In a word: “Screed”

newcoulterMy favorite splenetic xenophobe, Lou Dobbs, has a new book out. So does former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And like virtually every book penned by political pundits these have one-word titles. I suppose the publishers’ thinking is that a choice, in-your-face “concept” word can simultaneously rally the believers and enrage the other side. Or maybe it’s a variant of the old word association game where the subject matter is instantly understood. George Bush … moron. Alex Rodriguez … Roids. Bill Clinton … cumstain. Al Sharpton … Tawana. Papa John Pizza … cardboard.

Dobbs’s new addition to the already clogged category of political screeds is called “Upheaval” and the cover depicts Screwy Louie smirking in front of a chalkboard, drawing some meaningless arrows and circles. Inside is an attack on the half-assed establishment Republicans who by ignoring the wisdom of the omniscient Tea Party faithful allowed a complete failure like Obama to win reelection with 65,915,796 votes.
No doubt, Lou will sell a ton of books by virtue of his privilege to promote them through his TV show – not unlike Bill O’Reilly who Fox News chairman Roger Ailes once called “a book salesman with a TV show.”

Gates’s new kiss-and-tell book is titled “Duty” – which I suspect members of the Obama administration refer to as “Doody”. Too eager to wait for his boss to go back to civilian status before taking a dump on his head, Gates pulls one of the more slimy tactics in punditry: briefly acknowledging the subject’s well-meaning integrity before pulling out the long knives and eviscerating the man’s appalling ineptitude.
Gates praises Obama as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats. Then he quickly kicks him in the balls for being a pussy by not fighting the Taliban for another 100 years in Afghanistan. Later on in the book, Gates calls VP Joe Biden “a man of integrity,” but then immediately questions his judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Four decades of being wrong? So that’s the secret to keeping your seat in Congress. (Sidebar: I never understood why a Democrat president would select a Republican to be SECDEF [Clinton – William Perry, Obama – Gates]; it merely serves to reinforce the widely-held belief that Dems are lame on defense and require supervision by an iron-sacked Republican to manage USA security for them. Stupid.)

Anyway, the single word title thing seems to be the vogue for political books. Consider these stellar examples of best-selling punditry: Glenn Beck – “Cowards”, Rachel Maddow –“Drift”, Robert Reich – “Reason”, Juan Williams – “Enough”. But the undisputed queen of one-word wonders has to be Ann Coulter, author of “Slander”, “Treason”, “Godless”, “Guilty” and “Demonic.” Wow – she should take charge of the committee to reform the list of the seven deadly sins.

Given the trend, I expect some of these books to come to market in the next 18 months:

“Flatulence” by Chris Christie. Energy policy from the 2016 presidential hopeful.
“Priapism” by Anthony Weiner. Congress is hard, Twitter is hard, Weiner is hard.
“Frotting” by Jim McGreevy. Politics rubs the former Jersey governor the right way.
“Anencephaly” by Michelle Malkin. An exercise to prove a book can be written by a person with no brain.
“Helmet” by Nancy Grace. Her majesty’s take on capital offense hairdos.
“Addled” by Jon Voight. ACORN! Saul Alinsky! Jeremiah Wright! ACORN! Jeremi— Uh, um, who took my soup? I want my soup back.
“Cunt” – The unauthorized autobiography of Ann Coulter as told by her vagina.

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Big Pharma Scrabble

scrabMy cousin Oxymandias (not his real name) works at GlaxoSmithKline as a pharmaceutical salesman, better known as a drug rep. Most days he could also be called a delivery boy for Panera Bread. You see, Oxymandias has a big quota and a large territory, and his continued employment depends on doctors prescribing the drugs he represents (his main product: Advair, a remedy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.) And to gain access to the doctors he must influence, Oxymandias has to endear himself to them and their staffs regularly and often by bringing bagels, cream cheese, coffee and tea, compliments of GSK. This approach to marketing, promoting and selling drugs always seemed smarmy to me – amounting to little more than a transparent albeit cheap bribe to the doctor for 3 minutes out of his or her busy schedule to hear yet another pitch on why Advair should be prescribed liberally to anyone who has ever coughed. (Sidebar: Following a real bribery scandal in China, GSK recently announced they would no longer pay doctors to promote its products, nor would they tie compensation of sales representatives to the number of prescriptions doctors write. How the decision affects Oxymandias remains to be seen, but he’s sweating out the likelihood of getting the axe.)

Although a bag of breakfast products seems a negligible expense, the long-standing strategy of Big Pharma to spend nearly as much on marketing drugs as it does on R&D to develop them strikes me as a misplaced priority. The industry spent $4B in 2010 on advertising to convince people to ask their doctors if XYZ drug is right for them, and another $27B (6x the ad budget) to influence doctors to indulge the inquiries of patients demanding the miracle cures they saw on TV. How much of this commerce is completely misplaced? How many healthy people who watch a Big Pharma commercial immediately feel the symptoms of actors paid to portray ordinary people suffering from an esoteric malady? With the price of drugs growing to ridiculous heights (an annual supply of the cancer drug Gleevec wholesales for $76,740 in the U.S.) should pharmaceutical companies spend millions to convince middle-aged men that they must take a daily pill so as to be ready on a moment’s notice to bang their wives or girlfriends?

And why does the name of virtually every drug contain an X, Y, Z or a V?

I suspect the purpose of these exotic-sounding contrived names is a marketing ploy to impart the illusion that the drug is some kind of supernatural conjuring of artificially-engineered molecules developed on 23rd century supercomputers. Aspirin, Tums, Absorbine Jr., Preparation H; these names exude the crackerbarrel charm of a 1900s elixir – capable of delivering ephemeral comfort to life’s ordinary aches and pains, but clearly not up to the task of vanquishing the complex diseases of a modern world. By bestowing names on drugs that sound like alien invaders from outer space, pharmaceutical companies seek to coerce people into believing they’re otherworldly, infallible cures.

Now imagine if these drug names were allowed in a Scrabble competition.


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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Ten. The Thrilling Conclusion.

Cary awoke from a languid and luxurious dream in which he made love to his first girlfriend, rewound to a time when he was 19 years old and she was a virginal 16. The girlfriend was nearly as tall as Cary once was in real life, a trait of subtle eroticism that Cary ranked nearly as high as the dimples in the small of her back. In his dream, details of the love-making seemed so real – hues and shades, moans and shrieks, even the aromas of sex. Cary was reminded of the first episode of the TV show Star Trek – “The Menagerie” – in which the vegetative Captain Pike was permitted by the aliens to experience in his mind an illusive life as real as real life. Cary regretted waking up. Why couldn’t he fall into a permanent fantasy dream state instead of lying immobile yet fully conscious of all his morbid surroundings, unable to communicate?

Cary was no longer stationed in the Neuro ICU. He now idled away in a semi-private room, his condition stabilized to that of a robust house plant. As long as he was watered daily there was no reason to believe he should ever die. Each day dragged on as every day before it. With the exception of Lee and Sage, Cary’s visitors dwindled to barely one or two a month which suited him fine. Whenever a visiting business colleague made a side trip to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, he (it was always a male colleague) would speak perfunctory small talk for a minute then fiddle with a BlackBerry until the lack of a strong signal and the smell of urine compelled an abrupt exit. Of course, no visitor was aware that Cary could see and hear them, and so they interacted with him as they would a caged hamster. Truth be told, it made no sense to Cary why anyone would bother to visit. He postulated that the visits were to assuage guilt or to atone for sins lest God foist Cary’s predicament upon them as well. Maybe the visits were made out of simple morbid curiosity?

Lately, Cary was more lethargic than ever before. He sincerely hoped he was experiencing the beginnings of a mercy killing initiated by a sympathetic orderly and carried out with toxic chemicals, slowly and methodically. If this were true, Cary wished his body to be disposed of as soon as he died so that no one could conduct an inquiry that might cause trouble for the orderly – his guardian angel-of-death. But, as anyone could plainly see Cary had not executed a living will; there was no way now to prevent some invasive probing of his corpse should the circumstances of his death appeared even a wee bit odd. Fuck it all. Eyelids heavy but forever open, Cary tried desperately to fall back into that wonderful dream with his tall, forever-16-year old girlfriend. Oh, to press his flesh against her supple body and stroke her long, straight hair that smelled of patchouli and lavender; to intertwine his restored swimmer’s legs with hers; to bury himself deeply in the declivity of her femininity. Cary was almost there when he heard someone enter his room. The way the person shuffled slowly, each sliding step accompanied by the squeak of tiny wheels suggested he or she was neither a regular visitor or member of the hospital staff. Cary caught a whiff of urine.

“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you, sir,” announced the stranger. “My name is Billy Rubin. I know you can hear me, and see me too when I get close to the bed.”

If he were capable, Cary would have bolted upright. Immediately an avalanche of thoughts ran through Cary’s mind leaving a wake of dissonance and confusion. Is this a dream and have I lost the ability to distinguish it from reality? Did someone run a test on me that revealed my cognition? Is this Rubin guy trying out a new therapy on me? Or is some fucking orderly busting my balls in a gambit to elicit some laughs from his buddies? Ever the pessimist Cary landed on the ball-buster explanation – over time, orderlies assigned to the vegetable wing lose the ability to distinguish their human charges from fish in a bowl.

“Mr. Hayes – sorry, I noticed your name outside the door – I was at that train wreck last year. I used to work at the golf course, Dinsmore, when the train hit your car. I saw what happened and heard what you said.”

This was no ball-busting orderly. This guy knew something and Cary was decidedly interested in what he had to say. Train wreck? I said something?

Cary had lain motionless in a hospital bed for so long – sores stinking, feeding tubes threaded down his throat (and later embedded directly into his abdomen) – hoping each and every 86,400-second day that someone would step forward and say directly to his face, “This is why you’re here in this shitty condition.” At no time had any of his family, friends, co-workers and care-givers revealed the circumstances that led him to Valhalla, other than the time Sage briefly mentioned a vague car accident. Maybe they had said something before he “woke up” but since then, nothing. How gypped he felt being confined to hell-on-a-mattress without an inkling of what devastation had been visited upon him. Cary considered the possibility that his visitor possessed a special ability endowed by God – Nah. What God? – to communicate with people like himself, all input and no output. People essentially dead but denied a better place in hell.

Billy shuffled up to the side of the bed to enter into Cary’s narrow field of vision. Cary saw a man with yellowish skin who looked like he could be 60 years old or a hundred, pulling along an IV bag mounted on a hook on wheels. “I got the cirrhosis of the liver.” He said ‘srosis’ as if running the syllables together might lessen the seriousness of the condition. “That’s why my skin’s so damn yellow. I had half my liver removed last week. I’m in a room on the floor right above you. Don’t look good for me though – I really need a new liver but I’m way down on the list.” Cary could not get over how yellow Billy was. It was surreal – like he was a cartoon character. Cary had never before laid eyes on someone in such an advanced stage of liver breakdown.

Billy continued, “I know you’re gonna believe what I’m about to tell you, because you have a special ability like I do. Everyone thinks you can’t see or hear, but you can. And I can see and hear things too – stuff far away from me, like I was right there even though I’m somewhere else.” Billy explained the lightning strike that induced his special skill, and recited a couple of mundane examples. Cary wished Billy would get to the accident.

“I’m sorry,” Billy said, looking down at the floor, “let me get to the accident. I heard the train roaring down the tracks faster than usual, then a huge crashing sound, then a long screech.” Billy imitated the onomatopoeiac sound: “Eeeeeeeech!” Cary mentally shook his head.

“I figured it had to be a train hitting a car at that unguarded crossing. Me and lots of people complained about that crossing for years, but you know the government. They never do a goddamned thing to fix a problem until a disaster occurs. Then they spend a hundred times more money than it would’ve cost to fix it in the first place.” Billy shuffled away for a moment and returned with a chair. He sat down heavily, like he had just dropped a bag of bricks.

“Wow. I feel like shit.” Billy exhaled hard and Cary smelled urine again. “Anyway, I got over to that crash scene fast. I was the first person there, y’know, not counting the Amtrak passengers. Cops and ambulances showed up right after I did. They wouldn’t let me get close. I helped them find a person who was thrown out of the car. I guess at first they thought there was just one person involved because that’s all they saw sitting there in the car.”

