Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fear Or ...

           So I was driving down to my parents’ house in Cape May on Friday, and I had a lot on my mind. First of all, I kept hearing this one guy’s voice in my head. He’s from New York, like I am, but he’s running for president, and he had given a convention speech the night before, which I had heard in part. It kind of freaked me out, because there was so much darkness in his words. He was saying in his speech that “our very way of life” is threatened in America, and that the person he’s running against leaves a legacy of “death, destruction and weakness.” He said these are very difficult days in America, and that we need to take care of our country first. The thing that upset me the most was when he told America, “I am your voice.” I have never lived under a dictator, but when I study them, they usually say things like that, tapping into our fears and convincing us that they know what we need.

            I was wondering what drew people to this guy and his rhetoric of fear and passion. I was wondering if this was the message I’d keep hearing in the days and months ahead. I had music playing on my iPod, and was paying tribute to the late Prince by listening to his tunes. In between songs about little red Corvettes, raspberry berets and purple rain, I listened to the lyrics from the song 7, which is the closest Prince every got to predicting the future when he released it almost 25 years ago. “I saw an angel come down unto me,” he sang. “In her hand she holds the very key / Words of compassion, words of peace.” In his Book of Revelation-type lyrics, Prince sings of a world in which “the young” are “so educated they never grow old.” He even sings of “a voice of many colors” singing a song “that’s so bold.” Well, I thought, that’s a different person with different ideas than the one I’d heard the night before. But I kind of like this vision of a world where compassion and combined voices lead the way, better than I like the sound of footsteps approaching.

            I arrived in Cape May and went down to the beach the next day. Every day, there are teenagers on the beach who sell umbrellas and beach chairs, then pick them up at the end of the afternoon. I’d noticed that the chair seller on our stretch of the beach had a tattoo on his upper chest. I stopped him and asked what the tattoo said. He read it to me: “Fear is nothing more than a mental monster you have created, a negative stream of consciousness.” I looked that up later, and saw that it comes from Robin Sharma, a Canadian writer. This young man, dragging umbrellas and chairs through the soft sand, seemed to have already arrived at a very different way of looking at fear than those words I heard on Thursday night. In fact, he’s so confident in these words that he wears them on his tanned torso.

            As I lay on the beach, I read a book by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones. In terms of coming-of-age memoirs, they don’t get much better. I read about Blow’s attempts to find inner peace after a childhood incident left him violated and afraid. Earlier in the week, the author’s most recent Times column had spoken of the recent violence against civilians and police with the words, “It’s not either/or, but both/and.” As someone who has lived through tragedy, Blow is well-suited to help guide our country out of the struggles we face. He chooses to do so through words of love.

            After arriving back from the beach, I gathered up my dog and took her for an early-evening walk. Around the corner, I saw several yellow and orange pieces of paper tied to a tree with pieces of string. As I walked closer, I saw a sign in front of the tree, identifying it as a “Poet-Tree,” and inviting passersby to take one. My dog and I stood in front of the tree for a while, reading poems, many of them about nature, lots of them by Robert Frost and Mary Oliver. I took a poem from Oliver titled Wild Geese, whose beautiful lines speak of shared pain, shared progress, and shared tomorrows. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

            There are strong words of fear in America today. But wherever my wheels and feet seem to take me, I keep hearing reassuring words of grace. There’s a lot to talk about at those presidential conventions – our country has as much room for improvement as any. But we had a president once who said something about fear, something many have echoed in the 83 years since he said it. And it remains as true as the morning sun: The only thing we have to fear, my friends, is fear itself. The rest is today’s challenge, tomorrow’s triumph, and the music of life. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Choosing Love

