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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Gift


My sister sat at her desk, in the middle of an open office full of fellow employees. She was sobbing uncontrollably. They were certain she had just learned of our mother's death. They were wrong.
 
I have been married nearly 40 years. My wife and I have followed her parents from Tenafly to Fort Lee, first in houses no more than a mile distant from one another and later in apartments two floors apart. As my mother in law likes to remind people, she was there first.

For a long time my wife and I joked that my mother in law liked me as much, if not more, than her own daughter. It was not that they had a bad relationship. It was simply that we had an even better one. She is a lady, a person of dignity and grace, never intrusive but always there when needed. Even now, closing in on 90, she is an integral part of the functioning of our family. She has been and remains a jewel.
 

My mom has not been so fortunate. A decade older than my mother-in-law, my mother remains alive but unattached to the realities of the world. The last decade has been a terrible decline, simply horrible for my sister and me to watch. My mom has little or no concept of her children, or grandchildren and the stories we relate to her of our triumphs and travails fall silently to the floor, like unattended and unfed orphans.
 
My mom lived for family, her universe made up almost entirely of her concerns for our welfare. As so many of us feel the devotion and love of a parent, so my sister and I believed that we had struck gold with both our mother and father.

 There was nothing our mom would not do for us, no task too severe, no financial contribution too substantial. Even as my sister and I became independent and at least modestly successful in our own lives, our mom would greet us with her hands outstretched and some money begging for a new home. When my mom inevitably asked if there was anything else she could give me, my standard retort was "small bills, unmarked."
 
As she aged and we helped her manage her finances, she would often mandate our acceptance of a gift with but one proviso: as long as I can afford to live, I can afford to give.
 
When my sister's son wed,  I was there when my mom gave his fiancee a wedding gift in an envelope. She burst into tears when the envelope was opened, staggered by my mom's beneficence. "Welcome to the family and get used to it" I thought to myself.
 
As my mom's problems multiplied in recent years, and my mother in law could see and hear the impact it was having on my sister and me, I could sense how much she understood our pain. She knew how badly we wanted, even for one day, to have our mother return to us.
 
My wife and I recently celebrated our daughter's engagement. And one of its trappings is the purchase of the wedding dress. Yesterday was the day for our daughter's first fitting. She brought along both her mom and her grandma, my mother in law, for this event. When the time came for payment for probably the most meaningful outfit my daughter will ever wear, my mother in law insisted that this be her gift. It was an overwhelmingly generous act.
 
When I learned of what she had done, I called to give my heartfelt thanks. This is how she responded:

"It is what your mother would have wanted to do. It is a gift from both of us."

I stood in the middle of my office weeping while relating this tale by phone to my sister. For even as my daughter had received a magnificent present, so too had my sister and I. We had, at least for an instant, been given back our mom.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Contemplations on the G.O.A.T.

How can we have so many G.O.A.T.s in one Olympic games?  Usain Bolt is but the last of the pantheon to finish up his work after Michael Phelps, Katie Ludecky and Simone Biles all were feted as being incomparable in their chosen endeavors.

Who is the greatest among these G.O.A.T.s?  Phelps has lapped the entire field of gold medal winning athletes in the history of the games. Bolt has just pitched a perfect game, nine up and nine down. Ludecky seemed like she was out of the pool and toweling off while everyone else was doing the doggy paddle. And Biles was winning victories by enormous margins in a sport where every one hundreth matters.

There is no good answer, no bad one to this question. Is the length and breadth of Phelp's career, like an enormous wingspan across the pool, the deciding factor? Is Bolt's prodigious stride what sets him apart from lesser gods? Is Ludecky's ability to never slow down the most legendary feat of all? Or is Biles' seeming capacity to leap tall buildings in a single bound a feat that only a true Superwoman could accomplish?

These are matters, not weighty, but enormously intriguing, which will fill up the sports pages and be the focus of our discussions and disagreements in the coming months. G.O.A.T. At least until the next G.O.A.T. arrives.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Donald Dumb

("To Trump, Even Losing is Winning")

Do you know the most frightening possibility? Mr. Trump is that stupid. When cornered, when angered, when frustrated, when hyperventilated, he responds to the full extent of his mind's limited capacity.