Cary was even more grateful now that Sage had come away from the wreck unhurt considering that she had been thrown out of the car. Thrown out of the car as a gargantuan locomotive dragged it along railroad tracks. Before hearing Billy Rubin tell it Cary assumed the accident involved another car, and that Sage happened to be on the lucky side of the collision.

Billy continued, “The cops made me leave, so I drove back up to the clubhouse. And as soon as I got there a helicopter flew over the golf course. I saw them take away a young girl. I guessed it was your daughter. Turns out the passenger that got thrown out of the car was in really bad shape, but you were miraculously fine – just a couple of bruises and scratches.”

“Wh–wh–what?” At first confused, Cary became indignant. He formed the mental question, “What the fuck is this? A sick joke?”

“No.” Billy said quietly. “I saw it just like I said. I have this strange ability from getting struck by lightning. I saw the medics take you to one of the cars on the train, and you were just sitting alone.”

Suddenly Cary recalled some of the scenario Billy just described – seated alone in the café car, his mind going crazy thinking of young, precious Sage and her mangled body.

“I saw you in that café car, all alone, in shock and sadness,” continued Billy, “and I heard you say these very words: ‘I would give anything in the world to change places with her right now…anything.’” Billy looked in Cary’s eyes. “That’s a quote – I swear.”

Cary’s brain raced.

With tears brimming, Billy added, “As the helicopter flew back over the course toward the hospital, I saw you on the gurney. Just like you are now.”

Cary wanted to let out a deep breath but could never do so as long as the ventilator operated. But relief came anyway. He felt tortured no more. Cary had indeed done something glorious after all. He had been a noble Viking warrior, slain in battle. A glorious warrior chosen by the Valkyries. It all made sense now. Another Valhalla awaited him.

Billy shuffled toward the door with his squeaky IV rig just as a steady clarion beep signaled flat-line.

The End.

(c) 2013. Major Terata Publications


Some of the locations and other topics referenced in the story.

The Mills Mansion


The Beekman Arms

The Beekman Arms: Oldest Inn in America

Beekman Arms Oldest Hotel In America Rhinebeck
By the Fireplace inside the Beekman Arms

Dinsmore Golf Course

The Concord Hotel c.1950s

The Concord “Monster” Golf Course

Album cover from Machito’s appearance at the Concord Hotel

Amtrak 234

Rhinecliff Train Station

Ruins of Bannerman Castle

Billy Casper in his prime

The Taconic Parkway

Spuyten Duyvil

Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla

“Ride of the Valkyries”

“Apocalypse Now”

Declaration of Lunar Ownership

The inspiration for a character’s name

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Nine. Billy has a Vision Like No Other.

After disgorging the five suits who had abandoned the idled Amtrak train for a ride to the Dinsmore Golf Course clubhouse with hopes of getting to Manhattan before the end of the business day via alternative transport, Billy Rubin swung his John Deere utility vehicle around to the path leading back to the 15th green. He still had a hole waiting there to be relocated. Just then from the east a helicopter swooped directly overhead and across the golf course, stopping Billy in his tracks. He watched it hover in the distance over the crash site before slowly descending behind the curtain of trees. Even after the helicopter disappeared from sight, by virtue of his clairvoyant gift, Billy continued to “see” it. His bizarre ability to “see” events unfold from afar, the ability he acquired after being struck by lightning, afforded Billy the opportunity to witness the pilot maneuver the helicopter down between the tight rows of trees lining the tracks.

He “saw” the rescue personnel recoil from the dust and bits of gravel kicked up by the whirling chopper blades as the pilot touched down. And with reluctance he “saw” a body strapped to a gurney, head clamped into a padded restraint, face concealed by gauze and bandages, an IV bag hanging on a hook, sheets splotched with blood. Billy assumed the sorry person strapped to the gurney was the accident victim to whom he earlier directed Trooper O’Brien; a victim in extremely critical condition having been thrown from the Saab into the bushes, both legs clipped off in a violent confrontation with Amtrak 234.

The struggling ambulance crew horsed the gurney across the tracks in front of the menacing locomotive. From their strategic locations near the carnage, TV reporters who had been broadcasting live all morning about “the tragedy” and the unforgivable lack of safety devices installed at the intersection of the tracks and the lane, directed their cameramen to capture the medical team loading the gurney onto the helicopter. A female reporter breathlessly updated her audience: “Behind me this medevac helicopter will shortly transport the mangled victim of this morning’s tragic accident between a high-speed Amtrak train and an automobile to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.”

The rotor began to spin the blades faster as the helicopter pilot prepared to take to the air. The reporter, increasing the volume of her voice to compete against the elevated noise, shouted, “At this moment we’ve been told that the victim is still alive but in critical condition.” She placed a finger in her ear and ducked down like everyone does when a helicopter takes off or lands, as if she would be decapitated otherwise despite the fact the blades were a good fifteen feet above her head. “The name of the victim is being withheld pending notification of the family. As we’ve been reporting this morning, another passenger in the car survived the crash, apparently without sustaining any serious injuries. A remarkable and positive outcome to an otherwise totally tragic event.”

Billy “observed” the whole commotion as if he were seated in a box seat high above the crash site. He “watched” a local policeman marking down measurements on a notepad while several State police talked and laughed among themselves, and a half-dozen TV crews each jockeying for the premier position offering the most lurid background possible. Billy “saw” the ambulance team load the accident victim onto the helicopter, and the helicopter lifting off from the gravel access road, rising with trepidation as it passed uncomfortably close to the overhanging tree limbs and thick power lines. Upon clearing the treetops, the helicopter dipped slightly as the pilot transitioned from the vertical to the horizontal, making his way back east across Dinsmore Golf Course flying just a couple hundred feet above the undulating fairways. It appeared to Billy as though the pilot was preparing to strafe the clubhouse which reminded him of an iconic scene in Apocalypse Now and called to mind the gripping music that accompanied the attack on Vietnamese villagers: Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

When the chopper disappeared behind the ridge, Billy’s attention was summarily drawn back to the crash site where by virtue of his ability he could “see” a person no one else at the site could: the passenger who had escaped the wreck with barely a scratch, sitting somberly in a state of shock inside the café car of Amtrak 234, away from prying reporters and morbidly curious onlookers.

And what Billy “heard” the passenger say and the consequence of that statement would forever be seared in Billy’s memory.

Next. Part Ten. The Thrilling Conclusion to “Amtrak 234.”

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

Rubbing his spasmodic lower abdomen, Billy race-walked toward a stand of trees behind Dinsmore Golf Course’s 15th green but he didn’t make it in time, and soiled himself. The volume accumulated in his baggy pants would have defied the flow of the flush had he gone to the bathroom back at the clubhouse, as he now knew he should have done. Any normal person would be crestfallen if they shit their pants, but Billy had long ago transcended whatever shame was associated with losing control of bodily functions. He was a lush, and he acknowledged it. Embraced it even. Lushes shit their pants. Lushes puke on things. That’s the way it was.

Billy stripped off his trousers, threw the stained shorts into the woods, looked about tentatively before wiping himself off with a rag torn from the ball washer, and pulled his trousers back on over his bare ass. After taking extra special care to zip up, he ambled sheepishly back to the green where the hole borer was still screwed into the ground awaiting extraction. Just as Billy grabbed the handles in preparation to yank out the borer he was startled by the near-simultaneous sounds of a train blasting its horn, a hard impact, steel crumpling, glass shattering and a screech of metal-on-metal that lasted for nearly a minute. He knew immediately the cacophony indicated a collision involving an auto and the Amtrak train he “saw” departing the Rhinecliff station moments earlier. And he knew exactly where the accident had occurred: the only grade crossing along the Amtrak route absent warning lights and automatic gates. Billy had crossed the tracks there many times although not in a dozen years.

The rutted lane passed by the Mills Mansion, terminating at a secluded spot along the Hudson River where Billy used to deliver beer and liquor to under-aged kids who worked at the golf course during summer breaks. Some of the teens waited tables or worked the prep line in the grill room; others hosed down golf carts and refilled ball washers with soapy water. On the weekends the kids would pool their money and place a booze order with Billy – the usual fare: Colt 45, Bacardi, Smirnoff, Yago Sangria – leaving him with enough cash to buy something for himself. At that time, Billy was downing a bottle to a bottle-and-a-half of vodka a day plus a six-pack. The deals with the under-agers allowed Billy to fund a couple days of imbibing. One summer, Billy bought liquor for the teenaged son of a doctor who played nine at Dinsmore every Wednesday afternoon with two other MDs and a pharmaceutical rep. The kid traded Quaaludes stolen from his father’s office for the liquor. And when the ‘ludes became increasingly difficult to steal, the doctor’s son made drugs-for-liquor deals using amphetamines and Valium as the new currency.

Punished by his addictions, Billy’s body aged 40 years over the course of 15. His hair turned white and thinned down to a few greasy strands across his crown; his nose came to resemble a scrotum, mottled with purplish veins; plaque on Billy’s remaining teeth grew thick, and glistened like Miracle Whip. And Billy’s skin, which appeared reptilian from the extended time spent in the sun, took on a yellowish tint like a Crayola crayon labeled “maize.” In the more recent years Billy had backed off somewhat from consuming the massive quantities of drink at the zenith, but he still met the definition of a problem drinker. He had begun to recognize the insidious social impact of his condition. Billy nearly lost his job (and his freedom) when the golfing doctor discovered the Quaalude-for-liquor connection, deciding after virulent threats not to press charges. And Billy was saddened and ashamed at the pariah status he had attained at the Beekman Arms and other local establishments where he had ruined the ambiance with his drunken antics. He harbored no doubts that the frequent pains in his side stemmed from severe damage to his bottle-scarred liver, but he could not and did not want to stop drinking completely. Drinking had become so woven into the fabric of his daily life, an activity so necessary for life to be normal, that Billy could hardly imagine slogging through an entire day without alcohol.

But at this moment alcohol was not on his mind.

Billy climbed into the John Deere and sped off across the fairway at the vehicle’s top speed of 15 mph, driving around a fence marking “out-of-bounds” onto the county road running parallel to the golf course. He turned onto the rutted lane, and as he approached the unguarded crossing he spotted a sea of sparkling glass. It wasn’t until he got to the fateful crossing that he could take in the full effect of the collision: the Amtrak train idling on the tracks flanked by automobile detritus about 1,000 yards to the south. (Having spent so much of his life around the links, Billy calibrated distances in terms of golf holes; the train appeared to be about two par 5’s away.) As Billy drove the Deere alongside the tracks on the bumpy gravel access road, rakes, a weed-whacker and a garden hose flew out the back. He had to swerve often to avoid striking pieces of the car. When he glimpsed what appeared to be a severed bloody limb in a ditch, he abruptly steered his shocked wide eyes forward and continued on.

As Billy approached the crash site the pandemonium revealed itself. Passengers on board Amtrak 234 craned their necks to observe the activity through scratched windows, the women covering their mouths with their hands, the men standing shakily with their hands in their pockets. The Amtrak conductors stumbled around outside the train lacking apparent direction. One conductor listening to a voice on a walkie-talkie turned toward a clutch of passengers who had disembarked and shouted loudly, “Everyone back away! Get the fuck away from the train! We have to back – will you fucking move? We have to back up the train!” Billy recognized the agitated man with the walkie-talkie to be the conductor he “saw” minutes earlier – the one who barred the cat-owner from boarding in Rhinecliff.

