Monday, October 26, 2009


In One and the Same Abigail
Pogrebin offers up an exquisitely written, moving, informative and, perhaps
above all else, courageous story. 
The prose throughout in its journalistic clarity and unpretentious
elegance is stunning, most especially in its introduction, which at times
borders on the lyrical.   I
think that’s because it’s so candidly personal.  As someone who spends considerable time trying to string the
right words into coherent sentences I confess my reaction to those pages was,
yes, twinish: a combination of
admiration and jealousy.  This book
is informative, if only in bringing into sharp focus why academics who devote their energy to understanding the human condition and dynamic spend so much
of their time studying twins.   It is moving because it tells, sometimes joyfully and
sometimes poignantly, her own and other twin stories.  And it is dually courageous because Abigail reveals so much
of herself and all the more so because Robin has given her permission to open
the door to that other personal self. 
Robin’s courage, as she would probably want us to acknowledge, is found in the
implicit permission given that is evident and permeates every page and
every word.

Full disclosure. 
Abigail’s mother Letty and I were college classmates.  We both ended up  living blocks apart on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan.  Two of our children, her
David and my older son Tommy DOG are age piers.  Interestingly Letty, who is one of the preeminent and most
articulate feminists of my generation, chose to use her husband’s name,
personally and professionally.  The
girls, like my sisters, have not. 
In Letty’s case, counter intuitive as it may be, it’s not
surprising.  Bert Pogrebin is one
of the most engaging and thoroughly decent human beings I have ever known.  Who wouldn’t want to associate with
that?  The age difference between the
girls and my kids was not that significant but in childhood a few years magnify.  So with what I would call an ad hoc
relationship with their parents, my contacts with Abby and Robin were sadly
tangential.  Seeing what has become
of each of them, makes me aware of how very much I missed.

One and the Same is an
important book.  Perhaps Kermit the
frog found that being green wasn’t easy, but his challenge couldn’t hold a
candle to being an identical twin.  In these
pages we’re introduced to twins in all flavors, ages and circumstances.  We see them gathered in convention,
making their twiness a business or leveraging it for all its worth.  We see twins who study twins, who live
together or in proximity and others who live far apart, in some few cases
purposefully as far as possible. 
We meet those who still more or less act twinish by dressing alike or in
one case creating works of art together.  We meet a twin who has adapted to  the other's sex change and now calls his once brother sister. 
We see wrenching tragedy in the twin who lost his brother in the Trade
Center (there were others) or the twins whose genes in a statistically unlikely
happenstance contributed to the deaths of one of each of their very young
children.   She makes us laugh
and cry.

Twins are (at least) two things, and Abigail is at once the thorough
journalist faithfully conveying tape recorded tales and quoting research that
adds substantive meat to the bones of her story but in a profound way always a
full participant.  In their narrative
or in the expert opinions gathered, she sees herself, she sees her sister.  This book is a very personal journey,
and you would think a therapeutic one. 
But that would diminish what it really is.   It’s power comes from an unmistakable personal voice, an
unvarnished, candid and sometimes emotional voice, but one that never makes you feel
like an unwanted onlooker spying into her private self, quite the
opposite.  There is, at least there
was for me, not a second of unease or discomfort that would befall an uninvited

The power of this story, and the draw of twins is that, while on the
surface they seem so different – on some level even exotic – they are as much a
mirror of us as they are of themselves. 
Their challenge, puts into focus what we all face in navigating between
togetherness and apartness.  In
that sense, as Abigail listens to these varied stories of fellow twins and sees
herself, we can all do so as well.  Perhaps the twin experience is unique, but it resonates.  To me one of the most moving lines
comes in a conversation when Abby asks Robin how her life would be if she were
gone.  Her sister responds simply, “it would be broken”.  Most of us can relate to that feeling
whether with siblings, partners, children or some especially dear friend.

The book’s dustcover presents us with photos of Abigail and Robin; prominently
as young children on the front and spine. 
But without any hesitation, my favorite is on the back showing two grown
women in loving embrace, still in loving embrace.  Abby says they don’t do that much any more, but it remains a
vivid window.  They are together,
but from everything we’ve learned they are equally singular.  Children together can be adorable;
adults engaged  in embrace are ultimately what life is really all about.  We strive so much to individuate, and
to do it well, but we yearn equally for connection.  To have both is perhaps best expressed as Nirvana.  This is the journey Abigail takes us on, the story she tells us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Disgrace in the Moral Landscape

To say the pending Wall Street bonus feeding frenzy and the brazen use
of bogus “research” by the insurance industry in trying to kill healthcare
reform is troubling would be a gross understatement.  Both exhibit severe and shared moral compass
malfunction.  Giving them no slack,
which they surely don’t deserve, one still has to wonder why the captains of
industry should be held to such a high standard of morality when we see blatant
moral deficiency in religious institutions. Two such moral lapses could be
found in the pages of the New York Times
this past week.

