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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

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

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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.

Chloe

Chloe

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.

Bruno

Bruno

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.

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Monkey Man

August 3, 2016

IMG_4223

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.

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Pop

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

Pop, 95 and still ticking

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Assault

June 20, 2016

AK-47-Hydra

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

This is the common refrain of many “gun rights” proponents. It’s catchy, but it’s incomplete. What it should say is “People who have guns kill people.”

The following corollaries apply:

People who have assault weapons kill many people.

People who have assault weapons with high-capacity magazines kill many people in a short period of time.

Yes, I know, people who have knives also kill people. Same goes for blunt objects, automobiles, boomerangs, and bolos.

And yes, most people who have guns don’t kill anybody.

However, any rational member of society should be able to accept that limitations must be put on anything that is dangerous. This is why we have licensing laws for motor vehicles. This is why we have speed limits. This is why vaqueros and aborigines are not allowed to hunt in public parks.

And guns are dangerous. Assault rifles are extremely dangerous, dangerous beyond the justification for their public availability. Regulating them is not an infringement on rights. It is common sense.

There are already governmental limits applied to guns on the books. One of these applies to duck hunting. In order to protect the wildfowl population, weapons used to hunt them are limited to carrying only three shells. This is to protect the duck population. But somehow assault rifles with thirty round magazines being used against the human population cannot be controlled?

Assault weapons were designed and built for one purpose: assault. They are not hunting rifles. They are not target rifles. They are not self-defense rifles.

They are assault rifles. Weapons of war.

These weapons simply have no place outside of the military, just like RPGs, mortars, and hand grenades. Their sale should be unequivocally banned.

Mikhail Kalashnikov developed the infamous AK47, the progenitor of this type of rifle, “to create a weapon that would drive the Germans from Russia.” Not to bag a deer. Not to hit a bullseye. Not to protect a home (from what, I would ask, a horde of marauding Huns?). The manufacturers of the more recent permutations of this gun (such as the popular AR 15, a “civilian” version of a military weapon, the M 16) have made claims for it to be other things, but that is merely trying to put a wolf in sheep’s clothing. To argue otherwise is insulting.

A ban on assault rifles is akin to a speed limit on a highway. It does not infringe upon your right to drive. It is meant to control dangerous driving. Rational people accept this concept.

The counter arguments by gun-rights zealots are that banning guns won’t prevent gun violence from happening (though this flies in the face of the evidence from other countries). That even if a weapon is banned, bad guys can still get their hands on them. That if one weapon is banned, then another will be, and another, and another until all I’ll have left is my Bowie knife.

First point. Do speed limits always stop people from driving dangerously? Not always. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. Will a ban on assault rifles totally prevent the types of mass shootings we have seen far too much of in the past few years? Perhaps not completely, but it will sure as hell make them far more difficult to  accomplish. Any obstacle we can put between people and assault weapons and thus mass shootings would be beneficial.

Second point. Bad guys sometimes do manage to get their hands on weapons they shouldn’t have. But if these particular weapons are unavailable for purchase — by anyone, anywhere — it is highly unlikely that the kind of people who have used them to cause deadly mayhem (Aurora, Newtown, San Bernadino, Orlando) would have been able to obtain them.

Third point. The fall-back position of unlimited access to guns of any type is always the second amendment. I wish I could feel confident those who use this argument have actually read it and understand it.

This is what it says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

There are two parts to this statement, and too little consideration is given to the first (and most critical) part, the very reason for the amendment. In 1776 a militia (and not just any militia, mind you, but a “well-regulated” one) was necessary to ensure the security of our new “free state.”  It is now 2016. How does anyone in their right mind accept the notion that this still applies the same way in an era with a professional military? Those paranoid enough to worry that an armed citizenry is a necessary balance to ensure that our military will not turn against the people of America are sadly delusional. Those unrealistic enough to think that an armed citizenry would be an effective protector of our country against outside forces have watched Red Dawn a few too many times after a few too many beers.

