Sunday, December 28, 2014

Foreign Film Favorites 2014

The following list of films will stand comparison with any other list of top films for 2014.

Tia Morice and Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom:  This film from Australia by famed director Baz Lurhmann is a charming romantic comedy about a championship ballroom dancer and his ugly duckling partner. The film stars Paul Mercurio and Tia Morice with a great supporting cast. Here's a link to a brief video clip, or see video box below.

Les Comperes: Renowned French stars Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieu play two confirmed bachelors in search of a runaway teenager that they both believe to be their son by a youthful liason. The result is mayhem with a very touching ending.

Incantato: Director Pupi Avati won the Italian best director award for this  Poignant comedy set in the Rome and Bologna in the 1920s. Neri Marcore plays a shy and clumsy man devoted to the academic world. His lack of interest in women has become an increasing source of anxiety to his womanizing father (Giancarlo Giannini), a tailor for the Pope. He sends his son to teach in a high school in Bologna with the hopes that he will find a wife.

A Foreign Field: Two British war vets meet an American vet when all three return to Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This disparate band of survivors eventually finds common ground in the memory of what they lost on that fateful day in 1944. This British film has an acclaimed international cast including Alec Guinness, Leo McKern, Jeanne Moreau, Loren Bacall, John Randolph, and Geraldine Chaplin.

The Captain’s Paradise: This delightful British comedy stars Alec Guinness in one of his great comedy roles as a sea captain who finds the key to perfect happiness with a woman in each port. The film also stars Celia Johnson, a fine British actress best known for her role in “Brief Encounter,” and Yvonne De Carlo before she gained fame as Mrs. Herman Munster.

Dersu Uzala: An eccentric Mongolian frontiersman  is taken on as a guide by a Russian surveying crew in the early twentieth century. While the soldiers at first perceive Dersu as a naïve and comical relic of an uncivilized age, he quickly proves himself otherwise with displays of ingenuity and bravery. This Russian film made by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was the result of an arduous two year film making expedition into the far reaches of Siberia. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1975.

The Twilight Samurai: Renowned Japanese film director Yoji Yamada’s film is set in a changing Japan of the late nineteenth century. It takes a modern look at the traditional Japanese Samurai story. Hiroyuki Sanada, one of Japan’s leading film stars, plays a low ranking, poverty stricken samurai trying to support his family. However, he is caught in the shifting turmoil of the times and ordered to confront and kill a renowned renegade warrior. Made in 2002, “The Twilight Samurai” won twelve Japanese Film Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress.

Shall We Dance: A middle-aged workaholic’s dull life takes a funny turn when he signs up for a ballroom dance class just to meet the beautiful dance teacher. Bur when he finally muscles up the nerve for lessons, he winds up with a different instructor and her colorfully eccentric class of beginners. Now he’ll have to step lightly if he expects to keep his dancing  (considered socially improper for a Japanese man) from his family and friends. This film should not be confused with the Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere and Jenifer Lopez. ###

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Adoration of the Shepherds

"In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds."*

Giorgione is the most mysterious and perhaps the greatest of all Venetian Renaissance artists. Mysterious not only because so little is known about his short life, but also because no other great painter’s work has led to so many questions of attribution and interpretation.

Giorgione was a “nickname” and contemporary documents refer to the painter as Zorzo da Castelfranco. Castelfranco is a walled town west of Treviso. about an hour away from Venice via modern commuter rail. We do not know how or when the young Giorgione arrived in Venice. In those days it is likely that he traveled down the Brenta to Padua and then on to Venice by canal. We do know that by the time of his death in 1510 at about the age of 33, he had become the favorite painter of the Venetian aristocracy.

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas to all readers of the WB.


* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic Digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas

The following description of the symbolic meaning of the popular Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is the best explanation I have seen.* It seems particularly appropriate this season when persecution of Christians has reached unprecedented proportions all over the World. Every day in many parts of the world there are killings, tortures, beatings, thefts, and imprisonments meted out to Christians. So far Christians in America have been spared such atrocities. At this time of year we usually just  have to deal with creche vandalism and attempts by politically correct fanatics to ban Christmas from the holiday season.

"Catholics in England were forbidden to practice their faith openly during the years from 1538 to 1829. This song was developed to communicate their gift of faith in coded lyrics. The 12 days run from December 25 (Christmas) to January 6 (Epiphany). The "True Love" refers to God.

A Partridge is the symbol of Christ. The partridge will feign injury to protect nestlings who are defenseless. A pear tree is the symbol of the salvation of humanity, just as the apple tree signifies human downfall.

Two Turtle doves symbolize the Old Testament sacrifice offered by even the poorest of people in Israel (with which Christ was "redeemed" by His parents at His presentation in the Temple).