He is obviously no Obama, no Clinton the first. He is more akin to Bush the second, but with a mean center. The most awful truth may be that this is not an act created by a master manipulator, but the real thing: dumb combined with uninformed and slightly unhinged to create this mess we see before us.

Maybe Mr. Trump's billions provided cover for him all these years, masking his deficiencies in a massive pile of green. We were distracted by the dollars, convinced of his genius because he appeared to be a success, even in his failures,  reminded repeatedly by Mr. Trump that he was really, really smart.

Maybe the lack of ability to speak in other than the most basic terms, with the most basic thoughts is not an act. Maybe his lashing out at war heroes, at women who are not pretty enough, at a different person or group more often than our mind can absorb, his mind numbing attack after attack without foundation or reason, nothing more than the mistakes committed by someone who is quite simply put a simpleton.

Maybe Mr. Trump did not learn the lessons Mr. Manafort tried to impart because he could not. Maybe Mr. Trump is really nothing more than Sarah Palin without the nice legs. Maybe there is no Henry Higgins who can fix this Donald DoLittle, no master gluer who can put this Humpty Dumpty back together.

Maybe he is but a little mean man, with a little mean mind. And that may be the most unsettling thought of all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Extreme Vetting of the People, By the People and For the People


I agree with Mr. Trump that America should be a land free of bigotry and hatred. I applaud his mandate that those in our midst support religious freedom, gender equality and gay rights. 

I would thus expect that with the advent of "extreme vetting" under President Trump many of his most fervent supporters will be compelled to leave this country and that Mr. Trump himself will have to rule from abroad, for there is no way that any of them will survive the scrutiny of examination of their "unAmerican" prejudices and beliefs.

Let's make America great again by extreme vetting not of those who seek entry into our nation, but of those within our midst who should be unceremoniously shown the door. Thank you Mr. Trump for your clear headed and brave stance.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Appalachian Trail and Donald Trump


Wow, Mark Sanford lecturing on trust and integrity.

I am not a fan of Donald Trump, and find his actions universally abhorrent. But could the Times not see the irony in Mr. Sanford being the one chosen to lecture on Mr. Trump's need to be forthright and honest with the public? The past personal travails of Mr. Sanford were more than mere distraction in my reading this opinion piece. They diminished the very impact of his words.

Mr. Sanford's "long walk on the Appalachian trail" and his subsequent mea culpa led to his political demise and later resurrection. I believe in second chances and Mr. Sanford's is a redemptive tale. But that is a long way from making him the proper voice on the subject of the respect to which the public is entitled.

Strike one against the Times for not selecting a more appropriate professor to chastise Mr. Trump.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Year of Living Dangerously - The Candidacy of Donald Trump


Unprepared, uninformed, uninterested. Loose lipped, locked and loaded. At any moment, capable of the most careless of statements, or the most cruel. And always the most dangerous. 

A call to arms, a mass insurrection, Mr. Trump's vision of a Second Amendment uprising against the forces of tyranny, against the President and the Justices of the Supreme Court. These are not idle words, not mere slips of the tongue. They are incitement to riot.

This country would likely be at war with itself if the the perverted vision of Donald Trump's America were allowed to fester unchecked. There is nothing civil about the uncivil ruminations of the Republican nominee.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Out of the Shadows

Every four years we pay fleeting attention to athletes who have spent a lifetime in dogged pursuit of consideration as the very best at their chosen endeavor. Far too many who appear on the Olympic stage toil perpetually in the shadows.

Name a fencer, any fencer, any country, any time. Tell me the difference between epee and sabre. For every Usain Bolt there is an equally dedicated man or woman who is thrusting and parrying away in obscurity.

Maybe that is why I failed over the past 35 years to mention to my son that the grandfather for whom he had been named was a vital member of the 1938 NYU national championship fencing team.

There were no plaques in my childhood home in Teaneck commemorating my father's feats. No clippings, no images of my father in battle. That was decidedly not his style. The only evidence that my dad even knew one end of a sword from the other were the two fencer's masks which hung on the basement walls. And below them, two weapons he had used during his days performing for Coach Castello. They remained mostly motionless, frozen in time and space, reminders of a past era when my father was young, dedicated and very, very skilled.