The failed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 proposed to ban weapons with the ability to fire many bullets rapidly without the necessity of reloading. This by and large is considered to be reasonable by most law enforcement officials. It is also acceptable to a vast majority of Americans, including gun owners.

If such a ban were to go into effect, those who wish to can still buy guns. The list of guns still available to them would be too long to include here. Guns for hunting. Guns for target shooting. Guns for self-defense.

And yes, some of these will still be used in the commission of crimes. There is probably no way to stop that in a free society. But the kinds of mass shootings that have occurred using assault rifles will most certainly be curtailed. And that is a necessary step forward in a sane society.

 

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Nurse

May 6, 2016

 

I am not a nurse. But I do know quite a bit about the life of a nurse, for I am married to one. Not just any one, but a very special one, in my opinion. And that one is Bernadette.

Bernadette’s journey in this nurse’s life was a long one. Forty years long, to be exact. It was the summer of 1972 that Bernadette entered the world of NYU Medical Center as a staff nurse, at first in urology — which lasted for two weeks — and then in pediatrics, which lasted the remainder of her career. Many of her recent colleagues had not even entered the world yet.

Quite a bit happened in those 40 years. There were eight presidents and four wars. Elvis Presley died. Justin Beiber was born. Gone are the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, the eight track tape, and disco. We since have gotten home computers, smart phones, Facebook, and the Kardashians.

The nurse’s life can take up quite a lot of time, as those who are involved in it well know. I spent many an hour waiting for Bernadette to come home, at first outside Penn Station in Newark in the days before cell phones where I’d park myself at what I assumed would be the appointed hour and then mark papers until she arrived. I probably could have written the great American novel in the time that I waited there. Advances in communication technology eased this process as did the advent of the Midtown Express train, but since I knew that Bernadette was delayed in the course of doing this most valuable vocation, it was but a small sacrifice to make.

I also have seen first-hand the effects of the many extra hours and late arrivals home, of working nights and weekends and holidays, of the constant stress of what is surely one of the most difficult and unappreciated jobs in the world. I have witnessed the many tears that have fallen over children who have suffered and died and their parents who had to bear this inconceivable burden. I have felt the sorrow and the pain of personal losses that befell staff members over the years . And through it all, I saw Bernadette’s faith and inner strength emerge to help deal with each crisis as it arose.

I am not alone in recognizing this. I have saved the many cards and notes from parents Bernadette aided in their time of need and nurses who worked alongside her. Though I am in awe of the great impact she has made, I am not surprised, for this is who she is. She has been called devoted, compassionate, understanding, selfless, and kind. She has been thanked for her encouragement, advice, fairness, support, guidance, and inspiration. Many have learned from her, vented to her, cried with her, and most of all shared in the love and passion which arise from this noble endeavor. I believe Bernadette has touched the hearts of more people than she will ever know.

Yes, I know well this caring and nurturing and deep compassion, for I have not only seen it in Bernadette’s life as a nurse but experience it every day of our lives together. For that I am blessed, and I truly believe that is also so for the unit to which Bernadette had so tirelessly devoted her time and energy and body and soul all those years. Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Those who know Bernadette also know this is so.

It has been four years since she arrived at what many characterized as the end of a chapter. In actuality, it was many chapters with a constantly changing cast of characters and multiple plots with unpredictable twists and turns and not one single climax and resolution but innumerable ones, some joyful and some tragic. However, there was but a single theme, that of helping others in whatever way help could be given. And there is also a moral to the story: inherent in this impossible job is its own reward, the seeds sown through the caring for and nurturing of others in their worst of times that blossom in heartfelt gratitude, sometimes unexpressed and often out of sight, but there nonetheless. And despite the many pitfalls and hardships, the memories of care and kindness given will be carried in grateful hearts forever, and that is as it should be.