Three French hens symbolize the gifts of the three Wise Men, as also the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Four calling birds represent the four major prophets and the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five golden rings represent the five Wounds of Christ (the reason for the change of melody at this point). The number five refers also to the five obligatory sacraments (Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, and the Anointing of the Sick), as well as to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch.

Six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming are the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and also the seven works of Mercy.

Eight maids a-milking refer to the eight Beatitudes preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

Nine ladies dancing are the nine ranks of angel choirs, the Spirits who surround the Throne of God in the Book of Revelation.

Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.

Eleven pipers playing are the eleven surviving Apostles.

Twelve drummers drumming are the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament; the twelve points of the Apostle's Creed, the twelve Apostles; the Twelve Tribes of Israel; and the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. Twelve is also the Scriptural number representing completeness."

So, the original "partridge on a pear tree" is Christ on the Cross. Here is a striking image from a mural in the Church of St. Clement in Rome depicting Christ on the Cross that is also the tree of life.

I do not want to raise the controversial issue of why Catholics were persecuted in sixteenth century England, a country loyal to that Faith for over a thousand years, but I would like to say a few words about persecution in our time.

For the past 250 years many people, especially intellectuals, have come to believe that Christianity is the great enemy of humankind. Many of these intellectuals were born, raised, and educated as Christians but some proverbial "bee up their ass" made them not only turn against their religious tradition, but also vehemently attack it. They believed that Christianity was a superstition that stood in the way of reason and progress.

Opponents of Christianity regarded it as the enemy of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. For them the destruction and downfall of Christianity would usher in a new age of peace and human advancement. Little did they understand that since its inception Christianity had been the bulwark against all the different kinds of barbarism. Although Hitler was a bitter opponent of Christianity because of its Jewish origins, critics still try to blame Christianity for the Holocaust. In Russia Joseph Stalin despised his Christian roots and under his rule Communists murdered over twenty million people to create their workers' paradise.

When you attack Christianity, you don't get peace and prosperity, you get anything from gang killings in our cities to ISIS, the Taliban, and Boko Haran. It would appear that these terrorists fear Christianity more than American military might. Jesus spent his life teaching and healing. He has always been called the Prince of Peace. At Mass today Catholics recited Psalm 72:

Justice shall flourish in his time,
and fullness of peace for ever.

Today, peace seems further away from ever but at Christmas we can still hope. Here's a link to a lovely video featuring Vince Gill and daughter singing "Let there be Peace on Earth."


*Note: I came across this interpretation some years ago and it seemed very plausible. As my friend David in England notes in the comment below, it is not the only interpretation of the symbolism of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol that still today remains shrouded in mystery.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dragnet: Best Christmas Show Ever

Last week I wrote about the realism of Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural of the fifties and sixties. This week I would like to highlight its famous Christmas show where Sgt. Joe Friday and partner Frank Smith try to recover a statue of the Baby Jesus taken from the crèche of a church on Christmas Eve.

The You Tube video is of good quality and takes just a little more than 25 minutes to view since the commercials have been omitted. The acting is superb, with especially good performances by two young boys. The camerawork and music are also first rate. To my mind it ranks right up there with the best Christmas shows of all time.

The credits indicate that the show was filmed in the Old Mission Plaza Church in Los Angeles, the dedication of which coincided with the founding of Los Angeles on September 4, 1781.

The episode was produced in 1953 when I was only 14 years old. I must have watched it then, and have never forgotten it. Today, it calls to mind a time and place long gone by.  Looking back I’d like to think that it had a profound effect in my own life. If you watch the episode, stay tuned for the surprising and moving ending. Here is the link to Dragnet: The Big Little Jesus, or just click on the box below. ###

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dragnet and Ferguson Protests

Last week the city of Ferguson erupted in violence and looting following the decision of a grand jury not to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown. Coincidentally, my wife and I were watching a DVD collection of Dragnet, the pioneering police procedural TV show of the long ago fifties and sixties.

It could be argued that Dragnet was the best Police drama ever seen on TV. Without much violence and gore, it attained a level of realism rarely seen on TV since. Its credits always began with a notice that all the episodes were based on cases from the actual files of the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAPD.

Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, played the role of Sergeant Joe Friday with a matter-of-factness that became his trademark. His constantly reiterated expression to talkative witnesses, “just the facts, Ma’am” became almost iconic. His down to earth partners, the portly Ben Alexander, and the laconic Harry Morgan, gave equally quiet and realistic portrayals of ordinary policemen who were just doing their jobs.

However, the most realistic part of the show was the succession of ordinary, even banal, criminals whose exploits provided the plot for each episode. There was nothing glamorous, sexy, or mysterious about these killers, robbers, muggers, and con men. Most of them were real bottom-dwellers from the dregs of society. Let me give three examples.

