Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Legacy of Shame

Judge Denny Chin imposed the maximum sentence of 150 years on Bernard L. Madoff, the mastermind of the greatest financial fraud in history, but it is not enough. There are more than 6,000 individuals and organizations that were victimized, in the judge’s words, by Madoff’s “extraordinary evil” that resulted in losses of more than $50 billion.

“I am responsible for a great deal of suffering and pain,” Madoff said in court, “I live in a tormented state now, knowing of all the pain and suffering I have created.” How can anyone believe these words? His business relationships were based on trust. Can a person who lived the world’s biggest lie be trusted when he says he now lives in a tormented state? More likely, what he is thinking and not saying is, “I had a great run while it lasted!” It is truly understandable that no friends or associates submitted letters of support to the court on Madoff’s behalf.

“How do you excuse lying to your brother and two sons,” he said at one point, “How do you excuse lying and deceiving a wife who stood by you for 50 years, and still stands by you?” Hold on Bernie, no one believes that your family wasn’t in on this scheme. Rather it is more believable that you talked about business while enjoying family time at that villa in the south of France, or while on a family cruise in the Mediterranean. It is more believable that your sons would ask for insight into your unprecedented success so they could carry on the business.

It turns out that your wife, Ruth Madoff, is feeling torment as well. She has been stripped of all assets and property except for $2.5 million. “The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man I have known for all these years,” she said as she broke her silence with a post sentencing written statement. “Please know that not a day goes by when I don’t ache over the stories I have heard and read.” I am sure she is also aching over the fact that she has to do her own shopping and ride the subway.

Bernie Madoff concluded his courtroom statement with an apology, “I am sorry. I know that doesn’t help you.” He is right it doesn’t help that 91 year-old man who has had to go back to work in order to live. It doesn’t help Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. It doesn’t Michael Schwartz’s disabled brother, whose savings are gone. “His jail cell will be his coffin,” Schwartz said after the sentencing. Another victim said, “Madoff discarded me like road kill.”

Most victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme were pleased with the sentence with many saying it would serve as a deterrent in the future. However, there were plenty of red flags raised with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and alarm bells were going off all over the place. Unless regulations are properly reformed, rigorously applied and staff are held accountable there will be no real deterrent. Madoff’s self-proclaimed “legacy of shame” extends to those who provided weak oversight and lax enforcement.

Meanwhile, the Madoff story is far from over. The FBI investigation is expanding and others are likely to be convicted. Madoff himself is waiting to hear in what prison he will serve his sentence. Yet, even if each day one of the thousands of victims was able to address Madoff face to face in prison for the rest of his life he still would not get what he deserves.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Twelfth Night" in the Park

“If music be the food of love, play on!”

So the music played on throughout the Public Theater’s marvelous production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on a spectacular night at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. The cast, led by Anne Hathaway, put in lively and delightful performances under the clever direction of Daniel Sullivan.

Ms. Hathaway was Viola, who became Cesario for much of the play, and she easily carried out both roles with aplomb. There was a genuineness and frankness in her approach. She delivers her lines with ease, youthful innocence and skill. Ms. Hathaway is a strikingly beautiful woman whose presence commands attention. Nonetheless, in this multifaceted play, she cannot steal the show.

Aura McDonald’s Countess Olivia is emotional, human and in command. Lady Olivia has no interest in Duke Orsino’s affections, delivered by his servant Cesario. In this case, rather than kill the messenger, Lady Olivia has fallen for him (ah her).

….I am not what I am.

I would you were as I would have you be!

Would it be better, madam, than I am?
I wish it might, for now I am your fool.

This is an enjoyable production of the popular play, which has been performed here many times over the years. Throughout the three hours there was great energy and liveliness, especially because of the rollicking antics of characters Sir Tony Belch (Jay O. Sanders), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Hamish Linklater) and Feste (David Pittu). In fact, so much so it threatens to topple the proceedings at times. And Lady Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Michael Clumpsty) is hilarious in yellow stockings, cross garters and a constant smile.

There is a wonderful score, written by the symphonic folk-rock band Hem, that threads its way throughout the production. And while I knew Audra McDonald sang beautifully, I was amazed and surprised by Anne Hathaway’s lovely voice.

There is nothing more New York than Shakespeare in the Park.

our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dangerous Liaisons

What's with some politicians? What are they thinking?

