Friday, August 30, 2013

Horrific conundrum

Now is not a good time to be president of the United States.

In fact, I can't think of a good time, except perhaps when a staff member does all the cooking, cleaning and housekeeping. Those are the only perks I envy.

Last night, I watched the incredibly awful footage of the carnage in Syria. It was on the BBC news channel, not on one of our mainstream, corporate-ruled networks, so the video was unedited, raw and deeply disturbing.

I couldn't help but visualize the faces of my children and grandchildren superimposed on those suffering people, burned over 80% of their bodies by some toxic agent, something resembling napalm, the narrator said.

It left me near tears. How, I asked myself, could we stand by and watch this without stepping in to at least render the chemical weapons useless? How can the world see the carnage and ignore it? How can Assad be allowed to flaunt his ability to defy international law without grave repercussions from every other nation on the planet?

That was my gut reaction, the first solution I descended upon in my urge to punish Assad for these atrocities.

Looking at the whole picture, though, US involvement in this crisis might prove more costly than otherwise.

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the Kurds after the Iran/Iraq war. We didn't take him out for that. We didn't even intervene or send missiles to cripple his ability to continue doing so. Instead we invaded Iraq after 9/11 on the flimsiest of excuses, on a lie, to be exact, and the war dragged on for ten years.

Bashir al Assad is a mass murderer of his own people. We've seen the outcome of the chemical attacks and we know the UN inspectors are close to releasing a report that, in all probability, will indict Assad as the authority behind the chemical attacks.

Our president is weighing the appropriate US response to Assad's criminal activity. So far, France has joined our resolve to render the chemical weapons undeliverable, although destroying them outright isn't possible without troops on the ground to find and obliterate them.

But the British Parliament, after listening in rapt attention to Prime Minister David Cameron's case for outside involvement, voted against allowing its country to take part. The vote is non-binding, of course, but it's highly unlikely Cameron will ignore the will of his government and join any US-led attack on Syria.

I've listened carefully, too. I've considered the point of view of those who are adamantly against US involvement in Syria's civil war. I've considered the point of view of those who would bomb Syria off the planet for what it's done to its people.

And I'm glad I don't have to make that decision. I am leaning heavily toward the argument against US involvement, at least not unless the UN and our allies are onboard and participating in whatever action is taken.

I, like so many Americans, am tired of war. Tired of not having enough money to take care of our needs here at home. Tired of watching the gravely wounded struggle to find peace and wellness after fighting in someone else's war. Tired of being the world's policeman. It's time to turn our resources and our attention homeward.

The other side of me, though, can't get the images of those suffering Syrians out of my mind. Shouldn't the world be aghast? Can the world allow this conduct to go unpunished? If nothing is done, Assad is free to use those horrible weapons again and again with impunity. We shouldn't even be considering allowing that.

So what do we do? We wait for our president to make the critical decision and we hope other countries will back his decision wholeheartedly. Not a satisfactory outcome, but the only one open to us.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Writers in the family

I love to write and would do nothing else if I could. My daughters are both terrific writers.

So was my dad, a dentist by trade and a writer because he loved to do it.

All three of my half-sisters are talented, gifted writers. And now, I've found another writer: my godson and cousin, Matthew Cairone, whom I have not seen in many, many years.

I found Matt's work when I put his name into Google to try to find contact info so I could wish him a happy birthday. No contact info, really, just site after site listing him as an author of short stories, songs and novels.

I remember Matt as a kid... the little boy playing baseball in the back yard with my stepdad... the cute kid who acted as surrogate big brother to my older daughter, shadowing her as she toddled around, making sure she met with no harm.

While I was busy with my own convoluted life, Matt went to college, law school and eventually moved to Michigan, then Pittsburgh. I heard he'd married and divorced and had children. I thought about him a lot, but never took the big step of trying to contact him.

Now I will. I sent him a Facebook message and have a phone number I will use to give him a call. I need to tell him how surprised and pleased I am that he, too, is a writer, on a far wider scale than I, but a writer nonetheless.

It's all in the family.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Going back to 1954

I was thirteen and a trip to Connie Mack Stadium in northeast Philadelphia was an unheard of treat. Although we lived only about 45 miles from the city, it was rare to be able to actually travel there, let alone to witness a baseball game with my mother and stepfather.