One episode concerned a teenage couple who murdered an old man with a hammer in order to steal a few lousy dollars. They were eventually tracked down to a tawdry motel, and showed no contrition or remorse when apprehended. These were not angst- ridden youngsters but just plain sociopaths.

Another episode dealt with the murder of a divorced secretary by a boy friend who strangled her and then broke her neck for good measure. Typically, we never see the dead woman or the actual murder. There is no pretty young woman being followed down a dark alley accompanied by ominous music. There is no semi-nude body covered with blood. We only hear of her death when Friday gets the call. Then, Friday and his partner just go about the tedious and dull business of interviewing witnesses until they manage to track down the middle-aged boy friend who after confessing only wonders how he might beat the rap.

Finally, in another episode Friday and his partner are working the Bunko division, an assignment that deals mainly with con men and their scams. In this case a group of men had devised a scheme to victimize the families of servicemen who had died overseas. Evil can’t get more banal than that group.

Dragnet stands in stark contrast to practical every other Police drama. “Columbo” reruns are still popular today but the show made no pretense of reality. The murderer is always a millionaire businessman or entertainer whose super intelligence and savior faire are no match for Peter Falk’s wily Detective Columbo. Modern Police dramas follow the same formula. I stopped watching Law and Order years ago when it became obvious that the killer was not the young Black or Hispanic man that everyone suspected, but the millionaire white business owner.

Even the sophisticated British crime dramas that are seen regularly on PBS always depict the crimes of the rich and famous. Given all the murders, you would think that England is probably the most dangerous country in the world today. You wonder how anyone could still be alive in some of those quaint English villages. Of course, the criminals are never Black or Asian immigrants. When they appear, they are always the victims of prejudice. How dare anyone think that a young Moslem man might be a terrorist?

Such fantasies might be laughable, but I suspect that the constant barrage of propaganda depicted in most Police dramas has a very serious effect. Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction has more power to influence. Since the days of Dragnet two whole generations have grown up and been educated by what they have seen on TV. They are now themselves the educators in most college classrooms. They really believe that all authority figures are suspect.

Their imaginary criminal class includes CEOs; Wall Streeters; businessmen (especially men); politicians from Red or conservative states; military men (the higher the rank the worse); Policemen, although rarely Policewomen; and, of course, Catholic clergy, especially Monsignors and Bishops.

I believe that this fantasy in the minds of the American educated class explains the protests that broke out all over the country after the Ferguson grand jury did not find enough evidence to bring a white police officer to trial, an officer that had been presumed guilty of murder from day one.

Brought up in a fantasy world created by the entertainment industry, the American elite really believes that all cops are “pigs.” They find it hard to believe that young Black men might be gangsters and sociopaths. Despite the video showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and bullying the store manager, they prefer to visualize him in his high school graduation robes. They focus on the rare shooting of a black man by a white policeman, and fail to notice the incredibly high rate of black on black killings on the streets of cities like Chicago,

After ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos interviewed the Ferguson police office. When Yahoo news reported on the interview, it could hardly hide its disappointment at the failure to pin the officer to the wall and subject him to a virtual trial and conviction. The Yahoo story elicited more than a thousand comments. A sampling indicated that most ordinary people reacted favorably to the interview and the policeman’s comment that he was only doing his job.

The best comment on this whole affair came from a Milwaukee Police Chief who had had enough and urged the protestors to get real. It starts slow but watch to the end. Click on this link to view or view the video below.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Memory


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the USA and I was thinking of listing all the people in my life to whom I owe a debt of thanks. The more I thought about it the list grew larger and larger until I realized that it would be impossible to list everyone. Often when we think of thanksgiving, we think of offering thanks to God, but the older I get the more I realize that God works through the people we have known and encountered in our lives.

Since I can’t list everybody here, I will just single out my sister-in-law, Anita, who died suddenly yesterday after suffering a stroke. She was married to my brother Joe for almost fifty years, and loved by him and her three daughters. It will be very hard for them this Thanksgiving but they do have a lot to be thankful for. They liked the same things, especially their getaway cabin in the Catskills. They were both New York Yankee fans and I never met a more loyal or knowledgeable fan than Anita.

Anita was quiet and reserved, and I can’t say that I was ever able to get to know her very well. I married and left the old neighborhood in Queens, but my brother  and Anita stayed in the City.  We would meet at the occasional family gatherings where she was usually content to sit on the couch with her daughters and take it all in. I suspect that she was usually laughing within as the human comedy played on before her.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stupidity from Urinals to Politics

This week the art world was filled with the news of the record breaking modern art sale conducted by Christie's. Although not one of the really big-ticket items, Robert Gober’s “Three Urinals” went for about $3,500,000. Even though my six-year-old granddaughter has chided me about my use of the word “stupid, ” I will say that this art news item is one of the top stupid things in a week where the news was full of stupidity.

