Friday, February 23, 2007

Master of None

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a hater.

This world is full of things I HATE!

I hate SUVs.

I hate cell phones.

I hate Blackberrys!

Not the sweet and juicy kind that grow on vines.

No, I'm referring to the ubiquitous annoying kind that are attached to the hands of self-important biz nerds.

These are people SO critical to the success of their respective enterprises they can't be out of communication range for even one second.

Curiously, this phenomenon is most evident among the job descriptions whose decisions are the least vital and the most subjective.

Are you listening all you ad agency geeks?

People whose decisions have real and substantial consequences understand that their attention is critical to the decision-making process. But for those whose decisions are limited to "the blue backdrop or the purple drapes, shrimp cocktail or lobster rolls" the myth of multi-tasking seems to be inextricably linked to their own inflated sense of self worth.

How many times have you tried to complete a conversation with someone who's checking emails or answering the cell phone?

"What is that? The kitchen is on fire?


Now, what that you were...


Ugghhh... it's a madhouse. Now what was that again?... Fire?... Where?"

The bottom line: If you're not focused on being excellent at what you're doing-- right now--you cannot excel at anything.

The most successful people I've known have had the unique ability to do several tasks in rapid succession and give each of them their undivided attention. To the casual observer it may appear that they're doing five things at once, but they're not. They are paying close attention, making decisions, resolving problems and moving along.

You can accomplish a lot by simply paying attention. And you can do a lot of damage by trying to do everything at once.

Last week, during an ice storm, I was sitting at a stop light minding my own business. In my rear view mirror I was horrified to see a suburban armored personnel carrier, AKA a Cadillac Escalade, with 20-something driver yacking on the cell phone.

Closer... closer... closer... SPLAT!

Smack into the rear bumper of my magnificent 1995 525i. My cherished car has given me unconditional devotion and impeccable service for more than a decade, and it will be celebrating its 12th birthday next week in Bob's Collision Shop.

Okay, these things happen. Let's get out and exchange documents.

"What? No licence? No registration? But you remembered to take your cell phone!"

With that she burst into tears. I'm cooked. She slams into me, sends my spare tire into my back seat and she's crying. Luckily, daddy showed up in a few minutes and assured me that he would take care of the damages. He has three kids of driving age and runs an open tab at Bob's.

Okay, so I'm overreacting. A little damage to an old car isn't the end of the world.

But last month Westschester EMTs removed a corpse from a wrecked car that had careened off the highway. Stuck in the eye of this unfortunate accident victim they found a mascara applicator. That is the end of the world. The only positive anyone could extract from this tragedy is that it was a single-vehicle accident.

In the business world I've come across dozens, if not hundreds, of "Busy Bees" whose work days consisted of attending to 100 insignificant crises simultaneously. Not coincidentally, these crises were all manufactured to create a veil of busy activity masking a total vacuum of real importance.

To make matters worse, these busybodies invariably agonized over decisions that did not make one whit of difference one way or another.

Then, when finally confronted with a decision that carried some real consequences, they would throw their hands in the air and shout:

"I can't deal with this now!"

Of course not. You can't be expected to worry about the fire in the kitchen when you have to decide whether to put Mrs. Kolmeister and Mrs. Minciotti at the same table while choosing between gladiolas or gardenias for the centerpieces.

Uggghh... it's a madhouse.

As a clever motivational poster I saw recently stated: "When you earnestly believe that you can compensate for a lack of skill by redoubling your effort, there's no limit to the damage you can cause."

The moral of the story: Don't mistake busy for productive and never confuse activity with action.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Fascist Alliance

I once told an old friend, a New York liberal, that I would never vote for Pat Buchanan because he was a socialist. He shot back immediately that Buchanan was a fascist. That's when I offered to pay him a nickel if he could explain the difference. It's been more than fifteen years and I'm still waiting for an answer.