But it turned out I witnessed far more than an athletic contest that record hot August day. Although 58 years have passed, I still have a vivid memory of what happened when we left the stadium and sat in traffic waiting to get to Broad Street and on our way home.

The row homes that bordered each side of Lehigh Avenue contained people everywhere... on the steps, in rocking chairs on the porches, hanging out upper story windows. Unlike my own neighborhood, there were no air conditioning units visible and most of the residents waved papers or magazines to try to ward off the stifling heat.

I had never seen anything like it...misery on every face, often downright hostility in the eyes of many who watched the cars snake by, heading away from the way they lived every day.

I remember telling my parents I would hate to live that way, to be doomed to a life in the city, in the heat. Fresh from listening to the news coverage of the fight for freedom in the segregated South, I suppose I was an idealistic kid, whose sensibilities were offended by the thought that an entire race was treated as inferior and that the laws were only then beginning to recognize the injustice and move to remedy it.

As the years went on, I never forgot that seminal moment in my human rights education. Living in a small southern New Jersey town, where the few black citizens lived outside the town limits and there were no colored faces in our Catholic school classrooms, I still managed to grow into adulthood feeling a strong sense of the unfairness faced by so many of my fellow Americans.

Not even the passage of all sorts of new laws designed to help eradicate the decades of injustice...equal rights laws,  Affirmative Action laws, all of them... could succeed in changing the nature of race relations in America, where a seething racism seemed to lurk just below the surface of civil society.

So I shouldn't have been stunned by the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I should have been prepared, as African-American mothers and fathers prepare their sons, to expect that justice would turn a blind eye to the provocation, stalking and ultimate murder of Trayvon Martin. A friend explained to me how her husband instructed their son, as soon as he became old enough to understand, how to behave on the street or in his car should he be approached by a law enforcement officer, how to conduct himself so as to avoid anything further than a harsh look or comment.

Had I been the mother of a son, I would not have been forced to teach him the same lesson. My son, unlike those of many of my friends, would never have to contend with racial profiling. They could walk, run or drive on any thoroughfare they chose without fear of being singled out because of their race.

That same feeling of despair and anger that I experienced in 1954 rose to the surface of my consciousness again as I thought of the sorrow and pain being endured by Trayvon Martin's mother. She'd probably told her son the same careful out there...but certainly had no reasonable expectation that he would breathe his last at the hands of someone who singled him out, followed him and challenged his right to walk home from the store.

George Zimmerman could have stayed in his car. Should have. George Zimmerman could have pulled his gun and told Mr. Martin to leave the neighborhood. George Zimmerman could have waited for the police and let them discover that Mr. Martin's father lived on that street. And, as someone so eloquently posted on Facebook today, George Zimmerman could have pulled over and offered Mr. Martin a ride home, out of the rain. Unlikely, but in an ideal world, oh so wishful.

I won't live to see a world where something like that might occur. My children and even my grandchildren probably won't either. It will take generations yet for the minds of Americans to be educated to the fact that we are all one people. When one among us suffers injustice, so do we all, and I am deeply saddened to see it, again, again and again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Making the past live

I'm working steadily on one of my bucket list projects. Won't finish this until I'm 80, perhaps, but it's too much fun to stop.

Like everyone I know, I have albums of photos. I also have a lockbox filled with manila envelopes containing oodles of photos. Not in any particular order, just bunches of pictures.

Do they mean anything to anyone but me? I'd like to think they matter to my kids, who probably didn't know or can't remember many of the people in them, but from whom they came... their ancestors.

I don't remember, nor did I ever know, many of the people in the sepia-toned photos of my grandparents and their friends and families. Thanks to my cousin Felicia, I can identify most of those people, but I didn't know many of them.

Still, they matter to me and I'm hoping someday one of my grandchildren or one of their children will look at the pictures and understand why I took on this project.

I am scanning and storing those pictures. It's a painful project because I do them one at a time, cleaning up the fuzziness, brightening the color, adding names and dates.

But it's also an enjoyable project. By the time I reached the late 1940s and early 1950s, I not only knew the subjects in each photo, I remembered when it was taken. I can remember the color of a dress, even if the photo is in black and white. I can look inside the house in which I spent my teenage years. I can hear the accented English being spoken by my maternal grandmother as she welcomed us to her house for Sunday dinner. I can recall bits and pieces of my valedictory speech as I see the photo of myself in front of the microphone on graduation day. I hear my mother laugh, although it's been nearly 41 years since she left us. I enjoy the smiles on the faces of my mother and stepfather, my grandmother and grandfather, as they shared a joke, enjoyed a holiday or just hammed it up for the camera.