There were however the rare occasions when these sabres practiced their trade, a far too oversized mask covering my face and the command of "en garde" ringing in the air. Left arm pointing to the sky, the right thrust menacingly forward. Lunge and retreat. Lunge and retreat. A child in "combat" with a loving father.

That memory would have remained embalmed were it not for the serendipity of turning on Olympic coverage featuring two Errol Flynn's with dueling sabres. As my son and I tried to determine just when and how points were being scored, I casually mentioned my dad's accomplishments almost 80 years before.

"What" my son exclaimed "you forgot to tell me about this?" In truth, I thought I might have made passing reference to "this"in some distant galaxy, but even if I had, I had certainly not given my father his due.

Soon my son had travelled back through time, thanks to the internet. Fingers moving furiously, he combed the archives searching for answers to the question that had only now formed in his brain.

There it was, an article in the Columbia newsletter, discussing the invincible NYU team, national champions three years running. How Columbia had tied this squad, deprived of outright victory only by a win by NYU in the final sabre match. That last battle won by the narrowest of margins, 5 to 4. By none other than my son's namesake.

How must that moment have felt for him, the anxiety, the elation, the satisfaction? How big his smile, how long the hug from his coach?

How had I never asked? How had I never taken the time to search for the clues of my father's prowess? How could I have left him so long in the shadows?

National champion in sabre, 1938. NYU and Richard Nussbaum.





How much of my dad remains in the air we breathe, in the water we drink? Have I done enough to try to preserve him for my children and for the future generations of my family? Or have I been a poor shepherd, failing at the essential task which fell to me on his passing in 1979? Why had it taken an image flashed upon a screen for me to make even a peripheral reference to my dad's wondrous accomplishment?

My dad was so impressive at everything he touched, from his days in World War II as head air traffic controller at a base in British Guyana to a distinguished legal career. Had Coach Castello seen the drive, understood the passions that resided so deep? Had my children felt the greatness of their grandfather?

Many years ago my dad's swords were removed from those basement walls, eventually taking up residence with my sister and her family. Where the sabres now exist, or if they still exist, I do not know. But for today at least they were once more alive, slashing through the air, making the sweet sound of elegant beauty with every pass.

NYU 1938 Yearbook - Fencing Champions

My father would, at last and far too late, move out of the shadows and into the bright sunlight. En garde.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Pocket Sized Constitution and Mr. Trump


Is this the seminal moment, the one that brings down the house of lies, of hate, of fear of Donald Trump? 

No politician could crack that veneer of invincibility, that Trump belief that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square without repercussions.

It took the voice of Mr. Khan, filled with love for his child, love for his country and love for his Constitution. It took the voice of Mr. Khan filled with contempt for Mr. Trump's distortions, his condemnations, his denunciations. 

Mr. Khan stared down the bully, who responded as only Mr. Trump can, by trying to insult his way out of a corner.

Not this time Mr. Trump. Mr. Khan is the true face of patriotism in this nation, and you have demeaned the wrong family. 

In Mr. Khan's words there were clear echoes of the public dressing down of Joseph McCarthy, of the  "have you no sense of decency sir" remark of Mr. Welsh that effectively ended Senator McCarthy's reign of terror.

Mr. Khan and that pocket sized Constitution may have finally brought this bully to his knees.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Donald Lays An Egg (This is the entire tale)

 CHAPTER ONE

Cried Donald, a strange bird of orange plume:
"I've gathered many eggs
In my gold encrusted room
But I've bored of this game day after day.
I have no new horizons
No tricks to play

I don't want a vacation, I want a new test
If I could fool many that would be best!

If I could find plenty, to con and cheat...."
Then GOP, the Elephant, he chanced to meet.

"Hello!" shouted Donald, with joker's smile,
"You've no candidate, try me for a while.
You have nothing to lose, he said using guile."

The elephant laughed.
"Why, that makes no sense.
You haven't the knowledge, I'm not that dense.
You the head man? Why, you'd have no chance,
Your brain is too small, sir, and our problem immense!"

