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March 1, 2012

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March 1, 2012

Via Newsday

New English Review:

When I was young I wanted to be a bohemian when I grew up. I cannot quite recall how and why I formed this ambition. I suppose bohemianism seemed to be both a way of asserting my individuality (it did not occur to me that bohemians were just as much a herd as an other) and of doing God’s glorious work, which was annoying the grown-ups.

I suppose my model was Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet. He, it seemed to me, had lived as a free man ought to live. This conclusion could only have been drawn by someone who actually knew rather little about his life; and certainly I never had a vocation for excessive drinking. When I reached the age at which I was free to drink as much as I liked, or had money for, I soon discovered that I did not really like the feeling of drunkenness; particularly disagreeable was the sensation when one went to bed that the ceiling above was going round and round. I was fortunate enough also to suffer severely from hangovers, and since (quite apart from the unpleasantness of the hangover itself) I have always been attached to clarity of mind, in so far as I have been able to achieve it, I abjured drunkenness, at least in any regular form. I did not, however, foreswear alcohol altogether; and now not a day goes past, at least unless I happen to be in a place like Somalia, when I do not drink – in moderation.

Dylan Thomas’ life (minus the drink, if such a thing can be imagined) seemed a model. At the time, I would not have understood John Malcolm Brinnin’s assertion (in his book, Dylan in America) that his life was just plain boring, meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis following meaningless, pointless, sordid and avoidable crisis. The important thing in life was to cock a snook, almost irrespective of the target.

But Dylan Thomas was the real thing, a man of talent if not of genius. Perhaps there is something too theatrical for modern tastes about his public reading of his poems, but I at least am still moved by it. The emotion in his voice and in his lines is real, not bogus; and if his life sometimes seemed almost a caricature of itself, this at least was genuine. I do not see how anyone with even the most minimal feeling for poetry could fail to be stirred, for example, by his In My Craft or Sullen Art. Fifty-eight years after his death, his frequently disgraceful behaviour seems a small thing to set against the achievement.

Incidentally, and a propos of nothing, his grave in Laugharne church cemetery, in South-West Wales, is one of the most moving graves known to me. It consists of a mound with a simple white cross, painted (and no doubt regularly re-painted) with his name and dates. Beside it, in exactly the same form, is the grave of his wife, Caitlin, with whom he had a passionate cat-and-dog relationship. ‘Reunited’ does not seem so ridiculous a cliché here, though Caitlin survived her husband by forty years. Perhaps it is partly because I love the landscape of that part of the country so much that I can return to Laugharne cemetery and know that I shall be overtaken by pleasantly melancholic sorrow.

I did not come from a bohemian family, far from it. My mother went to the theatre often, including to all the supposedly shocking new plays, but this was mere diversion from her own unhappiness. I had one bohemian cousin, who lived in Paris for a time, moved among poets, write a little poetry, and had a brief affair with Richard Wright (of Native Son fame); but she did not have, nor was she allowed to have, much influence on my life.

Alas, as I grew up the times became less and less propitious for real bohemianism. There were a number of reasons for this.

The first was economic: cheap garrets and boarding houses disappeared. Increasing wealth, luxury and housing regulation meant that no one any longer could or was permitted to live in a single room without proper heating, lighting or plumbing. The areas in which bohemians had once gathered were either gentrified, or – to indulge in neologism – millionairified. It is difficult, not much fun, and possibly even slightly dangerous, to be a bohemian in a dingy lifeless suburb without real bars, full of people with nine-to-five jobs trudging to and from work every day. The effect of the demise of the boarding house upon English literature has never been fully documented, but I suspect that it was devastating. No doubt boarding houses with their imperious, mean-spirited, prurient, tolerant landladies had their disadvantages from the point of view of raw physical comfort; but they relieved countless people from the sapping tedium of looking after themselves. They allowed people the greatest luxury of all, the one that we have forgotten: time.

But while real bohemianism has become difficult or impossible – it has gone the way of genteel poverty which, alas, no longer exists or is possible, if only because rents are now too high in the areas where the genteelly poor once gathered – a kind of bogus bohemianism has become the rule. In a sense, everyone is a bohemian now.

