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Archive for the ‘American Scene’ Category

On the outskirts of Philadelphia is a very exclusive country club does not admit women. The prohibition against women is so strictly enforced that members are even discouraged from having their wives drop them off at the clubhouse. Indeed , some of the stories about how far the club goes to preserve the sanctity of this all male bastion are difficult to believe.

For instance, it is rumored that once or twice a year, a burka clad figure can be seen flitting about the clubhouse offices. No, it is not some religious fanatic; it’s merely the female accountant who has been smuggled in to balance the books. Then there is the apocryphal  story about the time, some years ago, when a club member passed away and left a substantial sum of money to be used for the renovation of the the clubhouse. The bequest was gratefully accepted and the renovation completed but the club stewards then faced a tricky problem. Should the widow be invited to the dedication ceremony? There was a long discussion, behind closed doors, and an agreement was finally hammered out. The widow was invited to attend … providing she left the premises immediately after the ceremony.

One final anecdote : A club member was stricken with chest pains while he was in the clubhouse. He was made as comfortable as possible and the First Aid squad summoned. The ambulance was there in minutes  and two EMTs quickly alighted and rolled out a gurney. But there was a problem and you can guess what it was. One EMT was a man, the other a woman. Even in this dire situation, the club stuck to its rules; the female EMT was told that she could not enter the premises. Luckily, the male EMT was able to load the patient into the ambulance with the help of the other club members and  rushed to the hospital where he made a complete recovery.  Some weeks later, when he was back at the club, he was told what had transpired and is reported to have responded: “Had to do it! Had to do it! Perfectly understand!”

No doubt, you who are reading this have questions to ask . Questions like ” What is the membership of this club like? What’s so great about the club? And, finally, How can such blatant discrimination be tolerated nearly one hundred years after women secured the right to vote? Here are the answers:

The club members are rich old white men, most of whom have their money in a variety of businesses.( They have to be rich because the annual membership dues run into the tens of thousands). They like the club’s all-male environment because they can make business deals in peace and’ boys can be boys’. The club does boast an excellent golf course but it is underused. It also has an excellent kitchen which puts out gourmet food. The members don’t come to the club to play golf; they come there to eat, drink, gamble and doing whatever they want unfettered by the presence of women. Gambling is very big at the club. A member once wagered and lost his car lease on a bet. Another member is reputed to have gambled away a million dollars in a single year. Yet another, no doubt under the influence of drink, is supposed to have played a ground of golf while clad only in his underwear. Crude behavior, it seems is not only tolerated, it is the norm. One member, a Cardinal no less, is alleged to have let out a loud fart while in the clubhouse and said, unapologetically, ” Cardinals fart too”.

Which woman would want to be in an environment like this where crudity and boorishness are the order of the day? No wonder women have not tried to overturn the restrictions against female membership.

 

 

 

 

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There are several lists of the dirtiest jobs in America. Some of the jobs on those lists are:

Septic Tank Servicer         Horse Castrator        Sewer Inspector          Pig Slop Processor

Charcoal Maker                 Road kill Cleaner      Termite Controller      Embalmer

Bloodworm Hunter          Animal Vet                Bat Cave Scavenger      Coal Miner

Slaughterhouse Worker

As bad as these jobs are, and they are all really really bad, there is one that is worse than any of them. The crappiest job in America is White House Press Secretary (in the present administration). Consider what poor Sean Spicer has to go through every day. As in many of the jobs listed above, he has to deal with a whole lot of crap. In his role as spokesperson for the executive branch, he has to explain actions and events within the President’s administration to the world. Thus, he has to deal with the White House Press Corps on a daily basis and explain the President’s latest snafus. He has to use his wiles to evade… and deny … and deflect … and obfuscate. In short, everything short of outright lying.  After tying himself up in knots trying to do the impossible, he is regularly undercut by his boss who contradicts what he has just said. How he must dread those early morning Tweetstorms!

As if this is not enough, he is the butt of jokes and is regularly caricatured on Saturday Night Live and by late night show hosts. As someone has said, working in this administration means being perceived either as a fool or as a liar.

