Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Property Rights Controversy over "Ushpizin"

Two Saturdays ago I saw that the "Israeli Club" at a large synagogue in Fairfield County, Conn., would be screening the hit Israeli movie Ushpizin. I showed up, only to find a bar mitzvah party ending and no movie screening -- not that I could find, anyway.

Had I attended the screening, I might very well have become a direct participant in a simmering controversy regarding the movie: well-intentioned but illegal screenings of Ushpizin in shuls and other places. Capitalizing on the growing appeal of this breakthrough film, the screenings violate copyright law and the property rights of the U.S. distributor of the film, Picturehouse, a joint venture of HBO and New Line Cinema (both units of Time Warner).

I learned of the problem of illegal screenings through a full-page ad for the film in the Dec. 23 issue of the Jewish Week in New York. The ad announced Picturehouse-sanctioned screenings at the Yeshiva of Flatbush on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. The ad caught my attention with a statement under the headline, "An important note from the filmmaker and distributor of Ushpizin." It read:

The Creators of the Award winning movie Ushpizin call for your assistance. Please support the filmmakers and enjoy Ushpizin in movie theaters, and avoid illegal screenings. The movie is still in theaters in the USA and any DVDs of Ushpizin are unauthorized. Piracy is against both civil and Jewish law. For more information about the US release of Uspizin, please visit www.ushpizin.com.

To make the point even clearer, the bottom of the ad says, "Leading Torah authorities have ruled that unauthorized use of the Ushpizin is contrary to Halacha (Jewish law)." Surely this is the first time such a notice has appeared on a Time Warner film. Neither the ad nor the Ushpizin website provide specifics about the authorities and their rulings.

Messages boards at the official website, however, sizzle with discussion of the ethics of such showings. One post asserts, noting the "arbitrage" of copies of the product from one market (Israel) to another (the US), that "distributors are going to have to adjust their own model to accommodate the current reality of the global marketplace." Another, more specific post frantically requests guidance from Picturehouse:

A Jewish organization is planning to show Ushpizin in a room in a hotel at the end of a weekend retreat. The DVD was purchased legally from Israel. There is no charge for tickets and THERE WASN'T EVEN ANY ADVERTISING THAT THE FILM WOULD BE SHOWN. A lawyer has told us that we are within our rights to show the film, but we would like to confirm that it is alright with you.

The debate spilled over to other websites, moving beyond questions about the movie to comments on ethical practices among the haredim. Cross-Currents had several comments, including a well-informed statement from Jessica Rosner of Kino International. Dozens of learned and acrimonious comments can be found in the discuss at Mentalblog.com.

The debate is healthy, in that it provides a teachable moment, if you will, about property rights and ethics. Let's hope the Jewish community hears the pleas of Picturehouse and respects the distributor's intellectual property. It would be a shame if illegal showings siphon off money that could otherwise go to encourage similar Jewish film productions. THAT would be shanda.

Ironically, the week after I almost stumbled on to the dubious synagogue showing, I met a friend to see Ushpizin at a theater on Broadway in New York. My friend arrived a bit late, so we switched to another feature, about a well-known Jewish writer, you know, the author named Capote.

Oh, you mean Truman Capote wasn't Jewish? Boy, have I been misinformed!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Family Matters, Past and Present

A favorite memory of my late mother, gone 22 years next month, is her fierce financial correspondence with her older sister Charlotte, in Tyler, Texas. Their weekly letters traded news about their investments and the gyrations of Wall Street; Mom groused a lot about a company called Overhead Door. Charlotte was a steel-nerved stock-market ace, creating her own price-trend charts and knowing to the second when to turn on the radio in her kitchen to catch the mid-day market report on KRLD in Dallas. When Charlotte attended my 1980 graduation from Princeton, she reached stock-picker nirvana by meeting Professor Burton Malkiel, who wrote the book "A Random Walk Down Wall Street." She even had Malkiel autograph her copy of his book.

My mother lacked Aunt Charlotte's zest for trading, but she did OK. When she died in January 1984, she left equal amounts of her portfolio to me and my brother, Mission2Houston, 100 shares of each stock to each of us.

During my marriage, the unrelenting pressures of repairs to Hell House on Hickory Drive and bouts of unemployment pried 95 percent of the bequest from my fingers. But I succeeded in retaining a handful of shares of almost everything, to keep the legacy alive in even a diminished form.

These thoughts came to me with force last week when I had a letter from one of the companies, TXU, formerly Texas Utilities, informing me of a stock split. My 50-plus shares magically became -- through no active effort on my part -- 102 shares. More than a financial bonus, the split returned one more part of my life to where it stood before so much went grievously haywire, turmoil resulting in the another split.

My mother died 10 years before my son Shmoikel was born. To think of her makes me think of him in certain ways. Today on my walk through long northern exit of Grand Central Terminal I saw a suburban mother with two daughters. One, about 10, proudly swung her own fuzzy-pink purse. The other, maybe 7, held her mother's hand as they embarked on a holiday adventure in the city.

I looked on the family bouncing along, then realized the days of needing to hold Shmoikel's hand are gone. He's 11 now and can negotiate between the cars of a parking lot, and look both ways before crossing a street. How often I used to say, "Now hold daddy's hand while we cross the street." That toddler is now the video game playing, sci-fi DVD watching, Frisbee tossing adolescent. His mother and I have successfully nurtured him past the crossing-the-street stage, so now we are moving daily into new stages.

And I like to think my mother's lessons and support are right there with us. Her legacy, in many ways, will be Shmoikel's.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Miracle on 47th Street: A Heartwarming Holiday Encounter

Yesterday I took a late-morning train into New York. A young woman sat beside me with a rolling suitcase. Once she got arranged we started talking. She lives in Connecticut and was going into the city to meet her boyfriend of the past four years. He now lives, temporarily she hoped, in North Dakota. Let's call her Maria Theresa (not her real name).

They were meeting at a hotel across the street from my office, and she said they wanted to go look at engagement rings, in the famous Diamond District on West 47th Street, where Orthodox Jews run most of the stores. The place totally shuts down on Friday afternoon.

"I figure we can go look tomorrow," she said innocently, referring to Saturday.

"Um, you might want to go today," I told her. "They're, um, religious Jews who don't work on Saturday."

This surprised Maria Theresa. "Not even during the Christmas season, for the shoppers?"

The question gave me pause. Visions of pious Jews in elf hats danced through my head, with their merry cries of "Hoy, hoy, hoy, come on Bubbelah buy her that ring so we can lock up shop and get to Kabbalat Shabbat services."

I finally said, "I don't think they'll be open. Maybe one or two, but don't get your hopes up. He can always take you to Tiffany's."

She smiled at the Tiffany's reference, but underneath I sensed her alarm at the potential for holiday disaster. The ring-shopping window of opportunity was closing fast. Once we got to Grand Central I checked my watch. It was only 1:30 pm. "Look," I said encouragingly, "the guys on 47th Street should still be open until maybe 4 pm. Go to the hotel, grab your boyfriend and get right over there."

Maria Theresa liked this idea and I steered her out the time-saving north entrance of Grand Central Terminal and walked her to her hotel on Lexington Avenue.

"If you go now, you should have time to look around at different stores," I said. "You want to give yourself plenty of time. It's a big occasion. It's not like you're shopping for chicken gizzards."

She appreciated my guidance in the mysterious ways of New York's specialty retailers.

"Anything I can do for the cause of love," I said, as she went her way and I went mine, two souls thrown together for a New York minute.

Friday, December 23, 2005

"I Am Jewish": A Response

A rabbinical friend recently forwarded a thought-provoking email to me. It came from Rabbi Carol Stein in California and read, in part,

I am preparing to teach a course at the High School for Jewish Studies in San Diego this coming semester. The course is entitled "I Am Jewish" - the last words spoken by the journalist, Daniel Pearl, before his death at the hands of his kidnappers in the Middle East. I am hoping to guide the students so that they too can make that same statement proudly and with an understanding of what "being Jewish" means to each of them. I ask your help.

Please take a few minutes to write a few sentences or a few paragraphs explaining what you mean when you say "I am Jewish." Of course, there is no "right" answer -- being Jewish means different things to each of us. Some of us may think only of the religious aspect -- some the cultural or social or gastronomic.


Below is my response to Rabbi Stein's request.

We live in a lonely world. Families scatter, friendships are hard to forge, what we hope will be permanent slips away and we don't know where to turn. "I am Jewish" orients me in this social chaos; being Jewish provides a faith, a community, and comfort that justice will ultimately prevail in the world.

Sometimes while waiting for the commuter train I imagine God standing beside me, aware and concerned and always, always ready to listen. I close my eyes to sense the world swirling around me, sounds, winds, smells, and God is there, too. To paraphrase Deuteronomy 30:14, He is very close. The gates of repentence are always open; I need only approach them.

Wherever I travel, if a synagogue can be found I know I can expect familiar rituals, friendly faces. And I have found them, in places like McAllen, Texas; Dublin, Ireland; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The accents change, but the essential welcoming community of Jews remains. Being a Jew means I belong.

Finally, being Jewish gives me confidence in the future of the world. Some people may consider me superstitious or hopelessly unhip for this, but I take seriously the 13 Principles of Maimonides. The last two principles assert, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. Those principles make sense to me, with their vision of justice and reunification with Jews who came before us, as well as Jews of far distant generations. My duty as a Jew is to act -- here, now -- in ways that will bring this vision closer.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Jewish Policy Forum: Staring into the Abyss That is Iran

Some of the sharpest thought leaders among Jewish conservatives gathered at the Jewish Policy Center forum on Sunday, Dec. 11, at the West Side Institutional Synagogue in New York. The theme that sliced through the two-hour discussion: what can be done, if anything, to counter the onrushing nuclear capabilities of the frothingly anti-Israel leadership in Iran.