We had been traveling extensively during that period and had the misfortune to find ourselves in the middle of two terrorist wars motivated by socialist ideology and instigated by fascist thugs. In Guatemala the war was winding down. There were still random attacks, but travel in the countryside was relatively safe.

In Peru the Sendero Luminoso held the countryside in the grip of fear.

Up to five million campesinos had left the highlands and moved into a series of barrios that ringed the capital city of Lima. The Senderos followed them and by 1990 Lima had been declared a Red Zone. Pundits at the time described the Shining Path and their leader, former college professor Abimael Guzman, as Maoists and went to great lengths to describe the dramatic distinctions between these cut-throats and the wide variety of cut-throats in other parts of the world. "Yes, they're brutal and ruthless," the analysts admitted, "but we have to understand the unique nuances of their world view."

In the highlands, Shining Path guerrillas would enter a town, round up ten or fifteen men at random, cut off their heads and hang them from a tree in the town square.

The Sendero Christmas Tree ceremony was designed to show everyone in the region who was the boss. In Lima, car bombs and indiscriminate grenade attacks were daily occurrences. And Guzman, AKA Presidente Gonzalo, declared in his manifesto that he would transform Peru into an agrarian utopia "only after crossing a river of blood."

How's that for nuance?

Because they controlled much of Peru's vast coca crop, the Sendero Luminoso were financially self reliant. Unlike today's fascists, their income was not subject to the vagaries of worldwide commodity prices, distribution deals with the grandchildren of Joseph P. Kennedy or fund-raising cocktail parties on the Upper West of Manhattan. The cash flowed unabated and unencumbered courtesy of doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers throughout the free world, while the IRA, Tamil Tigers, Brigate Rosso, Baader Meinhof, Fatah and others needed to form fundraising networks and stickup convenience stores.

Shining Path thugs still formed loose alliances with terrorist organizations throughout the world, but they remained fiercely independent because they could afford to. If an American grand jury had been convened to consider conspiracy charges against the Sendero Luminoso and their terrorist colleagues, they could never bring an indictment. No hard evidence.

Before RICO, American law enforcement was virtually powerless in their fight against the MAFIA. Connecting the dots with enough hard evidence to gain a conviction was near impossible.

As Willie Cicci testified to the U.S. Senate Committee:

"Yeah, buf-fas. The Corleone Family got lotsa buf-fas."

Finally, the legal system caught up with the thugs and simply being associated with the MAFIA became a crime. Carmine (The Snake) Persico, in an early post-RICO MAFIA trial asked furtively, "So I'm in the MAFIA. Is that a crime?"

"Yes, it is." answered the judge and sentenced him to a long prison term.

Was Saddam Hussein responsible for 911? Chris Matthews loves this question. The answer of course is no. Was Saddam Hussein part of a worldwide alliance of fascists? Yes. Was Saddam Hussein providing material support for terrorists who were killing thousands of innocent civilians? Yes.

Could anyone go into an American court and prove conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt? By pre-RICO standards probably not. But today, just being a member of Ba'ath, Hamas, FARC, ELN, Sinn Fein, al Qaeda is more than sufficient.

And it doesn't matter whether they're masquerading as downtrodden campesinos, idealistic intellectuals, or freckled-faced bartenders who speak with charming brogues.

A fascist is a fascist is a fascist.

In my humble opinion, whether the economic elites usurp government authority, the government elites usurp economic authority, or intellectual and political elites seize authority over everything, the results are always the same and that authority, eventually and inevitably, is enforced at gunpoint.

Fascist or socialist?

The difference is in the details. Minor details. Insignificant details. Extraneous details.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Surge in the Gender War

A contributor to another blog page ( written by a long time soon-to-be-ex friend, chastised me for my failure to recognize the historical significance of Hillary's ascent to the White House. To demonstrate how much more sensitive, caring and intelligent women are, she closed her criticism by referring to me and another dissenting contributor as "dumb f**ks."

