Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marion Levine

This was supposed to be the weekend when boyhood friends Michael Schoenberger, Joel Lavintman and Sam Stern got together over dim sum to celebrate the Chinese New Year. More accurately, it was to celebrate reconnecting in our digital age. After a much too long hiatus, the connectivity of Facebook brought us back together, ready to share memories of high school spring break trips to Acapulco and memorizing all the words to Robin and the Seven Hoods in college. Important stuff.

But, to quote Rabbie Burns on his 250th birthday, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

Marion Levine passed away this week and, rather than sharing chicken feet and sui mei with Schoeny and Yossel, I shared the weekend with Marion’s family, including her son Bob, who has served as best friend for 44 years or so. In doing so, I had the privilege of reconnecting with a different, important, formative part of my past and to share the memories of a woman who was extraordinary on so many levels.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel did a beautiful job of eulogizing Marion. Listening to the recitation of Marion’s accomplishments, personality, love of family, selfless and quiet support of people in need, I realized that there had been an actual connection between Marion and Rabbi Zimmerman. The eulogy was not cobbled together from an hour’s worth of chit chat with the surviving family members. The connection was appropriate. Rabbi Zimmerman, herself a trend setter when she joined the pulpit of the area’s largest congregation, paid tribute to Marion as a pioneering business woman who worked side by side with her husband George to found Penny’s Supermarkets. At the time, June Cleaver was the popular role model for American housewives. Marion didn’t break the mold; she balanced a career as an executive with her responsibilities as a homemaker before any molds existed. As a result of her business acumen, the Levines were able to nurture the supermarket from a single store to a chain of 27.

From a personal point of view, Marion made a significant impact on my life. Bob and I have been there for each other since sixth grade. Marion was always a gracious hostess when I would visit, showing interest in whatever was going on in my life and extending various indicia that she approved of her son’s friend. When my mother was hospitalized during my first semester at Carleton, I hitchhiked home every week to see her. I also made it a point to visit Marion and George Levine at the Penny’s offices. George would give me a hard time about the length of my hair; Marion would sit and talk about how things were going at school and with my family. At a time in my life when nothing seemed fair or tethered, the stability of the relationship with the Levines helped me stay focused on pursuing goals set in less emotionally turbulent times.

After my mother died at the end of that first semester, Marion took on the role of surrogate mother. She was there for advice and other, less usual types of support. I had organized a social event at Carleton involving frying chicken wings using Dan Wright’s (
c.f., Prairie Pondering, October 22, 2008) mother’s recipe. There was, however, a problem. There was a nationwide shortage of chicken for sale. Stores were rationing any inventory they had and there was no way I was going to be able to acquire enough chicken in Northfield, Minnesota to feed 50-100 students. So I called Marion. Problem solved. She arranged for the Penny’s grocery store in Apple Valley to supply me with a sufficient supply of chicken wings to meet my needs. We used the back door to avoid upsetting the store’s less connected customers but, nonetheless, she had my back.

A couple of years later, when I was backpacking across Europe on my way to London for a semester abroad, I used my Eurail pass to travel from Paris to Zurich to spend a day and evening with Marion and George. They were visiting Europe as part of a first-class tour and welcomed my joining them after a month and a half away from home as if it were a reunion with their son. Thinking back, I must have been a real fish out of water with my long hair and dirty jeans. But the Levines ignored the incongruity and included me in the day’s and evening’s events with the group, including the president of American Motors.

We spent the day shopping. Marion stocked me with Swiss chocolate. At one point I remember going into a camera store to see the new Leica M3 (?) that had just been released. Marion asked me if I wanted her to buy one for me so I’d have a good camera for the rest of my time abroad. I declined. As nice as it might have been, I did not need a $1,000 camera (1972 dollars) but loved the Levines for just assuming that I should have one for the trip. When it was time to leave, Marion offered me a $100 bill. Again I declined but accepted instead $20 that, net of the cost of one dinner in Paris, was all the money I had when I arrived in England two days later.

Marion’s influence continued through the years. She served as a role model of perseverance after George died suddenly in 1974 and she carried on the grocery business on her own. When Bob and I started a law firm in 1981 in the midst of a recession and while the prime lending rate from banks was in double digits, she financed us at much more reasonable rates. She always took an interest in the growth of our business and the growth of or families. After the sale of Penny’s Supermarkets, she worked with Bob to shrewdly invest in real estate and operating businesses that still thrive today. Throughout the years, Marion was devoted to her family and friends and was a quiet, generous philanthropist who shared her good fortune with those in need without seeking recognition for doing the right thing.