            This week, my wife and older daughter have been fixing up houses in eastern Tennessee with a group from our church. As part of the Appalachia Service Project, they’ve been working together to make the world just a little bit better, while also meeting people from a different part of our country. The church group consists of teens and adults – some of them black, some white, some gay, and some straight.
Yesterday morning, I helped my father deliver food to people in need in Cape May, NJ. As we walked through the small housing project that often gets lost in this vacation wonderland, we handed chicken, frozen vegetables and pasta to all kinds of grateful people – some of them black, some white, some older, and some quite young.
            In my high school, I’ve helped run a community service club for 10 years, and the teens who run this club choose our activities. Their favorite job is delivering meals to homeless and low-income individuals in Manhattan. When they do this, I stand to the side and watch our club members interact with the people in need who walk up to their table. Some of the needy are black, some are white, some are Latino, some are Asian. Some are gay, some are straight, and some are transgender. Our own club members also hail from a variety of races and ethnicities.
            The events of this past week in America have been so troubling that it’s difficult to think about it all without feeling afraid for our nation. I’m not a TV guy, so I don’t watch the wall-to-wall coverage that our cable news stations offer. I prefer to read the news. This morning, I came across an opinion article in The New York Times, written by Charles M. Blow, whose meditations on race in America are well worth reading. In his piece, Blow writes about the necessity of choosing love in times of violence. He writes that when we say this, some are likely to accuse us of “meeting hard power with soft,” and of choosing a weaker route.
            But, Blow writes, “That is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith.” Anger is so easy to access and use recklessly, he writes. “The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong … When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward.”
            There are so many ways we can address the current racial crisis in America. Perhaps the most important first step is to listen, learn and engage in productive dialogue. A former colleague of mine posted on Facebook yesterday that he had recently taught Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the National Book Award winner that explains with clarity and historical depth why an African-American individual might doubt that true change will come in American race relations. In my own world, my co-teacher and I showed our high school seniors Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing this past year, and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters last year. None of our students had seen either film before, and they all had lots to say, think and write about after seeing these important films.
            We all can do more to engage our minds in thinking deeply about race in America. We can pay closer attention to the words of our current president, who has spoken about matters of race in complex and important ways. We can hold discussion groups where we listen and share our experiences. We can think, and wonder, and imagine what it would take to reach a place of equality, understanding and peace.
            Most of all, we can follow the lead of those who have shown us how to do this hard work. More than a year ago, a young white man brought racial violence to a level of cruelty similar to that of this past week. The man visited a church Bible study in Charleston, S.C., then proceeded to kill nine African-American men and women during the Bible study. Two days later, that church modeled forgiveness in a way that might at first seem impossible. “You took something very precious away from me,” the daughter of one of the victims told the shooter during a bond hearing in which he appeared via video link in court. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
            These words are at the heart of what Charles Blow is talking about, and at the heart of what we sorely need. Bullets cannot move mountains. But faith and fellowship can. Racial anger is real, and it’s grounded in facts. It needs to be heard, and discussed, and addressed with changes in laws and attitudes. The work we do together in areas of race is everyone’s business. It is not something that affects only some. The responsibility is on all of us.
            But we know it can be done because it is being done – by my wife, daughter and their friends in Tennessee this week. By my dad and his friends at the housing project in Cape May. By those service club teens at my school. And in thousands upon thousands of other places, where we choose love over hate, and where we work to build bridges.
Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I brought a group of teenagers to a national youth gathering for the Lutheran church in New Orleans. Every night, tens of thousands of teens would walk to the Superdome and sing songs together. The emcee of the event was a young woman in her early 40s, a pastor from New Jersey. She was dynamic and inspiring. After the gathering, I wrote to her and she wrote back. She gave me ideas on how to make a difference in the world.
Today, that woman is the pastor of our church. She’s in her 60s now, and my wife and I view the words and themes in her sermons as a map toward the ways in which we can help make positive change. Oh, and she happens to be African-American.
As my pastor makes her way back from Tennessee with the church group this weekend, I know her heart is heavy from the violence and unrest in America. But I also know she will choose the route taken by Charles Blow and Barack Obama and my teacher friend and my service club kids and, of course, the parishioners in Charleston. She will choose love. And she will preach love. And we will hear her, and give it a try. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hamilton for President


