Look Behind the Curtain

October 9, 2016


Donald Trump is a great businessman. Just ask him. After all, he made billions. Better yet, he will be able to use his incredible acumen to help the rest of us.

But is Donald Trump really a great businessman? Sure sounds like it. Until you look behind the curtain, that is.

The supposed success of Donald Trump is an illusion being perpetrated by none other than Donald himself. Do people believe him? Apparently quite a few do. Then again, in the famous words of P.T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

To understand Trump’s “philosophy” of business (and, apparently, politics), one must go back to his mentorship under the ruthless New York lawyer Roy Cohn in the 1970s. Cohn had gained fame during the witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings, taking great pride in ruining lives, demeaning his adversaries, and freely making things up to suit his cause (sound familiar?).

In 1973, Trump hired Cohn when he and his father needed to defend themselves against a federal lawsuit for racial discrimination in housing. In spite of a mountain of incriminating evidence, Trump claimed he was the victim, and Cohn went on the offensive with a massive $100 million lawsuit. The case ended up with Trump being forced to settle, but he learned several lessons from Cohn during the process: use lawsuits as a weapon when attacked, never admit wrongdoing, and even if you lose in actuality, claim victory anyway. Trump did not forget what he learned.

In 1987 Trump embarked on the biggest deal of his life, acquiring the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. The casino and hotel were both huge and lavish, and Trump spent over a billion dollars on the project. Marvin Roffman, a financial analyst, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal in which he outlined the unsustainable risk of this enterprise, saying he didn’t believe the company could cover the debt incurred from the loans and the gigantic payroll.

Trump, employing Cohn’s old methodology, threatened a lawsuit against Roffman’s firm unless he apologized or was fired. Roffman refused to back down and was subsequently dismissed by his intimidated firm. By that winter, as Roffman had predicted, the now Trump Taj Mahal found itself in deep financial trouble.

Trump had borrowed tremendous amounts of money — dangerous amounts, according to financial experts. He had bought the Plaza Hotel, an airline, and several casinos in Atlantic City. He overextended himself, and when the businesses did poorly, disaster struck. He blamed everyone but himself for the situation.

Trump and his companies owed over $3 billion, much of it to the banks from whom he had so freely borrowed. In a meeting organized by the bankers, Midlantic National Bank vice president Ben Berzin reported that Trump didn’t seem to comprehend the size of the problem or have any ideas how to resolve it.

“As for being a CEO, in understanding numbers, in understanding the ramifications, it doesn’t seem like he took economics or accounting in college,” Berzin remarked.

In the end, the bankers decided that rather than foreclose on the properties involved, it would be of more value to keep his name on the buildings but remove him from a position of decision-making power as CEO. They gave him a $450,000 a month allowance to continue only in the role of a promoter. After all, as Berzin commented, “He’s the P.T. Barnum of the 21st century.”

With the casinos still deeply in debt, Trump went in a new direction by turning to Wall Street. His enterprises became publicly traded on the stock market with Trump as the pitchman. At their high, the DJT stocks sold at $35 a share, though their final value sank to a dismal $1.60 a share.

Insiders looked at Trump’s stewardship of a publicly traded company “like leaving a kid locked in a candy store.” He paid himself a $44 million salary for “services” and was reimbursed millions more for a private plane, a helicopter, and “administrative costs.”

Trump personally made tens of millions of dollar a year while the stock prices dropped. Three times the company filed for bankruptcy, and investors lost billions. He never earned any profit for his shareholders, and many pensioners were set back severely because of the performance of these stocks in which their retirement funds had been invested.

Though the failure was his, he took neither the loss nor the responsibility. When asked by a reporter about the financial problems, he smirked and asked, “Why do you say they’re problems?” He described it as a success and blamed the shareholders themselves for their losses.

In light of all this, how did the widely held perception that he’s a great businessman proliferate? After leaving this financial mess behind him, he began selling his well-known name. He raked in the profits for doing no more than allowing his brand to be put on other people’s buildings. Those walking by would see the Trump name on properties and assume that they must be another part of his vast empire. They were not.

Then in a masterstroke of showmanship, he brought his act to television with his show The Apprentice. In a controlled environment that made him look knowledgeable, in-charge, and all-powerful, he had a ready-made audience of potential voters seeing him in nothing but a favorable light. Though called “reality TV,” it bore absolutely no connection to any reality that would impact anyone in the country outside of himself and the cultivation of his image.