When something goes wrong, as it invariably does, it is never his boss’s fault; it’s his. He may be a decent chap but he is mistrusted by everyone, thanks to his job. Nor can there be any satisfaction in the job itself. Every day is worse than the last and, when his head hits the pillow at night, he must have nightmares about what the next day will bring.

Finally, as hard as he works, his job security is nil. There is constant speculation that he is about to be fired and, in the last week, the whispers have been growing louder. If I were a betting man, yesterday I would have been willing to wager that he would not last six months. Today, amidst reports that a Fox News correspondent is being considered for his job, it seems I was too optimistic. He may not last out the month. Yes, this is the crappiest job in America and Sean Spicer will probably heave a sigh of relief he hears the dread words  ” You’re fired!”.

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I have been following with great interest the controversy caused by ” Fearless Girl”, a 50- inch high bronze statue of a little girl, standing in a defiant pose with her fists on her hips. The problem is not the with the statue itself but with its location : it has been placed just a few feet away from a 7000 pound, 11 foot high statue of a Charging Bull which has been there since December 1989. Both statues are located in Manhattan’s Financial District.

But perhaps a little background is necessary…

Charging Bull is the creation of an Italian artist Arturo di Modica who conceived the statue as a tribute to America’s rebound from the 1987 stock market crash. Spending        $ 320,000 of his own money, he created the statue and illegally plunked it down near Wall Street  in the middle of the night in December 1989. Because the statue did not have a permit, it was removed by the  N.Y.C. Parks Department. Because of public clamor, it was later brought back and installed at its present location in Bowling Green. It is very popular with tourists who often pose with it for souvenir photographs.

Fearless Girl is a creation of the sculptor Kristen Visbal, commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and installed last month in conjunction with International Womens Day. It is intended to support gender diversity and greater representation for women in leadership roles and on corporate boards. It was initially installed under a one month permit that has since been extended to one year. It too has become a great hit with tourists and office goers.

Arturo di Modica, the sculptor of Charging Bull, claims that the placing of Fearless Girl so close to his own statue and in juxtaposition to it violates his rights and changes the creative dynamic because she ( the Fearless Girl) appears to be ” attacking the bull”. His lawyer adds that the Bull ” no longer carries a positive optimistic message” and has been transformed into” a negative force and a threat”. Therefore, he argues, Fearless Girl should be removed and relocated elsewhere.

I used to work downtown for more than thirty years and I often walked past the Charging Bull and admired it. It is a powerful sculpture, projecting power, strength and optimism, but I never thought  it was spreading a message of ” Freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.” as its creator claims. If anything, because of its location, I saw it as a symbol of capitalism ( as in ‘ the bull market”). Nothing wrong with that, capitalism has made this country what it is. I also have no doubt that the placing of the Fearless Girl statue was deliberate and intended to play off the sculpture of the bull. What I fail to see is how it violates the copyrights of the Bull since it is located perhaps 30 feet away. No one has a right to dictate what may or may not be placed close to the location of one’s  artwork. At least that’s my opinion. Let’s see how this dispute gets resolved.

Aside from that, I genuinely like the Fearless Girl Statue. Even if it does not lead to a greater role for women in Wall Street, it has already struck a chord with young girls many of whom love the feisty pose of the little girl and her fearless demeanor. That is what will be needed if women are to breach the overwhelmingly male bastions of Wall Street.

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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do to enjoy is to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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My previous post was about a photographic collection, 100 Photographs that captured important moments in our history. It was a captivating book but many of the photographs were necessarily about tragic events ; few of them were about joyful happenings. When I was going through the book I suddenly recollected The Family of Man, a memorable photographic exhibition from the mid-nineteen fifties.

The Family of Man exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. First exhibited at MOMA in 1955, it was subsequently shown in thirty seven countries over the next eight years and is now permanently displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg. The 503 images in the exhibition were also assembled in a book that sold more than 4 million copies and is still in print. The photographs focused on the ties that bind people the world over and celebrated peace and brotherhood. Some critics felt that they were excessively sentimental  but I myself remember them as being a balanced depiction of the human condition, evoking as they do happiness and joy, horror and sadness in equal measure.

