Another Garden, Another Avenue to Walk

Since Eden, gardens have represented a most tranquil place in which we may find solace and wellbeing despite the conflicting currents of thought and action in the world about us. We plant them, the work of our own hands, creating on a modest scale the bliss and harmony of a lost chance at perfection. We visit them, the carefully crafted botanical gardens that grace many of our larger communities as an extension of our own dreams for peace and solidarity.

Some gardens are truly unique, touching on the divine purpose of their ancient ancestor. One such place is the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which is part of the Yad Vashem museum complex in Jerusalem. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, its name derived from the Hebrew text of the Prophet Isaiah’s promise to eunuchs, those who had been mutilated in service to their masters and denied the privilege of generating new life, that they would one day know an abiding peace in the eternal presence of a just God.

We have similar museums and memorials in this country, even though they may not represent the scope of the horrific nightmare inflicted upon the Hebrew people living in Europe during the Nazi ascendency. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City and the Oklahoma City National Memorial are prime examples of our attempts at paying permanent tribute to the innocents, who died as a result of the same type of sinister mentality that troubled Europe when a conclave of hate was in session. Bricks and mortar, concrete and stone, such places rightfully honor the dead with the intent of showing the events to be so repugnant that such things will never happen again, even though they do.

The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations represents something else, however. It was designed to honor those non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. The Garden, itself a living monument, honors the living, who gave the precious gift of life to those who were powerless against the superman onslaught of what we now politely call ethnic cleansing. The Garden exemplifies something equally important for us to sustain in our collective memory in the way the Museum reminds us of the destructive nature of genocide and that is how to live and preserve life so that others may live and enjoy the same peace and security that we desire for ourselves.

The passage from which Yad Vashem draws its name is a truly inspired choice for the larger context in what the prophet of God proclaimed for all to hear includes a promise to non-Jews, foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. The Sovereign Lord declares – he who gathers the exiles of Israel; I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56:6-8 New International Version). Appropriately, Yad Vashem is located on the western slope of Mount Herzl, reflecting God’s promise to bring all who keep his covenant to his holy mountain.

Part of the Museum complex is the Avenue of the Righteous. It was created on bare Mount Herzl on May 1, 1962 with the planting of eleven trees along the path leading to the Hall of Remembrance. Each tree was planted by the rescuer it honored in company with the Jews they rescued during the Holocaust. At the Avenue’s dedication, then Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir likened their efforts to drops of love in an ocean of poison. This living tribute to compassion’s persistent proclamation of human dignity has been supplemented over the years as more rescuers have been acknowledged by the designation of being Righteous, with more trees planted and more emphasis placed on what it means to be good. Just such a Garden and just such an Avenue  is what America needs right now as hate has once again taken center stage in the way we govern and in the way we protest such governance.

We have ample space for establishing a garden of major proportions with avenues aplenty along which we may walk and reflect on virtue and beauty. We have more than enough talented architects of nature, who can craft a perpetually growing sanctuary.  And no doubt there is a place in the heartland where a stream runs through undeveloped property, living water as opposed to a concrete pond, where the charm of Eden can once again be established in praise of a righteous cause. The trouble for us will be in deciding who are the righteous among us today? Our tendency towards worshipping at the altar of celebrity would make it likely that any selection committee would default to those who already have their halls of fame for keeping us entertained. The beauty of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations is that it honors ordinary people who did extraordinary things at great personal risk.

Since I lack the means of constructing this garden and these avenues of which I can only dream, perhaps I must be content to await the fulfillment of another prophecy, this one made by the Apostle John, a Jew, who was a proponent of the Way. While imprisoned by a ruthless empire whose power the Nazis could only envy, he saw a New Jerusalem established on the earth in a future where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain; no more barbed wire, gas chambers and human-fed furnaces or museums, which memorialize their infamy.

Instead, what John saw in the midst of the city were the elements of a garden reminiscent of the Eden, where we began. Of this vision he wrote, Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2 New International Version).

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Reflections Without Mirrors

When you are a guy and wish to or need to appear clean shaven, you spend a lot of time peering into a mirror while scrapping your face clean of any telltale bristle. It is during these times of self-inflicted facial abrasions that you see the physical flaws you cannot wipe away. The reflection confronting you in the mirror is harsh and unrelenting in its appraisal of the blemishes, which cannot be cured by the anemic virtues of any over the counter remedy. Reflections without mirrors, however, are far more malleable and therefore far less cruel in presenting us with blush free images.

I have spent a lot of time lately reflecting on the past, my past, with a bent towards the loneliness caused by absences, when loved ones leave home or leave life behind permanently. But the past has its own healing purposes as well and the reflections without mirrors that I am inclined to favor now show me images that are easily embraced for their reassuring pathos.

