A Retro-New Look for the Rocketman

All the distracting uproar over the colorful beach shirt worn by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency’s successful effort to put a probe on a comet, sent me to my bookshelves, pawing for a paperback my father gave me 40 years ago as I (or rather, he) planned my post-college corporate life: “Dress for Success“, by John T. Molloy.

I couldn’t find it, but from reading the Amazon comments on the book I could recall its advice on suits, shirts, shoes and how clothes should fit. It served me well in the years when I had jobs that required wearing a more corporate look. When I started in the firmwide communications department at blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse in 1996, everybody wore suits, with a casual Friday. Then that morphed into casual summer and by the the time I left in 1999, casual 24/7. And so the code remains with even more looseness in the corporate circles I’ve encountered. I thought, too bad that Taylor didn’t read it before he appeared in all his tattooed slacker glory on the world media scene. His haircut and beard trim looked quite presentable, at least. Somebody cleaned him up a bit.

Molloy’s ideas continue to influence how I dress. Every business shirt in my closet is a button-down, either blue or yellow or pink. My ties are silky with deep rich colors (my favorites are my Jerry Garcia ties). My suits, some still hanging around from the late 90s, are dark blue or charcoal and either plain or slightly pinstriped. My fashion-forward late-80s Hugo Boss suit, shimmering grey with the chunky shoulders, hit the racks at Goodwill years ago. On the spectrum of male work clothes, I’m far more Malloy than nerdy-techy, in theory if not practice.

Taylor’s shirt makes me wonder not so much about the latest social-media rage spiral, but the space agency’s media relations department and Taylor’s own common sense. Having worked as the back-up press spokesman for a New York law firm, I know you want to think about every contingency before an interview, especially one for TV. Media trainers should have spent serious time with Taylor drilling him on what he was going to say and also the impression he would make after the landing.

The uproar doesn’t reflect poorly on Taylor, who probably lives on an intellectual-technological level far beyond the dreary concerns of dress codes. Instead, the fault lies with the people who put him in front of a camera, like a lamb before the wolves. Somebody in PR was asleep or on heavy medication. Taylor may not have much in the way of a corporate sartorial sense, but the communications pros at the European Space Agency should.

If Taylor and the European Space Agency wanted to fire up enthusiasm for intergalactic exploration, might I suggest a retro-modern look? Take the conservative sensibility of John Molloy and cross-pollinate it with the practical, authentic, cool-in-the-clutch look so common at Mission Control during the space race of the 1960s and visible in “The Right Stuff.” Short bristly hair, black plastic glasses, pocket protectors — they all screamed “competence” in a way that can’t be duplicated so easily with the unkept look. With some long sleeves and sensible haircuts, the Taylors of the world world would look a bit more presentable. And, I might venture, warm feelings based on the great era of space exploration could come back and public interest in space might blossom (and that translates enthusiasm for increased funding, if you want to be a cold-blooeded realist about the impact).

The only risk is that the rage spiral would then focus on regressive exclusionist male privilege styles–you know how that drill goes. Still, the European Space Agency should boldly go where fashion had gone before. Think of it as “Mad Men in Space.”

 

 

Art for Art’s Sake

Everybody’s agog at the Christie’s auction this week where Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” sold for $81.9 million and his “Four Marlons” brought in $69.6 million. Impressive numbers, but the art didn’t do much for me. What has impressed me lately, however, was art from two creators who had no interest in selling their art or even displaying it.

The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of pieces by Judith Scott, “Bound and Unbound,” runs through March 29. The Rye (New York) Arts Center just extended its densely packed exhibit “Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play.” Both exhibits show art created purely for art’s sake, expressions of personal passion unconcerned with commercial success. I highly recommend both exhibits.

This marks the second time I’ve seen an exhibit of Scott’s work. She takes the concept of “outsider art” to the level of the platonic ideal. Scott was born with Down’s syndrome, and lost her hearing as a child. The museum’s description of the exhibit says,

Scott was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1943 with Down Syndrome. In 1987, after many years of living in isolation within an institutional setting, Scott was introduced to Creative Growth—a visionary studio art program founded thirty-five years ago in Oakland, California, to foster and serve a community of artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. For the last eighteen years of her life, Scott created extraordinary and idiosyncratic objects—fastidiously assembled, fragile structures of found and scavenged materials that radically challenge and resist our attempts to define or rationalize them as sculpture.

The description is exactly right about Scott’s works. They defy explanation and, to me, exist in a space beyond understanding. Something clicked in her–think Helen Keller holding her hand under a water pump–and she created sculptures in her own style. Where did the style come from, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Scott left no notes,no interviews, no artist’s statements, no insights into what influenced her, no instructions on how her works should be displayed. They are more mysterious than 30,000 year old cave drawings, or art delivered by a UFO. Instead of coming from “outer space,” they come from Scott’s inner space.