After so many years I remember only a few of those photographs. One that stands out is the image of a drum-major in full regalia, including his shako, practicing his parade moves. Back arched, face upturned to the sky, his front leg out thrust he struts across a yard as, unknown to him, a line of mischievous kids mimics his moves. The photo perfectly captures the moment, the impishness, the naughtiness and the carefree nature of childhood. Looking at it, the viewer cannot but recollect what it was to be a child. Another photo, I seem to remember, showed a Peace Corps worker and a turbaned Punjabi farmer sharing a meal, literally. They are both eating with their hands from the same metal plate, bent over , oblivious to the camera, intent only on the food. To me, that photo encapsulated the brotherhood of mankind, the feeling we are the same under the skin.

One photograph that also occurred in the 100 photographs book was ” Migrant Mother”,Dorothea Lange’s Depression era portrait of a desperate mother and her two children. The family had lost their farm in what had become the Dust Bowl and was journeying from Oklahoma to California. The woman in the photo had just sold the tires of her car to buy food, supplemented with birds killed by the children. Defeated,desperate, worried, resigned to their fate the woman stares past the camera at a future without hope. The photograph brought home to the nation the human cost of the Great Depression and put a face on suffering.

If you wish to see some of these photographs, you can google The Family of Man photos. It will give you some idea of why people like me remember it sixty years later.

 

 

 

 

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.

The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them  are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.

The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.

All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.

The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits.  Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.

Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.

Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.

This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing  and disgust. But above all, it will arouse  a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.

You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.

 

 

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When I saw the book” Bamberger’s : New Jersey’s Greatest Store” by Michael J. Lisicky, I knew I had to read it. When my wife and I started married life in Edison, N.J in 1973, Bamberger’s at the nearby Menlo Park Mall was where we shopped. Bamberger’s and Alexander’s were the two bookends of that mall and we spent many hours there. Alexander’s was low-end, Bamberger’s the more classy.

Lisicky who has made a name for himself as a “department store historian”, perhaps the only one in the U.S, has written a fascinating book about a fast vanishing piece of Americana. His book details the history of Bamberger’s from the 1893 opening of its first store at the corner of Market St. and Liberty Street in Newark, through it’s early struggles, the dynamic enlightened leadership of Louis Bamberger, its 1929 sale to R.H. Macy’s, its subsequent spread all over the Garden State and its absorption into Macy’s. Along the way, the reader picks up some interesting tidbits such as the fact that New Jersey’s first escalator was installed in Bamberger’s Newark store way back in 1901. And that the radio station WOR first went on air in 1922 from that same Bamberger’s store.

Reading the book also made me aware of how many of our department stores have vanished. Some of them have been absorbed by others ( notably  by Macy’s) but most have closed their doors for ever. Nationally, the number of these vanished stores is in the hundreds, if not thousands. In New Jersey alone, the list is long  and makes for sad reading. Some of those that I have shopped in, and are now gone, are Alexander’s, S.Klein on the Square, Sterns, McGrory’s Two Guys, Ohrbach’s and Woolworths. Others that are still around but are hanging on by  a thread include Sears, KMart and JCPenney. How long before they too are gone?

In the past year, I think I have gone only twice to a department store, Macy’s, and it was a dispiriting experience each time. Where once the aisles were full with bustling crowds there were only a few desultory shoppers. Or were they merely lookers? Except during the Christmas shopping season, I can’t imagine that the picture changes much.

I suppose that with the rise of big-box stores such as Costco and BJ’s, of discount giants like Walmart and the increasing popularity of Amazon and on-line shopping, the demise of the department store is inevitable. It is so much easier to purchase things online and have them delivered at no extra cost ( thanks to Amazon Prime) than to brave the traffic and actually go to a brick-and- mortar department store.

I was never one to go a store unless I needed to buy something. I was never one for whom ” Shopping” was a hobby. Nor was I one for mall-walking, a popular pastime of retirees, particularly in winter. I also admit that it is much much easier to buy things from Amazon on-line. Still, I will be sorry when the last department store is no more. As it disappears forever, it will also take away a part of my past.

 

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