For as long as I can remember I have loved music and enjoyed singing. When I was a child my mother would merely say “Sing us a song” and I would launch right in to whatever song came to mind. It pleased her most when I sang a hymn, but not so much if I belted out a tune from a popular television commercial such as “What’ll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon” or “You’re lucky if you live in America. Luck, Lucky Lager beer.” But while I was a passable singer in those days, I was absolutely not a musician.

I envied people who could play a musical instrument. I tried to play a few during my childhood; piano, saxophone and guitar. But I lacked the patience to practice and gave up on all three. Being outside was my heart’s desire and growing up in Southern California made being outside an alluring prospect year round.

It wasn’t until I was in college and met the girl I would one day marry that I determined to finally learn how to play the guitar. This was out of a simple but compelling notion that if the girl of my dreams could play, then I could too. Competition had been the basis of my existence all those years of outdoor activity, such as playing baseball with my friends. And now it served me well in my new commitment to play the guitar as well as my sweetheart did.

My technique for learning to strum basic chords was simple. I bought a book which showed the finger position for each chord and figured out that going from E major to E minor was about as simple a chord progression as one could make. It only requires the movement of your left index finger to make the change; press down for the major and lift for the minor. So I worked at that until the chords sounded clearly, which meant that my fingertips had calloused sufficiently to keep the tone from being dull. Then I worked at going from E minor to A minor, a step up in difficulty but still manageable. And then I added D major, D minor and A. All of these required the use of only three fingers, but once I was proficient at playing them I added C, G and F to incorporate the use of all four fingers, while my thumbed curved over the next of the guitar to press down the bass string. My ultimate attainment was being able to strum B minor 7 without fail.

During the first year of our marriage a good friend would come to our apartment on weekends and the three of us would play guitars and sing the popular songs we knew that made use of three part harmonies. Songs by Peter, Paul and Mary were favorites and easy to reproduce since we had the right gender combination. Then we added two songs by Crosby, Stills and Nash to our repertoire; Teach Your Children and Helplessly Hoping. At some point during that year we were joined by a friend from my wife’s college days, who lent his guitar playing rather than his vocal skills to our low-cost, living room floor show.

Both Du and Max were far more accomplished on the guitar than I was. They didn’t just strum chords, they picked when they played, which was a talent I sought to develop. And once again my methodology was to start simple by copying a style that was used by Leonard Cohen on many of his early songs that had what I would call a percussion-like feel to the fingering. But as I progressed and developed a picking style that was only slightly more sophisticated the sound I was hearing influenced the melodies I was able to conceive while indulging in that other fantasy of mine, being a singer-songwriter. One of those early compositions was entitled Where’s Jennie?

The origin of the lyric was inspired by the movie musical Camelot, which I thought was one of my wife’s favorites. That impression was based on her comment that she cried whenever she saw it. In the movie King Arthur’s pet name for Queen Guinevere was Jennie. So being young and in love I thought it quite romantic to occasionally call my wife Jennie as a way to show my affection for her and to acknowledge her passion for this particular musical.

Other allusions, which made it into the lyric, were based on things that happened or that we talked about during the early days of our marriage. My wife had and still has a propensity for going places and doing things without letting me know the when, where and why of her absence. She did and still does have a need for naps and she was typically the first of us to go to bed as I was the night owl of the family. So the thought that she might be sleeping also made it into the song.

Anyone who knows my wife knows that she cries easily. You will find a reference to that aspect of her character being used here. And my personal aspiration to someday own a wooden house as a symbol of our financial success is another element of the song, as is the fact that music was an important part of our life together. It was always with regret that those singalong sessions with friends came to an end. And you will find that sentiment mentioned here as well.

I compressed all of those elements together to form a lament that has remained a favorite of mine to this day. The irony is that it wasn’t until years later that I found out that my wife hated the movie Camelot because it was so depressing. So I was likely very clueless about the impact my calling her Jennie had on our relationship. But we’re still together. And I still enjoy singing this song when I am in the mood for a little homespun sentimentality.

Where’s Jennie?

Where has my Jennie gone?

I’ve looked for her all day long.

Can’t find her. Can’t find her.

There when the music died

I knew in the way she sighed

to wonder. Can’t find her.

The wishing is here to try

to see her again.

Maybe she thought I lied

and maybe I made her cry.

I wonder. I wonder.

I must have lost my sight.

The changes came overnight.

No wonder, can’t find her.

This old wooden house has lost

the comfort she gave to it.

The wishing is here to try

to see her again.

 

Maybe she’s sleeping.

Maybe she’s sleeping.

I hope she is fast asleep

in dreams of me.

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The Last Word

Long before she entered her final illness, mom planned her funeral. It was her way of still being in control, even though she would be noticeably absent from the memorial service. It was her choice to be cremated, so not even an embalmed body in a flower-festooned casket was in evidence. But she did have one final trick she wanted to play on those of us gathered to honor her well-lived and lengthy life.