The engineer of Amtrak 234 blew the horn and moved the train back about ten yards so as to disconnect from the remains of the Saab that were wedged beneath the locomotive. Billy and the others looked down the tracks in unison upon hearing the siren wails of the first responders. The New York State Police got to work managing access to the wreck site, knowing that without strict control the multitude of ambulance drivers, fire crews, local police, press people and gawkers would create a Gordian knot of gridlock on the narrow gravel path. Billy pulled the Deere to the side as an ambulance approached, escorted by a State cop. From his vantage point, Billy had a partially obstructed view of the crumpled vehicle; the passenger compartment was all that remained. Engine, wheels, roof, trunk – all had been shed over the 1,000 yard span leading back to the crossing. He was quite certain that whoever was driving the car had been killed instantly, pieces of his or her corpse strewn among fenders and bumpers and drive train. Then Billy overheard a conductor advise the trooper that a person remained strapped into the only intact seat left, alive and remarkably lucid. With his view obscured Billy shuffled closer to get a better look, but his jockeying was interrupted by a very intimidating State cop whose imposing figure was amplified by the forward-slanting Smoky-Bear hat atop his crew-cut block of a head. Just to look upon at the trooper’s chiseled face was enough to bring a grown man to tears. “Get back, sir,” he instructed Billy in an even tone exhibiting professionalism and respect. It was also clear from the tone that resistance was futile. Still, Billy felt the need to speak up.

“Uh, Officer, I uh”
“Sir, I don’t want to have to tell you again. Get back on the train, now.”
“I wasn’t on the train, officer. I came over from the golf course. I think there might have been more than one person in the vehicle.” Billy said “vee-HICK-el” as that’s how every real cop on TV said it.
“How do you know that?”
“I was driving my cart along the path here and I thought I saw–” Billy gulped slightly “–a leg or arm, y’know, back along the tracks about 500 yards.”
“What’s your name, sir.”
“Billy Rubin, I work at the–”

The cop motioned to a colleague to come over; he said a few words to him.

“Mr. Rubin, please take Trooper O’Brien here to the location where you think you saw a body part.” Billy and Trooper O’Brien got into the John Deere and proceeded north. Billy began to worry that maybe what he saw was a dead animal, or something that was never alive to begin with. The cops would consider him an addled jerk who wasted valuable time. Then Billy felt horrible for hoping to be vindicated by finding a human body part after all.

O’Brien abruptly hopped from the moving cart, apparently spying something of interest. The cop tilted his head onto his shoulder and spoke into a microphone pinned to his shirt. “I’ve got a limb, here, looks like part of a leg.” O’Brien walked into some high grass and bushes, using his feet to bend aside the thick foliage. Billy stayed back in the cart. Suddenly the cop stopped bushwhacking, and bent down out of sight. A second later he stood upright and shouted into his shoulder, “I’ve got a victim here! Barely alive! 500 yards north – look for my signal!” O’Brien stepped sprightly from out of the weeds onto the gravel path and waved his arms frantically. Billy saw several officials stationed by the locomotive scrambling into an ambulance and taking off at high speed in reverse as there was insufficient room on the narrow path to turn the vehicle around. Trooper O’Brien thanked Billy for his help and told him to leave the scene.

By this time a number of resigned passengers were walking away from the site of the catastrophe, some carrying luggage, some vainly pulling wheeled suitcases that refused to roll on gravel. As Billy prepared to take off in the John Deere a man in a suit offered him $10 to drive him to the nearest public building. Another passenger made the same offer and soon Billy – richer by the equivalent of three bottles of cheap vodka – was transporting five expensively-dressed NYC professionals willing to sit atop wet bags of fertilizer rather than to schlep across the rolling fairways of Dinsmore Golf Course all the way to the clubhouse high on the far hill.

Next. Part Nine. Billy has a Vision Like No Other.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Seven. Amtrak 234 Meets Cary Hayes.

Cary backed his car out of the Mills Mansion visitor parking lot and drove down the narrow, ill-maintained driveway made up almost entirely of asphalt patches applied over the decades. Cary marveled at how a state with the largest tax burden per capita in America could do such a poor job. At least his convertible Saab absorbed the potholes and hummocks well.

Sage fingered her kalimba-like cell-phone, replying in quiet concentration to a backlog of text messages. Cary flipped on the radio to NPR just as the brief “Word for the Wise” program came on. He had taken an etymology course in high school and became fascinated with how often the roots of words hid in plain sight. Today the word for the wise was “marmalade,” which as the female radio host noted derived from a Portuguese word meaning “quince,” and not as some people believed from “Marie malade” – French for “sick Mary” – because Mary Queen of Scots supposedly consumed marmalade to cure headaches. Cary preferred to believe the debunked etymology; it seemed too good not to be true.

Sage was now making a call on her cell-phone, conversing quite animatedly. She half-whispered something about “ink.” The mention caught Cary’s attention and rekindled his fear that Sage might one day get a tattoo. Or worse – that she was secretly sporting one already. Cary cringed at the concept of a big, garish “tramp-stamp” permanently etched above his innocent young daughter’s butt-crack, or a lascivious image indelibly applied to an even more intimate body part. He quickly dispatched the thought; too gruesome to contemplate. Cary settled back into the anodyne news report on NPR as he absent-mindedly drove through a serpentine passage blasted out of the rock 100 years ago, one that intersected at an obtuse angle with another passage for a single railroad track.

“Crap!” barked Sage out of the blue. Cary, startled, looked over at her. “I lost the sig–” Cary didn’t hear the rest of the word, and maybe Sage didn’t utter it, for at that precise moment Cary had driven onto the unguarded tracks into the path of Amtrak train 234, high-balling at 70 mph.


The engineer would testify much later that he had properly blown the horn – two long, one short, one long – as required in advance of crossing the road, but doubts were raised on cross-examination as several passengers on board recalled otherwise. A spokesperson for Amtrak was quoted saying, “Signals mean different things at different places. We don’t yet know if there was confusion or a distraction.” Perhaps Cary and the engineer responsible for Amtrak 234 had broken a number of laws that morning, but one law stood unflaunted: F = ma. Force equals mass times acceleration – or per Isaac Newton: “Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae, et fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.”

The train continued nearly a half mile after striking Cary and Sage before coming to a stop, during which time the Saab – pinned to the nose of the engine – jettisoned most of its parts list along both sides of the rails. The convertible ragtop was the least prepared to endure the collision, ripping clean off within seconds. By contrast, the 120-ton locomotive would require little more than a dab of paint.

Dozing passengers were abruptly wakened by the cacophony of the screeching brakes and crunching metal. They watched out the windows in horror as pieces of the auto flew off into the adjacent woods. Frantic 911 calls went out from dozens of cell phones. A few jaded commuters grumbled about yet another delay.

Within just ten minutes the first of more than 100 law enforcement personnel, firemen, ambulance crews and newscasters arrived on the scene. It was a toss-up as to whether officials from the NTSB and their tape-measures and clipboards would beat the injury lawyers to the crash site.

Next. Part Eight. Billy Rubin Visits the Crash Site.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

Three Hudson River mansions on Sage’s list – Olana, Clermont and Wilderstein – were in the can. Over two weekends, assisted by the chauffeur services of her father Cary, Sage had finished shooting photos of the first set of ten stately mansions for her school term project. Everything was on schedule.

As a teenager, Cary grew interested in photography and when he turned 17 he moved on from a cheap Kodak camera to his first SLR: a Mamiya-Sekor outfitted with a screw mount lens. With the help of a friend from school, Cary learned how to work black-and-white chemistry. Cary believed all the greatest photography ever produced was black-and-white. He shot so many images that he began rolling his own canisters from a bulk reel of Tri-X 400 ASA film. Like an anal-retentive accountant, Cary filed his negatives in a binder – each plastic page accompanied by an annotated contact sheet. He shot pictures at dusk and at dawn and during dark thunderstorms when the light was optimally ominous. He submitted his work to local contest and won a few “blue-ribbons” – not unlike his rural friends who snagged a similar accolade for showcasing a sheeny-coated heifer. Cary’s interest in photography continued unabated into adulthood; over the objections of his new wife Lee who wanted to finish the basement for a family room, Cary instead constructed a well-outfitted darkroom instead.

As a purist, Cary questioned the first generation of digital photography, uncertain whether it could ever rival the quality produced by film and wet chemicals. Deep down, he hoped digital would never surpass film, but as a student of science Cary suspected the technological hurdles were inevitably surmountable. When Sage was about seven, Cary succumbed and bought a digital camera, and no sooner had he popped it from the clam-shell packaging that he discovered the wonders of pixels. How liberating it was to take photos without having to consider whether a particular shot might be a waste of film. And the software that came with the camera enabled Cary to produce results that would have taken hours to achieve in his darkroom. He continued to do wet chemistry for a while – out of guilt perhaps for contemplating abandonment of a centuries-old process that had served so many so well – but within months, Cary dismantled the dark room and hired a contractor to build out the family room Lee wanted.

Cary’s experience with digital was so positive that he happily handed over the camera to Sage to mess around with. She took to photography wholeheartedly and quickly exhibited a flair for composition. Soon Sage was shooting hundreds of photos at a time, choosing interesting and sometimes challenging subjects, and often speaking of becoming a photo-journalist. She envisioned traveling to troubled and exotic parts of the world to capture images destined for publication in the pages of The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.

On this day, Sage and Cary were en route in Cary’s Saab 9000 to the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg, the fourth mansion on the list that also included the Vanderbilt and FDR estates in Hyde Park, Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, Boscobel in Garrison, J.D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, and Lyndhurst and Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, both in Tarrytown. To date, Sage felt her best work had been done at Olana, the home of Frederic Edwin Church, a leading artist of Hudson River School of landscape painting. Church owned a significant property offering panoramic views over the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Hills. Original plans to build a Victorian house on the summit gave way to a radical change after Church came back from an extended visit to the Middle East. Church was taken by the Moorish architecture and sought to incorporate it into the design of his future house, named Olana which in Arabic means “our place on high.” The plans for Olana came directly from Church who collaborated with famed Central Park architect, Calvert Vaux. Olana was visually stunning with its stylized windows, tessellating tile patterns, rich colors of green, brown, yellow, purple, ochre and salmon, and metallic adornments. Photographers and painters for decades found Olana a compelling subject, as did Sage.

In contrast, the Mills Mansion was a boxy example of Greek-revival architecture, conservative and staid when compared to the flamboyance and eccentricity of Olana. In a contrived TV commercial, Mills Mansion would be Microsoft and Olana would be Apple. As one of the lesser known estates along the Hudson, the Mills Mansion attracted few visitors, which made it much easier to do a timeless photo shoot, absent cars, landscape equipment, and obese tourists in shorts and fanny packs. Cary and Sage arrived at the site around 7:30 in the morning as Sage wanted to capture a westward view of the mansion overlooking the morning fog rising from the nearby Hudson River. She planned to shoot for about an hour, after which Cary would drive her to school. On this bright, crisp September morning, the Mills Mansion was extremely flattered by the rich sunlight streaking through century-old oaks and elms. The marble front looked the color of curry. It was as if the building were trying desperately to compete for Sage’s affection against its showy, up-river rival Olana. Sage took several dozen photos, each stored within a microscopic area of the camera’s memory card, from positions all around the building, wrapping up the shoot from a spot down by the edge of the Hudson.

Cary had already wandered down to the spot by the river’s edge. As a Pisces he possessed a mysterious life-long fascination with bodies of water drawing him to rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, ponds, canals. Water had a magnetic pull on Cary. Sometimes he’d loll for hours mesmerized by the seductive movement of windswept waves and wakes left behind boats like an event horizon. Sometimes when visiting sites along the Hudson Cary would remain long enough to observe the currents of the estuarial body of water change directions; logs and ice floes moving past south toward the Atlantic Ocean might reappear later propelled by the tide back north toward the Adirondack Mountains.

Sage sat down quietly to the right of and slightly behind Cary, out of his line of sight, trying not to interrupt his moment of solitude, but she startled him anyway.

“Oh! Hi, hon,” blurted Cary. “How did you make out? Did you get all the shots you wanted?”

“Yeah. I don’t like this building as much as the other ones though. It’s like, whoever made it didn’t wanted people to feel, y’know cozy or something. It kinda reminds me of where the president lives, y’know the capitol, or like the Lincoln Memorial.”

Cary was pretty sure Sage was smarter than she sounded. Her grades were solid enough, but he was convinced that standards had dropped precipitously since the days when he attended school. Sage was taking honors courses that seemed to Cary to be far less difficult than the bonehead regulars classes that members of the football team opted for a generation ago. Still, he had to admit that Sage was engaged in a fairly rigorous photo-essay project at the same age as Cary was when his assignment was to write a brief paper about the time community leaders in his hometown of Geneva, Ohio announced with great fanfare their so-called “Declaration of Lunar Ownership.” For some reason, the town elders had laid claim to the moon.