I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

This spring, our house has been pulsing to lines like the one above, from the smash-hit musical Hamilton. The show tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop, dance and brilliant modern-day storytelling. Anyone who has seen the sold-out musical or listened to the bestselling album has probably been hooked on the songs just as my wife, daughters and I have been. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, lyrics and dynamic method of bringing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography to life are captivating in ways that call to mind other groundbreaking musicals such as Rent and Book of Mormon – shows that dared to be different and offered a new direction for Broadway.
            Part of what makes Hamilton so impressive is the degree to which it speaks to our modern-day world. In Miranda’s hands, we see a show that addresses many of our hot-button issues of 2016, from immigration to race to financial policies to foreign affairs to electoral politics. Hamilton also makes it clear that heated debate – yes, even heated fighting – has long been a part of American politics.
            But despite the musical’s indisputable relevance, I’d guess that even the subject of this show would be surprised at the level of absurdity present in the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s all been very well documented, so I’m not going to review it with you again. But suffice it to say that no matter how much Alexander Hamilton might be intrigued by the idea of attack ads, Twitter posts and sound bites, he would be disappointed in the tone of this election. After all, this was a man who much preferred taking on his opponents face to face instead of letting others fight his battles for him.
            And that’s where things get most frustrating for me as I follow the current presidential campaign (from a distance, as I can’t bring myself to get too close to something this ugly). When I hear candidates raise ideas that they clearly don’t plan to follow through on, but that serve to rile up an angry base, I am reminded of a memorable line from The Great Gatsby.
By the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which, like Hamilton, speaks to the 21st century throughout every page), narrator Nick Carraway can no longer refrain from judging two of the characters he’s been describing for us. The husband and wife due of Daisy and Tom Buchanan have left a disaster in their wake as they leave town, and Nick knows that they will not be the ones to suffer from this. He says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
This, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump. He raises ideas and proposals that he will never bring to pass, even if he were to be elected president. He will not actually build a giant wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, nor will he arrest women seeking abortions. But because he says these things, Trump brings out emotions in those who take him at his word. And the mess that someone like this can make overshadows any positive steps he could conceivably take as a leader. But he’s a smart man, and he knows that if he says there might be riots if he’s not his party’s nominee, he is both planting an idea and recusing himself of any blame for such violence. He won’t be the one committing any violent acts, so he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say he’s disappointed at what happened.
This kind of behavior is not just a political thing, of course. It’s human nature. We see it when Kim Kardashian posts a nude selfie, knowing that her influence will lead young teenagers to try the same. We see it when Roger Goodell says that if he had a son he’d love to see the boy play football, when in fact the NFL commissioner doesn’t have a son and knows that many youngsters who play will sustain concussions unless the game is made safer. We see it when Ted Cruz promotes Christianity on the campaign stump, knowing that this is being read by some as code for “no Muslims.” So long as you imply your point instead of directly stating it, you’re as safe as Tom and Daisy.
Humans can be sneaky communicators, and they also know how to use their power, wealth and social status to make a tremendous mess of society. They know that their words and actions can hold incredible weight, and they are willing to use that leverage to watch others start a fire after they’ve left the lighter fluid on the floor.
Alexander Hamilton had plenty of flaws, for sure. But he acted on his beliefs, said what he thought, and made his own mess – even the one that led to his own death. “Every action’s an act of creation,” Miranda sings in the song “My Shot.” It’s not uncommon for works of art to speak to our needs better than the leaders we’re considering for elected office. This year, that is particularly true. Miranda’s miraculous work of art is worth every moment we give it, for through his words we might just find a way out of this electoral mess we’re in, and into the light of engagement, collaboration and hope.
It’s time to take a shot.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Middle-Aged

            According to the U.S. Census Bureau, I am now officially middle-aged. I can’t say I felt much different last Sunday when I turned 45, but the number does seem a bit daunting. A couple decades ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Staten Island Advance about living through my 20s; one of the columns talked about how old 25 felt. I think back on that and laugh.
Of course, 20 years from now I might reflect on 45 as a young milestone. But while it’s true that age is relative, it’s also true that 45 is a much more definitive marker of aging than 25 was. For instance, I am now older than every athlete on a major American pro sports team. The oldest, NHL right winger Jaromir Jagr, is more than a year younger than me. If I were running for president this year, I’d be considered a “young” candidate, but I’m still five months older than Republican Marco Rubio, and just a few weeks younger than Ted Cruz. In terms of entertainment, I’m in the Matt Damon-Ethan Hawke age range, which is not too bad. But still, I was 23 years old when Justin Bieber was born, easily making me old enough to be his parent.
So yeah, 45 is a bunch of years. But it’s still only halfway to 90, so there’s no reason to panic. Yet there are certain physical signs reminding me that middle age is beginning. The most obvious is the eyesight. When I’m reading a book with my glasses on, the words only look focused when I push the glasses down the bridge of my nose. When I’ve swallowed my pride enough, I will buy reading glasses for the times when I’m wearing contacts. After all, I’m already struggling at school when I reserve a laptop cart and need to open it with a combination lock. My students sit patiently waiting for me to open the cart, while I stare down at the lock and wait for my eyes to slowly begin identifying numbers.
There’s also the height thing. When doctors ask for my height, I proudly say that I’m 6-1, although I know that is no longer the case. The disks between my vertebrae have thinned out, and I’m shorter than I was at 22. I try to combat this with exercise, and I know that yoga would help as well. But even so, the ravages of time and gravity have had their way with my spine. When I spend hours outside shoveling like I did yesterday, my back reminds me of just how cranky it’s getting.
So yes, there are numerical and physical signs of aging. But perhaps the most glaring sign of being middle-aged is in the interactions with people younger than me, and the generation gaps that are now fully apparent. Take the popular mobile app known as Snapchat, for instance. I have had computers in my life ever since I was 12 years old. And yet, I just don’t understand the need for taking dozens of photos and short videos that get sent to friends, who can view them for just a few seconds before they disappear. It seems like an exercise in futility.
As my students prepare for class to begin, many of them stare at their phones, give a little smile, and before I know it they’ve taken a Snapchat photo, to be added to their Snapchat “story” that will be sent to their 200 closest friends later in the day. The same thing happens when I’m driving my older daughter somewhere, and she sits in the back seat posing and taking more pictures than you’d see at a Kate Upton photo shoot. She then begins playing her friends’ Snapchat stories, and I hear quick bursts of shouting or singing, and my daughter laughs at these bite-size forms of communication while I struggle to identify what her friends are even saying.
Generation gaps are as common as diminished eyesight and shrinking spines. And with this particular gap, I am reminded of a skill that I have maintained and improved after four and a half decades, but that I fear my daughter is losing all too early: the ability to pay attention. I am still more interested in placing my photos in an album than in shooting them off for a five-second viewing; I’d rather write a blog like this than fire off a tweet; and I’d prefer to read a story or book than an Instagram caption. I want to spend time with my thoughts and communication, rather than treating them like a series of buttons to be pushed. I worry that younger generations are losing the ability to take time with the interactions that help make a life richer.
There is no way to write this without sounding like an old man, even older than one who can’t read his combination lock. But I think the key to generation gaps is going beyond the recognition of them, and moving into bridging the gaps. Is there something that both generations can learn from each other – something about the Snapchat world that I don’t quite get, and something about the joy of sitting with words and thoughts that my daughter doesn’t understand yet? Were there similar elements at play for me 30 years ago, when my parents were advising me to pay attention to the world beyond Commodore 64 video games and fantasy sports statistics? It would take a degree of patience on both sides to sit, listen and learn, yet I’d be up for doing that. My daughter, who is forever closing her bedroom door behind her in true 14-year-old fashion, is a tougher one to pin down; but there’s no reason to stop trying.
Age is both relative and very real; 45 is nothing if not a reminder of that. I’ve downloaded the Snapchat app, but I can’t figure it out yet. And it’s hard to read unless I push down those glasses.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Home