Governor Terry Sanford, Senator John Ensign--both thought to be 2012 presidential candidates--Senator Larry Craig and Senator David Vitter. Add to that Democrats like former Senator John Edwards, former Governor Eliot Spitzer, former President Bill Clinton, and there are certain to be more scandals lurking just out of sight.

It is no wonder that politicians are not highly regarded by Americans.

If you are the nation's leading Republican Governor and an outspoken critic of President Obama, what makes you think no one will notice if you decide to take off for a few days for some R&R with a woman other than your wife, and you don't tell anyone, not even your family, you are going to disappear?

If you are a prominent and very ambitious U. S. Senator, what makes you think no one will catch on if you have an affair with a campaign staff member who is also the wife of one of your former top administrative aides, and that you get her a big raise and get her son a job on your campaign committee?

If you are a prominent and righteous U. S. Senator, what makes you think that word won't get out if you decide to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of having sex in an airport bathroom with another man--then you deny it?

If you are a prominent U. S. Senator who called for President Clinton's resignation over a sex scandal, what makes you think that no one will notice if you utilize the services of the "D.C. Madam" on several occasions and your phone number turns up in her records?

What kind of role models are they for our children? How can they be so hypocritical or so egocentric? Did the pain such acts would cause their wives and children ever factor into their equation?

And it's not so much the affair. It's disappearing for three days, arranging for your mistress to get a raise, pleading guilty then trying to worm out of it, or even asking a president to resign for the very sin you then commit again and again. What kind of judgment do these men have? Can they be trusted with our constitution?

Yet often colleagues offer comfort, support and a pat on the back. "Boys will be boys." "Man is not perfect (that's for sure)." "America loves a comeback story."

And when beginning that comeback, just take a page from the television producer's handbook:

"When caught, put on a humble face and say the following:
1. I don't know how it happened.
2. I am sorry.
3. It will never happen again."

But in these instances, saying, "I'm sorry" to your wife, family, friends and constituents, as heartfelt as it may seem, is really not enough.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"I am Burning, I am Burning"

So often historic events are symbolized by a single iconic image. "I am burning, I am burning," were Neda Agha-Soltan's last words as she bled to death from a bullet wound through her heart.

Neda was an innocent young lady returning from singing lessons that were conducted "underground" because Iranian women are not allowed to sing in public. "She was so full of life," said a relative, "She sang pop music." Witnesses spoke of hearing the crack of a sniper shot from a Tehran rooftop, then in a split second seeing her body fall to the ground. The bullet intended to snuff out the life of a protester has instead transformed a nation.

The video of Neda's death has fueled fires of passion in most Iranians, fanning rage against government oppression of freedoms and human rights. "We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets," President Barack Obama said in his news conference today. Describing the Neda death as "heartbreaking," he concluded, "While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history."

Fear and uncertainty runs through a population that is largely young and unaccustomed to the fresh air of freedom. Rumors and disinformation are spreading on social networking sites and word of mouth. But the mullahs, who govern this rigidly Islamic state, are feeling fear and uncertainty as well. Fissures are beginning to appear in the foundations of this nation. Political jockeying has ensued as would-be leaders position themselves for more power.

Western nations are being accused of inciting protests by the Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, especially England and the United States. Most Iranians are wary of the U.S. given its long history of meddling in that country. Khamenei would love nothing more than to turn this into an Iran versus the USA showdown.

While Obama has been properly cautious up to now, today he appropriately ratcheted up his rhetoric. "I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering in Iran's affairs," Obama said. "But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place." If the report is true, it is also deplorable that the Iranian government is charging families of dead protestors a $3,000 "bullet fee."

Under orders of the government the family quickly buried Neda's body. There will be no memorial, no service in her memory and no public prayers. Neda's organs will be donated to those in need of a transplant. The former philosophy student and musician, whose name means, "voice," has spoken to the world through her death. Neda didn't have a weapon. She was not a soldier at war; she was not a revolutionary.

Neda was a Persian woman. She was a daughter of Iran. She lived her entire life of twenty-six years never knowing total freedom. Her fiancé, Caspian Makan, said, "She wanted freedom, freedom for everybody."