Panelists Daniel Pipes, Mona Charen, and Michael Ledeen (all members of the Board of Fellows of the JPC, a non-profit Washington think tank that takes a Jewish and conservative perspective), grappled with the question raised by moderator Michael Medved who asked, aping the tone of liberal arguments, whether the threat of Iran has been left to fester while the U.S. pursues the war in Iraq.

"I don´t totally disagree with you," said Pipes, noting the Bush administration has been "overly ambitious" in Iraq" and that he hoped the U.S. would "reduce our intense engagement" for a larger Iraqi role. He said Iraq is "looming as the key issue of the next couple of months" and that "the Bush Administration, frankly, has not been up to speed."

Ledeen pushed the perspective further back, arguing that "Iran has been the central issue from the beginning, but nobody wants to deal with that. Iran has been the key sponsor of terrorism."

Ledeen, who thinks Iran already has nuclear weapons, described the Iran leaders as "they{re crazy but they are not stupid." They have been able to act because no western government has acted to stop the regime, despite the West´s knowledge of Iran{s plans and statements.

"It´s like watching a psychodrama in slow motion and we know the outcome, Ledeen said in the most sobering moment of the afternoon. "We´ll have to go after the Iranians." The framework for that is not a war against Islamic fundamentalism, but rather part of the older war against tyranny, with Ledeen noting that 70 percent of Iranians oppose the regime, hence suggest a willing audience for pro-democracy efforts by the U.S.

Any thinking about moves against Iran always involve Israel, the relentless focus of Iran´s plans. Will Israel attack, as it did against Iraq´s nuclear facilities in 1981? Will Israel team up with the U.S. or do the dirty work needed on behalf of the U.S., and more distantly, the supine Europeans?

Ledeen, again, provided the strongest thoughts, doubting that the U.S. or Israel would attack Iran and also doubting whether such attacks would even work, since he thinks the two countries lack non-nuclear weapons that could stop the Iranian program.

Ultimately, he said, nobody can know the consequences of an attack on Iran, or another attack on the U.S. Hence, the abyss looms, with no sense of its depth or a bridge across it.

The session, before a crowd of about 300 people, touched on other issues as well, beginning with the mock-liberalesque questions from Medved, who described himself as "a punk liberal activist (who became) a loveable conservative curmudgeon."

Responses to Medved´s questions showed the range of beliefs among Jewish conservatives, with pointed disagreements with the Bush Administration´s performance. Pipes expressed his concerns about Iraq, and when asked about tax cuts, Mona Charen said that Republicans in Congress "have failed to take the spending problems as seriously as they should," which she found "disappointing."

"Republicans have lost a tremendous amount of moral authority by not sticking to their principles" of tax cuts and lower spending, she said.

Panelists also lamented the Jewish bashing conservative Christians in the U.S., led most vocally by Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Ledeen commented, "Picking fights with Christians is insane. Christians are more pro-Israel than the Jews are." Charen echoed the point, noting, "So many Jews side with people who have nothing good to say about America. I find that reprehensible."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Howard Stern? Feh. Let's Talk About Abbie Hoffman.

The well-lubed publicity machine is now squirting out dispatches on the meaning of Howard Stern's move from WXRK (K-Rock) in New York to Sirius satellite radio on Janury 9. I have nothing of contemporary interest to add to the discussion, since I stopped listening to the radio show years ago and never had any interest in Stern's TV show. I still follow his career out of nostalgia for the days 20 years ago when I was a huge fan of him on WNBC and then K-ROCK and even had the incredible opportunity to interview him -- about his back problems and healthy lifestyle.

Around 1986-1987 I did celebrity interviews for a groovy publication in New York called Whole Life Times. Somehow WLT snagged an interview with Stern to talk about his involvement with the Alexander Technique. I drew the assignment. Like other journalists, I found the off-mike Stern polite, cooperative and amused by the on-air alter ego. That was before he got divorced and became the gargantuan King of All Media. The package of articles was a huge hit for Whole Life.

Far more memorable and haunting is another Whole Life gig: my interviews with 60s radical Abbie Hoffman in 1986. Like Stern, Hoffman was a media master, but with a far different bent and messier life arc. The interview coincided with his short-lived radio show on WBAI in New York, Radio Free USA.

Knowing Hoffman's skill with the press, I realized the only way to get a decent, insightful interview would be to go beyond the sound bites. Like somebody who's been on too many first dates, an oft-interviewed celebrity has a ready answer for all the predictable questions. With his quick wit and well-known persona, Hoffman had a celebrity armor as thick as anybody in Hollywood.

So I read every book of his I could find, along with articles on him. The research served me well during our five hours of interviews at his apartment on East 34th Street.

Too well, in fact. The sheer bulk of material slowed down the transcription of the audio tapes, and led to a price disagreement between Whole Life and the transcriber. By the time the job was done and paid for, the editor-publisher judged the material too dated. Hence, my interview with Abbie Hoffman never appeared.

Until now.

I saved the tapes, saved my research, and saved my introduction and the edited interview. I probably have the raw transcript someplace. The lack of this historic material from publication always grieved me, because Hoffman and I both worked hard to get a good interview. He had to think, and that was an exceptionally satisfying moment in my career.

Until I started this blog, I never could see a way to get this amazing encounter in front of people, in any format. Now, I can. Everything exists only on paper; the floppy disks on which I typed the material on my Tandy 1000 computer are long gone. To give readers a sense of what we discussed, I have included here my list of questions (as I wrote them), along with my introduction to the interview. I will type of parts of the interview itself later. Until then, enjoy this fossil from my career, when I sat down with history.

I cannot write this entry, or think about the subject, without a wave of sadness. For all the life force and energy Abbie Hoffman projected, he was a troubled man, diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. His depression cropped up obliquely in the interview and finally the bi-polar demons took full possession of him. Hoffman killed himself on April 12, 1989. He was 52 years old.

Interview Questions

1. details of radio show. How get started, how view it.
2. goals. Ever done it before. Format, approach.
3. see it pushing back limits of free speech. How.
4. music show? If dissemination is a key, is Capt. Midnight a hero?
5. once said you’re better on radio than tv. Why.
6. called Cronkite best newsman. Who’s tops now. Any politicians you have high respect for?
7. if it flops how would you react.
7a. what are your thoughts on current censorship efforts. Concerned politics will be the next target. Ever debated War Against Pornography types.
8. besides radio show what are current projects efforts.
9. can you make a living doing that.
10. still see self as a community organizer.
10a. wrote that life of activist is two years before they burn out. How have you continued.
10a. Wrote that long hair lost its social bite. What has social bite, impact now?
10b. wrote that politics is swaddled in “perhaps.” What’s biggest perhaps in your career?
11. has there been an evolution in your thinking? How?
11a. Once called Amerika just another Latin dictatorship. Still believe that?
11b. impressions of Nicaragua.
11c. is thwat we do there any less justifiable that what Soviets do in Afghanistan.
12. still believe in value of ripoff, credit card theft, violence as a way of getting attention, trashing? Reflect the period or general principles.
13. difference between stealing from corp. and rich old lady on Park Avenue.
14. personal stuff. Turning 50. big deal or no?
15. how old are your children? Teach them to disrespect authority, even yours? Apply lessons to them? Status of relationship. Do activists make good parents.
15a. Your father never spoke of intimate things. Have you tried to avoid that with your children.
16. Are they political or yuppies or what?
17. do any go to Brandeis?
18. ever in touch with Jock Mahoney or Martin Peretz?
19. how did you explain drug bust to your children?
20. what did you tell them about drug use?
21. what exactly happened. Newsweek had some facts. What really happened, and why? Charges, plea, time served, lessons learned.
22. change your views on cocaine? Wrote at one point that coke wasn’t bad. What about crack.
22a. parallels between you and Stephen Bingham.
23. things that were unclear: when did you and Anita get divorced?
24. what was the famous sexist comment?
25. said you and Rubin were still close. Still true?
26. comments on Wenner, Hayden. Were the books a way of settling scores? What do they think about you.
27. Looking back on the attention, celebrity, do you have a private self left? Ever stop being ABBIE HOFFMAN and just be Abbie Hoffman?
28. how do you relax. Still a jock? Tennis, bowling.
29. are you a vegetarian, work out.
30. role of Judaism. Touched on it in books. A faith, a culture.
30a. difference between living with Jewish and gentile women.
31. talked about Maslow, influences on you. Who have you influenced?

Introduction to the Interview

Thanks to those guys named Reagan, Regan, North and Poindexter, Abbie Hoffman now operates on a fresh jolt of energy. Ollie’s Follies have focused interest on US skullduggery in Central America, long a passionate concern of Hoffman.

“The shock hasn’t set into the American psyche yet because, with Nixon, nobody liked him for 30years,” Hoffman told Whole Life recently. “With Reagan, here’s somebody who led people up the mountain, then kicked them in the teeth.”

People were talking to Hoffman recently on another matter – anticipating his 50th birthday on November 30, one of those “an era passes” events. That’s changed, as his views on Nicaragua and the Central Intelligence Agency take on fresh urgency. “it’s nice to reach the age of 50 and see Ronald Reagan drop 17 points in the polls the day after your birthday,” he noted. “They’re talking to a prophet. It’s so lucky. I can be a rebel for the next 25 years.”