Now we are seeing the fallout of these years, both in his ability to even be able to run for the office of President in spite of having no relevant experience or qualifications of substance as well as in the controversies now coming to light, the most prominent being his unrevealed tax return information. According to him, his avoidance of paying his fair share of taxes is “smart,” and his defense is that it was legal. Perhaps so, but that does not make it admirable or acceptable. At best it is selfish; at worst it epitomizes the callous indifference of a wealthy and arrogant manipulator of the system.

So you want to vote for Trump? Go ahead, it’s your prerogative. But don’t do so because of his self-trumpeted prowess as a businessman, for it simply is not true.

Just like in the Wizard of Oz, go look behind the curtain, and all you’ll see there is the little man who controls the illusion.




The Italian in Me

October 2, 2016

Though many are likely not aware of it, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. No doubt quite a few jokes have been made at the expense of this commemorative designation, but in spite of many widespread negative images and stereotypes of Italian Americans, there is much to be proud of.

Almost 6% of the population of our country, some 15.7 million people, are of Italian heritage. Though most of the original immigrants started their journey in the United States low on the totem pole, the successive generations have made their mark in virtually every area of endeavor. Best known, of course, are those who achieved prominence in music, film, and sports (and yes, unfortunately, crime), names familiar to all: Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Joe DiMaggio, Al Capone. However, others, though perhaps not household names, have excelled in politics, jurisprudence, the sciences, and the arts.

But most have not achieved fame. They are policemen, firemen, mechanics, nurses, teachers, and office workers, the ordinary people in all walks of life, each bringing some degree of their Italian background to their American lives. I believe the American culture has been enriched by their contributions as well.

My Italian-American mom Ida.

My Italian American mom Ida.

I happen to be half Italian, that half coming from my mother. She was named Aida after the opera, though everyone knew her as Ida. Her family was 100% Italian. During my entire childhood, we would make weekly Sunday visits to the Brooklyn home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents, where I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from that small second-floor railroad apartment on Bay Ridge Avenue.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday family visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switch blade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. A few years older than me and a whole lot more street smart, I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie who lived downstairs would come up with cousins Mike and Gerry.

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.-- Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

the backyard at Bay Ridge Ave. with a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

Of course the reason for the trip was to see family, but the main event was the food. As my grandmother, mother, and Aunt Josie finished up in the kitchen, we would all congregate in the dining room in eager anticipation.

The eating would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provolone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipast0, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers. Those Sundays in Brooklyn captured that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.

My adult life received a second infusion when I married an Italian American girl. My address book took on many additions to the LaPortes and Rizzos with Vendittis, Bertuccis, and Butricos joining the list. Her parents, Mary and Tony, provided continuity in the fueling of the Italian in me.

The Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much involved sitting around the table in the dining room at my in-laws. On Christmas Eve we held the traditional dinner of seven fishes. Then on Christmas day once again, the food — oh, the food! First the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

After Mary could no longer manage all the preparation, the tradition carried forth at our house for Christmas Eve and then at my brother-in-law Anthony’s for Christmas. Though the gathering may have grown smaller in number over the years, it has remained great in spirit.

Christmas Eve seven fishes, now at our house

Christmas Eve with the seven fishes, now at our house.

Since the influx of Italians into America, our society has been influenced by and in turn has influenced those who stem from that southern boot of Europe. This unique blend of Italian-American-ness has manifest itself in both positive and sometimes not so positive ways. I choose to celebrate the positive and revel in the warmth, passion, friendliness, and generosity so typical of this heritage which has become an integral part of the American fabric. So to all my connazionali out there, full-blooded or otherwise, I wish you buona salute, lunga vita, and felicita, and may we keep the best of ourselves flourishing.



I Stand with Standing Rock

September 19, 2016

standing rock-petitionRight now in North Dakota a scene is playing out that echoes a sorry thread that unfortunately runs through the fabric of this nation.

The Standing Rock Reservation is currently being threatened by the actions of Big Oil. The Dakota Access Pipeline will run through North Dakota to bring oil from the Bakken and Three Forks production areas to pipelines in Illinois. In order to do this, it needs to cross the Missouri River.

The original plans had this crossing north of Bismarck. The population of the area, which is 94% white, protested over fears of a pipeline leak. The plans were then adjusted to reroute the pipeline south to cross the Missouri near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Lake Oahe, the sole source of water for the tribe.

So what do we have here? A 3.7 billion dollar project by the oil industry. A pipeline that needs to cross a river. A white population that objects and has the crossing rerouted. A group of Native Americans who are expected to accept what that white population did not.

