Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on Veterans Day

Veterans Day brings thoughts of my Dad, who died of cancer almost thirty years ago.  He was a veteran of WW II, but never liked to talk about it.  I learned more about his service experiences from letters he left behind, and a WWII scrap book he kept. 

He was the "accidental soldier" like so many other GIs, ones who were drafted away from their families and friends.  He was a most unlikely candidate for warrior.  Perhaps that is why he brought his profession, photographer, with him, becoming a member of the Signal Corps.  But that doesn't mean he didn't risk his life at times.  He expressed not only his fears in his letters, but his hope he was fighting a war to end all wars as well.  At the war's conclusion he was delayed in Germany as part of the occupying force.  I vaguely remember his return.

I have a deep respect for what he did, and for all veterans who answered the call. The war that lives in my mind was the senseless one in Vietnam.  From a killing field then, to a top tourist attraction now.  My draft status at the time was 3-A as I was married and had a child. By the time the draft lottery was instituted in 1969, I was exempt as I was born before the 1944 birth-date cut off.  But good friends of mine were called, Bruce, Ray, and Ron, friends to this day.  I salute their service.

Soon after my Dad's death I wrote a tribute to him, a recollection which tried to capture his essence and our relationship.  I had called it "An Ordinary Man" as his story is not exceptional, but one of a man who lived his life as best he could, trying to do the right thing.  Of course to me he was anything but "ordinary." 

Recently I felt that essay, written so many years before, needed work, and I revised it, not only to be more accurate (the passage of time helped recall details) but with the intention of submitting it to the New York Times Magazine section as a suitable piece for their "Lives" section. But I knew it was unlikely they would publish it as the paper tends to be partial to professional writers or journalists.  And as they have not, I include it here.  It is really the story of how, or why, I did not go into business with him, but I think it is a good depiction of him as well.  So, in loving memory of my Dad, a veteran:

An Unspoken Obligation

Up Park Avenue we speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaits us.

It is a summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. They speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics disagreeing on most matters. Meanwhile I sleepily daydream about where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc, probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Lefferts Boulevard.

The family photography business was established right after the Civil War, soon after my great-great grandfather, Carl, emigrated from Cologne, Germany with his brother, settling in New York City.  Their portrait photography business at 142 Bowery flourished in the 19th century.  The 20th century brought a new focus: commercial photography which necessitated moving to a larger studio, better located, at 100 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 15th Street.  There the business remained until the 1980’s, occupying the top floor. 

My father took it for granted that I was being groomed for the business, the next generation to carry it on. Uncle Phil was a bachelor and since I was the only one with the name to preserve the tradition, it would naturally fall to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation, that nothing of a formal nature such as a college education was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples, or for catalog display at the annual Furniture Show. As a youngster, I roamed NYC by subway and taxi with my deliveries without incident – after all, this was the innocent, placid 50’s.  Eventually, I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, later, as an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging negatives of a clients’ tables, lamps, and sofas to minimize any overexposures.

I see my father through the lens of his working life, revealing a personality normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed by a troubled marriage. My mother expected more, often reminding him of his failures. But strolling down the halls of his photography business he is a transformed person, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way. “How’s Geschaft?” he would say.

His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins preside over a sandwich and soda delivered from a luncheonette downstairs. I sit, listen, and devour my big greasy burger. They discuss the business among themselves. Osmosis was my mentor.

In spite of the filial duty that prompted me to continue learning the photography business, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would major in business. By then I think I knew going to school would be the first step away from the family business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

However, as silently was the expectation that I would take over one day, my retreat was equally furtive. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and yet continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew the outcome of the change, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were instinctively clear to me, in spite of the guilt I often felt. In the studio he was larger than life, the consummate photographer, but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He had bet the future on producing those prints for salesmen, discounting the impact of the developing mass media.  My opinion on the matter would mean little. After all, he was my Dad and I was his kid. So I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know, although I suspect he understood I wanted to find my own way in life. Ultimately, I married and found a job in publishing with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still occasionally joined him for that greasy burger at his office during those first few years of my publishing career, his greeting me with a smile when I arrived, “so, how’s Geschaft?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The People Have Spoken: Compromise!

It is amazing how close the anecdotal survey mentioned at the end of my last post came to predicting the 2.2% popular vote plurality for Obama (only a tenth of a percent off).  I wonder how many professional polling pontificators were as accurate!  Assume Florida is finally called for Obama, and that seems most likely at this point, the final Electoral College tabulation will be 332 for Obama vs. Romney's 206.  Here the survey of 289 vs. 249 was too pessimistic, although calling the winner.

This was no mandate for Obama, nor should it be. His political campaign of 2008 underestimated the depths of the economic crisis and the ability of a mere President to affect meaningful economic change.  Too many promises were made, indeed. Perhaps he has a more sober view of reality with the onset of his second term. 

Looking at the results vs. 2008 clearly shows that the American public is dissatisfied with the status quo.  Obama's popular plurality in 2008 was 52.93% or 2.63% more than 2012.  That doesn't sound like much except when you look at the absolute vote itself, with Obama getting 9.6 million less votes than in 2008.  Less people voted, showing the disenfranchisement of the country as a whole.  We are all sick of the shenanigans of both parties.