She recorded a message to be played at the end of the service. It effectively gave her the last word at her pre-planned event. What follows is her script in 14 point Times New Roman bolded and with plenty of space between the lines to make it easier for her to read. It took her three attempts to get it right so that no distracting glitches would mar her final performance.

When the message was played, it had its desired effect. People were surprised to hear her voice, but they also enjoyed this fitting demonstration of her will to entertain while keeping everyone informed about her life and – ultimately – her death.

And with this web log post I will say good-bye to my time of indulging in what C. S. Lewis termed A Grief Observed. The events since mom’s passing have prompted memories of other such losses I have endured. And now it is time to look forward again, although current events are hardly any less depressing than writing about the death of a parent. So let’s agree to look for hope in the midst of the despair plaguing our beloved country.

Mom would want it that way.

 

Dear Family and Friends…

Please don’t be anxious because I’m talking to you; I know that

hearing my voice will be unexpected! But I just wanted to remind you that

I am a child of the King, and I am with my Savior even now as you are

listening to this!

The Scripture in Psalms 71, verses 9, 12, 17 and 18 is about growing

old.  I have certainly fulfilled that requirement to claim these verses.

Verse 9 – Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me

not when my strength faileth.

This verse doesn’t disturb me because I went forward in church when

I was in the 5th grade. I then belonged to Jesus.

Verse 12 – Oh God, be not far from me; Oh, my God,

make haste for my help.

 I only have to say His name, because He is already there.

Verse 17 – Oh God, thou hast taught me from my youth

and hitherto have I declared Thy wondrous works.

This next one I readily embrace:

Verse 18 – Now also when I am old and grey-headed, Oh God,

forsake me not until I have shown thy strength unto this

generation and Thy power to everyone that is to come.

This is for my sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and my

nieces and nephews. You all are to carry on the legacy my Mother, in a

quiet and loving way, instilled in us all; that is to trust Christ Jesus and live

for Him daily. The last words my mother spoke before she died was “my

wonderful children and my wonderful grandchildren.”

My passing from this earth marks the end of my generation,

but each of you has the opportunity to carry on this legacy for your

generation.

Loved ones, please BE FAITHFUL to your heritage – faith in our Lord

Jesus Christ and a life dedicated to Him.

And one more thing: please don’t mourn for me. (I say this with a

smile on my face!) – Just miss me!

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The Demise of the Good Son

We are told that birth order is a major influence on the development of our personalities. Firstborn children are the model children; confident, conscientious and controlling. Second borns, like me, are the class clowns with a compelling notion to gain attention by any means available. Firstborns are the good kids. They seem to enjoy behaving, while us seconds are intentionally rebellious and, as I can attest, enjoying every minute of the chaos we incite.

I was content in my role. No one fostered any great expectations for my future. Their primary hope was that I wouldn’t do something outrageously stupid that would result in excessive damages, fines, jail time or premature paternity. But that all changed in the early morning hours on the day after Thanksgiving, 1970.

The phone rang at a time of the day when phones are supposed to be silent, letting us all know in advance that the news was not going to be good. A nurse at the hospital where my older brother had been spending the last days of his life called in those early morning hours to inform my parents that the end had come. My mother, in tears, came into my room to tell me what I had already surmised. She struggled to say his name and in the end could only eek out two words, “He’s gone.”

He was just twenty-six years of age, a husband and father of two and during all of my own frivolous existence had worn the mantle of the good son. In our household that had been a heavy burden to bear. He was born in 1944 when our father was overseas for the duration and was an active child before ever being introduced to someone named Dad. Their first meeting was awkward and set the standard for their relationship for all of his remaining years. In truth sometimes that relationship was brutal, but my brother never gave up the responsibility for being good. If only for the benefit of our mother, he was all of that and more until the phone rang that morning at our home. And in that one telling conversation, everything changed. Family expectations switched their allegiance in the most subtle of traumas I have ever experienced.

“Ye must be born again” is the path to salvation writ large into my earliest of memories. My understanding of the concept was something quite apart from what happened in the days that followed my brother’s funeral. My rebirth was a gradual process in contrast to the sudden spiritual transformation I had witnessed so often from my vantage point in the last pew of our church. There my mother thought we were safe from observation and the silent condemnation from others concerning my incessant, comic behavior. What my mother’s true friends actually told her though, in tones intended to be consoling, was that I was just being “all boy.” It is a statement that today’s access to an array of performance de-enhancing medications has rendered obsolete.

The obligations of becoming the good son and taking on the characteristics of the first born child laid to rest forever that manic, devil-may-care attitude of my childhood. My natural born identity died its own death and was buried without the benefit of a memorial service or a marker to acknowledge its brief existence. In its place emerged the new self. The old had been set aside and the new persona emerged, one which mimicked all of the qualities of the good son, a first born child, though one born out of season.