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A blog post can’t do justice to Scott’s art or life; she was a twin, and her sister Joyce became her legal guardian when they were in their 40s to move her from an institution to a more humane and creative environment. Joyce’s website gives a wonderful overview of their relationship and Judith’s career, including family photos. Joyce nurtured her sister’s artistic talents and they reconnected with the loving relationship they had as children. Judith Scott died in 2005, but her legacy continues through books, videos and major art exhibits.

P1190506-editIrving Harper, meanwhile, didn’t quite use scavenged materials in his artwork, but simple materials that could be found in any grade-school art class — paper, cutters, glue, string. He began creating complex paper sculptures in the 1950s as a diversion from his work at a designer in New York. Tinkering in his spare moments, he did sculptures in a huge range of styles and influences. The exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, his first, shows influences by African masks, Picasso and even, to my eye, the beloved 1960s drawing toy, the Spirograph. Taylor, now 98 years old and retired, never wanted to exhibit his works, but he finally agreed and the public is all the richer for that. The pieces are as amazing in their own way as Judith Scott’s. The exhibit website says,

This solo retrospective debuts the private works of design genius Irving Harper at The Rye Arts Center. Known professionally for his iconic contributions to the George Nelson Office, including the 1949 Ball Clock, Herman Miller logo and the 1956 Marshmallow sofa, Harper’s personal creations have never before been shared publicly.

Harper’s works, which he houses in a barn and the top level of his home, are complex and yet use materials anybody can relate to. They’re so effortless, playful and unassuming, I could instantly connect to them as both art and artful constructions.

Coming from very different life circumstances, Scott and Harper showed the unquenchable human drive for self-expression. Some inner force compelled them to create with no interest in being seen or sold. Art was an itch they had to scratch. They did it for their own reasons and the world finally had a chance to enjoy their visions. I’d like to think Judith Scott and Irving Harper would greatly enjoy each other’s art as kindred spirits.

What Would Uncle Miltie Say?

I’m having a serious flashback to my days as an undergrad economics major at Princeton University in the late 1970s. Two data points came together in recent weeks to make me to think about the concept of the “Multiplier Effect,” part of the academic baggage that I put behind me as soon as I graduated in 1980 as the most mediocre economics major in Princeton’s long history.

First, I read a profile of Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow in the September issue of Finance & Development magazine, published by the International Monetary Fund. Writer Janet Stotsky, formerly with the IMF and now a consultant on fiscal, women and development, and microeconomic topics, outlined Arrow’s contributions to economic thinking. She wrote of Arrow’s 1972 prize,

The Nobel committee cited the work of Arrow and British economist John Hicks in two areas: general equilibrium theory, which seeks to explain how prices are set across an economy, and welfare theory, which analyzed the optimal allocation of goods and services in an economy.

Back in my undergrad days, I took courses that discussed these issues in depth, along with 70s-era concerns like stagflation and the Phillips Curve, a term that’s been antique for decades. And, of course, I learned about the Multiplier Effect, something that remains implicitly ingrained in U.S. economic policy.

A day or two after I read the profile, I attended a live performance by the host Kai Ryssdal, reporters and guests of the public radio program Marketplace at the 92nd Street Y in New York, as part of the show’s 25th anniversary. The program was titled, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Numbers.” Each segment featured some type of numeric aspect. What especially interested me, as an econ major, was wealth and poverty correspondent Chrissy Clark’s report on the life cycle of food stamp payments. They are digitally downloaded on to EBT cards, which sparks a rush of spending at retailers like Walmart, with billions of dollars pumped back into the economy from the government to food stamp recipients to (mostly) major retailers. Then the retailers use the payments to plump up their sales volume, which they talk about on calls with stock analysts; if the payments get cut, then cue the sad music as earnings decline. Nobody reveals how much money is passed to big retailers this way, but the dollars are huge.

Then: flashback time. Where have I heard this before? Government spends; dollars go to businesses and individuals; businesses and individuals spend, then others get the dollars in a cascade of economic impact. And that’s the Multiplier Effect.

I mused on my economics courses. Not that Clark used the term, but she outlined the theory behind the Multiplier Effect, a key rationale for Keynesian economic policy, where government spending helps the economy grow.

Or does it? In my Princeton days, we learned about the theories of John Maynard Keynes, but we also had big exposure to the thinking of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who was a great advocate of free markets and an approach called monetarism. I think we read Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. He was skeptical of Keynesian economics and advocated controls on the money supply to influence economic activity. If you go with what Wikipedia says, Friedman

thought that Keynes’s political bequest was harmful for two reasons. First, he thought whatever the economic analysis, benevolent dictatorship is likely sooner or later to lead to a totalitarian society. Second, he thought Keynes’s economic theories appealed to a group far broader than economists primarily because of their link to his political approach.

