Category Archives: Half-Truths

trashd.com

I wrote this as a satirical monologue for a producer who was looking for pieces on money and the economy. As it turned out, it didn’t really fit his needs and works better as a prose piece than as theater. Without anyplace really to use it, I am posting it here.

(January 3 – New York) For Immediate Release.

Trashd.com — the leader in user-sourced waste management services, today announced completion of a $50 million round of equity financing. Lead investors in this round included Triangle Banking, BFD Investure, and SexPistols Capital Venture Fund. CEO and Founder, Skipper Bright said, “We’re introducing new products and services that aim to disrupt the moribund Waste Management Industry — simultaneously empowering consumers and thousands of waste removal contractors to improve service, maximize repurposing of refuse and returning to the market millions of dollars worth of value.”

Using its proprietary application for iPhone and Android, Trashd.com matches refuse suppliers with independent refuse reclamation consultants for the collection, sorting and sanitary removal of home and commercial trash. Home users simply take a photo of their filled trash or recycling bins with their phones and their information including geo-location, types of trash available, potential salvageable materials, both organic and inorganic, is sent to an appropriate refuse reclamation consultant. Items of particular value are pre-identified in the photo the user has uploaded using our patented visual search algorithm. Payment is completed via credit card and the refuse reclamation consultants deliver their content to a Trashd.com processing center where they are compensated, including bonuses for high-value reclamations including rare-metals, convertible textiles and consumables appropriate for the secondary market. Trashd.com provides an efficient alternative to costly and burdensome municipal services where they remain, and outperforms legacy waste management companies in the private sector. For additional information contact Bethany Horowitz, Senior VP for Marketing, Bethany@trashd.com.

(April 3 – New York) For Immediate Release

Trashd.com, the makers of the leading user-sourced waste removal app, reported a quarterly revenue earnings increase of 120% over the previous quarter and 600% over prior year. Over the past three months it has become one of the most downloaded apps online and been the subject of major articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times Style and Business Sections, Wired, Mashable and Lifehacker. Founder and CEO Skipper Bright commented, “We’re proud to be generating revenue approaching IPO levels so early in our product rollout. We plan to enter 50 more markets in the next quarter and another 100 by year’s end. The only thing holding us back are those unfortunate cities and municipalities, where lawmakers in the pocket of established Waste Management Companies and labor unions are using health and safety regulations as an excuse to block consumers from our services and lock-out our Trashd.com owner/operators from earning a living. These government-sponsored monopolies are patently un-American, and stifle the innovation and free markets that have made this country great. Nevertheless, we look forward to resolving our differences and making Trashed.com available wherever people are creating garbage.” For more information, contact Senior VP for Marketing, Bethany@trashed.com

(July 7 – New York) For Immediate Release

Trashd.com – the #1 free download on the iTunes app store – deeply regrets that one of its refuse reclamation consultants perished yesterday in an unfortunate accident that could be neither foreseen nor avoided. It was just one of those things. Heatstroke. All consultants are advised on proper hydration as part of their 20-minute online video orientation, particularly when scavenging on the scrap pile. While we of course are deeply saddened by this incident, we firmly reject accusations that we are in anyway responsible for the fact that the consultant in question was a minor — that he asserted the opposite in the online consultant registration form clears us from any culpability or liability. Furthermore, we categorically reject the claim being made by some muckraking publications, that we turn a blind-eye to child labor. To prove so, we will be donating $1 for every Trashd.com pickup in August to the UNICEF to combat child labor in developing countries, up to $100,000. For more information on this exciting initiative contact Bethany Horowitz, Senior VP for Marketing, Bethany@trashd.com

(October 3 – New York) For Immediate Release

Trashd.com – now operating in 120 markets on three continents, surpassed $845 million in revenue last quarter. More than half-a-million customers have used our services and tens of thousands of refuse reclamation consultants have earned money to support their families, supplement their incomes or pay their tuitions. While the amount of money paid to our consultants is not publicly available information, we wish to dispel the misconception that it is below minimum wage – although technically, because the Trashd.com app allows for tipping, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. Also, we want to emphasize that while there have been isolated incidents where contractors have used their Trashd.com duties as an opportunity to case residences for later home invasions, we rigorously background check each consultant prior to activation of their refuse removal consultant account. Finally we wish again, to rebut the inaccurate and misleading reports that claim Trashd.com is quote, “merely the cyber-jacking of child labor practices that have long been common on the trash heaps of Ghana, the Philippines and other developing nations.” We understood when we set-out to disrupt the Waste Management Industry that powerful forces would resist our attempt to provide market efficiencies to home-users by leveraging an under-utilized workforce for the customizable performance of a necessary service. But we didn’t think it would be so nasty.