Cary could hear the groan of a tugboat engine growing louder, and soon he saw the prow of a barge emerge from behind a stand of trees on the river’s edge. The tugboat was pushing the barge upriver, the captain maneuvering the hulking steel block between buoys to remain within the narrow lane dredged from the relatively shallow Hudson. Cary wasn’t a nautical buff, but he found it relaxing and satisfying to watch big ships ply the river. Sage looked up from her camera and took notice of a hand on deck wearing a yellow slicker.

“I had a weird dream last night with this yellow man in it”, she said without looking at Cary. “I kept trying to go into some building and he wouldn’t let me. It was really weird.”

“Hmm. You mean he had yellow skin?”

“I think so, or maybe his clothes were yellow, I can’t remember exactly. He kept standing in front of the door and said I couldn’t go in. Not today anyway.”

“It probably means something,” Cary replied, assured that it didn’t mean a thing. “You know, maybe you want something but can’t get it. Like you’re searching for something. I’m always having dreams where I just can’t get someplace. I was walking and walking but never getting where I wanted to go.”

Sage’s cell phone started playing a tinny-sounding song, an alarm indicating the time was now 8:30. “Dad, can we go now? I really have to be in home room by quarter to nine, and I have a bunch of texts I didn’t even get to answer yet.”

“OK. OK. Jesus, text messages.” Cary stood up a bit too quickly and experienced an unsettling moment of vertigo. He noticed his back was wet from the dew on the grass. “I remember what a big deal it was when our grade-school teacher let us listen to the radio to hear a NASA liftoff, or the World Series,” Cary noted, recalling a time when World Series baseball games were played during the day. He struggled to imagine what it would have been like if every student possessed a wifi-connected device in the classroom – no one would have learned a damn thing, that’s for sure. And cheating? Forget about it.

Sage said nothing. She simply manipulated the small black cell-phone with her thumbs, both moving in a coordinated fashion as though she were playing an African kalimba. Sage was several steps ahead of Cary. The pair trudged up the hill, around the mansion, past the wheelchair access lift that kind of spoiled the front view, back to the Saab. Sage packed her camera case in the skimpy back seat along with the 12 pounds of books stuffed in her backpack.

Next. Part Seven. Amtrak 234 meets Cary Hayes.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Five. Meet Amtrak 234.

Amtrak train number 234 was finally ready to leave the Rhinecliff station at 8:31 – forty minutes late which meant it was right on schedule. A hybrid of public and private enterprise, Amtrak had suffered years of government neglect in the management of its budget coupled with an asinine business model that forced highly-profitable routes to subsidize losers that snaked through the empty states and districts of powerful, partisan Congressmen. The train could have left the station a few minutes earlier but one of the conductors had engaged in an argument with a New York City-bound passenger attempting to board with a cat. The cat was ensconced discretely in a carrying bag, the kind with a meshed side, but the conductor would have none of it. No animals allowed on board (except of course the venerable seeing-eye dog). Lengthening the delay, a fellow rider came to the defense of the cat owner and his contraband, but relented when the conductor threatened to bar her as well. After September 11, relenting was the only sensible choice when dealing with an official representative of the National Transportation complex. The woman figured there was no sense having her name etched onto a permanent terrorist watch list – suffering pat-downs and potential cavity searches henceforth – over the defense of a cat’s right to travel by rail.

With two blasts of the horn, Amtrak 234 pulled out of the station leaving behind another irate customer, this one with his cat in the bag, and his bag by the river. After departing Rhinecliff, the daily Amtrak 234 run continues non-stop along the east bank of the mighty and scenic Hudson River (if fallen trees, freight trains and bureaucracy stay out of its way) to New York’s Penn Station, traveling 100 miles in 100 minutes. For all of Amtrak’s aggravations, the region’s frequent commuters preferred riding a train to driving a car into the City. In fact, it was not unusual in times of inclement weather for a driver en route to New York City to advance perhaps 20 miles in that same 100 minutes. Once Amtrak trains get to Poughkeepsie they share the track with the Metropolitan Transit Authority which has priority, forcing Amtrak onto sidetracks whenever there is contention for the rails – but until then, Amtrak 234 would highball for the next 15 miles. The track courses through narrow lanes blasted out of ancient granite outcrops, and across causeways over tidal basins. It runs next to the former estates of Industrial Age barons and early 20th Century titans – Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morses, Roosevelts. Passengers sitting on the starboard side have excellent views of West Point and the Palisades, and may see a decommissioned lighthouse or the ruins of an island castle. If they knew when to look, passengers could catch a glimpse of Sing Sing prison. After Amtrak relocated its New York City terminal from the elegant Grand Central to the architectural abomination of Pennsylvania Station, trains crossed into Manhattan over the Spuyten Duyvil, a waterway separating it from the Bronx. Some people believed the name “Spuyten Duyvil” derived from the Dutch for “Devil’s Whirlpool” which certainly seemed reasonable, especially when the estuarial tides ebbed and flowed. Others believed the name came from a story by Washington Irving about a Dutchman who, during the British attack on New Amsterdam promised to swim through the turbulence “en spijt den Duyvil” – in spite of the Devil.

Amtrak 234 was moving at top speed as it roared through a rock cut, the Mills Mansion to the west, Dinsmore Golf Course to the East. The engineer knew he would likely be directed to slow or even stop south of Poughkeepsie in deference to the MTA trains sharing the tracks. And the incident with the cat owner had added to the delay accumulated since leaving Albany. Prior to reaching Poughkeepsie would offer the last opportunity to make up some lost time, so the engineer amped up the throttle – “balling the jack” in railroad parlance.

This stretch of track runs through a largely-uninhabited swath of publicly owned land. Most of the access roads to destinations hugging the banks of the Hudson pass over or under the tracks, but there was one narrow lane that snaked toward the Mills Mansion, crossing the tracks at grade, a simple sign stating “RR” planted at the intersection. Which was not entirely unusual; at the time, there were approximately 150,000 public grade railroad crossings in the United States, of which only 35,500 had gates and 25,000 had flashing lights. As for the number of wig-wags in place, the National Transportation Safety Board could only guess.

Next. Part Six. Sage Shoots Mills Mansion.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Four. Billy Acquires an Amazing Gift

As the assistant to Dinsmore Golf Course’s greenskeeper, Billy Rubin’s first job of the morning was to relocate the holes, a task that entailed traveling in a noisy John Deere utility vehicle around to each of the 18 greens and boring a new hole with a special auguring tool. But before Billy could begin his assignment he had to check the sheet indicating into which quadrant of the greens the new holes were to be bored. And before he could check the sheet, he had to consume the contents of a 24 ounce bottle of Olde English Malt.

As if performing a hair transplant operation, Billy would extract a six inch cylindrical core of closely-cropped grass and packed soil from the green, forming a new hole, and then he’d tamp it into the existing hole, capping it off. The boring action reminded Billy of pulling the cork on a bottle of wine, and that image got him thinking of drinking. Truthfully, it didn’t take much to get Billy thinking of drinking. From the moment he rose from the tilted army cot until he returned to the golf cart garage at night, Billy contemplated the circumstances by which he would imbibe his next drink.

Just as Billy was about to head out onto the course a foursome of golfers approached him. The first golfer, a chunky man with slick-backed hair the color of Cordovan, greeted Billy, remarking, “Hey, I haven’t seen you at the Beekman lately. Don’t you go out anymore?” He glanced toward his companions with an ever-so-sly grin. The golfer was referring to the Beekman Arms, a Federal style establishment located in the heart of Rhinebeck that billed itself as the “Oldest Inn in America.” The Beekman Arms bar certainly looked like it belonged in the oldest inn in America: poorly lit, dark wood, low ceilings and hand-hewn wide-board floors. Because of irregularities in the manufacture of the boards, women in high-heels could become temporarily shoeless after jamming two inches of spike into spaces between the boards. The anteroom of the bar boasted a huge fireplace.

Billy swallowed a burp before responding on his recent absence, “Uh, no, uh, I’ve been busy, y’know, working extra hours.” In fact, Billy had been barred from the Beekman Arms after throwing up in front of 20 tourists – “leaf-peepers” – from Kentucky who came to enjoy the fall foliage in the nearby Berkshire Mountains. As it happened, some mischievous Dinsmore golfers led by Cordovan-hair bought him innumerable rounds of incompatible spirits like Cognac, Sambuca and Limoncello which he used to wash down bowl after bowl of nuts and trail mix set out on the bar. Knowing he had gone beyond the point of no return, Billy wobbled toward the exit, getting as far as the roaring fireplace before puking a gusher. Some of the vomit splashed onto the Timberlands of a few shocked leaf-peepers. The rest of it puddled up on the hot stones of the fireplace where it began to sizzle like an omelet.

“I gotta get going fellas.”

“OK, Bill. You let us know if you want to go out sometime,” responded the golfer. A big grin split his face. “I’m buying.”

Billy set out in the John Deere for the 15th green, the farthest from the clubhouse. It is on this green that golfers seem to find themselves when a summer thunderstorm strikes – stranded the maximum distance from the parking lot. Today, however, there would be no storm; the skies were 9/11 crisp and clear. On days like this Billy would often recall a quite different day years prior when a vicious storm blew across the Catskill Mountains into the Hudson Valley. Billy was raking a sandtrap when he spotted the likes of Armageddon on the horizon. Just before bolting for the nearest shelter he felt his hair stand up, swelled with static electricity. Then Billy felt a violent jolt as though someone had struck the soles of his feet with a two-by-four. And not some economy-grade pine board from Home Depot, but a length of sturdy, unforgiving hardwood. A golfer and another greens-keeper died that day from the lightning strike, but Billy survived. He stood up shakily, a wisp of acrid smoke rising from his head.

He didn’t know it at the time but the immense power dissipated by that rogue bolt changed Billy in a most strange way. Shortly after his encounter with the lightning strike, Billy began to experience the ability – vaguely at first, stronger later – to visualize events happening despite his being nowhere near them as they unfolded. It was not déjà vu, nor did he have premonitions of the future. It was simply an ability to “see” current events as they happened to someone else, somewhere else, as though his brain were wired to a nearby surveillance camera. The first such occurrence came a few days after the lightning strike when a golfer reported to Billy that a twosome ahead of him had driven their golf cart across the third green. Billy responded that he had already reprimanded the offenders – two tattoed twenty-something punks in sneakers and cutoff jeans – although he could not explain how he knew what they had done. The third green was not visible from the greenskeeper’s garage. Nonetheless, Billy quite vividly “saw” it happen. The two punks at first denied driving across the green, then demanded to know how the fuck Billy could know it. As they tore out of the parking lot, Billy too wondered how the fuck he could know it.

Billy soon discovered that if he concentrated on a person or a place, he might be able to intrude like an invisible interloper, a fly on the wall, unable to affect anything but capable nonetheless to observe events. It was not a skill Billy tried to exploit and although he considered it a kind of gift, he was not always thrilled to possess the ability. Not all the visions were pleasant. One time, Billy “saw” a golfer taking a runny shit against a tree by the 17th tee. Another time he “saw” the grill room cook masturbating in the produce cooler, a porn magazine splayed open on a case of iceberg lettuce. After that nauseating vision, Billy refused to eat anything from the kitchen that came with mayonnaise.

Today, on this beautiful morning as Billy prepared to bore a new hole into the 15th green, a northbound Amtrak train running on tracks along the Hudson River just a few hundred yards from the golf course, blew its ear-splitting horn. Suddenly, compelled by the intrusion of the speeding train, Billy “saw” an Amtrak conductor arguing with a would-be passenger at the Rhinecliff Station, the next stop on the scheduled run from New York to Albany. Disinterested in becoming distracted with the vision, Billy promptly got back to the task at hand – boring a new hole for the 15th green just as a powerful urge to take a shit snuck up on him.

Next. Part Five. Meet Amtrak 234

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Three. Meet Billy Rubin.

