget the National Archives, the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the World War II, Korean War memorial (I toured that with a man whose father had fought for China in the Korean War) and the chilling Vietnam War Memorial.

That doesn't even count the other museums, the Robert E. Lee house and other places in the Arlington National Cemetery, including the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Don't forget the Pentagon. You want shopping: Connecticut Avenue, which is close to the National Geographic Society (also free) but the stores on Connecticut Avenue and Dupont Circle will make up for it.

Of course, there is the House of Representatives and the Senate and the White House (get tickets from your representative in Congress or Senator for Congress and for the White House tour). You can also tour the FBI headquarters. Enough said -- I was posted to Washington for four months and didn't see a quarter of what was available.

Eli's at 20th and N is the only kosher restaurant in Washington that's not in the Jewish Community Center, but City Lights Chinese restaurant and the bookstore-coffee shops on and near Dupont Circle are worth a visit if you don't keep kosher.

Fun in the burbs

If you don't want to shlep into Washington for one day, there are things to see in Maryland. For instance, the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville maintains the Beall-Dawson House and Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine on its Montgomery Avenue campus. (

My stepmother is a retired nurse, so Stonestreet (that's the name of the doctor whose office that was) was fascinating for her.

Even though we arrived on a steamy afternoon a half hour before closing time, docent Bruce Hendrickson showed us around and seemed to be having as good a time as we did. It cost a couple of dollars each for seniors and was well worth it. My stepmother found a few instruments that hadn't changed from the 19th to the later 20th centuries.

For those who eat kosher, or who like good Chinese food and good bagels, head for Boiling Brook Parkway in Rockland. There is also a kosher supermarket to stock up on LaBriute meals or other stuff before heading to places where there isn't so much choice. I also hear there are some great diners on the Rockville Turnpike.

Next: Heading really south

Until next time...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Heading off on vacation: Lots to do before you go

To many people, a vacation means hopping on an airplane, flying to a destination hundreds or thousands of miles away, renting a car and staying in a hotel while visiting whatever place intrigues you.

We (this is not the royal we; it means my wife, Sue, and I) have taken such vacations to far-off places such as Israel (many times), Italy, Mexico, northern Europe, Great Britain, Florida, Nevada, Arizona and lots of other far-flung places in the U.S. Our trips differ from the norm in a couple of important ways. First, we almost never rent a car. We take public transportation: buses in Israel; trains in Italy and the rest of Europe; subways in London, Paris, Mexico City, Montreal; boats whenever possible and the like.

We take public transit for two reasons: First, you need to be nuts to drive in Israel, Italy and Mexico City and I get lost too easily in countries where signs are not exclusively in English. Let's face it, I get lost a lot in places where signs ARE exclusively in English. Second, and the biggest reason, is the what we consider the top reason to travel in the first place: to meet people.

You want to visit museums? Most major museums have virtual tours that allow you to see their treasures without the crowds and tired feet. Visiting Michelangelo's David in the Accademia gallery in Florence is breathtaking, but half the fun is talking yourself into getting a hard-to-get ticket and then being told by a sympathetic civil servant that you'd better go in the morning because there's a wildcat strike planned at the gallery for that afternoon.

We love to meet people in and from far-off places. For this past trip, we didn't fly because we were going to too many places. And since we eat only kosher food, we find it easier to bring along non-perishable food and a few dairy items in a cooler or car fridge.

That doesn't mean we don't eat hot meals. Even in places where there are no kosher restaurants, such as the Williamsburg, Va., area, we get hot meals. LaBriute self-heating meals are the answer. We have received no consideration from LaBriute (it's what Israelis say to someone who sneezes) and they don't know we're mentioning them. You buy the meals from them ( or in a kosher grocery. Even if you don't eat kosher, you may be too tired after a long day's drive or flight to seek a meal, so it may be just the thing.

You open the box, pour water (provided) over the heating element, put the whole thing back in the box or in a provided bag and 15 minutes later, you have a lot entre. The meal also comes with soup (heat water in your hotel room's coffeemaker) and a few cookies. Some of the varieties are pretty pedestrian, but the soy Hawaiian nuggets in sweet and sour sauce are a joy.

Now, because we eat only kosher food, we cannot recommend restaurants in the cities we have visited and I am sorry for that. It limits the usefulness of this posting. But for those who do eat kosher, we will visit some restaurants where they exist.

For flying, make it nonstop

I have said before that we flew AirTran out of Westchester County Airport near New York City and were very happy with both, except for the high parking fees at the airport. These days, I am joined by many travelers in saying I'd pay more and fly at less convenient times in order to get a nonstop flight. Our last flight, in May, was nonstop and we later learned that other flyers journeying at about the same time as we to Orlando, Fla., and who had a stop in Charlotte, N.C., got a lot more familiar with the Charlotte airport than they had intended.