Hoffman has already logged a quarter century of rebellion. And if ever an individual stuck to his beliefs through hell and high water, it is Abbott Howard Hoffman, the favorite son of Worcester, Mass., and cousin of Sydney Schanberg [2005 update: Schanberg writes the Press Clips column for the Village Voice]. People familiar with Hoffman’s exploits in the 1960s probably focus on the big events – the anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven after that, Washington rallies, Hoffman’s drug bust and the years underground.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. The full story is more complex and interesting. A history and education round out the portrait. The grizzled, pugnacious Hoffman draws on them when you ask him a question. He’ll have a thoughtful and detailed answer, with plenty of context. And if you don’t want to hear all the nuances, he’ll tell you anyway.

Hoffman began to flee the mainstream by the age of 13, hanging out with neighborhood toughs at pool halls and bowling alleys. He studied psychology at Brandeis University, where faculty members included Herbert Marcuse, Irving Howe, Max Lerner and Hoffman’s favorite, Abraham Maslow.

At the same time, Hoffman’s college days coincided with the 1950s and all that implied. Hoffman wrote in his superb 1980 autobiography, “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,” “Sex was cut short just before going all the way. Dope was nonexistent. Politics were minimal, and Brandeis,, even at that, was considered ‘avant garde.’ Avant garde! The other campuses must have been real numb-numb joints.”

Nonetheless, he moved beyond the era’s conformity. Summer work on a defense plant assembly line gave him first-hand knowledge of the “proletarian class” concept. Touring Europe in the summer of 1958, he stumbled onto his first political demonstration in Paris and earned his first beating by police. In March 1959 he was spellbound by “the best speaker I ever heard,” a triumphant Fidel Castro addressing 80,000 in Harvard Stadium.

Politicization continued during graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. In May 1960, he was swept up in a riot outside a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee (the late, unlamented HUAC) in San Francisco. Recalling how normal life seemed just blocks away from the rumble, he recalled, “No one seemed aware that the century’s most turbulent decade had just begun.”

The personal intruded. Hoffman returned to the East and married girlfriend Sheila when she got pregnant. Son Andrew Michael was born December 31, 1960. Daughter Amy followed in 1962. It was an unhappy six-year union, during which time Hoffman worked at the Worcester State Hospital for three years. The experience convinced him “the problem lay out there. Beyond the walls.

He became involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and worked in New York a while for Walter Reade Theaters, becoming the first manager of the Baronet-Coronet Theater, across from Bloomingdale’s (he was fired after a disastrous opening night). His last job was covering part of Massachusetts for Westwood Pharmaceuticals. That lasted three years, but his heart was really in working for civil rights through the Worcester chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“There was something about singing freedom songs in a black church, stomping on the wooden floor, smiling, gearing up your courage, that summoned a spirit never to be recaptured. At least not for me,” he wrote. “Those years, 1963-1965, were filled with a cry of a movement at its purest moment. He headed south with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and got arrested five times.

Hoffman lost the job with Westwood, got divorced, and moved to the Lower East Side, E. 11th Street and Avenue C, where he honed his communication skills and met his second wife, Anita. The next four years re full of the legendary stuff – leaflets, pranks, street theater (throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange), the April 15, 1967 anti-war protest that drew 700,000 people to the United Nations, the effort to levitate the Pentagon off the ground a few months alter, the Yippie movement born on January 1, 1968, the convention riots and then the Chicago Conspiracy Trail in the fall of 1969. “Steal This Book” appeared in 1971, after rejection by some 30 publishers. America Hoffman, aka Alan, was born to Abbie and Anita in 1971. Hoffman later got a vasectomy, which he had filmed “as a political/cultural act.”

By then, the anti-war movement was disintegrating. Hoffman still faced numerous charges when the world turned upside-down: in August 1973 he was arrested for his role as the broker in the sale of three pounds of cocaine for $36,000. He told Whole Life, “I was lured into doing something that I wouldn’t normally have done by some people, some of whom were friends, and some of whom were police agents . . . . It was a low point in my life and I was susceptible to trying something.”

Knowing he was in deep trouble, Hoffman opted for life underground. The wrenching yet vital six-year period found him traveling, teaching, living in Central America, writing essays collected in “Square Dancing in the Ice Age,” meeting a new woman (“running mate” Johanna Lawrenson, with whom he now lives in Manhattan), and ultimately leading environmental protests in upstate New York as Barry Freed.

Hoffman resurfaced in 1980 to serve 10 months in prison and work release programs. The years had not dulled the Establishment’s fear of and fascination with him. “First I was treated like Son of Sam, total maximum security. Tied, chained to a bus with troopers front and back,” he recalled. “The worst place you want to be famous is prison.”

With that episode past, Hoffman has spent recent years intensely involved in Central American, South African and environmental issues. He has led groups to Nicaragua, and this fall hosted a short-lived radio program on WBAI, Radio Free USA, meant to do free speech rather than talk about it. After four live broadcasts the show as shut down for more fundraising efforts.

Just before Thanksgiving Hoffman was arrested along with 50 students for seizing a building at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to protest CIA recruiting. At trespassing trials this spring Hoffman will use Massachusett’s “necessity defense,” pleading not guilty on the basis that the action sought to stop larger crimes (CIA activities).

“You don’t invite the Mafia on campus,” Hoffman argued. “he called the proceedings “political trial as seminar,” compared to the “political trial as circus” in Chicago. Witnesses will describe the CIA’s past and current activities. A not-guilty verdict would, he argued, indicate CIA guilt.

Much of Hoffman’s energy these days goes toward assembling a staff and legal team and fundraising for the trial. He also wants to get a national student organization going. Plus, he’s working on his latest book, “Steal This Urine Test,” on how to oppose and beat that procedure.

Hoffman summed himself up as middle-aged, with plenty of vim and vigor left. He phrases it in earthier terms: “I’m still full of shit, I’m in love, I’m still ready to take a few more swings, so what the fuck. You have to look up and say, ‘I’ll take the good with the bad.’ So, if I didn’t’ have those experiences, life would be more shallow than it is to me. I wouldn’t have been real. I would have been a series of signing autographs.”

Saturday, December 10, 2005

My Special Evening With Candida Royalle, Femme Deluxe

When I heard that former porn actress and now producer/porntreprenuer Candida Royalle would speak last month at the New York City Junto, a libertarian group, I had a major 80s-90s flashback. Between 1987 and 1995, I was East Coast Bureau Chief for Video Store Magazine. Royalle's company, Femme Productions, was a loyal exhibitor at video trade shows, promoting its expanding line of "sensually explicit" woman-friendly erotica to the retail channel. Royalle started Femme in 1984, so it was still the hot new thing when I started attending conventions of the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) for Video Store. I still have a business card handed to me by Femme sales rep (and former actress) Veronica Hart. Our hands almost touched!

Dressed completely in black with striking blonde hair, Royalle arrived at a hotel meeting room that was packed with at least 75 people. As they say, sex sells, although on this night the sex (talk) was free. Her new book, "How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do: Sex Advice From a Woman Who Knows," was for sale.

"This is an unusual group for me to speak before," Royalle conceded, although the philosophical fit between erotica and libertarianism makes sense. Some of the discussion differed from what she usually hears, as when one woman mused, "What would Ayn Rand say about this?" Another audience member observed, "People hate capitalism for the same reason they hate sexuality -- consumer choice."

The book, she said, is "about women taking responsibility for their own needs and desires." The book encourages self-knowledge, acceptance and asking for what you need. Royalle wanted to address men's complaints that women don't ask for what they want when they get "tongue tied." So she created a book that's both fun and serious and walks through couples issues as if they were a movie production, with research, pre-production (music, accessories), and post-production during which couples talk about what went on.

"It's such a difficult thing for women to do, how to ask a man to do something a little different without making him feel inadequate," she explained.

Besides the book, Royalle discussed her career as a performer and producer. As an actress she made 28 movies in five years -- these days, actresses do that many films in a month. Raised a Catholic in New York, Royalle began to feel ambivalent and left the business. A stint in therapy led her to conclude that adults are always going to be curious about explicit images, but that "there was a lot of room for improvement."

By the mid-80s she had identified a market for erotica for women. She thought videos could succeed by showing female and couples sexuality in "a tender, sexy way." Despite a cool reception from adult distributors, Royalle made three simple, vignette-based films in the first year. To date she's made 16 films.

"I put emotional situation in these that are about real people with real lives. I show what people do together," said Royalle. Switching into show-don't-tell mode, she played a clip from the spoof movie "Stud Hunters." The scene showed a long kiss that Royalle loved viewing and editing.

"I got so farklempt from this kiss," she exclaimed, showing her deep New York roots by using a Yiddish word that means "choked up." Her producer thought the scene lasted too long, but women viewers relished it, so it stayed in.

The discussion took a surprising turn when an Iranian asserted that Saudi men are the most depraved in the world, arguing, "The more repressed the society, the more freakish the response. Saudis can see porn. The misogyny is spiraling out of control."

From there, audience members mused whether the 9-11 hijackers knew they were going to die. Here's the adult-entertainment angle on that: evidently some of them had contacted escort services before the fateful day, but refused to meet the price of the services. Would men about to die dicker over a few dollars more to an escort service?

Femme's catalog includes such films as Urban Heat, The Bridal Shower, Christine's Secret, and Three Daughters, which "a friend" of mine saw long ago and liked. My "friend" even has a signed glossy from star Siobhan Hunter, a precious keepsake from VSDA. What's not to like, with a plot summary like this:

THREE DAUGHTERS is a lovely coming of age story about the Claytons and their three beautiful daughters. While Heather experiences her first stirrings of passion and desire, blossoming before our eyes, her parents re-discover the passion between themselves as they watch their daughters grow up and leave home.

No kidding? Does that happen in real life? Could Heather's mom introduce me to some of her cool single friends?