Billy Rubin awoke groggily on a clear crisp summer morning following another fitful night sprawled out on an uncomfortable utilitarian army cot set between rows of motorized EZGO golf carts, each one tethered by a thick umbilical cord to an electric battery charging system. The front legs of the army cot were folded under, enabling Billy to sleep on a slant so the accumulated acid in his stomach would stay put for the evening. With a habit of drinking distilled spirits boasting proofs exceeding 100 – and doing so right up to the moment he crashed on the cot – Billy was a victim of acid reflux disease. Truthfully, it was more like a self-inflicted wound than a disease. After several disturbing incidents in which he involuntarily bolted upright out of a dead sleep caused by the rush of vomit up his esophagus – sometimes inhaling some of it his lungs – Billy decided he would no longer lay horizontally like a normal person.

For thirty years Billy had worked as the sole assistant to the greenskeeper at the Dinsmore Golf Course, a public state-run facility that was once the private property of three wealthy 19th Century Industrial Age families. Today Dinsmore attracted the once-in-a-while golfer – the kind who wears sneakers, backward-facing baseball caps and wife-beaters. Unlike at trophy courses in the Northeast such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Shinnecock where meticulous greenskeepers lovingly comb parallel swirls in the sandtraps, taking care of a course like Dinsmore mostly involved repair and preventative operations. Insufficient staff and budget ensured the course was less than immaculate. At several spots on the golf course red traffic cones sat in gaping woodchuck holes to warn against the accidentally severed Achilles tendon and prevent lawsuits against New York State.

Billy harbored no secret desire to tend a course that might have once hosted a US Open or a PGA championship, nor did he envy the uniformed crew-members riding state-of-the-art mowers down fabled fairways of golf’s major contests. He admired Dinsmore, the third-oldest golf course in America, because it presented a sense of what the sport was like at a time when golf clubs had fanciful names like mashie and niblick. When a 200 yard drive was exceptional. Well before the development of massive earth-moving equipment capable of reshaping the landscape to conform with an architect’s rendition of hills and swales. A century later Dinsmore remained anachronistically in total harmony with the land upon which it had been laid out.

Baruch Rubin was born in 1948 to elderly Jewish parents who in the autumn of life had given up hope of having children. The Rubin’s lived in the heart of the Borscht Belt – Fallsburg – not far from the Concord Hotel. Now a hollow shell waiting vainly for redemption through legalized casino gambling, looking for a savior in some never-before-heard-of Indian tribe, the Concord was in the 1950s a fabulous destination owned by a different kind of tribe that operated the resort for urban Jews who traveled the 90 miles from New York City to enjoy kosher food, fun-n-games and top name entertainment. Young Baruch and his parents accompanied by aunts and uncles and cousins would on special occasions spend a day at the Concord. The old ladies had their nails done while a Yiddish-speaking magician entertained them with sleight-of-hand. The old men played cards and smoked White Owls. Unsupervised, Baruch would wander from the main grounds and amble up the hill to visit the “Monster,” the resort’s championship golf course. The 7,650 yard course posed a devilish challenge of watery hazards, narrow fairways, and ancient trees that sent errant drives deep into the woods.

It was on one of these family outings that Baruch met up with Billy Casper who was putting on the Monster’s massive practice green. Casper had recently won the US Open that June at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck. Casper is a ghost to most golf fans born after 1980, but he enjoyed a top flight career, winning the US Open again in 1966 over Arnold Palmer in a playoff. He was getting ready to play in a charity golf event arranged by Jimmy Demaret, the golf pro at the Concord, and no slouch himself, having amassed a string of professional golf wins, including three Masters – a feat matched to this day by only a handful of players.

Baruch, a shy boy facing an imminent bar-mitzvah, mustered the courage to ask Casper for an autograph. Baruch didn’t think to bring something to autograph, so Casper reached for his wallet, pulled out a crisp $5 bill, and signed it warmly, “to Barook.” Right away, Baruch called himself “Billy,” and insisted everyobe around him do so as well. Billy Rubin admired the style of Casper and his contemporaries – Orville Moody, Gay Brewer, Miller Barber, and many others with first names no longer bestowed upon boys. They smoked on the course and drank deep into the evenings, grabbing a few hours of sleep prior to their morning tee times, sometimes half-running to the tee box following a cursory warm up. Some professional golfers even hung around for the weekend at the clubhouse bar if they missed the cut, something unheard of on today’s tour. As a flabby child unfit by the standards of the time to play the sports preferred by his peers, and having no Jewish athletes to idolize, Billy most closely identified with golfers of the sixties who spurned exercise and clean living.

Billy tried to take up the game of golf in his teens, found he lacked the fundamentals of that intricate, elusive motion called the “perfect golf swing”, and gave it up. He moved away from Fallsburg to pursue a degree at Ohio State University, arranged and paid for by his father who believed putting some distance between Billy and his insular Jewish community would broaden his opportunities. Other than acquiring a taste for pork and suffering some fraternity hazing, Billy’s opportunities did not broaden. By January that year, he was back in Fallsburg. Eager to earn some cash, Billy answered a classified ad seeking summer-only help maintaining the Concord’s 2,000 acres of property. After a few weeks of mowing the grass around the pool and shuffleboard courts, Billy was reassigned to work on the Monster. With time, he became friendly with the members and many of the hifalutin guests. He had his picture taken with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sam Snead, Machito and Tony Bennett. By the time he was posing with the likes of Burt Convy and Dick van Patten, the world had changed. It was now less expensive and time-consuming to fly to eternally sunny Orlando than it was to drive up potholed Route 17 to the graying, deteriorating Jewish Alps. The number of visitors to Monticello and surrounding communities plummeted, Monticello Raceway became a ghost town, and the Concord tightened its belt. Billy was laid off. He started to spend time at the Trotter Bar, becoming well-acquainted with such luminaries as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker. Soon he was sloughing off most of his unemployment check on booze, trodding a path toward out-and-out alcoholism.

In 1976, a childhood friend of Billy’s, Ehud Cohen, later known as Edward Cowan, died in Rhinebeck, NY – a tony village of antique shops and historic buildings. Billy and some of his remaining extended family traveled upstate to attend Cowan’s funeral. After the Catholic funeral ceremony – for Cowan had converted while living in Philadelphia – Billy read an ad in the paper looking for an assistant greenskeeper at Dinsmore Golf Course, a short drive from Rhinebeck and not out of the way on the trip back to Fallsburg. He stopped in, recited his credentials and won the position.

Next. Part Four. Billy Acquires an Amazing Gift

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Two. Cary Hayes has a dream.

Cary awoke from a sublimely realistic dream, encouraged that the images conjured within his broken brain might provide much-needed insight into that fateful day his normal life ended and the journey to Valhalla began. He wanted so badly to believe his dreams might unlock critical memories otherwise inaccessible to him when in a conscious state. Oh, how Cary hoped the dream, as realistic as the buzzing fluorescent light above his head he was forced to endure each day, could provide a clue to the provenance of the accident that had torn him asunder. Like all dreams, this one was particularly obtuse. Characters inhabiting the dream appeared to be composites of various people Cary knew from the distant past, including friends from high school and college he had not encountered for almost 30 years.

As if Lewis Carroll had scripted the dream, action jumped from place to place, starting with Cary and Sage ambling up broad, imposing steps hewn of white granite into what looked to be a museum or an embassy. The stately building was fabricated from dense, colorfully-veined stones cut from a rich quarry. Each massive block had been meticulously hand-cut and set closely against its neighbors such that not even a razor blade could be forced into the seams between any two. The weather in the dream was crisp and clear. Once inside the building Cary and Sage stood in a grand entry foyer, gawking at the high ceiling and the walls of deeply-burnished wood. Colorful tapestries hung from ceiling to floor.

Dozens of passageways led off in all directions from the foyer to other rooms which in turn led to hundreds of others. It was as though the building contained an infinity of duplicates of itself, like a Beaux-Arts Mandelbrot Set. After wandering for some time from room to room, Cary and Sage exited the building through a door marked with the number 540. After passing through the door, father and daughter stood among strangers in an elevator car that moved briskly in both vertical and horizontal directions, switching abruptly between the two vectors. When the elevator doors finally parted, Cary, alone, walked out onto a vast expanse of lush green lawn and looked up at a crystal-clear azure sky like that on September 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001. Aka. Nine-eleven. Cary was in a conference room that day discussing a new product with far-flung business colleagues, some occupying conference rooms in other cities, some “flex-working” at home, multitasking between email and eBay. A half-hour into the call someone on the phone interrupted to report a breaking news item about a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York City. Certainly a small, private plane, reported the confident TV newscaster, aware that a collision by a commercial airliner was all but impossible in a jet-age of computer-instructed aircraft. After all, as the government desperately argued later, no one had ever imagined that fanatic suicidal hijackers would purposely fly a plane into a building. Cary watched the stunning news unfold on a TV monitor in his company’s lunchroom, struggling to parse the image of a single, smoldering World Trade Center tower following the demise of the fatally-gashed South Tower. It was as if the lone North Tower were a Siamese twin who knows his own death is imminent because the sibling to whom he’s been tethered since birth has just passed away. For all of 28 minutes and 31 seconds, the world looked upon not the Twin Towers, but a single structure, once denounced as an architectural outrage, but now seen as a noble, mortally-wounded warrior fighting to stay erect as long as possible so its thousands of occupants – the charges entrusted to it – might escape a horrid death.

Cary had never previously analyzed his dreams in order to unshroud mystery or peer into a possible future, but in his current condition he was desperate to receive some form of revelation. On the strength of the unusual dream Cary allowed himself to be convinced that whatever incident had consigned him to a hospital bed had happened on a sunny, late-summer day. Maybe even on another September 11.

Thirteen year-old Sage visited her father a few times a week after school and sometimes on the weekends, describing to him what she had learned in Oceanography or Biodiversity or some other course of study that didn’t exist when Cary went to school. Sometimes Cary’s precocious daughter would sit for hours interacting with her iMac laptop or texting friends on her impossibly thin iPhone. Cary wondered whether the name of every device Sage owned started with an “i” – and if he still had legs, he would kick himself for not having invested in Apple when they were at rock bottom before catapulting to one of the world’s most valuable companies. Watching his daughter fiddle with the devices, Cary started to question whether these fantastic technologies that enabled everyone to join in on a vast, virtual social network might instead encourage isolation. An isolation that would only further the need to immerse oneself in the network. People seemed lonelier, and compensated for it by sinking deeper into virtual reality.

On her visit today – the day after Cary experienced his dream – Sage seemed to be in a more serious mood than in visits past. She had not brought along the laptop or the iPhone. Instead, she spoke directly to Cary as though she believed he could really process information. Sage noted that after six months since her father’s accident, she wanted now to move ahead and complete the photo-essay project for school that had been interrupted that fateful day. Sage recalled for Cary that her assignment involved shooting photos of all the major mansions along the Hudson River, adding that she felt ready now to go back again to the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg to retake the shots that were lost in the accident which destroyed her camera and practically every moving part of Cary’s Saab. The car was broken into a million pieces, she said, adding that no one at the time believed a human being could survive such a horrific accident. How strange it seemed to Sage that she escaped the accident with just a few bruises while Cary had wound up legless and in locked in a coma. “I know you’re going to wake up someday soon, Dad, I’m sure of it. And you’re gonna drive again, too. We’ll get you a car with a special steering wheel.”

Cary was overwhelmed by the revelation of the circumstances, at last, of how he had gotten here. He was satisfied to finally grasp a thread of information: an automobile accident made sense, although Cary did not remember being at the Mills Mansion. Soon Cary’s thoughts moved on to the reality that precious Sage had been involved with him in a terrible accident. He was troubled that the violence of it all would have a lasting effect on Sage, but ultimately Cary was relieved daily knowing she was healthy and in one piece.

Cary was consoled to have learned to some degree the provenance of the events that led to his fateful condition. He didn’t yet know the answer to the haunting question, “why me?” – but for now, he felt oddly relieved.

Next. Part Three. Meet Billy Rubin.

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Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part One. Meet Cary Hayes.

