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Archive for Life

Nov. 1, 2018 — Assessing a life

A part of me died early Tuesday morning.

My eldest brother, who shares a lot of the same DNA that I do when it comes to physical characteristics, succumbed to cancer and some years of hard living at the age of 68.

If you looked up the term “larger than life” in the dictionary, you’d see my brother. Tall, bearded, and, in his vital years, with a tenor voice that could shake a room.

His life adventures took him on the kind of life that Commander McBragg might have admired. He was a French student in Paris, an opera student in Vermont, an investigator for the State of New Jersey, and a counselor for the Department of Corrections, deputized to shoot a firearm if necessary. He also knew a lot about classical music — operatic, symphony orchestral music, sacred organ music, and even pre-baroque music played on instruments such as the sackbut.

He was a very cultured man, and an expert chef. He knew more about wine, tea, mushrooms, and foreign cuisine than most people. And he’s influenced me: on the top shelf of my refrigerator, I have a jar of natural peanut butter with red chili pepper paste mixed in. It’s my approximation of a Haitian condiment he introduced me to about 35 years ago, called “mamba.”

While his impact on me and my family was significant, I think he had a greater impact in his public life as a civil servant. He served as part of a New Jersey Department of Policy and Standards task force tasked to root out welfare fraud in Hudson County, then once his team kicked out the miscreants, he took the position of Director of Public Welfare for Jersey City.

The office, in an old marble-columned mansion of a building in Jersey City, underwent an almost magical transformation when he was there. When he started, the Public Welfare office was a dingy hangout for ne’er-do-wells and crooks who sometimes would receive seven welfare checks per month. A few months into his term, the office building was quiet and businesslike, with nobody roaming the halls looking for trouble. He had, figuratively and literally, cleaned house.

My brother’s impact on the city lingered long after his departure due to a heart attack at the age of 47. It would be a about a decade later when Chris Christie, then a U.S. Attorney, would indict a number of local officials who had been particular thorns in his side, including a county executive, members of the city school board and city council, and others.

Later in life, he found his calling as a monk in the Orthodox Church. His health failed him on several occasions, to the point where he was in grave condition the same week that my mother died in 2011. He managed to recover, albeit in a weakened state. Despite his weak physiology, he still had a sharp mind, an appreciation for jazz and opera, and a sharp wit.

When I visited him in the hospital for the last time a few weeks ago, he greeted a few visitors with the line, “Beware of the Ewoks.” Then, after a pregnant pause, a grin spread across his broad face. “Because I’m Jabba The Hutt.”

It was during this three-day visit to the hospital that I got to understand what made him tick. He still did not suffer fools gladly; any suggestion by hospital staff that he receive spiritual counseling was dismissed with prejudice. He couldn’t believe that his vocation as a religious man was not considered before he was asked about counseling as part of his hospital treatment.

On the final day, as I was fixing up some paperwork for him to sign, he was on his cell phone talking with someone about ordering lunch — plain turkey and a cup of black coffee. The part of my brain which was not focused on the task at hand perked up: why was he ordering lunch when the reason he was in the hospital was because he couldn’t keep anything down after eating or drinking?

Only I realized after a few minutes: that food order was meant for me. Despite a wonderful food court and a Starbucks on the first floor of the hospital, he wanted to make sure I was fed.

It is this selflessness that complements how he lived the last two decades of his life after his heart attack. He withdrew from what might be called “normal” life, taking a vow of poverty and living a life of devotion and prayers with the monastery.

The monks will bury him next week. The rest of our family will get together sometime soon to memorialize him, separate from his world. Which is likely what he wanted.

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Oct. 28, 2018 — Another senseless massacre

Today, I’m turning the blog over to a couple of former college classmates. The first is a former member of the Pittsburgh synagogue that was turned into a crime scene when a maniac with a gun and an agenda killed 11 people yesterday morning during a bris ceremony:

Thank you to the family and friends from all over the country who have reached out to me in the wake of this senseless, horrible act of anti-Semitism. My immediate family is fine, thank God, but I am worried about my Tree of Life family. I am hoping that everyone I know there is alive and well, but unfortunately, I fear that I will know some of the victims when their names are released. I was a member of Tree of Life Synagogue for over 25 years, went to Hebrew school there and had my bat mitzvah there. It is hard to think of the place as a crime scene and the site of a cowardly act of violence against innocent people.