Neda's death is a tragedy. But her death has now given voice to an unstoppable movement toward freedom in Iran.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Park For All Seasons

The rain has been pouring down on New York’s Central Park most of June. But this has not dampened the spirits of park enthusiasts who teem over its 843 acres and plentiful playgrounds come rain or shine.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux probably never thought that their grand design would be so enduring and central to what would become the world’s greatest city. Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant had championed a pastoral retreat for the booming city of a half-million people jammed into the lower half of Manhattan. City commissioners spent $5 million buying up the land between 1853 and 1856, which then included sheep meadows, granite hills and Revolutionary War fortifications. The city spend $14 million and fifteen years removing five million cubic yards of stone and soil, then building 30 bridges and arches and eleven overpasses.

Today the six-mile perimeter of Central Park is surrounded on all sides by steep walls of concrete and steel. Traffic races around it, streams through it and zips across its sunken transverse routes. The park is filled with runners, bikers, hikers, picnickers and bird-watchers who watch the 275 species of birds calling the park their home. Toddlers romp in each of the 21 playgrounds located throughout the park, softball players battle it out on each of the more than two-dozen softball fields. Folks walk on 58 miles of pedestrian paths, 4.5 miles of bridle paths and sit on nearly 9,000 park benches. More than 25 million people visit the park each year.

Central Park is a place of special memories for most New Yorkers. Chances are your daughter giggled in delight as she fed the sheep at Central Park Zoo, or watched in amazement as the seals performed acrobatics for their lunch. She may have been thrilled by the skyline view from the top of Belvedere Castle, which was built in 1872. Your son may have hit his first baseball here, or made his first shot at one of the basketball courts. You may have paddled a canoe near the boathouse or listened to music at the bandshell. Your family may have joined other families from school or your parish for a picnic under an elm tree on the Great Lawn. Nearby, Frisbees float, paper airplanes soar and kites sail in blue skies dotted by puffy clouds. Somehow the din of New York City is muted in this place.

Come winter, Wolman Rink is a great place to go skating, although there are lots of beginners hanging on for dear life. And following a fresh snow dozens of young sledders vie for a clear path on one of the park’s hills near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On any given day, no matter the temperature or weather conditions, the park is filled with joggers and bikers. Many use the road known as “the loop” that circles inside the park and is about 6.2 miles in around. Another favored route is a track circling the reservoir that runs about 1.6 miles. There are also miles of horse paths to run on.

While it is prudent to be alert at all times in the park, it is especially important as darkness settles in. Regretfully, robberies and assaults do occur on occasion in the park, so visitors should leave the park at night. Unless, of course, it is time to catch lightening bugs near the apple blossoms at Engineer’s Gate. Or you are attending “Shakespeare on the Park” and looking up at the moon as it shines down on the Public Theater.

Summer is just days away. The rain will give way to sunshine; the cool air will turn hot and steamy. Millions of New Yorkers, from Harlem to The Village, will seek greener pastures, cooler breezes and the slower pace of life in Central Park.

Thank you Mr.Olmsted and Mr. Vaux.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Free Iran

While protests are continuing on the streets of Iran against election results widely regarded as fraudulent, behind the scenes key players are maneuvering for position. The genie may be out of the bottle but there is growing fear that a massive crackdown is days away.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the announced results of Iran’s presidential election. How can nearly 40 million paper ballots be counted in just a few hours? Why is it that challenger Mir Hussein Moussavi did so poorly in his home district and among demographics that he was expected to perform well in? Why did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad double or triple his votes in areas where conservatives fared poorly last election?

Leading up to the election most polls indicated the outcome would be close. However, no one forecast a nearly 85% turnout. In part, the difference was that millions who did not participate in 2005 in protest of their government became engaged this election. Not because many Iranians considered Moussavi a reformer, rather he was perceived as an acceptable alternative to the failed economic and foreign policies of Ahmadinejad. For many younger and middle class voters it was time for a change.

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have played a crucial role in sharing information and organizing demonstrations for Iranians throughout the world. Pictures and video of protests and police brutality have been uploaded for all to see. This has so fueled tensions that now the Revolutionary Guard has taken steps to shut it down. Meanwhile, the state run media is continuing its regularly scheduled programming.