Looking at the crowd that gathered at synagogue tonight for
Shiva, I was struck by the presence of this generation’s young princes, home from college and there to pay tribute to Marion. It was if peering through a time machine at Bob and me back in 1970. Except now we were the adults in the room, admiring the self-confidence exuded by the yet to be tried, jealous of their limitless horizons.

Of course, also present at the weekend’s events were many of Marion’s contemporaries and, on the other end of life’s cycle, Marion’s great-granddaughter. The breadth and depth of the crowds mourning the passing of Marion Levine is as good a testament as any to a life well lived. The memory of Marion, the memory of her principles, the memory of her selflessness, the memory of her determination to succeed as a businessperson who happened to be female and the memory of her love of family and friends, all packaged in one class act, will sustain us for years to come.
Thanks, Ma!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Obama's (!) Inaugural Address

Text of President Barack Obama's inaugural address on Tuesday, as delivered.

OBAMA: My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy New Year!

It's New Year's Eve as I write this. January 19, 2009. As noted in last week's blog, January Blahs (but Hope Springs Eternal), all of 2009 to date has just been marking time. This year, the ball doesn't drop in Times Square at the stroke of midnight on January 1st. It drops at noon, January 20th overlooking the National Mall. With apologies to the Ghermazian Brothers, tomorrow Washington, D.C. is the home of the real Mall of America.

The real Mall of America will be filled with an untold number of "consumers", lined up to be the first to invest in a renewed commitment to the ideals that made our nation great. The coin of the realm tomorrow is their mere presence, the unabashedly joyful volume of which is enough to swell the country with pride and make us all part of the buying experience.

The real Mall of America will be salted with believers whose unwavering pursuit of the ideal of inclusion in our political discourse and in our society as a whole succeeded in electing a new president with the intellect, demeanor and common sense required to unite, and thereby strengthen, a country on the verge of resorting to fearing fear itself.

The real Mall of America will be devoid of small-minded pessimists who choose to take refuge in a cocoon of fear and prejudice rather than embrace the challenges and resulting paradigm shifting possibilities eloquently detailed by our new president.

The real Mall of America will be imbued with the spirit of Abraham, Martin, Bobby and John and all who sacrificed so selflessly to prove that the ideals they preached could actually be achieved.

Forty-eight years ago to the day, because that is how traditions work, I missed the opportunity to watch JFK's inaugural address on television because I was carrying out my responsibilities as a street patrol, making the crosswalks safe for students going home for lunch. As an 8 year old, I did not really have a sense of how excited the country was to have a young, articulate Senator take the oath of office and lead us through an anxious era dominated by the threat of nuclear annihilation. It was years before I realized what I missed standing out on that corner in St. Louis Park while the new president was addressing the nation.

However, tomorrow, New Year's Day, I will gather with friends in front of a television accepting signals from a satellite envisioned before the rest of us by JFK. All sharing the experience with me are all fully apprised of the significance of the ascendancy of another young, articulate Senator to the presidency and his acceptance of the responsibility for leading us through a new era of anxious times. We will celebrate with laughter and tears and with the audacity to hope that the fresh, inclusive, reasoned, considered, welcoming, challenging, and ethical approach to government championed by President Barack Obama will right the Ship of State and return it to a course for greatness.

Happy New Year, everyone! Let us celebrate with the joy that the moment deserves. Let us remember that the optimism we share as a people, as we reflect on the possibilities that competence in our leadership offers, can be turned into a force powerful enough to achieve, with time and growing momentum, all of the daunting goals we dare set for ourselves.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January Blahs (but Hope Springs Eternal)

It is hard to believe that a month has passed since I last wrote here. Frankly, it was a lousy month.

As noted in my last pondering, I've been dealing with some health issues. Thankfully, those are, for the most part, behind me (literally) and the persistent discomfort in my right rear cheek no longer hinders my efforts to assist in mucking stalls.

I have yet to complete the annual Stern Holiday Letter. When (not if) I do, it will appear in connection with the celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday celebration or Valentine's Day or President's Day. "Holiday" has many convenient meanings.

The Israelis were forced, once again, to defend themselves by responding to incessant rocket attacks with a show of force at a level needed to make the point. The resulting loss of life is horrific. But the rush by some to blame Israel, and the media's focus on the human suffering in Gaza, is misplaced. A "government", Hamas, which uses mosques and schools as weapons depots and women and children has human shields, loses the right to invoke sympathy when its means of waging warfare results in intended consequences to its constituency. Were Israel to refrain from engaging the enemy when and where the enemy has established itself, there would be no point in any engagement at all; Israel would be left to hope and pray that the Qassam rockets flying into southern Israel do not kill too many Israeli citizens. Those quick to condemn Israel should consider how long the United States would stand by while Duluth was under rocket attack on a daily basis from terrorists in Winnipeg. Or, more on point, would we refrain from responding if Mexican nationalists operating out of Nogales and upset over the U.S. incorporation of the Arizona Territory, started sending missiles into Tucson? I fully expect some changes in U.S. policy towards Israel in the coming years because, unfortunately, Israel is losing the p.r. war to the warped concept of support for the underdog. However, I also have a sense that the new administration will condition any concessions demanded from Israel on a quid pro quo of peaceful co-existence from its neighbors.