As I try to process what has happened, it makes me think that when I saw events on the news such as the Parkland shooting or the shooting in the Baptist church in South Carolina or the church in Texas, I thought that these happenings were remote and never could happen in my immediate world. This morning has shattered that illusion and my sense of security. These random acts of violence can happen anywhere to anyone. People must wake up to the danger that the anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist rhetoric in this country has created and be willing to fight against it. Remember — the next time (and there will be a next time) it could happen to you.

So, although I am loath to turn a tragedy into something political, it is time for people to forget about labels (i.e., the name of the party they are voting for) and vote for candidates who propose common-sense solutions to combat the hatred and violence that have seized this country.

In two weeks everyone will be able to make the choice to vote, either for candidates who foster this kind of behavior and violence and make fun of so-called “political correctness” which is merely common sense civility. or to vote for candidates who are willing to call people out for this xenophobic hatred and to pass common sense gun laws restricting access to firearms so these events will diminish in the future.


The other classmate is an elected official with, as you will read, a complicated life history. He posted the following this morning on social media:

I am a Jew.

I know some want to take my life
For being a Jew.

I learned about Anne Frank
When I was just five years old.
I’ve imagined living in the concentration camps.
I’ve imagined dying in the gas chambers.

I’ve confronted anti-Semitism worldwide.
I remember a Swiss synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Where they told us to disperse quickly after services
In case someone threw a bomb at us as we left.

I was struck by this.
I didn’t think at the time
It would happen in America.

I’m proud of being an American,
Because America took us in,
Took my family in
More than a century ago.

We came here so that anti-Semites wouldn’t kill us.

I know we’ve had antisemitism in America
Much worse than we have today.
I know that the first “America Firsters”
Loved the Nazis and hated Jews.
I know that Americans in the ‘40’s
Hated Jews worse than the Germans and the Japanese.

I also know that since the Holocaust,
There is no safer, freer, more wonderful place
Than the United States of America
To be a Jew.

_____________

I am a gay man.

I know some want to take my life
For being a gay man.

I remember the day Matthew Shepard was crucified.
I’ve imagined what I would have done
In that Wyoming bar.
I’ve imagined being impaled on a fence
For hour after long hour,
Dying slowly alone.

I know dozens of gay men and women
Who were kicked by their families
Out of their homes

Or tortured by so-called Christians
Trying to convert them to heterosexuality
Against their will.

I’m proud of how far we’ve come.
I’m proud of my work
Helping to bring equality to the gay community.
Cultural equality.
Marriage equality.

I’m aware of how far we have yet to go.

I’m aware of the greater hate
The transgender community faces.
I know that compared to trans folk,
It is far easier
To be a gay man.

_____________

I’m not Black.

But I know that some want to take the lives of people
Just for being Black.

For driving while Black.
For walking while Black.
For wearing a hoodie while Black.

Or confronting a police officer while Black.
Or protesting police violence while Black.

When the KKK burns a cross,
They do not terrorize one Black family.
They terrorize an entire community.

I’m proud of how far we’ve come.
I’m proud of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

But I also know,
With voter suppression laws
And drug laws that criminally punish crack users
But not opioid users.
That we have a long way to go
Before we can say we have equality in America
For Blacks.

_____________

I’m not a woman.

I don’t particularly fear
Walking alone at night.

I walk women to their cars at night
As my mother taught me to do.

We both know why I’m walking them to their cars at night.
We don’t say why,
But we know.

It’s because women face daily the real and present fear
Of sexual assault
And domestic violence.

And yet, the danger is even greater from family, friends, and acquaintances than strangers,

I know the stigma that goes along with being a survivor.
I know the pain of losing a sister to domestic violence.
I’m proud of the MeToo movement for drawing attention,
But I also know the battle is far from over.

I can’t imagine what it is like to fear
Every social encounter may end in violence,
But I want to try to imagine.

I want to stand up as a man for women,
As well as for male victims of sexual assault.

I want to stand up for women in the workplace.
And for women who want their bodies
Free of men’s control over them.