Friedman won his Nobel Prize in 1976 and died in 2006 at the age of 94. I wondered what he’d think of Clark’s report and its connect to the Keynesian multiplier effect. Would Uncle Miltie have raised the point of how billions in food stamp spending crowd out private investment, shifting tax money to consumption? Am I remembering monetarism correctly? What would Friedman say about the blowout Keynesianism that’s led to endless government deficits? Nothing positive, I suspect.

To be fair, Clark interviewed Walmart executives and others for her story about low wages at major retailers, which featured a Walmart employee on food stamps. Still, I wonder what a staunch Friedmanite would have said to her.

Friedman still excites debate decades after his major writings. Paul Krugman, another Nobel Prize winner, analyzed him in 2007 in the New York Review of Books (you can imagine the perspective there), with this kick-off statement:

Milton Friedman played three roles in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. There was Friedman the economist’s economist, who wrote technical, more or less apolitical analyses of consumer behavior and inflation. There was Friedman the policy entrepreneur, who spent decades campaigning on behalf of the policy known as monetarism—finally seeing the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England adopt his doctrine at the end of the 1970s, only to abandon it as unworkable a few years later. Finally, there was Friedman the ideologue, the great popularizer of free-market doctrine.

Friedman’s influence continues to this day, even among people who question his ideas, like this post, “My Milton Friedman Problem,” that winds through all kinds of economic theorizing beyond my ability to follow.

That people still argue with Uncle Miltie testifies to his impact; my meandering path back to him, via memories of Princeton economics inspired by Stotsky’s article on Arrow and the Marketplace celebration of the Keynesian multiplier effect, makes me think that something useful–an elegant analytical paradigm that enabled me to coolly assess the assumptions of Keynesian mainstream macroeconomic policy, perhaps?–sank in to my brain in those economics lectures and precepts at Old Nassau almost 40 years ago after all.

A Farewell to Camo

I couldn’t sign in to Gmail. I couldn’t check street directions. My cell phone photos were lame. I couldn’t IM on the run.

In short, I had a very old cell phone that worked well for calls and texts and not much else. While my LG Chocolate had served me loyally since early 2010 (early Jurassic period in cell phone years), I felt increasing pressure to trade up (way up) to a new-fangled smart phone. Every time I looked at the Verizon Wireless site, I promptly got emails and even calls enticing me to get something fresh and new.

Finally, something clicked, or snapped, and last weekend I became the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S5 from Costco.

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The oddest part of the change involved not the phone, but the cell phone holder. While the Galaxy is my fifth cell phone since 2001, I have had the same cell phone belt holder since 2003. It’s been a faithful companion, literally by my side for 11 years through untold tens of thousands of miles of train commuting plus trips to Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, the Czech Republic and Germany. Cell phones came and went, but that cell phone holder remained.

I can still remember when and where I bought it during a visit to my brother in Houston May 2003. We visited a Fry’s Electronics store to take care of my digital lifestyle needs. I walked out of the store with two epochal purchases. First, I got a Vivitar Vivicam, a one-pixel (!) camera that marked my entry into digital photography (and not a bad little webcam, either). My 20-year old Canon AE-1, purchased at infamous 47th Street Photo in New York in November 1981, immediately became an antique.

And I got what struck me as a funky and anti-East Coast accessory for my cell phone, a camo pouch with a Velcro flap that came down to keep the phone in place. I liked it and it liked me back. The holder held my phone well, back in the era when cell phones were not multimedia slabs the size of roof tiles. The camo especially appealed to me, redolent of the huntin’ and fishin’ culture I grew up with in Mission, Texas, on the Mexican border. With my camo, I felt a tiny bit like a real Texas bad-ass when it hung off my belt, an incongruous sight on the 7:17 a.m. train from Fairfield County, Connecticut to Grand Central Station. TSA airport security guys especially eyed it. Fortunately, they never got nervous and Tased me as a suspicious character—but I learned to calm them down by taking the holder off at security screenings, along with my college ring, wallet, shoes, keys and any other items they wanted to finger.

When I got the Galaxy, I knew it was far too bulky to fit in the camo holder. Could I at least maintain this odd-ball style element? I looked around online for suitable camo or western-style holders, but nothing looked sturdy enough. Meanwhile, I heard sensible advice from smartphone veterans that I should skip the outdoorsy fashionista posing to get a sturdy case that covered the delicate glass corners of my smart phone. Some day, they said, I’ll drop the phone and I’ll want its delicate innards and outtards protected.

That made sense. I nosed around online and got a feel for what I needed. Then I went to Staples in New York and got the biggest, baddest, blackest holder I could find, a rugged Otter Box that swaths my sensitive Galaxy in rigid plastic that looks like it could withstand a direct hit from a sledgehammer. When I snap it on my belt, I feel like RoboCop.

So, farewell my camo companion. We had a great run all over the world, lots of memorable calls and texts came my way from those buzzing little flip phones you so ably cradled. But I’ve got a new techno fetish object hanging off my belt now.

