Shrinking tables

FamilyDinnerThis is a great time of year: spring is finally loosening winter’s grip, kids are preparing for spring break, (mostly) women are cooking and shopping in preparation for the annual holiday and the traditional feast.

And yet . . . For some families the holidays have become more nostalgic than joyous. Holiday tables that used to have children that are now parents themselves welcome the next generation — little ones squirming, toddlers on the move, pre-schoolers hiding under the tablecloth; teens texting; middle-schoolers sharing their latest discoveries; adults trying to carry on a conversation; grandmothers pulling everything together; grandfathers pouring wine and helping out wherever needed; indulging aunts, a grouchy uncle — some of these holiday tables are suddenly silent. Where have all the families gone?

The middle generation — parents struggling to spend quality time with their kids while fielding the demands of work and perhaps also caring for an aging parent, not to mention nurturing loving relationships with their spouses — this middle generation is stretched by responsibilities and pulled in many directions at once. Some scatter, enticed by job offers too good to turn down that require relocation to faraway places.

The women, now grandmothers, actually enjoyed the planning and the endless errands and the pre-holiday work overload. They enjoyed the tumult when three and sometimes four generations converged in their homes a few times a year, even though by the end of the evening they couldn’t wait to kick back and put up their feet after the last child had gone.

Years ago we learned that Hallmark cards and Norman Rockwell pictured fantasies that didn’t exist in reality. Still, when the realization hits that the family can no longer be gathered, planning a festive occasion seems futile, too much work for minimal reward.

That’s when friends come in. They are in the same boat and all too happy to join forces to celebrate the holidays in a new way. They forfeit the rough-and-tumble, trading it for adult conversation and shared experiences. Different, but not bad at all.

Photo by Toby Simkin

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Filed under American Society, Personal, Women

Call me crazy

Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz

Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz

But I just don’t believe you kill 149 strangers because you want to kill yourself.

The medical records of the co-pilot who deliberately crashed a plane into a mountain, killing 149 people in addition to himself, are being examined. We now know that Andreas Lubitz suffered from depression and had suicidal tendencies. We also know that he had always loved to fly — he joined a flight club when he was 14. Add to this picture that he had problems with his vision.

So, given what we know, let’s hypothesize a worst-case scenario: the likable young man who made a living doing what he loved best was diagnosed with an illness that would soon result in blindness. This knowledge made him depressed or increased his already existent depression, especially because it would mean the end of his flying. So he began to think about suicide, as blindness meant he would have to live without his life’s purpose. Even if you don’t agree that suicide is a solution, it’s not hard to understand his state of mind and follow that logic. No one would be shocked if he killed himself.

Up to here, the narrative is reasonable. BUT there is a huge gulf between pointing a loaded pistol at your own head versus killing yourself and at the same time murdering 149 people who had put their lives in your capable hands. How could an apparently non-psychopathic person deliberately allow a plane to practically glide into a mountain? There is something very big missing here. Other than terrorism, anger at the cruel world and other severely anti-social motives, why did Lubitz do what he did? There must be a lot more than meets the eye.

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South Africa v United States: Trevor Noah

South African comedian Trevor Noah will replace Jon Stewart as host on “The Daily Show.” In his debut on the show last December, Stewart played the straight man as Noah compared race relations and poverty in Africa with conditions in the U.S. (watch the video, above). Guess who won?

In Africa Noah found a stretch of a superhighway and a shot of children in school that he compared with the F.D.R. Drive in New York City and children living in Detroit:

FDR / Central Africa

FDR / Central Africa

Kenya / Detroit

Kenya / Detroit

He also pulled in a clip of Nick Kristof saying

The United States right now incarcerates more African-American men as a percentage than apartheid South Africa did.


Right now the race gap in wealth between the average median white family and the median black family is eighteenfold. That’s greater than it was in apartheid South Africa.

“Africa is worried about you guys,” joked Noah. It was only partly funny.

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Filed under ComedyBeat, Income and Wealth Inequality, Race, Society

Winter, 2 – Spring, 2

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say  that the Northeast is ready for spring. Personally, I love the snow, especially when it is falling or sparkling in its pristine whiteness.

First day of Spring

First day of Spring in NYC

The eagerly awaited new season finally came. This is how Spring arrived in New York:

We laughed. What else could one do?
In a few days, the temperature reached almost 60º. The snow disappeared.

Rhododendrons, 2nd week of Spring

Rhododendrons, 2nd week of Spring

Then, exactly one week later, Winter beat Spring into submission. The snow came blowing back.

By Friday night, the snow was seriously coming down.