My unbridled enthusiasm for the possibilities presented by an incoming Obama Administration, augmented by a Franken ascendancy to the seat formerly held by Paul Wellstone, has been tempered by the same old politics of those who rely on fear-mongering to quell the audacity of hope. Yesterday's mail brought a solicitation from a Republican legislative leader (I have no idea how I ended up on his list) urging me to support the Minnesota Republican Party to protect against "liberal Democrats determined to raise (my) taxes". While my first reaction was "That's it? That's your best shot? We face a $5-8 billion shortfall in the State's budget, 25% of the total budget, and you're worried about raising taxes?" Then I realized that, unfortunately, the pitch will ring true to too many GOP constituents and, as with efforts to fund basic infrastructure last year, the Legislature will enter gridlock and the resulting compromises will, like sausage, best be consumed without examining the components.

And, speaking of Senator-elect Al Franken (how I love typing that phrase), I have been muzzled by ethical considerations and have had to sit quietly while watching the Coleman political and legal apparatchiks hijack the democratic process by undermining the legitimacy of the work of hundreds of bi-partisan election officials and, by extension, the legitimacy of Al Franken's victory. One need only peruse the comments to the Star Tribune's online stories about the recount to see how well Norm Coleman's strategy has succeeded. If you choose not to take my word for it, and actually peruse, be prepared to feel some degree of alarm over the extent to which uninformed, small-minded (NOT a redundancy) masses can be swayed by rhetoric pandering to their insecurities. The Coleman strategy does us all a disservice in this time of national trauma. By undermining confidence in the legitimacy of our elected officials, the Republican Party, on both State and National levels, has diminished the ability to engage citizens in the process of finding solutions to the challenges we face. Because I agreed not to discuss or blog about specifics of what transpired in the recount process based on personal knowledge I acquired as a recount volunteer, and because as a recount volunteer attorney I view the issue to be one of attorney-client privilege, I cannot say much more on the subject for now. Once released, I will have plenty to say. Here's a teaser: The Republicans are engaging in such a level of hypocrisy that the Coleman legal team should be sanctioned by the Lawyers' Board of Professional Responsibility for pursuing frivolous claims.

As long as I am exorcising my funk, let me dwell on the economy for a minute. I am reminded of my reaction to predictions, before Hurricane Katrina, that New Orleans could be wiped off the map if it took a direct hit from a hurricane because of the peculiar topography of the area. I remember thinking that, outside of a Hollywood blockbuster, nothing of the sort could ever actually happen. Fast forward to economic pundits' observations in mid-2008 that the U.S. economy, left to spiral out of control or, pick your metaphor, left to pick up the dominoes of fallen sectors, would face the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. I remember thinking that, outside of a Hollywood blockbuster, nothing of the sort could ever actually happen (again). At the time, President W would not even use the word "recession" out of concern for the mental health of the citizenry. As W prepares to leave office, economists are openly discussing the fact that we are in a depression. At work, I hear one horror story after another about businesses, recently thriving, that are forced to significantly reduce production/expansion/workforce/etc. in response to an unprecedented lack of available financing and the constriction of consumer spending. Despite Republican efforts to dissuade me from doing so, I harbor a hope and a faith that the new President will be able to utilize the power of the Federal government to loosen up the credit markets, create jobs that will put cashflow back into the economy and give consumers a sense that solutions to our current malaise exist, are being applied, and justify a loosening of personal purse strings to, again, put cashflow back into the economy.

I do want a "do over" of the last Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's Holiday season. I know that can never happen in the literal sense. However, since everything in 2009 before January 20th amounts to nothing more than marking time, I am going to treat next Tuesday as my New Year celebration. I am going to celebrate the greatness of the occasion. I am going to make resolutions, committing myself to being part of the solution for what ails us. I am going to call friends all over the country, even my Republican friends, and exchange greetings and good tidings for what I hope will be a new era of political discourse, candor, common sense, and Chicago Cool.

The sun'll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun!

Just thinkin' about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
'Til there's none!

When I'm stuck a day
That's gray,
And lonely,
I just stick out my chin
And Grin,
And Say,

The sun'll come out
So ya gotta hang on
'Til tomorrow
Come what may
Tomorrow! Tomorrow!
I love ya Tomorrow!
You're always
A day
A way!