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  December 25, 2008 Issue                                       

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Arnie waves goodbye before heading home...

That Christmas spirit

I get a lot of junk e-mail. One of my favorite spammers is an organization that calls itself Liberty Counsel. This ironically named group is usually preoccupied with labeling jurists who favor equal rights for gay and lesbians “activist.”

But this week, the group sent me an e-mail decrying the firing of a California receptionist who refused, at her employer’s direction, to greet callers with “Happy Holidays.”

The e-mail continues: “Thomas [the employee] objected to her supervisor and offered to say either ‘Merry Christmas’ or to continue greeting callers the same way they are greeted throughout the year. She explained that her religious beliefs prevented her from contributing to the secularization of Christmas, and asked for an accommodation of her beliefs.”

Instead, she was fired for insubordination.

Although the release is intended to stoke indignation among those who feel “Happy Holidays” has watered down a national holiday with politically incorrect inclusiveness, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that anyone would continue to argue that Christmas is anything but a secular holiday anymore. It’s a national holiday that celebrates this country’s love of buying things. These days, buying even has its own holidays: Black Friday and Super Saturday.

Look at the way it is covered. Christmas has been little more than a terrific backdrop to illustrate this country’s deepening recession.

Reporters at major papers and TV networks give us regular dispatches from the front lines of retail sales. Every day, reporters are at the mall, taking the temperature of shoppers fatigued, we are told, by looking at their flagging 401(k) statements. Retailers are equally fatigued from running around like elves to slash prices and lure “last-minute” shoppers to their stores one more time.

There’s nothing like Christmas to remind us that the foundations of this country are the brick and mortar of shopping and stock value. Christmas, this year, is a time to assess the health of our economy.

Cynical? Perhaps. But one cannot deny that this country is deeply fixated on an economy that hinges on buying and selling, to the point where that elusive “True Spirit of Christmas” is lost.  And it is lost at a time when that spirit has never been so desperately needed.

With unemployment soaring, homelessness on the rise and major cuts in basic city services and non-profit giving, there has never been a better time to give — not a new big screen TV to help Circuit City’s bottom line, but to give food and other items to food banks like Philabundance (currently suffering a shortfall) and to save as much money as you can for charitable organizations, many of which have seen giving decline sharply.

We can fight about Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas, but the terms are meaningless, particularly when the purpose of those holidays is clouded in the health of retail and the stock market. If we want to honor Christmas, we should stop worrying about what it’s called and work toward making sure we honor the season with our actions.

            Pete Mazzaccaro


Path to justice found in middle age

The following is a response to letters from Curt Pontz and Bob Rossman in the Nov. 20 Local.

Yes, Mr. Pontz, Eve Segal of 2002 is the same person as Evalyn F. Segal and Evelyn (misspelled) Segal of 2008. Yes, I am still on the same subject, the persecution of Palestinians by the Jews of Israel, aided and abetted by AIPAC, the Israel Lobby and other groups that presume to speak for the world’s Jews. They do not speak for me nor for the thousands of anti-Zionist Jews around the world who think as I do. My view of who is persecuting whom is daily fortified by Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza: men, women and children are deprived of food and medical supplies from abroad; their electric power and fresh water are turned off or on at Israeli whim; people are unable to leave their open-air prison to seek medical treatment or education abroad or to export their olive oil, unless swaggering Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints and petty officials in the visa offices are in the mood to grant them permission. 

I am Jewish. I was valedictorian of my graduating Sunday School class in Miami Beach, 1947. My valedictory speech dealt with righteousness, justice and charity, three terms with the same Hebrew root, three themes still close to my heart. I am what Marc Ellis, a Jewish-American philosopher, calls a prophetic Jew: I learned my values from the prophets (Jesus included); I seek justice, and pursue it. There was, however, an obstacle in my pursuit of justice: I was brought up, as are all the Jewish Americans I know, to believe that the only good Arab is a dead Arab.

I was 58 before I met my first Palestinian, a young student at the university where I taught psychology. He presented the Palestinian view of the Naqba (the catastrophe of 1948) reasonably and movingly. This young Palestinian man spoke English well. He looked like an ordinary human being, no more nor less an animal than I am as an evolved primate.

 His humanity and his reasonableness gave me a jolt. For the first time I felt compelled to question the Zionist notions I had held all my life — the myths about the nature of Arabs, about the relations between Arabs and Jews prior to the war of 1948, about how Jews acquired land in Palestine, about who started the 1948 war and why, about why the Palestinians fled the territory that is now Israel, about how they came to find themselves trapped in perpetuity in miserable refugee camps.