I'm glad the project still has multiple albums and envelopes-full to go before I am finished. I'm not really in any hurry. I'd rather take my time and remember each photo I slip into the scanner. In a way, it brings back my past and helps me relive those days.

So I hope my kids and grandchildren will look at them one day and be glad I did this. It sure beats inheriting a box filled with photos of nameless, meaningless people that they will, without compunction, destroy as irrelevant.

They won't have to feel disconnected from the strange people they see. I hope my project makes those people live for them, even decades after they walked the earth.

This project is for you, guys.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Interviewing a legend

   A few days ago, I posted a photo taken in 1983 when I was lucky enough to snag an interview with Roy Rogers. It was the opening of the restaurant in our little town of Berlin, NJ, that bore his name and Roy came to meet and greet his fans. This is what I wrote in the next issue of The Journal:
   “Frontier Playhouse” revisited – September 23, 1983
   What do you ask Roy Rogers?
   I spent all weekend rolling questions around in my mind, knowing that at 4:30 on Sunday, I’d be face to face with a genuine legend and would have the chance to ask him anything I wanted to know.
   It boggled my mind. Not just because there was so much I wanted to know but because everything I could think of added up to several hours’ worth of conversation, never mind the ten minutes or so I’d be given.
   Finally, in the way of all procrastinators, I gave up and decided that the questions would “come to me” when I needed them. Hopefully they’d be the right ones.
   Then it was Sunday. And then he was there.
   Now, let me makes something clear. I was a very small child (ahem!) when Roy and Dale rode into the sunsets singing “Happy Trails.” I have a vague recollection of the 101 TV episodes they made and, although it’s a bit fuzzy, I sort of remember standing in line at the Saturday matinee to see one of the 87 musical westerns Roy starred in. Or one of the 35 that he and Dale made together.
   But unlike the kids of the 1980s, I do know who Roy Rogers is and I am old enough to appreciate what Roy Rogers is, so I have to confess to unadulterated awe.
   Grinning, foolish, teeny-bopper awe.
   In all honesty, though, that lasted about a second or two. After all, faced with the personality of the man, it’s almost hard to remember that he’s as famous as he is.
   Roy Rogers is just plain folks.
   Rich folks, yes… thanks to years of hard work and dedication to his craft, but he is warm, personable, down-to-earth and genuinely enjoying life.
   Maybe his zest for it all contributes to the spring in his step as he leaps onto the platform to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Most people I know are not that agile at 40, let alone Roy’s highly-publicized 72. It’s obvious that he’s taken good care of himself during his lifetime. He told me he rides his bicycle every morning for eight miles, usually around 6 a.m. He trains hunting dogs, rides, walks, spends a lot of time doing things he enjoys. It looks like he’ll have many more years to do just that.
   So when the awe was conquered and we sat down to talk, what did he say? What did I ask?
   First off … why, after a lifetime of performing and being on display… why does he do personal appearances? Why beat around the country, visiting little burgs and shaking hands?
   His answer was simple. He loves it. “I feel at home in any crowd,” he said, his surprising blue eyes twinkling. “The people out there (referring to the crowd waiting for him outside) are the kids who grew up with me. The kids who were eight and nine then are the parents and young grandparents today, and I feel an obligation to keep in touch with them, to answer their questions… sure, I don’t have to work. I’ve been fortunate over the years… but I can’t just do nothin’,” he said grinning.
   Most of the time, the slight accent colors his speech in ordinary conversation, Often, he thickens the accent, putting an extra twang in his words… the quintessential cowboy. The crowd really loves that little touch.
   It seemed that oodles of people had things to give to Roy. Saddle-frame mirrors, books, the gift from Berlin Borough of a piece of Lenox china, the Berlin Community School t-shirt from the kids of Berlin… so I asked Roy what he does with all the things he must receive as he criss-crosses the country. Well, things like t-shirts, he wears. “They’re mighty comfortable when I’m out training the dogs,” he said. Everything else goes into the museum that showcases his and Dale’s lives. He made up his mind, he said, that if he ever “made it” in show business, he would save everything he could. “They call me a packrat and other names like that,” he said, smiling, “but the museum is the story of my and Dale’s life together and everything goes there.”
   Including a mounted lifelike Trigger, Roy’s faithful companion for twenty-nine years. Bullet, the German Shepherd who ran alongside the famous duo during their adventures, is also mounted at Trigger’s feet. Roy’s voice softens with fondness whenever he talks about Trigger, which is often. He likes it when the crowd asks about the horse… he tells about how Trigger was trained, what little nuances of unusual behavior could be elicited from the horse and he remarks, “If there is a heaven for horses, that’s where Trigger is. I hope when I get there, I can ride him again someday.”
   An intense Christian, Roy refers quietly to his religious beliefs, but his inner serenity and an indefinable goodness shine through. Right off the bat, it would have been impossible to refer to him as “Mr.” Rogers. His ability to set one at ease, to make any situation comfortable, automatically puts him in the first-name-I’ve-known-him-for-years category. There is none of the taut pressure often sensed with other celebrities… none of the tension that flies with the click of the camera only to return when the lights go out. He is himself… no pretensions… no hint that his life has been any more exciting than the man whose hand he shakes in the crowd.
   The facts and figures surrounding Roy’s career can be written down anywhere. Most people don’t really care about the awards he and Dale have received or the connection he has with the Marriott Corporation whose restaurants bear his name. Most people want to see him, ask him questions, touch him… most people just want to experience Roy Rogers.
   He is human enough to let them, enjoying the contact as much as they.
   That’s what legends are made of.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Here I am again!