Cary Hayes was having difficulty recalling some basic facts – where he was, how he got there, how long he had been there, why he couldn’t move or speak. The last thing he remembered was – nothing. It was as if he had awoken from a dreamless slumber of unknown duration to find himself completely incapacitated. Cary had seen enough movies and TV shows depicting the fates of comatose accident victims to surmise he might be one himself, but with one astonishing twist: although everyone around him – doctors, nurses, orderlies, family, friends, colleagues – believed he was permanently lost to unconsciousness, he could in fact hear and understand everything anyone said, and see any gesture they made whenever they moved close to the hospital bed, and stepped within range of his vision. He decided he was paralyzed and not constrained by straps and pharmaceuticals. He was utterly incapable of ordering the movement of any part of his body. The people who came to the hospital to visit him, and those who checked the tubes threaded down his throat, and those who wiped away all the leaky bodily fluids – each person who came in contact with Cary simply did not seem to know he was completely aware of things happening around him. It was though he had been reduced to a machine limited to processing inputs, incapable of producing outputs, like a black box on a computer flowchart diagram with no arrows pointing out from it.

He couldn’t see himself of course, but Cary had a pretty good idea of how bad he must look, how severely injured he had become. Several times in the course of each day, hospital staff would enter his room, which he learned was in a place called the neuro intensive care unit – NICU – to do maintenance on all the new extensions affixed to Cary’s broken body. He heard them speak of IVs and ventilator tubes, catheters and something called an NG tube, essentially a conduit for food to keep the shell of Cary alive. In his extreme peripheral vision, he could make out a bundle of wires that presumably were part of the “telemetry system” mentioned by someone who looked like a doctor. One day, an solitary orderly complained to no one in particular about having to once-again change the dressings on the stumps where Cary’s legs used to be. Jesus God! I have no legs? Until hearing this horrid news Cary had remained optimistic that his paralysis might be some kind of temporary affliction, perhaps triggered by an infection or the ingestion of a rare poison that might one day be reversed. Now he feared recovery as much as he feared remaining paralyzed.

Years earlier, Cary had been disgusted with Congressional intrusion into the sorry case of Terri Schiavo, a comatose Florida woman whose husband Michael wanted to remove her feeding tube. Michael insisted Terri had often stated her desire to be spared the grim existence of a comatose patient should she ever fall into such a state. Congress arrogantly disagreed and tried to pass laws to intervene. Certain Senators somehow knew by osmosis that Terri Schiavo had retained the capacity to understand the events around her. That Terri the apparent vegetable was in fact sentient, as was so clear from her wandering eyes. At the time, Cary found the intrusion unseemly and decidedly unscientific, but as he lay in the hospital bed he wasn’t so sure these self-righteous politicians had been wrong about her cognitive state. And because of that Cary harbored even greater disdain for them now. It was one thing to force-feed a brain-dead entity – it was quite another to punish a sentient human being by prolonging solitary confinement within her crumpled body. Cary often wished someone – a member of his family, a rogue orderly, a careless child – to pull the plug on him like they finally did for Terri.

Several days had transpired since Cary “awoke” before he finally learned to which hospital he had been incarcerated. A nurse inspecting the NG tube leaned in close enough for Cary to read his badge, which was embossed with the name of the town in which the medical center was located: Valhalla, NY. Cary knew that the original Valhalla was the “Valley of the Slain” in Norse mythology, the home for Vikings gloriously killed in battle. Cary wondered whether – indeed hoped – that he had performed some glorious act prior to winding up a vegetable; before his body was slain in a battle the particulars of which were still unknown to him.

Cary’s wife Lee, accompanied by their only daughter Sage made the hour-long drive almost every day to Westchester Medical Center from their home in Dutchess County near the Taconic Parkway. Reviled by architects and aesthetes as “McMansions,” the large, tidy houses flanking the Taconic in the southern reaches of the county were in high demand from people who worked in Westchester and New York City. Some chose Dutchess County because they could not afford to live farther downstate; others resided there for the Currier & Ives charm and horsy snobbery. During those weeks (months?) Cary was totally unconscious he assumed Lee and Sage had wrung out the shock, grief and anguish that would have initially followed his predicament. Now that he could hear them, his family’s conversations seemed fairly normal and innocuous. They never cried over his pitiable condition, nor did they express emotions befitting a tragedy befallen a loved one. Cary concluded they had participated in “Grief Counseling 101″ and had followed the hospital psychologist’s guidance on how to act and speak in his presence. Lee talked to him matter-of-factly about the kind of day she had, and of her plans for the rest of the week. She complained of the high prices at the market, and seethed at the nagging incompetence of the claims Nazis at the insurance company. Lee remarked often of the hair-raising traffic conditions on the Taconic. From experience, Cary knew the Taconic Parkway was particularly treacherous south of the junction with Interstate 84 where lanes converged, north- and south-bound divided by little more than a low-slung guard rail. None other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, chairman of the Taconic State Park Commission in the 1920’s insisted that bridges on the Taconic be narrow and rustic in nature, and that interchanges be tightly configured. Many of the 86,400 seconds of each of Cary’s days were consumed fretting that Lee and Sage might one day end up like him should they suffer a nasty encounter with a jagged rock outcropping.

When she visited Cary, Lee brought along her iPod loaded with what she thought were Cary’s favorite albums. Playing familiar music for her husband was part of the therapy recommended by hospital staff. Lee made a list of dozens of albums that she asked Sage to download. The albums in Cary’s collection were vinyl LPs unsuitable for transfer to iPod, and besides, most of Cary’s records were too warped from having been warehoused in the hot attic for decades. Like too many middle-aged people Cary had drifted away from the music he cherished as a young man, never bothering to replace his record collection with CDs. Later, in his thirties, Cary started to listen to opera – in part to appear more musically sophisticated to his older business associates. He spent thousands to build up his collection starting with basics such as Cosi Fan Tuti, Pagliacci, Il Barbieri di Sevilla, La Boheme, moving on later to less well-known works like La Wally and Mitridate Eupatore. Cary was particularly fond of Wagner, especially Die Walküre and its intense “The Ride of the Valkyries,” recognizable to many as the song accompanying the helicopter raid in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” Just as William Tell’s “Overture” conjures up images of the Lone Ranger, “The Ride of the Valkyries” recalls the insect-like helicopters strafing a Vietnamese village situated on the Mekong Delta. From reading the libretto of Die Walküre Cary discovered the Valkyries were women warriors of Norse legend whose name means “Chooser of the Slain.” The slain heroes who qualified to go to Valhalla.

But now, lying in bed smelling the stink of his own bed-sores, the memory of stuffy opera reminded Cary just how much he missed the music of his youth – indeed how much he missed everything about his youth. And once he went down the rat hole of complete and total self-pity, Cary missed everything. He missed the feisty working meetings with his business colleagues and the partying that followed in the evenings. He missed traveling the country to engage clients at huge corporate events, shmoozing with hundreds of people. And the solitary trips he took to the edge of the Hudson River to watch barges negotiate the channel and jet-skiers scar the water’s surface. He missed being intimate with Lee. Lee…

He was sure his wife, if she hadn’t already, would soon find a male companion to fulfill her desires. Fulfill. Her desires. A companion. Her desires. Lee.

Sadness descended upon Cary like a miasma, and he drifted fitfully to sleep.

Next. Part Two. Cary Hayes has a dream.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Plutocrats

PlutocracyEvery two years the people who run the vast Andrew Carnegie trust fund bestow the “Medal of Philanthropy” upon a handful of worthies, most recently last week at a hifalutin ceremony in Scotland.

According to the website “The Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy was inaugurated on December 10, 2001, by more than 20 of the institutions Mr. Carnegie established all over the world during his lifetime. This award, created at the centennial observance of Andrew Carnegie’s official career as a philanthropist, is given every two years to one or more individuals who, like Andrew Carnegie, have dedicated their private wealth to public good, and who have sustained impressive careers as philanthropists.”

The 2013 winners are

- Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science Community Development and one of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women
- Sir Tom Hunter, the British entrepreneur whom the Sunday Times called Scotland’s first home-grown billionaire
- Dr James Harris Simons – along with his wife, economist Dr Marilyn Simons – the American mathematician who founded one of the world’s most successful hedge fund companies
- Dr Dmitry Zimin, the co-founder of the second-largest telecom business in Russia
- Dame Janet Frances Wolfson de Botton CBE on behalf of the Wolfson family, founders of the Wolfson Foundation.

Royalty, hedge funds, billionaires, corporate behemoths. Regular people – regardless of their devotion of sacrifice – need not apply. Clearly, winning the Medal of Philanthropy depends on the size of one’s wallet. Not that there’s anything wrong with disgorging millions of dollars to help the less-fortunate, but I would say that the tax benefits should suffice as the reward for philanthropy. Accepting a prize for sloughing off a chunk of money that constitutes an accountant’s rounding error seems a bit gauche.

Consider Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, former Emir of Qatar. After marrying into a royal family that lords over a spit of land that sits atop an ocean of crude oil, the Sheikha became an instant steward over a petro-fortune. A survey of her work indicates many worthy causes like UNESCO, but let’s face it – having access to a few spare billions to throw around smooths the path to the Medal of Philanthropy. In addition to being lauded by Forbes , the Sheikha is fawned over by the editors at Vogue for her good taste in haut couture (you know, designer outfits that cost upwards of $20,000 – also known as the equivalent of a combined year’s salary of five average Qataris.)

What about His Highness the Aga Khan who received the Medal in 2005 for just continuing the philanthropic work started by his ancestors in the 19th Century. The philanthropy’s mission is to improve living conditions and opportunities in poor regions of the developing world, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia and the Middle East – very admirable. What is left unsaid is that the philanthropy is funded by His Highness’s followers who pay a tithe to the foundation. According to a New York Times interview, “Part of the Aga Khan’s personal wealth used by him and his family, which his advisers say exceeds $1 billion, comes from a dizzyingly complex system of tithes that some of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims pay him each year.” I wonder if any of those 15 million generous souls were invited to the festive Medal ceremony. By the way, the busy Aga Khan owns hundreds of racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a private island in the Bahamas, two Bombardier jets, a high speed yacht, and several estates around the world, including a beauty in the north of Paris. (Makes me wonder if self-Philanthropy should become a new category of medal. The Kahn-man would be a shoe-in.)

OK, one more. Sandy Weill, another 2013 recipient of the Medal. The name isn’t exactly household, but anyone who follows finance a little bit knows that Sanford Weill engineered the merger of Citicorp, Travelers Insurance, and Smith-Barney in 1998 after Congress blew apart the Glass-Steagall Act which was put in place during the Depression to address foundational issues that contributed to bank failures – mainly, it ended unholy alliances between staid commercial banks and investment firms. With Glass-Steagall shattered thanks to intensive lobbying and campaign contributing by people like Weill, the rich got richer and the shlubs took it in the ass when the economy collapsed because banks got “too big to fail.” So, Weill helped dismantle a financial safety switch and got rich enough to win the Medal of Philanthropy. And then had the gall years later, after cashing in, to denounce the whole movement. He told CNBC, “What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail.”

Sandy Weill winner of the Medal of Philanthropy, and on the short-list for the Halo of Hypocrites award.

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Read this Book, for Christ Sake

zealotI recently finished Reza Aslan’s thoroughly fascinating and well-researched “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” a study not of Jesus Christ the “Son of God,” but an analysis of the life and times of an obscure man who was a run-of-the-mill religious rabble-rouser who, through the works of others who wrote long after he died, came to be the foundation of the world’s largest faith. Aslan approaches his subject from the point of view of an historian, not a theologian – yet he’s not out to trash debunkable biblical claims, but to explain Jesus in context of his times in a period of apocalyptic mania.

As many people know, the Romans in the century before and after the birth of Jesus had their hands full trying to maintain hegemony over the Jews of the Middle East, and often turned to a common method of subjugation: co-opting a leader of the subjugated to rule as a puppet over them. Such puppets were rewarded for their fealty, but inevitably came to be despised as much if not more than the Romans themselves. Members of various Jewish sects took a hard-line (and invariably futile) approach against both Romans and their puppets, arguing that neither had a right to lord over the faithful. Such recalcitrants were known as “zealots,” such was their zeal to seek purity in religious practice. Jesus of Nazareth was one such zealot.