So goes the gender war, a spectator sport played out in newspapers, television shows, saloons and across kitchen tables. At the center of this battle lies the question: Can a woman better lead America than a man?

In a book entitled "Closing the Leadership Gap" author Marie Wilson wrote that America "has been steered by male leadership who tend to lead from a self-centered, self-preservation perspective. In contrast women... are inclined to lead, their families and nations, from an other-centered perspective."

Never one to let a goofy theory go unexploited the aspiring Dungeon Master in Chief claimed that research "shows the presence of women raises the standards of ethical behavior and lowers corruption." The implication, of course, is that honesty and civility are traits possessed in huge quantities by women in general and Hillary in particular.

Let's look at the record: "Vast right-wing conspiracy. That'll teach them to f**k with us. I've been a life-long Yankee fan." And my personal favorite, "I was named after Sir Edmund Hillary."

Never mind that Her Heinous was born in 1947 and Sir Edmund scaled Everest in 1953.

In an earlier column I detailed that slimy minimum-wage deal finagled by Madame Speaker on behalf of Star-Kist Tuna; a little legislative sleight of hand worth millions to Mr. and Ms. Pelosi. But these gals are politicians and that's what politicos do. What about your average everyday woman on the street?

Last week a new York City cabbie spent several hours trying to find a woman who had left his cab earlier in the day. It turns out that she had given him a 30 cent tip for an $11 ride, but that's not why he sought her out, foregoing an afternoon's worth of fares in the process.

Rather, it seems she was so pre-occupied with stiffing this guy that she had forgotten to take a bag full of diamonds when she left. When the cabbie found her purse and the bag of diamonds, he tracked her down and returned the gems.

The driver didn't want a reward, but thought it would be nice if she reimbursed him for his lost fares. On the evening news I saw the video of her handing him $100. She was in severe pain as she forked over the cash. It was as if she was giving him a body part.

What a dumb f**k!

This episode reminded me of another encounter I had years ago at John Jay Park in Manhattan. My wife was attending a small gathering of college friends and I took Matt, my son, to the playground.

There I was, a man alone with a three-year-old boy on Sunday.

Get the picture?

Soon I found myself in a small group of fathers, also alone, all watching their kids and bitching to each other about their ex-wives.

One of them noticed that I was wearing a wedding ring.

"Have you re-married?" he asked.

"No, once is enough," I answered.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw Matt get decked by an angel-faced little girl. He had the ball. She wanted the ball. She knocked him down and took the ball. Sitting there on his can he did a perfect Oliver Hardy slow burn, leaped to his feet and made a full-force charge toward this little fem-fascist. Quick as a flash I jumped out and intercepted him.

"You never hit a girl! I don't care what she did!"

What you are about to read is true. The names have been omitted because I don't know them.

From nowhere came a shrill: "How dare you say that to him?"

I looked up and saw the little girl's mother, an EarthMom with all the trimmings--wire-rimmed glasses, peasant dress, paisley headband and Birkenstocks.

"That's how little boys grow up to be male chauvinists!"

I tried my best to explain that this was MY son. That he will grow up to be a male chauvinist is a foregone conclusion.

The only question is: "Would you like him to be a male chauvinist who beats up women, or one who doesn't beat up women?"

She didn't call me a "dumb f**k" but she hurled every other cliched epithet she could think of at me. I didn't realize it at the time, but her response was a perfect example of an "other-centered" perspective. She wanted me (the other in this conflict) to die, on the spot, in a very painful manner.

Speaker Pelosi, along with the Clinontistas, have demonstrated repeatedly that they lead from an "other-centered" perspective. They pass legislation that affects others, meaning us. They impose rules that restrict the freedoms of others, meaning us. Not coincidentally, these are laws and rules that they themselves are free to ignore. And increasingly they expand their power to regulate us out of business and tax us into the poorhouse while limiting or eliminating our freedom to speak in opposition.