1969, the Summer of the Astros

Think Major League Baseball in 1969, and everybody rightfully remembers the Amazin’ Mets who went all the way and won the World Series. For me, however, 1969 was the glorious summer of the Houston Astros. The apogee of their great ride for the year took place exactly 45 years ago today, July 30, 1969 — more on that in a moment.

The Mets and the Astros grew up together as expansion teams in the National League. The Astros began in 1962 as the Colt .45s, then changed their name when they moved into the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. I remember going to the Dome in 1966 and being stunned at the enormous structure with the colorful seats, air conditioning and soaring rounded roof. Coming from Mission, Texas, pop. 11,000 at the time, this first-hand exposure to the Big Leagues made me a confirmed Astros fan.

I had an Astros poster in my bedroom, and I read the Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook cover to cover. For my 12th birthday in 1969 my mother delighted me with the massive first edition of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which I scoured the way Baptist preachers turn to the Bible for inspiration. Look, there’s Babe Ruth! Old Hoss Radbourne! Baseball replaced cars as my adolescent obsession, although girls soon replaced both. And baseball was more than a reading interest; I played for four years as a bench-warming near-sighted right fielder in Farm League and Bronco League. In 1969 I played for the Lions Club team, doing what I could with my beloved Rawlings “Brooks Robinson” glove. Like Calvin with his Hobbes, I will always have my battered, frayed, faded but undaunted glove.

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Transistor radios gave me access to the Astros games, beaming through the humid Texas atmosphere almost 400 miles from Houston to Mission. The tinny sound took me to the big cities and the famous stadiums where the Astros played—Wrigley, Candlestick, Busch and Shea, the home of the Mets. I especially remember listening to Astros games when my family returned home on a Sunday afternoon from vacation in San Antonio. My mother would tune in the game on the 250-mile drive in our 1968 Chevy Impala (with the white vinyl roof) and we’d listen to the game as we passed through the flat brush and farm country interrupted by the towns of Pleasanton, Campbellton, Three Rivers, George West, Alice, Falfurrias (home then and now of the Border Patrol checkpoint) and tiny Rachal that separated the rest of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley across from Mexico.

The great thing about baseball was that the games just kept on coming. As much as I loved the Dallas Cowboys (Mission was the home town of coach Tom Landry), they only played 14 games in the regular season. The Astros, however, played 162 games, with the scratchy sound flowing for hours most nights from the little radios around Mission. Like a true kid fan, I couldn’t wait for the games to come on, and to check the box scores and standings the next day in the McAllen Monitor or Corpus Christi Caller. I can still hear the announcers’ voices in my head.

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Looking at the 1969 team roster, all the memories flooded back with names that I learned by heart 45 years ago. I couldn’t name a single player in the current Astros roster, but I can reel off plenty of players from the ’69 Astros: Larry Dierker, Jack Billingham, Wade Blasingame, Don Wilson, Jim Ray, Fred Gladding, Jim Wynn, Dennis Menke, Johnny Edwards, Doug Rader, Joe Morgan.

The Astros and the Mets crossed paths in memorable games that season. One bump on the Mets’ improbable road to glory came when the Astros swept two three-game series. I remember the apex, the very apotheosis, of my Astros summer came on July 30, when the Astros took a doubleheader at Shea Stadium, 16-3 in the first game (Jim Ray got the win, Fred Gladding the save, Jerry Koosman the loss) and 11-5 in the second game, Larry Dierker with the win and iron-man reliever Gladding picking up his 21st save, Gary Gentry took the loss..

The first game especially stands out in my mind because Gladding batted twice and got a hit. Now, a pitcher getting a hit in a major-league game is always notable. For Gladding, that hit against the Mets marked the only hit in his major league career with the Tigers and the Astros, giving him a lifetime batting average of .016, 1-for-63, the lowest non-zero batting average in MLB history. And I can say . . . I was there listening when he got that one hit. The Astros announcers were suitably giddy and stunned when Gladding unleashed the heavy lumber for his shining moment as a batter.

Gladding led the majors in saves that year, with 27. The Astros finished at .500, 81-81, for their first non-losing season. The legendary Mets—they beat the Orioles in the World Series. In the decades to come I would attend games at Shea Stadium, and during return trips to Texas I’ve seen an Astros game or two at Minute Maid Park, which replaced the outmoded Astrodome. The Mets won the World Series again in 1986, and the Astros won the National League championship in 2005 but lost the World Series in a sweep to the Chicago White Sox. Recent Astros seasons have been horrendous, although I read in Sports Illustrated that the team has embarked on a statistics-driven rebuilding campaign; I wish them well.

My interest in following any pro team with boyhood zeal faded long ago, when I moved from Texas to the Northeast. I politely cheer on the Mets and the Texas Rangers in their pennant runs and I cringed when the Rangers lost the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Games are too loud, too long and too late for my preference. No sports event should last longer than parts one and two of “The Godfather.” I like watching the plays of the day on ESPN when I go to the gym, but that’s it for the regular season.