For more information, contact Bethany Horowitz, Bethany@trashed.com

(January 3 – New York) For Immediate Release

Trashd.com, the innovator in customizable waste-removal experiences, is happy to announce that it has been acquired for $8 billion by Industrial Waste Processing of North America, Inc. Says Trashd.com Founder and CEO, Skipper Bright, “This is truly the achievement of a lifetime, and I am grateful to everyone on the Trashd.com team, from our 78 full-time employees to the thousands and thousands of independent contractors who contributed to our success.” The acquisition provides Waste Processing of North America (symbol: WPN – NYSE) with a cutting-edge platform to grow its business, and allows Trashd.com the resources of a multinational operation to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by government health and safety agencies, former Trashd.com contractors who claim they were mistreated and several major lawsuits by Trashd.com users who claim the company contributed to the reckless endangerment of their lives and property. Trashd.com of course, denies all these allegations and looks forward to resolving all outstanding matters in the course of the merger. As part of the merger, Skipper Bright will hold a seat on the Waste Processing Board.

Senior VP of Marketing and Communications Bethany Horowitz announced that she would not be staying with the company during the transition, but will be leaving to start her own online company seeking to disrupt the nanny-sharing industry. For more information contact: info@wasteprocessing.com

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Doubling-Down on Philip’s Jewish Identity in The Americans

Last season Melissa and I became unabashed fans of the FX television series The Americans. Since then it has quickly emerged as one of the best shows on television for its complex and multi-layered characters, its authentic-feeling spy-craft and its relative faithfulness to Reagan-era Cold War atmospherics in costumes, pop-culture references and plot lines. One of the running themes of the series is the differing attitudes the main characters, Philip and Elizabeth bring to their jobs as KGB “illegals” living deep under-cover. Elizabeth is the more ideologically committed of the two, while Philip is more skeptical both about the wisdom of their Moscow handlers and whether America is really the mortal enemy – he even considers defecting early in the series.

Part of the pleasure of the show is that Philip and Elizabeth are both deeply drawn characters, yet their backstories are largely unknown even to each other and only gradually and piecemeal revealed to us. We’ve learned some about Elizabeth’s childhood and her time in-training for the KGB as well as a plot-line last year about one of Philip’s former loves from the USSR. But we haven’t learned as much about his family background, which led me to speculate in a post last year that he might be Jewish. I laid out my reasons and in doing so, also cited an interview by the show’s Jewish creators in which they alluded to “a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season…Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned...or something more?

Is Philip thinking whether or not this man can be turned…or something more?

Last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”) brought that Mossad/Refusenik story to the forefront and positioned it for at least a multi-episode arc. The episode opens with Philip at a synagogue listening to Baklanov, a former-Soviet physicist addressing the congregation about how dismal it was to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, how grateful he is to be in America, and how it offered the best future for his family and his children (cut to a shot of his slightly homey-looking wife and geek-in-training son listening with admiration in the front row). In a wonderful non-verbal acting moment, Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) seems to envy the safe harbor that America has provided Baklanov. Given the anxieties Philip and Elizabeth have for their own children’s future given their occupation and exacerbated by the recent murder of fellow agents Emmett and Leanne (and their daughter) one can hardly blame him. Reporting back to Moscow, Philip claims there is no way that Baklanov could ever be “turned” to spy for the Soviets.

Moscow decides that if the physicist cannot be turned, then he will need to be “exfiltrated” – kidnapped and returned to the USSR. Elizabeth and Philip are put on the case and as the episode ends, the attempted kidnapping has gone sideways. They are ambushed by another male/female pair of agents, one of whom they incapacitate while the other escapes with their car containing the targeted physicist chloroformed in the trunk. Roll credits.

The scenes-from-next-week confirm my initial suspicion that the spoiler agents are indeed from the Mossad. Why they were protecting the physicist we’ll probably learn and how this blown operation compromises Philip and Elizabeth’s operational ability as Soviet agents will be interesting. However, in the snippet seen in the teaser for the next episode it would appear that the show-runners are also setting-up something of an identity crisis – most likely targeted squarely at Philip. In the teaser, we see the Mossad agent, tied-up and bruised saying to Philip, “I hide what I do, I don’t hide who I am,” – a conversation that takes us into a realm of morality and identity that the show has not yet fully considered. And, I maintain, if Philip has any Jewish ancestry, which I’ve shown before is plausible, the identity crisis will be further compounded as another tug on his multiple and conflicting identities – as a father, as a KGB agent, as a husband to Elizabeth (and Martha) and a friend to (and sworn enemy of) Stan the FBI agent.