My career, my role as husband and father, my place in the hierarchy of friendly and family relationships began with the consequences of that phone call. The high school student, who nearly failed to graduate from a fool proof system of advancement, emerged from college with the Latin equivalent of “with honors” stamped on his diploma. The discipline, which had evaded me when attempting to learn to play a musical instrument or to speak a foreign language at an age when other kids (first borns no doubt) excelled at such endeavors, found me a willing acolyte when it came time to learn to care and provide for my own family.

The new me completed a one year accounting program in three months, was hired right out of school to be a field accountant for a multi-national company, used my experience to get a more settled job with a public accounting firm, and served as lead auditor for their various audit engagements, which ultimately led to my being hired by one of their non-profit clients for a senior administrative position. In less than ten years I had transitioned from being a church janitor (while attending the business school where I earned my accounting certificate) to being what I had previously most disdained in life, a businessman in the full-dress uniform of suit, tie and wing-tipped shoes. I attained a respectability I had never anticipated or even desired. But it was only possible by my first becoming the good son to replace the loss of my older brother.

Other career changes followed, all of which chronicled an improvement in my business and social status. All of them came with a nagging doubt, however, that I was in over my head and being deceitful about my display of apparent stability in the midst of solving any crisis confronting my work, family and church commitments. I look back with a sense of wonder of how varied my career path has been. And I do honestly revel in the realization of some incredible and unforeseen accomplishments having taken place under my administrative care. But I am just as bewildered by the quality of these achievements as I am pleased to have them on my resume.

My final act as the first born child was the care of my mother during the last four and a half years of her life. My country home became her safe haven and from her perspective the sorrows she witnessed on the broadcasts of the daily news were events from another planet. She basked in the serenity contained in the farm and woodland scenery surrounding our home. I became her financial planner, events coordinator, tour guide and chauffeur. Doctor appointments were scheduled by me as her minor ailments occurred. Medications were purchased and their intake or application monitored to insure the desired results. The only concession to any appearance of neglect was about food. With her doctor’s permission she was told she could eat anything she wanted. Coffee, sugar, chocolate, anything smothered with copious amounts of gravy, and lemon meringue pie became her five basic food groups. She died just a few months shy of her 97th birthday, her last words to me concerning her profound appreciation for the loving care of her good son.

The writer of the Biblical book of Hebrews told his audience that they were surrounded by a cloud of witnesses comprised of those whose stories of faith were chronicled in the pages we Gentiles refer to as The Old Testament. His intent was to encourage a faithful adherence to that old time religion in the hopes of receiving that same state of grace our spiritual ancestors attained for never deviating from the straight and narrow path.

A cloud of witnesses surrounded me during the time I was responsible for my mother’s care and wellbeing. The presence of my father and brother, my maternal grandmother and other family members who had gone before were ever present with me, evaluating my efforts on my mother’s behalf. It was their praise I desired for being the good and faithful servant inherent in the identity of being a first born son. And the image of one day seeing them in a glorious heavenly realm, where we could be at peace together without any hint of failure on my part for fulfilling my given role, inspired my performance as the current bearer of the family legacy

Now they are all gone; my brother, father and mother. And with them can be laid to rest the guise of the good son I have borne for nearly fifty years. What remains is the task of rolling away the stone that covers the tomb of the second born. “Lazarus, come forth” may be the new life verse for my resurrected self, though it will probably be a persona chastened by its lengthy comatose experience. If the soul does have the capacity for regeneration and the will to live afresh, affirmed and renewed while still on earth, then I hope to find it in the remainder of days allotted to me; a blessing bestowed on one for having been born out of season yet faithful to the call.

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Old One: Another Remembrance

Loss and grief have become the twin causes for many a reflection on the past and most specifically my past. With my mother’s death the thought of what my life once was under her direction consumes me. This has been especially true over the past week as I made the long drive out to California to hold her memorial service among the family and those few remaining friends that her longevity could not dissipate. Time and distance contrived to make the physical journey an emotional and thought provoking one as well.

Some of my most endearing memories of childhood involve trips into Los Angeles from our suburban home in order to see my father where he worked, an excuse – I believe – for also having lunch at one of the city’s Clifton’s cafeterias. There were two, as I recall, and my favorite was the one that had the indoor waterfall.

What set Clifton’s apart otherwise is that it was my first experience with a cafeteria. The idea that you could walk along a serving line and pick out exactly what you wanted from the variety of offerings was intriguing. Best of all was the treasure chest at the end of the line where you could pick out a small toy. They were cheap, obviously, but they were free and therefore priceless to my young eyes.

Occasionally these trips included a walk through a downtown park. I think we were killing time while waiting for my father to join us. What fascinated me most in these little idling expeditions was the sight of old men sitting on the park benches at a time of day when I thought all men were supposed to be at work. When I asked my mother about them she shushed me and told me to keep clear of them. Her comments made them seem sinister although they appeared to me to be harmless old men. Just not too industrious.