It's really been a long time since I've added a new post.
Yet it seems like every day there is something I want to write about... something that begs to be discussed, poked, prodded or just plain brought to someone's attention.
I didn't post last week when I should have.
I didn't talk publicly about what happened to my friend, Rosemary.
Let me tell you about her.
It was somewhere in the early 2000s.
I noticed her sitting in the front row of a Board of Education meeting, taking notes, looking befuddled. When the meeting was over, she asked if she could speak with me to get some clarification on what had occurred. After all, Board meetings are conducted in educationese, a language much like Greek to the uninitiated. Educators tend to forget that acronyms and other technical terms aren't encountered by the average citizen.
We spent an hour or so talking and she left, vowing to learn more about the school district and its workings.
Fast forward a few years and Rosemary had become a regular fixture at Board meetings... besides being an active PTA member. She was devoting many hours each week to district causes, hosting an Open House in her home to help pass the budget, showing up at Q&As around the district to advocate for the schools. She became involved with the State Board of Education, eventually holding the position of Vice President for Legislative Affairs.
I retired in January 2008 on the heels of one of the worst years I'd ever spent in education. Our district was mired in a dispute, spearheaded by a small group of people, over a video that, while showing the various types of families, spent one segment on the families of gay and lesbian parents. The year was ugly with homophobia and resulted in the Board having to decide whether or not to keep the video as part of the curriculum. When the vote was held, Rosemary was the lone voice in favor of continuing to show students that families of gay and lesbian parents were to be valued and given the same dignity as those of other groups.
Now to the last couple of weeks.
I don't know exactly what Rosemary said because I wasn't in the room, or even at the meeting, for that matter. Accounts vary from those who say she made objectionable anti-Semitic remarks about a proposed change in the 2013-2014 school calendar to accommodate a Jewish holiday, to those who say her remarks were taken out of context and that her position on the issue was valid.
Doesn't really matter.
In the wake of the furor, again created by a small group of people, Rosemary apologized.
Still the drumbeat for her resignation grew more strident, kept alive by one local newspaper and its television subsidiary and Facebook.
No one who serves as faithfully as Rosemary has should ever be castigated and publicly humiliated in that manner. An apology wasn't enough. Only her head on a platter would do.
So, about a week after the remark, Rosemary resigned first the state post, then the local one. Both Boards of Education lost a valuable asset.
But the politicians who want the Board to be an arm of municipal government and those who have for years wanted Rosemary out of the way gained what they saw as a victory.
I am sad that we teach our children this lesson: don't ever make a mistake that gives your enemies a chance to pounce and destroy years of your good work and dedication.
Don't forgive, no matter how sincere an apology.
And above all, don't try to offer your time, your effort and your devotion to your community.
No good deeds go unpunished.