On Facebook postings from Iranian students there are unconfirmed reports from Jerusalem that Hamas thugs are helping police “crush the protests.” There is also a document of uncertain authenticity circulating on web that purports to show a vastly different outcome to the election. The author is said to be reformist and former minister Ebrahim Amini, and the results have Moussavi winning with more than 19 million votes while Ahmadinejad finished third with nearly 6 million votes.

All of this has placed enormous pressure on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who now seems more human than superhuman. Hours after the polls closed he declared Ahmadinejad’s victory as “an historic triumph for Islam.” But a couple days later the Supreme Leader, whose word is considered infallible, was offering a partial recount in the face of unprecedented dissent. Meanwhile, behind the scenes former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a billionaire, is working for Khamenei’s removal and a better global image while at the same time supporting the mullahs. Divisions and factions are bubbling up and threaten the council’s firm grip.

Now the Iranian government has accused the United States of meddling in their internal affairs. President Barack Obama has been careful to walk a fine line in dealing with the crisis because he is most likely going to have to deal with Ahmadinejad. Most Republicans are calling for tougher action from Obama, certainly tougher than asking the folks at Twitter to delay shutting down their site briefly for scheduled repairs. But few Americans, let alone the reform minded Iranians, listen to the GOP for advice.

Moussavi, a former Iranian prime minister, is also a conservative hardliner. Should the massive protests end up over turning the election and Moussavi becomes president, Iranian nuclear development is not likely to be stopped. Iran looks at nuclear technology as a symbol of power both within its own country as well as among Arab nations, with whom it has had a long history of tension. But Moussavi may be more open to negotiations on other important issues.

This outcome is most unlikely. If the Governing Council and the Supreme Leader aren’t able to get control of their populace soon a Tiananmen Square style crackdown is more likely. Nonetheless, with about half its population under 25, the seeds have been planted for a freer and more open society. The cork is out of the bottle.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Military Suicide Epidemic

Tragically once again the suicide rate among U. S. Army soldiers increased last month. That means that Army suicides doubled over the previous month, and they are now on a record pace for the year.

The numbers are staggering. This year the Army reports there have been 82 confirmed or suspected suicides. Last year the Army reported a total of 133 suicides. More than 1.65 million service members have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11, 2001. More than 300,000 have suffered psychological wounds from the hidden injuries of war due to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and combat stress. Often the impact from these injuries is not felt until after a serviceman returns home.

This past January the Army implemented an effort to deal with the growing number of suicides. This includes the creation of a suicide prevention task force and more counselors. Counselors are spending more time closer to the fighting front to make it easier for soldiers to open up about their experiences. All troops leaving combat are screened for signs of depression, and another round of screening is conducted three to six months after soldiers return home. Still, a majority of the suicides occur after soldiers have returned home.

In July 2007 “The National Suicide Prevention Hotline” changed their greeting to include a special message for soldiers. When calling “1-800-273-TALK” callers will hear, “If you are a U. S. military veteran, or are calling about one, press 1 now.” Calls are then routed to agents at the Veterans Affairs call center in Canandaigua, New York, or one of five sub-network centers. This past April veterans calling Lifeline represented 20 per cent of total calls, and that number is growing.

The Mental Health Association of New York City is one of many organizations working to help veterans who are having problems reintegrating into their community. The MHA-NYC is developing a Veteran’s Mental Health Coalition in New York City to help veterans deal with depression, thoughts of suicide or other forms of mental illness.

Anyone can suffer from depression, a feeling of hopelessness, grief or lack of energy. The sooner a veteran gets treatment, the sooner the veteran will feel better. Regretfully, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness, but attitudes are quickly changing through education and increased awareness.

The good news is help is only a phone call away: 1-800-273-TALK.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Good Bye Paris

Today was both a great day and a sad day. Great because it was Zoe's final day of school for the year. As amazing as it may seem, Zoe has now finished seventh grade and next year she will enter the eight grade at the Spence School, where she has studied since kindergarten. Zoe had a most challenging year, but she was able to prevail in algebra, the study of the body in science, medieval Europe, Japan and Africa as part of history, Latin and English. Zoe is quite the poet if you didn't know it!

But today was also a very sad day because Paris, her guinea pig, died this morning. While Paris had beautiful black and white hair, her story is very colorful. Paris lived in her cage, usually hiding in her little wooden home. You see she was naturally shy. When she was out of her cage she always sought cover under a chair, bed or towel. Even if only her head was covered she felt safe, perhaps not realizing that the rest of her very large body was exposed.