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Love Your Pet

February 20, 2016
Emma's Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Today, February 20, is Love Your Pet Day. I realize that it is also Cherry Pie Day this year, but in spite of the relative deliciousness of this enticing dessert, how special in the hearts of people can it really be? But a day to celebrate your pet? Come on, now.

Having a pet during one’s childhood is a cherished institution and a rite of passage for most American kids (and their parents who often end up taking care of them). There are pets of all kinds found in our households from the warm and furry to the feathered or scaled: cats, fish, birds, lizards, ferrets, snakes; you name it, and some kid probably has it.

Dogs, though, are by far the standard as evidenced by a walk through any neighborhood on a nice day. Our popular media reflects this too with a litany of favorite canine characters: Spot, Snoopy, Clifford, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Santa’s Little Helper, and Toto, to name a few. However, for various reasons (allergies, parental fear, small quarters) there exist those dogless homes with children still yearning for a creature to call their own, forcing those parents to resort to a Plan B of some sort. My home was one of those, and in my case, Plan B was Pew Pew.

Pew Pew was a duckling that arrived one Easter when I was about six. My sister and I were quite excited, though I don’t recall either of us asking for waterfowl of any kind. Nonetheless, Pew Pew took up residence in a makeshift pen in a corner of our already small dining room. I’m sure my mother was thrilled about this arrangement.

Now, ducks are probably not the best dog substitute. They are not predisposed to be walked on a leash, don’t like to be pet, and learning tricks like fetching or rolling over is quite beyond them. Quacking, waddling, eating, and pooping is their complete repertoire. They must depend on being endearingly cute to earn their keep. Their window for that is quite small.

I don’t remember what we fed Pew Pew, but it must have been pretty nutritious because he quickly outgrew his dining room pen. My dad sacrificed part of his tomato garden to create a fenced-in area out behind our garage. This had several benefits. It was roomier, did not involve stringent cleaning, and Pew Pew could waddle about and quack to his heart’s content without bothering my mother, though I’m sure our neighbors were none too pleased. The problem came when autumn rolled around and the question of what to do with Pew Pew in the winter arose. He was not about to make a return indoors as long as my mother had anything to do with it.

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

The first idea for solving this dilemma seemed simple enough. We would drive him across town to Coopers Pond and drop him off in the company of all the other ducks who made it their home. One afternoon we did just that. We brought him to the water’s edge, set him down, and turned to make a quick escape (in order to avoid a drawn-out goodbye, I supposed). Now Pew Pew could dwell in happiness with others of his kind.

The Cooper’s Pond ducks apparently never got that memo. They immediately set upon this uninvited intruder with much loud quacking and flapping and pecking. Pew Pew had no choice but to flee for his life. He waddled like I never saw him do before, almost beating us back to the car. In view of this unexpected turn of events, my parents were forced to relent, and Pew Pew had a reprieve.

This led to a second and more involved attempt several weeks later. We piled into the car with Pew Pew and drove away, this time to a farm in Long Island. Some arrangement had been made with the farm’s owners; I believe some distant cousin from the Long Island branch of the family knew them. After some final goodbyes, we drove off, never to see Pew Pew again. I’m glad I didn’t realize at the time that he’d most likely end up glazed on someone’s plate in a restaurant.

My pet void was filled a few years later. During a family outing at Palisades Amusement Park, I spotted a game of chance that drew me instantly to it because it seemed winnable and the prize was a goldfish. The object of the game was to throw a ping pong ball so it landed in one of the small fish bowls lined up on a shelf. Each was filled with colored water and had a goldfish occupying it, and the fish and bowl would be yours with a single successful toss. I don’t remember how many attempts it took (the mouths of the bowls were narrower than one would have expected), but by golly, I went home with a goldfish!