How long can Philip keep these contradictions in perpetual tension? Waiting for the breaking point is what keeps me watching.

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Memo to “The Americans”: Philip is Jewish

matthewrhysMel and I have a new television obsession. It’s The Americans on FX and we’ve become devoted watchers. As children of the 80s, we love the whole world of the show, and we are particularly attracted by the conceit that dangerous international espionage could have been taking place under our very noses when we were growing up in our milquetoast suburbs. My only complaint with the show is that practically nothing looks like it is actually set in Washington, DC or its suburbs. They shoot somewhere in New York I guess, which is too bad because it is the only part of the show that feels inauthentic. They nail the 80s clothes, music and cars; as well as the Cold War fever-pitch that Reagan whipped the country into. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are excellent as Elizabeth and Philip — the KGB agents who are living so deep under-cover that they blend in with the rest of the suburban families in their neighborhood. But they are textured and complex characters who struggle with the line between the lies necessitated by their assignments, and the authentic relationships they have living as a family, both within their is-it-or-isn’t-it-fake marriage and their very unfake children who live life completely oblivious to their parents’ true identities. [spoilers ahead]

Like many couples, Elizabeth and Philip have differing attitudes toward work. Elizabeth is ideologically committed to her role as a KGB officer. She’s devoted to the mission and trusts in the chain of command to issue orders which she is not to question. She believes that America is a shallow, materialistic society bent on the destruction of the USSR. Philip is less absolutist in his attitude, but no less effective. He seems more motivated by devotion to people than to the advancement of a Soviet espionage agenda. He’s ready to defect during the pilot episode, but abandons that plan because the ex-KGB agent about to bring him in had raped Elizabeth during her training as an agent. Whether it is Philip’s sense of justice, his genuine love for his fake wife or something more calculated, he kills the defector, rather than follow him out of the KGB’s employ.

He is skeptical of the orders that come from Moscow. When events begin to spin out-of-control in the wake of the Reagan assassination attempt, he believes their job is to help prevent a war between the Soviet Union and the USA rather than gain the advantage for the USSR in an inevitable war. He is motivated by protecting his family and when Elizabeth tells him she’d rather kill herself than be captured by the FBI, Philip tells her that if they catch him he’ll cooperate so quickly that the Feds will be at their house within an hour — presumably to protect the kids and arrest Elizabeth. He contrasts the openness of the American press and political system with the fact that it takes the USSR weeks to even admit that the leader of the country has died. He’s a skeptic. A bit of an outsider. And that made me think, maybe he’s Jewish?

During the pilot episode we see a flashback to the moment that Philip and Elizabeth met for the first time in some drafty Kremlin office. Just prior to that scene, Philip, while waiting for the meeting to commence, considers a wallet photograph of a woman, and then after staring at it wistfully, tears it up and throws it in the trash. On a simple plot level, this is clearly some sort of love-interest who obviously will show up later in the series (this coming week’s episode in-fact). But I like to read it on a slightly deeper level. This act of tearing up the photo is a physical separation from Philip’s “old life.” Whoever he was, whatever was possible or impossible in that life no longer exists. He gets to re-invent himself.

And Philip flourishes as a reinvented American. It is a difference between himself and Elizabeth that the show emphasizes again and again. His ease in the American milieu is part of the reason he was put through a torturous mock-interrogation by the KGB to test his loyalty. Elizabeth by contrast, is subjected to some rather weak “psychological” manipulation by being placed in a closet covered with photos of her children.

I know that the idea of a Jewish KGB operative during this period is a somewhat ahistorical proposition. While there were plenty of Jewish spies earlier in the 20th Century, following the Doctors’ Trial it became pretty clear that Jews would remain outsiders in the Worker’s Paradise. It would have been tricky to find enthusiastic volunteers. On the other hand, Markus Wolf was the Jewish head of the East German foreign spy agency for many years — so it’s not impossible.  In fact, Philip may be constructed partly along the lines of Markus Wolf’s own spying methods, according to his Washington Post obituary,

Philip in "Romeo" mode

Philip in “Romeo” mode

Mr. Wolf said he was likely to be remembered for his prolific use of sex to gain secrets, whether in the form of brothels to trap Westerners or by procuring wives and mistresses for loyal soldiers or by cultivating “Romeo spies” to target the lonely office secretaries and bureaucrats who had access to important, restricted documents. The intention was to steal hearts and then secrets.