Still, nothing will erase the memory of the Astros summer of 1969, when a boy, a transistor radio and a team combined for sports magic.

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A Shared Cultural Moment

On Monday night I attended a program of storytelling at the Westport Library called “Naughty or Nice: In Literature and Life,” presented by the groups Write Yourself Free and the Storytelling Circle. I enjoyed the stories, and one in particular struck me not just for the story but the audience’s response to part of it.

Steve White, a photographer from Norwalk, Conn., talked about attending a private boarding school in the 1960s. He linked his miserable experiences to the movie Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman had a problem with authority. The boys at the school similarly rebelled. Once, at the dreary daily chapel session, they were instructed to sing “God Bless America.” White revved up the singing to a boisterous yet sincere level — not the low-wattage rendition the school administration wanted and demanded.

The audience of 75 at the library responded — when White sang part of the song — by singing along, and, when he forgot a line, providing the next words. One woman upfront even kept singing when he wanted to continue the story.

The moment struck me, as I looked over the audience, mostly middle-aged and older. We all knew the song. Forget about our politics, our TV habits, our economic situation. Everybody in the room shared a common connection around a patriotic song. Had the song been the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, I’d like to think the reaction would have been the same. We would have instantly sang the words, arising from childhood memories of devotion to ideals and instruction of teachers who cared about passing on a common national identity through song.

Is this still the case in the United States? Do schoolchildren learn these songs and still sing them with an open heart and conviction? Simple devotion does not last, I’m not going to kid myself about that. I know how kids are, grumbling and parodying such music, and as a parent I did my own rewrite of “God Bless America” as “God Bless Jigglypuff”, to amuse my adolescent son with what I called the “Pokemon National Anthem.”  However, I would hope some primal American feeling would remain even if the attitudes grew tired and weary of the daily jolts in this country. The seed of national knowingness, to coin a phrase, could remain there for the right moment.

Still, can anything now serve as a shared national cultural experience in the United States, or are we so completed fractured by groups, media and political intensity that no single cultural factor can serve to unite us? On September, 11, 2001, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang, yes, God Bless America. At that moment of national danger and uncertainty, the power of collective song brought us together. Could that happen today? I don’t know.

But I did see the power of a shared identity on Monday night in a New England library.

 

Playing Reporter at NPR

National Public Radio wins plenty of criticism but the complaints usually have a vague tone. Grumbling without content. I listen to the news regularly, on WNYC in New York and WSHU in Connecticut. I usually shrug off the criticism; if you want any news on the radio, this is the place.

On Sunday I heard two stories on All Things Considered that got my antennae, as a former journalist, quivering. I never talk about to NPR but this time the marshmallow-style reporting sounded so blatant and skewed that I decided to share some thoughts.

Both stories dealt with issues that need attention. One focused on the difficulties faced by renters in a market with high demand and static supply. As a renter myself, my ears pricked up when I heard the story. The second was on a program in Los Angeles about a program to help young dads — as in mid-teens to mid-20s — cope with all the new pressures they face as fathers.

Let’s look at the new-dad story first. With the headline on the NPR site of “From Resumes to Romance, Giving Young Dads the Skills to Succeed,” it detailed a program that tried to meet the economic and social needs of new fathers.

Parenthood is often unexpected for these men. They weren’t planning to be dads, Blaney says. “They just get a lot of criticism and a lot of judgement from everybody in their family. So they basically just go from having a larger social support circle to none.” Most of the men who attend are between the ages of 15 and 25, though fathers as young as 14 have made their way through the program. Blaney says the men come from different backgrounds, but most of them are black or Latino and the majority of them are low-income.

Males in the program learn how to be good fathers, how to control their anger, and overcome their own lack of male role models. The piece scrupulously avoids certain words that, I imagine, might be seen as “judgmental” and hurtful to these youngsters. Those words are “marriage” and “birth control.” The NPR reporter positions the program as one answer for the problems, but never wants to explore the impact of a committed marital relationship. As a former reporter myself, I’d have raised questions that may has disrupted the sweetly hopeful tone of the piece:

  • How many of the males have married or plan to marry the girls they impregnated?
  • How many impregnated multiple girls and are now fathers several times over?
  • Do any face statutory rape charges?
  • What’s their understanding of birth control and do they practice safe sex?
  • What are they doing to prevent additional pregnancies?
  • How many of them are currently interacting with the criminal justice system? Why?

These questions may be rude, but they get to the heart of these programs. Unless you think teenage pregnancies is an unalloyed social good, then you want to prevent them or at least limit their negative impact on the parents, the babies and the public treasury. I get no sense that NPR wanted to address any issues other than guys dealing with their feelings and being better fathers. But husbands? Socially responsibility? Those topics must be either judgmental or beyond the realm of imagining for this population. Or maybe the reporter just lacked time to squeeze in some microaggressive topics.