I don’t think that the high bidder for the “Three Urinals” was necessarily stupid. I’m sure the bidder regards it as an investment that will surely appreciate in an increasingly crazy art market. I don’t think the artist was stupid because anyone who could put something over like that has to rank with the craftiest con men. The really stupid thing was the commentary that featured a breathless curator at the Museum of Modern art extolling the virtue of the “Three Urinals.” Here’s a link to a short video, or just view below.

Next in stupidity was the news that an economist from MIT, who had consulted for the Obama administration on the framing of the “Affordable Care Act”, has admitted that he deliberately fudged the cost figures because the American people were too “stupid” to understand the truth. Apparently, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had to be fed phony figures (“garbage” in the words of one official) so that they could turn out figures that a stupid public and their representatives would swallow.

It turns out that despite the President’s pledge, it was never intended that the American people could keep their policies if they liked them. It turns out that popular employer sponsored plans were secretly targeted for elimination, as were popular Health Maintenance plans employed by Seniors instead of Medicare.

We can’t say that the MIT economist was stupid because he was paid around $400000 for his consulting work, and still was able to keep his own medical plan at MIT. Also, I don’t think the American people are as stupid as he thinks. The really stupid in this episode were the bureaucrats at the CBO who connived in the deception; the people’s representatives in Congress who voted for Obamacare without reading or understanding all its ramifications; and the media who swallowed all the “garbage” without question.

Here in Connecticut another example of stupidity came out right after the re-election of Democrat Governor Dannell Malloy for another four-year term. In the week after Election Day the State’s budget office released the startling figures that showed the State facing a projected $100 Million deficit in this fiscal year. Certainly, the Governor and his minions in the budget office are not stupid since they wisely withheld the information until after the election.

The stupid are the editors, reporters, and commentators of the local newspaper whose coverage of the campaign was totally oblivious to the impending deficit, and who could only claim to be "shocked, shocked" by the news. Throughout the campaign they had chosen to follow the Governor’s lead and concentrate their attention upon the Republican opponent’s character and wealth. To be fair, I have to say that Republican candidate demonstrated his own share of stupidity when he failed to focus on the impending budget shortfall.

Finally, on the local level, the head of the Fairfield Democrat committee responded to charges that one of her candidates lost because she ran a “negative” campaign. She explained that whatever was said about the candidate's opponent could not be negative because it was true. It didn't occur to her that when you stress your own candidate’s character and achievements, that is “positive.” But when you focus on the opponent’s lack of character and achievement, that is “negative.” Either the head of the local Democrat party, like the MIT economist, thinks we are stupid, or else she is just stupid herself.

Let me just end with a note from a friend in England about the “Three Urinals.” He told me that he had gone for a walk in a local park and came upon a rest station where he also found three urinals. He took a photo and sent it to me. They looked to be in pristine working condition, and unlike their modern art cousins seem to be good for something,


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hearing Dysfunction

As far as I know, Medicare does not pay for hearing aids, and if Medicare doesn’t pay then Medicare Supplements or Medicare Advantage plans will not pay. My Medicare Advantage plan will only pay $50 toward an annual hearing exam. For that matter I do not believe that any of the insurance plans approved by the Government under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will pay for hearing aids for the many who suffer from aural dysfunction.

A recent visit to an audiologist indicated that at age 75, I have suffered some hearing loss. My wife has been warning me of this for some time and likes to make fun of my many bloopers. Actually, in the audiologist’s waiting room a woman sitting next to me asked the receptionist, “Where are the cats?” I looked around and wondered if the doctor had cats that he let walk around the office. I finally asked the woman about the cats, and she replied that she had asked about her “cab” that was late in picking her up.

So, it was no surprise that the exam indicated some hearing loss, and that a hearing aid was recommended. The audiologist even offered a free two or three day trial to see if I liked them. It reminded me of the way in which pet shops would allow you to take a puppy or kitten home to see if you would like it. I guess most people decide that they like the hearing improvement.

Midway through my trial I’m not sure. These modern hearing aids are incredibly sophisticated and introduce you to a world of strange, unfamiliar sounds. The first day was really incredible. I never knew the rustling of my garments made so much noise, or that my footsteps were so loud. I never realized how deafening our old grandfather’s clock was, or how noisy it was flushing the toilet. Outside, I had never heard the neighbor’s kids screaming before.

