Christmas 2015

Every year at Christmas, my friend Dick Summer uses his blog to tell Christmas stories sent in by readers and by people who remember listening to him on the radio.  By the way, if you remember Dick from his distinguished career on the radio, he’ll be a guest on WBZ in Boston on Christmas Eve around 10 PM.  I lifted this Christmas story directly from Dick’s blog, but I don’t think he’ll mind, because I wrote it.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

I still remember my grandparents Christmas traditions. My cousins and I would build our blanket fort under the dining room table. The tree filled the little, unheated sunroom off the living room, unheated so that the tree wouldn’t dry out so fast. The tree had bubble lights on it. Remember those?

We always had turkey and my grandmother’s turkey always had more legs than any turkey was ever born with. I don’t know whether she purchased extra legs, or claimed that the largest wing joints were legs. We had pumpkin pie too, but my aunts and uncles always raved over my grandmother’s plum pudding which she doused in brandy and set afire before bringing it to the table. That stuff was disgusting–worse than fruit cake. I don’t know how anyone ate it. 

I was still a little kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old and I don’t know how the issue came up, but I do remember my grandmother sitting me down in her old, dark kitchen and telling me: “It’s not the gift, it’s the thought that counts.” I also clearly remember thinking at the time that my grandmother was crazy. I had an allowance, maybe it was a dime a week, maybe a quarter, but it certainly didn’t allow me to buy any of the cool toys I lusted after. It wasn’t even enough to keep me in caps for my official Lone Ranger six shooters. I didn’t care what people thought about me, I wanted the cool presents any adult I knew could get for me, but I couldn’t get for myself. 

I’m older now than my grandmother was when she told me that, and today I know she was right–not for little kids, but certainly for adults. The fact is, I have everything I need and a lot of what I want. Nobody likes me enough and has enough money to get me anything I can’t afford to get for myself. I’m sure there are people who have enough money to do that. I’m equally sure I don’t know any of them. When my friends take to Facebook to send me Christmas greetings, I like it. When my junior prom date sends me a Christmas card, it warms my heart. Things would be quite different for me without the life’s lessons I learned from her. I doubt I would have been open to my wife if I hadn’t failed miserably to get back together with Miss Prom Date about five months before I met the woman I’ve spent my life with. 

I think about what my grandmother said that day every Christmas, and any time I remember her. It’s not crazy once you grow up. It really is the thought–not the gift that counts.

Thank God for New York

There’s a joke among people who don’t think much of the State of Alabama, that the state’s motto is, “Thank God for Mississippi.”  It’s supposed to indicate that yes, Alabama is bad, but Mississippi is worse.  I’m not taking a stand.  I haven’t been to Mississippi.  I’ve spent some time in Alabama, not enough to know a lot about it though.  My observations tell me that Alabama has its good and its bad points, like pretty much everywhere else.

People who live in Illinois, or New Jersey, or anywhere else with a reputation for political corruption, have to be saying to themselves these days, “Thank God for New York.”  Why? Because New York, it’s state legislature in particular, makes other states look good by comparison.  In 2014, Sheldon Silver was Speaker of the New York State Assembly and Dean Skelos was Majority Leader of the New York State Senate.  Each was indicted for political corruption, Silver in February and Skelos in May.  Each lost his leadership position.  That’s not automatic in New York.  But they remained in office as an Assemblyman and State Senator.  Each was convicted too.  Silver on November 30th and Skelos on December 11th.  Silver was charged with using his political power to line his pockets to the tune of $4 million.  Skelos used his power to line his son’s pockets, getting his son highly paid jobs in which he wielded his dad’s political influence either with the state or with Nassau County.  Upon felony conviction, each was removed from the legislature.  That is automatic.  Considering their age, Skelos and Silver could each spend the rest of their lives in prison, but while in prison each will collect a state pension.  The exact amount hasn’t been made public, but it’ll be around $100,000 a year.  Not too long ago, the state pension system was reformed so that elected officials convicted of corruption do lose their pension, but it only applies to recently elected officials and Silver has been in Albany for 40 years, Skelos for 30.

The convictions themselves are terrible, but what’s worse is they aren’t unusual.  I am not sure my count is accurate, but I believe that makes five legislative leaders convicted and removed from office in 15 years.  Some newspaper editorials are hailing the most recent convictions as an avenue to legislative reform.  Maybe so, but please reread the first two sentences of this paragraph.  They give me reasonable doubt.  In fact, one State Senator was quoted in a newspaper as saying he had doubts that new laws were necessary, because the leaders were convicted of violating existing laws.

Power in New York State is unusually centralized. .  The leaders of each house have close to dictatorial control of the legislature.  The leaders aren’t subject to term limits, committee chairmen are weak and revolts against leadership are unheard of.  Budget negotiations take place between the Governor and the two legislative leaders and they are frequently described as, “Three men in a room.”  The fact that two of the three have been convicted in one year has lead to public speculation that  the third man in the room, the Governor, or senior members of his staff may soon be implicated in corruption as well.  I have no idea.

I suppose increasing the power of the rest of the legislature would help.  Meaningful power for committee chairmen and term limits for the Speaker and the Majority Leader would be a beginning.  I wish I knew what would help.  With five leaders shot down in 15 years, I hope somebody knows how to fix it and I hope somebody does fix it.