"Not so" shouted Donald."Your worries are few.
I can undo them. My words will ring true.
Just listen, just listen. They want someone new.
They want some plain speaking. And I've nothing to do."

"I can't," said the elephant.
"Oh, please" said the bird.
"You' ll see the results, sir, just mark my word.
So hurry up now. Or you will be sad..."
"OK", said the elephant, "just don't drive me mad....."

"You want the nomination. We can arrange it.
Just don't lay an egg, and try not to fake it.
Please try to be faithful, and do as you say."
"That's great!" shouted Donald and sauntered away.

"I'll rebuild a wall.
Make the Mexicans pay.
Yes, they'll take the fall.
I'll get started this way"

Then shouting,
He cried
"They're rapists and worse
Get them out of our country, they're all but a curse."

Donald was not done,
He kept up his rants,
While day turned to night
We heard ominous chants
He was thunder and lightning.
He harrumphed and harangued.
"This is much fun",
Many heads he just banged.

"I'll never go back.
'Cause I'm having such fun."
While the elephant cried, "I picked the wrong one."


CHAPTER TWO

And Donald kept preening for many seasons
Through summer and fall he spoke without reason
Came winter and spring and summer once more
But Donald kept chirping for he had the floor

This strange bird kept talking and said with a sneer
"Friends, Romans, elephants lend me your ear
I mean what I say, and allow no dissent
So elephant be faithful
One hundred per cent."

This was the elephant's winter of discontent
And in the spring Donald kept up his rant
"I hate women, POWs and foreigners too,
The media and the pope, to just name a few

Love my guns, and Putin and Saddam Hussein
And I know my opponents think I'm insane
But I am one bird who won't fly away
No this is one bird who's here to stay."

GOP the elephant just sat there and sighed
"No taunting, no teasing", it whimpered and cried
"Donald's not leaving, even if we  beg
And I am afraid we just laid an egg."

Some laughed at the thought of an elephant egg.
"You cannot be serious, you're pulling my leg".
But serious it was, like a bad heart attack,
He would not go away, he just kept coming back

"I mean what I say, and allow no dissent
So elephant be faithful,
One hundred per cent."

The poor elephant's woes were far from done
For Donald the strange bird was having much fun
He stoked all our fears, he preened and he danced
This orange headed beast had them all in a trance

He lied and bent truths as if in a pretzel
He had no eraser, but only a pencil
And when shots rang out and some pierced the heart
This did not stop Donald, only gave him a start

"Do not run. Do not hide.
Do not run or stay inside."
Donald held his head high and threw out his chest
"Do not give the foreigners a place to rest.
Get out your weapons, and take deadly aim."
For  Donald knew this was but part of his game.

"Shoot if they must, but we don't run away
And we will grow stronger, day after day."

Donald turned to the elephant, looked him straight in the eye
And repeatedly said "I can not tell a lie.
I mean what I say, and allow no dissent
So elephant be faithful,
One hundred per cent."


CHAPTER THREE

Along came a donkey who laughed at the bird.
And found him so stupid, and called him absurd.
"I'll keep him alive. Why he's horribly funny.
He belongs in the circus. He'll just make me money."

And the donkey dragged Donald's name through the mud.
Called him ridiculous, call him a dud.
While GOP sulked and practically cried
Donkey said that Donald was living a lie:

"His orange plume is not what it seems.
He's speaking in horrors and nightmarish dreams
He tells untruth, honesty's not for rent
Do not trust him, not even one per cent."

From sea to shining sea the donkey spread the word
Donald was merely a fraud, he was clearly absurd
But Donald was resolute, he could parry every thrust
This was one tough bird, he would do what he must

"The donkey is crooked, it's really an ass
And if it has a problem with me being crass,
Well there's a solution I can surely detect
Just grow up and don't be politically correct.

Just stop all your whining and all your dissent.
For I am but truthful one hundred per cent."

After bobbing and weaving like fighters in a ring.
Not floating like butterflies, but trying to sting.
Not landing big blows, merely talking the talk.
They landed one day in the town of New York.

The Big Apple was home to the donkey and bird.
They sold tickets to hear them at prices absurd.
The donkey insisting Donald was playing us for snooks.
Donald retorting the Donkey was clearly a crook.