So it could be that show creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had Markus “Mischa” Wolf in mind when they created Philip? They haven’t been asked, but they are both Jewish and in an interview with the Jewish Journal:

both men said they were also inspired as children by stories of Jewish agents and covert operatives: for example, Eli Cohen, the Israeli who was caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965, and Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli assault commander killed in the 1976 top-secret raid on Entebbe. “I got a book of his letters for my bar mitzvah, and his story just bored into me and made me feel like he was the kind of man you’re supposed to be — an intellectual and a hero,” Weisberg said.

So maybe Philip is a Soviet version of The Man Without a Face? Weisberg is a former CIA agent who would be very familiar with Wolf and they have certainly incorporated his tactic of using sex to gain access to secrets as a standard (and steamy) feature of the show. Perhaps we’ll learn that Philip comes from a Wolf-like family, Jews who survived the Nazis thanks to the Soviet Army and became fiercely loyal in-return. Perhaps Philip has always felt distrust for the Soviet State even as he operated from the heart of an agency that was central to its identity.  Perhaps he is so successful in impersonating an American because he is the quintessential American: an outcast from somewhere else who through hard work and luck gets access to circles of power that would have been unimaginable in the “old country.”  I’ll enjoy seeing the show unravel these questions.

But we may not see them arise this season. In that same Jewish Journal article Fields said,

“We wrote a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season,” Fields said. “Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”

Imagine if in the end, Philip doesn’t become a double-agent for the CIA, but instead the Mossad? How awesome will that be?

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My Mother’s Chicken

In honor of the incredible Faye Moskowitz’s 80th Birthday I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays and stories surrounding food and the only requirement was that you share a recipe. I believe the collected stories were presented to her last night at the annual Washington DCJCC Writers’ Retreat, so now I am safe to post this…

My mother writes to me:

So I have no recipe for chicken marsala – I just make it from memory

Pound the chicken cutlets until they are thin
Dip in seasoned flour and brown in olive oil

Place cutlets in a baking dish

Slice fresh mozzarella cheese and put a slice on each cutlet (this is your memory)
Slice mushrooms and lightly coat with flour mixture
Lightly sauté mushrooms – add more olive oil if needed
With mushrooms still in pan, add a cup of chicken broth, ½ cup white wine and mix until sauce thickens

Pour sauce over cutlets – cover lightly with foil and bake at 350 for ½ hour – longer for thicker cutlets
Remove foil for last few minutes

Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/cityhunter12/

Photo by 2-Dog-Farm. Used under Creative Commons License.

This was my favorite dinner that my mother would make when I was growing up. I have not eaten it in many years – not since I began keeping kosher and forsook all that combined milk and meat. Intellectually, I have problems with the dictum that milk and meat should apply to poultry at all: the commandment tells us to “not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” The logic goes that to do so – to literally boil the slaughtered flesh of a premature lamb in the substance it’s mother’s body excretes with the intent to nourish it –would be cruel. I can see their point.

But chickens produce no milk. They do produce eggs in abundance, but there is no similar prohibition against dipping butchered fowl in a yolky-albumen cocktail of its never-to-be-born offspring. Such are the vagaries of kashrut. There is, of course, a lengthy chain of Talmudic logic that gets you from cheeseburgers to chicken parm. I will not trouble you with it here. It is a logic I begrudgingly accept as an article of faith, in part because the logic is so extended and because I doubt faith supported by less serpentine logic would qualify as faith at-all.

It is for that dubious faith that my mother’s Chicken Marsala is now a dish consumed only in my memory where it comes out of the oven piping hot, bathed in brown gravy with stray whorls of mozzarella cheese floating about, tempting you to pluck them out at the expense of singed fingers and scalded tongue. Once cooled and served with a healthy portion of rice pilaf (via Rice-A-Roni), the dish is a perfect combination of the slight crunch of tender chicken, the milky sweetness of gooey cheese and the earthy, savory warmth of that gravy. Honestly, I could drink that gravy and many times I literally licked my plate. If I were a deer, that gravy would be my salt-lick, and the last thought that would go through my mind before the bullet sent it, along with my skull and six-point antlers to the wall of some survivalist supply store would be, “Yum.”

My mother claims that the detail of the cheese on top of the chicken is an invented memory, belonging only to me. Technically, she is correct that traditional Chicken Marsala is prepared without cheese. But if we were to get technical then I would be compelled to note that nowhere in my mother’s recipe does the ingredient Marsala wine appear. And come to think of it, I don’t remember any mushrooms either. That detail doesn’t jibe with a dish that was imprinted on my psyche at an age when I was most certainly not yet reconciled to the view of fungi as fit for human consumption. And looking at the recipe, there is no reason I couldn’t make this dish now and stay within the bounds of kashrut by simply withholding the (possibly fantastical) cheese.

