Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Symbols and Customs

The Easter egg is a symbol that refers to the tomb from which Jesus arose on Easter Sunday. Other symbols of the risen Lord include the resurrected Lamb from the Book of Revelation. In the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Fairfield, Connecticut, the Lamb is shown in the center of a beautiful Rose window at the back of the Church. The Lamb reclines on the Book of the Seven Seals with a triumphal cross and banner. Click on the image to enlarge.*

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. 


One of the many traditions associated with Easter was the famous Easter Parade, especially on New York's 5th Avenue. Here is a link to the ending of the film Easter Parade that featured Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. He was a little old but she was never lovelier than when she sings the title song.

Or, just view the video below. By the way, rotogravure was a newspaper Sunday supplement like today's Parade magazine.

*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Wonderful Life: Part II

After publishing the Weekly Bystander for over a year, I decided to post an interview that I did for a local newspaper a couple of years ago. Last week I posted the first half and here is the remainder.

Q. You are one of several highly respected teachers whose brief teaching stints, several times a year, for the Fairfield Senior Center‘s Lifelong Learners Program make you a valuable commodity. What is it about teaching Seniors that you enjoy?

A. I have always been interested in learning, and the best way to learn is to try to teach something. It is especially rewarding to teach in the Lifelong Learners program at the Fairfield Senior center. It is obvious just looking at the people in class that they are intelligent, educated, well traveled, and motivated. In my very first class on Renaissance art I asked if anyone had been to Florence, and practically everyone raised their hand.

So I get a chance to explore subjects that interest me with 40 or 50 people who really want to learn, and who also have a wealth of life experience that they can bring to class.

Cong. James Himes with Fairfield Seniors

Q. Do you enjoy traveling? What are your favorite places? Are they stuff for the New York Times travel section?

A. Linda and I have traveled frequently to Italy since 1997 when we visited our youngest daughter, an NYU student taking a summer program in Florence. Since then we have gone back practically every year. It was because of these trips that I began at series of talks at BACIO, an Italian-American organization founded by Leonard Paoletta, the former mayor of Bridgeport.

In the talks I tried to discuss the history and the culture and the art of some of the places we had visited. Most of the world’s great art comes from Italy. These talks led me deeper and deeper into Art History until the subject became a passion even before I retired.

Incredibly, this interest led me to a great discovery. One of the most beautiful and mysterious paintings of the Italian Renaissance is the “Tempest” by Giorgione, the greatest of all Venetian artists who died at about the age of 33 in 1510, 500 years ago. Not as well known as Michelangelo and Raphael, Art historians place Giorgione along side them in the Renaissance pantheon. To this day scholars, while universally admiring the Tempest, his most famous painting, cannot agree on what it's all about.

Giorgione: The Tempest, Venice 1509

I believe that I have identified the subject of the painting. A short version of my interpretation was published in the Masterpiece section of the Wall St. Journal in 2006, and I have been developing the thesis ever since. I have developed a website on Giorgione and also blog about the Venetian Renaissance at Giorgione et al...

Q. I see that you are a member of the Renaissance Society of America. What is that all about?

A. The Renaissance Society of America is an organization of scholars from all over the world who share an interest in the renaissance in learning and art that took place roughly from 1400-1650. They publish a quarterly journal of articles and reviews, and hold an annual meeting. In 2010 the meeting was held in Venice. At that meeting I presented my paper on the “Tempest.”

Q. What do you particularly enjoy teaching at the Senior Center?

A. My course on the art of the Italian Renaissance, “A Tale of Four Cities,” is my favorite because of my interest in Renaissance Italy and its Art. This Spring I will repeat my “Italian Dreams” course which used four great Italian films to understand the reasons for the great migration of Italians to America. Next Fall, I will present a new course on four 18th century revolutions. The course is entitled “England and America in the Age of Revolution.”