Again, the common perception of Jesus today is that of a gentle man – a shepard? – who cured lepers, conjured up loaves and fishes, and reattached the severed ear of a Roman soldier. A man of peace. But Aslan opens his book with an appropriate quote from the Gospel of Matthew (10:34): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” Jesus was a sincerely provocative character who challenged the rule of the Romans and held even greater contempt for the Jewish puppet-leaders (Caiaphas and his minions) who abrogated the commandments of the Torah for personal gain. The evidence indicates that Jesus sought to build a following that would rise up and demolish the vain occupiers of the Temple; he did not pretend to be the messiah. He certainly did not suggest he was God, or the Son of God – no observant Jew would ever make such a blasphemous claim.

Aslan points to many instances of revisionism after the death of Jesus designed to make a case that he was the prophesized messiah (Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem for a census which never took place, Jesus wandering in Egypt – these stories are invented to help fulfill prior prophecies), and dives deeply into the doings of Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) who underwent a conversion and became the chief proponent that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. The story of how Christianity sprung forth with tenets in such opposition of what Jesus practiced is astonishing. In short, Paul preached at a time when Judaism was essentially a pariah religion with no standing in the Roman empire, so he had to appeal to Jews willing to abandon Jewish tenets, and to Gentiles looking for a palatable faith.

Although I slogged through many years in Catholic schools, reading Gospels, reciting Beatitudes, memorizing Scripture, I learned more about Jesus of Nazareth in the few hours reading “Zealot.” Highly suggested.

And speaking of Lesus – I mean, Jesus . . .
From the October 11, 2013 issue of the New York Times: “Coins Celebrating Pope Misspell Name Above All Names”

ROME — It seems absurd that any official Vatican memorabilia would misspell the name Jesus. Or that the Italian institute that mints coins, passports and postage stamps would make such an error. And yet the fact remains: a new series of special commemorative coins honoring Pope Francis got it wrong. They call him Lesus. “Everybody makes mistakes,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, on Friday. “Even people who make coins.”
The Vatican confirmed on Friday that it had withdrawn 6,000 coins commemorating Pope Francis’ first year in the papacy. The coins had already been distributed to retailers when it was discovered that “Jesus” had been rendered as “Lesus” on a Latin phrase engraved around the edge of the coin.
The Vatican has not decided whether to mint new coins, but if it does, the value of the flawed versions could skyrocket for collectors, experts said. The bronze medals were briefly sold for 80 euros each, or $108; the silver ones for about $135; and the gold for $203.
“Regardless of what the Vatican decides to do now, it’s an interesting purchase for a collector,” Francesco Santarossa, owner of a numismatic and philatelic shop near St. Peter’s Square in Rome, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think they ever made such a mistake in the 600-year-long history of papal medals.”

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What happens in Woodstock … doesn’t actually happen in Woodstock

Picture2The original Woodstock music festival – Three Days of Peace and Music (and rain and mud and gate-crashing) – took place in the summer of 1969 on a farm owned by Max Yasgur in Bethel, NY, about 60 miles from the village of Woodstock, the famous art colony nestled in bucolic Catskill Mountains. Thousands of concert-goers from around the country took the NYS Thruway to exit 19 in Kingston only to be scolded by weary toll-takers that they were logistically misinformed. “Yes, it’s the Woodstock concert … yes, this is the exit for Woodstock … yes, you need to turn your ass around and go to Bethel. That’ll be $1.40.” I find it amazing that even today it is not uncommon to encounter people who are flummoxed upon learning that Woodstock the festival did not take place in Woodstock the village.

When Michael Lang, one of the original organizers of Woodstock decided to produce another massive outdoor happening for the 25th anniversary in 1994, he hyped it as Woodstock: 2 More Days of Peace and Music, and located it on another farm, the Winston Farm in Saugerties, NY. Luckily this time the vast majority of revelers got the memo and arrived at the correct location. And yes, there was rain and mud and rampant gate-crashing. Lang put on one more Woodstock redux in 1999 and foolishly located it on a retired Air Force Base in Rome, NY where crappy conditions led to concert-goer dissatisfaction, and a few retaliatory fires set by the most disgruntled among them.

Now, consider this: twice a year, hundreds of artisans and crafts makers show their wares at the Woodstock Arts and Crafts Fair. This takes place in New Paltz, NY, about 30 miles from Woodstock.

And a few days ago, I read this story in the Wall Street Journal In Woodstock, It’ll Soon Be Easier to Tune In. The story reports on a recent announcement by Paul Green, a musician who developed the “School of Rock” and was the inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the movie of the same name. According to the article: “The combination of studios, musicians and the legacy here is second to none,” said Green, who’s opened 57 rock schools across the country and in Mexico. One of the men responsible for that legacy is Green’s partner in what will be called the Woodstock Music Academy, Michael Lang, who produced the original 1969 Woodstock festival.

The story continues: “Like other Schools of Rock, the Woodstock Music Academy, which opened in September, will teach students about various aspects of music, from performance to the business. But the primary focus will be on recording in some of the world-class studios in the woodsy Woodstock area.”

Note the use of the phrase “the woodsy Woodstock area.” Alas, Green’s Woodstock Music Academy is located not in Woodstock, but in nearby Saugerties. Obviously, the “Woodstock” brand connotes value which explains its ubiquitous attachment to all things artsy craftsy. Presumably it’s the same mentality that compels the Jets and Giants football franchises to cling to the “New York” appellation even though they embarrass themselves in New Jersey.

What’s next? Woodstock India Pale Ale – proudly brewed in Milwaukee ?

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Women in High-Tech – Take a Lesson from “Double Blind Test”

twitdbtThis headline about the imminent IPO of Twitter in today’s business section of the New York Times caught my attention: Curtain is Rising on a Tech Premiere With (As Usual) a Mostly Male Cast. The lead graf of the article complains of a common pattern in Silicon Valley. “Twitter’s financial filing for its Wall Street debut was chock-full of juicy tidbits, from the name of its richest founder to a list of its escalating losses. But one revelation was particularly startling: Just a single woman among its top officials. The board? All white men. The investors? All men. The executive officers? All men but for the general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, who has had the job for five weeks.”

The situation at Twitter is sadly the same as it is at NanoNano, a fictional high-tech firm run by a young Stanford grad and a son of privilege in my third novel “Double Blind Test.” The protagonist of the novel is Tracy Shepard, a 40-something entrepreneur who runs her own elite mediation firm. After being taken in a complex confidence scheme, and believing there is a possible connection to people working at NanoNano, Tracy gets herself invited to an IPO-celebration dinner with the company’s CEO, Matt Blankenshein and a number of his top executives.

From the 2009 novel: “Dressed in a colorful Missoni wrap outfit and a stylish pair of Cesare Paciottis with chunky, bright yellow heels, Tracy sat on Matt Blankenschein’s right at a large, round table accompanied by six other senior members of NanoNano and their wives and girlfriends. She noted that only one woman – Marilyn Jenkins, the VP of Human Relations (once known quaintly as “Personnel”) – occupied a position of authority in NanoNano. Tracy concluded that NanoNano was run like a Stanford/CalTech frat-boy operation. Wearing a big-shouldered John Varvatos jacket and True Religion jeans, Matt reminded Tracy of the archetypal spoiled rich brat – his father had founded a company that was later acquired for big bucks by Intel in the mid 1980s just as the chip company was introducing its successful 80386 microprocessor – who stumbles blissfully through life protected by an armada of guardian angels.”

Tracy sees the gender situation at NanoNano as an opportunistic springboard from which to dive deeper into the resolution of her predicament, calling out the inequity to Matt and encouraging him to fix it – thus rewarding Marilyn and encouraging her to assist in the take-down of the con-men.

Tracy tells Matt later on, “Your exec team is entirely male. NanoNano seems to be run by your fraternity brothers – at least that’s the view from the outside. That’s not going to work well for you, especially when you try to branch into female-oriented market segments. Y’know, cosmetics for example.” From reading about nanotechnology Tracy learned that such exotic components as synthetic polymers and colloids stood to revolutionize the cosmetics industry. “The easiest move to make, Matt, is to elevate one of your female execs to a position of higher responsibility. It’ll inspire your lower level employees, and takes no more effort than simply redrawing the org chart.” Tracy brought up the subject of female advancement in NanoNano because she expected Marilyn to demand something for her compliance with Tracy’s soon-to-be-revealed cover-up plan.” Tracy chuckled to herself . . . one of your female execs? There’s only one!

(Suffice to say Tracy enlists the help of Marilyn, but as often with the best laid plans, things take unexpected turns. Read the book to learn the nefarious set up and exciting conclusion.)

I suspect the Twitter culture at the top is not much different from the fictional NanoNano. Perhaps some wily women working for the juggernautic microblog site will construct a way to exploit the inequities at the top of Twitter and figuratively squeeze some testicles to break the glass ceiling there. I certainly hope so – my guess is that a service like Twitter needs the feminine touch post-IPO to avoid becoming nothing more than a cesspool of intrusive ads, useless trivia, corporate horn-blowing, and hateful commentary.

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“Nooz Loops” – Sugary taste, no nutritional value

A joke: Two morons (sidebar – it used to be OK to use an ethnic slur here, but those days are gone) are watching a breaking news report on television. It seems a desperate man is poised to jump off a bridge, ready to commit suicide. From the land, sea and air, cameras are trained on the man of the moment. Newscasters breathlessly report every miniscule piece of trivia as it comes in, often repeating themselves when the flow of new info dries up temporarily. One moron says to the other, “I bet you $100 he jumps off the bridge.” The other one takes the bet, and the two go back to ogling the TV set. Minutes later the guy on the bridge does a swan dive toward the icy waters below, only to crash onto the rocks instead – all of the gore and splatter caught on helicopter-cam. The second moron pulls out his wallet in preparation to part with a c-note when the first moron intervenes, “I can’t take your money in good conscience . . . I saw this news clip earlier and I already knew he was going to jump.” To which the second moron replies, “Yeah, I saw the clip too . . . but I never thought he’d jump again.”

This afternoon I walked into a bar (no, this is not another joke, although I did spot two morons) and there on a massive HDTV screen was a CNN breaking news alert about a shooting in Washington, DC just a stone’s throw from the White House and the Capitol – bastions of ineptitude and constructors of the so-called “government shutdown” which, according to the text crawls along the bottom of the screen, may have motivated the violence. As Wolf (the Shitz) Blitzer and his CNN colleagues filled dead air time with repetitive reporting on the incident, the background video kept rolling and rolling in perpetuity: a bland scene of about 1,000 cops and firefighters milling around an abandoned police vehicle. The implication: a crazy bastard upset with the shutdown was on the hunt to bag a senator or congressman. What a story – and the Shitzer kept pimping it.

Then, CNN put up a brand new video (attributed to Alhurra TV out of Iraq (!)) of the following sequence: a car is blocked in against pylons by a few squad cars, heavily armed dudes encircle the offending vehicle, the driver of the car maneuvers out of the tight jam (why didn’t anyone shoot out the tires?), and heads down Pennsylvania Avenue chased by a dozen cop cars – stopping to take a tour of a roundabout before hightailing it a few more blocks. Exciting stuff – even after four or five views. After that, give it a rest CNN.

CNN must think its viewers, like our morons in the joke, will watch raptly as the same scene plays over and over, deluded that one time the outcome will be different. There’s a diagnosis for such behavior – it’s called insanity.

Eventually, CNN’s juicy narrative of a disgruntled American psycho driven to violence by the government shutdown morphed into what seemed to be a women who may have parked illegally in the cordoned-off recesses of inoperative DC , then was surrounded by Kevlar-shrouded men bearing arms, who then panicked and bolted the scene. She had a toddler in the car with her at the time which kind of eliminates the Timothy McVeigh angle. But who knows. Maybe if you watch it 1,000 times Godzilla will eventually emerge from the car and breathe fire upon the National Guard.

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The Roman Conflicted Church

With so many issues conflicting the psyche of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Gay marriage, ordination of women, priests taking spouses, contraception, stem cell research, beatification of anti-Semitic popes), it’s comforting to know there is a haven where the faithful can take placid redoubt: the Bingo Hall. A humble place where countless blue-haired octogenarians sit before ten or more Bingo cards, thick daubers in each hand, ready to mash marks onto the spaces called out in monotone – I19…Bueller? Bueller?…I19 – by a VFW-regular pulling numbered balls from a cylindrical cage.