The program on renting, also set in Los Angeles, which has the highest percentage of renters of any major city, was titled “Home, Food or Health Care: A Choice Many Renters Can’t Afford.” More renters are crowding into the city due to the foreclosure wave, but building apartment complexes is difficult thanks to antiquated and expensive zoning laws. As a result, those apartments being built serve the high-end market, where owners can recoup their costs.

So far, so good, NPR acknowledges economic reality. The story focuses on the Alvarez family scraping to get by in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The story says,

Ymelda Alvarez, her husband and their two daughters live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment just east of downtown Los Angeles in a neighborhood called Boyle Heights. It’s not a fancy or trendy area; it’s a poor part of town with a lot of crime, and most of the schools are struggling.

Their apartment consists of a front living room converted to a bedroom, a small kitchen and a little room in the back with bunk beds for the kids. Other amenities include sagging ceilings, leaky faucets, doors that don’t lock and pests like cockroaches and rats.

For this they pay $1,000 a month.

But it’s currently their only option. Antonio, her husband, can’t land a full-time job and only makes about $1,200 a month from stringing together part-time work at a school nearby.

Mrs. Alvarez only speaks Spanish; what’s the story about her husband not being able to find full-time work? So the obvious question to me is, what’s their immigration status? While the article makes a reference to them waiting to get tax refunds, the story resolutely avoids the issue that leads to crowding in areas like Boyle Heights. In this era of accelerating border-crossings without much in the way of enforcement, those questions have to be asked. Competition for scarce job and housing resources, the criminal justice system, wage depression, education, clashes with other ethnic groups at the lower end of the economic and social bell curve, the degradation of the concept of citizenship, “white privilege” — all are questions that must be raised and the ones I’d ask if I were the reporter doing this story.

Call me a neocon or clueless or heartless, but those are the questions NPR avoid.

Jack Brabham and the Car-Crazy Kid

I read recently of the death of Jack Brabham, 88, a renowned Australian race car driver who was active from the 1940s to 1970. The name and the news took me way back, 45 years at least, to when I was a car-crazy kid who avidly read Car and Driver, Hot Rod and other car magazines to keep up with the racing news.

My father, a racing enthusiast who named my brother Cooper and me after cars or drivers, must have influenced this interest, although he lived far away. As a somewhat-typical American boy, cars fascinated me, anyway. I built plastic and metal models; my mother used to take my metal parts to the Tipton Chevrolet dealership in Mission, Texas, where the guys in the repair shop would happily prime the pieces before I painstakingly painted them (a big thanks to my friend Renee Zamora-Hernandez for confirming that Tipton was the name of the dealership in the 1960s). I avidly collected the glossy marketing brochures from Tipton and Spikes Ford in Mission. Salesmen sometimes found me in their showrooms sitting in the cars, dreaming.

On the long drives to San Antonio for family vacations, my brother and I competed in car-counting games. I took Cadillac, he took Mustang, and we kept track of the number we saw to see which was the most popular car on the 250 miles of highway going up to the Alamo City.

I never cared so much for the mechanics of cars as for the culture, especially the speed side of cars. Indy racing, Can-Am, Formula 1, drag racing with the long pointy vehicles and the tire-spinning burnouts before the staging lights counted down from red to green to start the five-second races along a quarter-mile strip — I remember all of that.

The high-glamour world of Formula 1 especially caught my attention and Jack Brabham was a great driver of the era. The photos with the memorials showed a man I instantly recognized, square-jawed, determined, ready to put his pedal to the medal.

Back in those days I avidly tracked the standings and teams with the enthusiasm I would soon show for baseball, my next kid obsession (I can recite the names of most of the starting line-up of the 1969 Houston Astros and a good chunk of the pitching rotation, but that’s another column).

I became a big fan of Texas’ own Team Chaparral, owned by Midland oil executive and driver Jim Hall. His low-slung white cars burned up the track in the Can-Am series of races in 1966 and 1967. I remember being thrilled by the daring design of the car. Hall rolled out the 2E car at exactly the moment I went car crazy and photos online indeed show the look I remember from the pages of Car and Driver. The details:

The 2E was based on the Chevrolet designed aluminum 2C chassis and presented Jim Hall’s most advanced aerodynamic theories to the racing world in the 1966. The 2E established the paradigm for virtually all racing cars built since. It was startling in appearance, with its radiators moved from the traditional location in the nose to two ducted pods on either side of the cockpit and a large wing mounted several feet above the rear of the car on struts. The wing was the opposite of an aircraft wing in that it generated down-force instead of lift and was attached directly to the rear suspension uprights, loading the tires for extra adhesion while cornering. A ducted nose channeled air from the front of the car up, creating extra down-force as well. By depressing a floor pedal that was in the position of a clutch pedal in other cars, Hall was able to feather, or flatten out, the negative angle of the wing when down-force was not needed, such as on a straight section of the track, to reduce drag and increase top speed. In addition, an interconnected air dam closed off the nose ducting for streamlining as well. When the pedal was released, the front ducting and wing returned to their full down-force position. Until they were banned many sports racing cars, as well as Formula One cars, had wings on tall struts, although many were not as well executed as Hall’s.