More on "Campaign Finance Reform" soon.

By the way, does anyone think that Hillary will be using the "Buy-One-Get-One-Free" campaign offer anytime soon? I'm sure that she has "other" plans. Namely, a steel cot stashed away in the sub-basement with "Big Creep" engraved on it.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Unexamined Life

I make it a point to re-read Man's Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl every five years or so. The late Dr. Frankl had an extraordinary gift for observation combined with a talent for communicating clearly and persuasively.

His recollections of life in a concentration camp reveal humanity at its best and at its most vile. In 1965 they had a profound impact on a skinny high school freshman who was just beginning to experience life outside of his small circle of friends and family.

Like Socrates, Santayana and Bishop Sheen, Dr. Frankl believed that the greatest dangers facing contemporary society were isolation and the inevitable loss of purpose that isolation brings. Even while he was confined in the most horrendous conditions, the Nazis could not strip him of his dignity because throughout his ordeal he retained his sense of purpose.

His mission: To help his camp mates get through their ordeal while retaining at least a small shred of humanity; to heal their bodies and help sustain their spirits.

He examined his purpose every day and reminded himself every moment that his life had meaning in spite of all the efforts to strip it away.

His was a life worth living.

Socrates didn't say that the unexamined life was "not so good" or "less satisfying."

No. To Socrates a life without daily reflection on the purpose and meaning of what it takes to be human was "not worth living."

In today's world we face the same dangers that Socrates warned of more than two millennia ago. What pretends to be serious discussion is just argument. Blind anger passes for passion. Indifference is justified as realism. And feeble attempts at humor mask shallow thinking and, many times, inner rage. As David Ivor St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap once said:

"There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

Socrates himself recognized this. He warned that dialecticism must not degenerate into mere contradiction, because mere contradiction inevitably leads to cynicism, sophistry and nihilism. Augustine saw this phenomenon in his students and at one point suggested that dialecticism be abandoned. The risks, for him, were just too great.

Periodically, I find myself agreeing with Augustine. Since modern man is shallow beyond all reclamation, the risks of dialecticism are just too great. Worse, I sometimes even begin to think that Freud was right, and that "the moment one inquires about the sense or value of life, one is sick."

Then something happens that jolts me out my cynicism or I meet someone who reaffirms my faith. It doesn't take much.

About five years ago I was riding on the "F" train reading Man's Search for Meaning. A young woman was sitting across from me and I committed the cardinal sin of New York Subway riders: I made eye contact. She smiled. I smiled back, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.

And then she said: "It's a wonderful book, isn't it?"

Every day millions ride in that same subway system.

Every day millions look straight ahead never making eye contact.

Yet, last month while standing on the subway platform with his daughters, holding their hands tightly, a courageous man let go of his daughters' hands and jumped down onto the subway tracks to save the life of a young man he had never met.

Yes, there is hope.

And that dusty old paperback left over from high school is calling to me once again.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

You Missed the Funny Part, Leo

Anyone who spends more than ten seconds reflecting on life can usually recall dozens, if not hundreds of people who have had positive effects on their thoughts, opinions and outlook. Among the hundreds of people I've learned from over the years, two came to mind recently as I was watching A Thousand Clowns for the four hundred and eightieth time. Herb Gardner, the playwright, and Barbara Sproul, Chairman of the Religion Department at Hunter College.

I never met Herb Gardner. Like everyone else, I knew him through his work. But during my years at NBC I met people who had known him, as well as the director of A Thousand Clowns, Fred Coe. Through their recollections I felt as if I had known him personally. I was lucky enough to know and admire Barbara Sproul when I was a student at Hunter College.

Gardner created a richly-textured and moving collection of work that included the aforementioned Jason Robards classic, as well as I'm Not Rappaport, Thieves, Conversations with my Father and a cartoon series called The Nebbishes, which was The Simpsons of its era. His plays like his characters were unique and timeless. In a world of shallowness he saw complexity. In a show biz milieu dominated by tired and predictable old gags, his humor worked so beautifully because you could never see the punchlines until they were long gone.