The first, on October 14 was Paul Vitello’s report
that the Brooklyn ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jewish community is finally being
forced to let its child abusing rabbis and teachers go before civil
courts.  This is in effect a
follow-up on a previously covered story that, on a much smaller but nonetheless
equally disgraceful scale, mirrors the long running scandal of predator
Catholic priests. 

The second, on Oct 16 by Laurie Goodstein was something new, and no
less disturbing.  Goldstein reports
the story of Father Henry Willenborg, a Franciscan priest, his five-year romantic
relationship with religious retreat attendee Pat Bond and the resulting fallout, which
includes their son, Nathan, now grown and suffering terminal brain cancer.  The priest, supported by his order that
seems happily but stingingly to have tried paying Ms. Bond and her son off, not
only has kept his job, but has continued up the career track.  A relatively low level friar when
meeting Bond, he now serves as senior pastor of a 1,350 family Wisconsin church.  Do you detect a pattern here, one that echoes
the Church’s sex abuse saga, including cover-ups and consistent rewards for bad
behavior?  It appears that this
modus operandi remains alive and well and is more widespread than we might have

It shouldn’t be necessary to say so at this point, but as bad as a
crime may be, the cover-up, which is usually institutional and more pervasive,
is corrosive and often immoral. 
Sad to say so, but it seems standard practice in the billion- member
Catholic Church.  Let me hasten to
add, that bad behavior affects other religious groups of which the Brooklyn
Hasidic example is just one of many.

The Catholic Church seems to have a particular problem with sex.  That includes forcing its clergy to be
celibate (something not demanded by other churches) and opposing birth control
including the distribution of the condoms that consensus says can help prevent
the spread of HIV-AIDS.  To be fair,
many in the church continue to lobby aggressively for married priests and the
majority of Catholics in this country ignore their Church’s strictures
preventing safe, not to mention purely enjoyable, sex.  The problem is that the Church itself
not only exhibits a blind eye to infractions of its own rules, most especially
in its clergy, but goes to extraordinary lengths to both cover up the
wrongdoing and, most egregiously, to reward the culprits and punish the victims,
if only by outright neglect or delayed and inequitable compensation.   William Lobdell (Losing my Religion) gives a definitive
account of the sex abuse story and Ms. Goodstein opens our eyes to the
escapades of priests, a story that is probably but the tip of the iceberg.  Research she cites suggests 20% have
had such ongoing relationships and who knows how many Nathans and cover-ups are
out there.

There is no church that echoes corporate structure and hierarchy more
than the Roman Church.  It is run by
a Chief Executive and supported by a structure complete with vice presidents at
the executive, senior and regular level. 
It has its rules, which include severe caps on compensation, but the
higher personnel move up the executive ladder the greater the perks.  Perhaps the CEO and various vice
presidents don’t amass corporate millions and billions, but they live very well
indeed, especially in uppermost echelons. 
As to that moral compass in our society, and let’s not pretend it is
only off kilter on Wall Street, it seems that the “don’t follow what we say but
what we do” rule is in play.  One corporate
group follows another.  The
underlying problem is not only that the compass dial is running haywire, but
that those involved don’t even seem to understand something is terribly
amiss.  The Wall Street bankers are
clueless in the face of the widespread unemployment that can be laid directly at
their doorstep and the Church functions as if nothing terrible is hidden behind its
sacramental curtain.

At moments like this, we tend to excuse our behavior with the bad
defense.  Remember Abu
Ghraib, Enron and most certainly the events that precipitated this post.  Not so fast, there is disgrace in the
moral landscape, and it seems to have more to do with the tree than its fruit.

Friday, October 9, 2009

An aspirational prize.