Walk down any street in the western world and try to estimate the proportion of people dressed in a conspicuously bourgeois manner. Except possibly in the financial centres (and Swiss cities) it will be very low. The great majority of people whom you pass in the street will be dressed in a manner which, sixty years ago, would have been thought bohemian. And this is so despite the fact that one of the principal past-times of enormous numbers of people is shopping for clothes. It is as if they are studiously sloppy.

Naturally, sloppiness in dress is a convention like any other: for if there is one thing that human beings cannot escape, other than death and taxes, it is convention. So the question is not whether a certain form of behaviour is conventional, but whether it represents a good convention.

I am glad to be able to report that, on the question dress I have changed my mind completely. I am glad to be able to report it because it demonstrates, to myself if to no others, that I am not totally inflexible mentally. Evidence, reason and reflection can still cause me – occasionally – to change my mind, even if it takes me many years to do so…

Read it all.

The Humanist:

The president sat at his desk in the White House on a winter evening. He’d finished his work for the day and was ready for something more enjoyable. He took out two Bibles and opened them to the story of Jesus. Then he grabbed a knife—or perhaps a razor—and began cutting up one Bible, then the other. The president was Thomas Jefferson. The year was 1804.

Working methodically, Jefferson sliced out the parts of the Bible that he believed and pasted them onto a folio of blank pages. The rest—the parts he didn’t believe—he left behind in two maimed, mutilated Bibles.

Thomas Jefferson was editing the Bible, a book regarded by most of his fellow Americans as the word of God. The act was certainly presumptuous, perhaps blasphemous. But Jefferson found the task simple. The worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless—“as distinguishable,” he later wrote in a letter to John Adams, “as diamonds in a dunghill.”

Using the passages he sliced out of his Bibles, Jefferson created a new book, which he called, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” He had it bound but he never published it, and he told only a handful of close friends about it. His copy—the only copy that ever existed—later disappeared and is now lost to history.

But sixteen years later, he created another. In 1820, retired from politics and living at Monticello, Jefferson sat down again, at the age of seventy-seven, to edit the Bible. He purchased six Bibles—two in English, two in French, and two containing both Latin and Greek—and cut them up, creating a second edited version of the New Testament, in four languages.

In this book, he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

That book has survived. It’s smaller than you might expect—roughly five by eight inches—with a faded red leather cover. Conservators at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC, painstakingly repaired rips and restored the book. It’s currently on display at the museum, along with two of the Bibles that Jefferson cut up to create it.

The exhibition is sure to generate questions: Why did one of America’s beloved Founding Fathers cut up Bibles? Was it an act of piety or of blasphemy? Was Jefferson a Christian or a heretic? And what does this book, commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible,” tell us about America’s religious heritage?

Those questions have no easy answers. Experts argue about all of them, as we shall see. But one thing seems certain: If Jefferson was running for president today, his Bible-slicing experiments would surely torpedo his candidacy.

“There is no way Jefferson could get elected president today,” says Steven Waldman, author ofFounding Faith, a best-selling history of the role of religion in America’s creation. “You can practically see the attack ad that would be run about him: You see the Bible and you see a hand with a scissors cutting up the Bible. And that’s not going to play too well in the red states—or the blue states for that matter.”

“I am a sect by myself,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, commenting on his eccentric religious views. Born into the Church of England, Virginia’s official religion, Jefferson studied under Anglican clergymen from elementary school through college, and attended Anglican services all his life, although not always faithfully. He wasn’t the kind of man who accepts dogmas uncritically. Brilliant and intellectually curious, Jefferson preferred to make his own judgment in matters of religion, and advised others to do the same.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” he urged his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787, “because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Influenced by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson scoffed at biblical stories of miracles but believed that the study of nature proves the existence of God. He thought deeply about religion all his life, and although his views sometimes shifted, one opinion never changed: He believed that no government had the right to impose any religion on any individual. He wrote Virginia’s statute on religious freedom and famously coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Today, that statement seems uncontroversial but in 1800, many people, particularly clergymen, considered it evidence of atheism. “They were of the opinion that not caring about that meant you were not a man of faith,” says Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx, a best-selling biography of Jefferson.