Besides the films, Femme's catalog now includes ergonomically designed thingamajiggies that would be a dandy complement to copies of "How to Tell a Naked Man What To Do." mission2moscow is looking for an appropriate Hanukkah bush under which to leave such items. Calling Heather's mom, stat!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Drop Everything and Listen to This Song, Right Now

The good and daring folks at WFDU in New Jersey played this here little song yesterday. I thought, "Hey, this song is about me!" My ears pricked right up. After the first chorus I wrote down the lyrics and immediately located the song and the artists online. Vince Gill's country supergroup the Notorious Cherry Bombs released the song on its self-titled album last year.

Without further ado or introduction, click on this link. Really, right now, don't wait a minute, to enjoy this classic country anthem, "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night . . . " and I'll let you figure out the rest.

"Where God Was Born:" Bruce Feiler Visits the Delivery Room

A few days ago I heard Bruce Feiler speak at the Borders store in Stamford. He was promoting his new book "Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion." His other books on the Bible (a/k/a the Torah to we folks of the Hebraic persuasion) always catch my eye at bookstores; I've never read them but decided an author appearance would be a good way to start.

Rabbi Josh Hammerman of Stamford's Temple Beth El introduced Feiler, who visited Israel, Iraq, and Iran while researching "Where God Was Born."

Feiler spoke of the Bible as a book about God and humans struggling to develop a relationship, despite constant disappointment. The exile to Babylon (modern Iraq) was critical to Jewish thinking, he explained, because the exile showed that the relationship with God matters more than the land and state that disappeared after the exile.

Despite the common image of the Bible (and reggae singers), Jews did not just sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep and kvetch. Instead, they invented religion with written scriptures and synagogues as places to go to worship God. Just as critical to the development of the modern world, King Cyrus was the first ruler to build a nation of pluralism, of different faiths. For this he warrants 25 mentions in the Bible.

Building on this theme for the modern era, Feiler welcomed this example of mutual respect and tolerance, saying that the Bible cannot be left to exclusivist views.

During the question period, Feiler said, "The two questions I get asked the most are, 'Is the Bible true?' and 'is "The Da Vinci Code" true'?"

Another question dealt with the spread and threat of fundamentalism. Soothing the multicultural relativists in the audience, Feiler said every faith has its fundamentalists (like those crazy Baptists and Buddhists who blow up buses), but they're a minority. They do present a challenge for the people of faith occupying the middle ground, who need to take by God, religion and the Bible.

The good news Feiler didn't mention: the last I heard, groups like the Presbyterians, Unitarians, and Reform Jews are staking out moderate positions of faith. That leaves only one big monotheistic religion to need moderating influence, but the identity of that religion slipped his mind.

I'll read his books to see if he's got some more details on this oversight.

As I write this entry, I'm flipping through the Dec. 9 issue of The Jewish Week. It features a full-page ad from a group very much on the same wavelength as Feiler: Gesher. The ad, with the compelling headline "There are many ways to experience Judaism -- Gesher wants you to respect all of them," discusses Gesher's role in creating the new Israeli movie Ushpizin, about the ultra-Orthodox community. Gesher's website says:

Gesher is Israel’s oldest and largest educational organization dedicated to bridging the gap between different segments of the population in Israel. By promoting mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance among Israelis of all backgrounds, Gesher (Hebrew for bridge) helps Israelis develop a Jewish-Israeli identity that honors the plurality of expressions and strengthens Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

I like that message, and I've got Ushpizin on my list of movies to see. Now, if we can just get it shown in Baghdad and Tehran. That would mark real monotheistic cooperation. mission2moscow is confident that will happen when the Messiah comes and sets up His very own screening room, in Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Confessions of a Jerry Capeci Junkie

The deal went down like this, as it does every Thursday morning.

Before leaving my apartment, I checked to make sure I had a quarter. I always do the deal with a quarter. Things go faster that way, you know?

I hit Hope Street and scurried south, toward the Springdale train station. I knew exactly where to go, and my supplier was waiting inside with a fresh batch of the best stuff. My hungry hands grabbed what I wanted. Looking around, I slid the quarter toward her on a glass counter. In return, she said the mysterious words she always says, in her mysterious Filipino accent, "Have a nice day."

The tension rose as I walked quickly to the Springdale station, as I had to wait to get on the train and be seated before I could finally get my fix. But my patience earned its reward, for a few minutes later my Thursday could properly begin.

Because for mission2moscow, Thursday is always JERRY CAPECI DAY in New York.

My quarter supported the only newspaper I actually buy daily, the New York Sun, started three years ago as an free-thinking alternative to the Times, Post, News, and Newsday. I can pass the other dailies, but I am hooked on the Sun and would pay twice the price for it.

A huge attraction for me: The Thursday "Gang Land" column by veteran crime reporter Capeci, ex-Daily News. The column is compulsively readable, as Capeci expertly navigates the labyrinth of mobsters, cops, prosecutors, defense lawyers and the supporting cast, at times, of their families. Everybody talks to Capeci, even if "no comment" is the main official comment. Members of the mob-defense bar, however, usually chime in with some pithy thoughts on the outrages being perpetrated on their honorable clients. Lawyers like Bruce Cutler and Gerald Shargel appear in Gang Land as often as the Rockettes dance at Radio City.

I decided to write about Capeci after reading his Dec. 1 column, "20 Years Later, a Mob Hit Reverberates." I count it among his best, combining the instincts of a wired-in reporter with the long view of a historian. The column dealt with the Dec. 16, 1985 execution of Mafia boss Paul Castellano and aide Thomas Billotti.

Capeci wrote, "Twenty years ago this month, four men in tall, Russian-style fur hats pulled weapons from under their coats on a busy Midtown street at the height of the Christmas shopping season and gunned down America's most powerful gangster."

"The spectacular December 16, 1985, slaying of Mafia boss Paul Castellano and one of his henchmen riveted the city for weeks. An entire generation of New Yorkers is unlikely to forget the grisly photographs of the slain mobster lying sprawled on a sidewalk, surrounded by police, in front of Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. . . the fallout from that gangland-style slaying still reverberates through the city's courts."

I lived in Astoria, Queens, when John Gotti orchestrated the crime; years later my office at 757 Third Avenue was located just three blocks from the Sparks restaurant, outside of which the murders occurred. The Castellano hit is part of my New York experience.

Capeci masterfully traced the deadly ripples of the shooting, including the upcoming trial of the so-called "Mafia Cops," Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who allegedly executed one of the shooters, Edward Lino, in 1990. Capeci writes, meditating on the remorseless grinding of Mafia and American justice, "All told there were 10 men allegedly assembled along East 46th, between Second and Third avenues that December evening. All are dead or incarcerated--all, that is, except for capo Vincent Artuso, a designated shooter who never pegged any shots at Castellano, his assigned target."

The complete column, including photos not found in the Sun, can be found on Capeci's website, www.ganglandnews.com, which is highly informative if a little antique in its design and navigation.

Capeci is but one reason why I like the Sun. The news coverage, its arts pages, and its pull-no-punches editorials all appeal to me. I even read sports columnist Tim Marchman, which is saying a lot. Columnist Daniel Pipes provides essential thinking on the War on Terror.

Thursday also features a fitting bookend to Capeci. Way in the back, near the crossword puzzle, the Sun runs the Clinton- and elite-besotted ramblings of Tina Brown, ex-Vanity Fair, ex-New Yorker, ex-Talk, and now "Topic A with Tina Brown," on CNBC (my suggestion for Tina's next editorial venture is here). Brown never met a power player she didn't adore; I'm surprised she's not doing play-by-play on the Saddam Hussein trial, comparing Saddam's presence to the sexual heat her ovular antennae registered (and which she wrote about) whenever Bill Clinton entered a room.

But don't take my word for it; the Sun posts the entire text of her columns. Here's a bit from today's sob over the decline of broadcast evening news programs, "News Delivery Via the Electronic Petri Dish." Brown writes that "the anchors who command real loyalty and enthusiasm are no longer the stentorian network newsreaders but the excitable cable table pounders," as if Dan Rather & Co. had a constitutional lock on the public's attention.

Lunch with Jerry and Tina -- for a quarter, I get that every Thursday.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Winter Wonderland, and Preparations Thereof

Winter came early with snow Sunday morning. That was the teaser for the bigger Nor'easter to start Monday evening. Since I'm working at home, I took the time to swing by the Greenwich library to stock up on provisions, since I may also be snowbound Tuesday. Thus, solitary entertainment:

"Dressed Up to Get Messed Up" by Roomful of Blues, with the delightful album art, below.





Now that's what I call album art. Posted by Picasa


"Santana" by Santana

"Abraxas" by Santana

"Caravansarai" by Santana

"Light of the Moon" by the Pierces (I've never heard of this female duo, but I sure liked the cover art)

"Live" by Delbert McClinton (can't wait to hear ol' Delbert sing "Lipstick Traces")

"Day Dreaming at Midnight" by the Sir Douglas Quintet (a buncha long-haired Austin hippie types who were popular in the 1960s. Can't wait to hear "She Would If She Could, She Can't So She Won't." Pure poetry)

"Tropical Brainstorm" by Kirsty MacColl (Latin influenced, my ex likes her so I'm sure I will, too)

"Fundamental" by Bonnie Raitt

"The Bonnie Raitt Collection"

"BBC Sessions' by the Searchers

In the DVD department I picked up:

"Bubba Ho-Tep," with the tagline "The King vs. the King of the Dead," set in a nursing home in Texas. Nothing I'd watch with Shmoikel

"Get Shorty," released in 1995 and I'm finally watching it, right on time with my delayed-gratification schedule.

So, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, I'm ready for anything. If only I had some brownie batter.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Father's Obligations: Shmoikel and I Go Ape

As a father, my portfolio of responsibilities includes giving my son Shmoikel a good cultural and moral grounding. Some highlights of my efforts:

-- Ending each night by saying the "Shema" prayer together, and starting each day by reciting "Modeh Ani"

-- Driving him around as a baby on Saturdays to the sounds of Irish and Gaelic music on WFUV

-- Explaining the difference between capitalism and communism

-- Teaching him that "bad pop music is bad pop music, whether it's in Spanish, Swedish, or Hebrew"

-- Together Watching "The Planet of the Apes" (POTA) movie series

We had great father-son bonding this weekend with POTA. Over the summer we watched the original POTA and greatly enjoyed it. It holds up incredibly well from the eerie beginning to the shattering climax. The cultural pay-off came quickly when Shmoikel saw the movie "Madagascar," which has a scene of a tiki version of the Statue of Liberty. One of the characters sees it and starts pounding a beach, shouting, "Darn you all to heck!" Shmoikel was the only kid in the theater who got the reference. I was so proud -- seriously.

We decided we had to see the entire POTA series. On Wednesday we found a boxed set at a library here in Gold Coast Connecticut. Friday night, fortified with popcorn, we settled in to watch the second installment, "Battle Beneath the Planet of the Apes." Alas, the tape wheel was stuck and wouldn't play. Darn that antique VCR format to heck!

Undaunted, we watched the third installment Friday and the final two as a rare double-feature on Saturday. While I had heard the series weakened as it went along, Shmoikel and I both found them mostly fascinating and deeply thought-provoking. The last episode faded in its first half into a mutant-zombie flick, but then the mental and moral issues kicked in.

As a series, POTA asks profound questions. It challenges viewers to consider what makes us human or inhuman, what are the implications of our treatment of other creatures (the fourth movie echoed immigration issues and what's gone wrong in Europe), the corruption of power, and the morality of killing to change history. The series can inspire good discussions between parent and child.

As is our wont, Shmoikel and I immediately went online to check fan clubs, official film sites, and anything else related to POTA. The first offshoot of going ape: we may see Charlton Heston's other two sci-fi classics, "The Omega Man" and "Soylent Green." Truth be told, I gave away the secret to the latter movie and we ran around my apartment chanting "Soylent green is peeeeeeople!" for a while.

I may hold off on The Omega Man because of its scorching scenes of interracial shtupping between Heston and tough-talking soul sister Rosalind Cash. Those scenes mightily impressed me when I saw the movie in 1971 at the Border Theater in Mission, Texas. (They'd seem tame today, but as with so much erotica, it's all in the context, baby.) Every movie has its time, and that time hasn't quite come yet for Shmoikel.

The next Heston movie weekend will consist of "El Cid," "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Greatest Mis-Heard Song Lyrics Ever

Every year or so, I'll hear a song on the radio that breaks through the aural sludge to capture my attention. That happened with "Closing Time" by Semisonic and even in Spanish, with "Soy Mujer" (I am a Woman) by La India (The Latina Kate Smith, given her belt-it-out style). I became entranced with a snippet of theme music from the Brazilian telenovela "Senhora do Destinho" (Woman of Destiny). Those melancholy five seconds of music haunted me for months until I finally heard them again on my Rhapsody online music channel and I identified the song as "Encontros e Despedidas" (Arrivals and Departures) by the incomparable Maria Rita.

Lately, I found myself tuned in to a group called the Killers because of radio play of their song "Somebody Told Me." The song has a dense, lyric-heavy sound; what caught my attention were the lyrics I heard, or, more important, thought I heard when the song played on WPLJ in New York.

I found one phrase particularly clever, something only somebody familiar with the New York medical scene would appreciate. I finally found the lyrics online and, to my shock, learned I had garbled the lyrics. I couldn't believe it because that part of the song sounds perfectly clear to me. Here's how the lyrics in question read:

Well somebody told me
You had a boyfriend
Who looked like a girlfriend
That I had in February of last year


On its own, that's a daring image, right up there with "Dude Looks Like a Lady" by Arrowsmith and "Rebel Rebel" by David Bowie. But what I loved about what I thought I heard was this twist:

Well somebody told me
You had a boyfriend
Who looked like a girlfriend
That I had in Bellevue


What makes the last line shriekingly funny is that Bellevue is a major hospital in New York, renowned for its mental-health services. Now, read the lyrics in that light. Pretty hilarious, right?

This marks one case where the mis-heard lyrics markedly improve the original lyrics. Here's to the Killers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


College Editor Posted by Picasa

I'm playing around with Blogger technology to add photos to the site. I have no idea what I'm doing. This looked like a good one to start with. Yes, I used to have hair on top.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Sparkle Time: "Valley of the Dolls" Due on DVD!

Ace Village Voice columnist Michael Musto has exciting news for culture vultures: the prayers of 50,000,000 Jacqueline Susann fans will be answered in 2006 when the greatest bad movie ever made, "Valley of the Dolls," debuts on DVD. Musto writes in his "La Dolce Musto" column that the DVD "is being sumptuously repackaged, and there will even be special featrues, like a documentary I've been interviewed for."

Since this summer I have become a dues-paying member of the cult of VOTD. I always had the vague impression that it was incredibly racy, and I always liked the poignant theme song as performed by Dionne Warwick (true story: I was once in the Toys R Us store in Westport CT and the public address system actually played this song; some eager-beaver marketer took the "dolls" reference too literally).

The weight of second-hand impressions finally pushed me to read the paperback. Its sweeping plot staggers from 1945 New York to swingin' Hollywood in the 1960s and back to New York. Susann's time as an actress gives the early sections about the Broadway scene a real sense of authenticity.

Still hungry to go deeper into VOTD, I found the movie through the NY Public Library. The movie brings the book to fetid life, with some of the most unintentionally hilarious dialogue and bizarre cinematography ever made. A carpet-chewing Patty Duke brings just the right tone to scrappy singer/star Neely O'Hara, while lovely and doomed Sharon Tate plays the lovely and doomed Jennifer North. Richard Dreyfuss makes a blink-and-he's-gone appearance, by the way. I would definitely see VOTD again, this time with a group of people so we can savor certain parts and let our jaws drop in unison.

The British website Dollsoup has a great discussion of the movie, with prime bits of dialogue, such as the famous Helen Lawson/Neely O'Hara battle):

Helen Lawson: They kicked you outa Hollywood, so ya come crawling back to Broadway. Well Brooahdway doesn't go for BOOOZE and dope.

As the mood strikes me, I'll provide more random wisdom from the book and the movie. In the meantime, as I trudge through the search for creative and romantic fulfillment, I'll tell myself, in the immortal pep-talk words spoken by Neely O'Hara to Neely O'Hara:

SPARKLE, MISSION2MOSCOW, SPARKLE!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

12 Years Gone: The Return of Jody Watley

In 1993, during marital crisis No. 177, I raced along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, feeling exceptionally down about the wreckage of my life. Then radio played a song with lyrics that captured a mood a despair and loss of love. It hit me very hard.

I did not hear the song again for 12 years, until three days after I posted an entry on my new fave radio station, the Mix 102.7 FM in New York. I wrote about that kind of dance music, and immediately the universe hurls the music back at me: same parkway, different station, same electrified response. Could this be a "compulsion of music," similar to my madcap experience discussed a week ago about "The Da Vinci Code"?

This time, however, I listened carefully and learned that the artist was Jody Watley. I searched online and found, indeed, she recorded the song in 1987 with the title, "Don't You Want Me." The lyrics that packed such a jolt are:

Are you looking for a new love?
Or does commitment seem to bring you down?


Twelve years later, the song sounded as powerful as ever. However, changing life circumstances altered my emotional response. It is no longer a lament for love slipping away, day by day. Rather, I view it as an aural artifact from a past time of life -- and as a checklist of enquiries that can be useful now that I've moved far beyond the wreckage of 1993.

A Compulsion of Words: Morrie Schwartz Edition, Rena Frank Chapter

Last Tuesday "Nightline" on ABC finished concluded its 25-year run with Ted Koppel. The final episode looked back on the most popular episodes Nightlight ever ran, involving retired college professor Morrie Schwartz. He had inspired, through his public battle of Lou Gehrig's Disease, the book "Tuesdays with Morrie" by sportswriter Mitch Albom.

The book appeared in 1998; in typical fashion, my interest lagged the general public's by years. I found a copy at a summer library sale and grabbed it. I read it about six weeks before the Nightlight rebroadcast. This congruence of book and viewing, although not as striking as "The Da Vinci Code" episode discussed last week, is still eerie.

The book touched me on several levels. I had my own Morrie. For 13 years I volunteered with Dorot, a group that served the Jewish elderly in New York. My Morrie, if you will, was Rena Frank, a retired nurse who escaped Germany in 1938 for England, settling into New York in 1952. We spoke at least weekly on the phone. My visits to her apartment at 216 W. 102nd Street lasted all afternoon, fortified by cucumber sandwiches, tea, and cookies. I never left without a bulging envelope full of newspaper articles that she thought would interest me, along with copies of "Hadassah" magazine and the annual City of Berlin calendar.

Rena had an amazing sense of timing. In the 1980s my freelance lifestyle allowed me to travel a month at a time. I would return from places like London, Australia, and Moscow and 15 minutes later the phone would ring. "Oh, hello, Mission2Moscow, I vas just going to liff a message for you," Rena would say in her thick German accent. I imagined she had been calling to "liff a message" every 15 minutes for several hours, waiting for me to pick up.

Once, a year into our relationship, I staggered home from a holiday office party with a few too many screwdrivers sloshing in my low-alcohol-tolerance bloodstream. The phone rang. "Hellllo, Mission2Moscow," she chirped.

"Hi, Rena, I just walked in the door and I think I'm going to be siiiick . . . " I said, and, indeed, I was. We chuckled about that for years.