My joy of having a pet fish (who, in reality, did even less than Pew Pew, but a pet is a pet) was short-lived. The following weekend I went on a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop. I gave detailed instructions on the care and feeding of my fish to my mother. Upon my return on Sunday, the fish bowl was gone from its perch on a shelf in the kitchen and I was informed of the goldfish’s sudden demise. My suspicion (unfounded, of course — it was most likely the ingestion of the colored water in the bowl that did him in) was that my mom seized the opportunity of my absence and whacked the little fella.

Two parakeets came next, the first named Fudgie followed by another named Val, but they were “family pets,” so my connection to them was minimal. I must admit, they beat both Pew Pew and the goldfish by a mile when it came to being entertaining, but still I was not emotionally invested, as they say. The same was true for my sister’s two small turtles. I remember more about their clear plastic bowl with its clear plastic island and green plastic palm tree (I hope those guys liked plastic) than I do about the turtles themselves.

Then it happened. I got a real pet, one I actually wanted, a hamster named Scrappy. This small brown and white ball of fur came with a wire cage complete with exercise wheel and an inverted gravity-feed water bottle. I could hold him and let him climb up my arm. He could eat out of my hand and play on the table. I could watch him spin madly in his exercise wheel. This surpassed the combined skills of all the previous pets. Best of all, I could tell he loved me when he looked up at me with his beady little black eyes, whiskers all atwitter. It was my job to feed him, clean his cage, and take care that he didn’t escape (the last one my mother was particularly emphatic about). And I did this religiously. Well, most of the time.

My time with Scrappy was a happy one, marred only by two incidents, both of which were the result of my failure to properly execute my duties. The first was when he escaped through the unsecured door on his cage. He disappeared for a few days, causing my mother great distress, but then suddenly reappeared in the back of a closet. I attributed his return to him missing my tender care and not my sister’s theory that he was merely hungry. However, this was minor compared to the second incident which was catastrophic.

One particular day I hadn’t fed Scrappy on schedule, resulting in a harsh reprimand from my mother. I attempted to get his food, stored in the bottom cabinet of a freestanding cupboard, but in my shaken state, I pulled the doors too hard. The entire cupboard tipped over and the upper doors swung open unleashing a barrage of my mother’s prized wedding china which rained down and crashed all around me. I had never seen my mother so upset, and in her tearful rant she yelled something about “getting rid of that damned animal.” I dashed from the pile of shards (amazingly unscathed), snatched Scrappy from his cage, and ran crying into the garage, cowering in a corner in fear of losing my little friend. It took some major diplomacy on my father and sister’s part to placate my mother, but Scrappy avoided the threatened exile.

One Sunday morning I arose to get Scrappy from his cage. At first I didn’t see him, but then, amongst the wood shavings, I saw him on his side with his little pink feet sticking stiffly out. Scrappy had moved on to hamster heaven. I was crushed. He was honored with a tearful funeral in our backyard beneath the climbing rose bush which was the final resting place for all our pets (except for the poor goldfish, who I think got unceremoniously flushed). There were to be no more pets of my own in my life after that.

I’m not sure if the many supposed life lessons accorded to pet ownership were learned or not when I was a kid. However, I’ve since come to understand during my years of reading student compositions how great and widespread the trauma is from the death of a pet. Perhaps these first encounters with unqualified love and inevitable departure are important to an early understanding of mortality. This is a tough lesson no matter when it occurs, and it is never easy to deal with emotionally. But there is the Yin of joy and companionship and that offsets the Yang of death, and it is the capacity to realize that balance which may be part of the critical foundation for a child’s future understanding. For most kids who had their own Scrappy experience whether it was a dog, cat, bird, or iguana, I think they would conclude it was better to have had their loving friend and lost them than to never have had them at all.

So today on Love Your Pet Day, think back to Rover or Fluffy or Pretty Boy. Lift a glass in appreciation of their memory. If you currently have a pet in your life, take the time to give him or her an extra pat or a special treat. After all, there is no one else who loves you like your pet.

Emma's Max, who knows well the love of his human

Max, who knows well the love of his human

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