Paris weighed more than four pounds, almost as much as her friend Cleo, our Maltese. Paris loved to eat, and she was served fine food (for a guinea pig anyway). Each morning she began her day with a bowl full of kale, sliced carrots, cucumbers and apple. Her motto may well have been "never eat on an empty stomach." Throughout the day she munched on timothy hay and mixed seeds. And she sipped water from a water bottle hanging on the side of the cage. Make no mistake about it, if Paris was out of food she would squeal and squeak.

Her cage was located on the floor of the master bedroom. This allowed Cleo and Paris to develop quite a nice rapport, especially when Karen changed the cage every Tuesday morning. And it turns out that Paris was very generous. Cleo would circle the cage and snag a strand of timothy hay. That was okay with Paris. Sometimes, however, Cleo would choked as the hay got caught in her throat. Paris would seem concerned.

Paris was always popular with Zoe's friends. She joined our family in August 2004. Then we already had a guinea pig called Taffy. Light brown and white, the two made a wonderful couple. Taffy had a very sweet personality. He liked to be held. Unfortunately he would die a year later.

As the school year comes to an end, another phase of Zoe's life also comes to a close. But the memories are wonderful. We will miss Paris.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bukra Enshalla Obama

President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" in an historic speech delivered today in Cairo, Egypt. The fact is, though, that many people don't want one.

In ten days Iran has a national election that could have important consequences for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In past elections many eligible voters who opposed the Iranian regime did not cast a ballot. But there have been indications that more people will vote against the ruling government due to their country's growing economic difficulties and oppression.

So the Iranian leadership was taking no chances that a "rock star" president offering a new beginning would fire up opposition. Shortly before Obama spoke, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, "The nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination." Speaking to thousands of Iranians on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, he dismissed the American president, "The new US government seeks to transform this image. I say firmly, that this will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans."

For his part, President Obama's call for a sustained effort to "respect one another and to seek common ground" may have sounded more appealing to Iranians who are able to get his speech. "Any nation--including Iran--should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," the president said. Yet President Obama also said that America's strong bond with Israel is "unbreakable." And, referring to the Holocaust, he had an explicit criticism for President Ahmadinejad, "Six million Jews were killed...denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction...is deeply wrong." Not surprisingly the Cairo audience did not applaud, but the whole Muslim world clearly heard this message loud and clear.

President Obama's much anticipated speech to the Muslims did not contain soaring rhetoric or new initiatives. Rather the president seemed to want to restate America's positions and begin a new very personal dialog with the Muslim world. The son of a Muslim from Kenya, and an African American who has lived in a Muslim country, this American president is different than all the rest. But President Obama was also realistic, "I do recognize that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." He then continued, "But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors."

The hardest challenge involves the Israelis and Palestinians. Here President Obama was straightforward; "the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security." But the president signaled a change in U.S. policy when he indicated Hamas, a terrorist organization, could play a role in future negotiations. "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities," he said. "To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations...Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."

Then President Obama firmly stated, "(The) United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." He said that this violates agreements and undermines peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office issued a cautious statement in response, "The government of Israel expresses hope that President Obama's important speech will lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world, and Israel...Israel is obligated to peace and will do as much as possible to help expand the circle of peace, while taking into consideration our national interests, the foremost of which is security."

President Obama explained to his Muslim audience that his "first duty as President (is) to protect the American people." He described Al Qaeda as ruthless and determined to kill on a massive scale. He pointed out that they have killed more Muslims than people of other faiths. He explained the presence of American troops in Afghanistan and his desire to get them out as soon as possible. But he described Iraq as "a war of choice." And he said that the United States was in the process of withdrawing troops from that country.

President Obama's speech was interrupted several times by applause. Shouts of "we love you" could be heard on three occasions. The president's speech was truly historic and important. But there were no "Yes we can!" campaign slogans. Just straight talk. Peace in the Middle East has been elusive for more than 2,000 years. There are too many conflicting interests and complicated divisions within countries and within the Muslim religion. President Obama concluded his speech by quoting from the Koran, Talmud and the Holy Bible. He then ended hopefully, "The people of the world can live together in peace." He might also have said, "Bukra enshalla," or, "Tomorrow, God willing."