            It’s been an exciting Thanksgiving weekend, as my wife’s parents recently moved to the same town where my parents have lived for the past 12 years. After a couple of attempts at retiring up north, my in-laws realized that the Jersey Shore was more their style. So this Thanksgiving, my daughters were able to gather around the turkey with all four grandparents for the first time in their lives. It was wonderful.
            As I’ve aged out of some of the restlessness of youth, I’ve come to see just how much it can mean to feel comfortable and happy with your home. To have that roof and four walls, and to want to be there, is a special feeling. Thanksgiving, and the holidays that follow, are a yearly reminder of this.
            I was thinking about that feeling as I read a poem the other day. It’s titled “Home,” and it was written by Warsan Shire, a writer who was born in Kenya and raised in London to Somali parents. The poem addresses the world’s current refugee crisis, one that sees more people fleeing war and oppression than at any time since World War II, according to The New York Times.
            Shire begins her poem by writing, “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well.”
            The next stanza continues, “your neighbors running faster than you / breath bloody in their throats / the boy you went to school with / who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory / is holding a gun bigger than his body / you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay.”
            Since the flurry of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, Asia and Africa, there has been increased conversation about a topic that is as old as history – whether to allow an exodus of people to enter one’s country. There are always complications to this issue, but time has a tendency to align itself with compassion and openness, rather than with resistance and fences. Those who enter a new country, as my great-grandparents did in America, tend to do nothing more than give thanks and start their new life with ambition and devotion to their new home.
            It’s tempting, during times of fear, to think that countless people are out to get us. But in reality, most people just want what my in-laws found this year – a place that feels like home. When we forget this, we run the risk of becoming sharks ourselves.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Thirteen