A sampling around cyberspace suggests the venerable game of chance is alive and well in church halls across the fruited plain.

St John Catholic Church hosts Bingo every Tuesday night at 6:30pm at the Parish Hall to raise funds to benefit St John Catholic School. WE ARE NON SMOKING.

Good Shepherd Catholic Church bingo was established as a way to supplement the income gained through Church collections, bequests, and other donations. Our bingos are only successful through the generosity of our parishioners who freely donate their time and ability.

Long before the Valley began blowing its collective wad out on the reservations, bingo was king. While some might call it a quaint throwback, a few local venues still offer up the old-school game of chance, with St. Daniel’s Catholic Church being the best. This Scottsdale house of worship, which offers games at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays, offers jackpots ranging from $48 to $1,000, with more than 100 players turning out.

St. John The Baptist is a large Catholic church that offers bible study, services Sunday through Wednesday, a private school covering Pre-K through middle school, youth ministry and services in Spanish. The church also houses a gift shop and holds a bingo night for its members.

Hell – oops, I mean, Heck . . . even Gamespot has a section on their website devoted to Church Bingo.

Then – Uh Oh – I read this headline in the New York Times a few days ago:

As Casino Vote Nears, Bishops Warn of Social Risks

What the fu – uh, what in tarnation is this about?

According to the article , “With a little more than five weeks until voters decide whether to authorize up to seven full-scale casinos around New York, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops on Sunday warned of social problems linked with gambling.” It went on: “As pastors and as citizens, we call on all voters to very carefully consider this measure and all of its potential implications,” said the statement by the New York State Catholic Conference, which is led by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York. The seven-paragraph statement, echoing previous statements by the bishops said that the “the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement,” and associated gambling with embezzlement, drunken driving and personal bankruptcies, as well as “catastrophic losses” to individual gamblers.”

Cardinal Tim may be correct in his assessment of the evils of gambling. He didn’t mention it, but the panacea of gambling’s benefits to the communities in which it is installed can be elusive as well (just stroll the creepy dark streets of Atlantic City, or visit decayed Verona, a stone’s throw from Turning Stone Casino in Upstate New York, or walk the seedy sidewalks of Las Vegas north of Sahara Avenue.)

Still, for the towns and villages in New York State that are suffering from economic catastrophe, places like the Catskills Borsht Belt region, the isolated Southern Tier, and the Capital Region where manufacturing fled decades ago, it’s hard to accept the counsel of gaming-abstinence from a Catholic Church which hypes Bingo and other assorted “Las Vegas-style” games while paying nary a cent of property taxes to the communities in which their parishes derive municipal benefits.

I say to the Catholic Church – let the decimated communities of New York State have a modest shot of redemption through casino gambling, and in return, I call upon the powers that be in New York State government to issue special instant scratch-off tickets that the Church can sell in confessionals in lieu of meting out the standard “3-Hail-Mary” penance. “Win for Eternity” perhaps?

Hey . . . you never know.

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Ghastly Casting

If the “Howard the Duck Award for Biggest Flop” existed, the odds-on favorite for 2013 would be “The Lone Ranger,” an overly-long, too-violent, ill-conceived tale based on the television show that ran from 1949 to 1957. When I first heard that Walt Disney Pictures was planning to produce the film, I concluded Hollywood was about to develop yet another lazy franchise built on familiar characters in an established story-line. Then it occurred to me that the only people who might relate to The Lone Ranger and his subservient sidekick Tonto would be septuagenarians who watched the show more than half a century ago, i.e. a generation of viewers that tends to avoid the Cineplex. Apparently Walt Disney was expecting teenagers to get excited about a pair of largely unknown Western heroes, a delusion that probably explains the floppiness of the project.

In addition to the movie’s flaws I found the casting of Johnny Depp as the Comanche Tonto both curious and somewhat insulting. I recognize that (up to now) attaching Depp to any project was seen as a sure-fire way to attract audience, but why pass over talented Native American actors who would bring greater credibility to the role – and who undoubtedly would appreciate the work.

Hollywood’s heritage is replete with Caucasian actors playing non-white characters, and the result is usually laughable. Below is a sampling of some of the best ghastly casting.

Mickey Rooney: turning Japanese (I really think so)

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” centers on the hijinks of the free-living and unpredictable call-girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) as she hosts wild parties in her Manhattan walk-up. An expendable character in the film is Holly’s upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yonioshi who takes frequent umbrage at her all-night antics. Wearing preposterous prosthetic buck-teeth while he stumbles about screaming “Miss-a Go-right-ree!” is Mickey Rooney who played countless white-bread characters starting at the age of 17 months old. Although anti-Japanese sentiment continued into the 1960s following Pearl Harbor, the portrayal is over-the-top. Director Blake Edwards later said, “Looking back, I wish I had never done it…and I would give anything to be able to recast it.”

The Duke goes Gook

Over 50 years in the business John Wayne starred in more than 170 films, and given the sheer volume of his work it’s understandable that The Duke would play some clunker roles. But his portrayal of Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” – deservedly cited as one of the 50 worst films of all time by Michael Medved – set the low bar for hack acting. Wearing a stringy moustache and slanty eye makeup, Wayne pushes around the women and blusters out ridiculous lines such as “While I live, while my blood burns hot, your daughter is not safe in her tent.” Sidebar: “The Conqueror” was filmed in Utah downwind from a major nuclear bomb test, and many of the actors and crew, including Wayne, later contracted various forms of cancer. That back-story is 100 times more interesting than the movie itself. (Check out my novel “RonnieandLennie” in which the backstory is a prominent element.)

Charlton Heston – aka. Carlos Hestoña

Overshadowed by “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil” is a marvelous representative of the American film-noir crime thriller. Shot in shimmering black and white, it stars Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, Welles himself, and Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas (huh?), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government. Heston performs well , but again, like the situation in “The Lone Ranger” what would have been so awful about casting a Mexican in the role? The ludicrousness of the casting is recalled in the movie “Get Shorty” when Chili Palmer (John Travolta) asks Karen Flores (Renee Russo), “Listen, “Touch of Evil”‘s playing near my hotel. You wanna go check it out? Watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican?”

The Chan Dynasty

Charlie Chan was a Chinese detective character introduced by Earl Biggers in novels he started writing in the 1920s. Immensely popular at the time, Charlie Chan stories were an obvious subject for the movies, and between 1926 and 1955 more than 40 films were produced. The first couple of movies featured Japanese actors playing Chinaman Chan, but they were flops. It wasn’t until Swedish actor Warner Oland took over the role that the movies took off. The franchise was so successful that when Oland died, he was replaced by another white actor, Sidney Toler; and when Toler kicked the bucket, the role was filled by yet another whitey, Roland Winters. I suspect that when the series began, mostly white America was distrustful of all things Oriental – thus the failure of the franchise until a white guy took over. And once the secret to success was discovered, no future producer dared to cast an actual Chinese actor. Easier to apply slanty makeup and the cheesy facial hair than to wean the audience from ghastly casting.

As Iago once said, “I am not what I am.”

As one of the greatest film and stage actors of all time, Laurence Olivier gets to play whatever the hell role he wants, including Othello, Shakespeare’s jealous Moorish general. Although the play doesn’t specifically state Othello’s race, it has become standard to view him as dark-skinned and probably a native of North Africa. Although his performance is mesmerizing, it’s distracting in the beginning to watch Olivier in the 1965 film with his face slathered in a tarry substance. (The same can be said for Orson Welles who played the Moor in the 1952 version he directed). Finally in 1995, “Othello” was produced with a black actor, Laurence Fishburne in the lead.

Fo’ Shizzle?

Al Jolson – need I say more?

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Snackable Films and Upset Stomachs

Last Sunday evening at the Standard Hotel rooftop bar in Manhattan’s tres trendy Meatpacking District, watching barges and water taxis ply the Hudson under a crescent moon, I came to engage in conversation with the founder of Eventologie, a boutique firm specializing in – as the name suggests – event planning. She was in town to promote the recently-produced short film, “Arthur and Johnnie” at the New York Hall of Science which is a few stone’s throws from Arthur Ashe Stadium – appropriate, as the film is about tennis great Arthur Ashe and the extraordinary gesture bestowed upon him by his older brother, Johnnie Ashe.

In the mid-sixties when the US was in full-conflict mode in Viet Nam, Johnnie was serving a tour as a Marine in the war-zone while Arthur (who was in the Army and beholden to the branch) was nurturing a blossoming pro tennis career back in the States. As long as one brother was stationed in harm’s way, the US military would not send the other brother into the same cauldron of risk. Just as Johnnie’s stint was about to come to an end in 1968, Arthur had won the US Amateur title and was gearing up to compete in the first US Open of the open era. Knowing that his departure from Viet Nam would likely free up Arthur for deployment, Johnnie volunteered for a second tour. The movie recalls the public service Arthur performed post-tennis career, but the heart of the story is Johnnie Ashe’s selfless sacrifice which he kept a secret from everyone except his father until Arthur was past the point of jeopardy.

At the invitation of Eventologie founder April Trigg, I attended a private screening of “Arthur and Johnnie” which was followed by a Q&A with director Tate Donovan and Johnnie Ashe himself. I learned that the primary way the producers planned to “distribute” the movie was via the Internet – for free. Coming on the heels of Werner Herzog’s internet-distributed short, “From One Second to the Next,” I’ve become increasingly convinced that some of the best work will emerge as “self-published” movies that bypass the blockbuster-addicted Hollywood system.

“From One Second to the Next” relays the sorry tales of a handful of victims of drivers under the influence of texting. Those who know Herzog’s work (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Nosteratu the Vampyre,” and “Grizzly Man”) will note the haunting music, ominous camera tracking, and his penchant for lingering on the pained faces of his subjects. Well worth watching this “self-published” snackable 35-minute film.

Another example is “My Architect” by Nathaniel Kahn, a documentary of the tremendously influential architect Louis Kahn by his son. This film opened in theaters in 2003 and got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, but knowing that the vast majority of movie-goers avoid documentaries and sub-titled films like brain-eating amoebas, I’m sure the producers found the internet a better venue to expose viewers to Kahn’s work.

Just as authors and musicians have grown weary of unsuccessfully interacting with impenetrable corporate entities, choosing to take matters into their own hands, so will movie makers. Expect to see more short and mid-length films (especially documentaries) go straight to internet. And make the effort to find them in the Great Sargasso Sea of useless information that makes up the World Wide Web.

What’s with all the upset stomachs?

In 1960 while running for President, John F. Kennedy spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, making among other points, the importance of separation of church and state – understandable at the time as Kennedy was trying to convince voters that, although a Catholic, he wouldn’t be taking any orders from the Vatican. More than 50 years later former Senator and holy scold, Rick Santorum, in an address to the College of Saint Mary Magdalen told the crowd, “Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up . You should read the speech.” You know, I might throw up if I saw a car run over someone’s head, or witnessed a medieval disembowelment – but poring over a speech about separation of church and state doesn’t strike me as vomit-worthy material.

And just a few days ago Senator Bob Menedez of New Jersey, after reading an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Russian Prez Vladimir Putin in which the Cossack trashed America’s claims of exceptionalism, said “I have to be honest with you, I was at dinner, and I almost wanted to vomit. ” First of all, did he mean to say “I almost vomited” or that he sincerely almost wanted to launch his dinner? Was the person sitting next to him that despicable? But really . . . a Russian pokes a verbal stick in our eye and you feel like puking? You come from New Jersey for God’s sake, where the ubiquitous chemical odors, wafting garbage smells and insidious amusement park rides should have toughened your guts by now.

Then, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, commenting on the tragic fires that ravaged the boardwalks and businesses of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, said “”I told my staff, ‘I feel like I want to throw up.’” Coming from the portly Christie, that might qualify as a superfund site.

Why has the image of a politician throwing up suddenly permeated the discourse? Knock it off before one of you decides to go literal and blow chunk live on C-SPAN.

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