The thread is one of the pervasive and persistent lack of respect for the indigent people of this land and their rights.

It is abundantly clear that through much of our history an institutional effort was made to contain, remove, or eradicate the native Americans. Originally, the legitimized slaughter of “Indians” reflected the values of the time during which they were considered subhuman “savages” whose elimination was much the same as the killing of wild animals. The fact that we (in both cases) encroached on their land and declared it our own seems to be besides the point. The governments of certain states (including New Jersey) promoted this practice by offering the incentive of scalp bounties. George Washington himself compared Indians to wolves and called for their annihilation. Though these practices were eventually stopped, the mindset they fostered still lingers in many to this day.

This may seem of little consequence on the surface, but it reflects an endemic attitude about the native peoples of this country. To me, that is troubling in a nation that insists it embraces tolerance, acceptance, and equality.

Consider that until 1924, these people — who were here before the “founding fathers” ever set foot on this soil — were not even considered citizens of the United States.

Consider that Indians living on reservations have no property rights. They don’t own the land on the reservation because the federal government holds it “in trust.”

Delve even deeper and consider history and its aftermath — the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the miserable exile into the reservation, and the abjectly dismal record of one hundred percent of the more than five hundred treaties signed then broken by the United States government.

Those who would defend such actions point to the violence committed by the Indians against the colonists and settlers. This is also fact, but it must be looked at in the perspective of the situation.

Consider the following scenario. America has been invaded. The invaders have superior weapons and have captured or killed many. They are advancing and taking over most of the land. Some defenders have given up and fallen under their control and suffered great mistreatment. What would you do? Would you fight using any means necessary to protect your land and people?

Years later, others who look at this will have an opinion about what happened. Who do you think they will feel was wrong in what they did, the invaders or those who resisted?

The majority would do as one might expect —  they would fight (just think of the reaction to the exceptionally popular movie Independence Day). The invaders have no right to take our land and kill our people. It is clear that they are wrong in what they did.

This happens to be the exact circumstance of the Indians, but many Americans have great difficulty in accepting the application of the conclusion above when it makes us the bad guys. However, if we are to be a truly great country, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, not cover them up or make excuses for them, for to do so merely diminishes our stature and makes us appear hypocritical (particularly when we are critical of the record of other countries in such matters).

The bottom line in the current situation in North Dakota is that native people are still considered to be expendable. They are not worthy of the same consideration of the rest of the population.

Some of the area which is to be dug up and plowed through would irreparably violate land sacred to the Sioux, land containing ancestral burial grounds, and land which, incidentally, had been taken from them one hundred fifty years ago. Imagine if a native tribe proposed a project through Arlington National Cemetery that would necessitate invasive construction. Would that be acceptable?


picture this at Arlington

The threat to the critical water supply of the tribe is a real one despite the assurances of the oil and pipeline industries that it is safe. Consider the record. Since 1995 there have been 2,000 significant accidents involving these “safe” pipelines — 300 in North Dakota alone in 2012-2013 — resulting in three billion dollars in property damage.

For example, in July of 2010, 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. Five thousand acres of wetland habitat were adversely affected. In 2016, 65,000 gallons of oil polluted the North Saskatchewan River in Canada, the source of water for a tribe of the Cree Nation. Just this past week there was a major gas pipeline breach near Birmingham, Alabama.

The pipeline that will pass under the Missouri River will carry about a half million gallons of oil a day. At risk is the potential of an environmental disaster and the catastrophic effect it would have on the Standing Rock Sioux.

The future of these native people’s welfare and tradition hangs in the balance. For many, faith in the belief that this country can honor its own code of values also hangs in the balance. This is, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave with liberty and justice for all.

Except, it seems, for the Native American people.



This Land Is Your Land

August 25, 2016
Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

One hundred years ago this day, an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. The monumental task of protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments as well as any future additions fell to this new federal bureau. The current system of National Parks and Monuments covers more than 84 million acres in all 50 states and several territories.

These national parks have been called by some our country’s greatest treasure, and I would find that statement hard to argue with. The fact that these irreplaceable areas of natural beauty have been set aside and preserved from the rampant and often irresponsible overdevelopment by private interests that has plagued so much of our landscape is a credit to the foresight of those who led the preservation movement. And that is as it should be, for as Woody Guthrie sang, “This land was made for you and me.”