            As I write this post, my daughter is hanging out at a boy’s house. She is 13; so is he. His parents are there, as are other friends.
            But still. I want the boy gone. Goodbye.
            I’m just not ready. I have to be ready, but I’m not. I need to father a teenager, not a child. And I don’t get a script. Parents never do, especially for the oldest.
            It seems like a heartbeat ago, we were dancing in the living room to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” me swinging her in circles while she giggled and called for more. It feels like yesterday we were reading Fancy Nancy picture books together, her eyes beginning to recognize words and sentences as we turned the pages. It seems like last year she’d go to bed asking me to tell her a story, and I’d regale her with tales of my childhood, while she lay in the glow of a nightlight, listening intently.
            Now she takes her shower at nine, says a quick goodnight, sets the alarm on her iPhone, and goes to sleep. She wakes up and checks her Instagram and Snapchat, then dresses in her American Eagle finest, before munching on a quick bowl of cereal and heading off to the hallways of middle school.
            We butt heads pretty often these days. I tell her that I think she needs to broaden her friend base. I take away her phone when the device is taking place of the actual world. I encourage her to step away from the texts and Facetimes to go for walks and read books. She tells me to stop, stop, stop it, Dad.
            Did I mention the part about no script? Yes, I think I did.
            I know that if I push too hard, I’ll lose her. I also know that there are far worse things than a 13-year-old who needs to learn a few lessons about friendships and boys and the allure of devices. Much better that she learn this stuff now than later on in her teen years. But when you want to get the parenting stuff right, it’s hard to know when to pull back and when to go all-out. So, with my wife’s guidance, we pick our battles. Talking back to us? No way, Jose. Watching Dancing with the Stars after you’ve finished your homework, in lieu of reading? OK, your choice tonight.
            Asking if you can hang out at the boy’s house? Yeah, I didn’t make the call on that one, as you can imagine. But she’s there, and she’ll be home soon, and I’m sure she’s having fun.
            It’s getting harder to remember this as I climb into my 40s, but I was actually 13 once myself. And I can remember hanging out in basements with girls, playing “Spin the Bottle” while the more daring kids tried “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” That’s not happening tonight, and my daughter has so much of her innocence intact. But somehow I navigated the thrills and terrors of adolescence and came out in one piece. Why can’t I expect that she’ll do the same?
            Because she will, and my wife and I will be there for her every step of the way. But right now, I have to face the reality: I am parenting a teenager now. It’s a different Ring of Fire than the one we danced to all those years ago. But as I see the hormonal sparks and the flames of independence alight in our house, I need to know which fires must be extinguished, and which ones have to burn out on their own.
            Nothing is easy about this. But it is, in fact, what I signed up for. This is my daughter, my oldest child, my pride and joy. I don’t know the script, but I think there’s a lot in there about patience and love.
            And boys. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

True Companions

     
      
           We were practically children, closer to our teens than to our 30s. She had just graduated from college; I was not yet two years into my working life. And yet, on a Saturday in mid-September, we decided to pledge our lives to each other. Vows, and rings, an organ and a trumpet. A white dress, a black tux, and a whole lot of family.
           
            I recall my groomsmen and I driving out for an old-fashioned barber’s shave in the morning, then heading back to my house to play a game of Wiffle Ball before showering and putting on our tuxes. I remember walking into the church and feeling overwhelmed by the sight of so many of the people who’d filled the first 24 years of my life. I recall dancing more than I’d ever danced before, smiling for more photos than ever, and trying to find a way to freeze so many moments in my mind for all time.

            More than anything, though, I remember her. Amy. We were high school sweethearts who had stayed together – a throwback to the old days. A couple of kids who decided they wanted to grow up, then grow old, together. At our reception, we entered the Great Hall of Sailors’ Snug Harbor to the music of Randy Newman’s score for the film The Natural. Aside from the groom’s passion for baseball, the song also represented the natural fit we felt we were. I held her smooth hand, the one with the new wedding band on it, and saw the red hair flow beneath her veil. We danced to Marc Cohn’s “True Companion,” and chatted with our guests.

            That was 20 years ago today. A lot of time has passed since then, and we’ve lived a lot of life in those two decades. We’ve brought two girls into the world, while also losing grandparents and other loved ones. We’ve traveled and worked and moved and occasionally even relaxed. We’ve agreed, and disagreed, and found ways to work things out. We’ve tried to be there for the folks we love, and tried to do the same for each other. More than anything, though, we’ve grown – as individuals and as a couple. We’ve given each other space and pulled each other tight. We’ve supported and shown up for each other every day. We’ve enjoyed some traditions, while also seeking ways to make it all feel new again. It’s a delicate balance, it’s hard work, and it never stops being worth the effort and love.

            And so, after two decades of marriage, we’re hanging in there. It isn’t 1995 anymore, for sure, and soon it won’t be 2015, either. We’re closer to our AARP days than to our college ones. But some things haven’t changed over the course of 20 years. I’ll still take that sly smile, and the red hair, and the hazel eyes. I’ll still hold her hand, and talk with her about anything. I’ll still trust her and believe in her. I took a chance at age 24 in the hopes that I’d found the love of my life. It turns out I was right. I’m lucky, and I know that.

            So happy anniversary, Amy. It’s only here for a day, but tomorrow should be a good day, too. After all, you keep hanging in there with me. I’m ready to do the same with you for as long as we’ve got. Let’s keep at it.