The kids will always get it right.  You got a prize Daddy…but remember it’s the dog’s birthday and a
three day weekend from school. 
Translation.  Time to have
breakfast and get on with life. 
His brief statement invited no questions from the press.  Undaunted, one could be heard shouted
out as he walked back to the Oval. 
“What are you going to do with the money?”  Doesn’t that perfectly sum up the level to which much of the
“journalism” has fallen these days? 
Every once in a while a “lifetime achievement” award is given to someone
in early or midstream career.  How
to react? Like Malia and Sasha. 
Time to get back to life, back to work.

A Nobel at this juncture is much more campaign than governing appropriate
– it is a hope, an aspiration, for what might come.  Pundits on the right like Bill Kristol and on the left like
Nick Kristof (it pains me to put their names in the same sentence as if they
were somehow equivalent) question this seemingly premature award for predictably
different reasons.  But in some
respects they miss what the Nobel judges often do in seeking to use this high
profile symbol as more of a light on the path ahead than on the one already
traveled.  Everything is politics,
everything a campaign and this august body is not immune from trying to
influence the game.

Obama’s statement was measured, full of familiar phrases from a man
who some (not me) think comes before us too often.  I’d rather see a leader than have him hide in the rarified
bubble of power.  My major take away
from this particular statement was a reminder planted deep in the text. A
sitting president is commander
in chief
.  Peace Prizes
notwithstanding, he has more power to go to war than to bring about peace.  Sadly war takes only a command and is
too easily and readily justified. 
Obama inherited his wars, but that doesn’t get him off the hook.  Perhaps the speed with which the Nobel
folks acted shows how fast our world is moving and also that presidential
honeymoons are more part of our past folklore than of today’s reality.  The watch and all the responsibility starts on
day one.

Peace takes a lot of work and to a degree far more courage than
war.  In this “God blessed” country,
presidents sometimes have to defend their reaching out an olive branch much
more that rattling the sword.  We
all know where peace is needed. 
It’s easy to feel that the prize has put a special burden on Barack
Obama to reach with that branch and turn the spears and swords into pruning
hooks.  But he will depend on us to
support that effort.  I think he’s
up to the task.  I’m not always
sure about us.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cash for New Jobs

One of the most visible and successful programs of the recovery act
was Cash for Clunkers.  It breathed
some life, however short lived, into the auto industry and its beleaguered
dealers and got some gas-guzzlers off the road.  Unfortunately it may have had little or no sustaining
benefit.  The fact is that what we
really need are investments that will have a lasting impact.  Among those of course are sorely needed
infrastructure projects and the like. 
We are still beneficiaries of Roosevelt era WPA efforts three quarters
of a century later.

But our most immediate problem, as illustrated again in another dismal
report, are saving and restoring jobs. 
While many of the losses can be attributed directly to the missteps of
past years – a misguided US auto industry, the nose dive of real estate and the
collapse of financial institutions, some of what we’re seeing now is the result
of businesses being overly cautious or running just plain scared.  Whatever the reason, it is feeding on
itself, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some economists believe that further stimulus will be necessary, and
unless we see a real upturn soon, they probably are right.  Whether the President will have the
will or more importantly Congress will have courage to do the right thing
remains to be seen.  I do think
that there is one program that they might consider, one that would have far
more lasting impact that the Clunker effort.

It’s time to offer employers Cash for New Jobs.  This might come in the form of an
outright payment or a tax credit. 
If we were willing to put $4 K on the table for a depreciating piece of
steel, glass and rubber, should we be willing to do any less for getting people
back on the road?  The idea I have
in mind is a payment to any employer that puts a new person to work, provided
that it legitimately adds to payroll and that the job be secure for at least
one year, ideally two. 

Think of what such a program would do.  First it would put food on the table of thousands of
American families not to mention secure their shelter.  That food would have to be purchased
which would accrue to the benefit of a whole other set of citizens.  Other purchases, now on hold, might be
initiated.  From day one, the newly
hired worker would become a taxpayer, in effect producing immediate financial
return on the government’s investment. 
And if things go well, if the ripple effect takes hold, that job will
sustain for years to come and will, in its success, spur further employment and
further tax revenues.  It is a gift
that will keep on giving.

Conventional wisdom has it that employment is a lagging indicator
(sounds like that terrible war euphemism, “collateral damage”).  That may well be true, but why do we
have to just sit by and wait.  More
to the point can we afford not to act now if we are to stem the tide and really
recover from this mess?  The time has come to
put cash on the table for jobs.

A further note on the healthcare debate:

Health Cooperatives are a sad, if not disgraceful, joke.  They don’t work competitively and,  based on those that exist, don’t reduce costs or necessarily lead to lower premiums.