In the next six years, I went on two study-tours of Israel sponsored by a Jewish-American charity and one visit on my own.  I read steadily on the history and current status of Israel and Zionism. What I have learned in the past 20 years, what I know of daily Israeli persecution, oppression, humiliation, torture, and murder of Palestinians fills me with unbearable shame and wrenches my gut. I am in daily touch with like-minded activist Jews in many countries, a great many of them Israelis, some even who served in the Israel Occupation Forces. 

I am familiar with the standard Zionist line that Curtis M. Pontz of Mt. Airy and Bob Rossman of Chestnut Hill repeat in their letters of Nov. 20. They are simply mistaken, misled, unwilling to confront the historical and daily facts. I have long since given up trying to open the eyes of Jewish Zionists to the sins of Israel. (Even less would I try to change the minds of fundamentalist Christian Zionists. They are unfathomable to me.) Although I myself converted to Jewish anti-Zionism in late middle age, I don’t know what it takes to convert others. It is as though to admit the possibility of error in their beliefs about Israel (Never the Victimizer, Always the Victim) would be to deny their Jewish heritage and dishonor ancestors, some of whom, possibly, perished in the Holocaust. 

I still have hopes, though, that there are uncommitted minds out there, minds not closed to the facts that contemporary Jewish-Israeli, Jewish-American, and Jewish-British scholars have uncovered once Israel’s (and other nations’) archives were opened and historical documents could for the first time be closely scrutinized.  Rather than attempting the futile task of replying to Pontz’s and Rossman’s rote claims, I ask readers with an open mind to read some of the sources that have convinced me of Zionism’s evils. 

For a list of Segal’s books, see her opinion on our Web site: Segal lives in Mt. Airy.



On “Being Terry Gross”: A reader’s empathy

I had an insight recently into what it must be like to inhabit a piece of Terry Gross’s world (a la “Being John Malkovich”). She’s the wonderful host, as you know, of NPR’s Fresh Air, the best author interview program on radio.

My insight was exhilarating, but painful, because I achieved it by pushing through dozens of turnstiles in a row, headfirst. 

As the Local’s “Books and Reading” columnist I seek to live up to my exalted position by setting a good example by reading lots of good books every year. Lately I’ve come to feel like I’ve somehow opted to be a stunt reader.

My reading goal (again) this year was to finish 100 books between January 1 and December 31.    Ideally, I’ll finish, as usual, by reading Moby Dick.

How am I doing this year? I should make it. I finished #98 yesterday (Dec. 23) and see no problems to “knocking off” two more. My pace slackened terribly during baseball season, what with 162 regular-season games and 15 or so playoff games. I was at a mere 62 when the World Series ended. I needed to read 38 books in 10 weeks.

I rolled up my pajama sleeves, turned on the reading lamp and pitched in. And that’s when the head spinning began. In a period of about ten days, in late October, I finished seven terrific books: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin; Black Flies, an incredible novel built around vignettes from the life of an EMT in Harlem by Shannon Burke; The Snake Charmer, about one of the world’s great herpetologists, his life, his drive, his hubris and the poisonous snake that killed him by Jamie James; Dawn Powell’s fascinating, bitchy novel set in the night clubs of New York in the late 1940s, The Locusts Have No Kings; a mystery novel by one of my favorites, Nevada Barr, titled Winter Study — this time her ongoing character, a National Park Service Ranger named Anna Pigeon, is working with wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan; No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kukin — essentially a powerful social document based on transcripts of interviews with these sad, pathetic young people; Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, the story of a few eccentric, dedicated underwater salvage men and their world and how they managed, despite official resistance, to bring to light a previously unknown World War II German U-boat resting off the coast of New Jersey.

Phew! That was a lot of intense reading in a short period of time. I’d read a book, get emotionally caught up in the social issues involved and the personal problems of the protagonist, and then: bam! Done. I needed to go out and take a walk. Or lie on the sofa, after each one. And think. Let the medicine go down and start working.

But no, I had a schedule. A goal. Let’s pick another one up and go. Read more.