Donald crying "I am truthful one hundred per cent."
The Donkey responding, "The truth's not for rent."

From New York, to Boston to LA they preached.
From Chicago, to Orlando their voices reached.
Day after day and month after month.
From breakfast, to dinner and even through lunch.

Through hailstorms, tornadoes and occasionally sun.
And Donald kept saying, "I'm having such fun."
Through ups and downs and sideways too.
Donald and the donkey speaking old like its new.

And through it all the elephant sat on its egg
No deterring Donald, not even if it should beg
Hoping by November merely to hatch a plot
Or at least have a somewhat reasonable shot
At making the donkey seem but an ass
And it mattered not if it showed no class

And then on that early November day
The Donald, the donkey, the elephant did say,
"It's hatching. Our plan is hatching. And victory's mine."
"It's mine" screamed the Donald.  I've put in the time."

"No mine" yelled the donkey, "don't steal it from me.
Get off of your high horse, and just let us be."

Poor elephant just looked on with a wondrous stare.
Then closed it eyes, for it would not dare,
To see what had happened when, at once with a start.
The egg cracked wide open and fell apart.

And out of the pieces of that red, white and blue shell
From the talk of disaster, of heaven and hell
From the bluster and bad words, from forth and then back
From sorrow to madness, from every sliver and crack
From all that we are, from much that we're not
From pillar to post, from freezing to hot,
From where we are to where we'll be, from being blind to all we see,
From every city and each town, from laughing to crying from smile to frown
For every donkey and elephant too, for Donald and me and especially you
For this country to heal and stop all the hate, for this country to heal and to remain great
For everything and nothing and all in between, for kindness and caring and not being mean
For all that and everything that is more, for all that when we finally got the score

We learned that there's no such thing as one hundred per cent
And fifty-fifty was where our allegiances went
Half a bird, half a donkey was where it all ended
And somehow these broken fences would have to be mended

Donald had no victory but he had not lost
But the question was truly what was the cost
Of his hatred, his half truths and all of his lies
No one was happy, and most of us cried

So while Donald had simply hatched a plot
He made this, our country, what it was not
And the elephant wondered what it had done
While Donald merely chirped,
"Wasn't this fun?"













 




Friday, July 29, 2016

From Darkness to Light - The Republican and Democratic Conventions

 AN EDITED VERSION OF THIS POST IS SCHEDULED TO APPEAR IN THE RECORD, A BERGEN COUNTY NEWSPAPER


The Democrats left the Republicans in the dust in the battle of the conventions.

With clear vision of a still great America, with equal parts passion and compassion, with a heart and soul in Philadelphia that was missing in action in Cleveland, the party on the left was indisputably right as to the way forward for this country. 

We endured four days of darkness from the Republicans, the party of no becoming the party of NO, a screaming portrait of fear, anger, hatred, resentment. Those who spoke up for Mr. Trump a running joke, bouncing from Duck Dynasty to Charles in Charge. The few party leaders who were summoned to the podium barely mentioning their nominee's name.

In stark contrast, the Democrats choreographed a vision of a land that was welcoming, a house that was not irreparably broken, a heart that was still beating strong. The chasm between the funeral for America of last week and the celebration of our strength, courage and conviction that we these past four days witnessed in the place where our Union began twelve score years ago, was as diametrically opposed as Hell and Heaven. 

And yes, we know Hillary Clinton still has warts. But to listen to Michelle Obama, to Joe Biden, to Bill Clinton and then to the most magnificent orator of my lifetime, Barack Obama, was to hear the unmistakable sounds of what makes America once and forever great, and to get an intimate look at a candidate with the capacity and the indomitable spirit to make us even greater.

Where this will lead us, only November 8 will reveal. I can only hope that America was watching, intently and incessantly, these past two weeks. And that those who were undecided, or those who somehow found Mr. Trump at least superficially appealing, or those who had not been paying attention at all, were awakened to the realities of the two diametric opposites who stand before us asking for our hand in marriage for at least four years. 

I know it was but theater, but this was a remarkable show over the past fortnight. From darkness to light, from the ridiculous to the sublime, from what we can't become to what we must always strive to be.