In layman’s terms, the Chaparral 2E had a “spoiler” on the back, and that’s forever imprinted on me as the ultimate in car design, other than gull-winged doors from a 1950s Mercedes-Benz. Every time I see a modern car with a spoiler — Subarus — I’m transported back to the days when I saw myself as an honorary member of Team Chaparral.

Other bits and pieces of racing lore stayed in my brain from 1967, the year I turned 10. I must have kept up with the news in Car and Driver and newspapers like the McAllen Monitor. The horrific accident at the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 10 that killed Lorenzo Bandini sank deeply into my subconscious. Photos of the crash, in which Bandini was terribly burned, soon appeared in Car and Driver with an angry editorial; 47 years later, I instantly recalled his name and scenes of the crash that I read about. The violence and nature of Bandini’s death must have shocked me.

A happier racing memory came from later in the same month. I’m thinking back on the Indianapolis 500 of May 1967, when Parnelli Jones shocked the traditionalists by almost winning in the STP candy apple-red gas turbine car, which led most of race until it broke down with three laps to go after a $6 ball bearing failed. To this day I associate the letters “STP” with game-changing innovation — which ultimately went nowhere in terms of impact on Indy racing, although it caused a massive stir that year. A.J. Foyt won the race — he’s just one of the familiar names from that era that leaped back into my awareness from that era; I couldn’t name a single driver from any circuit of today, but names like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill and, of course, Jack Brabham feel as familiar to me as Bronx kids in the late 1920s recalled Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and their Yankees teammates.

Of course, I clearly remember my family’s own cars. My mother had total loyalty to Chevrolets that she bought at Tipton Chevy throughout the 1960s. She first bought a rear-engine Corvair in 1962 or so, then traded three years later for a sporty 1965 turquoise Malibu that, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind driving today. Following the pattern of the day, in 1968 she bought a yellow two-door Impala, with the popular option of the era, a white vinyl roof. She stopped upgrading after that, and the yellow Impala was the car my brother and I drove after taking Driver’s Ed in the mid-1970s.

Hands down, though, the hot wheels in the family in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to my mother’s Aunt Sue in San Antonio, a retired teacher. She tooled around the Alamo City in her early ’60s white Thunderbird, a bitchin’ ride with creamy leather bucket seats and the power windows. Power windows! I had never seen those before. In the late 1960s, alas, she traded the T-Bird in for a boat-like Lincoln Continental, painted gold, with plenty of room. I liked riding in her Caddy when we visited San Antonio on family vacations, but she just couldn’t top the T-Bird.

My interest in cars and racing faded away, replaced by baseball and girls and other primal quests. I bought my first car in May 1979 for a summer job as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, a rusty 1971 AMC Hornet station wagon. Desperate for the required transportation for the job, I bought it for $500 from a graduate student. It served its purpose but I never drove it unless I had to in that gas-crisis summer, when long lines snaked around service stations nation-wide. I took it back to Princeton and parked it behind my eating club during my senior year. I used it to move to Brooklyn after I graduated and heaved a sigh of relief when I donated it to Goodwill as soon as possible.

I didn’t own a car for 11 years, until my wife and I moved to the suburbs and we bought a tan 1984 Saab two-door. It had a manual transmission, so I had to take driving lessons to learn how to drive the thing. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually learned how. Three years later we bought a red four-door 1986 Saab when our son was born. The tan car died in a train station parking lot and we got a Taurus station wagon. After we divorced, I got the red Saab, which proved increasingly unreliable. I liked the unique look of Saabs and their solidity but 1986 was a wretched model year and the car became a terror ride as I wondered when it would stall at a stop light or just not start, as once happened after I picked up my son after a Labor Day sleepover with a friend in Westchester County. A $200 AAA pick-up to my repair shop in Stamford ensued.

Fed up with Saab’s clunkerness, I got to the point where I rented cars on the weekends my son was with me so I could have reliable transportation. In April 2005, that year of miracles, I made the best consumer purchase ever when I bought a 2004 Hyundai Elantra at the short-lived Hyundai dealership in Stamford, Connecticut. The dealership closed a month after I bought the car, but I’ve had nine years of trouble-free cruising.

My silver four-door blends into every parking lot in total anonymity. Nobody’s going to be impressed by the tape deck it still has (how’s that for old-style technology?) but it gets me around the suburbs and handled ferocious New York blizzards, so long as I don’t actually drive during a snow storm. As much as I dream of late-middle-aged-life crisis Corvettes and T-Birds–my car fantasies always involve classic American Iron from Detroit–I’m sticking with the utilitarian services of my Elantra and its tape deck.