But if Obama is listening, hopefully they are across the aisle as well.  Senate's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's gave an ominous post election speech saying, "They [the American public] gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives...Now it's time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office...To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way."

It sounds like more of the same.  Will Senator McConnell and Representative Boehner get the message as well?  Boehner said "The American people also made clear there's no mandate for raising tax rates." Doesn't sound encouraging that Boehner is still drawing a line in the sand that there can be no tax increases in any compromise. Another game of chicken with the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling?  Any sane person knows this cannot be merely addressed with spending cuts.  There will have to be some tax increases, a more progressive tax scale such as in the Clinton era.  Our economy did fine then, why not now?  Ok, guys, time to compromise.  The election results seem to be shouting that message. 

Antidote du jour...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Storm Aftermath and the Election

Hurricane Sandy left destruction in its wake, underscoring the fragility of our coastlines and infrastructure.   More on that, and its connection with the upcoming election later, but first a follow up on my last post which was filled with anxiety and speculation about Sandy's potential impact on our friends in Connecticut, our boat club, and our boat. It's mostly bad news but a fortuitous wind change from the east to the south just before the peak high tide during the storm made the difference between disaster and catastrophe.  It meant that the water level in the parking lot where our club’s boats are on the hard for the winter was "only" about 4-1/2 feet vs., potentially, 5-6.  As for my own boat, which has a draft of 3-3/4 feet and was blocked about a foot off the ground, the peak tide slightly lifted it, enough for it to shift off of its keel stands, but settling onto three of the four boat stands that hold the hard chine of the hull.  These stands are mainly for stability, not to support the entire weight of the boat, the keel stands doing the heavy support.  So, in a sense, my boat is hanging in mid air right now by those boat stands.  This might put strain on the hull, but my older, heavily built boat should come through as long as it can be reblocked successfully.  A crane has been brought in to remove damaged boats so, hopefully, the travel lift can get to those that need reblocking such as mine.

Unfortunately, many other boats in the yard were damaged or totaled.  Boats were strewn all over Water Street of South Norwalk.  And where we used to live across the Norwalk River on Sylvester Court, boats were on the street as well. 

This is but a microcosm of the coast above south Jersey where the storm came ashore, with places like Staten Island which is as low lying, and directly exposed to the east, taking a direct hit. And now they say there may be a Nor'easter in the cards for later this week which will just exacerbate misery and increase the potential for more damage.  We can only hope for the best.

Hurricanes seem to follow me wherever I might be, sometimes the same storm threatening us both in Florida and Connecticut.  The first hurricane I had to deal with in my life of any significance was Hurricane Carol in 1954.  My parents usually rented a cottage in Sag Harbor towards the end of each summer for a couple of weeks, a block from the Peconic Bay. Carol drove us out of our rental, and although a block away from the Bay, water was half way up the first floor.

Then in 1985 Hurricane Gloria came to call on Connecticut and although only a Cat. 1, the winds were from the southeast, driving water and tremendous wave action up the Norwalk River where we had a smaller boat at the time  – at a different marina than where we are now -- and between the heaving of the docks and the wind, boats broke free, another boat's bow pulpit plowed through the hull into our v-berth, but above the waterline so at least it didn't sink.

I anxiously watched Hurricane Bob form in 1991 as we were spending a two weeks summer vacation at Block Island.  A couple of days out from the storm a direct hit seemed unavoidable, so unlike some friends who decided to "ride it out" I packed up the boat and ran back to Norwalk, safe enough from the effects of the storm.  Boats were strewn all of the shores of Block Island although my friend, John, who tied his boat in a spider web maze of lines between the fixed docks of Payne’s, thankfully escaped relatively unscathed.

The next memorable hurricane was a terrifying one, Floyd which hit in September 1999.  We had just bought our home in Florida that prior June and Ann was living in the house, while I lived on the boat in Connecticut, finishing out my job there until the end of that year (we had already sold our home in CT).  Satellite imagery made Floyd look like the storm of the century, and it did grow to a Cat. 4, huge in size, heading directly at Florida, causing massive evacuations on the coast.  The traffic north was colossal.  I was terrified for my wife who was in the house alone (but with our dog at the time, Treat), and although it was completely shuttered, everyone was screaming evacuate north!  It seemed to me, amateur meteorologist extraordinaire, that while the storm had the potential to hit us head on in the North Palm Beach area, it was highly unlikely it would turn south or even have much of an impact far south of us, so while I95 and the Turnpike were clogged with cars going north, Ann and I decided it best for her to go south to a friend's home, inland, about 40 miles to the south which turned out to be the right decision.

With hindsight, she could have stayed put in our home as the storm took a sharp right hand turn up the coast and ironically had more of an impact on me living on our boat in Norwalk, CT.  I had to strip the enclosure and remove everything from the decks, tie off the boat with double lines and springs, put out extra fenders, etc., but I stayed on the boat through the storm and as it was not a direct hit, I merely rocked and rolled, and was fine. Tides never even approached the levels of Sandy.