I’m not a woman,
But I will always stand
With women.

_____________

I am an American.

I’ve always been an American.
I was born here.

I’m proud to be an American,
Not in a country-music-song facile kind of way
But because America is the land that took my family in
More than a century ago.

My great grandparents had nothing in their pockets
But the American Dream,
Which they and their descendants realized.

While I’m not an immigrant,
I imagine their travails.

Like my great grandparents,
They are escaping violence,
Seeking a safe place.

They don’t speak English that well yet,
But the smiles on their faces tell it all.

No matter how hard it is to get here,
No matter how hard it is to be here,
They know that only in America
Can their dreams be made.

It’s the one place in the world
Where you can start all over again
As an immigrant.
And become
An American.

_____________

I’m a Southern man
From Nashville, Tennessee.

I understand the pride
Of a poor white Southern man,
Self-reliant salt of the earth,
Whose family never owned slaves.

I understand the arrogance
Of a rich white Southern man,
Who’s proud that his family did own slaves
But has never really considered
The harm his family did to innocent people.

It’s not hard to find a Southern man
Who carries the Dixie Flag
As a point of pride
But also to be rebellious.

He doesn’t much like Blacks or Jews
Or gays or immigrants.
He doesn’t much like Yankees either.

He doesn’t believe in treating women
Equally with men.
That’s just not how he was taught.
It wouldn’t be chivalrous.

No, it’s not all Southern men,
But it is a substantial number.
All too many.

I understand Southern pride.
Southerners don’t like know-it-alls.
Southerners don’t like Yankee-splaining
Any more than women like man-splaining.

And they often take it out
On “politicians in Washington,”
Even the ones they themselves elect.

For some white Southerners,
A gun is the ultimate in self-reliance.

There is a Southern man
who doesn’t think anything can hurt him,
If he owns a gun.

But a gun is not a shield.

Emotions
And financial worry
And sickness
And struggling rural communities

Creep past his gun
And enter his soul.

There’s great pain
In the soul of many
A Southern man.

_____________

I strive to understand
Cultures I am from.

I strive to understand
Cultures not my own.

_____________

I’m a Southern gay Jewish man
Who strives to empathize
With a Black immigrant woman.

_____________

In other words,
I’m an American.

It’s been two weeks since our 30th Reunion. And I still think our classmates are the greatest people.

Oct. 14, 2018 — A farewell, with love

This week, we wrap up 19 Harvard Blazers with a call to my classmates to love one another.

Oct. 13, 2018 — Immersion

Last evening was the first full day of my 30th college reunion.

One of the people who wasn’t going to be able to be there was Diane Paulus, a famous and very prolific Broadway producer who currently has Waitress and Jagged Little Pill in production in New York.

But we did get to experience one of her shows during our reunion: a special performance of The Donkey Show, a re-imagination of the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all done as an immersive experience in a space made to look like a 1970s-era discotheque.

A lot of what Paulus has done in her career is to retell and reimaging past works and view them in new ways. She’s revived such Broadway classics as Porgy and Bess and Pippin. She has adapted Prometheus Bound, several classic operas, and even Finding Neverland.

Now, the entertainment industry has been criticized in the recent past for recycling and retreading past works. I know that Hollywood is going to be savaged if the current box office champion A Star Is Born wins multiple Academy Awards next spring, given the fact that the film was made in 1937, 1954, 1975, and now 2018.

But last night’s performance of The Donkey Show was very much an original and very avant-garde piece of performance art. The blocking for the individual scenes and vignettes were some of the most complicated you will ever see. Audience members were part of the act at times. Dancers and characters sometimes flew from one part of the theater to the other. Others rollerskated. This play not only knocked down the “fourth wall,” it destroyed it.

You might say I got a good night’s sleep after being immersed in this play.

Oct. 7, 2018 — Remembrances

This week on 19 Harvard Blazers, we think about the people we have left behind, and how memories of friends and family guide and sustain those left behind.

Sept. 30, 2018 — The next installation

On today’s blog entry in 19 Harvard Blazers, we talk about how art and design have informed my life over the last few years.

Sept. 23, 2018 — An Oedipian tale

This week, on 19 Harvard Blazers, is the story of how one can try to run from one’s fate, only to run right back to it.