And perhaps some day I will. But I am already bracing myself for the letdown when, inevitably, the alchemy of this childhood dish fails to reactivate. Even if the cheese is a pure fabrication, it stands in-place for the one-way passage that delivers us from childhood and the comforts thereof. I can no more be the little boy licking his plate clean than I can convince the Sanhedrin that dairy and poultry really is kosher. Would that I could do either.

Cross-posted to The Blog at 16th and Q

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What You Find in the Basement

pocket memoTonight I went down into our basement looking for something. A moment to provide some context — we don’t have a big house and relatively little storage space. I generally don’t accumulate too many things of real sentimental value. To be fair, I would characterize the contents of our storage room as consisting of about 70% Mel’s crap, 25% crap for the kids that we don’t know what to do with (because, who knows, maybe someday we’ll need it again) and 5% my crap. Unfortunately, you have to penetrate the rock-hard shell of all the other crap and drill-down through layers and layers of boxes which envelope the 5% which is my crap in progressively thick strata of white-dwarf like density.

While I was at the very beginning of my excavations, I noticed a box off to my side that housed my crap and had somehow percolated to the surface — sort of like the way, every now and then they find a a fossil of some broken branch of the human family tree, millions of years old under some brush in an Ethiopian Rift Valley riverbed? I thought maybe this was my lucky day, and the box I needed would be found with relatively little effort. As I pried open the lid I saw a familiar, little spackled-red notebook standing on-end on-top of some old newspaper clippings, like it had been piling the papers up in an attempt to climb out of the box. I knew instantly what I was looking at.

A few years ago I was looking for this notebook for an essay I was writing about how we relate to a family history that includes some ancestors who participated in less-than-legal behaviors. In it I recalled a story my grandfather had told me the year before he died about some relation of his who ended-up married to the madame of a brothel in Alaska. I distinctly remember writing the story down in a notebook I carried around with me while we walked through Rittenhouse Square and I even remembered the kind of powdery red color of the notebook. But of course, back then I couldn’t find it, and lacking the details of the story, ended up writing a less whimsical piece about my father’s uncle who was killed for unpaid gambling debts.

Now it is miraculously returned to me, and in celebration of its arrival, I share with you, the story of Morris and Bruno Zirker. I do not vouch for its historical accuracy.

Morris Zirker was my grandfather’s maternal grandfather, which I guess makes him my great-great-grandfather. There are two mentions of Morris’ brother, Bruno Zirker in the online database of the Ellis Island Foundation: one in which he arrives on September 11, 1901 as a 23-year-old single man from Cologne, Germany; and a second in which he arrives from Bremen on August 3, 1905 as a 28-year-old married man with Rosie Zirker. Whether he came to America and then returned home, got married and then came back, or came to America, got married and went back to the old country just for giggles, I can only speculate. My grandfather claimed that Bruno “had a shirt factory in downtown New York that went under.” When that business went bust Bruno joined-up with Morris in Baltimore in 1905 (perhaps with his new bride in-tow) and purchased a “Nickelodeon.” Apparently that endeavor was also unsuccessful, and the day before they closed down the theater, “they let all the black kids in for free.” After that, the brothers stopped being business partners and went their separate ways. Morris died in 1929. Not long after, again the details are sketchy, Bruno gets in-touch with Morris’ widow Ida. He’s in New York with his wife Rosie and they are back from Alaska, where family legend has it, Rose was a madame in a whorehouse. My grandfather, who would have been twelve at the time, remembered that Bruno had tons of money and how unusual that really was in 1929. After some period of time, Bruno and Rose went back to Alaska, never to be heard from again.

I am not sure how literally I can take that story. I have a hunch that to my newly-widowed great-great-grandmother, (as well as my great-grandmother who at that point was separated from her luftmensch husband) Alaska could have easily meant “the Midwest” and “madame in a whorehouse” could have been her creative translation of “hotel clerk.”

Either way, I am glad to have this lost story, this tale from my grandfather whom I miss every time I look at my son’s hands, that look so much alike across generations.

Oh, what was I actually looking for in the basement? An old copy of FinalDraft scriptwriting software that I was going to see if I could load onto my Mac. Why? Because it had been awhile since I had done any writing for myself, and I thought maybe that would get me started.

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