When Jefferson ran for president against John Adams in 1800, Adams’ Federalist allies distorted Jefferson’s defense of freedom of religion to portray him as an enemy of God. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics.” William Linn, a New York minister, claimed that voting for him constituted “a rebellion against God.” Yale President Timothy Dwight warned Americans that if they elected Jefferson they would “see the Bible cast into a bonfire…and our children united in chanting mockeries against God.”

Despite all that, Jefferson won the election.

But the various lies about his religious beliefs angered him and hardened his antipathy to the clergy, who he described in Latin as “genus irritable vatum”—irritable tribe of priests—and in English as “soothsayers and necromancers.”

The nasty campaign of 1800 rendered Jefferson reticent about making public statements on religion. But he remained fascinated with the topic and continued to comment on religion in letters to trusted friends. Those comments are so voluminous and so varied that, for two centuries, both Christians and secularists have cherry-picked Jefferson quotes to “prove” that the sage of Monticello was a believer—or not.

Want to prove that Jefferson was a committed Christian? It’s easy.

Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.

Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”….

Read it all.

City Journal:

Landlord-musician. I’m a hyphenated guy. Depends what kind of cocktail party I’m at, whether I say “landlord” or “musician” first (I play clarinet in a klezmer band), but I don’t try to hide the landlord part. I should: everybody hates landlords. Nobody paid rent as a child, so people think they should live free as adults, too. The walls, heat, and water—that should be free, like the wind, rain, and baby food.

I used to feel guilty about charging rent. I hadn’t done anything to deserve it, other than maintaining a building—a building I hadn’t even built. Now that I’m middle-aged, though, I feel fine collecting rent. Somebody has to keep these old buildings from falling down.

Landlord-musician. I know one more in Cleveland. He’s a tough guy who wears a toupee, plays accordion and trumpet, and tells dirty jokes. He’s got a strip center on the West Side of Cleveland. “Strip center”—strange term. It’s short for “shopping strip center.”

I don’t have any strip centers. I do have about 25 storefronts: Main Street–style buildings in Lakewood, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. On the street level are stores. (I’ve rented to art galleries; they all go under. Things that don’t go under: beauty parlors, tanning salons, yoga studios, and bars.) Above the stores are apartments, about 160 suites in total. Like Disneyland’s Main Street, but with real mice.

A landlord friend turns up his speakerphone to demonstrate how much his tenants love him. Some kid on the other end asks if he has to hook up his own washing machine and dryer at the rental house. My buddy says, “No, we’ll supply that. Save your appliances for down the road when you buy a house.” The kid is happy.

My landlord friend rents houses in Cleveland Heights—the East Side—to medical residents, Case Western Reserve Ph.D. candidates, and Cleveland Institute of Music students. These people are high achievers with no time or inclination to trash an apartment. Has my buddy ever rented to a stripper? No.

Cleveland’s West Side, where my properties are, is a little dicier. My company screens tenants big-time. (We did let a stripper in. Make that “exotic dancer”—exotic dancer with child.) We do criminal and civil court checks, credit checks, previous landlord checks.

That’s called “keeping up the neighborhood.” Sound middle-class? Yep: we’re making a civic contribution—offering people a decent place to live in a decent neighborhood. That’s probably a bigger civic contribution than the one my band—Yiddishe Cup—makes. My plumbers and custodians keep up appearances. Every day, we create an art installation called Decent Neighborhood.

My Webb Road building is a perfect example. It has a Lebanese mini-mart guy and a Korean dry cleaner on the ground floor; upstairs are a Suzuki violin teacher, a United Express flight attendant, a truck driver, a welder, and so on. By and large, everybody gets along; in fact, some marry each other. That’s bad for business. They move in together, and I have an empty.