About the time I turned 18 Simon & Garfunkel released their album Book Ends and on it was a song entitled Old Friends. The words were a perfect description of what I saw as a child of the old men, sitting on park benches, waiting for the sun to shine. It would be a few years, though, before I attempted my own version of a song with a theme about the elderly. And like all of the compositions in my small repertoire of songs, it came to be after I met the talented young woman who became my wife and endeavored to impress her with my writing and new found composing skills.

Another influence that I also need to mention here is the person that my older brother often referred to as our wicked Aunt Elsie. Why he called her that I never knew. Elsie was our great aunt, being the half-sister of my mother’s mother. We enjoyed going to her house for a weekend when we were young. She had a plum tree and a peach tree, both of which we loved to climb when their fruit was in season. I especially enjoyed our visits to her café, where she would make a deliciously decadent chocolate malt just for me, my brother preferring root beer floats. She was an excellent cook, nothing ever being placed before us that came out of a box or can, especially when she made dinner for us at her home. She was country born and bred and her culinary standards reflected her home grown upbringing.

But somewhere along the line my brother started employing his subtle sense of humor to provoke her, wicked being the perverse encomium applied to her once generous nature.  These were very brief encounters, usually a single comment in passing as my brother was at an age where he was too busy to hang out with the old folks and had the freedom that comes with the luxury of owning your own car. I on the other hand enjoyed listening to the talk between my parents, aunts and uncles and our beloved grandmother. So I was glad to hang around and listen to them reminisce about the good old days, which seemed to make all of them – the adults of my youth – new with the surprising affirmation that they had once been young themselves.

But it was the less positive encounters, old men on park benches, my brother’s attribution of our aunt Elsie’s sinister spinsterhood, which influenced my own sad perception about the way old people are often treated. The song which eventually emerged from these childhood experiences resonates with the yearning I had to hear their stories while being cautioned not to get too close to the idlers, whose personal legacies were lost beneath our benign neglect.

Old One

Will you talk to me, I am an old one?

Will you comfort me? I need you to.

For I am yesterday upon on the calendar,

neglected by tomorrow and its promises.

 

Will you walk with me and hear my stories?

Will you listen as I take my time?

I hope you’re not put off by my appearance,

or embarrassed by the way I speak my mind.

 

Under this gray head are many visions,

the remnants of the facts that were my youth,

the substance of my prayers, they’re all I own now.

Will you listen to me as I pray for you?

 

For I am yesterday upon the calendar,

neglected by tomorrow and its promises.

I am all the days you’ll ever hope to live

and I am all the days you’ll never know.

 

Will you talk to me, I am an old one?

Will you comfort me before you go?

For I am yesterday upon on the calendar,

and I may be all you’ll ever know.

 

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Me Lonely: A Sad Reminiscence

Death is typically a cause for reflection with those of us who are left to mourn. My mother’s recent passing has proven to be just such an occasion. The troubled relationship between my mother, father, and older brother – all of whom are gone now – has been re-lived by me these past few days and has brought to mind some of my own troubled thoughts from a time when I attempted to understand the traumas of love and loss amidst extremely intimate relationships. One of those memories concerns the creation of a song by me, which itself was a reflection on youth and change and the consequence of being a survivor. The backstory goes like this.

My older brother died in the early morning hours of the Friday after Thanksgiving 1970. It brought to an end a five year ordeal that began with his diagnosis of cancer, his initial surgery and cobalt treatments, and about four good years of doing all he could to enjoy a full life before re-entering the hospital for the final round of ineffective surgeries and treatments. He was twenty-six years old, the father of two, and had been attending law school to pursue his ambition of becoming an attorney in the hopes of using his skill with words to great effect.

But before all of that he had been a Marine, an odd career move to those of us who knew him as being more of a scholar than a warrior. He dropped out of college to enlist, most likely as a result of wanting to prove something if only to himself. And in doing so he set the bar very high. He aspired to be a jet fighter pilot and it was while he was at the flight school in Pensacola, Florida that the tumor in his chest was discovered during a routine physical. Hodgkin’s disease was the diagnosis; fairly treatable these days but not then.

Sometime after his death I was with my mother as she continued to mourn his passing. She made a comment to me one day that troubled me then and has stayed with me all these years. She said that the memory of my brother was like a pleasant dream she had been allowed to have for a very brief time.

This was the Viet Nam era. I was in college, primarily to stay out of the draft. I did not share my brother’s interest in the military beyond the games we had played as kids. My then free spirit mentality could not endure the thought of submitting to such a disciplined life style. And my views about the folly of the war were at odds with what my brother believed, one of the rare times that I held a contrary opinion to one of his. Ironically even our father, a World War II veteran, advised me to do whatever was necessary to avoid being drafted.

In those days the news about Viet Nam was all consuming. It was the lead story for every news broadcast. Immediately upon turning 18 you had to register with your local draft board. You were required to keep your draft card with you at all times. And your draft number, issued to you by lottery, was imprinted on your soul. A certain quota of young men was certain to be “called up” for induction every year. And if your lottery number was in the range of 1 to 128, like mine was, you were guaranteed to be called unless you had a deferment. Mine was 2-S, which meant I was a student, something of value despite my grade point average.