2nd snow of Spring

2nd snow of Spring

Snow-covered lilacs

Snow-covered lilacs



And it continued to snow on Saturday, heavily, all day.





By Sunday morning it looked like this.


The sun breaks through the clouds

The sun breaks through the clouds

Then the sun came out.



A few hours later, on Sunday afternoon, the Spring sun had banished Winter once again. Is this contest finally over? Will Spring finally triumph?

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“Don’t look now, but we’re actually governing!”

PelosiBoehnerSo said Rep. Renee Elmers, Republican of North Carolina. She was celebrating the achievement of House Republicans and Democrats, who accomplished the seemingly impossible. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) found a way to reduce Medicare costs while improving medical care and then sold the deal to their caucuses. The parties actually negotiated and came to a bipartisan agreement on how to fix Medicare’s financial woes and other health-related problems. In today’s polarized government, this was nothing short of a miracle.

The sweeping change to Medicare is to reward doctors based on successful outcomes rather than fee-for-service. Until now, doctors were paid for every test and procedure they ordered or performed, regardless of the outcome. “Now,” said Marilyn Moon, a health economist and former trustee of the Medicare program, “doctors get paid more if they do more. In the future, they will be paid more if they do it better — and may be paid more for doing less.”

Some of the cost will be offset by higher premiums for the wealthiest Medicare beneficiaries. Without this bill, physicians with Medicare patients would face a 21-percent reduction in their fees on April 1. Many doctors would consequently feel compelled to drop out of Medicare, leaving seniors scrambling for access to many fewer doctors. Republicans also agreed to extend CHIP, the government-funded health insurance for needy children. Democrats wanted a four-year extension, but settled for two years in the hope of a longer extension in the future.

What remains is for the Senate to vote its approval. Passage of the bill in Senate is all but certain, given the overwhelming majority in the House, which passed the bill by a vote of 392 to 37. Pelosi corralled all but four Democrats to vote in favor, while Boehner lost only 33 of the most conservative Republicans.

Was this an amazing fluke, or are the people we elected to govern actually learning to play well together? Stay tuned.

Photo by KAZ Vorpal

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Do you love Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, et al.?

AnythingGoesLast night I went to a wonderful show — classical music from Broadway, by which I mean Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lerner & Loewe, Irving Berlin … There are many more, but what’s the use of naming them? Only audiences “of a certain age” not only recognize but love the music created by those names. (I and a few of my friends know all the lyrics and can sing them all.) I often wonder MyFairLady2when I look around me at the audience at the opera or chamber music or even pop standards like those I heard last night, and see only grey and balding heads: What will happen to this music when the greyheads are gone?

Guys&Dolls2Peter Gelb is doing a masterful job of revamping the opera, things like ripping “Rigoletto” from its 16th-century palace setting and plopping it down in a casino in 1950s Las Vegas. I think that is a brilliant move, since the power plays of the debauched nobility differ little from the depravity of 20th-century gangsters. Jealousy, pride and a father’s love aren’t bound to time or place. With novel staging in new productions and free outdoor showings, Gelb may well succeed in enticing new audiences. SouthPacificGreat theater deals with the human condition, and since that doesn’t change from one age to another, the costumes worn by the players in no way alter the themes of love lost and won, jealousy, treachery, death, cleverness, stupidity and so on.

I suspect the musical theater is different. OklahomaThe “younger set” no longer swings to the music of Glenn Miller or Harry James — they don’t need to cling to each other on the dance floor when they can hook up in bed with no effort. Cole Porter’s marvelously witty lyrics no longer resonate.

Every age, of course, has its own passions, styles and crazes. And each age thinks theirs are the best. As they should.

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Filed under Music, Musings, Personal

Emmy Noether, mathematical genius

Emmy Noether's Google Doodle

Emmy Noether’s Google Doodle

Emmy Noether was no less than “The most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since higher education of women began.” according to Einstein. The reason you’ve probably never heard of her is the profound sexism that was rampant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though she was prevented, as a woman, from enrolling in university classes, she obtained permission from her professors to audit. After graduation she taught at the Mathematical Institute of the same university (Erlangen) without pay for seven years.

Noether’s work revolutionized physics with groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Today, on her 133rd birthday, Google honored her with a Google Doodle that included references to her work in topology, ascending/descending chains, Noetherian rings, time, group theory, conservation of angular momentum, and continuous symmetries.

“The list keeps going on and on from there!” writes Sophie Diao, the author of the Doodle, “Noether’s advancements not only reflect her brilliance but also her determination in the face of adversity.”

Read more about Noether at Vox.

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