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Some ask why we should care about setting aside these natural areas. The answer seems clear to me. That we can still find pristine beaches along which to walk, lakes and rivers yet unsullied by pollution, mountain ranges that haven’t been ravaged by mining companies, and forests still abundant with the flora and fauna native to this great land should be of comfort to all who take pride in this country. These places manifest the very soul of our nation. Even if everyone can’t see these parks in person, just knowing they exist can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction.


Yosemite, California

In the excellent documentary series entitled Our Nation’s Best Idea, Ken Burns retells the story of the parks and the people who were so vital in their establishment and protection, some well-known and some unheralded: John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, Charles Young, Harold Ickes, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with many ordinary unsung heroes, they often had to battle against those who sought to gain individual control or personal wealth. It took time and persistence, but the result of their staunch efforts and great vision is available for all to appreciate, for these park lands belong to us. They are part of our American heritage to be entrusted to each successive generation as living proof of the glory of this land.

Mt. Denali, Alaska

Mt. Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

The desire on the part of some to violate the compact made to uphold these grounds as untouchable doggedly persists, though. Proposals of logging, mining, and drilling are a constant threat. I am among the many who hope that those who seek to intrude upon the sanctity of these areas in the name of exploitation of “needed” resources can be kept at bay. These shortsighted actions purportedly for our benefit need to be blocked because once the incursion is made, the damage done will be irreparable. We as a people deserve better than that.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Another concern is accommodating the increasing numbers of visitors. That requires a delicate balance that must be struck between the desired mass access to these areas and restrictions imposed to help retain the character of the parks. Those who have experienced the overcrowding during Old Faithful’s scheduled eruptions or bumper to bumper traffic on the Cades Cove Loop through Great Smoky Mountain understand this quandary. However, no prospective visitor should let the possible crowds dissuade him or her from visiting, for simply pulling over to park at one of the many trailheads will provide a portal just a short walk away from the throngs into the wonders of the land.

Zion, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

I have been fortunate enough over the years to be able to spend time in many of our National Parks and Monuments. Their size and diversity are nothing short of staggering: the vast chasm of Grand Canyon, the incredible stone structures of Arches in Utah, the raw coastal grandeur of Acadia in Maine, the primal power of Volcano in Hawaii, the majestic peaks rising in the wilderness of Denali in Alaska, the serene other-worldly expanse of White Sands. Each has a character and beauty of its own. Every time I go, my spirit is restored as I reflect upon and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural splendor, and I am grateful to be a part of this grand American enterprise.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico


Two Dogs, One Book, and a Long Lost Friend

August 21, 2016

“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master

This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.

The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.

Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.

We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.

However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.

Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.

However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.

Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?

I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.

The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.

In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.

One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.

George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out the of Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.

Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.

During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.

“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”

The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.

“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.

“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”

I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.

The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.

As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.

After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”

I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.

“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.

The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.



A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.

She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.

I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.

I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.

The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.

I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.

“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”

Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.

“Well, he hates cats.”

I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.

“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”

I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.

Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.

I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.

“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”

I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.



How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.

It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.

I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.

And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.

Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.

To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.


Monkey Man

August 3, 2016


On August 3, 1900, John T. Scopes was born. That no one recognizes this date is no big deal. That few still remember the name John Scopes doesn’t surprise me either. That any controversy would still exist over what brought Scopes his infamous footnote in history, however, is somewhat perplexing.

John Scopes gained his notoriety as the defendant in the 1925 “Monkey Trial.” He faced a court trial for teaching the evolution of man to his Tennessee high school biology class. This apparent collision of Darwin’s scientific theory with the Creationism belief of Fundamentalists was actually more a conflict about legislation enacted in violation of the Constitution. The events that led to the trial were far more complex than first appears involving much behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

When I first started teaching eighth grade English in Rutherford, the play Inherit the Wind was part of the curriculum. Exploring the historical background of the trial laid the groundwork for the play itself. It became clear that this was not so much a struggle between science and religion as it was an indictment of an anti-intellectualism that tends to creep into society periodically. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee indicated that this play was not intended as a historically accurate piece of literature though some of the testimony was verbatim from the trial. Their impetus came from the McCarthyism of the 1950s, a parallel way of thinking being the mutual theme.

The bottom line is this: evolution is science. It is based on observable evidence. Even John Butler’s original Tennessee bill that started the controversy in 1925 conceded this, making it unlawful to teach the evolution of only one species—mankind—in the public schools. The teaching of the evolution of all other life — plant or animal, the earth itself and the solar system too — was allowable as either compelling theory or proven fact. I’m not sure how one can reconcile that evolution would be true for 99.9% of life but not human beings.

