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Archive for Life

Dec. 23, 2018 — The wrong time to get sick

The Christmas season is a time of being social, gift-giving, and, for Christianity around the world, a reminder of renewal through the nativity of the Son of God.

Only, for the first time since 1972, I’m lying in bed ill.

The circumstances of the last time I was ill during Christmas were most unforgettable. It was our first-grade Christmas pageant, and I played Santa Claus, and I was in charge of pressing a button on a very large box to release characters representing toys and other gifts.

My first-grade music teacher, Mrs. Vandiver, was panicking when she saw me in costume when I arrived. She looked at my face and knew what was wrong with me.

Chicken pox.

But I, and the show, had to go on. I was the only Santa who knew the lines. Heck, I was the only Santa. The teachers got out their pancake makeup and covered up some of the scarring that was becoming evident on my face.

I’m pretty sure this would never happen today because I would be a kid with a communicable disease acting in a play along with my peers. Plus, the teachers were all putting makeup on me to try to cover over the impending crisis.

Somehow we got through the play, and I guess the silver lining for getting sick was the fact that we had a couple of weeks off before returning to school after the New Year.

I still hope I didn’t give anyone the shingles in later life because of my misfortune.

 

 

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Dec. 16, 2018 — Even more work to do

As some of you may know, one of my off-hours vocations is coordinating volunteers at public dance events at a national park. As such, I have a certain responsibility to ensure that the volunteers help create a safe and harassment-free environment for the patrons.

I assist two out of seven presenters for one specific dance form. There are seven different dance forms run out of this particular venue, and there are up to three dozen dance forms are enjoyed by tens of thousands of people in a metropolitan area of 6.2 million people.

As such, I’m beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem of what USA Today laid bare late last week, where Olympic governing bodies of sport have seemingly been unable to prevent banned coaches from having a role in the sport from which they were banned.

It’s similar to a situation which I witnessed a few weeks ago. After attending a dance held by another presenter, I went to a different dance on the same premises where a banned dancer from my dance form was engaged in his same predatory behavior towards young women.

I went to a seminar last weekend, trying to learn more about the magnitude of the problem and whether any kinds of “safe space” or other policy could ameliorate the situation. What I found was a legal thicket, involving an entire wing of the law called “premises liability” and the question of whether dance volunteer duty should involve mandatory-reporter duty.

The overall North American partner dance world has been roiled by scandals involving instructors who have been accused of sexual misconduct by victims emboldened by the MeToo movement. The ramifications have been immediate: disinvitation from teaching gigs, the discontinuation of a clothing line, and even the removal of footage of these instructors from YouTube.

Yet, there are also stories about many of these same instructors being able to find work, even though there is a common ban-list with the names printed out in black and white, But, unlike USA Safe Sport, there is actual documentation showing why the particular figure is banned.

Dance, and sport, are involved in a long game in order to mitigate sexual misconduct, and it appears that not even a higher level of transparency is helping.

Nov. 30, 2018 — The Findlay Prep of academic subjects?

Over the last 20 years or so, shoe companies, would-be sports agents, and AAU basketball coaches have stood accused of academic fraud by setting up sham schools in places from North Carolina to Nevada where the only students in the school happen to be the school’s basketball team.

We figured it was only a matter of time before this kind of conspiracy would occur in a non-academic setting, and this story dropped this morning in The New York Times (possible paywall).

While the focus by many will be on the physical abuse charges, or criticism over the use of stereotypes to gain favor in the acceptance process for minority and poor children in the deep South, I’d look a little closer at the bigger picture when it comes to the academic fraud.

You see, I’ve always asked one question when it comes to some of the draconian steps that schools and school districts have taken when it comes to determining eligibility for student-athletes. The question is, would the same kind of scrutiny (and thereby taxpayer dollars) be spent investigating star chemistry students, trombone players, or singers in the glee club?

The problem is, sadly, there are investigations going on into some of those, too. The District of Columbia quietly released a progress report on an investigation into the families of some 219 children at Duke Ellington School, a magnet school for the performing arts. However, the body running the investigation had to admit that more than 65 percent of them were actually eligible after spending spent untold amounts of money.

And so it goes.

Nov. 28, 2018 — The mistakes brought on by misunderstanding

One year ago, a parent of two Division I field hockey players started a treatment at a major American teaching hospital involving stem cells, the cells in our bodies from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated.

Today, the parent reports being in good health.

It was not so long ago that stem cells were the source of immense controversy in the medical and scientific communities, to the point where President George W. Bush banned federal funding for new lines of stem cell research in 2001, putting the U.S. behind many Asian countries, notably Japan, China, and Korea, in terms of research and development of stem cell treatment.

The ban was lifted by the Obama administration nine years ago.

This week, there has been a firestorm over a presentation made at a three-day conference on genome editing by Jiankui He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology. He claims to have edited the genetic code of two baby girls born to an HIV-positive father and an HIV-negative mother, so that the children would be immune to HIV.

The firestorm in the news media has been one-sided, and somewhat predictable. Science journalism is a lost art in the United States, with almost no newspapers in the United States maintaining a science desk or a science bureau. The number of registered science writers has dropped by about 10 percent from 2007 to 2018, many of whom have hung out their own shingle in order to promote the free flow of science information.

Indeed, the firestorm is being promulgated by the same talking heads who breathlessly talk about plane crashes and email servers without expertise, context, and perspective.

The negative publicity about He’s research, I posit, needs to be viewed from the perspective of the nationalism of scientific research. Two-thirds of Chinese, according to one on-line poll, support the need for gene-editing in order to treat or prevent diseases. And the Chinese government has been listening: state-sponsored genomic research totaled more than a quarter of a trillion dollars last year.

China has been trying to catch up to the United States in the field of genetic editing, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this same kind of outrage would have been sparked in American media if this kind of research on actual embryos was being done at Stanford or Harvard.

It would appear, despite the head-shaking over in-vitro fertilization 40 years ago, or stem cells 15 years ago, or gene-editing today, that the technology is here, and it’s time to get used to it.

It might save lives.

 

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.

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.