Q. Do you feel that you have a following? That you have developed a rapport with your students?

A. All the classes have been very well attended. I believe that we have developed a following for the Foreign Film Festival, which I launched in 2009. The films are shown at 12:15 on the second Friday of the month. In our second season we showed  “Bakhtiari Alphabet,” a film about an Iranian tribal people and their adaptation to the modern world. The film’s producer and co-director, Dr. Cima Sedigh of Sacred Heart University, was on hand to discuss it with the attendees. We are also fortunate to have our China expert, Dr. Richard DeAngelis from Fairfield University, on hand to lead discussion of a number of films from China including the award winning “To Live.” In April we will feature Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in “Too Bad She’s Bad,” a wonderful early Italian comedy.

Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni

Q. When we watched Pagliacci, Tuesday morning, you asked your students to watch the faces of the adults and children in the operatic foreground? Why was it important that they look at the faces do you think? Did you get any feedback on that specific request?

It is very difficult for us to imagine our own parents and grandparents as young vibrant people with real emotions. Looking at those young faces watching the clowns makes me think of my own grandparents back in Italy before they came to America. Also, a good film is a work of Art. From my Art history study I have come to realize that you must try to see everything in a painting, not just the main figures. Franco Zeffirelli, the director of “Pagliacci,” put those images on the screen for a reason.

Q. What question would you care to ask that hasn’t been asked?  [Why don’t you answer it.]

A. It seems that I have said enough for now, but you might have asked, “Why do you do it?” When I used to counsel my clients on retirement planning, I liked to stress that retirement was not the end but the beginning of a new career. It was sad when people told me that they had no interests beyond work. Linda and I both believe that it’s important to keep active and continue to grow and learn. 


Friday, March 15, 2013

A Wonderful Life

I've been publishing the "Weekly Bystander" for over a year and thought that it might be a good time to put up a post containing an interview I did a couple of years ago for a local newspaper. It is in question and answer form and will be presented in two successive posts.

Q. Let’s start with some background. Where were you born? Where did you go to secondary school? What did you like about going to school? Was there a favorite teacher? Why did you decide to go to Fordham? What was special about your undergraduate work?

A. I was born in 1939 and raised in NYC in the borough of Queens. My parents were second generation Italian Americans and we lived right next door to my paternal grandparents who were both born in Italy.

In 1953 I went to Power Memorial Academy, one of the many Catholic High Schools in NYC. It was an all boys school located in a very tough West Side neighborhood that was subsequently razed to make way for Lincoln Center. The school was run and staffed by Irish Christian Brothers although there were a few laymen on the faculty. A favorite teacher was the Brother who taught the Senior Honors Literature course. I was always an avid reader but he imparted a sense of the importance and value of the study of great literature.

I went to Fordham on a full scholarship provided by the Bulova Watch Company, my father’s employer. This competitive scholarship would have paid tuition and room and board at any college of my choice. Initially, I was going to Syracuse for Engineering but probably decided on Fordham because I was uncertain about a career path, and it was closer to home. Since Fordham’s Bronx campus was only about an hour and a half away by bus and subway, I didn’t see any need, in my naiveté, to live on campus even though the scholarship would have paid for it. There was no one to advise me since I was the first in my family to attend college, and my mother had died when I was 11. Like many other things in my life, it worked out for the best since NYC itself, with its theaters, sports, nightclubs, museums, and libraries, became my campus.

Even though I had been a top student at Power, I was not prepared for the rigors of a Jesuit education at Fordham. In 1957 Fordham was probably the best Catholic institution of higher learning in the country, and the class of ’61 was probably its best ever. Even though I was only an average student I was in a great learning environment. I say average but looking back I realize that the curriculum was broad and comprehensive including four years of Theology and Philosophy, as well as two years of Latin and French as requirements.  I majored in History, a subject which I had loved since grade school. There was nothing special about my work at Fordham. Nevertheless, even though I had only average grades, I aced the graduate record exams and was accepted in the MA program at Columbia. Finally, in my last year at Fordham I met my future wife, Linda Gardella, a nursing student at Cornell University Medical center in Manhattan.