During my senior year of college I was newly married and dedicated to doing my academic best as I felt I owed my bride that much for her own commitment to work and pay our expenses while I finished my education. We only had one car then and she used it to get to her job. I rode my bike to get to school, my morning ride all up hill while the afternoon ride, heading back to our apartment, was one long downhill adventure at an exhilarating pace. Racing the cars along the Pacific Coast Highway was a losing endeavor, but a passion I indulged in throughout my senior year.

Marriage had also inspired me to imitate my wife’s musical talents as best I could by learning to strum a few chords on her guitar and to write songs. I fancied myself to be a poet whose only need was the gift of melody in order to transform my written words to something more inspirational than scribbled lines on a page.

And so it was during one of those morning rides as I labored up hill towards campus that the first verse of a song, both the lyric and melody, simply came into existence in my head. It was born out of the jumble of all of those thoughts about the death of my brother, his military service, the war, my mother’s haunting assessment of my brother’s life and the memories of childhood games played with him, our cousin and our friends. Some of those friends served in Viet Nam. One I knew died there.  Others came back permanently altered from the people I knew before they were scarred by their experiences.

I kept repeating the lines of the song over and over throughout the day as I feared I would lose them while paying attention to my professors’ lectures. When I got home I figured out the chords to accompany the melody and over time developed a complete song that no one but me wanted to hear. The imagery was too depressing. The opening line was also too confusing for them to comprehend as I gave the bedroom of our youth a voice for expressing what I felt, the loneliness at the loss of the one person I most idolized in those early years. Had my brother lived we would now be contemplating our retirement from our partnership as attorneys. That was not my vision of a career but his and I would have gladly followed him simply for the sake of being with him and possibly being considered an equal.

The song opens with the line “The room it said ‘Me lonely’ since the day the madness took the little boy away.” When questioned about how a room could speak I had no rational answer. But I determined that if Dylan could write about “Crimson flames tied through my ears rollin’ high and mighty traps” and Lennon could sing about “Semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower” then I could have the childhood bedroom I once shared with my brother talk and express my loneliness as its own. The madness I wrote of was my perception of the war supported by the mechanics of the draft that fed the beast with young lives.

The rest of the lyrics contain a mix between youthful memories and the broadcast footage shown every night on the television screen of the atrocities inflicted on both military and civilians alike, especially the horrific results of napalm bombing. So the storybooks that were once tossed into the incinerator came to suffer the same fate in my song as those who were subjected to military immolation, whether they were combatants or not.

My brother died of a disease, but I cast the song as if he died in the war, which is a tribute to my one high school friend whose name is indeed on the wall in Washington, DC. Still, the impact of my brother’s death, however it came, is appropriately captured here in the phrase “the saddest sight in my life” as it continues to be.

 

Me Lonely

 

The room it said “Me lonely” since the day

the madness took the little boy away.

The saddest sight in my life;

the little boy will not come back to play.

 

The soldiers and the trucks lay on the floor.

They’ll not engage in warfare anymore.

A sudden death by excess;

the little boy will play no more at war.

 

The storybooks and pictures in their frames

are finely printed papers without names.

A child’s friends now faceless

like victims that were lost today in flames.

 

            All the years he played at make believe

            now have ended like a dream.

            The picture of him in his uniform

            it is torn,

            the colors faded.

 

The room it said “Me lonely” since the day

the madness took the little boy away.

The saddest sight in my life;

the little boy will not come back to play.

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Beautiful People

It is time once again to praise the work of first responders; this time those immediately present on the scene of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, who helped people escape the terror of the moment and tended physical wounds that will inevitably leave emotional ones, which are much, much slower to heal.

They need to hear our words of affirmation for their bravery. But they also need to hear our praise for their innate sense of compassion that overruled a more common inclination for self-preservation. Compassion is a rare virtue these days, which only seems to gain an appropriate celebrity when there is a disaster to contend with, whether it be an act of God or the act of another type of loner with a god-like need to dispense death where life is in evidence as well as in abundance.

My hippie upbringing puts me in mind of Melanie Safka’s song Beautiful People as setting the right tone for the occasion. We hear too much that is hateful, spiteful and just as vindictive as any caliber of bullet fired on the innocent and unprotected. An awareness that people we don’t know may become the most important and most beautiful people in our lives at any given horrific moment is cause for praising those saviors caught up in a merciless encounter, be they trained for the task or just some chump whose knee-jerk reaction to an unexpected event became unexpectedly heroic.

We should weep for those whose lives were cut short, console the ones whose loss will confine them to an unremitting need to mourn, and honor those who were in the wrong place at the right time to do the most magnanimous thing, risking a life to save one.