Most importantly, Herb Gardner saw humanity everywhere.

There were no good guys, no bad guys, no easy targets.

In contrast with what passes for satire today, there was no anger in his humor. Every Gardner creation reveals insights from a wide variety of perspectives.

Just when you think that Albert is an irredeemable bad guy or that Arnie has sold his soul for success, they come back with soliloquies that reveal extraordinary depth of character.

And while I'm still trying to think of a redeeming quality in Leo the Chipper Munk, I even felt a twinge of sorrow for him. He was a professional comic with no sense of humor. And he knew it.

When Murray and Nick do their impression of Jefferson and Hamilton, Leo screams:

"You can't do an impression of Jefferson and Hamilton. Nobody knows what they sound like."

"That's what's funny" says Nick.

"You missed the funny part, Leo" adds Murray.

At Hunter College I was a bit of a curiosity. I was older. Already married and already with a fairly good job; the kind of job that most of my colleagues in the Theater Department craved. As a theater major with a minor in philosophy I loved every course. Unlike my early academic career, which I merely endured, this was great stuff and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My instructors were successful playwrights, directors, designers... authors and activists, philosophers and theologians... and Barbara Sproul.

She was an extraordinary teacher and a persuasive writer. She was also a serious, clear-minded thinker who was able to communicate complex ideas in ways that young minds full of mush could readily apprehend.

And she was a tireless activist, traveling the world on behalf of Amnesty International and as an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

We had lively discussions. I was, of course, absolutely certain about everything and she was more patient with me than I deserved. In a very gentle and intelligent manner she steered my thinking, allowing me to arrive at conclusions on my own.

It's a rare gift.

What I learned from Herb Gardner and Barbara Sproul is that we should never let our current pattern of thinking get in the way of discovering what's new and beautiful in the world. And we should never let temporary setbacks color our disposition.

Unlike Leo, we should not miss the funny parts.

Herb Gardner died a few years ago. As I read through the accounts of his life in the New York Times obituary I could hear Murray Burns hollering at me: "Everybody on stage for the Hawaiian number!" and "I want to see a better class of garbage out there!" And then, at the very end, I read the closing line: "Mr. Gardner is survived by his wife, Barbara Sproul, Chairman of the Religion Department at Hunter College, and their two sons."

Merciful heavens. Can you imagine the dinnertime conversations in that home?

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Preemption Paradox

Every decision we make involves risks and benefits. On the world stage, the upside of preemption is that we don't have to live through the consequences of appeasement.

The downside is the endless chattering and speculation of politicians and pundits because preemption assures that we'll never know what those consequences might have been.

For parents of teenagers the analogy is obvious. We're confronted every day with conflicts that require parental judgment and the judicious application of authority. When my sixteen year old son asks if he can get on the subway and go to a video-game show in the city, I'm forced to say yes even though I know that it's going to turn out badly. He and his suburban friends will get lost, wind up in the bowels of Brooklyn and be calling me to pick them up. Worse, it will be on the way back rather than on the way in so the call will come at 11PM just as the wind-chill factor reaches -21.

But I say yes anyway. The consequences of this misadventure are far outweighed by the lessons learned from going out into the world to stumble about on his own--to find his own way--always with the lifeline of having me at the other end of the cell phone.

On the other hand, what if he wants to spend the weekend with Herman and his family at their vacation house in the Adirondacks? The answer is a swift, unequivocal and preemptive: "NO!" And there's no debate. I know that Herman's father drinks a bit and has a habit of leaving his loaded hunting rifles scattered about the house unattended. The consequences of appeasing my son here could be horrifying, but we'll never know because he's never going. The art and craft lie in the delicate balance known as "picking your spots."

For example, what would have happened if the world had said no to Hitler?