Most incredible was the sound of my own voice. To me, I sounded like Darth Vader inside his helmut. It was like speaking through an amplifier with a slight delay. I do admit that by the second day it didn’t sound so bad.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that I’ll go for the improvement in hearing. I am far from deaf and I can still have normal conversations with my wife despite the occasional bloopers. But I have come to realize that I sort of like my quiet world where lawn mowers or passing cars don’t sound so loud.

There is also the question of cost and that gets me back to my medical insurance. The tiny hearing devices will cost about $4000, and I believe that is in the mid range. Friends tell me they have paid almost twice that, and I’m sure there are some older models that are cheaper. The $4000 is more than the cost of my complicated and delicate eye surgery of a few years ago that was covered by Medicare.

It seems to me that a large bill like this is precisely what medical insurance is for. I see that my Medicare Advantage plan will pay for drugs like Viagra for those men who suffer from so-called erectile dysfunction. The ads are on TV every day. Why is erectile dysfunction more serious than aural dysfunction?

In the debate over the Affordable Care Act, President Obama insisted that his plan would rid the nation of sub-par plans. As far as I can tell, the only thing sub-par about these existing plans was that they did not cover the cost of contraceptives.  
Some politicians have claimed that the cost for a year’s supply of birth control pills can be $600. That is surely the high end since a web search indicated that birth control pills could cost from $15 to $50 per month. The same site indicated that organizations like Planned Parenthood sell them for much less. A letter writer to a newspaper argued that a month’s supply can be purchased at Walmart for $4.00.

Advocates argue that the pills are a necessary women’s health item. But toothpaste is also a necessary health item and no one suggests that it be covered by insurance. We expect everyone to purchase their own from the huge array that can be found on the shelves.

If I do decide on the hearing aids, I will pay for them myself even though they are a high cost item. I will make the decision on whether the potential benefit justifies the cost. I realize that there are a lot of people, especially seniors, in this country who have more serious hearing loss than me, and who cannot afford hearing aids.

Why were these people forced to pay for Viagra and contraceptives? How many, if given the option might have elected coverage that would restore their hearing? It’s too bad that there is no such thing as “aural” sex, for then hearing loss might be regarded as a more serious matter.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Humor 2014

Malloy and Foley
One thing that was conspicuously absent in both the national and local election campaigns this year was a sense of humor. Back in the eighteenth century John Wilkes, a notorious, radical writer and troublemaker, was running for a seat in the British House of Commons. During one campaign speech h heckler interrupted him and shouted: I would rather vote for the Devil than for you! Wilkes calmly replied. “Since your friend is not a candidate, may I have your vote?”

Humor was one of Ronald Reagan’s great qualities and certainly helped him attract support from all over the political spectrum. His humor helped him attract support from Democrats even though he never hid his love for the Republican Party and what it stood for. Even though he had a strong message, he always won huge majorities because he was such an attractive messenger.

It is hard to imagine two more humorless candidates than the two contestants this year in Connecticut’s race for Governor. One commentator pointed out last night that both the incumbent Democratic Governor Dannell Malloy, and his Republican opponent businessman Tom Foley had very high negative ratings in polls. It was not just the attack ads that no one pays any attention to anyway. Neither candidate seemed likable.

It’s not just a matter of hiring some joke writers, or phony gestures like taking off your tie and jacket and rolling up your sleeves. Humor and likeability ultimately springs from humility, a quality that allows one to look at oneself and realize that the whole world does not revolve around you. When one of his followers once asked St. Francis why they should listen to him, he replied paradoxically that it was because he was the last person in the world that anyone should listen to. He knew his limitations.

This lack of humor and humility is really evident in the incredibly long and boring speeches that candidates, whether victorious or defeated, give to their assembled partisans and the TV audience once the outcome is known. Is it possible that they really believe the words they are uttering ad nauseum? I pity the poor wives, who know all their husband’s foibles and weaknesses, as they stand by having to endure the avalanche of bullshit. The defeated candidates are even worse in their remarks. When do they ever admit that their game plan might have been deficient or that they made errors of judgment or execution? 

As of this writing although a Republican wave seems to have swept over the country and propelled the Republicans into control of both houses of Congress, Governor Malloy seems to have won a narrow victory over Republican challenger Foley in my home state of Connecticut. I thought that there was plenty of opportunity for Foley to inject some humor into his campaign and make his own image more attractive to voters. 

Malloy made Foley’s personal wealth the central issue of his campaign. Rather than take this charge seriously during the debates, I think Foley could have deflected this charge with a little humor. At one point Foley did offer a moratorium on personal attacks but Malloy refused. Foley could have then attained a Reagan moment by declaring that he would honor the moratorium himself, but ignore all of Malloy’s venom. He could have pointed out that he was a relative piker compared to Connecticut's Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal or popular Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.