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A Lesson in Civics

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how a government works. It is a dry and often uninspiring topic, which I paid little heed to when it was part of the mandatory curriculum of my 8th grade education. Compared to the thrill of military action, which comprised the greater part of our history texts, civics was a pallid subject, burdened by the focus on processes that a twelve year old was too young to take part in other than to write an essay or give a speech about why America is the greatest country in the world. I chose to play outdoors instead of writing that essay.

I did not think of it as civics when I later marched to protest the war in Vietnam or occupied the administration building demanding the resignation of the college president over his response to some friends of mine, who took down the school’s American flag as a means to state their opposition to the war. And I certainly did not make the association with my actions to those who bombed the Bank of America building in Isla Vista shortly thereafter. Their extreme and irresponsible behavior could in no way be linked to my well-reasoned and civil actions, at least not to my way of thinking. In the opinion of others, however, the bombers and me were of one mind and purpose. It was my first real lesson in civics; my personal motives were subsumed beneath the interpretation of others, who viewed me from an impersonal distance and reached a conclusion, which I could not control.

Now, we are seeing that lesson demonstrated for us again, although in a much milder form. It happens each week at multiple locations during the playing of the National Anthem prior to every professional football game. And what started as an individual’s protest against the perceived treatment of African-Americans by police as popularized by the media has escalated into something far beyond the original act of one person sitting out the playing of our Nation’s song. The drama of being encamped alone on a bench evolved into kneeling on the sidelines in company with one’s standing teammates, which then became a group-think effort when joined by fellow sympathizers on other teams and even in other sports.

As the movement expanded postures changed. Some knelt with heads bowed, while others knelt but remained looking up at the flag. Still others knelt with the appropriate right hand over their hearts. The chosen pose and number of participants changed as each person brought their own perspective to making a statement in a well-publicized forum. Team owners took sides with some supporting the right of the players to express their dissent, while others mandated that their players abide by the league rules governing a player’s stance during the playing of the National Anthem if they wished to remain employed. Even our President fumbled his way into the controversy with a further divisive statement about firing players who will not stand when the anthem is played, negating their right of free speech as well as their right to endure the consequences of speaking, however non-verbal their message may be.

One person sitting has now become a whole team staying out of sight during the playing of the National Anthem, while others have chosen, as a team, to stand with arms linked in the formation of a human chain to show their unity. And this has inspired another team to issue a statement calling for those in attendance to stand and link arms as well in the hopes that the sense of unity between players and fans remains intact amidst an ever escalating conflict over civic duty. This last effort is in response to the opposition being expressed by fans at the perceived unpatriotic gesture of players boycotting allegiance to one’s country.

Here we need to cue the late Peter Finch to proclaim his infamous line from the movie Network, letting everyone know that “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Football fans are posting anti-player messages on Facebook with images showing them burning season tickets and jerseys, while calling the players out as fake heroes. There is also an attempt at rebuttal by those football faithful appealing to all to remember the reason why the anthem dis was implemented in the first place, police harassment and not a revival of the Vietnam era better red than dead sentiment. This latter group would do well to recall the words of a former President, our first one by the way, whose prescient words still inform us all about the loss of control inherent in free speech. George wisely stated “Those who rouse cannot always appease civil convulsions.” And therein is that civics lesson making its presence known again.

Perception is reality and everyone who kneels or locks arms during a moment in time when our most prominent national symbol is supposed to be honored will unknowingly take on the persona of another’s choosing. And that persona is not a very welcomed sight right now. In fact we can anticipate the arrival of a Tea Party supported senator who will demand to know of each NFL player “Are you now or have you ever been a kneeler?” with its associated blacklist as a consequence of saying yes or even equivocating when making one’s reply.

Despite all, America remains the land of the free and the home of the brave. Some of us brave the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune by kneeling. Others of us occupy administration buildings. And though we may be true believers of our respective causes, the results of what we say and do cascade beyond our ability to control their direction or their intensity. Things will settle down like the calm which follows every storm. But there will be damage and we the people will never be exactly the same as we were before the latest hurricane made landfall.

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We Need to Talk (And Listen)

One of my Saturday activities is to go to the local library and read through some of the newspapers to which I do not subscribe. One of these, the Wall Street Journal, is favored for its book reviews and essays gleaned from to-be-published books. It allows me the opportunity to know what other scribes are doing and that with more commercial success than my own writing.

One of these essays caught my attention as being perfectly timed for the needs of the day, although it also immediately brought to mind some of the coming-of-age songs that were popular when I was doing just that, coming-of-age. Think For What It’s Worth by the Buffalo Springfield and you’ll be able to peg the most formative decade of my life and the soundtrack playing in the back of my brain while reading the essay entitled The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations.

The Journal condensed the key pieces of this advocacy for decency in our communications from the Harper Collins book, “We Need to Talk”, by Celeste Headlee. And the sense of perfect timing for a book on a skill that you would think would be a no-brainer for the most articulate animal on the planet can be easily gauged when you consider the content and the conflict covered in any news outlet or Twitter rant.