Creation stories — whether they be the traditional Judeo-Christian one, Hindu, Buddhist, Sioux, or any other — are a matter of belief. As Americans, the Constitution gives us the freedom to embrace any of them or none at all. However, it also provides that none of them can be imposed.

The proposition by some that Creationism be given “equal time” in public schools flies in the face of both common sense and the Constitution. Science is not religion, and religion is not science. Believing in any particular Creation story is a matter of faith. It is a choice one makes. It belongs in the heart, in the home, in the church or temple. It does not, however, belong in the public school.



July 30, 2016
Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Unbeknownst to many, today happens to be Father-in-Law Day. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so can honor someone who, though not blood, is certainly an important part of family. So today I take the welcome opportunity to celebrate Pop.

Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is 95 years of age. I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. I can only imagine what he thought of me then. However, over the ensuing years we have come to know each other well. He is kind and gentle, a salt-of-the-earth type of man in its best possible sense.

His has been a life filled with the struggles that made up the pursuit of the American dream by those of his generation. He followed the rules, worked hard, fulfilled his duties, and kept his faith and integrity intact while doing it. He lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, owned a small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher well into his 80’s. Until recently, he was maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and washer of dishes. He took loving care of Mary, his wife of sixty-plus years who suffered from Alzheimer’s, staying by her side in their home right to the end.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

He is living history with many stories to tell of by-gone years. One of Pop’s favorite things to talk about is his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him. Some of his memories are quite vivid in spite of the time that has passed, and his stories offer insights into the individual experience of that period one doesn’t often get in history books.

First arriving at Camp Sibert in Alabama before shipping out, Pop got his initial shocking glimpse of Jim Crow in action. As the bus to town made its many stops, he didn’t understand why all the black folks headed for the back when there were seats available in the front. When he saw the sign posted above the driver, it finally dawned on him what was going on. Then he saw the restaurants that couldn’t be entered, the fountains that couldn’t be used, the bathrooms that were off-limits. When stationed overseas, he ran into Ace, one of his friends from high school. They spent time together chatting about home. Afterwards, Pop was confronted by some guys in his outfit, southerners who took exception to his association with someone of color. Their way of thinking baffles and astounds him to this day.

Pop remembers well his Atlantic crossing on the way to the war, his transport part of a large convoy. A problem much greater than the seasickness rampant on board occurred. His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the rest of the ships shrink and then disappear on the horizon. The only thing he could see in the vast, swaying ocean was a single small destroyer which circled them as protection from enemy submarines while the repairs were being made. After a seeming eternity, the Washington proceeded at full steam and rejoined the convoy, making an eventual landing in North Africa.

Pop describes his time in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences which sound at times like vignettes from Catch 22. His outfit had been given the task of guarding the Italian prisoners who had surrendered (quite gladly, as he remembered). Since Tony was of Italian heritage, he became the translator. He told me of the practice of sending some of the Italian prisoners to the perimeter with unloaded rifles to “guard” the camp. When German bombers attempted to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily, the men watched the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air as though they were watching fireworks.

Like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority after the war ended. Most of Pop’s family were involved in the building trades, so they each helped the other out building houses in Middlesex County. A son and daughter grew up in the one he built, were educated, got married, and moved away. And it was in this small brick house that Pop and Mary lived until she died and he could no longer bear to live alone.

Things have changed considerably over the years. Pop now lives at our house every other week. New routines have been fashioned to shape his day. Sometimes he’ll take a book we’ve gotten him about World War II and sit on the deck and read a bit. He loves watching sports in their season, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. Fare like The Steve Harvey Show and The Price Is Right occupy his day, though his TV viewing is now interrupted by more frequent naps.

Gone are the family vacations, senior bus trips to Atlantic City, bowling, and playing golf. Newfangled gadgets like the TV remote or his cell phone sometimes confuse him. He frets about official-looking letters from banks or insurance companies and angrily talks back to recorded corporate calls on the telephone. Though walking has become more difficult, he still helps out as best he can, folding clothes and drying dishes. He misses Mary, he misses his house. But he soldiers on.

As I watch Pop deal with all the difficulties of his present existence, I feel fortunate to have the chance to observe someone attempting to overcome the unforeseen obstacles of aging with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a famous general or scientist or athlete, but he is a special man none-the-less. He is Pop. I am proud to know him, and I consider myself lucky to have him as my father-in-law.


Pop, 95 and still ticking