Anyway, the election is over but politicians and pundits will still provide much material for humor. Last night watching the election commentary on PBS, it was hard not to laugh at the sad faces of the reporters as news of one Republican victory after another came in. They could hardly conceal their disappointment.

Of course, few provide better material for laughs than Vice-President Joe Biden. Again, as news of the loss of Congress came in, he claimed that the Obama Administration is now willing to compromise. What a joke!

P.S. On a local note, Republican Connecticut State Representative Tony Hwang won election to the State Senate. Hwang ran a serious campaign but at the same time he exuded enthusiasm, a positive attitude, and likeability. In all humility I have to say that the endorsement of the Weekly Bystander was not responsible for his considerable margin of victory.
Tony Hwang


Monday, October 27, 2014

Education Reform

Recently, my local Connecticut newspaper published a front-page report showing the differences in average SAT scores for students at various high schools throughout Fairfield county. Predictably, the report showed that students from high schools in wealthier communities scored much higher than students from schools in predominately lower class cities with large minority populations.

In Darien, a small, largely white, well to do town along Fairfield County’s so-called Gold Coast, students averaged 1799 on their combined Sat scores. Only 18 miles away in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s most populous city, the largely black and Hispanic students of Bassick High School averaged only 1024 on their combined SAT scores. Actually, the discrepancy is even worse since only a small percentage of Black and Hispanic students even take the SATs.

The newspaper was quick to draw the obvious conclusion that children in wealthier communities get better educations. But why? Is it just that wealthy community pours more resources into their schools? It is true that their buildings look nicer and more modern and have better equipment, but teachers in the inner city schools make largely the same salaries as their colleagues in wealthier towns. Moreover, the schools in Bridgeport receive over $150 million each year in State funding, largely provided by the taxation of the residents in the wealthy Gold Coast towns. The people in Darien are supporting two school systems, their own and Bridgeport’s.

I believe that the reasons for the education gap are not monetary. I also believe that they are not about race or ethnicity. For most of my life I have read articles and editorials about educational reform. No one should dare to write or talk about it without spending some time in a classroom, or at least talking to the teachers who are actually on the front lines. In my financial planning practice many of my clients were teachers in schools from all over the social and economic spectrum. I would often meet these teachers in their schools and get a pretty good idea of what was going on by talking with them, and just using my own two eyes.

I know that the good, the bad, and the ugly exist in the teaching profession just as in any other profession. However, in my experience the good, competent, and dedicated teachers far outweigh the bad. Anyone who blames the teachers for the sorry state of education in our cities has probably never been in a classroom to observe just what they have to deal with.

I know a young white woman fresh out of college with a degree in elementary education who has just started teaching first grade in a Bridgeport school made up largely of black and hispanic children. Her college degree could not have prepared her for the chaos she encountered on her first day. Every day presents a new challenge and these are only first graders. In many ways, first grade is pivotal for it is then that the mind is ready to learn how to read. If the opportunity is missed, students will fall behind and low SAT scores will inevitably result.

Sadly and significantly, the teacher told me that on Parent’s Night, only four parents showed up to hear about their child’s progress. Maybe parent is the wrong word because most of these Bridgeport first graders don’t have parents. They are being raised by grandparents some of whom are not even in their forties. Sometimes even great-grandparents are the caregivers for these children. Moreover, in most cases there are no men involved in the raising of these children.

One need only contrast this situation with the Parents’ Night at a typical white middle class school in nearby Fairfield. The parking lot will be packed with cars and the classes filled with fathers and mothers anxiously seeking news of their child’s progress or lack of it. Actually, I knew a young math teacher in Bridgeport who did not want to work in a suburban school because the parents were too involved.

No amount of money will rectify the tremendous social disaster that has taken place in American cities in the past few generations. Unwed teenage pregnancies create an almost impossible educational problem. To get an education certificate today, teachers have to take courses that would almost qualify them as master psychologists.

Just the other day the newspaper told the story of a nineteen-year-old woman who left her 3 month old child with strangers in an urban motel. Police finally tracked her down 60 miles away in another hotel room with a group of men. The future for this young woman is really bleak but it is practically hopeless for her baby who has been taken into state custody. The probability is very high that the child will be virtually uneducable by the time he goes to first grade. He will come to regard school as a prison and by the time he gets to eight grade he will likely be attacking classmates and teachers, and destroying school property. Next, the probability is also very high that he will join a street gang, become a drug addict or dealer, and eventually wind up in jail or dead on the street.