After I raised the rent a mere $10 per month on a flower-shop owner, Toby, my father, smiled and said, “You’re a nice guy.” I think Toby’s smile—a rarity—meant he was glad I wasn’t a total hard-ass like him. We had arrived.

During my dad’s final days, the Cleveland Clinic nurses called him “Chief” because he was so bossy. A doctor said, “You’re a hard one.” Toby answered, “That’s right. It’s my life.” A nurse wondered if my father was in the medical field because he carried a stack of homemade medical folders. He was flattered. The closest he’d ever come to the medical field was a dental-school acceptance in the 1950s, but he couldn’t afford to go because he already had children.

Years later, I sat at McDonald’s with my elder son, Ted, 28. The first generation (my father) scrapes, the second generation (me) tries to keep things on keel, and the third (Ted) needs tutorials in toughness because it doesn’t remember the first. I told my son not to forget the little things: pens, checks, camera, Post-it notes. I said, “Lesson One: Write everything down. You don’t want to think about ‘cold water leak, Apt. 24’ all day.” Lesson Two: Be wary of restaurant workers, particularly chefs and servers. They come home late, party hard, and wake up the solid-citizen tenants in the building. Lesson Three: ABC, for “Always Be Closing”—closing a deal, that is, which, in my case, means collecting the rent. That’s from a David Mamet play and was an inside joke between my son and me. My son, like every other young person, enjoys quoting movies verbatim.

I thought of a non-movie line for Ted: “If the tenant has not mailed his rent, say to him, ‘Do not mail in your late rent. Hand it to the custodian.Hand it.’ We don’t want to wonder if the post office has lost the check.” Ted seemed more interested in his burger. I wasn’t up to Mamet’s standards. “The job sucks on some level!” I said. That got Ted’s attention. “You makeit interesting. It took me a while.”

Back in 1986, my father dragged me to a lightning-round tutorial with Cousin Gershy. Gershy looked horrible—three strokes and two heart attacks. He said, “You’ve got that little curl in the tail—that little something different—that something the new treatment doesn’t cure. You’re in trouble. They say, ‘We can’t straighten out your tail. You’re dead.’ That’s what the doctors tell me.”

Gershy had shotguns over the mantle, plus a horn from a longhorn steer and plaques that read SHALOM. “You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a shtarker,” Gershy said. (Strong guy or bully.) I believed it.

Gershy’s steer horn cost $50. At one point, the gun dealer who had sold it to Gershy decided that he wanted it back. “Gun dealers is a funny ballpark,” Gershy said. “He could shoot me, but a deal is a deal. That’s the way it is.”

Gershy owned a shopping strip center on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights and wanted to sell it. His price was too high, Toby said. “If the kid is interested,” Gershy said, looking at me, “I’d come down.” “It’s up to the kid,” Toby said. “I’ll work with him,” Gershy said.

Driving home, Toby said, “Gershy has mellowed.” Mellowed? “And he’s aganef,” Toby added. (Thief.) “Don’t buy anything from him.”

I didn’t.

At McDonald’s, I told my son, “If a real-estate broker claims operating expenses are just 45 percent of gross income, he’s delusional.” I slid a Wall Street Journal across the table. “Take it. Take the paper.” The Journal was the best I could offer. I didn’t see any Gershys or Tobys around. Unless you counted me.

How hard is this to understand? “If the applicant is approved and makes a deposit—and then decides not to move into the apartment—the deposit will be forfeited.”

Nobody gets it. . . . “I changed my mind.” “My mom just found out she’s terminally ill.” “I’m going back with my wife.” “I should have told you I’m an alcoholic and need to move into a sober house.” Business is business. I hang on to the deposit.

An applicant once stopped payment on her deposit, a bank check. That worked—I didn’t know you could stop a bank check. Nice move. She got me.

I get a lot of late rent checks, too. Some landlords charge $50 for a late check. I charge $20. Late fees are a no-win situation—you charge more and the tenant goes into debt even more quickly. I learned that lesson about late fees from an old-time Cleveland landlord who made a million and lost it and made it back. He wound up killing himself because he lost a million the last time around…

Read it all.

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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March 1, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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