Finding a place to stay

The cheapest way to stay in a far-off city is to mooch off relatives or friends. You notice, I didn't say the best way, although that could also be true. Time-shares are also popular, especially if you have the time and patience to trade. My daughter's in-laws do that and have a ball.

For us, it's hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. Being kosher, we're limited in the bed-and-breakfasts we can patronize, but we found a beauty. More about that in a couple of days.

We do all our hotel-booking on the Web. This time, happened to use Orbitz, but have used Expedia and Travelocity and find all about as good. We liked Orbitz because the default criterion in placing a hotel in front of another was best value.

Because of our food limitations, we needed rooms with refrigerators, so we couldn't use perhaps the least expensive booking service: PriceLine. We have gotten three-star hotels for $50 a night near Washington, D.C. using them. You need to remember, however, that if you put in a bid and they accept, that's a contract and you must pay for it.

We stayed at Sleep Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn and Travelodge, as well as a beautiful kosher bed and breakfast. We chose these hotels because, we thought at the time, that they best fitted our needs.
The booking services all allow you to access other travelers' opinions of the hotel you are considering. We learned that these are valuable. I would say read the positive ones with larger grains of salt than the negative ones. We didn't in one instance and, although our experience was still OK, we would probably been better off eslewhere.

We overpacked -- two carry-on wheely bags and a hanging-up bag, plus hat box, food, lots of shoes. We were able to do a laundry along the way, so we packed more unmentionables than we needed.

One of the best things we did was take along books on CD. We learned about who was the real Jack the Ripper in exhaustive detail and are still enjoying a wonderful insider's take on Venice at the time of and for a few years following the burning of La Fenice opera house.

We started out in New Haven, traveled to Rockville, Md., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and North Myrtle Beach (two separate communities not adjacent to each other), Charleston, S.C., Williamsburg, Va., and Baltimore.

So, tomorrow, off we go.

Until next time...

Monday, September 3, 2007

Who says the Age of Miracles is gone?

Hi there, hey there, ho there. We are back.

After two glorious weeks south of the Mason Dixon Line, the Lens is back in New Haven. In other words, we have returned.

Starting tomorrow (Sept. 4, 2007), news and events permitting, we'll start a series on travel -- some hints, watch-outs and general views for those traveling at this time of year.

Whoa, you may say. School is back in session, with the exception of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and a few other places. Isn't it a bit late to be traveling?

Au contraire, mes amis. This is a great time to travel. The crowds, especially the crowds of school kids, are gone. Remember, many of those on the road are empty-nesters, people whose children have left for school or to start their own lives. This series is for them. So, please tune in tomorrow.

For today, let's talk about the Age of Miracles.

Human Rights Watch, an organization that has hardly been a gushing friend to Israel, last week issued a report castigating Hezbollah for its in"practice of deliberately and indiscriminately firing rockets toward Israeli civilian areas" during last summer's war.

From Human Rights Watch's Web site: "During the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets indiscriminately and at times deliberately at civilian areas in northern Israel, killing at least 39 civilians, Human Rights Watch said ..."

Of course, Hezbollah reacted to this report by trying to bury it, forcing Lebanese authorities and the controlled media to demand the cancellation of a Human Rights Watch press conference in Beirut. The press conference was indeed called off.

“Hezbollah is trying to silence criticism of its conduct during the 2006 war,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “But the fairness and accuracy of our reporting will speak for themselves, whether we hold a press conference or not.”

This is the same Human Rights Watch that didn't even wait until the war was over to rap Israel for its
conduct during the war, and is planning to release a report on Sept. 6, which probably will be quite critical of Israel for its conduct during the conflict.

But the fact that the organization took on Hezbollah for its bombing of Israeli civilians in population centers means that the usually anti-Israel media group is at least pointing the finger at all parties to the 2006 conflict.

According to Israeli sources, Hezbollah has acknowledged that it vastly underestimated the Israeli reaction to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and its attack on northern Israeli towns last summer. Israeli officials have also rapped Ehud Olmert's government for its conduct of the war.

Human Rights Watch, for now at least, deserves our respect for taking on the terrorist organization that is running Lebanon, and proves that the Age of Miracles is still with us. Hey, I might even send them a couple of bucks.

By the way, happy Labor Day. At least we have a day's respite from the stock market's version bungee jumping and the New York Yankees lost again. Yes, I know the Yanks took the Boston Red Sox to the cleaners three times last week, but the Sox bounced back with a no-hitter.

Until next time....