Here’s the next batch I worked through in about 14 days: American Studies by Mark Merlis — one of the best-written, wisest, funniest, most insightful novels I’ve read in a long time on the nature of desire, self definition, aging versus maturing, and self-acceptance. I was genuinely moved. This was the one book I mentioned most often to friends in the brief three-day period it was in my radar. But then: The Good Rat by Jimmy Breslin, a true-crime Mafia-rat book told in Breslin’s inimitable style; The English Major by Jim Harrison, another aging vs. maturing novel with lots of good sex scenes and a very funny book, almost as funny as Charles Portis’ Norwood (than which, nothing is funnier in the backwoods vein); Still Alive, a memoir by the novelist and screenwriter Herbert Gold — crusty, humorous, mordant, and a 50s-60s time capsule; The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm, a terrific, densely-layered WWII survival novel built around the quest for the aforementioned sausage recipe; Last of the Old Guard by Louis Auchincloss (first of his novels I’ve read, won’t be the last); What I Talk About When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, a fascinating set of reflections on writing and living, based on comparison to the determination and skills needed to be a marathoner; and finally (I’ll stop here), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wau by Junot Diaz, a brilliant, magical novel I found stunning.

That last book was number 84, and I finished it Nov. 27. I wanted to savor it, go online and join a chatroom about it, seek out other people who have read it, stalk the author and tug at his coat sleeve till he agreed to talk to me. I wanted to stop people on the street and read passages to them. But of course, being goal-driven, what I did was: read 11 more books in the next 17 days.

It was during my wondrous October reading spree that the hazards of reading this way came crashing through the walls of my consciousness: My life is just time spent with one damned genius writer after another, just one damned fascinating character, one damned fabulous story after another.

And that’s when I thought: geeez, Terry Gross must go through this kind of getting pumped and deflated, pumped and deflated experience every day, for years. Sometimes on the same show she’ll interview several fascinating people, each of them telling heart-shaking stories, offering thought-provoking anecdotes, relating witty and pithy summaries of formerly complicated situations.

Any one of the persons Terry meets in a single day might be enough, if I had met that person, to make me want to spellbind the dinner table on a Saturday night. To think, she does that every day. She could quit now and feed her mind with remembered wisdom for all the walks and long drives and falling-to-sleep reveries of the rest of her life.

Please, there’s no real comparison. I’m not saying my position is equivalent to Terry’s, but I am empathizing with the head-spinning she must feel after meeting so many ingenious and talented persons in a too short a time to let their words and art sink in. 

Believe me: goals are overrated.


Efforts to reform Local missed the real problem


Ladies and gentlemen of the CHCA Board of Directors: Follow the money — your money.

You do not have to be an actuary or an auditor, but you do have fiscal responsibility as a board member of a community organization that owns a $1 million newspaper and controls what was formerly a $1 million trust fund, to focus on priorities and not allow yourself to be distracted by intentional misrepresentation.

The board meeting on Thursday, Dec. 18, was a turning point in some ways, for possibly the first time in my recollection, misrepresentation from the highest levels of the organization regarding financial matters was challenged by its own auditor, and several board members spelled out what was known for some time, but masked directly by not providing timely internal financials, and indirectly by refusing to recognize those with data that challenged the “management line” or cutting them off in mid-sentence at board meetings, claiming non relevance.

With the massive effort to make the Local an example of fiscal mismanagement and tar and feather its employees on a continuing basis, we have right before us the classic example of those casting the first stone — you all know that biblical quotation don’t you?

The very auditor who was hired to provide long-overdue completeness and accuracy to the records of the CHCA and Community Fund told the CHCA president when he as usual tried to gavel down subject matter he did not want discussed, that he was absolutely wrong.

And wrong about a key financial statistic that has been hidden in the accounting for years, but makes all the difference when one has to evaluate which of the two entities combined in the CHCA audit needs the most immediate fiscal triage.

The CHCA has bled money for years, but it has run out of ways to camouflage just how much and how it was done in the past — and it has had help from high places. The true costs of running he CHCA day-to-day have never been properly laid out so the board can understand just how much of a subsidy it takes to run such an organization and work on how they might raise it — legitimately.

 I would bet the ranch that 85 percent of the board members were astonished to learn that the CHCA has a $40,000 annual subsidy from a local benefactor that is directed to be used to pay one of the CHCA’s employee’s salary and benefits. In order to compare what this organization really costs you must deduct that from any “profit” that is shown (or, more realistically add it to the loss) and more importantly realize that there is no guarantee it will be permanent, or even available next year. 