On the other hand, the Wall St. Journal recently published an op-ed by a young black woman who had just graduated from college. Her story was the familiar one of a fatherless child with a teenage, possibly addicted, mother. By the time she went to school she was completely out of bounds and disruptive in and out of class. However, her life was transformed when godmother took her away from the mother and placed her in a private school in fifth grade. She credited the school and the State of Florida’s tuition support program but I credit the godmother. Finally, the young girl had someone in her life who cared for her and took an interest in her education.

Some advocate busing Black and Hispanic children from their schools in Bridgeport to high achieving predominately white schools in towns like Darien. What good will it do if there are no parents who will ask them how they did in school today?


Friday, October 17, 2014

Connecticut Tax Shelters

I know that this year’s race for Governor of Connecticut is largely of local importance but it does have some relevance to what is going on not only in the USA but overseas. One of the big issues in this year’s campaign is the wealth of the Republican candidate, Tom Foley, a businessman who has apparently made a fortune by buying, renovating and selling companies. Dannell Malloy, the incumbent Democratic Governor, likes to portray himself as a man of the people who has made it the hard way. He even brags about overcoming a learning disability,

At the beginning of their most recent debate Foley offered a moratorium on personal attacks but the Governor refused. He and his advisors have made Foley’s multi-millionaire status the major issue in the campaign. Foley is portrayed as a wealthy aristocrat totally out of touch with ordinary people.

Career politicians like Malloy like to portray wealthy businessmen who seek to enter the political arena as modern versions of Scrooge McDuck, the wealthy uncle of famed Disney comic character Donald Duck. In yesterday’s debate Malloy tried to distinguish himself from Foley.

“I don’t own a $10 million house, a $5 million yacht, a $1 million plane, and not pay taxes in the state of Connecticut.”

I guess Foley can be forgiven for his home, his yacht, and his plane. After all, he doesn’t hoard all his money in his cavernous basement like Scrooge McDuck. Who can blame him for exchanging 5 million dollars, mere pieces of paper, for a yacht that will probably maintain its value better than the dollars? Connecticut has a large coastline and many people in the state own boats including Governor Malloy.

More seriously, information from his recently released tax returns showed that Foley paid no Federal Income tax in two of the last four years. As a result, in those years he also paid no state income tax. Apparently, Foley’s income comes from the Subchapter S Corporation he heads. This type of corporation is the kind that many small, privately owned businesses set up primarily to limit their personal liability. It has no real tax advantages since all the profit from a Subchapter S corporation must flow through to the owner and be taxed on his personal tax return.

In two of the last four years Foley paid no income tax because capital gains of more than $2 million dollars were more than offset by capital losses from his business. Offsetting gains with losses is standard legal practice. The Government insists that gamblers pay taxes on their winnings but does allow them to deduct their losses. In the same way, if you sell shares in ABC company for a gain this year, you can offset that gain by selling shares in XYZ company if they had a loss.

Significantly, the CT Post recently reported that since Malloy had become Governor of Connecticut, he has avoided paying taxes on the income he receives from renting his home in Stamford, the city right next door to Foley’s Greenwich. Malloy’s election four year’s ago presented him with a golden opportunity. He could live in the Governor’s Mansion in Hartford and thereby rent his home in the well-to-do Shippan section of Stamford for $5000 per month.

As rental property the home in Stamford gets all sorts of tax breaks that the Governor obviously took advantage of. For example, major repairs, improvements and maintenance costs on the house would be considered a business expense that could help offset the rental income for tax purposes. Actually, the rental income would pay for the improvements. These costs as well as other deductions to landlords offset all the Governor’s rental income for tax purposes. Ordinary homeowners cannot deduct the cost of repairs or improvements since they are not a business expense.

So, it turns out that the Governor has a million dollar home, a boat or two, but no private plane. He may be a small time operator compared to Foley, but like Democratic politicians all over the country who complain about the wealth of others, he is not about sharing the pie but more about getting a larger and larger share. Connecticut Senator  Blumenthal is one of the richest men in the country. Long term Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro is one of the richest women. Why aren’t they out of touch with ordinary people?


Thursday, October 9, 2014

American Democracy

Connecticut Governor Malloy
Just last Sunday my local newspaper, the Connecticut Post, ran a front-page article about Connecticut’s Governor Dannell Malloy who this year is in a hotly contested re-election bid. Ken Dixon the Post’s longtime Hartford correspondent wrote the article.

According to Dixon, Malloy is a tough even belligerent politician who has battled and antagonized many politicians even in his own Democratic party. One source even mentioned that Malloy had been a mayor of the large city of Stamford before becoming governor and that mayors are used to getting what they want. Malloy was characterized as almost dictatorial in dealing with leading politicians in the overwhelmingly Democratic Connecticut legislature.