She died on January 18, 1994, exactly six months shy of the birth of my son. I am bitterly disappointed that Rena, of all people, did not live to see that happy occasion.

I could say a lot more, and I will, later. Everybody should have a Morrie, a Rena, in their lives. They prepare us -- prepare me -- to be a Morrie or Rena to a generation not yet born.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Dater's Choice: Pick Four out of Five

An old software development maxim always charms me: “You can have it Fast, you can have it Good, or you can have it Cheap. Pick Two.” In short, you can’t have it all.

I've decided that a similar analysis applies in the Jewish dating world. The thought came to me after two lissome ladies in the Mid-Atlantic region replied to emails I sent them remarking on my height-challenged stature. One wrote back, "I hate to admit it but, although you sound quite interesting and I usually don't let height make a difference, I am afraid that 4" difference in our height (without shoes) was too much of a difference. I am sorry. I just grew too much!!!"

To which I replied, software development glowing red-hot in my synapses, "Good luck on the quest for the tall single straight Jewish male! At least I got four out of the five key attributes. Here's hoping you find five-out-of-five, or a four-out-of-five that works." I did not suggest she read this article, but perhaps she would benefit from it.

The process works the same in boy-girl matters as in project management. If you can't achieve the ideal, what attributes matter the most? Given the dimensions of . . .

Height
Marital Status
Sexual Orientation
Religion
Gender

. . . which one is least important? Time and again "height" has been an absolute deal-killer, except for a handful of women with truly progressive views on these matters. My attitude: If if doesn't bother me, why should it bother you? As my ever-so-practical mother used to say, "There's more to love." And. as I wrote to one woman, "Seen horizontally, I'm quite tall."

I'll even throw out the "gender" factor to focus on the first four. Which three out of four matter? How about a nice tall Episcopalian, or a tall married man -- a tall married man can be ever so charming and sophisticated, and you know he's going to ask for a divorce very soon, because he said so.

I have a vision of the future for some of these people. I see her at a bar mitzvah, five or 10 years from now, still searching. Her voice sounds alarmingly like that of comedienne Phyllis Diller. "That Mission2Moscow feller was interested in me, but he was only 5' 5!! No sirree bob, I like to wear heels and he was just too darned short," she cackles maniacally, unaware of time and tide's toll on her own appearance. "I've got my standards -- no compromising on men who aren't six feet tall!"

Then she grabs the bar mitzvah boy's tallest friend. "Come on, sonny, let's go do the hokey-pokey. Stand up straight!"

Suddenly, across the room, she spies the tall vision of her dreams and she glides over. After some talk, she realizes, finally, what attribute is worth a compromise.

Final thought: the two Mid-Atlantic women mentioned above are in their 40s and 50s and have never married. IMHO (blog talk, look it up), their odds of going five-for-five approach absolute zero. But if they hit for the dating cycle, I'll be the first to congratulate them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

42 Years Later: Another November 22

The American media thrives on anniversaries, remembrance of the same things passing again and again.

And yet today, November 22, 2005, 42 years after November 22, 1963, barely anybody has a comment. A Google news search on "November 22, 1963" turns up only 31 hits, hardly any from major media outlets. The silence is odd, unsettling in its deviation from the ritualized mourning common in our society.

With all the recent misfortunes and blind alleys, Americans are too tired or distracted to memorialize the past. For once, we are leaving the dead to rest.

John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. I am now three years older than he was on that day.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Watch Out: It's a Republican (Laff) Riot

In 1982 I attended an event that so traumatized me that I lost my appetite for political stand-up comedy for decades. I took a date to a radical comedy night at Stuyvesant High School in New York. After four or five wretched acts, along the lines, "Hey man, Reagan really sucks, man," we snuck out to comfort ourselves with ice cream and Tab.

Except for one or two nights of improv, I never again had any interest in comedy clubs. The pain of bad political comedy remained raw and unhealed. Then, perhaps soothed by the calm balm of John Roberts as the new Chief Justice, my interest in stand-up comedy perked up. I started to get in touch with my long-suppressed desire for political stand-up by checking out a Margaret Cho CD from the library. While I disagree with her politically, Cho was very amusing and sometimes moving. "Say," I thought, "This political stand-up isn't so bad. Could some of it, left or right, actually be funny? How long should I let one horrid experience keep me away from the potential enjoyment the comic experience?"

Encouraged by my "date" with Margaret Cho, I bravely decided to "come out of the comic closet." My venue of choice: Don't Tell Mama in New York with its "Republican Riot" line-up for Friday Nov. 18. Leaving my office high over swanky Park Avenue, I wandered to West 46th Street. I was shown to a small round table about five minutes before show time, joining about seven other patrons. Hmmm, I thought, New York connoisseurs of Republican humor must be otherwise occupied tonight.

I did see none other than Mr. Ivan Lenin, Russian-born creative soul and driving force behind the group Communists For Kerry (CFK). I'd met Ivan before when photographing CFK at the Aug. 29, 2004 anti-war rally in New York, and later at a CFK street theater event at Union Square before the November election. We chatted after the show, and I'm happy to do some log-rolling for my fellow blognik.

The evening began right on time when MC Julia Gorin, a prolific writer and comic who came to the US from the USSR, headed on stage. The lineup featured Greg Banks, gay GOP comic (on crutches, no less, counting twice on the diversity-o-meter); Jewish marine veteran Dave Rosner (who showed his flat, hairy stomach), Indian-Japanese voiceover master Daniel Nainan, and New York Post editorial writer Robert George, with Gorin hitting the stage between acts with HIGHLY un-PC material regarding certain participants in the War on Terror (hint: they aren't Jews, Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus).

The material and yuk level varied. One comic shouted to the crowd, "Do you want tax cuts?" and we shouted back, "Yeah!" That pretty much rocked the house. Hey, you had to be there.

Naiman tickled the audience with imitations of his Indian father and Japanese mother. I can see him becoming the straight male Indian-Japanese conservative equivalent of Margaret Cho, a high compliment indeed. Robert George, self-described black Catholic West Indian Republican, had a polished delivery and plainly knows how to work a room.

Gorin closed the night with her material, including scabrous comments on Oprah Magazine's interview with the would-be girlfriend of a suicide bomber. She drew on her background an an immigrant to critique the US Jewish community, saying something like, "A lot of American Jews were disappointed when they found out Russian Jews moved to the US and became Republicans. They said, 'If we had known you'd become conservatives, we would have left your ass in Russia!'"

Bottom line: Conservatives can be funny, although, as with anybody, they've got to be funny first and conservative second. Was I snorting and drooling with helpless mirth? Not really, but I stayed amused, most of the time. More important, Republic Riot renewed my faith in political stand-up comedy, whether it comes from the left, the center, the right, the far right, or East Texas. Today, I can dream of the day when Margaret Cho, Oprah Winfrey, and Julia Gorin share a stage and a hug, sisters in arms, declaring their allegiance to truth, justice, and the American way of political comedy.

And then they introduce Oprah Magazine's Man of the Year, Sen. Zell Miller.

Like I said, I'm dreaming.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Compulsion of Words

Twice in my life a compulsion gripped me to finish a book, to race ahead and be done with it for some reason I didn't understand.

This first happened when I read John Hersey's "Hiroshima," about the atomic bomb attack on Japan. I finished this book late on the night of Sept. 9, 2001.

The second happened today, when I slogged through the last 150 pages of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Ordinarily this type of book would take me two weeks to read; it had a level of mechanical mystery that moved the plot forward, but the writing and concept did not inspire me in the way of, say, "A Conspiracy of Paper" by David Liss. Yet I decided to shorten the reading cycle on an obligation-free Saturday and so I kept pushing forward.

I finished it around 6:15 pm, and a half-hour later I was signing in at the local Jewish Community Center for "Tapestry: A Community Celebration of Jewish Learning." I had no idea what classes I would take. Most were filled, so I selected two from those that remained open. The first was on Kabbalah. The second was on "The Jewish View of Human Sexuality," presented by the rabbi from the local Young Israel.

At the beginning of the session he announced, "I'm going to talk about something from the book 'The Da Vinci Code.'" This stunned me; I had finished the book barely an hour earlier. And I hardly expected an Orthodox rabbi to discuss a book on esoteric practices and the (fictional) hidden history of the Catholic Church.

The rabbi discussed Talmudic passages on sex, dealing with the big preconception (Jews don't have sex through a hole in a sheet), obligations, the commentaries against sex standing up (which reminded me of the joke that Southern Baptists don't have sex standing up because somebody might think they were dancing), and my favorite Talmudic story about the Garden of Eden (before Eve arrived on the scene, Adam had sex with all the animals, and found them lacking).

Near the end of the class the rabbi handed us copies of pages 308-309 and 445-446. I won't give the book away, but the passages indeed connected to the theme of the class. With the book so fresh in my mind, the lesson had a vivid immediacy. Read the book, and you'll never look at the Star of David the same way.

Still, I have to wonder at what strange cosmic force pushed me along on Saturday, page after page, until I finished. Some actions lie beyond rational thought.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Republicans Attack! Weapon of Choice: Progressive Rock

Going back to at least Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" theme two decades ago, the Republicans have shown a knack for communicating their message. In the past week, they've unleashed another attention-getting message. It caught my attention not just for what it says -- that Democrats saw Saddam Hussein as a threat -- but how it says it. Go here and click on the video link on the home page.

Listen to the soundtrack playing behind the Democratic talking heads. Rather than pull ominous classical music, the GOP marketing mavens selected the bewitching riff from "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" by Traffic, from 1971. What midnight planning session led to this stroke of genius, I know not, but the choice works incredibly well.

What's the message of the music? I doubt the GOP is taking a subliminal poke at the Democrats with the title of the song (which stops when Pres. Bush speaks at the end of the 3:45-long video). Perhaps it suggests that Republicans know all about great pop-culture references, with "Low Spark" a counter-intuitive choice from a group associated with "square" culture.