Q. You have a PhD. What was your Master’s in? Did you have to write a Master’s thesis and what was it? Were your orals tough? And your Doctorate? That was in History. What was your thesis? Did you enjoy writing it? Might it have been what led you to teach at the college level?

A. I went to Columbia on a NY State Teaching fellowship. I guess it was then that I really began to think that I wanted to become a college professor. But just as at Fordham I found myself way over my head at Columbia, a world-class institution with an internationally renowned faculty.

I decided to specialize in 18th century British politics primarily because I was always interested in the American Revolution, and also because I had taken a wonderful course in British politics in my Senior year at Fordham with a really great professor. My Master’s thesis was on the political career of a British general and politician who was very active in the opposition to the War with America. After completing my Masters at Columbia I went back to Fordham to continue my studies in British politics under the mentorship of my old professor, Dr. Ross Hoffman.

It took almost 10 years to complete my PhD dissertation on the political career of General Henry Seymour Conway. I loved working on the dissertation but it was really hard work. During that time Linda and I married and began a partnership based on mutual love and respect that has continued to this day.

I taught in a Catholic High School for a year and then she worked as a public health nurse while I took a year off to complete my course work at Fordham. After a brief stint of government work with the FAA in NY, I got a call for an interview at the brand new Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

Q. You still enjoy teaching, why did you leave it?

I taught History for seven years at SHU from 1965 to 1972.  Linda and I bought a house in Fairfield and began a family. I was teaching as well as doing research on my dissertation and thoroughly enjoyed both.  But the Vietnam era was tumultuous for America. As the war came to an end, enrollment at the University began to decline and in 1972 the University began to retrench. I was one of the faculty up for tenure that year and none of us had our contracts renewed. In the same year that I got my PhD from Fordham, I found myself out of a job with a wife and five small children.

Nevertheless, it again turned out for the best. I got a job in the Financial Services industry and managed with Linda’s support to survive the very difficult early years. Over the years I was able to build up a very successful career as a Financial Advisor before retiring in 2008. 

to be continued...

Friday, March 8, 2013

Unfunded Pension Liabilities

Retired UCONN Coach Calhoun
2012 CT Top Wage Earner

Unfunded pension liabilities are the root of the financial problems facing virtually every level of government today. The US Postal Service, for example, would be solvent today if it were not for pension obligations. A number of cities are approaching bankruptcy because of pension liabilities.  Stockton, California is already in bankruptcy, and the Governor of Michigan has just put the city of Detroit under an emergency manager.

My own state of Connecticut is facing a billion dollar deficit in the next fiscal year and the governor is desperately trying to seek new revenues after his recent massive tax hike failed to produce the needed revenue. Closer to home the town of Fairfield has recently been presented with a proposed budget increase of over 6.5%, much of it due to town pension obligations.

The Yankee Institute for Public Policy has recently reported that 1223 Connecticut state employees currently make more than Governor Dannell Malloy’s salary of $150000 per year. Topping the list in 2012 was UCONN’s legendary basketball coach Jim Calhoun who made $2,865,769. Geno Auriemma, the women’s basketball coach, was second on the list at $1,829,052. At the bottom of the top ten was Warde Manuel, UCONN’s Athletic director who made a paltry $551,305.

Doctors at the UCONN medical center made up the balance of the top ten list. For example, Hilary Onyluke, the Chief of the division of Neurosurgery made $1,030,000, and John Nulsun, The Director of the Center for Reproductive Services, made $917,000.

I do not want to question or criticize the salaries paid to these employees while they perform their valuable jobs, but I think it is about time that the State of Connecticut consider why the people of Connecticut have to provide these employees with pensions after they retire.

The Yankee Institute reported that in 2102 more than 7700 state employees made more than $100000 per year while the average median household income in Connecticut was about $66000 per year. The Yankee Institute noted that half of the individuals making more than $150000 are associated with the University of Connecticut or its health center. Has anyone ever considered why people who make less than the median income should have to provide pensions for a minority who make two or three times that amount? 