What if the Allies preemptively bombed the German glider clubs before they developed into the Luftwaffe?

What if there were preemptive raids on German forces before they became strong enough to mount Blitzkrieg against Poland and do an end run around the Maginot Line into France?

The American isolationists would have called FDR a war monger and defeated his re-election bid. Chamberlain, hailed as a great hero, would have led Britain for the next twenty years.

My father would have graduated from Pratt Institute in 1944. In the summer of that year, rather than driving his tank off of an LST and onto the beach at Normandy, he would have traveled to Paris to continue his art studies. And while there he would have met and fallen in love with Elsie Glicksman, another art student from a small town in Bavaria called Dachau. They would have married, had children and lived long and productive lives without ever imagining that their world might have been very different.

But none of this ever happened because young men were forced to fight a war that could have been averted and millions were killed by monsters that could have and should have been preemptively destroyed.

Today, we can't imagine what would have happened had the Israeli Air Force not conducted a preemptive bombing raid on the Osirak reactor. But when Arab leaders proclaim their vision of a world without Jews and pledge to wipe Israel off the map we can be thankful that we don't have to experience the consequences of appeasement firsthand.

A current world leader has pledged that he will kill one million Jews with a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv. "They", he says, "will retaliate and kill ten million Muslims. In the end we will win because there are more of us." Yet Jacques Chirac announced last week that the world may have to get accustomed to a nuclear-armed Iran.

No problem for him. At the first sign of trouble he'll simply surrender to Germany.

In facing today's tyrants, we don't have to speculate about their intentions. Like those that preceded them, they continue to tell us what their intentions are time and time again.

In years to come will our children experience the consequences of appeasement?

Let's pray that they merely have to endure the chattering speculations of politicians and pundits.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Real Men Cook Mexican

"Come on," she said, "it'll be fun." Whether it's fun or not we have teenagers in the house so any excuse to get away will have a palliative effect on my disposition.

So off we went to Rosa Mexicano for a Saturday morning adult education session entitled:

Real Men Cook Mexican.

And fun it was. The merriment started when I stepped to the breakfast buffet to discover that one of the attendees, a woman who looked like Mammy Yokum's grandmother, had left her upper plate on the buffet table next to the pitcher of pineapple juice.

No thank you.

I'm not that thirsty.

Then we all settled in for the demonstration. More fun. Looking around I could see that this cooking lesson for "Real Men" was filled with women, save for three poor souls who had been trundled off to this high-energy event by their wives. If any of the eligible young women in attendance thought that this would be a good way to meet eligible young men, they were grossly mis-informed.

Roberto, the executive chef, is a friendly and articulate gentleman who truly has a passion for food and an extensive knowledge of food history. His presentation was very engaging and even I started to develop an interest, not an easy task. After all, on this beautiful 50-degree day I might have been wasting my time playing golf, fishing, riding my motorcycle... rather than learning how to make scrambled eggs mixed with crumbled tortilla chips. Yummy.

To think that I have been satisfied with bacon... ham... corned beef hash... biscuits and gravy... for all these years and missing out on THIS.

The cooking lesson, which focused on Mexican-style tidbits perfect for a Super Bowl party, was followed by a lunch made up of dishes featured in the lesson. Grandma Yokum found her teeth and we all went to the dining room to feast on these newly-crafted delicacies.

"This will be great," chimed the Mrs., "we can make some of these next Sunday."

Lots-a-luck. Granted, the lunch tasted a bit better after two or three Pomegranate Margaritas, but for a football crowd? No en esta vida.

So the crowds at Hooters will not be any smaller this year and the guys at New Park Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken have nothing to worry about.

They'll be getting their regular yearly call from the Martini home at about 7:30PM EST.

But first, excuse me; I have to get back to work.

I'm knocking off early today because we're going to a wine tasting at the Marriott Marquis.

"Come on," she said, "it'll be fun."