Most deliciously, maybe the music is deliberately ambiguous, not meant to chastise or wave flags, but to simply unfold and let the viewers locate their own emotional response.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Modest Improvement for Sir Eric's Song, "Cocaine"

Over the summer, during a long drive to Washington, D.C., young Shmoikel and I checked out different radio stations. We finally settled on a classic rock station that wowwed me with a broader selection of songs than these tightly formatted stations usually play. Somewhere around the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore the station played Eric Clapton's version of "Cocaine," by J.J. Cale.

Something clicked in me. I realized that this song cried out for some slight editing. The song resonates, but even the classics benefit from occasional spiffing up -- in the same spirit that generations of grade schoolers have tinkered with the lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner" (speaking of Fort McHenry . . . )

So here's what I did. As the song played on the radio, the revised -- and, I think, improved -- version of "Cocaine" burst full-fledged into my mind. I simply substituted the word "SpongeBob" whenever Sir Eric mentioned "cocaine." And you know what? The song rocked! Just read the new lyrics below. I'm sure you'll agree with me:

By j. j. cale (revised by Mission2Moscow)

If you wanna hang out you’ve got to take her out; SpongeBob.
If you wanna get down, down on the ground; SpongeBob.
She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie; SpongeBob.

If you got bad news, you wanna kick them blues; SpongeBob.
When your day is done and you wanna run; SpongeBob.
She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie; SpongeBob.

If your thing is gone and you wanna ride on; SpongeBob.
Don’t forget this fact, you can’t get it back; SpongeBob.
She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie; SpongeBob.

She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie; SpongeBob.


Now, honestly, isn't that better? Some of you may scoff, and say, "Come on, Mission2Moscow, that's a stupid idea. Eric Clapton was singing about drugs, not a beloved TV cartoon character." That's true, up to a point, but Sir Eric sang about cocaine only because SpongeBob hadn't been invented yet. I think it very likely that Sir Eric may want to re-record the song after he reads this post (if I can get it to him past his manager, lawyer, and security guards).

All I ask is that you give this new version a fair listening. Just get up off your tuchis, go to your CD collection and pull out a Clapton CD with this song. Put it on your CD player. Crank it up loud, now a little louder. And every time Sir Eric sings "cocaine," shout "SpongeBob." You might want to even have your kids in the room to join the fun, since they love SpongeBob, too. Yell loud enough, and your kids won't ask what "cocaine" is.

I'm not ashamed to say I did exactly this on I-95, singing lustily, and the toll collectors really got into the spirit of it, often breaking out in song with me as I handed my money to them. Not once did DEA agents stop me to ask why I was playing this particular song over and over.

Like I said, it rocks. Try it and then I dare you to tell me I'm wrong.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Pleasure, and Not a Guilty One

In July 1985 I met a woman named Loretta (real name, too) at a New York dance place called Visage, way out on West 56th Street. "I'm a reporter -- I write on computer stuff," I shouted into her ear over the thumping beat, and that caught her attention.

We kept talking. Before long she yelled, "I've taken the EST training and I'm also in therapy." Knowing my interest in Russia, she told me about the great possibilities of EST moving into the USSR.

I think about Loretta and our screwdrivers- and disco-driven night at Visage when I cruise Fairfield County in my fabulous 2004 Hyundai Elantra, radio tuned in to my new fave station, The New Mix 102.7 (technically WNEW, but nobody calls it that) in New York. The concept is simple: disco and dance classics, with long blocks of ad-free music. Over the past two months or so, I have found myself returning again and again to the station as a listening pleasure. To my surprise, I recognize only about half the music, compared to the 100% recognition rate on classic rock stations. "Coming up another big block of the Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce, the Eagles, Madonna, Chicago, Cher" zzzzzzzzz. (I dazzle my son, Schmoikel, with my ability to name almost any song on a classic rock station within 5 seconds.)

The music on 102.7 is so compulsively fun, fresh and emotionally connected that I don't mind hearing stuff I know well. For the same reason, I never get tired of listening to the soundtrack to the movie "Carlito's Way," which sure beats listening to the soundtrack of "Schindler's List" (just some of the primo swag I got as a reporter in the home video industry).

Besides reminding me of Loretta, the music takes me back to parties, events, and those intimate moments in life where Barry White or Marvin Gaye were just what the love doctor ordered. Call me a hopeless romantic, but when I hear Tavares singing . . .

Now winter's gonna turn to spring
And you haven't accomplished a thing
So baby can't you make me just a little time
Cause you never know what's on my mind

It only takes a minute girl
To fall in love, to fall in love
It only takes a minute girl
To fall in love, let's fall in love


. . . then I feel a nerve in my brain getting strummed like a guitar string. And I like that feeling. Not to overanalyze dance music, but it connects both musically and lyrically to intense parts of my life.

Even the numbers 102.7 are magic. Mix is the latest incarnation for a station that's struggled to find a workable format for years. Classic rock, talk, one flop after another. After I moved to NYC in 1980, I quickly came to favor 102.7 in its identity as WNEW-FM, "The Place Where Rock Lives." With a great line-up of DJs like Richard Near and Pete Fornatele, it marked the last time I listened to a rock station with any sense of real identification. I even had an 'NEW gym bag and attended a listener event at the Bottom Line. Then tastes changed, ratings tanked, and the search for a winning format began. The DJs adapted, then scattered. I gave up on the station as my own interests moved toward jazz, blues and Latin genres.

But now, the format wheel has spun again and Mix 102.7 is a winner, at least for me. It goes beyond nostalgia to deliver a likable and vibrant sound and message. Maybe Loretta's listening to it right now and remembering that kooky reporter with the Russia fixation. And all I have to do is turn the beat on to remind myself that, really, it only takes a minute.

Here's hoping the special minute has arrived for my new 'NEW friends at 102.7, the sound of the past and the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

They're All Democrats in France

Question: How do you tell the difference between Democrats, Republicans and Southern Republicans?

The answer can be found by posing the following question:

You’re walking down a deserted street with your wife and two small children. Suddenly, an Islamic Terrorist with a huge knife comes around the corner, locks eyes with you, screams obscenities, praises Allah, raises the knife, and charges at you. You are carrying a Glock cal .40, and you are an expert shot. You have mere seconds before he reaches you and your family. What do you do?

Democrat’s Answer:

Well, that’s not enough information to answer the question!
Does the man look poor! Or oppressed?
Have I ever done anything to him that would inspire him to attack?
Could we run away?
What does my wife think?
What about the kids?
Could I possibly swing the gun like a club and knock the knife out of his hand?
What does the law say about this situation?
Does the Glock have appropriate safety built into it?
Why am I carrying a loaded gun anyway, and what kind of message does this send to society and to my children?
Is it possible he’d be happy with just killing me?
Does he definitely want to kill me, or would he be content just to wound me?
If I were to grab his knees and hold on, could my family get away while he was stabbing me?
Should I call 9-1-1?
Why is this street so deserted?
Why isn’t he happy playing nighttime basketball?
We need to raise taxes, have a paint and weed day and make this happier, healthier street that would discourage such behavior.
This is all so confusing! I need to debate this with some friends for few days and try to come to a consensus.
Can I call Howard Dean or John Kerry and see what they think I should do?

Republican’s Answer:

BANG!

Southern Republican’s Answer:

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!BANG! click…..(sounds of reloading).
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!BANG! click
Daughter: “Nice grouping, Daddy! Were those the Winchester Silver Tips or Hollow Points?”

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

John Fowles, Lord of Flip Value

In addition to Tom Sawyer and biographies of Davy Crockett, my most memorable adolescent reading experience involved The French Lieutenant's Woman, written by John Fowles, who died on Monday. This is remarkable especially because I did not read the entire book until I was in my 40s.

I did, however, read a page or two while a teenager, around 1974. Somehow I got my hands on the paperback edition and, with a hormonal teenage male's unerring instinct for "the good parts," my eye fell on page 313. (that's the hardback I found at the Westport library, end of chapter 40; go ahead and pull the paperback off the shelf and see what I mean; I'll wait for you.)

"She reached then and took his recalcitrant right hand and led it under her robe to . . . " You get the point -- certainly, the male protagonist did.

As you are now experiencing, my heart raced, my puka-bead necklace quivered, my imagination soared, and what seemed like scaldingly erotic prose permanently burned itself into my id. At that moment, Fowles scored at the top of the "flip value" scale. For those unfamiliar with this essential male concept, "flip value" refers to the number of enjoyable parts of a book or publication. So, um, Sports Illustrated has high flip value when you flip through the magazine and finds lots of stories involving teams you want to read about. High flip value equals lots of good sections with fine, insightful writing, or something like that.

I never treated this as secret knowledge. At the town library I once nudged my friend D and said, "Hey, man, take a look at page 313." He did, exclaiming, "Why, Mission2Moscow!"

Fowles' passage lingered in my mind for decades. I finally decided to read the book (I never saw the movie, since Meryl Streep movies by definition have little "flip value"). Reading the scalding passages in context, their meaning changed radically. The 16-year old M2M totally misinterpreted the book and the action. Soon after hands go into robe, the chapter ends, "He was racked by an intolerable spasm. Twisting sideways he began to vomit into the pillow beside her shocked, flungback head." Ewwwwww. That's on page 315.

Still, my mind drifts back to the pure jolt of Fowles' language, the elegance of possibility, a glide rather than a slam into intimacy. For that I'll always be grateful. Skimming The French Lieutenant's Woman yet again, I don't see flip value, but only value.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dept. of Most Unfortunate Timing

Far be it from me to waste a few minutes of prime page-flipping time at the dentist's office. On Saturday before my semi-annual checkup I perused the November issue of Travel+Leisure. The cover article, titled, "Best of Paris," is in some places unintentionally amusing in light of the current youthful hijinks in France.