Pensions were originally created to provide retirement income for state and municipal employees who were traditionally underpaid and who would not be ale to save for their own retirement. This is no longer the case as state and municipal employees have become a kind of new aristocracy with wage, benefit, and pension packages negotiated by powerful public service unions. Most residents of the State of Connecticut do not have anywhere near these benefits but still politicians demand that they fund the benefits of the new aristocracy.

Politicians never talk about the fact that most people in the private sector have great difficulty in funding their own retirement accounts. they only talk about unfunded public pensions. One of the causes of the French Revolution was the inequity in French society. Peasants paid taxes while aristocrats were exempt. Click here for an amusing but sad video on the California Pension aristocracy, or just view the video below. ###


Friday, March 1, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI Retirement


The unprecedented retirement of Pope Benedict XVI has led to innumerable articles on the man and his pontificate. I think it’s too soon to discuss the achievements of his pontificate but I would like to say a few words about the man or about my own impression of the man.

I can’t say that I have any personal knowledge of the late Pope but unlike most commentators and pundits, I have at least read a couple of his books. A few years ago I read his “Jesus of Nazareth” an obvious attempt by the Pope to bring the results of a lifetime of work and study to a non-scholarly audience. I can’t say that I can remember much of the book or the Pope’s arguments. I do remember thinking that the Pope’s great intellect and learning were obvious on every page.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected seven years ago at the age of 78, I was contemplating my own retirement after 36 years as a financial advisor. I had always advised my own clients that they should regard retirement not as an end, but as a new beginning; that it might finally give them an opportunity to do something that they had always wanted to do.

In my own case I had been a scholar and teacher before circumstances forced me to change career and enter the world of financial service. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, but after a successful 36 years, I looked forward to getting back to my first interest, history. So it was easy for me to sympathize with Cardinal Ratzinger on his election.

Cardinal Ratzinger

Here was a great, great scholar who had given up most of his last years in the service of the Vatican, an often-thankless job. He was lampooned and derided even by Catholics. During the pontificate of John Paul II, wasn’t Cardinal Ratzinger often referred to as the Vatican’s Rottweiler? Just when he might have thought that at age 78, he could enter into a peaceful retirement, return to his study, and complete his life’s work, he gets elected to one of the most difficult jobs on earth.

Isn’t it incredible that even those who dislike the Catholic Church and especially the Papacy seem to expect so much from it? But what can a Pope actually do or accomplish? He cannot resort to the usual weapons at the disposal of governments today whether they are despotic or democratic. He has no taxing power. He cannot put you in jail or confiscate your property if you fail to put money in the collection basket.

Despite what many non-Catholics might think he cannot order Catholics around or tell them what to do. He can advise but they often refuse to consent with no apparent loss or penalty. Some are shocked that the Catholic Church believes that the Pope is infallible. But this famous doctrine has only been used on one occasion since it was promulgated in 1870 by the first Vatican Council. Big deal.

Upon his election Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Benedict and he became the sixteenth Pope of that name which literally means “say good.” He said that he was thinking of the famous saint who founded western Monasticism back in the last days of the Roman Empire. But he was also thinking of Pope Benedict XV, a little remembered Pope who early in the twentieth century strove unsuccessfully to keep the great powers of Europe from plunging into the First World War.

It was obvious that the new Pope saw himself as a peacemaker both within his own troubled Church and in the World. He did his best in the past seven years but finally old age caught up to him and he wisely decided to step down. His story reminds me of a wonderful short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Hobbit”. This little known story, “Leaf by Niggle” is about a man who is attempting a painting of a leaf. He regards it as his life’s work but throughout he is constantly interrupted by the needs and demands of family, friends, and even strangers. He dies with the painting of the leaf unfinished but that’s not the end of the story.

In the end we see Niggle in Heaven working on a painting of a huge tree containing thousands of beautifully painted leaves. Let’s hope that Pope Benedict will one day come to a similar reward. Well-done, good and faithful servant. Rest in peace. ###