Celeste is a talk show host, formerly heard on NPR, but now holding forth on the Georgia Pacific Broadcasting network with her program On Second Thought. She was born in Whittier, California not far from where I was attempting to navigate the ways and means of adolescence when tuning in, turning on and dropping out were the buzz words which strongly influenced my decisions. The close proximity of our respective communities made us neighbors of sorts, but the difference in our educational paths and her classical training as a soprano shows that our cool Southern California affinity is an accident of birth. So I will make no further presumptuous claims on our being true companions except to say I like what she wrote, plan to read the full length version of her book (once it is stocked by the library) and encourage anyone reading this message to visit her website at celesteheadlee.com.

I am also making it possible for you to glean from the essay what the Journal gleaned from her book so you may know her short list of rules for engaging in a meaningful conversation with any other person of any race, creed, sexual orientation, food preference, body shape, emotional acuity or football bias. And once you have mastered the list, then let’s talk.

“First, be courteous and have a genuine willingness to learn something from someone else – even someone with whom you vehemently disagree.”

“… resist the impulse to constantly decide whether you agree with what someone else is saying.”

“Show respect at all times. View the other person as a human being and put yourself in their shoes. Empathize.”

“Don’t try to change the subject or walk away.”

“End well. You don’t need to have the last word.”

I actually read Celeste’s essay twice, the second time taking notes so I could include them in a weekly weblog message, such as I am doing now. And in the course of my re-reading and re-thinking the sage wisdom evident in the words of someone much younger than me, two points came to mind about my own attempt to implement these rules the next time I am in someone’s company and choose to converse on any topic.

First, the underlying theme of all that she says is that in order to talk we first need to listen. The L-word was not as explicit in the essay as one might expect, but will likely be quite evident in the unexpurgated, unabridged version of her book. Listening can be disarming for the one doing the majority of the talking and just might give them pause long enough for you to say a kind word from time to time. If not, then listening just might be a good antidote for the brain when it encounters a ceaseless cacophony of sound, signifying nothing.

The second point is that the rules are one-sided. You might do well in speaking with all her suggested patience and sagacity, but you cannot control the way your partner in sublime speech actually does speak. It would be foolish to expect another’s response to be in-kind, even though you have so purposefully exemplified the proper way to have a meaningful conversation. So perhaps one more rule is needed: Never take the other person’s harsh critiques or assassination of your character personally. Prepare for the worst and be grateful for anything less. You can take my advice on that, for what it’s worth.

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Kaiser: The Discipline to Follow Each Rule

I concluded last week’s message with my personal opinion that a manager of any organization must view its disparate parts as truly being all of one piece. Nothing truly functions in isolation. In the same way, nothing grand (such as saving any entity from the brink of failure) can be achieved by focusing on one or only a few aspects of management. They work best in unison and this perspective, I believe, is shared by Michael Kaiser as reflected in the last of his ten rules gleaned from his 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround.

His Rule No. 10 states: The Organization must have the discipline to follow each of these rules.

We have examined nine rules of management of which Kaiser writes, “There is not one of these rules that can be sacrificed in the pursuit of a turnaround.” And once again we can see that his perspective hinges on the limitations of time in turning a blundering organizational behemoth 180 degrees away from its own destruction. But then, again, you have echoing response that his rules are applicable to all non-profits no matter what their financial status may be. Sound management is just that regardless of the circumstances and my willingness to promote Kaiser’s work is that I find his ten rules to be sound. There’s just one thing; his brinksmanship persuasion gives him an advantage I never enjoyed as a manager.

In our feel good era of management, the preference is for action to be subservient to consensus. Everyone must be heard. Everyone must be heeded, which is how decisions lose their efficacy beneath the perpetual concession to a single common and often  mediocre denominator. But the rules we have examined contain a definite bias towards management tyranny, which desperate board members will yield to when Kaiser plays his trump card; the short span of time in which a remedy must be found. His stentorian advice, which can be easily heard even when confined to the pages of a book, is that “Truly troubled arts organizations do not have the time for consensus building, numerous staff meetings, or focus groups. They require quick, smart action.”

This leaves me envious. My low-key demeanor and appeal to principles rather than obedience to rules is no doubt the cause for my never having attained the scope of authority Kaiser demanded and received in his various roles as executive director. This contrast between us makes it clear – to me at least – that there needs to be one more rule to consider in the art of management, turnaround or no.

My addendum to Kaiser’s ten rules is this: No matter the condition of any entity, how you frame the threats to its existence will determine the scope of power surrendered to you at the outset of your management tenure. Think about it before you sit down to an interview for that coveted executive position. You are engaged in sales, after all, despite the explicit job title advertised and the proof of your value to the organization will be found in the ability to sell yourself as the messianic solution to its impending doom.

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