2004 was another lousy hurricane year with both Hurricane Francis and Hurricane Jeanne striking Florida only some twenty miles north of us, and causing some minor damage to our home, although it was completely shuttered (mostly a roof tiles missing and plantings ruined).  We were not in Florida for Francis but had the pleasure of dealing with the aftermath of Jeanne with no power for days. Luckily, our cousins owned a condo south of us so we occupied that while waiting for power.  And let's not forget Hurricane Ivan that same year which dumped enormous amounts of rain, but was less of a wind event where we are.

Then there was 2005's Hurricane Wilma which we rode out in our home, all shuttered up again, a storm that was coming from the west and, therefore, Florida folklore would have you believe would be merely a minor inconvenience.  Unfortunately, the eye went over our house and as the storm emerged over the Atlantic the back end picked up significant strength, probably even a Cat. 2 or 3 at one point.  Our home was groaning in the wind, the sliding glass doors, although behind heavy steel shutters, bowing in and out just from the storm’s barometric pressure change. Wilma also knocked out power but, luckily, it turned cool, not the usual tropical air mass behind the storm, and living for days without power was even a little fun, cooking on sterno stoves, flash lights to read by, my piano a constant companion.

Finally, last year we dealt with Hurricane Irene, having to shutter up our house while living on the boat, expecting the worst for our home, which the storm completely missed, while we had to evacuate the boat! 

Florida, although very vulnerable, deals with hurricanes better than the northeast, especially one like Sandy that was both a hurricane and a Nor'easter rolled into one, bringing in a cold air mass in its wake.  It's one thing not to have power, and it’s another to also have no heat in the cold.  Also, gas stations here are required to have generators to pump gas and that is now a problem in the northeast with no such requirements. That will change in the future, I'm sure.

And here is the connection to politics. Mayor Bloomberg has it right to endorse President Obama even for no other reason than his stance and record on global warming.  Most scientists are in agreement that hydrocarbon emissions are responsible, not merely some grand cyclical weather factor.  Can this be reversed short term?  Of course not.  But it is an issue that has even greater consequences than our debt, and it is more difficult to solve than our man made fiscal crisis.

Watching the rise of the tide as Hurricane Sandy past by Florida, my neighbor, who has lived on our waterway for fifty years, remarked that during those years he has witnessed higher high tides and higher low tides until, finally, reaching the top of our sea wall during Sandy, submerging both my docks.  It took days for it to recede, long after the storm was battering the northeast.  Yes, this is merely anecdotal evidence, but even our short thirteen year stay here seems to confirm the observation.  How can we deny the existence of what we have wrought and the need to address this terrible problem? How will not only Congress, but world governments agree upon global warming mitigation priorities?

This brings me to the importance of this election.  It has been the most bitter election campaign in my memory, not surprising given the polarization and subsequent action calcification of our government.  It also is the consequence of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision which opened the flood gates to Super PACs funded by corporations, wealthy individuals and special interest groups.  This has led to the pollution of the airways, endless robot-calls and an inundation of direct mail.  In one week alone, these flyers pictured here were sent to us.

Imagine the billions of dollars wasted on these brainwashing attempts.  Why do we permit political advertising at all?  There must be other alternatives.  But I guess they work, just judging by the letters to the editor I read in the Palm Beach Post. Many simply regurgitate the sputum of those ads.  It is an amazing circular process, garbage in, garbage out, and then making such important decisions on highly emotionally charged accusations and innuendoes.

We voted early, the lines unbelievably lengthy.  There are several proposed amendments to the Florida State Constitution and the ballot is several pages long. GOP controlled Florida had made the decision to make advance voting a much shorter period than voters had in 2008.   I can imagine how the lines will be tomorrow..

As to the outcome, here is an unscientific survey conducted by my grade advisor from high school, Roger Brickner (yes, we are still in touch more than fifty years later).  Politics has been his avocation since HE went to high school, and he has accurately predicted presidential election outcomes since he incorrectly picking Dewey in 1948.   He has an email following of similar-minded friends and he canvassed  their predictions for this election and, based on that approach, Obama will win both the popular vote (by 2.1%) and the electoral college (289 to 249). 

Intrade, the popular prediction platform, where you can "bet" on a winner, most recently has the probability of an Obama win at about 65%.
At to my own "prediction," I think the anti-Obama vitriol runs deep, and that has been effectively harvested by his opponents.  For that reason, and using the anecdotal evidence of the ubiquitous Romney / West signs lining our own road, I think the popular vote will be closer than 2.1%, with the distinct possibility of Obama losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College. But trying to quantify it is just guesswork.

PS: Last minute email from Roger (his own prediction, not the average of his email followers):
I forgot to give the grand summary... Guess I was so glad to complete all the states and all the elections!

President    electoral votes OBAMA 290   ROMNEY 248
                    popular vote OBAMA 51% ROMNEY 48% OTHERS 1%

The Senate will be Dem 53, Rep. 45  Too close 2 (one held  by a Rep., one held by a Dem.)
 The House will be Rep. 235  Dem  200