Truth be told, even expensive current models fail to impress me. The Westport train station parking lot packs in row after row of grey, black and silver sedans from BW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. They all look alike and I stroll past them. I only nod and gaze with passion with longing at the stray Corvette or curving Porsche. If I see a low-slung piece of superpowered road-candy, or an antique. I’ll whip out my camera to get shots from different angles.

Still, I can look back on my days as the car-crazy kid following Sir Jack Brabham and the home-state Team Chaparral. And sometimes where I accelerate through the mild uphill curves of the backroads of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, I grip the wheel of my Hyundai, feel the wind in what’s left of my hair and think, “Ja, fine European road handling.”

Junior High Confidential: Teenage Dance Party, 1971!

Hormones + a dark room + Jackson 5 records = a fun evening for all, according to my notes from autumn 1971, a Facebook ThrowBackThursday special.


November 6, 1971. Tonight is Lois’ party, + I guess I’ll go. It’s from 7:30 to 11:30 pm, at Lois’ house (I guess) + I’m looking forward to it. The only problem is since I’ve never been to a party like this, I don’t know what to expect, what to wear, + how to get home. Mom says I can call her, but getting her up from bed at 11:30 (if I stay that long) or later isn’t too appealing.

November 7, 1971. Last night I went to Lois’ party + had a lot of fun. Good many people there: me (of course), Daniel, David, Joe Sietz, John N., Tito, Abel, Johnnie Martinez, Ridling, Dean Williford, Pee Wee, some high school guys, Robert Rojas, Joe Gonzales, Ricky Garcia, Eli Ochoa, + others I don’t know or remember. Oh, yes, Larry Bray was there, as was Gabby Garza + Ricky Hinojosa. The girls were: Lois, Angie, Sylvia, Dee Dee, Dalia Martinez, Janet, Stephana, Sandy Miller, Mary Ann, Cynthia Nelson, Raynell, Hilda Perez, Teresa C., Rachel Currie, Sheri, Bertha Hernandez, Joe G’s sister, Rhonda, Sandra Kemp and some more I can’t remember.

Anyway, I got there about 7:45 pm at Lois’ house at 16th + Conway. I walked to the door + peered thru the darkness + saw that it was the right address (1623 Conway) + told Mom + Coop who where parked on the curb, told ‘em it was the right house and to leave. So I walked to the door.

The 1st time I went up to the door I  knew it was the right house because I could hear young voices inside + an Osmonds song on a record player.

As I walked in the room where the action was was in almost total darkness, illuminated by a candle at each end of a room 7 yds wide + 15 long. The walls were jammed with people. The 1st person I saw was Daniel + Charlie + Ricky Garcia, by the door. We talked a bit + they told me David was at the far end of the room.

He was, with Joe, John + Belinda, Ricky + a few others. We sat + talked a while, every so often someone moving to a refreshment table at the corner of the room across from us.

After an hour or more (Time got too fuzzy to remember when things happened) I danced with . . .

The music was well fitted for the occasion, lots + lots of slow 45s like the Osmonds, Jackson 5, Carpenters, etc. They must have a huge collection of records but only 1 album was out “Cosmo’s Factory” + it was played for only parts of 2 songs. I left a little before 11:30. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

John Paul II, a Saint and an Inspiration

The elevation to sainthood of Pope John Paul II gives me a happy feeling. In his long and eventful papacy, he spoke to me on political and human levels.

He became the Pope from Poland on October 16, 1978 (my 21st birthday, by the way) when communism still ruled over Eastern Europe and Russia. He was subtle and tactically brilliant in confronting the Evil Empire and its lackeys in Poland. I recall that after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, John Paul II warned Soviet leaders that if the Red Army invaded Poland, he would personally go to Poland to lead the resistance. Having lived in Poland during the Nazi occupation, he knew the value and costs of resistance. I hope I’m remembering the story accurately; I can’t find documentation for it, but the thought remains deeply lodged in my associations with John Paul II. He was fearless.

Fast-forward two decades. Poland is free, the USSR has been swept into the dustbin of history, and John Paul II is dying. Cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and assassination attempts all took their toll on the man. He was clearly ailing in his public appearances. In the weeks before his death on April 2, 2005, I remember walking past The Church of Our Savior at 38th Street and Park Avenue in New York, on a spring evening a few days before his passing. A large sign on an easel outside the church said, “Pray for Pope John Paul II.”

That made me think. The Pope no doubt had a great degree of spiritual peace in his declining days, sureness in what awaited him in the World to Come. But he still needed prayers, for recovery of health and his comfort. He kept hanging in there as Pope despite his decline. The thought that came to mind: Even if you have absolute faith in the certainty of an afterlife, you don’t have to be in a big rush to get there. Like the movie title says, heaven can wait; it ain’t going anywhere.

Life in human society, among friends and family, offers great rewards whatever the difficulties. I like to think John Paul II rather liked being alive right to the end and would go only when the proper moment came. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. The afterlife is long, so, so long.

His last words to aides on April 2 were “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”). Finally, Pope John Paul II was ready.