Writer Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni starts with an overview of the political potential of prime minister Dominique de Villepin and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, then writes, "They're just part of the general excitement and optimism of Paris these days." (Both men figure prominently in the excitement of Paris, although the optimism is suddenly subdued.)

Soon, Fraser-Cavassoni uncorks THE best line in the entire issue, "Suddenly, the City of Light is smoldering again."

Let me repeat, just to make sure you don't mis-read it: "Suddenly, the City of Light is smoldering again."

Elsewhere, the article discusses the Hôtel du Petit Moulin, with the wonderful note that the rooms are "a riot of color."

Oui, oui, les French know much these tempestuous days about "a riot of color." Or should be that "riots of color"?

As we used to say in Hidalgo County, oy gevalt.

The Secret Relationship of Jews and Cricket: Who Knew?

Leave the comfortable yet self-tormented shores of American Ashkenazic Jewry and wonders emerge from the fog. Jewish film festivals are a great way to vicariously meet our landsmen of different habits and hues, and actions. See enough films and startling patterns take shape. I had that experience during the Jewish Film Festival of Lower Fairfield County, which finished last night. Out of the three films I saw, two of them involved the deep love of Jews for . . . cricket.

I delighted to see people playing cricket, a game far removed from the mainstream American, and American Jewish, experience. Well, not totally removed; in 2000 I played cricket for the one time in my life, when a team from the Stamford office of Mongoose & Co. (my affectionate pet name for the World's Greatest Consulting Firm, which employed me at the time) squared off against a team from a New Jersey office. Mostly I recall how hard it was to hit the ball, and the little sandwiches we ate on the sidelines.

So the Jews-and-cricket themes resonated with me. First I saw Wondrous Oblivion, set in London in the early 1960s. David Wiseman, 11, is the son of Holocaust survivors. He's a cricket fanatic but not a very good player, as the cruel boys of Slitherin House (oops, wrong movie, right characteristics) remind him. Hope emerges when a cricket-enabled Jamaican family moves in next door. What follows combines elements of "Bend It Like Beckham" with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

Last night's closing film, Turn Left at the End of the World, is an exceptionally good Israeli/French film from last year. It deals with Indian and Moroccan immigrants to Israel in 1968. Tensions abound, but the Indians find solace and a way of contributing to their new desert community through cricket. Compared to the green fields of Wondrous Oblivion, Turn Lefts puts cricket in a desert, complete with camels and highly untraditional audience behavior. In another contrast, Turn Left throbs with images of hot and naughty Sephardic girls. This Hebrew-language site has stills from the movie that give a slight sense of the visually delightful cast (and that applies to the guys in the film, too).

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, cricket. Sorry, I got distracted there by Sephardic girls. Other bloggers have thought more deeply about the intense relationship of Jews and cricket, and you can read their informed thinking at Normblog and Adloyada. So the next time you see cricketeers in a park, splendid in white and eating cucumber sandwiches, just remember -- they may include members of the tribe, sticky wicket division.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Bring Me the Aroma of Carlos Santana

Cosmopolitan magazine always amuses and informs me, far more than the lame pages of, say, GQ or Maxim. The October issue alerted me to the dangers of thongs and unhygienic bikini waxes (ouch!). The ads are great, too, for mysterious products I never need, in colors of subtleties I'll never grasp.

Without a doubt the most attention-grabbing ad in the October issue has the simple headling, "Introducing Carlos Santana(TM) fragrances for men and women." The tagline at the bottom purrs, "Arouse Your Senses." Red-themed native-looking artwork shows Santana with his ever-present hat against a background of densely drawn bongos, spirals, hands, eyes-in-hearts, and even a man looking like Carlos putting his hand on the head of a kneeling peon, an ambiguous scene suggesting either a blessing or a plea for oral sex.

Now, celebrity perfumes are common. Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shania Twain have them. I can see the logical connection between fashionable, attractive women and fragrannces. But the connection is much more tenuous with men, as seen in the belly-flop of Donald Trump's fragrance.

Santana's stab at the smell test connects me to a lot of musical memories. Coming of age in the late 1960s in a heavily Hispanic part of the country, I liked his early music with its mix of Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics and rock instrumentation. Abraxas from 1970 had very heavy (as we used to say then) liner notes. Early Santana had a sound that remains fresh 35 years later; the only other group I can say that about is ZZ Top. The music was so evocative of swirling colors, palm trees, the border experience, the possibilities of music beyond Anglo pop sounds.

I always wondered what Santana (the man, not the band) smelled like. After Woodstock, I figured he was sweaty. After he went off the spiritual deep end and called himself Devadip Carlos Santana, I figured he smelled like an Austin head shop full of black-light posters.

And now Santana is answering the question, at fine retail outlets everywhere. Or, cut out the middleman and buy directly from the Santana website. Santana is sending his message of peace and love to a suffering world with fragrances for both men and women. He must be doing something right in the technical sense, since perfume pros like the stuff.

Like a good marketer, Santana knows the difference between boys and girls. Not for him is a unisexual odor for everybody. Nope, sometimes he smells like a guy, and in those very special moments he wants to smell like a girl. So he made sure his products have just the right appeal for the moment. Note:

For men: "This smooth, woody musk fragrance was inspired by the music and passions of Carlos Santana. The aroma just after rainfall, in combination with the clean notes of Maja soap, is the essence of this timeless creation."

"Carlos Santana For Women blends exotic fruits with subtle florals and rounds out the scent with soft, sensuous musk to create a seductive, warm fragrance."

I have to wonder what smooth-talker got Santana to sign up for this misguided vanity project. (He may not even be that serious about it. The Santana Fragrances site is still under construction, a deadly marketing error.) He already sells hats, shirts, books, CDs, and other tchatchkas on his website, and his record sales over 40 years mean he's not hurting financially. The product just makes no sense; as a man I wouldn't wear the stuff, and if I gave the female fragrance to a Significant Other I'd probably get the bottle cracked over my head (note to self: need to write about the harrowing Mother's Day Tiffany's silver challah knife episode).

Sorry, Charlie: I'm not buying it, literally or figuratively. Now if there were a Santana home hair-weave kit . . .

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Loathsome Marketing, First in a Series

As a demographic unit, I'm a tasty morsel for financial marketers. Born in the center of the baby boom (1957), white collar, single, urban, nicely cash-flowed, investment oriented, and educated, I'm a "good catch," as somebody recently said in another context.

So the American Express spin-off, Ameriprise Financial, had people like me in mind for its new advertising campaign now being flogged on TV and Metro-North trains. These ads tout Ameriprise's financial planning for a generation as "unique" as mine. You may have seen the ads with a VW hippie van morphing into something more modern. Train ads show 15 or so iconic images of the 1960s and 1970s carefully balanced between the social categories we referred to at Mission High School in Texas as the "dopers" and the "ropers."

So, you'll see peace symbols and Cub Scouts, long-haired hippie freaks and cheerleaders, groovy types and squares, images that make me want to tune in to VH1 more than they inspire me to ponder my financial needs.

For this baby-boomer, alas, Ameriprise is establishing a negative brand image. I cringe to see the calculated cultural shorthand that supposedly speaks to my generation, whatever that is. The opening music on the Ameriprise website, "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" by Crazy Elephant, only compounds the problem by showing a total lack of creativity. What could be easier than to dust off 60s music to support a marketing message for baby boomers? I don't learn anything about Ameriprise (not that I'm curious, anyway) but I got a heavy load of 60s shtick. I can only hope Crazy Elephant makes a fortune off the licensing fee -- sticking it to the Man, if you will.

If Ameriprise wanted to grab my attention, its marketing must take risks. Let's start with life insurance. I've got SBLI term insurance with my son as the beneficiary for the day when I'm gathered unto my fathers (later rather than sooner, but living in NYC you never know). So, in all honesty, life insurance is all about dying. With that cheerful thought in mind, I suggest Ameriprise frame its insurance pitch with the song "Don't Fear the Reaper" by the Blue Oyster Cult. That would cut through the clutter and get directly to the point of insurance. I would be mightily impressed. Better yet, have the members of the Blue Oyster Cult talk about their insurance choices.

The same thinking goes for retirement investments. Don't show me gauzy images of silver-haired men and women out boating or dancing at their country club. Talk about survival in a world very unlike the world of our parents, a stable world where my mother worked for 21 straight years at exactly the same job as a secretary at the insurance agency of Conway, Dooley & Martin. What could be more appropriate for retirement planning than Gloria Gaynor belting, "I will survive!" in all her disco majesty? My tagline suggestion for Ameriprise: "You survived Nehru jackets, puka beads, Jimmy Carter, punk rock, and Enron. Now, get ready to survive . . . retirement." Now that's what I call marketing.

I doubt Ameriprise will move in this direction. Probably the baby-boomer narcissism pitch will fizzle out into something even more pedestrian. Then again, perhaps Ameriprise will get desperate and won't fear the reaper.

Full disclosure: By this point you're thinking, "OK, Mr. Mission2Moscow, you think you're so smart, what's your approach to financial planning?" Good question, quick answers: The two biggest influences on my actions have been:

1. Columnist Jonathan Clements of the Wall Street Journal, who strongly supports the use of index funds, which I use for the bulk of my retirement savings

2. Financial expert Andrew Tobias always makes sense to me, with his ruthlessly practical advice. He is a big fan of SBLI.

Fathers and Sons, Doors and Prisons

John S. McCain Jr. and George Stephen Morrison lived parallel lives of military service. Both graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy—McCain...