One should make up the CHCA budget without that $40,000 and consider it a windfall if it comes, as the benefactor had withdrawn it before when it was learned that management was misrepresenting how it spent its money — and it was only given with a limited timetable attached in the first place. There are a few board members who fully understand what is really going on. Now it is time to pay attention to what they have to contribute.

 So now the board is going to vote to essentially “railroad” the Local into some draconian measures without true participation in the process, while they present so-called preliminary figures showing themselves as profitable and progressing.  Look carefully at those CHCA figures and offset expenses against related revenue before you start accepting the propaganda about shortcomings that are only a problem at the Local.  On top of that there is debt assigned to the Local by the fund that is not legitimately its debt, (verifiable with a little analysis) while at the same time those fund trustees have forgiven $180,000 in debt that the CHCA ran up using fund dollars and assets between 2003 and 2006. Yes, I can prove that statement, and if you paid attention at recent board meetings you heard those issues brushed aside as if they were incidental.

 The current auditors are only now in their second year and even last year refused at first to sign on to the audit unless some clearly inaccurate statements and notes in the previous (2006) audit were changed first. That previous auditor did change his figures and statements, but not enough was done to give the board the true picture. The auditors have tightened further the questionable practices as they learn how the cover-up game was played with the three shells (oops, I meant corporations) over the years. 

Now the fund has gotten religion and says it won’t advance a dime to the CHCA, claiming the bylaws prevent it. That is not true, as the Trust Indenture written by some first class Philadelphia lawyers is the controlling document and makes it clear that the trustees can spend principal and interest if its trustees meet and so decide. What makes this newly found righteous approach laughable is that it was only a couple of years ago that the very same fund without trustee approval made many thousands available to the CHCA and ran a cover with the auditor.  Now, no one wants to talk about this, but as board members you have the right to ask the questions and change the course — and the time is now while the Attorney General knows all of what I have just recited.

The Local needs to take a pro-active approach towards its future and profitability, and I think it knows how to do it without a primitive “guide to profitability” from folks who should be using their energy strategizing fundraisers for the CHCA.  Clean up your own yard before you spend too much time telling the neighbors how to paint their house. What did Lincoln say about “all the people all the time?”

 Now for some constructive commentary form someone who has reviewed the financials in detail going back 10 years. Pay the few dollars it costs to have the IRS research just what kind of an entity the CHCA was when it first filed its returns. This has been suggested many times, but current management refuses to take this simple action.  Records show it was incorporated as a 50l(c)(3) and many have concluded it still is, but only chose to file its taxes as a profit-making corporation when the Local started making significant profits with expanded advertising.

It was a way to hide the losses of the CHCA by filing a combined 1120 instead of a 990 where its profit-making arm may have appeared as too large for 50l(c)(3) regulations at the time. Given the reality of today’s considerations it would be advantageous to return to the non-profit filing and then anyone who contributes to a CHCA event gets a tax deduction.

Put some reality into the analysis of the profit/loss picture of both entities and then rebuild from there. There are assessments against the Local that really are not justified, but help bring down its bottom line, and that entire process needs some transparency and open discussion.  Let me give a clear example from the Draft March 31, 2006 report you were all handed on Dec. 18. Take that $23,935 profit it claims the CHCA made, and deduct the $40,000 subsidy we just referred to as it is not earned revenue although it appears that way in the accounting.  Then take the $15,000 portion of the Community Manager’s salary that is arbitrarily charged to the Local (up this year from $5,000) and an organization that tells its members it has been profitable has actually lost $31,065 — and that is the real number you should be working with.  

At the same moment take that $15,000 assessment that seems to have no bearing on work performed, and add it back to the Local and its operating loss for the period is reduced to $12,945.  As was pointed out by another board member, the actual losses of these entities as a percentage of their gross dollars are much more significant on the part of the CHCA, and the Local, for all practical purposes, has broken even this year.

There is a lot you can do with numbers and three corporations, and for years it has been done with shadow accounting and an executive board that wanted to keep it that way. The current auditors have one year under their belts and have tightened the controls and forced management to be more forthcoming — but there is a lot more to be done.

Force management to present a detailed analysis of correctly allocated costs, and add to the CHCA auditor’s report a note that makes it perfectly clear to anyone that a full $40,000 of what appears as revenue for the CHCA is a temporary subsidy from a benefactor with no guarantee of future payment.  The overbearing emphasis on the Local at this point is unjustified until you admit to your own shortcomings.