However, what was most interesting about the article was reporter Dixon’s disclaimer that his Democratic political informants would only speak with him on condition of anonymity.  Their reluctance to identify themselves made one think of Russia under feared dictator Joseph Stalin. Many years ago famed Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described in a series of novels the fear that even high-ranking Soviet officials had of seeming to speak out of line.

It’s obvious that Connecticut politicians realize that political punishment awaits them if they dare to cross the Governor. Even if they can’t be punished with loss of power and influence, they would certainly be blocked from future advancement. No lucrative judiciary appointments or executive posts would be available to anyone who would step out of line.

A few weeks ago after voting in a local primary contest, I met a young official who was running for his party’s nomination to a seat in the State House of Representatives. I tried to discuss an issue with him but he cut me off to give me a little lesson in how things work in Connecticut’s democracy.

He explained that a representative could take one of two paths if elected. He could go to Hartford and do whatever the party leaders directed him to do. If he played ball, at the end of the session his district would be allocated funding so that a section of town road might be repaved. On the other hand, he could go to Hartford to represent his constituents and perhaps even buck the leadership on a vote or two. If he took that path, he would get nowhere and not even be given the funding to repave the roads.

A few days ago I met another candidate for the legislature who was out canvassing the neighborhood for votes. I asked her if she agreed with a recent law pushed through the legislature by the Governor to exempt teacher pensions from State income tax. She told me that she would be honest with me and admitted that she knew nothing about it. She explained that her involvement in town politics and the needs of her young children had kept her from knowing much about statewide issues. I could only scratch my head and wonder why this intelligent young person was seeking to load her already overflowing plate.

To add icing to the cake just yesterday President Obama helicoptered into wealthy Greenwich to attend a $32000 a plate Democratic fundraising dinner. Here is a man who has spent practically his entire career pillorying and demonizing the rich in this country. He never ceases to speak about income inequality and the need for the wealthy to share the wealth.

Nevertheless, he has the gall or hypocrisy to show up with outstretched hand in wealthy Greenwich. Actually, it could be just cunning. Russian revolutionary Nikolai Lenin was said to have remarked that if you give the Capitalists enough rope, they would hang themselves.

Seeing the image of President Obama stepping off Marine 1 to be met by Greenwich millionaires made me think of the final scene in George Orwell’s famous book “Animal Farm.” Orwell had fought with the Communists during the Spanish Civil War but became disenchanted when he realized that they were just as bad, if not worse, than their opponents.

Older readers will remember that “Animal Farm” was a political fable about a rebellion of the oppressed farm animals against the farmer who profited from their labor. The farmer and his men were driven off the farm which then was to be worked by and for the animals. A banner was raised proclaiming, “All Animals are Equal.” All would share equally in the work and rewards of the farm.

Unfortunately, things soon took a wrong turn. The wily pigs took over with the aid of fierce attack dogs and soon lorded it over the other animals. One day the animals noted that the revolutionary banner had bee altered to read: “All Animals are Equal, but Some are More Equal than Others.”

The book ends with a very touching scene. One night the ordinary animals stand out in the cold peering through the window of the restored farmhouse. They behold the prosperous pigs enjoying a fine dinner. Their guest is the farmer.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Masterpiece: Leonardo's Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper
(click on images to enlarge)

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited.

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. Since the eighteenth century art historians and critics have generally believed that in the Last Supper, Leonardo depicted the moment immediately following Christ’s announcement of his betrayal. Over 50 years ago in the very popular series of Metropolitan Museum seminars in Art, critic John Canaday wrote,
The Last Supper is a great picture with a religious subject. That is not exactly the same thing as saying that The Last Supper is a great religious picture, which it is not…. Nor did Leonardo intend it to be one. In all reverence he conceived of the moment when Christ says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me”, as a moment of unparalleled human drama.
Even today, a quick web search shows that the lead Wikipedia article begins with the following pronouncement.
“The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him.”
It was this common but mistaken interpretation that the late Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg’s thesis was controversial but anyone reading “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century. [i]

Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment. In a famous essay German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth century secularists for a profound mis-reading.
Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
Reading Steinberg’s “Incessant Last Supper” not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer.

To  illustrate his thesis I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles. Leonardo obviously knew his Apostles and the legends that had grown up about them. Their appearance, their gestures, and their placement show that they are reacting in their own characteristic way to the announcement, “This is My Body…Take and eat.”

From left to right the Apostles are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg’s stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour![iii]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.

 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[iv]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.

Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope….“
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[v]
The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.

None of these gestures can be explained as a reaction to the betrayal announcement.

Finally, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, who can no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement.
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vi]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[vii]

Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was modern art. But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries. 


[i] Steinberg, Leo: Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, New York, 2001.

[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 61.
[iv] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[v] Ibid. p. 70.
[vi] Ibid. p. 57.
[vii] Ibid,. p. 58.